Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Paul, the Mosaic Law, and Christian Convictions

Reading from Michael Bird’s brief Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission, and His Message reminded me of just how difficult the problem of the continuing relevance of the Old Testament law was for the early church. Bird (p. 150) summarizes the four major perspectives on the law reflected in the early church:

• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who insisted on full observance of the Mosaic law, including circumcision.
• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision, but did require converts to keep some Jewish observances.
• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision or adherence to the Jewish food laws.
• Jewish Christians and Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision, adherence to the Jewish food laws or Jewish cults and feasts.

The incredible thing about the early church may not be as much that they survived intense persecution from the outside as that they survived each other and were able to overcome the Jew/Gentile divide from within the church. Paul’s instructions on how mixed congregations were to handle their conflicting convictions concerning the Mosaic Law serve as a model for how Christians today can continue to worship and serve together in unity even when disagreeing over secondary matters of conscience or conviction.

Paul taught that believers in Jesus were no longer “under the law” (Rom 6:14-15; 7:1-6). The coming of Christ and the arrival of the eschatological age of salvation had brought epochal changes with regard to the role and function of the Mosaic law. Believers were no longer under law in that: 1) Christ had delivered them from the curse of disobedience to the law (Gal 3:10-14); 2) the 613 stipulations of the Mosaic law were no longer the regulating code for the covenant between God and his people (cf. 2 Cor 3; Gal 3:19-24; 4:4-5); 3) the boundary marking behaviors separating Jews from Gentiles (circumcision, diet, Sabbath) were rendered obsolete by the formation of Jews and Gentiles into one people (Gal 5:6; 6:15); and 4) Christ, rather than the law, had become the “goal” or focal point of God’s revelation (Rom 10:4). However, the Mosaic law itself had not become obsolete. As the eternal word of God, the law continued to fulfill its roles of exposing human sinfulness and providing a moral guide for those who live under “the law of Christ.”

The arrival of this new era of salvation history meant that the Mosaic law was not to be imposed upon Gentile believers and that Gentiles were not required to become Torah-observant Jews in order to become full members in the new covenant community. The apostles and leaders clearly articulated this principle at the Jerusalem Council when members of the circumcision party were insistent on circumcision and Torah observance as conditions for the full inclusion of Gentiles in the church:

And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (Acts 15:7-11)

Paul’s rebuke of Peter at Antioch when Peter withdrew from eating with Gentile believers because of peer pressure from Jews belonging to “the circumcision party” reflects the importance of this insistence that Torah observance was not to be imposed on Gentile followers of Christ:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (Gal 2:11-14)

By withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile believers, Peter was implying that these Gentiles did not have equal standing in the new covenant community and that they were second-class citizens unless they became fully Torah-observant. Paul confronted Peter for his hypocrisy, reminding his fellow-apostle that such behavior was inconsistent with the gospel message of justification through faith in Christ. The insistence that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to become Christians is what enabled Christianity to become a fully international movement. If the apostolic teaching had imposed Torah observance on Gentile believers, then Christianity would have become just another form of Jewish proselytism.

Paul’s instructions that Torah was not to be imposed on Gentiles in the church did not mean that Jewish believers were required to abandon their Jewish customs and practices. For reasons of culture, conscience, and testimony, the majority of Jewish believers likely continued to practice a Torah-observant lifestyle. Bird writes, “We should note that while Paul defended the right of Gentiles to be free from the forcible imposition of the law upon them, he did not demand that Jewish Christians give up all observance of the law” (p. 151). John McRay concurs: “I would suggest that no consideration of Paul’s teaching on the law can be deemed satisfactory if it does not recognize that he had one view of the law for a Jew and another for a Gentile.” (Paul: His Life and Teaching, p. 367). Mark Nanos, in his article “The Myth of the ‘Law-Free’ Paul Standing Between Christians and Jews,” makes a strong case for the idea that Paul continued for the most part to live a Torah-observant life even after his conversion to the Christian faith. In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul encourages believers to remain in the condition to which they were called (7:20), suggesting that Jewish Christian should continue with the customs they have practiced in the past. The book of Acts offers several examples of Paul’s practice of Torah: in 18:18, he cuts his hair in order to complete a (Nazirite?) vow; in 21:21-26, he performs rites of purification to counter the charge that he is encouraging fellow-Jews to abandon the law; and in 24:17-19, Paul recounts how he had been arrested when presenting alms and offerings at the Jerusalem temple. Paul also reminds the Corinthians of how he “became as a Jew in order to win Jesus” (1 Cor 9:19-23).

Jew-Gentile fellowship in the early church was made possible because two different convictions on Torah observance were allowed to peacefully coexist. Gentile Christians were given the freedom to not practice Torah observance, while Jewish believers were given the freedom to continue to practice many aspects of their former lifestyle. This same allowance for believers to practice their own convictions, while respecting those of others, carried over into other secondary issues of conscience. We learn from 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14-15 that the areas of major controversy in the early church revolved around food and fellowship. 1 Corinthians 8 informs us that some Christians believed that it was acceptable to eat meat that had been offered to idols; some did not. In Romans 14:1-15:7, there are some Christians who believe it is permissible to eat meat and drink wine and others who do not. There are some who observe the Jewish holy days and some who do not. In working through these issues, Paul allows believers to arrive at their own convictions. It is acceptable to do something or not do something that is morally neutral, and one is not better than the other. Bird comments: “Note that Paul does not argue for an uniform view of meat, drink and Sabbath observances, but recognizes the freedom of individuals to decide such matters for themselves. This is born out of the conviction that what unites Christians is infinitely stronger than anything that might tear them apart” (p. 153).

Christian love does not require that I surrender my personal convictions, but it does demand that I allow other believers the same freedom to live by their convictions, even when theirs are different from mine. Paul reminds us that if we are truly practicing Christian love, then the spiritual well-being of others will take priority over my personal convictions:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.(Rom 14:5-8)

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding (Rom 14:17-19)

Bird (p. 154) offers these summarizing principles from Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8 on how Christians today should deal with issues of conscience and conviction:

• Learn to differentiate between areas of conviction and areas of command
• Don’t major on minor doctrines
• Withhold judgment where the gospel is not threatened
• Exercise your convictions to build others up, not to tear them down
• Do not exchange freedom in Christ for slavery to human tradition
• At all time act in love and fulfill the law of Christ.

Through the Spirit’s enablement, the fledgling church experienced remarkable harmony under the most difficult of circumstances as Jews and Gentiles came together to form the body of Christ. Paul’s willingness to set aside his own past prejudices concerning the standing of Gentiles before God is in itself a powerful testimony to the transformative power of the gospel message. When we constantly hear of secondary issues that divide Christians or that keep them from working together in fulfillment of the church’s mission, It seems a shame that we are not doing a better job of living out this reality in the American church 2,000 years later.

Monday, August 17, 2009

David & Jonathan: Best Friends Forever or Something More

The newly released Sex and the Jews, a series of essays collected by Nathan Abrams, re-circulates the idea that David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers and that the lack of censure from the narrator suggests that the Bible at least in some places has a more enlightened and tolerant view of sexual behavior than its later (and more repressed) interpreters. It is understandable how reading the story of David and Jonathan with modern eyes might lead to such a conclusion. The text states that Jonathan “loved” David and that his soul “was joined” to David’s (1 Sam 18:1), appearing to echo the intimacy reflected in the “one flesh” relationship between the husband and the wife in Genesis 2:24. In one of their final times together, the two men kissed one another in a highly emotional scene (1 Sam 20:43), and David later eulogized his dead friend by declaring that Jonathan’s love was more special to him than the love of women (2 Sam 1:26).

Robert A. J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics is one of the best exegetical and historical defenses of the traditional view that the Bible is unanimous in its witness that same-sex intercourse is sinful. Through a careful analysis of the David-Jonathan narratives and their ancient Near Eastern setting, Gagnon (pp. 146-57) offers seven convincing reasons as to why we should not view David and Jonathan as having a homosexual relationship.

1. The term “love” (אהב) (’ahav) has a broad range of meaning, and the large majority of the uses of this root in the Hebrew Bible do not refer to sexual or romantic love. In this context alone, the term refers to Israel’s “love” for David as a military hero because of his victory over Goliath (1 Sam 18:1), to Jonathan’s love for David (1 Sam 18:1, 3; 20:17; 2 Sam 1:26—though note that there is never a clear reciprocal statement that David “loved” Jonathan), to Michal’s romantic love/attraction to David (1 Sam 18:20, 28), to the esteem of Saul’s servants for David (1 Sam 18:22) and to the love and esteem enjoyed by Saul and Jonathan because of their heroic lives (2 Sam 1:23).

2. The term “love” is common terminology for loyalty between covenant partners in ancient Near Eastern treaties, and this nuance of the term relates to the promises and oaths that David and Jonathan made to one another (note their oaths to each other and the use of the term חסד (hesed) in 1 Sam 20:8, 14, 15). Kings expressing love for one another in ancient treaties were obviously not wanting to hold hands or go steady but were merely affirming their commitment to the covenant stipulations:

--King Hiram of Tyre is David’s “lover” (or “friend”) in 1 Kgs 5:1

--Note the use of the terms “love/hate” for those who are loyal/disloyal to David in 2 Sam 19:6-7

--Future vassals of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal were instructed: “You must love [him] as yourself.”

--Tursatta, the king of Mitanni says to the Egyptian Pharaoh: “My lord, just as I love the king my lord, so (do) the king of Nuhasse, the king of Ni’i….”

The covenantal commitment between David and Jonathan is the key component in the biblical portrayal of their friendship. Jonathan extended total loyalty to David and was willing to give up his position as royal heir to the throne on David’s behalf. In their first encounter, Jonathan makes a covenant with David and hands over to David his robe, sword, armor, bow, and belt as a symbol of royal investiture (cf. 1 Sam 17: 51, 54; 2 Kgs 11:10; and the significance of the “robe” as a symbol of political power in 1 Sam 15:27-28). Jonathan lives up to the covenant agreement by twice warning David of Saul’s plots to put David to death (1 Sam 19:1; 20:35-42), the second time in connection with the renewal of covenant loyalties between David and Jonathan (1 Sam 20:8, 13-17, 42). In turn, David makes a covenant promise to Jonathan that he would show hesed to Jonathan and his descendants for all time (1 Sam 20:14-17), a promise David later kept by providing for Mephebisheth, Jonathan’s crippled son (2 Sam 9). In their final meeting together, David and Jonathan once again affirm their covenant commitments before the Lord, and Jonathan acknowledges that David will become the ruler over Israel (1 Sam 23:16-18).

Politics in ancient Israel was a bloody and violent affair. Abimelech killed 70 of his brothers in an attempt to become Israel’s king (Judg 9:5), and Jonathan’s father wanted David dead because of the threat that David posed to the family’s dynasty. When David died, there was a bloody dispute over the right to succession in his own family (1 Kgs 2). During the time of the divided monarchy, 8 of the 19 kings of the Northern Kingdom were either murdered, assassinated, or committed suicide as a result of various forms of political intrigue. Jonathan’s act of surrendering the right of succession to a friend outside of his family was an incredible act of selfless devotion, and this unheard of magnanimity is what leads David to proclaim that Jonathan’s love for him surpassed that of women. Gagnon (pp. 152-53) comments: “Jonathan’s repeated display of (non-sexual) kindness to David at a time when Jonathan was in a position of power, selflessly risking his own life and certainly his own kingdom surpassed anything David had ever known from a committed erotic relationship with a woman.”

3. The expression that Jonathan’s “soul (נפש) (nephesh) was “united” (קשר) (qashar) to David (1 Sam 18:2) also describes the deep love of Jacob for his son Benjamin in Genesis 44:30-31, where it is clear that nothing sexual is intended by this expression.

4. The verb חפץ (haphets) used to describe Jonathan’s feelings toward David in 1 Samuel 19:1 is used by Saul himself to express his own pretended affections for David in 1 Sam 18:22.

5. The kissing of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:41 is not erotic in nature but rather an expression of deep emotion by two friends who recognize that they may never see each other again. In the OT, the verb “to kiss” (נשק) (nashaq) carries no sexual connotation in 24 of its 27 uses. The term refers to kisses between relatives 15 times, and there is nothing erotic in the kisses between unrelated males in the four other contexts where they occur (cf. 1 Sam 10:1; 2 Sam 15:5; 19:40; 20:8). This farewell scene where David and Jonathan are overcome with emotion recalls the episodes in Genesis where Joseph weeps and kisses when he reveals himself to his brothers in 45:5 and where he weeps and kisses his dead father in 50:1. Even in Middle Eastern cultures today, it is not uncommon for men to kiss, hold hands, or have physical contact in a non-sexual way that is strange or uncomfortable for Western males.

6. David’s heterosexual vigor (cf. 1 Sam 18:17-29; 25:39-43; 2 Sam 3:2-5, 13-16; 5:13-16; 11) and Jonathan’s marriage (1 Sam 20:42; 2 Sam 9) do not preclude the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the two, but would seem to raise further doubts concerning the likelihood of such a relationship. David’s strong attraction to women is a major source of his problems.

7. The narrator never states that David and Jonathan had sexual relations, and the terms “to lie with” (שכב) (shakav) or “to know” (ידע) (yada) do not appear in the text. Of course, one could argue that the narrator has tried to suppress the true nature of the relationship between David and Saul, but Gagnon rightly questions why a narrator trying to suppress the relationship would focus so much on the closeness of their relationship. He writes that there is no “indication that the narrators were in the slightest bit concerned about a possible homosexual misunderstanding. Indeed, far from censoring, the narrators did their best to play up the relationship between Jonathan and David. The more covenants and the greater the emotional bond between these two, the merrier. Why were the narrators unconcerned about a hint of homosexual scandal? The answer is obvious: nothing in the stories raised any suspicion that David and Jonathan were homosexually involved with one another. ” (pp. 154-155)

The point here is not that David having a homosexual relationship with Jonathan would have precluded God from using David as a great leader or that such behavior would have been a worse form of sin than the actions surrounding his adultery with Bathsheba that brought great ruin to his kingdom and heartache to his family. God extends his grace to both heterosexual and homosexual sinners and delights in using individuals despite their character flaws and moral failings. The point is simply that the biblical text does not portray David and Jonathan as lovers. To suggest otherwise is poor exegesis and a desperate attempt to use the Bible to validate homosexual behavior. For seminary students and those preparing for a ministry of preaching and teaching the Scriptures, this issue is another reminder of the importance of knowing biblical languages and remaining committed to grammatical-historical exegesis in an age of reader-centered hermeneutics. The message of the text, and not our personal agendas or what we want the text to say, must remain our primary concern.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Missionary God of the Old Testament

Christopher J. H. Wright’s book The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative is one of my favorite theological works because it provides a biblical basis for missionary endeavor by tracing the theme of mission through the whole of Scripture. Many Christians mistakenly think that missions began with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) or in Jesus’ final words to the apostles before his ascension (Acts 1:8) and fail to see that the Old Testament itself is a missionary book. In fact, Wright describes the Bible itself as a “missional phenomenon” in that it is “the product of and witness to the ultimate mission of God.” Of all the books of the Old Testament, Isaiah more than any other highlights the theme of God’s missionary concern for the nations and the promise of Gentile inclusion in the blessings of salvation. Tying Isaiah into the larger story of the Old Testament, the prophet anticipates the fulfillment of the original promise of the Abrahamic covenant that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:3).

As with much of the book of Isaiah, this emphasis arises out of Isaiah’s initial vision of Yahweh in Isaiah 6. Isaiah sees that the glory of the Lord fills the earth (6:3), and it thus becomes incumbent that the nations know this God and give him the glory that he is due. The following passages illustrate the recurring theme of Yahweh’s salvation extending to the nations in the book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 2:2-4
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 25:6-8
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 42:6
"I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations,

Isaiah 49:6

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

Isaiah 52:10
The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

Isaiah 56:3-8
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. "And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant - these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered."

Isaiah 60:1-3
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

The most amazing of all these Isaianic passages focusing on the inclusion of the nations is Isaiah 19:19-25. Wright describes this passage as “one of the most breathtaking pronouncements of any prophet, and certainly one of the most missiologically significant texts in all of the Old Testament” (p. 491). The passage looks forward to the eschatological kingdom as a time when Israel, Egypt, and Assyria will be the three peoples of God. Isaiah includes Israel’s representative enemy from the past (Egypt) and Israel’s primary enemy from the present (Assyria) among the future people of God. After a terrible time of judgment, Egypt will experience a national conversion, in which they speak Hebrew (“the language of Canaan”) and give their loyalties and worship to Yahweh as the true God (vv. 19-21). After once again striking Egypt with plagues, Yahweh will reverse the exodus story by this time intervening to save Egypt (v. 22). Like Israel, Egypt will become the recipient of the Lord’s mercy and salvation.

After this remarkable promise concerning Egypt’s future, the prophet goes even further in bringing the hated Assyrians into the sphere of the Lord’s salvation and blessing (vv. 23-25). In Isaiah's day, Israel was gripped in the vice of the superpowers Egypt and Assyria, but there will one day be a highway from Egypt to Assyria and through Israel facilitating travelers coming to worship Yahweh. The Assyrian war machine had wreaked havoc on the nations, but in the future kingdom, Assyria will be with Egypt and Israel a source of “blessing” to the whole earth. Wright comments on what this passage ultimately envisions: “The scattering oppressors become the ingathered worshippers. History is inverted in this eschatological transformation. The enemies of God and Israel will be at peace with Israel and with each other.” (p. 492).

Isaiah 19 is in fact pointing to something even greater than the salvation of just Egypt and Assyria. Wright explains that the prophet uses Egypt and Assyria “in a representational way; that is they stand for a wider inclusion of other nations, not just the specifically named nations.” (p. 492). In his Handbook on the Prophets, Robert Chisholm offers a similar explanation of the significance of Egypt and Assyrian in exploring how this prophecy will be fulfilled. The prophecy transcends its era and the vision of two powers from the ancient world of the Old Testament become “archetypes of the powerful, warring kingdoms of the earth that would one day lay down their weapons and acknowledge the Lord as the one true God.” (p. 59). This prophecy in Isaiah 19 is thus anticipating the vision of Revelation 5:9-10 where people from every tribe, tongue, and language group will belong to the throng of worshippers bowing down before the Lamb of God.

We may not be able to hear with modern ears how radical these promises concerning Egypt and Assyria would have sounded to Isaiah’s original audiences. However, Jacob Neusner (“Repentance in Judaism,” 60-61) notes how a statement from the Jewish Talmud (b. Gittin 57b) has effectively captured the extreme nature of God’s love for Israel’s enemies: “Grandsons of Haman [from the story of Esther] studied Torah in Bene Beraq. Grandsons of Sisera [from Judges 4-5] taught children in Jerusalem. Grandsons of Sennacherib [the king of Assyria who attacked Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.] taught Torah in public. And who were they? Shemaiah and Abtalion [who were the teachers of Hillel and Shammai].” Offering a modern equivalent, Neusner states that “to understand the power of this statement, we only have to say, ‘Hitler’s grandson teaches Torah in a yeshiva of Bene Baraq,’ or ‘Eichmann’s grandson sits in a Jerusalem yeshiva, reciting prayers and psalms and learning Talmud.’”

We see a similar expression of God’s radical love for the nations and his enemies in Isaiah 19. Every time I read this passage, I am reminded of the wideness of God’s mercy, his willingness to include all who genuinely turn to him for salvation, particularly those I would want to exclude.