Strange Fire

Reading the story of Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10 this morning (Nadab and Abihu being the two priestly sons of Aaron who offered “strange fire” before the Lord and perished because of it, I noticed two things:

1. The particular wording in the account of what happened to Nadab and Abihu is this: “And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them” (10:2). Not sure of the significance of this, but that is the same wording (in Hebrew) used just two verses earlier to describe what happened when the priests offered sacrifices to the Lord and God accepted them. There also, it is said that “fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed” the sacrifices” (9:24).

2. The writer states that the fire of the Lord “consumed” Nadab and Abihu, yet two verses later, Moses tells family members to “‘come forward, carry your relatives away from the front of the sanctuary to the outside of the camp.’ So they came forward and carried thm still in their tunics…” (vs. 4-5). The fire “consumed,” yet it did not burn up the men’s bodies, or even their tunics? (Contrast with the burning bush, which burned with fire yet was not “consumed” (Ex. 3:2).)

Strange fire, indeed.

July 3, 2008 at 9:54 pm Leave a comment

Storyteller’s Creed

Reading through the introduction to Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten last night, I ran across Fulghum’s Storyteller’s Creed:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.
That myth is more potent than history.
That dreams are more powerful than facts.
That hope always triumphs over experience.
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.

My first instinct: Question the accuracy of this oh-so-postmodern creed, especially the first three lines. But that judgment shows my bias in favor of hard and fast truths, and since a lot of truths aren’t as hard or fast or easy to nail down as I’d like, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Perhaps there are advantages to letting life be art, rather than data?

June 22, 2008 at 7:56 pm 2 comments

Sin: To be cured, or to be punished?

In the past week, I’ve been reading two separate books that both deal at length with the subject of sin.

One is John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, and the other is David Well’s Losing Our Virtue. Both refer to American psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who wrote on the disappearance of sin in the modern era.

According to Menninger, what used to be understood as sin is now often understood either as a crime or as a disease. With respect to the latter, sin has ceased to be a moral issue and has become instead a symptom of sickness, so that the notion of punishment is replaced by treatment. Sin (if it is ever called that) is now something to be cured, not something to be punished.

Wells stridently objects to this notion of sin as a sickness. He argues that the redefinition comes at a cost, namely that “sin loses its sinfulness, at least before God.” (43)

Elsewhere, he notes that “In our therapeutic culture, the notion of what can be classified as a disease has grown exponentially, and moral responsibility has been diminished in proportion.” (183)

Well’s basic concern thus seems to be that viewing sin as a disease somehow lessens the seriousness of sin and destroys the idea of human guilt.

Stott shares Wells’ objections, noting that “The Bible everywhere views human death not as a natural but as a penal event”—i.e. not as the result of a disease of the soul but as the outcome of divine retributive justice. (67)

I am sensitive to the arguments of both men, particularly the concern that sin as disease undermines human responsibility. This latter point is not an insignificant issue: One of my professors, who has also been discussing the issue in class, recently pointed out that all kinds of offenders in the court system make use of their “sicknesses” to evade responsibility for their crimes. In the Bible, however, people are not just victims, but are held responsible for sin.

That said, I disagree with Stott’s argument that the Bible views death as a penal event, not a natural event. There is a significant body of evidence that sin is something akin to a soul-cancer that destroys the normal workings of the human mind, and that death is the natural result of this cancer.

For example, consider the following:

  • “When lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:15). Every indication here is of an inevitable natural progression of events, not an externally imposed punishment.
  • “…whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7-8). Again, the sowing and reaping principle implies a natural, organic relationship between sin and death.
  • “There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin….My wounds grow foul and fester because of my folly” (Ps. 38:3, 5). Although the Psalmist speaks of God as being responsible and able to relieve him of his misery, it is noteworthy that he specifically draws on the metaphor or disease here in connection with sin.
  • “I see a…law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:23-24). Here Paul pictures a “law” which works in him, producing sin and death within him. Clearly, this is an involuntary process, like the outworking of a disease: something happens within Paul’s own body that he cannot control.

Personally, I’m not sure exactly what to conclude, but I suggest that it is not entirely obvious, contra Stott, that sin is a penal offense rather than a disease.

The broader ramifications of the issue, of course, relate to the concept of atonement and the question of just exactly what God was doing at the cross. The point at issue is whether the atonement a penal/judicial event, wherein God was meting out the just punishment for our sins, or a therapeutic event primarily aimed at curing sin-sick souls.

Either way, the answer has significant consequences for our view of sin, atonement, and salvation.

Thoughts to add? Biblically, is sin an offense to be punished or a sickness to be cured?

March 13, 2008 at 9:01 am 4 comments

The mutableness of God

Studying Exodus 32-34 recently (the record of the golden calf incident and its aftermath), it became clear to me how un-God-like God is at times. He is strikingly changeable, emotional, and downright human on occasion. Examples:

  • In reaction to the making of the golden calf, God burns with anger. He tells Moses to “let Me alone, that My anger may burn against [the Israelites] and that I may destroy them” (Ex. 32:10).
  • Four verses later, He changes His mind in response to Moses’ pleas.
  • In ch. 33 he tells Moses to go on into the promised land, but says that He will not go along, “because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.”
  • In 33:5, God indicates His uncertainty about what to do with his people, telling them to “put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I shall do with you.”

God appears strikingly mutable. He changes his mind, regrets past actions, is subject to anger, and argues with his people. These might not fit neatly in our western conceptions of God as omniscient, sovereign, and unchanging, but they are biblical descriptions. Says Peter Enns in the NIV Application Commentary on Exodus (Gen. ed. Terry Muck [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000]),

Again, we see a very “human” portrait of God. The Lord does not know how he might react at some point in the journey; he does not seem to trust himself to control his anger. Thus, it is better that he not go at all. We should resist the temptation to gloss over this description of God. This is God’s Word and this is how he is described. We should not dismiss it on the basis of what we “know” God to be like. As we have seen above, the writer is not concerned to reveal to us the absolute, abstract essence of God, but God in the context of his dealings with his people. (578-9)

He goes on to suggest,

Too often, it seems to me, despite our biblical literacy, we think of how God ought to be rather than how he has actually portrayed himself. (592)

Worth considering.

March 5, 2008 at 3:21 pm 3 comments

God to Moses: No substitutionary sacrifices allowed

With the doctrine of substitutionary atonement on my mind lately, I was intrigued reading Exodus 32. The idea of atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice is pretty central to Christianity, but what is striking about this chapter is that God is presented as rejecting substitution as a legitimate method of making atonement.

Here’s the setting: Exodus 32 relates the story of the golden calf and Moses’ subsequent intercession before God on behalf of the Israelites.

After making the people grind up their golden idol into powder and drink it, Moses returns to God on the mount and offers his life on behalf of the Israelites so God will not destroy them:

Then Moses returned to the LORD, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves.

“But now, if You will, forgive their sin–and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!”

The LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.

“But go now, lead the people where I told you Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.” (Exodus 32:31-34)

As Peter Enns notes in the NIV Application Commentary on Exodus, Moses is actually acting in keeping with the divine command to offer sacrifices for sin: he suggests himself as a sacrificial offering. “By being blotted out of the book of life, perhaps he can bring life to his people. The death of one will bring life to the many” (590).

But interestingly, even though God spares Israel, He rejects Moses offer of himself as a substitute.

Why? According to God, it’s because the guilty should be punished, not the innocent. Enns again:

Moses’ death will not make things right because his actions did not make things wrong in the first place. God says he cannot simply transfer the people’s guilt onto one man. Guilt stays with the person who sins and who must pay the price. (590)1

No further thoughts here, except that it seems to me this story has potential to augment the traditional evangelical understanding of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for humanity. How does God decide when to allow substitutionary atonement, and when not to allow it?

1 Note: I should make clear that Enns does believe in substitutionary atonement. In his commentary on this passage, he says that Moses was rejected as a substitute because he was not sinless himself. What was needed was a blameless substitute who actually could bear sin, and this is why Christ can make a substitutionary sacrifice for us where Moses could not:

This is the great mystery of the death of Christ. He was guilty. Our sins were put on him and conversely taken off of us. He was worthy of bearing our guilt because he himself was without guilt. (590)

Enns might have a point, but his particular logic here is not persuasive to me. God rejected Moses’ offer of substitution not because Moses was sinful, but because it is not right to punish the innocent in place of the guilty. Still, the biblical story, and Enns’ commentary on it, is thought provoking, so I thought I’d share.

January 23, 2008 at 4:31 pm 12 comments

The problem of the ascension

One of my professors quotes Philip Yancey (from The Jesus I Never Knew) in one of the early chapters of his own book, which I read this semester. I was intrigued by the quote, and its suggestion that the ascension might pose a difficulty for faith:

So many times in the course of writing this book I have felt like one of those disciples, peering intently at a blank blue sky. I look for some sign of Jesus, some visual clue… Like the disciples’ eyes, mine ache for a pure glimpse of the One who ascended. Why, I ask again, did he have to leave?… I have concluded, in fact, that the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith—not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles.1

Until I read this quote, I admit it had never occurred to me that the ascension might pose a problem. But now I recognize that it is indeed puzzling, in a way. Why did Christ leave? And why the delay until the end of the world?

I know the answers my own denomination poses in response to this question, but I’m curious about the perspectives of my readers. How big of an issue (for you) is this puzzling delay? And how good of an answer does Christianity in general have to the problem?

1Yancey, qtd. in Roy Gane, Altar Call (Diadem: Berrien Springs, 1999), 15-16, emphasis mine.

December 30, 2007 at 6:25 pm 8 comments

The Giver

A late merry Christmas to the two or three loyal people who still bother to check back here in spite of my month-long silence. I haven’t posted for several weeks, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about topics to post about. Now that the semester is over and I can write for pleasure (!), here goes the first of all my backlogged ideas…

One of the gifts I got for Christmas was the Newberry award-winning novel for young adults entitled The Giver. One of its major themes is the relationship between love, freedom, and pain.

The story centers on a young boy named Jonas, who grows up in a carefully controlled, essentially perfect community. All choices about spouses, jobs, and children are made by a committee of elders; there are no choices left to the citizens, and no individuality or freedom. The benefit of such strict control, however, is that there is also no pain or suffering.

thegiver.jpgAt age 12, Jonas is selected by the committee to receive special training from the Giver, the only member of the community who holds the memories of real pain and pleasure. Through his relationship with the Giver, Jonas comes to realize that the life he knows is not all there is, and he wants to know why his community has been deprived of freedom and its attendant joys and sorrows. Speaking about the foster child his family is currently caring for, Jonas asks:

“What if we could hold up things that were bright red, or bright yellow, and he could choose. Instead of the Sameness.”

“He might make wrong choices.”

“Oh.” Jonas was silent for a minute. “Oh, I see what you mean. It wouldn’t matter for a newchild’s toy. But later it does matter, doesn’t it? We don’t dare to let people make choices of their own.”

“Not safe?” The Giver suggested.

“Definitely not safe,” Jonas said with certainty. “What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?

“Or what if,” he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, “they chose their own jobs?”

“Frightening, isn’t it?” The Giver said.

Jonas chuckled. “Very frightening. I can’t even imagine it. We really have to protect people from wrong choices.”

“It’s safer.”

“Yes,” Jonas agreed. “Much safer.”

But when the conversation turned to other things, Jonas was left, still, with a feeling of frustration that he didn’t understand. (98-99)

As the novel develops, a clear relationship is established between pain, freedom, and love: Love necessitates freedom, and freedom necessitates the possibility of pain. Since Jonas’s community has chosen against pain, they have necessarily deprived themselves of freedom, and by extension have also deprived themselves of love. Hence, when Jonas asks his parents if they love him, they do not even know what he means, stating that the word is “so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete” (127).

The implicit question posed by the book is whether or not the trade-off is worth it. After all, the people in the community think they are happy: they don’t actually know that they lack freedom and love, so is it all bad? Jonas eventually demonstrates his conviction that the trade-off is not worth it (a position I have elsewhere agreed with), but the question is a complex one that I find perpetually interesting.

December 27, 2007 at 9:17 pm 4 comments

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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