Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The God Who Hates Slavery

God hates slavery.

I know, that's a hard statement to defend. Slavery was allowed in the Old Testament and in the New. The Bible condemns sexual immorality, gossip, and greed, but it never gets around to condemning slavery. But I still think the Bible, even the Old Testament, teaches us that God hates slavery.

We have to acknowledge that "slavery" is loaded with meaning now that it didn't have then. Slavery in ancient times was primarily related to financial debt and war. In the former case it was their version of bankruptcy — you could sell yourself for money to pay your bills. In the latter case it was simply part of their approach to war; you would take your enemies lands, treasure, livestock, and labor force. Taking their labor force took their young males (reducing their chance for a reprisal) and gave you workers for your own needs (whether you wanted them to build pyramids or work in fields).

Being a slave in ancient days wasn't fun; you were property with no more rights than a mule. But it wasn't the same thing as the more modern version that looked at a vast swath of humanity as sub-human. It was typical human might-makes-right, not colonial you-are-lucky-to-serve-us. So ancient slavery was not as odious as the Western version eventually became.

And God still hated it. He showed it in four rules he gave Israel:

1) No Israelite slaves
The Israelites weren't allowed to enslave each other. Their version of debt slavery was what we would call indentured servitude — with benefits (Deut 15:12-15).

How the Israelites were expected to treat each other was supposed to be a picture of proper behavior — this is what God wanted from everyone everywhere for everyone everywhere. What God's law teaches is that when people are poor, you should do whatever you can to help them help themselves and if necessary to just help them. You leave the corners of your fields unharvested, you don't charge them interest on loans. You give them food. And if things get so bad that they have to sell themselves for money, you don't treat them like slaves. They don't become your property, they become part of your family. You accept their labor for a few years and then you send them on their way with gifts to help them restart their life. They were supposed to show the world debt slavery didn't need to exist.

2) Shield the runaways
"If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them" (Deut 23:15-16).

Remember the stories of the Underground Railroad? Remember the stories of slave owners pursuing runaways hundreds of miles? Which side does it sound like God was on? Yearning for freedom is part of the human condition. When people can't take it anymore and work up the nerve to risk running away, God says to let them, shelter them.

3) Kill the kidnappers
One of the fundamental aspects of Western race-based slavery was the kidnapping of people to sell as slaves. This was a capital offense is Israel (Deut 24:7, Ex 21:16).

4) Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18)
Yeah, that one is still on the books. Was this applied as broadly as God desired? No. Jesus had to take them to task over that (cf, Luke 10:25-37). But knowing how God intended it to be applied, can we really argue that God was totally fine with people being treated as property?

Well, then, why did he permit some forms of it?

He modified what they were allowed to do, but he permitted pressed labor and debt slavery because, if I may borrow a phrase, their "hearts were hard" (Matt 19:8). This was a part of their world. He discouraged it — like divorce, like polygamy — but he didn't ban it outright. Why give them more rules they simply could not follow?

But the groundwork was there. Israel paid no attention to it. The early Christians waffled over it for the same reasons. It was a worldview shift that was hard for them to make.

It took centuries for our moral imagination to catch up with God. And yet there is still slavery in this world. There is still slavery in the United States. So what are we going to do about it?

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See also:
Review: Not for Sale
On Human Trafficking

Monday, May 7, 2018

Review: The Gospel According to God

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3).

It is important to know that Christ died for our sins. It's also important to know that this happened in accordance with prophecy.

In The Gospel According to God, John MacArthur takes us through one of those scriptures, what he calls "the most remarkable chapter in the Old Testament" — Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (usually referred to simply as Isaiah 53).

If you aren't familiar with this passage, simply read it and you will be shocked by its specificity. MacArthur then opens the scripture up to show just how specific it is.

And here even those who are familiar with the passage may be surprised. MacArthur will explain how it is far more specific than it appears at first glance. And he shows how catching all the verb tenses reveals the providence and grace of God that is still to come.

Isaiah 53 has long been one of my favorite parts of the Bible, but this book has given me a knew love and admiration for this passage. Be prepared for your heart to sing.

Highly recommended.

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I was provided a free review copy from Crossway, but the book's totally worth paying for.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The God Who Protects Women

God watches over the weak. We already saw that God watches over the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. His concern covers all women. In a world that regarded women as little more than a commodity, God expected Israel to treat them fairly.

This is displayed in one of the more controversial passages in Deuteronomy:

"If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives" (22:28-29).
The complaint is that this passage forces a woman to marry her rapist. (Language experts debate whether the word rendered "rape" in this verse means rape or should it be translated more like "seduce". The word in this verse is different from the one in the previous command that is clearly referring to rape. But it really doesn't matter for the purposes of this discussion.)

It sounds harsh until you think about the world they lived in. There are two important things to consider.

1. Like most ancient societies, Israelites valued female virginity. Not being a virgin would seriously damage a young woman's marriage prospects, and you dared not try to pull a fast one by keeping the young woman's situation a secret. (cf, Deut 22:13-21)

2. A woman really only had two ways to "make a living" in this time period, specifically, housewife or prostitute. If she didn't have a husband she was totally dependent on either family or community charity — or that ... other option.

So this man in verse 28 has done this young lady a terrible wrong, whether he forced her or simply seduced her. And now he is forced to provide for her for the rest of his life.

Is this an ideal situation? No. Ideal went out the window when the act happened. We are now making the best of a bad situation. As unpleasant as living with this cad might be, she's got a roof and food and hasn't been forced to resort to prostitution to survive. Also of note, this passage has a parallel of sorts in Ex 22:16-17. In it, the girl's father has veto power over the marriage (presumably if the culprit is too horrible, Dad won't permit it), so this passage is really more about the "he can never divorce her" part — that is, he has to provide for her for as long as he lives.

Also in this chapter, though adultery is a capital offense, the woman was to be given the benefit of the doubt if there was a real chance it wasn't consensual (v 25-27). Divorce was grudgingly permitted (cf Matt 19:8), but the woman was to be given a "certificate" (Deut 24:1-4) — preventing her from being labeled as an adulteress later.

In a perfect world, none of this would be necessary. In the world we actually live in, these people were expected to take pains to protect women from the abuses of men's sexual excesses. God watches over the weak. And he expects us to do the same.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The God Who Wants Your Children

The people of God have always struggled with building a multi-generational faith on the experiences of a few people.

"Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the LORD your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt ..." (Deut 11:2-3).

To our knowledge, Jacob's sons saw nothing like Jacob's vision. That was it until Moses. The generation of the Exodus saw many mighty works of God; their children less so. And their children saw few if any miracles until the time of Christ.

So how were the children of Israel to pass on their faith?

"Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth" (Deut 11:18-21).

Fix these words ... in your heart and mind
This chapter, like the whole book of Deuteronomy, says again and again "carefully observe all these commands I am giving you." First and foremost, your children need to see you following the word of God. Let them see it in action, see how it permeates your life.

Some Jews literally tie symbols on their hands and foreheads to remind them of the Law. Like the "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets so popular twenty years ago, the idea is to be reminded to live out what you believe. People say that character is caught more than taught; the Bible agrees. Your children will believe what you say only when it is also what you do.

Teach them to your children
But don't assume they'll "catch" the faith. Teach it to them, too. Surround them with it. Talk about what we believe and why. Often.

This particular passage doesn't mention telling them the stories of days gone by explicitly (though "these words" may include Genesis and Exodus and surely includes the beginning of Deuteronomy which recounts some of God's mighty acts). However Jewish society was built around the great feasts that remembered God's works (eg, Deut 16), and there were other reminders as well (eg, Josh 4).

For Christians, our "Passover" is obviously the cross and the resurrection. Our kids need to know that it really happened and why it matters. And then they need to know what difference it's supposed to make in our lives.

If your kids are like mine, this will be both easy and hard. Kids ask lots of questions. Sometimes it seems like they'll never stop. But Christianity can get lost in all the noise in their heads and lives. Some of their friends aren't Christians; some are "Christians" in name only. This seems unimportant at times; it seems mean at times. It can get crowded out by sports and friends and by Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. And they may wonder why the stories about Moses and Jesus are true but the stories about Hercules and Harry Potter are not. And we have to be able to steer them through that.

If we completely give up, Christianity will march on because God will always have his people. But I really believe God wants your children. And you want him to have them, too. So make sure they see and hear the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Easter: No Fooling

This year Easter will fall on April 1. I can't wait to hear the skeptics cluck about how appropriate it is for Easter to be April Fools' Day. Those ancient rubes thought miracles were everywhere, so of course it was easy to convince them a guy rose from the dead, but we're smarter, more discerning. There's no reason for us to believe some silly story made up to fake a religion.

Unless all of that is wrong.

Dead People Don't Do That
Ancient people did believe in miracles. They did believe the gods could act upon the world. Except for this: They didn't believe in resurrection (ie, someone being permanently returned from the dead).

As NT Wright has ably shown, ancient pagans universally believed that resurrection did not happen. Not only that, they thought it was a heinous idea. They didn't want to be resurrected. Matter (and therefore the body) was evil, and people were lucky that death could free them from that.

Some ancient Jews did believe in a bodily resurrection but with one caveat: There would be one mass resurrection at the end of time. The idea of one person being resurrected was a nonsense.

The Christian idea of a special resurrection for Christ was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," if I may borrow a phrase.

Nonsense
It was even nonsense to the first Christians. Jesus first appeared to a group of his female followers who reported to the Twelve. "But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Luke 24:11).

Even after the other Apostles had seen the Lord, Thomas wouldn't believe until he saw it with his own eyes, nay, touched it with his own hands (John 20:24-28).

After the Twelve and even a great mass of disciples had seen the risen Christ, some still doubted (Matt 28:17). Even though they'd seen it with their own eyes, it was hard to believe something so contrary to everything they'd been taught, everything they knew.

Eye Witnesses
When they spread this story around the world, they did so with a very clear, "I was there, I saw it."

"For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 John 1:1).

If people didn't believe, they were told "he appeared to more than five hundred ... most of whom are still living" (1 Cor 15:6), feel free to check it out.

Not Simple Rubes
They were certainly less educated people than we are today, but they were not idiots. They knew the resurrection was too fantastic. But then they saw it with their own eyes, touched it with their own hands. And they told their stories to people who judged them trustworthy and left their stories to us.

It is an incredible story. But it is a story no one would make up.

Because this incredible story is true, we can have hope. Hope for forgiveness, for peace, for life everlasting in the house of a God who loves us as his own children.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The God Who Loves You Anyway

This morning I found myself thinking about this passage from Deuteronomy 7:
"The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery ..." (v 7-8).
Today we seem to have two opposing self-esteem problems — both in our society at large and in the church. On the one hand we have people who think they are the lowest of the low, the stuff dirt looks down on. Maybe it's due to things in their past, or maybe it's just how they see themselves. These people cannot imagine they have any value and can't believe God could want them.

On the other hand we have people who think they are so fabulous that the stars themselves need to wear shades to look upon them. Their egos tend to be a little fragile, but they want to think they are reason the sun rises in the morning. And they seem to think God is lucky to have them.

God's message to his chosen people, to the nation he was giving "a land flowing with milk and honey," was that they were nothing special. "I didn't rescue you because you were so wonderful. I just loved you."

God's message to his redeemed people, to the nation he gave his Son for, is that we are nothing special, but he loves us: "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong" (1Cor 1:26-27).

God takes things that aren't special and makes them special. He takes ashes and makes crowns, slaves and makes sons. God doesn't want anyone who thinks they're special. But he collects the worthless and counts himself richer because of them.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The God Who Sees The Poor

It was Hagar who first called him "the God who sees me" (Gen 16:13), and Deuteronomy 10 tells us that God still sees those of low estate:

"He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing" (Deut 10:18).

Because of his concern for the poor — be they orphan, widow, immigrant, or simply poor — God tells Israel to make sure they are kind, generous, and fair to them.

They were told to be kind to foreigners (10:19), to give the entire tithe to "the Levites ... the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows" every third year (14:29, 26:12), and to cancel debts every seven years (15:1). In general, "If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need" (15:7-11).

Also, they weren't to charge Israelites interest (23:19) or take any necessities in pledge for loans (24:6, 10-13). Instead they were supposed to be be careful to pay their workers promptly (24:14-15), to make sure the weak were protected in court (24:17-18), and to leave food for the poor to collect in the fields (24:19-22).

What God told the Jews in Deuteronomy is clearly meant to inform New Testament believers as well (eg, Matt 25:31-45, James 1:27).

If we remember that everything we have is from God, we cannot be selfish as if we somehow deserve what we have and the poor deserve their poverty. We have been blessed and therefore are expected to be a blessing.

Now most people don't hate the poor. Who wants to see starving children and widows? But it's easy to become so caught up in our own lives that we forget them, leaving them to their own devices. The lesson of Deuteronomy is that God expects us to be active in caring for the poor and that he will judge us based on how we respond.

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Related:
Helping the Poor Biblically
Loving Neighbors 7000 Miles Away

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

5 Bible Study Tools

We all want to spend more time in the Bible, to get more out of the Bible — or at least we say we do. But it's hard and often confusing, and there are so many other demands on our time. And, frankly, we're not entirely sure how to do it.

So here are a few tools to help you make the most of your time in the scriptures.

If you haven't already, read Living by the Book. It will help you get going on Bible study, and it will introduce you to the usual Bible tools — commentaries, dictionaries, and the like. But we don't want to go to those usual Bible tools too quickly. We want to see what's in the passage for ourselves before we see what other people say about it.

To that end, here are some less usual Bible study tools.

KJV
Most of us today use the more modern translations, and I totally support that. Words change in meaning over time, and reading the King James Version can be confusing. But it can also be useful — specifically, those annoying "thee"s and "thou"s.

In King James English, thee and thou are singular; ye and you are plural. Without learning any Hebrew or Greek, we can see whether the "you" in the text in singular or plural. Why does that matter? Consider the LORD's command to Joshua: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful" (Josh 1:8 NIV).

Now read it in the KJV: "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success."

This promise of prosperity and success was not made to Israel. It was made to Joshua. Does that matter? That's exactly the kind of thing you should wrestle with when you study a passage, but you can't unless you know it's there.

Everyone should read more than one translation when they study a passage. Make the KJV one of the ones you consult.

Cross-references
Maybe you've heard this before: "The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible." What that means is the idea you're trying to understand in one passage is probably fleshed out in more detail somewhere else. Or maybe there is a concept or theme that appears through the scriptures, like the Son of David. Cross-references are places where someone has done the work of finding some of those places for you.

Many Bibles have a few cross-references. Some have a lot of cross-references. The more the better*, but sometimes you have to make do. *However the Bibles with the most are often those with study notes. That's not necessarily bad, but it's better to do as much as you can on your own before looking at commentaries or study Bible notes.

I recommend the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge — a book of nothing but cross-references. But if you don't want that, get a Bible with as many as you can. Maybe get a KJV and have it do double duty.

Language cheats
Cheats? Once upon a time I told myself I was going to learn Greek. Turns out I just don't have the time and/or energy to put into that project. And knowing a little Greek is probably more dangerous than knowing none.

But there are language tools that are helpful, even to the layman. Enter Greek for the Rest of Us and Hebrew for the Rest of Us. These books are designed to help you "cheat" — get the most out of those tools without actually having to learn the language. The Greek version even has a free online class you can take. Also, both the book and the class will introduce you to a study technique called "phrasing" that is quite helpful.

Bible backgrounds
The Bible is a product of the Holy Spirit working through men who lived in particular times, places, and cultures. Those times, places, and cultures are part of those writings, and learning about them can help us understand the scriptures better. Most people know how the Jews felt about Samaritans, and it informs our reading of the Good Samaritan story. Knowing how they felt about tax collectors, the ocean, and the Messiah will inform your reading of countless other passages. Yes, a good commentary will inform you about some of this, but the goal is to be able to see these things on your own, before you go to the commentaries.

I recommend New Testament Times and Old Testament Times, but there are many good resources out there. Another interesting work is Sketches of Jewish Social Life, but I wouldn't make that your only source for NT background.

Questions
There are resources that will ask you questions about the Bible. They're secondary tools in that someone else is guiding you, but they're guiding you to think about the text, not just telling you what it means.

One series I've found useful is the LifeChange series from NavPress. You might not find all the questions useful, but some will be. Other group Bible study resources may offer a good set of questions, too. The Explore by the Book series from The Good Book Company might be useful is this regard, though their selection is limited at this time. Look around and see what you can find to help you think deeply about the text.

Afterwards
After you've gone through your cross-references and language tools, check with your concordance and maybe an atlas to see what else you can learn. Then consult a Bible dictionary for any words that are still bothering you. Only after that should you consult a commentary or three.

And you should consult commentaries. We can learn a lot from the professionals, and they can keep us from going too far afield in our studies. But it's good for us to put the work in for ourselves before we listen to them. And you'll soon learn that the Bible is not as hard to understand as you once thought.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The God Who Disciplines

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are given a lot of rules and a lot of warnings about what will happen when they break those rules. In chapter 8, Moses wants them to know why God is going to be so tough on them: "Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you" (Deut 8:5).

This is a theme the scriptures return to time and again:

"My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in" (Prov 3:11-12).

So:

"Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Heb 12:7-11).

For Jesus says, "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me" (Rev 3:19-20).

It's all the rage today to say, "God's not mad at you!" No, he really might be. But that's OK. When I am angry with my children over their behavior, I don't love them any less; I just want to correct their behavior. When God is angry with us over our behavior, he does not love us any less. He wants us to "repent and live" (Ez 18:32).

It is a glorious act of grace that God should choose to adopt us as his own children. He has said that we will be co-heirs with Christ. But that also means he will treat us as any good father will treat his erring children. His correction is part of his grace. He wants the best from us because that is the best for us. So we should respond to the grace of his discipline by quickly repenting and learning from our mistakes, to embrace growing up into the image of Christ.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The God Who Separates

This is one of those passages where what it doesn't say is as important as what it does.

"When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations ... Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons ..." (Deut 7:1-3).

First, what it doesn't say.

There is an unfortunate history of people trying to bend, fold, and mutilate the Bible to support racism and, in this case, laws against "miscegenation" (i.e., mixed "race" marriages). Of course, to do that you must first invent the notion of race — the idea that there is some kind of important genetic difference between different people groups. The Jews were descended from Noah's son Shem. The Canaanites, etc. were descended from Noah's son Ham. So these groups are basically cousins — as are all humans since we are all descended not only from Adam but also from Noah through one of his three sons. People in different areas developed different physical characteristics, be we all have the same blood coursing through our veins.

These were not the only distant relatives they were not allowed to intermarry with. They could not intermarry with the Moabites, descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew (Dt 23:3).

It wasn't "other people groups" that they weren't allowed to marry. They could marry other peoples, just not these. To the point, Moses married a Cushite woman — that is, a woman from far southern ancient Egypt (an area now called "Sudan"), more descendants of Ham (Num 12:1) and quite likely black-skinned. God was apparently cool with that. Honestly, the Jews at this point probably weren't even a homogeneous people; the group that left Egypt included more than just the literal children of Israel (Ex 12:38). The prohibition wasn't against marrying other peoples but specific peoples.

So if this isn't about race, what is it about? Religion.

"Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you."

Don't intermarry with these pagans, God says, or they will corrupt you and then I will have to destroy you. Which is of course what happened. Israel did intermarry with them, and they did worship their idols. Even Solomon in his wisdom was not immune to the charms and deleterious effects of pagan women. This continued to be a problem even after the exile for idolatry into Ezra and Nehemiah's day (Neh 13:23-28).

God wants his people to separate from the evil people around them. To borrow from Jesus, a little yeast works its way through the whole loaf. When righteous people and unrighteous people get too cozy, the righteous are usually the ones who are changed. This includes marriage (2Cor 6:14), but I think it is wise to take it farther than just marital relationships.


That's not to say we should have no contact with the lost people around us, but we do need to beware how close we let people get. Getting too close to non-Christians can make us doubt the faith. Getting too close to unrepentant sinners can lead us into their sin. Love these people, but build your closest relationships with people who will be good for your soul.

The church is literally those who have been "called out." So we must come out from among the lost and stand out, be different from them. Then they can see the difference and ask where it comes from. And then we can give them the reason for the hope that is within us.