Numbers 24

Lest there be any doubt….

High on a mountain, overlooking the Israelites camp, Balaam continues to tell the Moabites king that the Israelites are blessed and chosen by God and it would be futile to try and fight them.

Balaam drops his theatre of divination which is his stock in trade and goes into a transcendental spirit filled state where he sees God’s truth. He launched into another pean of praise for Israel.

Balak, the Moabites king get angry at that point, but Balaam reminds him that he said all along he would tell the truth, before he even agreed to come and give his message to the king. He didn’t mention that he had a conversion experience during the journey where his donkey persuaded him to actually do it.

The king sends balaam away, but before he goes, for good measure he gives a fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh message from God about how disastrous it will be if they challenge the Israelites. 7 messages for the 7 sacrifices they offered in the last chapter.

I absolutely love this story. Praise God for such an example of the foolishness of trying to defy him. The is grace and humour in it.

But I fear the Moab king will be to proud to listen.

Exodus 38

The sacrificial altar and paraphenalia, of bronze, where animals will die as offering to acknowledge that all things come from God, and to take away sin.

The curtains that define the courtyard, where the people will come. Sure there is a holy of holies, a layer within the layers, where almost no one can go. But it’s still a bit mind blowing that the people can get as close to God as they do. 

They’ve wandered a long way from home on a second hand experience of god’s presence (well they do have the magical food, and the cloud/fire guidance system.

Even more mind blowing is the Christian evolution of this theology, that our body is a temple where God dwells.

Moses has them record all the materials from which the work was done. The logistics of their situation are daunting, almost impossible to imagine. 

600000 people. And while they had become slaves, in Egypt they didn’t do that bad. They have a prodigious amount of gold, bronze, cloth, wood etc they have bought with them. And herds of animals. And they’ve made this very big fancy tent the will now continue to drag through the desert for decades. 

It must have been a crazy hard life. It went on for 40 years, none of the generation who left Egypt would see the promised land, only their kids I think. 

Mind you, modern scholarship has found almost no corroborative evidence for any of exodus. The most compelling history is the book itself which was written much later from a bunch of sources, that presumably came from somewhere. Historians’ explanations of how and why the story came to be are about as threadbare as the evidence of any of it happening. 

Personally I don’t care much about that sort of thing. Once you’ve bought that a creator God made everything, why not? And for me the alternative, no God, no meaning, has never seemed remotely plausible. 

And I’m with the overwhelming flow of humanity there. I don’t see atheism as the natural state of any people.  They tend towards the theory, the experience, of a God.

There is the atheism of youth, a sort of indifference to God because just being alive and discovering the joys of the physical world is so compelling and seemingly consequence free. The sort of atheism that evaporates in a hospital room, or just with the passing of years as mortality becomes more evident in your body. 

I think this attitude also exists among believers too. 20 year olds basically feel immortal and invincible. They are the doers of most of the great things of humanity, and a fair share of its worst.

Then there is the bitter, hurt atheism, which I see as an acting out of rebellion against God. That has mostly been fringe in human culture.  

As for other religions, they are a matter for God I think. This one has always rung very true to me, and I am grateful for it.

Praise God!

1 Samuel 7

Samuel leads the people in a new nationalism and reverence. The lord confuses the philistines and they reclaim the land they took. 

He establishes the rock Ebenezer a symbol of the help of God. is like a tangible version of the old hymn “oh god our help in ages past, our hope for years to come”.

We’re changing church at the moment and generally depressed as a family. It’s wonderful today to think about the solidity of God and trust in his forgiveness and protection. I see how people compare Jesus to Ebenezer, planted there in history solid and immovable, our help.

Judges 17

I know nothing of Micah, the judge not the prophet. I don’t know where the story is going but it starts with the same mixed up spirituality that seems to define Israel in this wayward time, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

So he finds some money his mother thought she’d lost and they make an idol for they home shrine. He’s well off and has religious urges and knows something of Jehovah. He fashions an ephod, a priestly garment which seems to have become a worship object. We saw that practise negatively noted in Gideon’s story.

He makes one of his sons a priest and then a real Levite (the priest tribe) passes by, so he engages him to be a live in priest.

So far so weird. We learn nothing much about God. Indeed as the book has gone on, god’s presence seems more and more remote. They all seem so lost.

Our culture is in a strangely similar place… Losing its religion. Judges feels oddly familiar, despite its savagery at places. Of course, the savagery is still with us too. 

God gave us an easy way to know him in Jesus. The Israelites’ Jehovah is not how humans like to think of their Gods. Not concrete, not in a box. We have less excuse.

Judges 15

Struggling with Samson still.

I think I get that Israel is like the French in world war two, they’ve been taken over and lost their identity and pride. Samson is like the resistance. He is a provocateur.

There is little detail about why the philistines are so bad. His vengeance seems cruel.

The story telling is great, is a very readable part of the Bible. But it has him burning all the philistines’ crops with tortured animals over a domestic dispute with his philistine wife. The philistines then burn the wife and her father, he then slaughters many of them.

His own countrymen deliver him bound to the philistines, for whom he is enemy #1. He breaks the ropes with super human strength, slaughter ensues using just the jaw bone of a donkey. He’s breaking the vow not to defile himself with dead things again, not to mention all the killing.

He judges/leads philistine governed Israel for years. Lots of violence, no liberation. He really is quite terrible. 

I’ll hold off commenting further until the next chapter, but suffice to say I’m struggling to see God in all of this. Where are you father? What are you thinking? I know you, I love you, this is not your plan for humanity.

Psalm 23

Legendary psalm of comfort. The comfort flows from the central metaphor of the lord being a shepherd. The beautiful calm of an animal that is safe and has material needs looked after is extended quickly for us to our souls.

That phrase “refreshes my soul” puts words to a feeling that humans crave and means human society can’t seem to leave spirituality alone. That sense of a contented soul is probably one of the most underrated benefits of Christian belief. It’s so naggingly un-concrete it drives atheists mad.

You can trust the lords advice. If he says don’t lie and put others first, you can do it confident that it’s going to work out, even when the reverse seems like the only thing that will fix the situation. No more crooked webs to weave! And we don’t have to fear death.

It’s about the simplicity of being loved and having someone greater than you look after your needs. Our psychological dread and moral complexity comes from feeling like shepherdless sheep, weak and alone, trying to carve safety and order out of chaos. Having god to trust unburdens us of layers of complexity, and makes us OK with our vulnerability and mortality. The psychological and philosophical power of the metaphor is harnessed with such economy.

No wonder this psalm is so powerful. Form follows function. It’s a simple psalm about simplicity. And with each calm pastoral phrase it precisely knocks down our deepest existential fears like nine pins one after another.

I’m not the only one who thinks the feast is a clanger. I don’t feel like food is sweeter if my enemies watch me eat it and go hungry, it sounds just awkward. It sounds like crude triumphalism or schadenfreude and quite out of character with the god who in humble human form on earth told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek before giving up his life for us.

But the truth is we are chosen for abundant blessing. We’re anointed, which is like a special relaxing welcoming treat for a guest, and a signifier of priesthood and kingship, and our cup overflows. We live our lives with this fact. Despite and during the apparent success of our enemies, a place of honour in God’s kingdom is prepared for us.

Should we punish ourselves with survivor guilt? We certainly should never feel too much like the victim, just as Jesus didn’t. In fact, it’s because of God’s ridiculous grace that we can indeed love our enemies and turn the other cheek. The worst, the very worst they can do to us is make us suffer temporary pain before despatching us to be with our creator. How much worse it is for them, cut off from the author of life. So it’s not triumphalism I suppose, it’s perspective.

The rest of the psalm is like cream in our coffee. Goodness, mercy eternal rest in God’s presence.  Thank you, thank you father for your gift of grace. May I use it wisely.

It do still stand by what I said back in psalm 20. Perhaps these aren’t designed to go together, but they do make a good set: two guidance psalms, one wishing it in advance like a benediction, the other quietly celebrating it as an ever present comfort; sandwiching a victory song and a disaster cry. Next we go to meet him on the holy hill.

Psalm 22

A problem shared is a problem solved.

If you took yesterday’s psalm (21) as a picture of God’s design for a blessed life, then today’s is a mistake. Because today god has deserted the writer, which wouldn’t happen if trusting in God was universally rewarded with wealth and power.

It starts with the quote Jesus made so disturbingly from the cross. My God, my God why have you forsaken me? But if yesterday’s wasn’t too be read as a rule of entitlement to blessing, equally today’s isn’t really an expression of any doubt in the existence of God, it’s more of a wake up call for God. Its a cry of pain and a massive “what’s going on?” “Where the hell are you?”

Father, you know me, all the moments of my life, help me to acknowledge you in them all

Is not a momentary thing either. He calls out by day and night.

Then this uniquely psalmy thing of God shaming. It starts out like flattery “you are enthroned, we have praised you, you heard us rescued us. I was born straight from the womb into your arms. So why am I a worm? What must people think? They know you are the one I trust, and see how you have let me down!”

It’s a very bold way of speaking to god, almost sarcastic “what a great creator you are, you made me a worm. Way to go God!” But it’s not sarcasm, it’s desperation. He’s totally stuffed, every which way, as depicted with a stunning series of “desperate straights” images, and there is no one to help him. It’s a plea “please don’t be far”.

The dire straights images include obvious pre-figuring of the cross, which in the full course if revelation is God’s ultimate answer to the ‘shaming’. When we say to god “you have no idea how hard it is” he can always say “yes I do!”

The time shifts abruptly to praise. There is no sense that the psalmist waited to be saved to shift tone, something like “see the wolves all around me are gone!” Now I will praise God in the assembly!

Also there is no sense of a deal with God “if you save me, then I’ll give you praise, tit for tat”.

It seems to be a straight emotional/spiritual journey. It’s a bit like the very act of crying out to god has reminded him that God is faithful and that he trusts God. It reminds me of conversations with my wife, she highlights all the worst aspects of problems we are having. Catastrophising. And afterwards, we have swapped roles: I have gone from feeling good to being burdened with the problems. And she has gone from miserable to positive about the future, because the magnitude of the problem has been shared and acknowledged.

The psalmists enthusiasm for God’s saving greatness goes spacey and grand: all nations, all generations. There are the Jesus pre-figurings again. The sheer limitlessness of his faith in the saving power of God’s grace puts the problems into perspective. It seemed really bad when his heart turned to wax and melted and his bones were all out of joint as he was poured out like water to dry like dust as the lions prepared to rip his corpse apart. And nothing objectively has changed, he’s just changed focus from venting about his very real problems to remembering “just a minute, this is God I’m talking to”. From self obsession to god obsession. That’s why a problem shared is a problem solved. The final phrase is perfect,a full stop of rest for his circling brain. “And God has done it”.

Genesis 1

First chapter of Genesis. A great place to start the bible. There is nothing no definition. Just water.

It’s very womb like, it takes us to the mystery of how every life starts. Why do cells start to think?

We are being imprinted like an empty brain getting is first impressions.

Light comes first, out of the darkness, which is monumental, but also indistinct.

And God is there, the hovering spirit, the creator. God made it, God did it, it’s God made life.

Prayer/Meditation break: God was there before I knew what light was. He is in control. I’m not foolish to trust him, even though there is no pattern or poetry discernable at the moment. I seen the light!

Its a song with a refrain: God made it, and it was good.

Emphasis on WAS good, as our globe becomes exposed to higher and higher temperatures, and the activities of humankind generally seem to do as much bad as good.

I started reading Genesis as a new start book, looking for optimism.  I intend to read John’s gospel as well, both of them start with the light.  The creation story told twice.  But the arc of Genesis is not optimisitc, it is tragic.  If I remember rightly it ends with a story of numbing brutality and nastiness, the story of sodom and gomorrah.  But John’s is the messiah story, so perhaps both together will chart a path of saftety through a cruel world.

Its not the best idea to read the bible as a book to fill your needs, like a therapy book, but I think I do need that at the moment.

The vault to separate the waters, which is called sky, and comes after light but before land is hard to understand.  It is the sky as roof to the world, but how it separates the waters is difficult to conceptualise.  It seems like an understanding of the sky pre-solar system, pre knowing the earth is a ball.  Worth remembering when considering the people for whom this story is literal science rather than poetry.

The third day, land and vegetation, brings the refrain that “it was good”.

Patterns

It is the natural human state to believe in God. Every culture has independently stumbled across the idea of God and made it central to their community.   I imagine this story being told to children from the moment they could understand language to explain how the world came to be.  It still is for many children, and other cultures have variations.

I love the way the elements are introduced like a newborn would get the patterns of life.  Children would still be in this process, assimilating the patterns of life, when they heard this story, so it would make perfect sense to them, it is at their experience level.

Reading the story again takes me back to my own uncomplex state, my own creation.

Dividing the creative act into days, and definng the initial elements by simple binaries or separations: darkness, light. Water, sky. Water, land, Day, night.  It is making patterns, bringing meaning into focus: light, then types of light.  The types of light then define time: moon and stars by night, sun by day.  The patterns of binaries stack onto each other and create layered meaning.

The creation of life brings objects into focus.  They are staged in a crescendo of complexity: vegetation.  Seeds and fruit, it is good.  It conjurs up a lush visual and also a practical connection to food.  It all comes from God, it is good, we are loved and cared for by a divine being, there is meaning beyond ourselves.

Fifth day brings fish and birds.  And God didn’t just make them, he made them to make themselves so the sea would be teeming with them and the sky filled with them: abundance.  This is a blessing, goodness from God.  What a huge theme, the theme of God’s overflowing abundant blessing. It is central to his nature as a creator, he creates things that create, resources are beyond our needs.

Then animals.  The order does seems to reflect meaning for people: the crawly things, wild animals then livestock. Multiple subdivisions… each “according to their kinds”, and it is all by God and all good.

And at the apex, men and women, the ones in the image of God. The image of God is male, the image of God is female. Equality is asserted!  They rule the other animals and subdue them.  It is given to us, it exists for us. Seeds and fruit for food, green plants to feed the animals.

It is all very good, seventh day he rests.  New pattern: the week.  The seven day pattern has stuck, its really quite mind blowing.  This pattern here in this ancient text is still a pattern by which our lives are divided.  People mock creationism, saying how ridiculous it sounds to make the whole of it in 7 days, without questioning where the idea of 7 days even came from in the first place.

I noticed that when adolescents rebel against their parents there is an irony – they become more like them the more they try to make their own way.  Because the very structure of their thought processes, their language, their understanding of meaning is so strongly influenced by their parents, the way they process these new found emotions and desires is reflective of the parents they are hating on.  Likewise I think humankind can’t escape their createdness in the image of God through the very act of denying him.

This passage is a huge reason for my belief in God. It makes sense in ways I can’t bring into my conscious state, it makes sense of the natural inclination of people to believe there must be a God. How did patterns come out of chaos?  Why do we gain endless comfort from finding patterns? Why do we have a concept of good?  How are things different (why is dark not light and light not dark?)  It is all given a context and an explanation: God made it.

Prayer/Meditation: Praise God! Praise God praise God!  Have confidence in the purpose of my existence. Have confidence to present God as an answer to people who are struggling.  Its actually almost impossible not to believe in God, atheisim is a complex artifice of a mind in denial.

Return to the start, remember your creation.  I’ve written a lyric for maybe a song about the creation story being everyone’s experience.  When it says male and woman are the image of God, it strikes me that parents are the first god to a baby.

just one cell, floating in a watery night
grew my brain, grew my eyes, one day saw light

one tiny baby, waters all gave way
the sky is up, earth is down, night follows day

create me, make me
Mother god
wrapped in your succour and love endlessly

teeming through infinity, teach me, help me grow
flowers and trees, birds and bees,
teach me to know

Two sleepy people play with me at dawn,
again again, again again, a new day is born,

create me, make me
stroke my busy head to peace, sing rest to me