2 Kings 17

12 tribes in the promised land are whittled down to one.

King Hoshea presides ineffectually over the end of the northern kingdom – all of Israel except Judah.

First he becomes a puppet king under the Assyrians, who are the Empire builders of the era, then he makes a feeble attempt to betray them with an alliance with Egypt. He is imprisoned and the people are exiled.

The writer retells all the ways in which the people have earned their fate since the time of exodus. They have at best treated Jehovah as one of many gods. Worst, and often, they have openly rejected him. He’s sent many prophets but it’s made no difference.

The Assyrians send various people to occupy the land and eventually send back an Israelite priest because lion attacks are viewed as a sign of Jehovah’s displeasure. The priest teaches the new residents of Israel the way of the lord as much as he can.

I don’t have a lot to say. The story has been heading here since, well since the people first left Egypt in a way, but definately since the kingdom split.

I have Christian friends on Facebook who almost daily link to what I think of as Christian apocalypse items…. About how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But I think it’s important to remember that God remains sovereign and his salvation is eternal.

This is one of those moments, like how the disciples must have felt after Jesus was crucified, when you wonder if God’s plans will ever work out. Yet, here we are.

There is reason to be passionate, but not to despair, to be busy but not overwhelmed.

Help me be functional father… I’m feeling  like I have more in than I can handle, but at the same time I’m aware that a have it very easy, and feeling a bit guilty too.

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2 Kings 6

2 instances of help and one of no help.

Elisha is presented as being able to call on God for wonders and miracles. When they drop an axe head in the river, he calls on God to make the iron float and they find it.

A neighbouring king comes to kill him because his prophesy is like having a spy reporting his every move. Elisha calls blindness on the troops and they give up.

Yet when the capital is under siege so extreme that parents resort to eating their children, he does nothing. At the end of the chapter the king confronts him.

It raises the question of God’s intervention in human affairs. Why doesn’t he fix everything?

Signs and wonders are pointers not problem solvers. If God magiked all the practical problems away, we would still not have found truth, which is the most important problem.

I think the one he does solve, the hardness of our hearts, he is saying is the only really important one. Which is a hard, hard teaching when you are faced with canabalism and similar.

Deuteronomy 13

Woah, more extreme rules… I’m having Leviticus flashbacks. Any worship of other Gods in Canaan is to be punished by stoning, burning, complete erasure from existence.

We find it extreme today, they found it extreme then. Israel did worship other Gods, they never did love the lord with all their heart.  They never stoned people for it as far as I know, or at least they very often didn’t.

Jesus put it this way: the wages of sin is death.

So after the shock of the violence, there is also the sadness that of course it didn’t work, it exists to show us it didn’t work, it still doesn’t. We fail and fail to love our creator.

Numbers 31

A few chapters ago God used a plague to bring judgement on the Israelites. But now God uses Israel to destroy the Midianites, maybe so that all the other nations along the path to canaan will know they are chosen and steer clear.

This sad story is a sequel to the scenes in 23-25 of the Moab King and Baalam the diviner/prophet who kept telling the King that God was with the Israelites and he should not try to fight them or it would be their doom.

The king seemed to have deliberately tried – with some success – to break down the Israelite’s religion with their own particular belief system that seemed to involve casual sex with attractive women.

Its hard to contemplate all those ancient lives.  Human souls as precious as anyone. What sort of lives did they have those temple prostitutes?

Were there any among those destroyed who God loved? Balaam was killed. He was a prophet for hire, but he spoke glorious words about God.  Surely there were others who knew at least moments of blessing we didn’t even hear about. That is between god and each person.  But their time on earth was over, and the Israelites dealt the blow.

The habits of war was to take all the women children and treasure as spoils for the victors, which the Israelites did, not focussing on the fact that they were being instruments of god’s judgement, not a conquering army.

They weren’t victors, they were supposed to be more like a destructive force of nature: a plague, flood, earthquake or old age. Literally an act of God. They weren’t to profit from it.

So the rest of the chapter is an awkward and unsatisfactory compromise to return the spoils to God, including the humans, some of whom are even allowed to live a bit longer, in a way that is as fair as can be in the circumstances.  Plan B, second best, God getting into the messiness of disobedience.

 

 

 

Numbers 19

Numbers is part an extension of the narrative from Exodus, part rule book. It’s cut together with a strange sense of theatre. Ever since a major rebellion where the people freaked out about being lost in the desert, is been chapters of rules.

Here are elaborate purification rules for dead things. This has a dual purpose. Dead bodies really are a health risk, and these rules would have reduced the risk of disease from them greatly. 

But death is also the antithesis of God’s holiness. Death is like sin in visible form. The rituals are making it clear that God is life.

People get mad at the Old testament because God has so much death. But there is always so much death and the globe regardless of the and place. A more important question is does it mean anything and do we learn from it. Good uses death to teach us about life. Here. Jesus. The sacrificial system. Battles and wars. Disease. 

Numbers 15

Huh? What happened to the narrative?

At a dramatic point where the Israelites have openly referred the whole adventure, we turn to sacrificial rules.

It’s like teaching a child: you’ve fallen off the bike, let’s go back to the start…

The types of sacrifice described are of increasing seriousness. The first are the joyful celebrations, the overflow of gratitude for God’s blessing. 

Then the unintended sins, thoughtlessness, misguided behaviours.

Then presumptuous sin. Flagrant flouting of God’s law. This is punishable by being cut off. It’s followed, shockingly by the story of a stoning of someone who refuses to follow the Sabbath.

Then physical reminders, tassles on garments are to call to mind the law of the lord.

It’s a strange arrangement, I don’t fully get the content or purpose here. But we have a god who is showing his rebellious people there is a way back from the brink. They don’t want the destruction of open rebellion. They can remember, be blessed and restore their relationship with him again.

Leviticus 21

I have advice for young christians.  Don’t ever read Leviticus.  Just don’t bother.

Its not that I don’t get it on some level, this chapter is about priests super duper perfection rules.  Its an attempt to create eden, the pre-fall world, in the fallen world.

So it reads like outrageous discrimination against disabilities, no imperfections in priests – it literally is against short people.

So it reads callous: they are to not show mourning or have anything to do with the dead (some exceptions for family).

But it’s meaning the priests to be like adam, not knowing death, not knowing the curse of creation broken.

Its impossible. Why bother? is the question clamouring at me.  OK, its teaching us that we are fallen, that god is holy.  But why a system designed to fail?

The old testament is profoundly depressing.  It is impossible to read it and not conclude you are less holy than god, indeed you are not holy at all.  The story of it is told repeatedly in excruciating detail.

Humanity is corrupt.  We fail corporately, born into sin, its really not our fault, we don’t stand a chance.

Also, each individual is damned without grace. We personally fall short of God’s plan for us and deserve his wrath.  Sinners, all, through and through, every which way.

 

Leviticus 20

Aaargh, Leviticus, you are driving me crazy!  This was not put together by anyone with a sense of narrative.  It may have been put together by a rollercoaster designer. This is a really horrible chapter.

Its is full of many many capital offences.  Basically, you breath, you die. We’ve gone from sketching out an anachronistically enlightened society in ch19 to sounding like living under worse than sharia law in ch20.

The first is for giving children to Molech… infanticide and denying God. Sort of OK. Then other occult practises. Sadly as obvious as it sounds, worship of Molech continued. Solomon built a temple to it, and some of the kings gave children to Molech.

Then it goes through all the sexual prohibitions from ch18. And adds a few of the 10 commandments: cursing your mother and father, adultery (all parties executed), incest, homosexuality, bestiality, marrying aunts or uncles, sleeping with your wife while she is menstruating, marrying your brother’s wife (while the brother is alive, presumably? Because marrying a brothers widow was like a welfare obligation, key plot point in Ruth).  And so on.

There are different levels of punishment: sometimes executed, sometimes “cut off from the people” sometimes dying childless.

There is disagreement about what “cut off…” is.The sense of the original is a branch being cut off from a tree. May have meant stoning, may have meant excommunication or could refer to dying young without offspring (which happened to Jesus).  In practice it settled down to being shunned for a while until purification or atonement was done.

There is a vagueness between punishment by God and by people.  Dying childless, god’s doing, execution, done by human hands, cut off from the people, maybe either?

In a sense its saying that it makes no difference. Being god’s people was like being saved. Death at human hands and death by “natural” causes, the curse is death itself.

They are travelling to the promised land, which is already occupied.  Jericho and all that. There will be a lot of death. They won’t be up to the amount of killing required, they mix with the locals and that is their downfall. This is saying that differentiating themselves from the people they left in egypt and the people they will encounter in canaan is incredibly important.

Jews never literally implemented these rules. In practise execution was very rare.

Jesus of course encountered a woman being stoned for adultery, presumably under this law, and said “whoever is guiltless can throw the first stone”, then pronounced forgiveness for her sins.

The message is that we are dead in sin.  The detail is horrible, the theme is horrible. But everyone will face their death.  God is life. Reconciliation is our only chance.

 

 

 

 

Leviticus 14

More rules about skin diseases, including leprosy and other infections even mould in houses.  Its quite sophisticated to connect mould in dwellings to disease, and the instructions for fixing it make a lot of practical sense.  In england as late as the 1800s, for example, they didn’t have such a clear notion of the connection, I think.

But in this chapter, about the circumstances of disease being declared gone, not diagnosis as in the last chapter, there is more of a religious element.  So we blend practical advice with rules about recognition of god in response to being clean.  Its interesting, getting sick was not seen as a metaphor for exceptional sin, and Jesus repeated that notion in his teaching, but being cured is a metaphor for also being cured of sin.

Jesus’ healing of lepers reaches back to these rules, in fact he sent his healed lepers to the temple to be declared clean, which is a ritual very similar to the ordination of the priests, quite a life changing bond of the person to god, being anointed with oil.

That particular miracle would should have had great power and significance for the priests as evidence of Jesus’ divinity, and arguably the connection was made by god in this chapter just for that moment.

Again, heartening practical exceptions for the poor.  Reading this in the week that D S Trump announced a budget gutting services for the poor, in a world where inequality and poor-blaming seem to be on the rise.

The message of “clean and unclean” is firstly that its not individually blameworthy to be unclean – Jesus would ultimately argue that the reason for the law is to show that we are all equally unclean in God’s sight, not to weed out the failures –  everyone from priest to leper is unclean. There is no favoured group. Secondly, God makes clean. So being unclean is inevitable, like breathing, and cleansing is an act of God’s grace.