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The Old Testament, Slavery and the Goodness of God, Part II

July 1, 2013

Here is video of the talk from the post “The Old Testament, Slavery and the Goodness of God” in it’s entirety:

The Old Testament, Slavery and the Goodness of God

June 4, 2013

shacklesI’m pretty excited about today’s post because it’s a guest blog from a good friend of mine, Jared Michelson. Jared recently gave a talk on the OT book of Exodus, and in particular how to navigate some of the passages often used against Christianity. Jared kindly agreed to put the talk in blog form, which is what you will find below. This post is a little longer than what I usually write, but well worth your time to read.

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“The Book of the Covenant is a collection of laws, found in Exodus 20:22 – Exodus 23. This is one of the many passages that ‘Anti-Christians’ (such as the New Atheists) love. The laws of the Old Testament are often use as a bludgeon to batter Christians into silence and to shame them with the supposed barbarism of their faith.

The argument usually takes one of two forms:

1.   The laws of the Old Testament show the inconsistency of Christians.

Whenever a Christians says “I believe abortion, or premarital sex, or homosexuality, or anything else is wrong because the bible says so,” the Anti-Christian is quick to respond. “Well why accept those biblical laws and disregard so many others? Why do you eat bacon when the bible forbids eating pork? Why do you have a shirt with two kinds of fabric when the bible expressly forbids it? Why don’t you sell your daughter into slavery like the bible teaches?” etc.

Anti-Christians (and sadly, often misinformed people in the media) love to claim that Christians ‘cherry-pick’ or ‘pick and choose’ whichever laws out of the bible they want to follow and disregard the others.

In reality, what the Anti-Christian reveals in this line of argumentation is a complete lack of understanding of the basics of biblical hermeneutics. Let’s take the “book of the covenant” passage in Exodus where so many of these laws were found. Immediately preceding the “book of the covenant” is the ten commandments. The ten commandments are written on stone. They are presented as eternal laws for living that everyone, everywhere, should seek to obey. All of the laws in the “book of the covenant” on the other hand, are written on parchment, on paper. They are not eternal laws for all of time. Rather they are directed from God to a specific culture in specific time in history. They are God’s way of taking these eternal, broad, ten commandments, and bringing them down into the concrete nitty gritty of life as an Israelites living in ancient times in the Middle East.

None of the laws in the book of the covenant are binding on Christians. Why? Because the laws weren’t directed to us. They were given to Jews living in the Middle East at least 3,000 years ago. The laws that we as Christians do see as binding are the ones which are found in the New Testament and are addressed to the church. Why do we pick that set of laws instead of these older ones? Because we are the church, the laws in the New Testament are addressed to the church, those older ones are addressed to the ancient Israelite nation.

Therefore, accusing the Christian of being inconsistent because he doesn’t follow laws which weren’t addressed to him would be akin to the following situation. Say a father had a son and a daughter. He says, “Son, I want you to go mow the lawn. Daughter, I want you to go clean the garage.” As the son is busy shoving his mower through the tall weeds, Mr Anti-Christian walks by, and haughtily asks, “Why are you picking and choosing from you fathers commands? You obviously just pick the ones that are convenient (mowing the lawn and disregard the rest, cleaning the garage).” Of course not. He simply only follows the commands that are addressed to him, as do Christians.

2.  The laws of Old Testament show that the bible is backwards and barbaric

There are countless laws in the Old Testament which seem, at first glance to be barbaric and backwards. I completely feel the weight of this objection. It’s easy to read through the laws of the Old Testament and to feel that you are reading a testament to the worst of humanity. We often feel as if we are experiencing not a record of morality, but of barbarism. However, my experience has been that when you drill down far enough into any of the Old Testament laws that at first brush appear morally questionable, what you find is a God who is bringing justice, compassion, and love into a dark and brutal time in history. Let’s take the most obvious example: slavery. How in the world could a book that claims to contain “moral truths” condone and defend the practice of slavery. Our answer will have three parts.

A. Where are the slavery laws found?

The Bible never commands or even defends the practice of slavery. Slavery is not found in the portions of the bible that purport to be eternal moral law (such as the ten commandments). Slavery is found in the portions of scripture that present time-bound practical ways of bringing the eternal biblical principles of love and justice into the daily life of ancient people.

When slavery is mention in “the book of the covenant” and other similar places, it always begins with “When a master…” or “When a slave…” Why is that so critical? It’s not condoning slavery. It’s not defending slavery. It’s definitely not commanding slavery. What it’s doing is saying “Look if slavery is occurring, when it’s happening, here is how you can humanize the practice.” Virtually all of the laws in the Old Testament exist to uplift and defend slaves.

Saying the bible supports slavery misses the point. According to the bible, when God creates his ideal world (the New Heavens and New Earth) there will be no slavery. God never wanted slavery to exist. However, in the Old Testament, God speaks into a broken world and he brings a path towards justice, love and compassion, even within that broken culture. It’s similar to the biblical treatment of war. The bible seems to teach that there are certain times in our broken world where war may occur, and we must engage in it in the most loving compassionate way possible, but does God want war? NO! In his perfect world there will be no war. Nor does God want slavery, however in speaking into this broken culture he does say “When this is occurring, here is how we can humanize the practice.”

B.  The Biblical form of slavery bears no relation to what we think of as slavery.

The form of slavery that the Old Testament law allows, is unlike any other form of slavery. It was unlike the slavery that was occurring around the world at the time, unlike the slavery that was occurring in the American south, and unlike the slavery that occurs around the world today. When we think of slavery, our minds immediately go to the despicable, disgusting stain that occurred in the American South. The “slavery” that is outlined in the Old Testament bears no relation to what we think of when we hear the word slavery. Here are some of the differences:

No racism: In the American South slavery was built on a system in which a certain group was considered inferior and subhuman. In the Old Testament, Hebrews were reminded again and again that slaves were their countryman, and that they once were slaves. The slave was in no way considered inferior to the master.

Never life long except by choice: On the seventh year, all of the slaves in Israel were released. The maximum time of slavery was seven years although many terms were mandated to be even less. The only exception was if a slave choose, because they “loved their master,” to ask him to allow them to be a slave for life.

Never taken by force: “Man-Stealing” or taking a person into slavery against their will, was strictly forbidden. Every slave had to choose to enter into slavery, no one could be forced into bondage. In the Old Testament, Human Trafficking was harshly punished.

Strict rules for treatment: The Old Testament lists rules demanding that slaves be treated with dignity and respect. Strict punishments were imposed on masters who abused their slaves.

Human dignity: By the far the most significant difference, is that slaves in the Old Testament were considered full humans made in God’s image. They had rights, and were considered full members of society who were in no way “less” than their masters.

It should be abundantly clear that this practice which was occurring in Israel, is really a completely different entity than what we think of when we think of slavery. It bears no relation to what occurred in the American South.

However, for the most cynical among us, a check may still arise in our minds. We may say, “I don’t care if God didn’t condone the practice, he should have stopped it! I don’t care how civilized it was, if God is truly love he should have wiped slavery off the face of the earth all together!”

C.  Slavery in Israel was a Work-Welfare system.

The startling truth is this, the form of slavery that existed in Israel in this specific time, in this specific context, was helpful to the lowest and poorest in Israelite society. In our society, our social safety net is welfare. It is our way of making sure that the lowest and poorest in our society are taken care of. Slavery served a similar function. As you were reading the laws for the treatment of slaves earlier, you surely found yourself asking “who would ever choose to be a slave?” Here’s how it seems to have worked:

When a man had become utterly destitute, when all of his land had been sold, all of his resources expended and he had absolutely nothing left, he had an option outside of starvation. He would enter slavery, and this contract helped him to get back on his feet. For the next few years he would have to work without pay. However, all of his needs, food, clothing and shelter, would be met by the master. While working for the master he would learn new skills and a trade. Any man who could afford to feed and clothe slaves had to be very well off. So his slaves, in the process of working in his successful business, would learn the skills of his trade, whether it be farming, carpentry, building, or whatever else. Eventually when the seventh year arrived, the poor man would be set free. The master was required to give him money to begin a new life. With a new set of skills and coins in his pocket the poor man now had a second chance.

Slavery, as we know it in the modern world, and basically through all of history, is a scourge. It’s despicable. However, the system that was set up in Israel existed not to oppress the poor, but to give them a new chance for life.

Have you really examined the bible for yourself? Or have you accepted the talking points of those who wish to do Christianity harm?”

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Big thanks to Jared for this well-thought critique of an often-used “bludgeon” against Christianity. Feel free to comment with your feedback, whether you agree or not.

The Exodus 24 Syndrome

April 13, 2013

mt. sinaiIn Exodus 19, Moses began a series of meetings with God on the mountain of Sinai, in which God mete out laws and rules for His people to follow. By chapter 24 the people have already repeatedly pronounced their desire to follow God’s commands, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.”

However, within days they were building a golden calf to worship.

More staggering, the elders of Israel themselves saw God: “Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself” (Ex. 24: 9-10). (On a side note, this is one the most amazing verses in the whole Bible, in my opinion.) Here these 70 plus men get to look at God and not die. They saw God and days later they were participating in mutiny against Him. God noted the same when he said to Moses, speaking of the people worshiping an idol, “They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them” (Ex. 32:8).

At first it’s hard for me to fathom that kind of unfaithfulness, in light of the unbelievable closeness of the presence of God. But then I think about my own heart. We may not have seen God, but we live on this side of the cross and the resurrection, and don’t we all, at times, act just like the Israelites did, under the shadow of Sinai?

“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”

How the Book of Jonah is the Prodigal Son Story

March 17, 2013

Having recently finished reading Jonah (something I’ve only done a handful of times, sadly), it is now one of my favorite books of the Bible. One of the most fascinating things I found about Jonah is how the whole story is basically a perfect parallel to the the parable Jesus would later tell that we know as “the prodigal son.” To show you what I mean, I will hit some of the key verses from the prodigal son story and parallel them to the story of Jonah and Nineveh; however, this is by no means the first time this relationship has been written on. One additional note, in the book of Jonah, the parable is flipped, and we spend the majority of the time watching the actions of the elder brother (Jonah) instead of the younger brother.

  • “…the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). When we look in the account of Jonah we find Nineveh described in this verse, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). So here we have the younger brother, living wickedly (after acting wickedly toward his father) and the nation of Nineveh also described as wicked.
  • But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him…” (Luke 15:20). Here is how Jonah himself describes God’s position toward the city of Nineveh: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jonah 4:2). In the same sense that the father in Jesus’ parable had compassion for the younger, wicked son, so too God had compassion on the city of Nineveh when they came seeking redemption.
  • Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). Jonah 3:8-9 recounts a similar humbling of the people of Nineveh when they said, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” In both cases, the wayward party realizes their sin, understands it’s just consequences, and asks for grace.
  • But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate‘” (Luke 15:22-23). Similarly, we see in Jonah that, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). The undeserved grace of God is given to both the Ninevites and the younger brother.
  • The older brother became angry and refused to go in [to the party for his brother]” (Luke 15:28). In Jonah we see an almost identical response from Jonah, at the salvation of the Ninevites, watch: “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry…’Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:1 & 3). Both Jonah and the elder brother see the grace shown to the younger brother and are deeply angered.
  • So his father went out and pleaded with him [to come into the party]” (Luke 15:29). God comes to Jonah and asks him the same thing that the Father was probably asking the elder brother, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) In both cases the Father  seeks to bring the ‘elder brother’ into the ‘party.’
  • Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29). The elder brother is indignant that all his work obeying his father has gone to waste. We see his obvious motivation for obeying his father was to get his stuff, not to have Him. “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah knew the Ninevites deserved to be destroyed for their contempt of God and His people, so he is indignant that instead of destroying them, he is treating them like His own children. They are getting the treatment that only the Israelites deserved, in his opinion.
  • At the end of both books is an abrupt, if not semi-hopeful, ending. The father in the parable tells the son of the grace he was excited to show the younger brother, and in the book of Jonah, God says something very similar concerning his treatment of the Ninevites.

jonah_angryNeither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.” – Timothy Keller (The Prodigal God)

There it is, the story of the Prodigal Son in the story of Jonah. To me the biggest takeaway is that the reason these are similar stories is because they are both about the gospel, and who the gospel is for. It’s for law-breakers and law-keepers. The rebellious and the straight-laced. The humble and the prideful. You and me.

rembrant-prodigal-son-detail

God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any and every kind of sin or wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done… There is no evil that the father’s love cannot pardon and over, there is no sin that is a match for his grace.” – Tim Keller (The Prodigal God)

Also…the stars as bullet points were not my choice…I don’t like them.

Who needs the Doctor?

October 3, 2012

Growing up I got his idea in my head that church is a place to be clean, talk nicely and dress your best. Not that any of those things are necessarily wrong, but that influenced the way I thought, and still often think, about the people who should (or shouldn’t) be in the church. You should look nice, smell nice, talk nice and act nice, otherwise you’re out of place. And worse, I don’t think you should be here because you’re kind of messing things up for the rest of us, the healthy. However, the gospel has something else to say. Listen:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'” – Mark 2

Who does belong in church? The sick and the sinners. Not the people who think they have it all together, but the ones who know they don’t. Clean under the fingernails or not. I am as guilty as anyone else in this area, but it’s areas like these that we need the Gospel to shape the way we view people.

Just a statement of faith?

June 3, 2012

…here are ten things that distinguish between what I would call a vibrant, robust Bible-believing church and one that gets the statement of faith right but feels totally different.

1. The mission of the church has gotten sidetracked. Recently I stumbled upon the website for a church in my denomination. Judging from the information on the site I would say this church thinks of itself as evangelical, in the loose sense of the word. Their theology seems to be of the “mere Christianity” variety. But this is their stated missional aim: “[Our] Missions are designed to connect people and their resources with opportunities to respond to human need in the name of Jesus.” A church with this mission will be very different from one that aims to make disciples of all nations or exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

2. The church has become over-accommodating. I’m not thinking of all contextualization (of which there are some good kinds and some bad). I’m thinking of churches whose first instinct is to shape their methods (if not their message) to connect with a contemporary audience. And because of this dominant instinct, they avoid hard doctrines, cut themselves off from history and tradition, and lean toward pragmatism.

3. The gospel is assumed. While the right theology may be affirmed in theory, it rarely gets articulated. No one believes the wrong things, but they don’t believe much of anything. When pressed, they will quickly affirm the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of penal substitution, of justification by faith alone, but their real passions are elsewhere. What really holds the church together is a shared conviction about creation care or homeschooling or soup kitchens or the local fire station.

4. There is no careful doctrinal delineation. Theology is not seen as the church’s outboard motor. It’s a nasty barnacle on the hull. You will quickly notice a difference in message and methods between the church whose operating principle is “doctrine divides” and the one that believes that doctrine leads to doxology.

5. The ministry of the word is diminished. While preaching may still be honored in theory, in many churches there is little confidence that paltry preaching is what ails the church and even less confidence that dynamic preaching is the proper prescription. No one wants to explicitly pooh-pooh preaching, teaching, or the ministry of the word, but when push comes to shove the real solutions are structural or stylistic. How often do those engaged in church revitalization begin by looking at the preaching of the word and the role the Bible plays in the practical outworking of the congregation’s ministry?

6. People are not called to repentance. It sounds so simple, and yet it is so easily forgotten. Pastors may call people to believe in Jesus or call people to serve the community, but unless they also call them repent of their sins the church’s ministry will lack real spiritual power. And this should not be done by merely encouraging people to be authentic about their brokenness. We must use strong biblical language in calling people to repent and calling them to Christ.

7. There is no example of carefully handling specific texts of Scripture. People will not trust the Bible as they should unless they see it regularly taught with detail and clarity. Churches may still espouse a high view of Scripture but without a diet of careful exposition they will not know how to study the Bible for themselves and will not be discerning when poor theology comes along.

8. There is no functioning ecclesiology. If you put two churches side by side with the same theology on paper, but one has a working ecclesiology and the other has a grab-bag of eclectic practices, you will see a startling difference. Careful shepherding, elder training, regenerate church membership, a functioning diaconate, purposeful congregational meetings–these are the things you may not know you’ve never had. But when you do, it’s a different kind of church.

9. There is an almost complete disregard for church discipline. If discipline is truly one of the three marks of the church, then many evangelical congregations are not true churches. All the best theology in the world won’t help your church or your denomination if you don’t guard against those who deny it. If we are to be faithful and eternally fruitful, we must warn against error, confront the spirit of the age, and discipline the impenitent.

10. The real problem is something other than sin and the real remedy is something other than a Savior. The best churches stay focused on the basics. And that means sin and salvation. Sadly, many churches–even if they affirm the right doctrine on paper–act and preach as if the biggest problem in the world is lack of education, or material poverty, or the declining morals in our country, or the threat of global warming. As a result we preach cultural improvement instead of Christ. We preach justice without Jesus. We lose sight that the biggest problem (though not the only problem) confronting the churchgoer every Sunday is that he is a sinner in need of a Savior.

If you read through this list and think you have everything down already, don’t be haughty. If we get all these right and are proud about it, we’ll rob ourselves and our churches of God’s blessing. But my prayer is that somewhere out there in the frozen tundra of the internet a pastor or a congregation or a church leader will read through these ten items and think, “You know, this may be what we’re missing.” The evangelical church needs depth where it is shallow, thoughtfulness where it is pragmatic, and conviction where it has become compromised. A casual adherence to a formal set of basic doctrines does not guarantee real unity and does not ensure genuine spiritual strength.

(From Kevin DeYoung)

The Bible is not about how you can be better.

June 2, 2012

from Tim Keller