On Children, Baptism and David Lipscomb (1914)

May 23, 2014

While there are many variations along a continuum, credobaptists (that is, those who baptize believers) approach children within the faith community in two major ways. On the one hand there are the revivalists, but on the other hand there are those who emphasize nurture.

Revivalists believe that children within the faith community, at some point, become sinners (some might think they are born such or at least guilty of Adamic sin) when they reach an age of accountability (however that is defined). They believe children are objects of evangelism. So, many credobaptists encourage children to say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and those among Churches of Christ baptize only those who confess they are sinners. The latter are baptized in order to be saved, and they would (according to many) be lost without that baptism, though identifying the age at which they became lost is ambiguous (and often worrisome for parents).

Those who emphasize nurture believe children grow up in faith as part of a faith community. They are maturing disciples rather than lost sinners. They are baptized, then, in order to affirm their faith, own their discipleship, and receive God’s promised blessings. They are baptized because Jesus was baptized and because Jesus told them to be baptized.

I have previously argued in a couple of books on baptism, an article in the Christian Standard, and on this blog that the latter approach is the better one. I will not rehearse those arguments here, but I did want to point to a historical precedent within Churches of Christ.

David Lipscomb did not think one had to impose “a heavy weight of guilt” upon those who were “reared in the training and instruction of the Lord.” When those so nurtured want to be baptized, it is sufficient that they want to obey the Lord.

When one reared in the training and instruction of the Lord like Timothy desires to enter Christ, his case is divine inspiration to guide him. The little girl’s wish to be baptized because Jesus wanted her to be, is as much the direction of the Spirit of God as for the murderers of the Lord to ‘be baptized into the remission of sins.’ Those desirous to learn and do the will of God while children cannot be oppressed with a heavy weight of guilt, but find direction into the body of Christ, where all evils are banished and all blessings abound. Were one as faithful as the Son of God to be found, it would only be necessary that he be baptized to fulfill the will of God. [David Lipscomb, "A  Summary. No. 2," Gospel Advocate 56 (1 January 1914), 11.]

I think Lipscomb offers some godly advice for parents, ministers, and youth leaders.


Joel 2:28-32 — I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

May 7, 2014

Joel’s lament liturgy in the first half of the book envisioned the devastation of Israel by a locust plague (or perhaps an invading army). That impending disaster also represented a future apocalyptic disaster. Joel is working at two levels–the immediate moment but also a future cataclysm.

Israel’s response to such news, as with all other human beings, is to lament. The prophet calls them to assemble, repent, and pray. They cry out to the Lord because they know Yahweh is gracious and compassionate. Yahweh will save those who call on the name of the Lord.

In the second half of Joel, Yahweh responds to the prayers of the people. Yahweh promises a fruitful land (Joel 2:18-27), a new Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), and a judgment of hostile forces (3:1-19). The promised land includes not only a renewal of Israel’s Edenic life in the land (a restoration of Israel) but also a new creation itself (a renewal of Eden).  That same dual aspect is present also in the promise of a new Spirit.

Poured Out Spirit

Concomitant with the renewal of the land is the pouring out of the Spirit. While the language is sequential, they are nevertheless tied together. God’s new creation is saturated with the Spirit. The restoration of Israel–when it is fully restored–will include the presence of God’s Spirit among the people.

The significance of this text is difficult to overestimate. It stands in stark contrast with Numbers 11 where in the face of tremendous burdens God helps Moses by equipping seventy elders (“old men”) with the Spirit. Though Joshua is puzzled by this, Moses hopes that a time would come when “all” Yahweh’s “people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). This is that moment! Joel envisions a time when God will answer Moses’s prayer.

Numbers 11:24-25

Joel 2:28-29

Seventy

All

Prophesy

Prophesy

Men

Men and Women

Old

Old and Young

Free

Free and Slave

The Spirit of God will rest upon “all flesh,” and so fully led by the Spirit that everyone will “dream dreams,” “see visions,” and “prophesy.” This language means that everyone will experience God’s life as they all see the world through God’s vision. The Spirit–poured out on “all flesh–will saturate the community of God, and the Spirit will give life, power, and vision to “all flesh.”

This is a radical vision. Israel’s life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable “exceptions” (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way:  all, old/young, male/female, and free/slave. The young, enslaved, and female will now also fully experience the Spirit. God will live in and through “all” rather than only through seventy older free males.

Apocalyptic Vision

When would this happen? When would God pour out the Spirit upon all flesh?

The text locates this outpouring “after” the emergence of Edenic Israel in Joel 2:18-27, that is, after the restoration of Israel. Within the context of Joel this is difficult to identify with any historical specificity.

If we regard Joel as a liturgical lament, then the divine response of (1) renewed land, (2) renewed [Spirit-led] people, and (3) divine judgment is something happens after Israel’s repentance (their calling on the Lord). It is a general liturgical form, but it also has an apocalyptic meaning and intent.

Apocalyptic language appears in Joel 2:30-31. This describes a cosmic shake-up. It is the appearance of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” God, in effect, uncreates! In other words, what Joel describes is a disturbance that resembles the undoing of creation itself. The sun, for example, turns into the darkness. The creation (heavens and earth) revert back to chaos. Darkness, fire, and blood fill the creation rather than light and life.

In that great cataclysmic moment God will pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, and those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A remnant will survive the uncreation.

But what exactly are we talking about?

The Spirit and the Church

Luke narrates the story of Jesus and the church in such a way that the appearance of Jesus is the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. Indeed, the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost (the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest) is the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32a in Acts 2:17-21, and identifies the events of that day as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is that,” Peter says.

Exalted at the right hand of the Father, the resurrected Messiah received the promised Spirit from the Father and the Messiah poured out the Spirit upon restored Israel, which begins with the one hundred and twenty gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 1. The Spirit saturates and renews Israel. And this is only the beginning.

Luke tells the story of how renewed Israel expanded to include the Gentiles (“all flesh”) and how women prophesied in this new community (Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9). The Book of Acts is not so much the “acts of the apostles” as it is the “acts of the Holy Spirit” who leads and guides the church in its mission as a witness among the nations and the full inclusion of women within the community. The inclusion of women is present among the one hundred and twenty in Acts 1:14, and their presence in the community is consistently highlighted in Acts (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36-39; 16:13; 17:4, 12). In the light of this emphasis, Luke’s seeming aside about Philip’s daughters (prophetesses) is particularly significant. Joel’s prophecy is progressively realized within the church.

Paul quotes Joel 2:32a in support of the inclusion of the Gentiles. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” Paul writes, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Moreover, Paul’s inclusion of women in Galatians 3:28 also seems to echo Joel 2:28-29. The children of God include Jews and Gentiles, males and females, and slave and free. They are all heirs of Abraham, heirs of the new creation. They are, as the renewed Israel of God, the new creation (Galatians 6:15-16).

Galatians 3:26-28

Joel 2:28-29

Jew/Greek

All Flesh

Male/Female as Children of God

Sons/Daughters

Free/Slave

Free/Slave

These children of Abraham are the people into whose hearts God has sent the Spirit (Galatians 4:6). They have received the promised Spirit. Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave, this new creation is indwelt by and saturated with God’s Spirit.  The effect is that some are gifted with prophecy, including both men and women, Jew and Greek, and slave and free.

The heart of Joel’s vision of restored Israel is that God’s Spirit will empower women as well as men, slaves as well as the free, the young as well as the old, to prophesy. The community, in terms of its prophetic leadership and inSpirited experience, will “no longer” (to use Paul’s phrase in Galatians 3:28) be male, free, and Jewish. Rather, female prophets as well as enslaved and youthful ones will lead the people of God through their prophetic work.

Joel’s vision, as applied by Peter and echoed by Paul, still speaks to the church, and calls the church to lean ever more heavily into the new creation that the Spirit is working among us.

New Creation and the Spirit of God

But there is more. Joel’s vision is not limited to the story of the church working its way through history as new creation emerges within God’s ongoing story with creation. Rather, it speaks to the fuller reality that is yet to appear–the creation of the new heavens and the new earth itself.

Just as Joel 2:18-27 anticipates a renewed Eden upon a new heaven and new earth (a new creation), so Joel 2:28-32 anticipates a pneumatic (Spiritual) existence.

A Spiritual (pneumatic) existence? Yes, but let me explain.

At present the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is busily transforming us into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:18-20). In this sense we are already pneumatic (Spiritual) people, that is, we are people whose inner life is animated and renewed by the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18) even though our outer life–our physical bodies–are decaying day by day.

Pneumatic existence, however, is not simply for the soul. God intends it for our bodies as well. Consequently, the Spirit who now indwells us will also raise our mortal bodies from the grave and give them immortal life (cf. Romans 8:11,23). Paul describes the resurrection body as a “spiritual” (pneumatic) body. It is a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit; it is immortal life in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57).

The final act of new creation–when new creation fully emerges as God renews heaven and earth–is the resurrection of our bodies, and we will live a pneumatic existence in a new heaven and new earth. When the Spirit is fully poured out, our inner and outer lives will be fully conformed to the inner and outer life of Jesus the Messiah, our resurrected Lord.  Our souls will be perfected by the Spirit so that we are conformed to the image of the Son, and our bodies will be conformed to the image of the Son’s resurrected body. We will be like the resurrected Messiah–fully led, empowered and animated by the Spirit of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 


Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.

 


Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014.  It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.

However, you can judge for yourself.  They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?

 


Joel 2:12-17 — Assemble and Pray

April 17, 2014

Sometimes assembly is more important than a wedding night.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is the message of Joel 2:12-17. The impending disaster, the day of the Lord, created an urgency within Israel that prioritized the gathering of God’s people over wedding celebrations. A penitent people, according to Joel, should assemble to pray for Yahweh’s mercy, and it must be a corporate act rather than the isolated prayers of scattered individuals.

There is something about corporate prayer that is more important than individual prayer.

The first part of the text is the prophetic call to “return” to God (Joel 2:12-14), and the second half rouses the people to prayerful assembly (Joel 2:15-17). The first half invites Israel to return, and the second summons Israel to assemble as a witness to their return. To assemble, in this context, is to return to God with broken and contrite hearts.

The call comes with the voice of Yahweh, “Return to me with all your heart!” And then it comes with the voice of the prophet, “Return to the Lord, your God.” The double use of “return” (a metaphor for repentance) highlights the reality that Israel had turned away from God, and this is the cause of divine judgment. Joel, however, never identifies any particular sin among the people. Instead, the prophet offers a liturgical form for all sorts of occasions (which is whole book itself, especially Joel 1-2).

Summon the People to Lamentation.
Call the People to Return.
Gather the People in Assembly.
Lead the People in Prayer.
Testify to People about Hope.
Envision a Future for the People.

But first the people must “return,” and return with their “whole heart.” They must “tear” their “hearts” and not just their clothing. Their return must be heart-based rather than an external, ritualistic show. Their lament and fasts must arise from a contrite and broken heart. An external demonstration is not sufficient. Worship–through assembling, fasting, and lamenting–must arise from the heart or it is worthless.

Why should Israel even try? Because of who God is. They seek God because they confess that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” They return to God for the same reason Jonah ran away to Tarshish (Jonah 4:2), that is, because God loves, forgives, and renews. This is Israel’s “God Creed.” First revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), it is pervasive in Israel’s preaching and liturgy (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 145:8). Israel repents because they know Yahweh is merciful and loyal.

However, like the Ninevehites (Jonah 3:9), Israel must not presume upon God’s mercy. “Who knows,” the prophet asks, “whether [Yahweh] will not turn and relent”? Israel’s repentance does not put God in a box; it does not manipulate God or force God into a corner. However God responds to Israel’s “return,” it is God’s decision or else the forgiveness is not gracious.

But the hope is that God will relent, that is, that God would have a change of mind. The term does not mean “repent” as if there is sorrow for sin or evil intent. Rather, in the light of repentance, God may chose an alternative course of action. This is the dynamic that Moses experienced in Exodus 32 where Moses seemingly persuaded God to continue with Israel rather than starting over with Moses. God is dynamically engaged with the creation. God responds Israel’s choices.

The summons comes in a series of imperatives (eight in all).

Blow the trumpet!
Sanctify a fast!
Call a solemn assembly!
Gather the people!
Sanctify the congregation!
Assemble the aged!
Gather the children!
Leave the bridal chamber!

Assembly language piles up in the text. The Shofar (rams’ horn) trumpet signals the time of assembly (cf. Leviticus 25:9; Jeremiah 4:5; even the assembly of all who live upon the earth in Isaiah 18:3). “Call a solemn assembly” is repeated from Joel 1:14, and this language describes other assemblies in Israel (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:9; Nehemiah 8:18). Gathering the people, like gathering in the harvest or gathering armies for battle, evokes a picture of heaping up people in one place. It recalls earlier gatherings in Israel as when Joshua gathered the people at Shechem (Joshua 24:1; cf. Psalms 47:9; 50:5; Nehemiah 9:1; 1 Chronicles 23:2). “Assemble” is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible for the assembling before the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:20; 48:14), and often refers to how God will assemble or gather together Israel with compassion and renewal (cf. Isaiah 54:7; 56:8; Ezekiel 11:17; Micah 2:12, 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19, 20), including gathering the nations with Israel (Isaiah 66:18).

Everyone is called to the assembly! From young (even infants) to the aged. Nothing should hinder their attendance. Even the wedding night or the wedding should not prevent attendance. Stop the honeymoon! All Israel  must assemble! The urgency of this assembly as a way returning to God in the face of impending disaster demands everyone’s presence.

What happens at this assembly?  Israel fasts, mourns, and weeps. They approach the presence of God at the temple, and through the priests Israel cries out to God. The priests, as intercessors and mediators between God and the people, stand between the temple and its altar–between the presence of God and the sacrifices. They speak for the people and on behalf of the people. They make their case before God; they make an argument.

The priestly prayer in Joel 2:17 is a plea for mercy, and the plea is made on the basis of God’s reputation among the nations (like Moses did in Exodus 32) and on the the ground that Israel’s is God’s heritage. The priests remind God that God’s kingdom is tied to Israel. This is God’s promise to the world itself and so Israel as the heritage of God is the hope of the world. Don’t, they plead, destroy your heritage! The priests argue on the basis of God’s glorious reputation and on the basis of God’s own inheritance within the creation. Their cry for mercy is both dependance on God’s graciousness and a call for God to remain true to God’s own intent for the world.

Through the priests, the assembly confesses, laments, and petitions. The people, gathered at the temple to pray, return to God and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

Sometimes assembly is more important than any other human activity.


On Reading the Prophet Joel: A Lament Liturgy

April 2, 2014

The prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God,” taught Judah to lament and hope. His message announces the coming “day of the Lord,” which entails both judgment–for the impenitent among God’s people and among the nations–and the renewal of God’s vision for the reign of God in the world. Lament and hope.

No one really knows when Joel prophesied or when the literary work that bears his name was written. Scholars have postulated every era of Israel’s history after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. Some think he was a contemporary of Elijah or Elisha, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Zechariah, or even after Malachi. The temple stands, but no kings are mentioned. Some enemies are identified, but none of them are the superpowers Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. We don’t have many clues.

The words of the prophet Joel come to us undated and without any specific historical context. But perhaps that is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is unusual in some ways but perhaps intentional, that is, its lack of specificity has a purpose.

The clue to this ambiguity is the topic itself: lament and hope. For example, the Psalms often lack historical context, but this is often a good thing. It means the language of the Psalms may fit any number of circumstances; it is not limited to the particulars of a specific moment in history or a narrow experience. Instead, the Psalm is open-ended in its application. It can be used over and over again in similar circumstances.

Joel fits this pattern.  Joel is a poetic, liturgical lament. In the opening two chapters, the prophet calls the people together to lament (1:5, 8; 2:12-14), fast (1:13-14; 2:15-16), and wait for the day of the Lord (1:15; 2:17). Hope, then, is located in God’s gracious response to such lament (2:18. 23, 28-29; 3:1, 18). Lament is followed by hope.

The biblical narrative identifies many occasions when Israel gathered in sacred assembly to lament, repent, and await God’s answer (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:1-17). Joel is a prophetic call for such an assembly (Joel 1:14; 2:15). Consequently, it functions something like Psalm 12 where the liturgy cries out in lament (12:1-4) but waits in hope (12:5-6).

The message of Joel is lament, repent, and hope. Since no specific historical situation is identified or perhaps intended, it becomes a liturgical text that serves Israel in diverse circumstances. It calls the nation to assemble for lament, to confess sin, and to hear the word of hope that God offers.

The people of God need that rhythm in their life. We need lament liturgies to voice our hurts, confess our sins, and embrace the promises of God. We need lament assemblies where as a community we gather in the face of tragedy, national sin, or impending doom in order to draw near to God and seek God’s redemptive mercy. Joel provides such a liturgy.

In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season of lament, repentance, fasting, and prayer….but also hope. Lent follows in the footsteps of Joel, and as Christians embrace the season of Lent they can also give voice to the words and message of Joel.

We lament, but we never lament without hope.

[See my Ash Wednesday Graduate Chapel presentation at Abilene Christian University on March 5, 2014.]

 


Noah the Movie, Part III: There are Biblical Themes There

March 31, 2014

When the filmmaker of Noah described it as “the least biblical biblical movie” ever made [he did not say it was the "least biblical movie"], he was probably referring to the fact Noah the movie is not a mirror image of Noah the biblical figure. Genesis is not the script for the movie. Rather, the script includes 1 Enoch and Jubilees among other ancient Jewish traditions, as well as some postmodern imagination and styled in the genre of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, there are dimensions of the movie that are robustly “biblical.” Here are a few.

  • There is a transcendent Creator of the earth
  • The Creator invested humanity with the care of the earth as the image of God.
  • Humanity failed to image God.
  • Cain-Tubal (and the line of Cain in general) is the anti-image of God; represents Cain who killed Abel.
  • The line of Seth represents those who honor the Creator (including Enoch and Methuselah).
  • Humanity is invested with the choice to image God or to create their own world.
  • Humanity pursued its own violent agenda–against creation and against each other.
  • The Creator justly judges humanity’s violence and evil with water–”making it right.”
  • The water is the uncreation of the creation; it is a return to the chaos that existed when God first began to create a habitable space on the earth.
  • The Creator gives life to those on the ark.
  • The Creator’s mercy preserves humanity.
  • The Creator renews life after the flood.
  • The Creator renews the human vocation to care for the earth and fill it.
  • The Creator is “unnamed”–the name of the Creator was not revealed until Moses inquired in Exodus.

Certainly more could be added to this list, but this gives us plenty to ponder!

See Part I for a perspective on the biblical story, and Part II for a review of the movie.

 


Noah the Movie, Part II

March 29, 2014

In my last post, I offered a reading of the biblical flood story, and now I offer an interpretation of Noah, the movie.

Like the biblical story itself, the movie is not a children’s movie.  It is about violence, ecological disaster, and the struggles of a man to fully discern God’s intent as the Creator judges humanity.

The movie has clear links to the biblical story–there is an ark, Noah is the main character, the Creator is judging the world, violence has filled the earth, and there is a flood to cleanse the evil–but the movie is not a “biblical movie,” that is, it does not intend to retell the flood story within the boundaries of what is known in Scripture or even how Scripture interprets the story.  The biblical story “inspires” the movie, but the movie is not the biblical story. Nevertheless, it is an imaginative retelling of themes that are part of the biblical story.

The movie functions, existentially (and thus theologically), as social commentary on human injustice against both the creation and humanity itself. It highlights ecological disaster and human violence. These are the great evils that grieved the Creator and for which the Creator will push the reboot button on the cosmos.

Due to human violence, the earth had become an environmental wasteland. The once green and beautiful earth had become a barren rock with little vegetation. The Creator invested humanity with dominion, and humanity used that dominion for its own sake. Humanity devoured the resources of the earth (including eating the flesh of animals), and this spiraled into violence against each other (including cannibalism). Human dominion was exercised through violence and injustice rather than through loving care.

Noah appears in the movie as a defender of the earth, the animals, and of mistreated humans (he rescues a young girl from death and raises her as his own). He lives within the chaos of a barren (rather than “good” earth) as a righteous person who remembers the story of the Creator and passes it on to his children. His family is light within the darkness, but it is threatened by the darkness. And though yet faithful to the Creator, the family wonders whether or when the Creator “will make things right.” When will the Creator put an end to human violence?

The flood is the Creator’s answer. Noah discerns this through dreams, and with the help of some “transformer rock angels” (my wife’s phrase) the family builds an ark for the preservation of the animals and, seemingly, humanity. But this is where the story takes an awkward though existential turn.

The second half of the movie focuses on Noah’s angst that arises from his perception of the divine intent. Noah, thoroughly disgusted with human evil, believes that the Creator intends to annihilate humanity even as the Creator preserves the creation. In Noah’s mind, the creation is more important than humanity, and humanity has not only been dethroned but must also be eliminated as a threat to the creation. Noah believes that God preserves his family only for the sake of the animals, and once the animals are safely in the new world after the flood, then the Creator will watch over the slow death of humanity itself as Noah’s line dies out (Shem’s wife is barren, and the other two sons have no wives).

The moviemaker adjusts the biblical story in order to create Noah’s angst, and this enables the second half of the movie to focus on the drama of mercy over justice. Noah, as the one in whom the Creator has invested the future (as the Creator originally did with Adam and Eve–who failed!), will not fail his Creator. He will complete the task and ensure that humanity will die out. He knows–he thinks–what the Creator wants, and he will obey. He is, after all, from the line of Seth.

As a result, Noah becomes what the flood judges. He becomes an unmerciful and violent man, which is exactly why the Creator is flooding the earth! He leaves Ham’s woman to die, trampled by humanity’s rush for self-preservation. He violently protects the ark from assault. He announces his intent to kill any female child born from the union of Shem and his wife. He destroys any hope that Shem and his wife might escape the ark. Noah has no mercy, which is exactly how he understood the Creator. He thinks he is fulfilling the Creator’s desire.

The climax of the movie is when Noah holds a raised a knife above his twin granddaughters. Here he struggles to do the will of God, as he understands it. And here he defies the Creator. He cannot kill his granddaughters. He ultimately fails to do the will of God; he fails like his ancestors Adam and Eve. Consequently, once upon dry ground where humanity can flourish once again, Noah drinks himself into a stupor and shames himself. He medicates his guilt with wine.

In time, however, Noah realizes that God never intended to destroy humanity. He should have learned this from his own grandfather, Methuselah, who healed his barren daughter-in-law. He should have listened to the different and merciful interpretation of the Creator’s intent that his wife voiced–she thought in terms of both justice and mercy. He should have seen the gift of life in his daughter-in-law’s womb as the Creator’s new beginning rather than a threat to the new creation. Noah was so blinded by the human condition–so blinded by humanity’s inhumanity–that he could not see the Creator’s gracious gift to his own family and the Creator’s merciful intent to preserve humanity.

In the end, however, Noah does recognize this. He renews covenant with his wife, and he invests in Shem the lineage of Seth. Noah now understands that creation has been renewed, and the Creator has graciously offered a new beginning. Noah tells his children to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” The Creator has given humanity a second chance!

But as we look at the world humanity has created since that time, have we done any better? I think the movie asks this question. Will human violence against the environment and each other once again call for judgment? Is humanity headed toward an apocalypse, or will we learn to balance justice and mercy? Will we embrace the vision of creation embedded in the film’s storyline? Not a bad question to raise!

Clearly, the filmmaker did not intend to follow the biblical script. That would’ve been a short movie! He made the story more about Noah than the Creator.

The biblical story, however, is about the Creator rather than Noah.  It is the Creator who grieves humanity’s violence. The Creator acts to end human violence. The Creator remembers Noah. The Creator remembers the creation, and the Creator preserves it and renews it. The Creator redeems Noah and his family. The Creator covenants with creation and humanity, and the Creator places the covenant sign of the Creator’s mercy and grace in the sky, the rainbow. And the Creator, once again, rests within the new creation!

While I understand why a filmmaker would focus on Noah’s existential angst, human blindness to divine intent, and the struggle to do the will of God, that is not the focus of the biblical story. In this sense, the film does not tell the biblical story but rather tells the story of postmodern angst. “Noah” may be a way of telling that story, but we should not confuse it with the function of biblical drama itself.

Personally, I did not much like the movie. My dislike is not due to the adjustments to the biblical story (I fully expected that). Rather, I thought the film tried too hard to create a dramatic storyline, which ultimately made it implausible (e.g., Cain-Tubal stealing aboard the ark, Ham aiding Cain-Tubal, the transformer rock angels or Watchers). I was left more awed by the special effects than engrossed in the story.

Nevertheless, the story has a point. What will humans do with the earth? How will we treat each other? Can we have a new beginning?

The biblical answer to those questions is rooted in God’s drama rather than in the human drama. We can’t, ultimately, find our hope in humanity. Didn’t the 20th century teach us that? Rather, humanity’s only hope is the merciful God who calls us to a story of redemption, justice, mercy, and reconciliation. That is the story of Jesus.


Noah the Movie: Part I

March 29, 2014

Before the movie, first the biblical story…or at least my reading of that story….

This is not a children’s story. The animals going into the ark two by two do make a classic VBS song and it certainly makes a great flannel graph. But this story is more like a horror movie than a Disney cartoon.

The story is important for our author. It takes up more space than the creation itself and is full of repetition. Why is this that important?

The flood narrative overlaps two sections of Genesis. It is at the end of the “generations of Adam” (5:1-6:8) which carries the human line from Adam through Seth to Noah, and it is the main event in the “generations of Noah” (6:9-9:29) which starts with the approaching flood and ends with the rainbow sullied by Noah and Ham. Both of these generational stories begin with great hope but they both end with disaster. The hope is found in Adam begetting Seth (5:1-5), which recalls creation itself and is found, in the next generation, in Noah’s walk with God (6:9).

Disaster, however, follows.  The line of Seth (“sons of God”) ultimately mixes with the line of Cain (“daughters of men”) and God’s good creation is filled with evil (6:1-7). Noah’s walk with God turns to drunkenness and shame (9:20-27). Both new beginnings have bad endings.

The flood story bridges these two sections in Genesis. The flood is a divine response to evil in the world, but also a new beginning. It is divine judgment but also divine renewal.

Why should the flood story figure so prominently in Genesis? Israel lived in an ancient culture that was saturated with stories about gods, creations and floods. There were multiple creation and flood stories in the surrounding cultures, and many even predate Moses. Many are very similar to the one in Genesis. For example, the family of one human is saved, a large boat, a great flood, the release of a raven and dove, etc.  Israel shared a common “story” about a past great flood with its culture.

However, there was (at least) one significant difference. The Ancient Near East (ANE) stories locate the reason for the flood in the capriciousness of the gods. They are fickle and easily annoyed. They send the flood upon the earth because humans are too noisy!

That is not Israel’s God. Israel reinterprets the flood story in order to say something about Yahweh (or Elohim). Their version is a counter-story that intends to subvert ANE culture itself.  The focus of the flood story is not on how many animals are in the ark or whether the dimensions are large enough for the animals. Its focus is the reason for the flood and what happened to the earth as a result.

God was not annoyed with humanity but grieved by them (Genesis 6:6). God was so grieved that God changed God’s mind (regret) about how the earth would continue. Humanity interrupted God’s sabbath (seventh day) rest.

When God finished the sixth day of creating in Genesis 1, God “rested” (Genesis 2:1-3). This seventh day was not a twenty-four hour period of relaxation and recreation. Rather, God “rested” in the earth, communed with humanity and the rest of creation, and rejoiced over his works. The sabbath rest of God is the communion God has with the creation–it is God resting (dwelling) within the creation. The seventh day is the continued existence of creation itself in communion with God. The seventh day is God’s rest!

But humanity (and “all flesh”) disrupted that rest by filling the earth with “violence.” This is an important term as its repetition highlights the rationale for God’s judgment.  God saw that the earth was full of “violence” (Genesis 6:11, 13). This is the opposite of God’s sabbath shalom. Just as “all flesh” contributed to the “violence” now pervasive upon the earth, so “all flesh” will suffer consequences (Genesis 6:13, 17, 19).

The judgment is the reversal of creation itself. The “waters” (7:6-7) arise from the “deep” and from the “windows of heaven” (7:11). This language comes from Genesis 1 where the waters are given boundaries so that dry land might appear. Now God releases the chaos of the waters. He sends the earth back to its original, uninhabitable state when the waters of the deep covered the earth (Genesis 1:2). The chaos out of which God shaped a habitable earth returns to destroy “all flesh.”

Israel tells the flood story as a polemic against violence rather than as the whims of fickle gods. God judges violence through the flood. Israel takes the flood story and uses it to subvert the culture of violence that dominated the ANE (especially an Israel living in Babylon who had recently suffered from that violence). The flood story tells us what God thinks about violence in the good creation.

At the same time, the flood story tells us about the patience, forbearance and grace of God. Yahweh does not “fly off the handle” in this story. Rather, God is patient with the creation. God strives with humanity for a 120 years (plus however long before that counting began). This is no flippant decision by a whimsical deity. On the contrary, it is a deliberate decision slowly made in the wake of God’s love for the creation.

That love is not only expressed in the grace God demonstrated to Noah, but it is also expressed in God’s gracious renewal of the creation itself. Genesis 8 begins with hope:  “God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals.” This remembrance is God’s gracious orientation toward humanity and the rest of creation. It is God’s determination to renew what he has just destroyed or, to put it another way, “wiped clean.”

Genesis 8 follows the path of Genesis 1.  The wind (or, Spirit, ruach) of God blows over the waters (just as in Genesis 1:2; 8:1). The waters separate–closing the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven–so that dry land might emerge (Genesis 1:6-10; 8:2). The dry land yields trees and fruit (Genesis 1:11-12; 8:11). And then the animals and humanity walk upon the dry land again (Genesis 1:25, 29-30; 8:15-119).

And God rests once again. This is an important part of the story that most miss. It is easy to miss because the connections of the Hebrew language are lost in English translation. Noah comes out of the ark and worships by offering dedicatory offerings. It is an act of thanksgiving (Genesis 8:20). Significantly, the odor of these sacrifices are “pleasing” (nichocha) to God. This is the important word. It is derived from the same root that describes God’s rest (nuach) in Exodus 20:11. The odor is restful to God. Just as God placed (yanach; rested) humanity in the Garden (Genesis 2:15), so God now rests within the creation once again.

God’s rest in the good creation–the seventh day rest is renewed and continues–is underscored by God’s commitment to the creation. God makes a covenant that renews Sabbath rest for the creation. God will never again destroy every living creature as he did this time even if humans do not change  their violent ways (Genesis 8:21-22). While chaos still exists within God’s creation (humans are there, for example!), the order of God’s creation will remain and the good creation will continue despite the chaos that surrounds it and lives within it. God will never again abandon the creation.

Israel tells this story, in contrast to the stories of the ANE, as both a judgment against violence and as a reminder of God’s commitment to the creation. God is not annoyed with humanity but rather loves them. People live within the grace of the creation even though they despoil it and often treat it violently just as they treat each other. Nevertheless, despite the violence, God sustains the earth, graces it with divine presence, and continues the seventh day through redemptive graces.

God still grieves the sin and the violence, just as God grieved over Israel (Isaiah 63:10), and God grieved in Jesus over Jerusalem. But–thanks to be to God!–the new creation has begun in Jesus Christ. Raised to the right hand of God, he is the firstborn of the new creation. One day, God will renew the creation as God strips the old things (like sin, violence and death) from the earth and makes everything new. On that day, there will be no more sea (no more “waters”) and no more night (“darkness”). God will reign upon the earth and dwell (rest) with humanity in the new creation (Revelation 21:1-5). Everything will be made new again through a refining fire.

[This is a summary of my July 3 (2012) presentation at Lipscomb University's Summer Celebration as part of the Hazelip School of Theology series on Genesis 1-11.]


Revelation 15:1-8 — A New Exodus

October 12, 2013

The harvested followers of the Lamb now sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. They, like Israel before them, celebrate liberation and redemption as they stand by the sea. They have conquered (overcome) the beast and its image and they sing with harps in hand a new song of redemption. Like Israel they celebrate an Exodus, a liberation from bondage. Standing by the sea before the throne of God, they rejoice with praise (both harping and singing).

This is a new Exodus. Just as Israel was delivered from the powers of Egypt, so the church is delivered from the powers of Rome. The dragon has stood behind both and wielded both powers in the service of a demonic agenda, that is, to defeat the kingdom of God in the world. Standing by the sea, singing the song of Moses and the Lamb, the martyred hosts along with all those who have overcome and assembled around the throne of God celebrate their freedom just as Israel did on the other side of the sea in Exodus 15.

Exodus language dominates this chapter. Here are a few connections.

  • Martyrs stand by a sea like Israel did.
  • God poured out plagues on Rome just as was done to Egypt.
  • Rome experiences the wrath of God just like Egypt.
  • Martyrs sing the song of Moses just as Israel did in celebration.
  • There is a sanctuary within the tent of witness just as Israel had a tabernacle in the wilderness.
  • The seven angels are dressed like priests in Israel.
  • The glory of God filled the sanctuary just as it did in Exodus 40.
  • No one could enter the sanctuary just like in Exodus 40.

There is no mistaking the sense of a new Exodus in Revelation 15. The question is what kind of Exodus is this? It is, given the pouring out of the bowls of wrath in Revelation 16, a saintly celebration of the battle of Armageddon. This effects a new Exodus. Armageddon is the equivalent of the battle between Yahweh and Pharoah. Armageddon defeats the powers–the dragon and the two monsters–and liberates the saints.

But when is the battle of Armageddon? That is a question that must await Revelation 16. What is clear is that this chapter anticipates that outcome as God is about to act. Through the seven plagues which are seven bowls filled with God’s wrath, God will complete the judgment of the powers that have threatened the people of God, the powers that have made war against the saints.

We cannot mistake the reality of divine wrath in this picture. The term “wrath” (thumos) appears twice in Revelation 15 (1, 7) but was used twice as part of the judgment descriptions of Revelation 14 (10, 19). This passionate anger is directed toward those who worshipped the beast and persecuted the saints. Indeed, the sea before the throne of God which was so calm and placid in Revelation 4 is now mingled with “fire” (Revelation 15:2) which probably alludes to the fire from the altar that is poured out in judgment upon the earth (Revelation 8:5). It is the fire of God’s wrath (cf. Revelation 14:10,18). God is stirred to action; God is now ready to avenge the blood of the saints. The prayers of the saints, particularly the lament of the martyrs (Revelation 6:10), are now about to receive a final answer from God. The wrath of God is about to be “complete” (or finished; Revelation 15:1)

The hymn–the song of Moses and the Lamb–praises God’s righteous acts. Just as Israel praised Yahweh for the exercise of God’s “burning anger” against Pharoah (Exodus 15:7), so the saints praise God for righteous judgment. Just as the Exodus was the defeat of Egyptian powers that terrified the nations (Exodus 15:14-16), so this divine judgment will move the nations to fear and glorify the name of God. Now that God’s righteous acts have been revealed, “all nations will come and worship you.” The Lord God Almighty is, in the light of these just and righteous judgments, revealed as the “king of the nations!”

God’s acts, while certainly an expression of divine wrath against powers hostile to the kingdom of God, are also redemptive. These acts reveal the reign of God and become means by which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God (cf. Revelation 11:15). Through God’s righteous deeds the nations will learn to worship God.

Israel had sung this hope for centuries.  The nations are the inheritance of Israel as they belong to God. Psalm 2 rejoices in the hope that the rulers of the earth will serve Yahweh and that Yahweh’s anointed will rule the nations.  This hope lies in the background of the Apocalypse. The Messiah reigns over the nations and will share that reign with the saints (cf. Revelation 2:26-27 which quotes Psalm 2:9). The Messiah will exercise the “rod of iron” over the nations, defeat the powers, and ultimately heal them (cf. Revelation 19:15; 22:2).

Part of the story of Revelation is that God executes justice within history as well as at the “end” of history. Israel’s exodus from Egypt was both the liberation of slaves and the execution of justice against oppressive powers. God has continued, throughout history, to liberate and execute justice. The Apocalypse, specifically this second vision in Revelation 4-16, is another example of a recurring pattern in history.  Powers, incited by the dragon, wage war, persecute saints, and practice injustice until their cup is full and then God through the processes of history brings justice to bear upon the situation. God, at times, sets things right within history just as he will ultimately make all things new in the new heaven and new earth.

The Apocalypse describes, in apocalyptic language, a process of history by which God patiently tries the powers (seeking their repentance) but ultimately judges their evil. God did it to Egypt, Assyrian, Babylon, Greece, and now, in the Apocalypse, to Rome.  Each, however, was a proleptic moment (one within history anticipating the “end” of history). In each of these divine movements is the embedded promise that God will, one day, set the world right and create a new world of justice and peace.