Chapter 5: A Meditative Reminiscence

Recently I flew to Illinois to visit my mother. Mom lives in the same town where I went to college, a place I’d not revisited for several years. The bookstore where I purchased my old Bible years ago is a mailroom now, and the new bookstore (with a coffee shop that I patronize) is considerably larger. I suppose my renewed acquaintance with the college is a subconscious reason, during the past few years, why I’ve craved some of the jazz and fusion that I enjoyed at the time: Miles Davis (another Southern Illinois native), John Coltrane, Maynard Ferguson, Jean-Luc Ponty, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, and Chick Corea. The drive from the airport to Mom’s facility is about an hour on I-70, a little farther if I take U.S. 40 for fun (still further if I take IL 157/Old U.S. 66 to IL 140). That’s enough time to listen to, for instance, A Love Supreme plus most of “Pharaoh’s Dance.” Sometimes I’ll stop at a fast-food place: a typical road-trip experience.

“[Prolonged silence] –LCOME TO CHICK’N’BURGER MAY I TAKE Y’ORD— [buzzzzz click].”

“Yes, I’ll have, um, a biscuit and a small coffee… and that’s all.”

“[buzzzzzzzzzz] –WENTY-SIX DRIVE TO THE SECOND W— [click].”

Over the years, I’ve tried to develop a habit of praying silently for folks who work at places I patronize: a simple request that God bless them. Why is prayer difficult to become more or less “automatic”? We’re all so preoccupied with our own affairs and feelings, which is certainly my case during trips home.  Incurvatus a se—that’s the theological term, we’re “curved in” on ourselves.

I spend a few days with Mom each visit—visits that are terribly sad for me, but helpful and cheering for Mom. We chat about local news and memories. One Saturday morning, Mom and I watched an old western on TV. I couldn’t quite place the villain (in a black hat!) but then realized he was the actor Macdonald Carey, later the star of a favorite “soap” of Mom’s, Days of Our Lives. Making a superficial connection, I thought about our own “days,” which we tend to picture as linear, one after another, in sequence until we come to the last one, whenever it may be.  We look back on our days and, often, realize how fast they’ve gone. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (Ps. 90:12).

The Bible also presents a cyclical idea of time, though not as strong as the linear view. Think of the well known passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (which I first learned via the Pete Seeger song): there is a time for everything, a season for planting and harvesting—but the word “season” implies that certain times go away and then return. We experience that movement in small things and large: we return to a place we left, we rediscover music (or other interests) that we once loved, we realize that certain difficult experiences made us stronger for later challenges; we find second chances we never expected. We’ve also all have had the never-pleasant experience of old wounds reopened.

The Bible also speaks of the circles of repentance: the ways we stray, backslide, return, stray, return, and through it all, God is always faithful. With its recurrences of sin, punishment, redemption, and return, the book of Judges is as much a spiral as a line of history. I freely admit that my Bible study over the years has been closely connected to my own spiritual ups and downs, and sometimes (though not always) the “downs” are the times when I’ve sought its pages most eagerly.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, if God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! God cares for us and guides us across our short years; God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on our relationship with him. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite lost. But even the “lost” times may simply be seasons across which God provides.

*******

I like those words of John Wesley that closed the previous essay: “I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual.’ I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable”….

A few years ago, I purchased a used book with an intriguing title, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Among other topics, the author discussed medieval teachers who read the Bible in an associative way. For instance, during the 13th century, Bernard of Clairvaux began a sermon on the second verse of the Song of Songs, then sidetracked into thoughts on humility, and then Israel and the Church, Christ, conversion, the prophets, and other subjects, until he had six sermons—and had scarcely gotten past that original verse. (The word for such reading is, appropriately, meditative “reminiscence,” a way—admittedly a way that requires more rather than less interpretive responsibility—to explore varieties of scriptural meanings among texts.)[1]

Searching through my old Bible, I did a “reminiscence” of my own. I had begun to read the Bible from the very beginning, Genesis 1:1, and then I paused at verse 2:

…and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (RSV)

Although the Holy Spirit figures prominently in Pentecostal theology and practice, the mainline denominations may focus Christ more often than the Spirit. When we discussed the Spirit during a church class, most of us said that we address Jesus in prayer more often the Holy Spirit.

In recent years, though, I’ve called on the Spirit more often, because of a new understanding of biblical promises. For instance, Jesus assured his disciples that the Spirit would be a better teacher and guide for them than Jesus himself (John 14:15-27)!  Therefore, there is no need for any of us to feel sad that we never knew Jesus in the flesh; the Spirit makes Jesus known to us now and always. Also, the Spirit proves the Gospel message that God shows no partiality; Paul rejoiced that the Galatian church—undeserving Gentile believers in central Asia Minor—had received God’s Spirit, validating God’s love for Gentiles and Jews alike.  Thus Paul felt outraged at them for trying to supplement God’s grace with the Jewish rite of circumcision, never even required for Gentiles.

And so it is with us: God proves that he loves us when the power of the Spirit comes to us and guides us in love, peace, reconciliation, and kindness toward one another (Gal. 5:18-24). The Spirit who guides, teaches, and helps each of us is the same Spirit of Genesis 1, the prophets, and the whole Bible.

The Spirit figures more sporadically in the Old Testament than the New. In fact, the outpouring of the Spirit upon all believers was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and made that fulfillment such a spectacular thing for the first Christians. After Pentecost, the Spirit is very prominent in New Testament literature; one of my classmates, in fact, has called the Spirit a main “character” in the book of Acts.[2]

Here, in Genesis 1:2 is the first biblical reference to the Spirit. I thought: What are some other references?  Taking down my trusty concordance from the shelves, I found the next biblical reference to the Spirit is Genesis 41:37, in the stories of Joseph.  Then I found this next one in Exodus 31:

The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft (vss. 1-5).

The text goes on to say that Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan, joined Bezalel in the effort. (Off the subject, but I had an ancestor named for Bezalel, although he spelled it Bezaliel.)

That chapter concerns the beginning of work on the tent of meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat, the tent’s furnishings and altar, the priestly vestments, and other essentials The Lord tells Moses that he has called Bezalel, and Oholiab to attend to these tasks. In fact, God has filled Bezalel “with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (31:3). The tabernacle becomes the place where God’s presence could endure and where God’s will could be done via the Aaronic priesthood.

When I read the Bible, I try to imagine the text with no chapter and verse numbers; how would it read if the material were simply provided, unnumbered like any other story? I did that with this Exodus passage and what “popped” out was the passage immediately following. After detailing the work of the craftsmen of the tabernacle, God commands the day of rest; the Sabbath, with the rest and refreshment that comes from it, is God’s eternal sign for Israel.

But the Sabbath is a sign that goes back to the very beginning: Genesis 1.[3] God created in six days and rested on the seventh, so Israel receives the Sabbath as a “perpetual covenant” (Ex. 31:16-17). Here, in Exodus 31, the Spirit empowers artists who help establish a place where Israel can worship God. But God not only establishes a physical place, but also a temporal “place”—the Sabbath—where Israel can worship God long after the tabernacle is no more.[4]

tn

Connecticut scene near my divinity school, 1981.

The mention of the divine spirit in Exodus 31:3 proves for us a little story arc from God’s creation of the world (with the hallowing of the seventh day: Gen. 2:2), across the generations, to Sinai: the slow, gracious creation of God’s people.[5]

As summer begins to merge slowly into autumn, I laid out my Bibles as usual, took down several books from the shelves, and made some more connections, scriptures paralleling scriptures, lines upon lines, concepts implying other concepts…

1. God is Creator and Redeemer

Here in Exodus we have a connection between God’s hallowing of the Sabbath on the primordial seventh day and on the occasion of the Sinai covenant. I’ll return to that Sabbath theme in a bit.  But to start, I want to think about creation and redemption.  You might think, “Of course God is the God of both.”  But when I was in divinity school, I was fascinated to learn that the connection of creation and redemption happens later in Israel’s history.  Previous prophets had not dealt as much with the theme of creation.[6]  But the connection is made explicit in “Second Isaiah” from the 500s BCE; creation is not an additional event preceding God’s saving acts in history, but rather creation itself is a saving act.

Was it not you who dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
Who made the depths of the sea a way
For the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the Lord [God’s people in exile in Babylon] shall return,
And come to Zion with singing (Isa. 51:10-11a).[7]

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless (Isa. 40:28-29)

In Psalm 19 we find a similar linkage: God’s creation and providence, and God’s law:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb (Ps. 19:1-10).

One of my favorite psalms is 121, which also connects creation and redemption.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth (vss. 1-2).

tnThose verses remind me of Paul: If God is for us, who is against us? (Rom. 8:31), but the psalm makes explicit that lovely theological connection of creation and redemption: God, maker of heaven and earth, is a source of help and care. Would the creator of heaven and earth be unable or unwilling to help someone who calls upon him?

One time I did a funeral service for an older, reclusive man—a “hermit,” as people said. Only four men came to the service at the funeral home (nephews or cousins, if I remember correctly), and so counting the young mortician and me, we had the right number of pallbearers. I believe I preached Psalm 121, or at least that scripture stays in mind because of the hilly cemetery near the state highway.  God’s care extends to those who, by worldly standards, may not be notable. God rose up a small, powerless people, the Hebrews, in order to bring about his salvation—and to teach us through the Hebrew scriptures.

2. God dwells among this people.

God’s ubiquity is a strong biblical doctrine. Psalm 139 is a good example.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I made my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast. (vss. 7-10).

We need never think we’re far from God’s presence.  A few years ago our pastor preached on Daniel’s vision:

his throne was fiery flames,
its wheels were burning fire (Dan. 7:9c)

The throne of the ancient of days has wheels!  It travels!

In some passages, God seems “localized”: Moses’ and Elijah’s mountain experiences of God (Ex. 19, 1 Kings 19), the glory of God present in the Temple (which frighteningly departs in Ezekiel 10). God himself “localizes” himself in Deuteronomy 16:16 and Isaiah 8:18. But none of these passages are understood as a spatially limited deity but rather special manifestations of divine power. The prophets, too, stressed that God’s presence was not found exclusively in the Temple (Jer. 7:1-7; 22:16, and also Isaiah 66:1-2, quoted again in Acts 7:48-50). In the Talmud we find a story of a Jewish boy aboard a ship. During a storm, he prayed to the Lord. Later, the Gentile sailors told him, “We are here, but our gods are in Babylon or Rome; and others amongst us who carry their gods with them drive not the least benefit from them. But you, wherever you go, your God is with you.”[8]

Lovely passages call God “place”: like “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 declares, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  The New Testament transfers this notion of place to Jesus, who becomes the “place” to know God (Matt. 7:25, John 4:21-24), the “new thing” that God has done (Isa. 43:19, Heb. 1:1-2), the place that embraces all places, since he is the source of all creation (Col 1:15-20). He is present for us, any place and for all time (Matt. 28:20, Rev. 22:13).[9] Of course, all of these “places” are also the places where we are, but not at all limited to us individually.

Exodus 31 concerns God’s tabernacle, the dwelling place where the people can approach God as they travel toward their promised land. “The tabernacle is given,” writes Graeme Goldsworthy, “because a key aspect of the character of God is his desire for fellowship with people, and this fellowship is primarily described as his dwelling among them.”[10] There is a wealth of connections of the tabernacle to Jesus. The New Testament connects the tabernacle, temple, and sacrificial system to Jesus: in the rending of the veil that isolated the holiest place of God’s presence (Matt. 27:51): priestly language such as Ephesians 5:2; and the book of Hebrews which understands the former times as a “shadow” of the true form (Heb. 8:1-7, 9, 10:1-18). John 1:14 promises that “the Word became flesh and lived [dwelled] among us.”[11]

The New Testament has other wonderful images of God’s dwelling. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them, promises Jesus (Matt. 18:20). Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? writes Paul (1 Cor. 3:16). I’ve heard that verse used as an encouragement for physical health, but within a biblical context, Paul’s words could’ve been interpreted as blasphemous against God’s Temple. But as God’s presence resided in the Temple for the sake of his people, his Spirit now dwells within believers.

3. God is trustworthy

Assurances about God’s presence are important, because when life becomes difficult, we ask in our hearts, if not always in words, is God trustworthy?

We don’t disrespect God when we struggle sincerely to know he is faithful!  For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). Some of the several “place stories” of the Bible serve as reminders of God’s trustworthiness. When I was little, we learned the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessings, which contains the line, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come.” The Ebenezer was a memorial stone (1 Samuel 7:12), which Samuel erected to commemorate a victory of the Philistines at Mizpah. “Ebenezer” means “stone of help,” because Samuel said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

God has been gracious thus far, but will he always be gracious? Will God grow silent, as he frighteningly did for Saul later in 1 Samuel?  The Ebenezer served as a place of reminder, as did other special places and memorials like Beer-lahai-roi (Gen. 16:14), YHWH Jireh (Gen. 22:14), Beer-sheba (Gen. 26:33), Bethel (Gen. 28:19), the stones of memorial (Joshua 4), and others.

The Bible gives us help when we lack reassurance. The psalmist recalled the past when the present weighed heavily.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will mediate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds (Ps. 77:11-12).

Again, my favorite psalm begins with that question that can either be rhetorical or reassuring: “from where will my help come?”  The psalmist needed trust for a journey across steep territory, perhaps to Jerusalem. Could God the Lord, the creator, save a poor pilgrim? Of course—but the traveler was right to look for assurance in God’s trustworthiness.[12]

Many of the psalms are about reminding and recollecting. In Psalm 42 and 43, the psalmist dares to tell himself, Hope in God, for I shall again praise him (Ps. 42:11, 43:5). In other words, praise for God is, at the moment, far from his heart because of his troubles. And yet, “nevertheless” (Psalm 73:23), he knows that his heart will realign with God in the future. Consider Psalms 77 and 143, where the psalmist specifically recalls God’s past deeds because God’s power and presence seems, for the moment, very far away. The psalmist boldly declares, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion”” And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed” (Ps. 77:9-10). The rest of the psalm, though, recounts God’s great acts, which bolsters the psalmist’s trust.

Paul’s whole argument in Romans 3:21-8:39 might be called a defense for God’s trustworthiness. If you’re unhappy and need assurance of God’s faithfulness, this long passage might be a good one to read for you, as Paul assures and reassures the glory and love of God shown through Jesus Christ. The tremendous initiative that God displayed in showing his love for us!

4. We are sinful

God is trustworthy, but our own trustworthiness is “iffy.” We are sinners. We stand in need of grace.[13]

The Bible has notable stories of human failure, starting at the very beginning. I love the Adam and Eve story, so tragic and yet so childlike. The couple did not attack God in the garden or plan a detailed coup. They just became confused about the exact wording of God’s instruction and went ahead and tried the fruit. They listened to the serpent and to each other but didn’t think to seek God for help.

I also appreciate the story of Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:20-27), another ancient tradition about Noah in addition to the Ark stories. Think about it: Noah is the only person God considers worth saving from the flood—the same person who gets fall-down, pass-out drunk, without a stitch on. Like Adam and Eve, Noah also shifts blame—Ham and Canaan are cursed. (The text seems to leave out details when it says Noah awoke … and knew what his youngest son had done to him, vs. 24).  The family whom God has chosen to redeem the world seems quite dysfunctional!

The story of the Golden Calf may be an even more poignant story of human failure. Aaron, too, shifts the focus away from his own poor judgment; he says that the people wanted a god, so he requested their gold, “and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Ex. 32:24). Such clever gold!

The poignancy of this story is its location within the larger story, the promise of the tabernacle in chapter 31 and its construction in chapter 35 and following.  Rather than an odd inclusion within a larger story, we see the irony; at the time of the construction of the idol, God was providing a way by which the Israelites could approach and worship God. God allowed himself to be made known in a portable way—a way in which God dwelt among them—but the Israelites wanted to “nail down” God to a specific, predictable place. The people feared what the absence of Moses might entail, and in order to meet their needs, they made an idol.

I try never to take a chiding attitude toward the sins of the people under Moses’ leadership, for they hold up a mirror, if we can recognize ourselves. How many times have we struggled with faith in the midst of God’s provision for us?  God seems frustratingly absent sometimes; as in this story, we know that God may be doing something, but we don’t know what it is.  We long for signs and specifics, without being quite patient enough to see what God is actually accomplishing.  The Hebrews themselves struggled with dire problems: physical safety, and a lack of water and food.

Sin is “missing the mark” (the meaning of the Greek word hamartia), and some of our sin is the outcome of temptation, foolishness, and selfishness. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of that kind of sin: our meanness and cruelty. But our “missing the mark” often comes, poignantly, from our uncertainty about God’s leading. Should we act now?  Should we wait for God? Can we really trust God? Do I say that I trust God and yet act and decide as if God doesn’t exist?

How greatly do we need grace at every moment!  Years ago I yellow-highlighted this passage:

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one (Ps. 14:2-3)

5.  God is jealous.

In Deuteronomy, we catch a vision of a quality of God called “jealousy.” “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God,” states Moses at the beginning of a passage, Deut. 4:24-29, that looks ahead in history to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile in 586 BC.  The word “jealous” appears in a similar passage, Deut. 6:10-15, which also foreshadows that punishment of God’s people so far ahead in time (from Moses’ perspective). Even earlier, in the second commandment, God is identified as a “jealous God.”  In Exodus 34:14, God’s name is Jealous (see also Nahum 1:2)!

Alan N. Winkler, in the Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, writes that the Hebrew word is qãnã’ and the Greek word is zêlos. In addition to Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24, Winkler points out other passages: Joshua 24:19-22, where Joshua challenges the people to serve God, who is holy and jealous. God’s jealousy is also referred to in Ezekiel 8:3, 1 Kings 14:22, and Psalm 78:58 as a threatening quality.

God’s jealousy and pity are two connected aspects of God’s nature in Joel 2:18, where God displays mercy for the people. Winkler also calls attention to Zechariah 1:14-16, which links God’s jealousy for Jerusalem and Zion, and the divine anger against the nations. Meanwhile, though, “jealousy” is also a human quality, as in Numbers 5:14-30, Prov. 6:34, Song of Songs 8:6 (“jealousy is cruel as the grave,” RSV). Winkler also finds the word used in Romans 10:19 (a quotation of Deut. 32:12), Romans 11:11 (where Paul hopes to reach more of his fellow Jews through his ministry), 1 Cor. 10:22 (referring to God’s reaction to Christians attending idol feasts), and 2 Cor. 11:2 (Paul’s possessiveness for the Corinthians, who are listening to the “super apostles” more than him). We see other aspects of God’s violent jealousy, in the awful parables of Ezekiel 16 and 23, as well as the prophetic oracles in Jeremiah 2-10.[14]

The theme of God’s jealousy is—to me, at least—distressing because the word (and some of the biblical testimony) depict God as having qualities that we deplore in people—or are criminal qualities, characteristic of domestic violence[15] We long for God to be “God and no mortal” (Hos. 11:9). But if we “bracket” the objectionable aspects, the word also denotes God’s desire to keep his people as his own, and includes the protectiveness and commitment that we show for our own families.[16]  Since the Greek word is zêlos, we can think about meanings of the word “zealous” as pertaining to God: an online dictionary lists several definitions and synonyms, like ardently active, devoted, diligent, eager, passionate, warm, intense, and fervent.

6. God is a covenant-maker

An alternate title of the Bible might be “the covenants,” not only calling attention to the two main sections—old and new covenants/testaments—but also to the book’s content, which witnesses to the covenants that God has made.

The theme of covenant, too, links us back to creation. Many people experience a powerful spiritual connection to the natural world. A walk in the woods, time spent beside water, a visit to mountains, and other experiences elicit gratitude to God the Creator. Have you ever thought of creation as a covenant between God and us? The word “covenant” isn’t used in Genesis 1-3, but we do have a simple set of agreements between God and the first people, and Hosea (6:7) speaks of the covenant broken by Adam and, in turn, Israel’s transgression.

According to a Jewish source commenting on the Tanakh, God established special covenants with humans (the “Noachian” covenant, Gen. 9:1-17), with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 15:18, 27:2, 7), and the eternal covenant with Israel at Sinai (Ex. 31:13-17). The Sinai covenant was renewed four times (Deut. 29:1, 9, Josh. 24:25, 2 Kings 11:17, and 2 Kings 23:2, 3). By the covenant, God promised always to redeem and save his people. God also established other covenants through Israel’s history (Num. 18:19, 25:12, 13, Deut. 33:9, Jer. 33:21, Mal. 2:4 regarding the tribe of Levi; 2 Sam. 23:5, 2 Chron. 13:5, Jer. 33:21, Ps. 89:4, 35, 132:12 concerning David), but these also combined aspects of God’s promises: the land, the priesthood, and the monarchy.[17]

Jeremiah (31:31-34) speaks of “the new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jews understand this new covenant as a new dimension of the eternal Sinai covenant. Christians interpret Jeremiah as pointing to Christ, who did not abolish the Sinai covenant (Matt. 5:17) but fulfilled it by his death and resurrection (Heb. 8:1-10).

7. God imbeds within creation a day of rest and a promise of rest.

The holy day of rest, given to Israel, is imbedded in the very activity of creation, as testified by the so-called “Priestly author” whose work lies behind texts like Genesis 1:1-2:4, Exodus 25-31, and other sections of the Torah.  I’ve attended several Sunday school classes wherein the subject of Genesis 1 came up: the different tasks of God on each day, the very meaning of “day” in light of modern science, the culmination of creation in the formation of human beings. And there … our classes always stop. We never move on to discuss the real climax of Genesis 1, the Sabbath (though not referred to by name here).

Perhaps our Christian neglect is explained by the way we read Jesus, who said that the Sabbath is made for human beings and not vice versa (Mark 2:23-28), and so we spend the day any way we want. Jesus’ apparent disregard for the Sabbath and its defining rules became a sticking point between him and the religious leaders. In John’s gospel, Jesus uses his healing miracle (which happened on the Sabbath) as an opportunity to teach about himself (John 5). As for the Apostle Paul, he himself seems to have kept the Sabbath (Acts 18:4). But he was adamant against any religious rituals that become substitutions for God’s all-sufficient grace (e.g., Gal. 4:10, Rom. 14:5-6).

Paul, in fact, stresses the Holy Spirit as the sign of God’s grace.  So here’s another connection to the Spirit of God. Paul scolds the Galatians that no rituals and observances take the place of the Spirit: the Galatians, after all, had received the Spirit already, all the more remarkable because the Galatians were Gentiles, and yet they’d received the promises made to Israel.  Thus Paul is concerned that their scrupulous religious observances might nullify the grace of God! (We usually think of “falling from grace” as a synonym for moral lapse, but here, Paul uses the term for religious observance that tries to “nail down” God’s grace, Gal. 5:2-5.)

So … have we Christians used Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings as an excuse to domesticate the Sabbath, making it a day to attend church and, otherwise, to carry on as before?  How do we respond to God’s call for holiness in and though the Sabbath—which is God’s desire for the Israelites in this passage of Exodus?  How do we embrace the beauty of the Sabbath as God’s eternal sign and blessing—-and modern observant Jews do view the Sabbath as a gift and blessing—-without turning Sabbath into a rite that we think we have to do in order to be religious?

There is another aspect of “rest” implied in Exodus 31, the rest of the Promised Land.  This, too, is something we Christians tend to relegate to biblical heritage rather than a key idea in our faith. Here, too, we look to Jesus, and specifically a dense passage in Hebrews.

In Hebrews 4:1-13, the author contrasts kinds of rest. God promised the Israelites rest, that is, the Promised Land, but the people failed to reach it because of their disobedience. But the author simultaneously connects “rest” with the Sabbath (and, indeed, uses the word in verse 2 to refer both to the Land and to the Sabbath). God ordained a day of rest for work (the author explicitly links Psalm 95 with Genesis 2:2 in verses 4 and 5, so as to tie together the promise of Canaan with the Sabbath), and links them all to Christ’s salvation.

Canaan and the Sabbath both point to a new kind of rest: the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Implicit in that conception of rest is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, for the Holy Spirit is the best sign of our salvation: you … were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge (in the RSV: “guarantee”) of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:13-14).

8. God is holy, God’s people are holy.

I love this hymn and its wistful tune, which I first learned in childhood.

Take time to be holy, speak, oft with thy Lord;
Abide in him always, and feed on his world.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing his blessing to seek.
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct his likeness shall see.
Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul,
Each thought and each motive, beneath his control.
Thus led by his spirit to fountains of love,
Thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.

I become impatient when people, in protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments from public facilities, say that the commandments are important (and thus worthy of display) in the history of law. They are certainly important in that way. But we should not water down their meaning by disconnecting them from God’s covenant with the Hebrews, that is, from God’s call for holiness and his own promise to be just, gracious, and merciful (Ex. 34:6-7). If you notice the context of the Commandments (Ex. 20), God first gathers the people at Sinai and makes a covenant with them (Ex. 19), and only then gives them laws. Within those laws, in turn, God provides means for repentance and atonement for sin.[18]

In other words, God’s grace and love always precedes and encompasses the ethical aspects of God’s will, not vice versa.

We see that ordering of grace and care of God in Exodus 31-34 as well.  God authorizes the construction of the tabernacle, its furnishings, sacred objects, and the ark, and requires the observance of the Sabbath. The sin of the golden calf intrudes, and Moses intercedes for the people. Then God renews the covenant, rewrites the Ten Commandments on new stone tablets, and promises to be gracious and merciful to the thousandth generation.

Reading about the subject of God’s holiness,[19] I was struck by the difference between Genesis and much of the rest of the Old Testament.  In Genesis God seeks trust and covenant-partners; God is not yet a lawgiver, with the divine characteristics that we associate with a lawgiver and judge. But after Genesis, terms about holiness predominate; there are nearly 350 of them in Exodus through Deuteronomy and over 830 in the Old Testament. The word “holy” and its variants (including the Greek word translated as “saints”) appear about 230 times in the New Testament.[20] That word for “saints” or “holy ones” is hagioi; in some though not all early Greek manuscripts, it is the very last word in the Bible (Rev. 22:21).

Those who relate to the Lord, who are called by him, are called to lives of holiness. In the earlier portions of the Bible, the holiness of God is reflected in Israel’s life in the distinctions between unclean and clean, holy and common, and sacred and profane.[21] We may scoff at the ideas of cleanness and uncleanness because of texts like Acts 10:9-16, but in Israel, these were God-given parameters for how to live and how to relate properly to God, not only according to God’s expressed will but according to God’s revealed nature, the Holy God who dwells in Israel. (cf. Zech. 2:13-8:23; 14:20-21).  The holiness to which Israel is called has the component of justice—which, again, reflects the nature of God who is holy, just and righteous. Holiness is never understood (properly at least) as only a concern for right ritual, cleanness, and restoration from uncleanness; Israel also witnesses to God through acts of justice, provision, and care for the needy (Lev. 19; Ps. 68:5).

In the New Testament, the work of Christ includes sanctification of believers.  As one writer puts it, “[t]hey [the believer/saints] are to be separated unto God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) evidencing purity (1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 7:1), righteousness (Eph. 4:24, and love (1 Thess. 4:7; 1 John 2:5-6, 20; 4:13-21). What was foretold and experienced by only a few in the Old Testament {i.e., the power of the Holy Spirit] becomes the very nature of what it means to be a Christian through the plan of the Father, the work of Christ, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.”[22]  The purity and justice to which Christians are called are Spirit-given gifts and, as such, are God’s own holiness born within us which empower our witness to others (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:21, 2 Pet. 1.4).  The same author notes, “[God’s] character unalterably demands a likeness in those who bear his Name. He consistently requires and supplies the means by which to produce a holy people (1 Peter 1:15-16).”[23]

In an important way, God’s call of holiness links the beginning of the Bible with the end, because the book of Revelation uses the Torah language of cleanness, separation, and holiness to show who, at the end of time, will share eternal life (“rest” again) with Christ (Rev. 22:11-15).

But the Spirit also connects us even earlier in the Bible to the narratives of creation, for the church—which is born in and matured by the Spirit—-is a “new creation” in the world (2 Cor. 5:17).[24]  We could say that, as God dwelled among his people through the tabernacle, he dwells among us through the Spirit.  But as in the ancient times, God calls us to reflect his nature and witness to his holiness.  In fact, we prove the very reality of God in so far as we love God and one another in the spirit of holiness.

9.  This is your life, too. 

Through this “reminiscence”, I’ve thought about matters of Bible interpretation and theology. But these things also have to do with the reality of your life as a Christian. These “things of God” are your “things,” too.

Theology is a way of understanding the world and yourself, and the “source material,” the essential story and teachings, is God’s Word.[25] Whatever are the specifics of your life and your faith journey, the daily and yearly reality of your life as a Christian is what the Bible describes: your need of God as a sinner, the identity of your Lord and Savior who has hidden your life in him (Col. 3:3-4), the power of the Spirit who opens up God’s truth to you, and the grace which saves, guides, and directs your life.[26]

I don’t mean that our lives function at the same level as the Bible stories, or that we have the same stature in God’s plans as biblical characters. Oswald Chambers puts it well: “Have we ever got into the way of letting God work, or are we so amazingly important that we really wonder in our nerves and ways what the Almighty does before we are up in the morning!”[27] What a subtle temptation that is: to think that we’re the object of God’s major concern, that God sees the world through our eyes! We can avoid the traps of self-regard, though, when, as Chambers puts it, we “let God work.”

The Bible—along with other spiritual disciplines like the prayer, the sacraments, fasting, fellowship, times alone, and others—help us focus upon God and trust God’s work. As we read the Bible, we perceive in our own experiences similar patterns of God’s grace as depicted in the biblical narratives. We discern the ways, times, patterns, and seasons of God’s grace. With humility, trust, and growth, we open ourselves to the fruit of the Spirit—the very same Spirit who moved over the ancient waters.

*******

But this “reminiscence” isn’t finished, because the subject of the Spirit returned me to a long-time interest, the authority of the Bible itself.  How do we use the Bible in a joyful way, that doesn’t beat up on other people and ourselves?  How does the Spirit inspire the Bible to be God’s “servant” for our benefit (as Luther put it)?  How does the Bible make us people of loving-kindness rather than meanness and judgment?

Yet again, I search the pages of my old Bible to find notes I made in the margin over thirty years ago….

Link to Chapter 6


[1] Jean LeClercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (third edition, New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 74-75.

[2]  William H. Shepherd, The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as a Character in Luke-Acts. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

[3]   Gen. 1-2:4 and Ex. 25-31 are both part of the Priestly source in the Pentateuch. See, for instance, Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (third edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 425-433.

[4]   Abraham Joshua Heschel has wonderful images of the “architecture of time,” and the Sabbath as a palace in time, in his book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: The Noonday Press, 1975).

[5]     Dominique Barthélemey, O.P., describes God’s choice of Israel in chapter 3 of his God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

[6]   Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology. Volume II, The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 240-241.

[7]    Several scriptures attest to God’s control over natural forces, for instance, Ps. 18:7, 77:16-19, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 24:1, Isa. 29:6, Nahum 1:5-6, and numerous others.

[8]  Quoted in Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (third edition, New York: Dover Publications, 1993), 30, and in turn quoted in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), 26.

[9]  Stroble, You Gave Me a Wide Place, 25-26.

[10]  Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 156.

[11]  Merril C. Tenney, general editor, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963), 821-824.

[12] These paragraphs are adopted from Stroble, You Gave Me a Wide Place, 27, 137-140.

[13]  Barthélemey, chapter 2, provides an interesting account of Adam and Eve, the fear of God instilled in human beings, and the restoration of the image of God that we find in Christ. His chapter 5, in turn, concerns the substitution of true worship with idols.

[14] Alan N. Winkler, “Jealousy,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2001), pages 388-389.

[15] Thomas B. Dozeman (“The Book of Numbers” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume 2, Abingdon Press, 1998), writes that God’s jealousy is the theme of the speech Num. 25:10-13. “Jealousy is about divine passion. It stresses that Yahweh is not indifferent to Israel or to their relationships in this world. It conveys strong imagery of intolerance for any allegiance outside of the relationship to God. Commentators tend to water down the violent and suspicious characteristics that accompany a description of God as being jealous. But the content of the stories in Numbers 25 suggest just the opposite. God is fanatical in demanding exclusive allegiance—so fanatical, in fact, that punishment is enacted indiscriminately. The jealousy of God is an important message to preach. God is not casual about our commitments” (201). Yet God also displays a tender side, as in the anguished self-questioning of Hosea 11 and the comforting poetry of Isaiah 40-66.

[16] The prolific scholar Walter Brueggemann comments that our theological reflection would be easier if passages like Ezekiel 16 and 23 were not in the Bible! But they’re there. What kind of love does this God show? Does John 3:16 have an ominous quality in light of God’s possessive rage (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997], 383-385)?  In another piece, Brueggemann writes, “this jealous God is one of deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commandments.” But God is also jealous because of God’s “massive fidelity (hesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant” (Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994], 842).  Hesed translates as “fidelity,” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”: the kind of love that is faithful and (ultimately) tender, that which reaches into human existence, becomes involved in our pain and struggles, and remains more committed to us than us to God.

[17] Verses cited in the article “Covenant” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=837&letter=C&search=Mosaic%20Covenant

An excellent study of the Land and its connection to creation, the covenant, the New Testament, and other biblical themes, is Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (second edition, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002).

[18]  A resume of the Torah’s atonement laws and rites is found in Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), chapter 9. See also Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: W.W. Morrow, 1997), and William J. Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002).

[19]  Article “Holy, Holiness,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 343. An interesting study of the Old Testament’s several approaches to holiness is John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), who sees in the Hebrew scriptures different but related themes like the holiness of the Sabbath, cleanness, the pursuit of justice, and individual morality and integrity.  Another excellent study of the biblical theme of holiness is John C. Haughey, S.J., Housing Heaven’s Fire: The Challenge of Holiness (Chicago: Jesuit Way, 2002).

Yet another “take” on the theme of holiness can be found in Melvin E. Dieter, et al., Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).

[20]   “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, pages 340-344.

[21]   “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, page 342. Marc Zvi Brettler  quotes another scholar, Jacob Milgrom, who likened the Temple and rites to “the picture of Dorian Gray,” for the sins and uncleanness of the people “built up” in the Temple and had to be purified; hence the disaster in Ezekiel 10 when God’s glory left the Temple; How to Read the Jewish Bible, 76-77.

[22]   “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, 343.

[23]  “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, 343.

[24]  Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), “Christ, Creation, and the Church.”

[25]  Augustine has a prayer, Noverim te, noverim me, “May I know you [God], may I know myself.” As Thomas Merton writes, “We wish to gain a true evaluation of ourselves and of the world so to understand the meaning of our life as children of God redeemed from sin and death.” Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image Books, 1990), 67.

[26]  Luke T. Johnson comments on the short book of 2 Peter. “Scripture is the source of truth—and the basis of Peter’s argument—but it must be interpreted in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it, and that Spirit is active in the church’s tradition (1:19-21)…. What is important is an experience of God’s revelation, and its being rooted in the gospel story; this is the authoritative basis for the interpretation of Scripture.  In contrast to the ‘cleverly concocted myths’ (1:16) that are the sign of ‘false prophets’ (2:1), this writer claims a share in the very story of God’s personal involvement with the world, which he then proceeds to argue in chapters 2 and 3: ‘We have the prophetic word made more secure’ (2:1).”  Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 450.

[27] David McCasland, compiler and editor, The Quotable Oswald Chambers (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 2008), 317.

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