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Melchizedek in 4QVision of Amram and Hebrews 7

One previously unknown text found at Qumran was 4Q543-547 Vision of Amram. The story goes that Amram (grandson of Levi and father of Moses and Aaron) married off his daughter Miriam to his younger brother Uzziel. At the wedding feast Amram calls to his son Aaron and says, “Call for my son, Malaki’yah [messenger of God] [Moses]… who will give wisdom.” Then, a break in the fragments. Next, Amram goes up from Egypt to Hebron to build a burial site for the patriarchs, but a war begins to break out between Egypt and the Philistines, stranding Amram away from his wife (and aunt) Jochebad for 41 years. He remains faithful to her the entire time, and she to him. Then, another break in the fragments. Amram has a vision: two angelic beings are arguing over who will have authority over Amram. One, dressed in multi-colored clothes with a face like a viper and who rules over the darkness, is named Melkiresha, king of wickedness. The other rules over the light, so he is presumably the opposite of the first character (though the text is fragmentary). He would be dressed in white, and would be named Melkizedek, king of righteousness. The text also mentions that he is smiling, has something on his forehead (a phylactery? the high priestly diadem?). Two choices for Amram. Who will he choose to follow?

Some have interpreted this text as a kind of cosmic dualism where there are two paths, good and evil, black and white. The dualism used here as a literary troupe, these interpreters have assumed, indicates a more general dualism that goes throughout the universe. However, the helpful article “Reassessing the Dream-Vision of the Vision of Amram (4Q543-547) by Blake Alan Jurgens offers a more deflationary reading. Instead of thinking about this text as cosmic dualism, he reads it as a rivalry between two warring priesthoods (or the actual priesthood and an idealized conception of what the priesthood should be). He gives several reasons for this. The incestuous marriages between Miriam and Uzziel and between Amram and Jochebad would ostensibly be forbidden, so the fact that it appears anyways indicates that the author is trying to say something that involves endogamy. The most plausible explanation is that the priestly line had to be preserved from impurity and needed a known genealogy extending back as far as possible, so these marriages secure the priestly qualifications of Amram and by extension Aaron. Furthermore, if the other figure opposite Melkiresha is Melkizedek, then the priestly connotations of Melchizedek must be important, since he is always and everywhere associated with the priesthood. The object on Melchizedek’s head may be the high priestly diadem inscribed with the sacred name (Exodus 28:36-38). The colorful robe on Melkiresha may indicate the dazzling wealth and status of the high priesthood (Exodus 39:1-7; Philo Special Laws 1.84-95; Josephus Ant. 3.184-186; Ben Sira 50:5-11).

Why does this matter? I will quote from Jurgens’s conclusion:

“Interestingly enough, Amram’s apparent choice of Melchizedek over Melchiresha associates him with an entirely different priestly inheritance, one which temporally and genealogically is independent of the Levitical line. This makes Melchizedek an exceptional individual to align one’s self with, especially if one is attempting to exhibit both the flaws of priestly administration in Jerusalem as well as establish a ground for sacerdotal authority which does not fall under the categories of a corrupted administration. This means that allegiance with the ancient priesthood of Melchizedek, due to its pre-Levitical origins, served as a priestly endorsement that was not dependent upon the opinions and approval of other priestly powers. The bestowal of the title ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’ would have provided the one claiming this pedigree a link to an ancient priesthood and the cultic authority which derived from it, both of which would have served him well in any case where the legitimacy of his office was being questioned or threatened. It is far from presumptuous to note that such an agenda would have suited a wide array of Jewish sects and groups during the Second Temple period who faced opposition from the reigning priestly authorities in Jerusalem. Considering the general consensus that the Vision of Amram was initially composed sometime in the latter third/early second centuries BCE, it seems that Robert Duke’s assessment that the author of the Vision of Amram may be assessing the priesthood of Onias II and intermarriage of his sister into the Tobiad family is certainly plausible, though such specific historical interpolation is difficult to discern in a fragmentary document such as the Vision of Amram.”

“Nevertheless, it seems rather likely that Amram’s vision is referencing a conflict over the legitimacy of a particular priestly group, a conflict in which the author may be using the choice of Amram as a mirror image ofthe possible choices others may have been making in light of a perceived corruption ofthe priestly line and office. Thus, it diould come as no surprise that multiple פרשגן  of Amram’s sacred and esoteric words would be extant in the Qumran library, especially when one considers the community’s general opposition to the governing authorities ofthe Temple. Though the Vision ofAmmm was not a literary product of the Qumran community, the visionary experience of Amram, and his subsequent allegiance with Melchizedek over Melchiresha, could have been reappropriated by the Qumran community and applied to any potential conflicts they may have been experiencing with the Jerusalem Temple, adding clout to their case for sacerdotal legitimacy in opposition to the alleged corruption of the reigning religious authorities.”

I think 4QVisions of Amram could be helpful for understanding Hebrews 5-7. The author of Visions of Amram has selected a character one generation before Aaron (and thus the priesthood). This matters because if the selected character was one generation after Aaron, for example Eleazar or Ithamar, then whatever priestly construct this text comes up with would be subordinated to the ordinary Aaronic priesthood. By going back a generation, the reverse happens: you get down below the foundation. This also appears to be the logic in Hebrews 7, but instead of selecting Amram, the author of Hebrews has selected Abraham. “Melchizedek did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises… One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Hebrews 7:6-10). Just like in Visions of Amram, the construction of an alternate priestly line 1. is situated genealogically prior to Aaron, and 2. invokes the figure of Melchizedek and tells how Aaron’s ancestor interacted with him.

On a more speculative note, the author of Hebrews could share the same critical attitude toward the Jerusalem priesthood. Maybe this is because the Temple was administered by the Sadducees, who were considered corrupt and illegitimate. Or because the High Priest was selected by the King, who in the case of Herod was corrupt and half Idumean (so, ethnically illegitimate). Or maybe this was because the Temple had been destroyed, if Hebrews was written after 70 CE. While it is impossible to know the exact political situation behind the Epistle to the Hebrews, using Melchizedek to assert a unique priestly role for Jesus certainly served some political function with respect to the Jerusalem priesthood.

However, the argument of Hebrews 7 goes beyond this genealogical and priestly discourse. First, the problem is that Jesus cannot actually be situated before Aaron — he has a known tribal identity, the tribe of Judah, and nobody from the tribe of Judah has ever served as a priest (7:14). Second, Melchizedek by 7:15 turns out not to be the genealogical progenitor of another priesthood, but a literary foil for the author to compare Jesus against. Melchizedek’s priesthood is, explicitly, not on the basis of his genealogy (7:16), since he has no father or mother or genealogy nor beginning of days nor end of life (7:3). Third, what happens instead is that at the resurrection of Jesus, the Father has declared the words of Psalm 110:4 over him: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Because of Jesus’s “indestructible life” (7:16) he can serve as a better priest because he will never die. His priesthood comes not on the basis of genealogy, and produces no further offspring, because he himself is our great high priest forever.

The author of Hebrews participates in the contemporary talk about the priesthood, genealogy, and the patriarchs, and uses recognizable literary strategies when maneuvering these topics. But he uses them for his own purposes, and he deploys these literary strategies to make an argument based on resurrection (“indestructible life”). The resurrection of the dead was a shared belief among some Jews but not all. Notably, the Sadducees who administered the Temple complex did not believe in the resurrection. Hebrews may then be driving the wedge in further: not only is the currently priestly class illegitimate and corrupt (a common belief in the lead-up to the war in 70 CE and in reflection after the fact) but those same people cannot see the solution due to their own blindness. This makes me wonder if the author of Hebrews, in addition to appealing to his Christ-following audience, is trying to make his argument appeal to the Pharisees and perhaps certain other Jewish groups as well. It cannot be a coincidence that Hebrews’ main argument and main rhetorical strategies align with several of the main divides in the matrix of early Jewish sectarianism. Perhaps this points to a time before the Jesus movement gave up the politics of early Jewish life and still thought they could make a meaningful contribution to those sectarian debates.

Illumination and Concursus

I wrote this post on Facebook last week and had some fruitful engagement in the comments. Here is the post and discussion.

Enjoying my time in Holland so far. The town is lovely, my new seminary community has been so welcoming, and my academic research is challenging me and keeping me busy.

Quick thought prompted by a discussion in class today, though I’ve mulled it over for years now. There are (at least) three ways that we say the Holy Spirit cooperated with the human authors of Scripture to produce a divine-human text. First, the Spirit could expressly, actively declare something to be written down. These are the “thus saith the LORD” moments. Second, the Spirit could provide a spark of inspiration, a sudden clarity, an epiphany, which the writer then develops. In these cases the Spirit acts first, and the writer second, but the composition in total can be understood as the product of both authors. Third, the Spirit by divine providence can guide the writer into life circumstances that in total result in the author writing the kind and substance of texts that the Spirit wanted all along. This is like how Paul studied under Gamaliel, which gave Paul training in scriptural interpretation he would later use to great effect. The Spirit and the human author are still both writing the text, but in this case the circumstances of the composition would appear to be totally “natural” from an outsider’s view and probably even from the human author’s own view.

My doctrinal suggestion is that the same ways the Spirit cooperates with humans in writing Scripture can explain how the Spirit cooperates with humans in interpreting Scripture. There is a direct and necessary parallel between Scripture’s inspiration and illumination. Sometimes, I guess, the Spirit can explicitly and verbally explain what a passage of Scripture means. Other times the Spirit can provide a kind of prompting or epiphany which the human interpreter then carries forward into interpretation through ordinary means. Still other times the process appears to be entirely human, but actually the Spirit’s providential guidance of the interpreter (to go to this school or that school, to sit under the preaching of this pastor or that one, to be involved in these circumstances of life or others) has formed their default interpretive tendencies so that they naturally read a certain way. The same Spirit, using the same providential guidance of history, has caused this text to be written as is, and then caused you to interpret it as you have.

(This third option, where nature and providence meet, has been called “inscripturation” for the composition of Scripture, but I am still trying to think of a good word for this when it comes to the illumination of Scripture.)

On the hand, this model of illumination requires us to ask careful questions about the operation and meaning of history itself. Why is God directing these texts to be written in such a particular way if God is just later going to direct us to read them in another particular way? Couldn’t God skip the Scriptures and make us do what he wants here and now? But we are well reminded that God always and everywhere uses ordinary means to achieve later purposes, like how God truly does use our prayers to effect change in the world even though he could just as well ignore our prayers and do it anyways. God is directing not only our lives but all of history toward something… or someone… and he is using these very human, often cryptic, often historically bound, texts along the way to guide us there.

On the other hand, this model of illumination makes a good foundation for “identity readings” of Scripture, i.e. Black interpretation of Scripture, Feminist interpretation of Scripture, Queer interpretation of Scripture, etc. which often otherwise lack much systematic ground for their interpretive method. God made this interpreter (say, a Black woman) who she is, by means of divine providential guidance, and now uses this identity and life situation to allow readings of Scripture which are natural to her to emerge as she studies. This process is not actually different from the way that the Spirit in the first place used some ancient author’s identity as an Israelite man subjugated by the Roman Empire (or etc) to produce the text. The diversity of identities contributing to the Church’s interpretive work is itself one of the unnecessary (you could say ‘graced’) ways that God is guiding the Church into all truth and ultimately towards the end of history itself, which is, himself.

Sean replied: My main worry with this model probably comes as no surprise: how would you distinguish the illumination of the Spirit from inscripturation such that the latter is authoritative, infallible, and truthful in all it affirms, whereas we are not in our interpretations? And what norms interpretation if interpretation is illumined in the same way that scripture is inspired?

I said: The Spirit using the same mechanism does not mean that we know what the Spirit is doing (behind the scenes). That is the problem with God’s providential direction of history in general. You never quite know. 

As to authority, infallibility, and truthfulness, I would probably have to nuance these with respect to composition first. All of these have to be submitted to our Christological rule of faith. Scripture is authoritative, infallible, and truthful only when we read it according to “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning him” (Luke 24). (This is my claim based on Luke 24, not per se what that passage says according to a literal interpretation). 

What would it look like for my “inscripturation” metaphor for illumination, to be regulated by Christ? Here I would introduce the concept of “paradigmatic events” (from Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 79). They write: 

“A paradigmatic event may be defined as a historical occurrence that captures the imagination of a community in a such a manner as to shape or form the community’s way of conceiving the totality of reality and its understanding of its ongoing experience of reality. Because of the event’s wide-ranging influence, the community preserves its memory, while both reinterpreting the event in the light of subsequent situations in which the community finds itself and discovering in it the source of renewed hope for the future. Hence, paradigmatic events connect the community and its participants with the past and the future. Through their appropriation of these events, succeeding generations understand themselves in relationship to the experiences of the past history of the community and in anticipation of a future that will bring about the actualization of the community’s ideals.” 

For some reason Grenz and Franke don’t draw this into its obvious Christological significance, but I will. Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection are a paradigmatic event in this same sense. The events of the Gospel are so pivotal, so paradigmatic, that it comes to norm all future Christian practice, reflection, identity, and interpretation. So while I mentioned Black interpretation of Scripture, and this is a valid interpretive positionality imo, we should remember that it is always already Black Christian interpretation of Scripture. The same thing for Queer interpretation of Scripture, it is always already Queer Christian interpretation of Scripture. If these secondary identities (and the material conditions that produced them) are not understood in light of their primary identity (Christian) (and the material conditions that produced that, the Cross and Resurrection) then it fails to be Christologically normed illumination of Scripture. More to the point, the most crucial providential guidance the Spirit has wrought in my life is opening me to the grace of God in Christ. 

Okay, but even given all this, how would an “inscripturation” metaphor for illumination, normed by the paradigmatic event of Christ’s death and resurrection and the Spirit’s regenereation of the believer given Christ’s death and resurrection — how would this correspond to authority, infallibility, and truthfulness? I would tentatively suggest a few thoughts on authority. 

Here the redefinition of authority suggested by Walter Brueggemann in his first essay in “The Book that Breathes New Life.” (Unfortch I don’t have this book with me in Holland so I can’t quote it). He suggests that texts have authority by their sheer weight. Romans has authority not because anyone “gave it” authority, and not because it “authorizes” the community to exist which reads it, but because Romans is written in such a way that it demands to be read and responded to. More or less this amounts to defining authority of texts as their status as the “locus classicus” for the conversations which they have generated. I would say that our illuminated interpretation of Scripture actually does have this same status. For example, we are still reading 16th century biblical interpretation five hundred years later because it carries authoritative weight for the traditions it spawned which continue today. Every generation of Christians forms an entry in the democracy of the dead which later generations must consider for their own ways. 

With infalibility and especially truthfulness, though, the metaphor stretches beyond use. I could say that my interpretation “truthfully” communicates what I am interpreting but this is mostly tautologous. The most I would say here is that the Spirit is always illuminating our reading of Scripture “for” some other purpose, not just our own giddiness, and the Spirit will “infallibly” achieve this purpose as the Spirit intended.

Thanks for engaging, I always appreciate your thoughts Sean.

Sean responded: likewise brother–i appreciate your thoughtfulness and thoroughness! So it sounds like (correct me if I’m wrong) you’re saying that the paradigmatic Christ-event is such that it’s the norm through which we interpret and evaluate all reality–and that the event stands over and above even Scripture as a norm? And because authority is a function of how the text demands to be read, our interpretations can carry the same kind of authority (which doesn’t entail total truthfulness either for Scripture or our interpretation)?

I answered: I would nuance “stands over and above” and probably say instead that the Gospel narrative (Christ’s incarnation, life, death, etc.) is the only access we have back to Scripture “by nature,” meaning by what is natural to us as readers of Scripture. We can try, through some imaginative exercise, to imagine how we would interpret these texts if we weren’t Christians. And better yet we can just ask non-Christians how they in fact do interpret these texts (Robert Alter’s HB edition is great for this). But we have no way that is congruent with our reading selves to access these texts outside of Christ. 

I would also qualify that interpretation only carries this kind of authority when it is done with the entire church catholic, extending across denominational contexts, geographic space, and back into the history of the tradition itself. 

This is not an epistemic claim for religious certainty either, but a confession of faith, trusting in Christ who had more to say than the disciples could bear, so he has sent his Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16)

In a separate response, Taylor said: I’m not sure it’s an identity reading of scripture. It seems to be more of a cultural reading of scripture, or at least that’s what I’m seeing in global theologies. 

However, the caution in this understanding, and to what Sean is hinting towards, is what happens when an “identity or cultural reading” contradicts other passages of scripture?

I said: Yeah, identity in quotes because I am not sure what unites these various reading strategies or what distinguishes them from (extreme air quotes) traditional readings of Scripture. But identity vs culture is an even more tendentious distinction imo since identities are culturally shaped and cultures themselves are produced in spaces where some identities are allowed to develop and others are not. So I am going to stick with vague language on this point to avoid overspeaking…

On contradicting Scripture, they would have to find some way to negotiate that difference, though it is too detailed to answer all at once how each group would do that. I assume the group you have in mind is Queer interpretation of Scripture, and yes I agree this will have to address substantively the passages that would a priori rule such an identity out (Gen 2, Lev 18, Romans 1, etc). But this can be done… People have done this. So I’m agnostic on that point.

Taylor responded: thank you for the response. A queer reading of scripture is one aspect I was thinking about, but not soloing it out. There are broader issues to reconcile. For example, take the current passible vs. impassible debate into consideration. This is an element central to God’s character, but is disagreed upon. Which side is correct? Or are we allowed to think differently about God given our presuppositions? And if we do think differently about God, doctrinally speaking, are we accidentally creating a god that doesn’t exist?

I responded: I am willing to hold to doctrinal pluralism only in the short-term, provisional sense. I don’t think we can go on disagreeing forever. Oliver O’Donovan put it well in an essay from 2006 (titled “The Care of Churches”). 

“When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure. But that is all a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape – a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think – and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject! – is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”

In another comment, Carl said: This sounds very similar to the perspective that BB Warfield settled on in his final article on inspiration in 1915, distinguishing between modes of revelation and the concursive operation of the Spirit.

I responded:  Interesting… would love the link or pdf if you have it. Actually now that I think about it, I might have first thought of this idea when reading something by Warfield. It rings a certain bell.

And Carl sent these: link one, link two.

Photo by Henki on Unsplash

Reading someone else’s mail: conflicting methods

Without endless citations and in shorthand, I want to lay out two conflicting methodologies that together drive my thinking about the New Testament’s content and relevance. I suspect that, in enough time, they will merge into a more balanced and comprehensive approach.

First, the “within Judaism” approach. I will take as an extreme example something that Jason BeDuhn said in this lecture. He claims that the earliest reception of Paul outside the New Testament are authors operating in a radically different context than Paul himself. Paul wrote in the 50s-60s CE. The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE. This inherently led to the abolition of the priesthood and the near-total reconstitution of Jewish religion and practice in the following years. The emperor Domitian oversaw persecution of Jews across the empire throughout the 80s and 90s CE. During the Kittos War in 115 CE, the Romans killed Jews widely and indiscriminately enough that it can be characterized as a genocide. Two decades later in 134-136 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt led to further mass killings of Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem, and a ban on Jews entering the old city. Some historians call the period from 70-136 CE “the Jewish-Romans Wars,” plural, because of the continuous bloodshed.

Paul lived and wrote before the Jewish-Roman Wars, and his first substantial non-canonical reception occurs after them, in Tertullian, Marcion, and the Valentinians. Each of these streams may have retained some interpretive traditions about Paul from the earlier times, but what they all misunderstand is that the Jewish-Gentile balance has shifted from when Paul wrote. The early Jesus movement began as a 90%-10% Jewish-Gentile movement, but after the wars, and the increasing separation between the Jesus movement and the synagogues, the numbers were more like 10%-90%. Beduhn argues that the earliest interpreters of Paul read his comments in light of their own context, thus skewing his comments about the ongoing practice of Jewish law and proselytization, and Messiah’s role in creating one united community between Jews and Gentile.

The goal of historical New Testament studies, BeDuhn would say, is to try to get back before Tertullian and proto-catholic theology and see Paul “within Judaism,” as a wholly Jewish thinker who did not see himself in a competitive relationship with Jewish religion or Jewish institutions at all. We need to peel back the layers of accretion left behind by the interpretive tradition to read Paul afresh.

Second, the “theological interpretation of scripture” (abbreviated TIS) movement tries to read Scripture using the categories of the successive interpretive tradition. These scholars are interested in the ways that texts have an openness to expansive readings, for later settings. Even if the original authors did not mean them to mean so much, these texts may have enduring flexibility in meaning because the Spirit also wrote these texts. TIS seeks to avoid reinventing the wheel, so to speak, because earlier interpreters were wise and careful. The interpretive tradition can be a “democracy of the dead” just like the theological tradition in general. TIS also recognizes the scholars’ own social situation as readers of Scripture for the church. Why pretend not to have a bias that you absolutely do have? And anyways, there are millions of Christians who read the New Testament as Scripture, so the scholar recognizes they have an influential voice in the continuing conversation about these authoritative texts. Scholarship becomes a form of activism, however subtle.

Two examples of TIS, from two of my New Testament professors. Wesley Hill argues in his book Paul and the Trinity (2015) that the “High Christology / Low Christology” debate imposes an artificial construct onto Paul’s letters. Instead, the categories of persons and relations better help readers of Paul see that speaking about Christ and speaking about God cannot really be disentangled in Paul’s letters. This, notably, is the same approach that the third and fourth century Fathers took when constructing their more elaborate Nicene Christology. Madison Pierce argues in her book Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews (2020) that the quotations in Hebrews reveal a consciously Trinitarian pattern: the Father and the Son speak to one another, and the Spirit speaks to the recipients/Church. She also argues that this early, possibly “proto,” Trinitarian theology is consistent with the developments that occurred later in the tradition.

Both Hill and Pierce, then, are reading New Testament texts through the categories of the later tradition, not as a subversive anachronism, but as earnest presentation of the original meaning of these texts in light of their later theological significance.

Can these two methods come together? What fellowship hath Durham with Yale? My own research question this year, while not strictly methodological, fits within this uncomfortable middle ground. I am asking whether reinterpreting Paul “within Judaism” would allow us to resolve the (imo unresolved and stagnant) debate over same-sex relationships in the New Testament. But I am doing this through a theological interpretation of select sections in Romans, particularly chapters 1:18-2:29, 4, 7:7-25, 8:1-17, and 11. My historical critical reconstruction will dominate what the text “meant,” and my theological interpretation will dominate what the text “means.” But I want a better synthesis between the two methods than that. I also want a better understanding of how this synthesis could impact the interpretation of the entire New Testament: for early texts like Paul, and texts from the middle of the Jewish-Roman wars like John or possibly Hebrews, and texts from the aftermath, like (arguably) Acts, as well as the Marcionite texts and Valentinian texts.

That is enough for today. Sorry I can’t provide more historical details or citations. Hopefully I can clarify some of these method questions as my Thesis deadline draws near next summer.

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Motivated theology

What motivates us to focus on some questions rather than others in theology? For some people, practical concerns take over. Black theology as seen in James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree has focused on undermining the theological foundations of white supremacy. Someone has to do it, they have said, because Black people are dying and suffering under the violence of anti-Black prejudice. Cone, and similar thinkers in Latino, Feminist, Queer, Indigenous, and other group theologies, focus on the questions they answer because they have a pressing existential import.

For others, practical concerns are sidelined, at least temporarily, to focus on abstract and theoretical questions. Who is God? What categories would best help us to speak truthfully about the Triunity of God as revealed to us in Scripture? How, exactly, did Jesus’s incarnate, two-natures-one-being, body work? Questions like these do not have an immediate social ramification. Okay, if we describe Christ’s hypostatic union as the communion of natures, rather than their formal oneness inhering in a hypostasis, that still doesn’t answer whether or not gun violence should be opposed. Someone interested in these abstract questions, which have an indefinite and ambiguous relationship to living practice, would probably consider themselves to be doing “pure” theology rather than motivated theology.

Yet what could be more motivated than study of the one true God? God is so holy and transcendent and good that studying God alone could take up a lifetime — a lifetime well spent. Who is to say that the indefinite and ambiguous implications of these questions will not one day become very concrete? Why would serving the God whose providential hand has guided all history into conformity with his unfolding will ever lack existential import?

Our identities and social situations come from our placement within race, class, gender, and so on, systems in society, this is true. But beneath this, and enduring beyond the abolition of these systems, we face crushing existential questions about our relationship to God, to the natural world he created, and to our own lives and our delicate vulnerability. Thinking critically about the abolition of class, for example, will require us to imagine lives beyond the reach of finance-driven capitalism and expressive individualism. The “pure” theologian wants to address that state. They are thinking ahead, like John at the end of Revelation, about the world as it will endure after purification by fire and blood.

On the other hand the resources to address crucial social questions usually come hundreds of years prior in the tradition. Without considering the depths of these problems in medieval and patristic thought, our practical answers will be shallow and likely to have only the shortest relevance. Agamben taught me this lesson years ago, when I was working through his works. The Kingdom and the Glory and The Mystery of Evil are the two books which are his clearest examples of this method in action. Our practical lives are structured by inherited systems which were themselves products of conflicted and often contradictory theological impulses working themselves out in a slow, centuries long processes of elaboration and rearticulation and, later on, secularization. To uncover the theological roots of our contemporary problems will require us to examine their more abstract formulations in the Councils and even in the Scriptures thousands of years ago.

At sunset there is no distinction between practical and pure theology. All theology is motivated and all motivations come from our social situations as beings captive to the theological discourse that preceded us. Try to separate them and you have trite solutions to complex problems, or formally correct dogma with implications we have failed to critically anticipate. We can only distinguish practical and pure theology in the broadest sense as a description of someone’s tendencies. Which side of the coin do they tend to call when the flip is airborne?

Three problems that have become pressing for me are LGBTQ discipleship, depression and mental health, and how the Jewish people relate to Christian theology. These are all very practical questions: either I can get married, or stay single, and either I should take this medication or wither and die, and either Christians have an obligation to combat antisemitism or we should propagate it. However, uncovering the real solutions to these questions, the solutions that will endure past the current moment when our practical advice remains relevant, is the project of a lifetime. My own experience with rejection in the church as a LGBTQ Christian motivates me to ask whether there is a better way forward than the paltry solutions on offer. My experience with depression, and the loss of a former youth ministry student to depression and suicide, have each motivated me to wonder whether the Church offers anything like the robust community and form-of-life it would take to help people so alienated find joy and peace. My shock at the Highland Park shooting last month, committed by a member of my Bible study small group, has heightened even further the question of whether we could do more to remind our people that the Jews are children of Abraham, and children of the Promise, before we belonged.

My theology is motivated by these concerns, and addressing them in the most substantial way has required me to dig even further into the sources of authority, our Scriptures and Tradition. Facing these questions has often forced me, despite beating at his chest in disbelief and frustration, into the embrace of the God who gave us these sources. You may not think that some random discoveries in the sectarian literature at Qumran about ritual washing of cups and plates would have any impact on one’s gender and sexuality, or on the struggle against racial caste systems the world over. But these historical discoveries are moments where others have faced challenges comparable to our own, and developed innovative solutions mostly lost to memory and erosion, but which we can reclaim to tell a better story about God and about our world today.

Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash.

Testament of Reuben, Women

Reading through the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (Jewish text c. first century CE but with some later Christian edits). What struck me was how Testament of Reuben has a completely different view of women than Jesus, Paul, Peter, or John. For example, from Test. Reub. 5-6:

“Evil are women, my children; and since they have no power or strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves… command your wives and your daughters, that they adorn not their heads and faces to deceive the mind: because every woman who useth these wiles hath been reserved for eternal punishment… Beware, therefore, of fornication; and if you wish to be pure in mind, guard your senses from every woman. And command the women likewise not to associate with men, that they also may be pure in mind. For constant meetings, even though the ungodly deed be not wrought, are to them an irremediable disease, and to us a destruction of Beliar and an eternal reproach.”

To summarize: women are evil, they seek to seduce men, and those who wear makeup to look pretty will go to eternal hell, so men should not look at women, or associate with women, and even if no fornication or other sin happens, meetings between men and women are demonic and lamentable.

Contrast with Paul whose mission-assemblies had men and women present, and the women have the authority to veil their heads (1 Corinthians 11:10). He also allows women to pray and prophesy in the assembly (11:5, and cf 14:34-35 which is not original imo). He does not demand men and women stay segregated until marriage to avoid fornication, but permits single people to remain single or marry as they are called (7:25-35), allowing for an indefinite mixture of unmarried men and women. Meanwhile Jesus has an extended, one-on-one dialogue with the Samaritan woman in John 4. The gospels all depict his women followers as his most faithful, not scattering like the men, and the first to proclaim the resurrection. Similar things can be said about the rest of the New Testament writings. Even the most complicated passages about gender like 1 Tim 2, for all their restriction and differentiation, still do not proscribe men and women being around one another.

Testament of Reuben does not represent “the Jewish view” against which we say that Christianity is better and more enlightened. No, it is just one Jewish text among many others, which all have their own specific, sometimes tendentious and sometimes plausible, views on gender. But Test. Reub. does give us one example of how the early Jesus movement was often more (not fully but more) egalitarian than some of its peers. It also helps us to see Paul and Jesus’s views of gender with more clarity. I know some churches whose teaching on gender sounds a lot more like this comparison text than like Jesus! Last, it reminds me of the reason *why* the early Jesus movement felt this way: on Pentecost the Spirit poured out upon all the sons and daughters of God (Acts 2:17 quoting Joel 2:28) and so women carry the same authorizing and empowering Spirit for service within the life of the Church.

The House on Lilac Lane

When we visited the house on Lilac Lane, we found it empty. By curb appeal you would never know. Someone, either the neighbors or the title deed owners, must keep up the exterior to ward off looters, squatters, and teens, like us. Payten, Ty and me were high school juniors back then. For fun and for cash we fixed motorbike engines and broken lawnmowers. One day we would make it, us three, and start an auto shop together.

“Hey Brendan, Ty, look here,” Payten said. I turned to him pointing down two feet at an egress window he had pulled open. “No latch,” he said. We climbed down, contorting ourselves to slip through and land on our feet in the basement. Ty turned on his phone flashlight. The unfinished basement had cement floors, uncovered pink insulation, pvc pipes, exposed copper wire pressed against the ceiling as it traveled on its way. Several plastic tubs sat closed on the other side of the basement. We went to them. Payten opened one, but it was empty. So were the others.

The steps groaned. I reached the top first and found a light switch, but it didn’t work. The house had no power. The kitchen cabinets were empty, and the gaps between them outlined spaces where the stove, refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher had once done their duties. Around a corner we found the living room and in it an old chair, tipped on its side. The living room opened into a front room with a piano. The keys were left open, and a song rested on the stand, open to neither the first nor the last page, like someone had bolted the house mid-performance.

Upstairs were three bedrooms and two bathrooms, all empty, devoid of furniture but with little spots pressed into the carpet where everything heavy had once been. Ty pressed his hand against the window and looked out onto the street below. There was only dark. “When do you think they left?” he asked. “From how it looks,” Payten replied, “they left fast but fully.” Ty stared and stared. We went back to the main floor. The house was lame. We broke in because someone at school mentioned it. Sounded like a haunted house or at least a place to get spooked. Instead we were disappointed. We sat around on the kitchen floor facing the well-manicured backyard. “Who keeps up this place?” I asked. “You do,” the house replied.

Every Thursday after school I had mowed the lawn. The flowers under the porch needed watering every third day, so I went Sundays, too. Each Spring I bought new mulch to lay around the bushes, which I trimmed when they needed it. When Fall came I pressure washed the siding. Taking care of the house kept me busy. It was difficult work. The owners had left without telling anyone. Taking care of the house felt like taking care of them. I would rake the leaves and prune the trees and think about how much this place must have mattered to them — it was their everything, I bet. Someday soon I will leave this house behind. But if I go, know that I have prepared a place for you.

The Devil’s Doorway

Brother Jeremy wore his Sunday best. His black pinstripe suit and baby blue paisley tie clashed hard. His presence clashed similarly with the room, a serious man against silly walls with random items strung up on fishing wire to serve as quirky decorations. He was the only one over 30 and the only one taking himself seriously. His sermon hit all the usual notes — I had been in these chairs before. Heaven and Hell. Repentance and Salvation. Judgment and Wrath. He wanted to scare us onto the path of righteousness. 

We were the company of mockers. Bro. Jeremy had the slightest stutter, and each time he tripped over his words the merciless students in our youth group grinned and looked around. His sermon that Wednesday night meandered through the Romans Road. Already out of breath by chapter one, he read: “For the wrath of God is revealed from h-heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He reached the third chapter when Steve who ran the soundboard tried to adjust the microphone but unleashed a feedback shriek loud enough to pierce my right ear. Bro. Jeremy, distracted and annoyed, tried to continue. America’s sins forced God to destroy her with hurricanes and wildfires. Abortion, drugs and alcohol, fornication and homosexuality, R-rated movies, card playing, school dances, string bikinis, punk music, atheism, Islam, and more were unleashing national destruction and betraying the investment God had made in our promised land. My friend passed a note my way. I opened it to find a crude sketch of Bro. Jeremy. I laughed, hushed but with poor timing, throwing off his sermon again. Across the room a volunteer leader had to tell a girl to please close her flip phone, thank you. “Nothing in this life m-matters if you live for yourself,” Bro. Jeremy tried to thunder. “For all have sinned and come short of the g-glory of God.”

He said nothing new. I listened anyway. The invitation had promised there would be pizza and snacks later. My hunger gnawed at me. I saw some unfamiliar faces at tonight’s revival gathering. Next to Lauren Brooks sat Samatha Reynolds, who was in my algebra class that year but had never been to our church before. She was quiet and unassuming but popular in our school. A few seats past her, Connor Hall, my neighbor down the block, sat and fidgeted. He skateboarded and cussed and drank beer when he could sneak it. He must have believed the invitation. His mistake. “For the wages of sin is death,” said Bro. Jeremy. 

Our youth room tried to capture the fun spontaneity that young people brought, but contained it within the cold, disciplined asceticism that old people would fund. Like youth ministry at large, this room sat at the intersection between traditions with deep roots and well-funded spokesmen, and the revolutions brought about by youth culture, motivated by logic inscrutable to the elders. Youth groups trained young whippersnappers to stay off the old man’s lawn, so to speak. They bent our lives into irregular, disjointed forms to satisfy the regretful nostalgia of boomers discontent with the mistakes they made in the age of free love. Here the room consisted of chairs arranged toward the pulpit, an altar used solely for altar calls, and on the left wing, a ping-pong table and refrigerator. Lemon and lime and cherry walls surrounded this kitschy take on the ancient assembly, whose routines we reenacted weekly with more or less earnestness and intensity. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

I glanced at the clock to see how much longer Bro. Jeremy would go on, though no clock could answer that question. Glancing back, something caught my eye. Someone. He was new here. Didn’t go to my school. Blonde hair, green eyes, green shirt. On his shirt a name tag sticker hung half attached.

HELLO,
MY NAME IS  
Noah 

I wondered where he came from and who he knew here. In our small town, there weren’t many other teenagers than those who went to my school or went to our church. I kept looking at him. He looked like an athlete, probably popular wherever he was from, and comfortable in this room, despite sitting alone and being new. Somehow he kept my attention. As Bro. Jeremy rambled on, I found my gaze drifting over to Noah again and again. What was he like? Would he become a regular in our group? Would he ever want to be my friend? I looked down at my Bible, trying to focus back on the message. “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But Noah held my focus. I looked back at him.

The summer before, our youth group went to Devil’s Lake State Park up north. Fifteen of us, three leaders and the rest high schoolers, went to the lake there and relaxed for an afternoon. We went to a roller coaster park in town, too. Come nightfall we slept in tents on uneven ground and had to scramble to drape tarps when an unexpected storm rolled through. The trip was not all that religious, it turned out. Just fun activities and some games to help us bond as a group for three days. One day we hiked an uphill trail in the State Park. Our leaders said it was a real hike, but worth it to see Devil’s Doorway at the end. Ancient as the Ice Age, this formation perplexes scientists, our leaders told us, since they can’t explain it using natural processes. Only God could make this pile of rocks. The State Park had gotten its name from settlers who misinterpreted the natives. “Spirit Lake” in their tongue sounded like “Devil’s Lake” in ours, and so it was. To those settlers this rock formation looked like a door, and so it was. Our leaders did not know this history, and spun some yarn about God making these rocks to throw Satan through them into the lake beyond.

We reached the bluffs after an hour struggling along rocky and ill-kept paths. Damp heat made it harder and we hiked with much grumbling and complaining. At the bluffs, you have to make it two feet across a small fissure to reach the Doorway. It seemed benign until we saw the sign indicating that people had died trying to cross it and the liability was all on us. I walked up to that fissure and paused. Others went ahead and started taking pictures on their digital cameras at the Doorway. I went a few paces left and looked over the bluffs, down two hundred, three hundred feet into the dense woods below and the wide lake beyond. As I came closer to the edge I slowed down. The edge attracted me with an unspoken magnetism. My curiosity grew. What was over that edge? Where did it come from? Who does it know here?

Even as the edge drew me closer, something in me recoiled, repulsed by the draw, afraid of what dangers these bluffs hold and eager to stay far, far away in the safe territory. People had died here. The fall could take me too. Polar forces of attraction and repulsion, wanting to come nearer and stay further, left me unsure how to move. I looked over to my group, having fun on the other side of the rock fissure, taking photos at Devil’s Doorway. They laughed and pretended to push one another. Carefree. I crawled backward from my squat position and stood, determined to join my friends. But as I got closer to the fissure my knees bent and I crouched down again, like a reflex built into my legs had activated. I backed up again and stood to try another time but I could not do it. I realized after a minute that I wouldn’t get a picture taken at Devil’s Doorway. I would have to save the sight in my memory, standing from here. I took a long look.

“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Bro. Jeremy now came closer to what in any reasonable sermon would have been the conclusion. An altar call was imminent. As he pressed into Paul’s Gospel, my eyes focused somewhere else. Noah shifted his body weight in his chair, gentle as a breeze might ease a yellow tulip into another posture. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Noah looked up and caught my eye. I looked down.

The Annunciation

My homily from last Sunday, on the Annunciation of Mary from Luke 1:26-38.

“The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.” With these words the Angel Gabriel announced the good news to Mary. We call this announcement The Annunciation and we call this good news Gospel. Mary was afraid. An otherworldly being stood before her, saying something very confusing. The virgin would conceive. This… cannot happen? Mary thought. Her son would be the Son of God. This… also cannot happen? Mary thought. How can a virgin conceive? How can the one and only God have a divine son? These are good questions, and as the foolish Seminarian I am supposed to try to answer them. But their answers lay beyond my reach, beyond your reach, beyond anybody’s reach. The incarnation of Christ is the first and deepest mystery of the Gospel. Like a cubist painting we can recognize shapes and broad forms, and explain what purpose it serves, but we cannot explain its parts either in isolation or according to the secret logic that holds them together. What does it mean that Mary’s baby will be the Son of God? While we cannot finally grasp this mystery, we can have what my dear friend Jacob called “an articulate unknowing.” An articulate unknowing. We can spell out the pieces as an offering to God, as our feeble attempt to say “Thank you God for this truth you have revealed to us, even though you have hidden it from the wisest of the world. Have these reflections of ours, though they are only wood, hay, and straw.”

What we have to understand about the Incarnation is that though language fails us Jesus is both God and human. This passage in Luke 1 stresses that Jesus is human: he is born of a human mother, takes on a real physical human body, and has a human cousin, who is John the Baptist. Another passage in Colossians 1 stresses that Jesus is divine: that passage reads: “The Son is the visible image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This is what Gabriel’s words must mean, in the fullest sense, by that in Mary’s womb was the holy one who will be called the Son of God. Resting in Mary’s womb will be not just any baby but the one in whom all things hold together. Her son, though neither she nor we can grasp it, is the one through whom and for whom all things have been created. This infant, so tender and mild, will reign over the entire universe of which he is the cosmic center, and he will destroy all rivaling thrones and powers and rulers and authorities. Weighing some seven or eight pounds is God himself in human flesh. 

Think about the contrast between Zechariah and Mary. Earlier in this chapter Zechariah was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told he would have a son, though he and his wife were infertile. That is similar to Mary and Joseph, who will also have a miraculous conception. But Zechariah responds in disbelief. So Gabriel strikes him mute until their son is born. Meanwhile Mary responded not in disbelief but in faith seeking understanding. My friend Charles at Streetside Thursday last week pointed out that verse 34 does not say “How could this be,” but “How will this be?” Mary’s question is not disbelief but assumes that Gabriel is telling the truth. Yet she does not stop there. She trusts this message from God and wants to know more: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s faith is not faith full stop but faith seeking understanding. She is approaching a mystery, but after her question she will have “an articulate unknowing.” She will be able to hold in her heart this message from God through all the confusion in the months to come: that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born to you will be called Son of God… no word from God will ever fail.” Her potential rejection from Joseph and her almost certain rejection from her community will be scary and painful, and not finally understanding why this is happening will make things worse, yet this Word from God will never fail. Because she has it, she can trust God.

To this mystery Mary gives her consent in verse 38. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.” By her consent the Son of God will come into the world. By her consent the one through whom and in whom all things were created, will come into the world. This means that by her consent Mary has caused her own creation. How can this be true? How can her trust in God result in all things? Of course this, too, is a mystery, but we can say what we can say about it. Mary is the true and better Eve. Our first parents in their confusion and temptation caused humanity and the entire universe to enter a deep darkness. But because Jesus’s mother trusted the messenger of God, and consented to God’s plan, there is a new light breaking into humanity and the entire universe. This new light is Jesus who is one person in two natures, both God and Human. But these two natures are incompatible. One nature is created and temporal, the other nature is uncreated and eternal. As St. Maximus pointed out, created and eternal natures cannot share any properties with one another. Yet in the person of Jesus it is so. What I am saying is that Mary consenting to her own creation results from the much larger problem that something uncreated is being born. Something eternal is entering time. In Mary’s womb our linear, sequential time and God’s eternal, non-sequential time are one. Time itself bends its knee in obedient submission to this baby. This is what creates the problem that Mary needs to preexist herself to consent to her creation. The more you reflect on this baby, on his dual divine-human person, the less that reality as we understand it makes sense. The problem with Mary is not unique to her, though. It is a problem inherent in all things, that each thing has its being independently from God as God’s gift to it, yet without God it cannot continue to exist in its particular form. To this baby in a manger not only Time but also All Particularity Itself bends its knee in obedient submission. Were it not for this baby, the pew you sit in would melt into pudding. As would you. Everything would return to formless and void from Gen 1:2. I am not saying that all things are Christ. That would be pantheism. But all things have their particularity only in Christ, only in Christ incarnate, only in Christ incarnate as a baby in a manger. 

The new light who is Jesus will shine over all things, bringing light and life into the deep darkness of our hearts, our communities, our world, our universe. Think about the beautiful stained glass windows around us. They are illuminated by the Sun’s light, but their particular colors and shapes and pictures are what we can see inside. That is also true of Jesus. His light shines into the whole world, and since we are his stained glass windows, he shines through us. The particular colors, shapes and pictures that make up your life, begin to beam with the light of Jesus. There is a saying that you are the only Gospel most people will ever read. We can say a similar thing. You are the only stained glass window most people ever really see up close and personal. This Jesus who is the center of all creation, comes to be center of our hearts and works to reach others through our ordinary and mundane lives. As we live out our faithfulness to God — reading and treasuring his Word, pouring out praise, praying with adoration and penitent need, loving those around us, and so on — this light in us begins to grow in intensity and in heat. In time it becomes a raging fire, your life a burning bush, from which the One True God of Israel speaks saying, I AM WHO I AM. As his voice rings out among the nations, and we are reduced to ash, he brings us new life in this infant. This infant, who is the light of the world, by his very being speaks louder than when God said “Let there be light” in the beginning. In him there is life, and this life is the light of all mankind, and the darkness has not overcome it. “The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.” 

Remember the LORD — Deuteronomy 8

Last week I gave this sermon in my Preaching the Old Testament class. The audio and video did not turn out well, so here is the transcript. I pray that it encourages you in your walk with God today.

Introduction

“Remember, Remember, the 5th of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.” So goes a poem from seventeenth century England about Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was a Jesuit Catholic revolutionary from France who managed, I have no idea how, to sneak three dozen barrels of gunpowder into the basement of Parliament in 1605. He planned to blow up the building the next day, while Parliament was in session, overthrowing the English government in hopes of restoring Catholic rule to England. But he got caught. And now, to this day, people in England spend November 5th burning ragdolls of Guy Fawkes and chanting this poem: “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November.” This poem reminds the English about their history, and it tells a story about their enemy, which for the English at the time was Catholics, and the French. The poem and the annual celebration gave them a sense of national unity and reminded them that they remained Protestant because God intervened in history to thwart the Gunpowder Plot. “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November.”

The English Protestants who devised this chant and holiday stand in a long tradition, going back to the Exodus, of God’s people calling upon themselves to remember God’s action in history. To remember God’s faithfulness to them. Like the English remembering Guy Fawkes, Israel remembering the Exodus served to tell a story about the faithfulness of God, about what it means to be “one of us,” and about their national purpose. For our text in Deuteronomy 8, remembering the LORD is crucial. Moses stands before the people of Israel and exhorts them to Obey the LORD, and to Remember what the LORD has done for them. Our Big Idea is this: How can I obey the LORD? By remembering what he has done before. We will focus on that remembrance, and by the end see that Moses’s teaching in Deuteronomy 8 has not become an outdated, “Old” Testament teaching, destined to fade like dust in the wind. Rather, it has become only more relevant as time has gone by. As Christians, remembering God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ leads us to obey God in hope. In Christ we have received the most crucial gift to remember. We will get to Jesus, but it will take first dwelling on Moses’s message to Israel, his call to remember hard times past. Like Israel, we must tell our stories with attention to God’s faithfulness throughout. Then, we will learn to avoid a certain trap, of forgetting God when times of plenty come. When we remember God in hard times and in good times it sends a message about God and his faithfulness. Ultimately, as the passage both begins and ends, our remembrance should lead us to obedience. 

Transition: Before our First point, let us pray to ask for God’s presence and direction. <Pray>.

1. Remember God’s Provision in Hard Times

Our First point today is to Remember God’s provision in hard times. Our passage is from Deuteronomy, which takes place as a sermon from the plains of Moab. The people of Israel stand just outside the Promised Land, looking in. Moses exhorts them to decide: entering into this land, will you obey the LORD or forsake him? This setting in Moab is crucial to Deuteronomy. They are not already in the land, and they are not still far from the land, but they are perched right upon it. One commentator says that the plains of Moab are “not only salvation history, but an exposition of the way of salvation in the present and the future.” Sure, Moab was a moment in the past. But for the people of Israel who in generations later would hear Deuteronomy, Moab was also a position they always found themselves in. Perched on the cusp of blessing, will they remember God and obey? Or will they forget God and fall away? Moab is both a place — some random set of fields and hills and valleys, of course — but it also functions as a special place, a place of decision. Verse one is about this decision: “All the commands which I have commanded you today, be careful to observe, so that you will live and multiply and enter and possess the land which I the LORD swore to your forefathers.”

The people are about to finish their wilderness wandering. This wilderness journey was difficult. Desert heat scorched the land, burning away comfort and ease. As wandering nomads, they had no place to call home. And they were placed in this position precisely because the people needed to have their pride broken. The wilderness generation did not trust God, not really. During the Exodus they had witnessed the most amazing miracles, only to become convinced later that they could not enter the promised land because of the giants that dwelled there. We will not turn there now, but in Numbers 14 God curses this generation to die in the wilderness because they did not trust that God could clear away those giants. All along the way God was testing them: will they obey, despite impossible circumstances? Look at verse 2-3. “2 Remember the entirety of the way which the LORD your God caused you to walk these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, to test you, to know if your heart can keep the commands or not. 3 And he humbled you, by causing you to hunger and then feeding you manna which you did not know and your forefathers did not know, so that man does not live on bread alone, but by all that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

Manna represents the unstorable provision of God. You get it, and you have to depend on it, because it fades away each night. The LORD provided for them day after day. The LORD also provides for us day after day. Jesus picks up this theme in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 6,  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” In his temptation, he also quoted verse 3 of our passage. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus can pick up this point 1200 years later because our God never changes. His faithfulness to one generation is not based on their faithfulness, but his own eternal love and generosity. God teaches us, instructs us, guides us, as verse 5-6 says. “5 Know in your heart that just as a man instructs his son, the LORD your God instructs you. 6 Keep the commands of the LORD your God. Walk in his ways. Fear him.” In their wilderness wanderings Israel was instructed to depend on and trust in God. So, verse 6 says, obey. Standing in the plains of Moab, in the place of decision, Moses reminds his people to remember that God provided for them in difficult times. 

Quickly as I can, I will tell a personal story about God providing for me in a difficult time. Two years ago I lost a former youth ministry student to suicide. He was 17. Losing him was excruciating, and along with other events at the time — I do not have time for those stories now — I fell into a deep depression. Randomly and spontaneously, I had an idea that may redeem some of this pain. I would go to a training program in suicide intervention so that I could be better prepared should anything like this happen again. But the nearest training was seven hours away in Iowa City. Against any reasonable calculation I decided to go. Leaving Chicago in my Hyundai Sonata, my chariot of fire, I drove through city traffic and then corn, corn, corn, before arriving. The weekend was long and difficult. Two instructors trained us in the program’s suicide intervention model, and we role-played situations where we had to intervene. I was reminded every minute of my student’s death. After the weekend ended I drove home, feeling equipped to help someone when they needed it most. Little did I know that it would be me. A new crisis emerged in my life that same month which drove me to suicide. The practical safety skills I learned in the program saved my life. Later on I wondered why I survived. What prompted me to go to this far-flung suicide intervention program? Only in retrospect could I see that God by his providential hand had directed me to attend that program because I would later need it. When everything else continued to fall apart, I could not shake that thought. God had been faithful to me. At the exact time and in the exact way I needed help, God provided.

This, I think, is the kind of thinking Moses uses in Deuteronomy 8. Remember those days of hardship, wandering in the wilderness? Remember how God was faithful to our people then? Never forget God’s faithfulness. He cares for us in our darkest hour, and he provides for us out of his abundant love. We can and should use that same type of thinking about our own stories today. Always remember when God has met you in your time of need.

Transition: In our Second point, the situation has been reversed. No longer in times of want, we see that the advice remains the same! Remember God’s provision, even in plentiful times.

2. Remember God’s Provision in Plentiful Times

Israel is about to enter the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Even having a stable land, a homeland rather than wandering around as nomads, would be good news. But God in his gracious provision is going to give them a land of abundance and excess. Our passage in Deuteronomy now bursts into poetry to describe these plentiful times. The poetic verse in 7-10 would have evoked beauty and hope for a people weary after decades wandering through the desert. “7 For the LORD your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs of water, deep springs flowing out into the valleys and hills. 8 A land of wheat and barley, vines, trees, pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey. 9 A land without scarcity, you can eat bread without lacking anything, a land whose stones are iron and whose mountains you can dig for copper. 10 And you will eat and be full, and bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” Things will be good! But as Moses will soon teach us, these good times contain the seed of their own undoing. When God provides for his people, they grow confident in what they have, and then abandon God, which will lead to their destruction.

We are tempted in our lives in the late Modern West to do what Moses warns against. Many in our secularized society think that they don’t really need God, that God can be a nice add-on for some, but God is not necessary. We can go about our days and enjoy ordinary lives with our friends and families. What this ignores is that we can only do this because of the enormous material prosperity brought about by our social conditions, which God has orchestrated by his providential hand. Send famine and war, crushing labor and incurable disease, sectarian violence and natural disasters, and maybe we will see the truth. The “just enjoy our ordinary lives with friends and family” mindset is only possible because God has made it possible. Hear the Word of the LORD from Deuteronomy 8:11: “11 Be careful, lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command you today.” In good times we must remember his provision. Our text uses an image of abundance to get this point across. Verse 12 and following. “12 Lest you eat and be full, and build and dwell in good houses, 13 And your cattle and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all which is yours multiplies, 14 and you puff up your hearts, and forget the LORD your God.” Multiply, multiply, multiply. Everything multiplies, and in the process you forget the true source and sustainer of this growth. This has applications in our personal lives, when we think about our finances and our households. Success in these areas should never lead us to view ourselves higher than others. Everything we have comes from God. It also has applications in our church. Being a healthy and stable church, and more to the point, one that remembers its dependence on the LORD, is more important than whether or not we grow into the biggest megachurch in the area. “Church Growth,” as important as spreading the gospel is, should never lead us to view ourselves as “successes” and others as “failures.” “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.”

Just as verses 7-8 burst into poetry to describe the beauty of the promised land, verses 14b-16 also burst into poetry when describing the LORD God of Israel. “Do not forget the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the house of slavery. 15 who brought you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with venomous serpents and scorpions, a dry place without water. He made water come out of a flint rock, 16 and fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never known, to humble you, to test you, and to do good to you in the end.” Here again, as before, Moses recites the story of God leading Israel during the Exodus. Before, Moses needed to remind them of God’s care in their difficult time. But now, he says, even though times are looking up, we still need to remember the LORD. We know from Israel’s history that this did not go according to plan. They would remember the LORD for a time. But every few decades a new generation would grow up, accustomed to the prosperity they had on account of their grandparents’ faithfulness to the LORD, and turn away. Rags to riches and back to rags in three generations, as an old saying puts it. Eventually they would go so far as to defile the Holy of Holies in the Temple with idols to foreign gods, and the LORD destroyed the nation and banished them from the promised land, sparing only a few to rebuild and restore. 

The poetic outburst in verses 14-16 is so long that verse 17 actually picks up where the sentence in 14a left off: “Do not forget the LORD… and say to yourself, by my might and power.” In this long outburst, as Moses retells the history of Israel, notice that the one responsible for every line is not Moses himself. Is not Israel herself. No, it is the LORD God in particular. God himself and God himself alone is the one to whom we give thanks and on whom we depend.

Transition: In our Third point, we see what this remembrance and dependence will achieve. If we will remember God and depend on him, it will confirm and exalt his faithfulness today.

3. Remember God to Confirm and Exalt His Faithfulness Today

Look back at the passage. Moses does an internal dialogue in verses 17-18. “17 Do not say to yourself, my power and the might of my hand have made this wealth for me. 18 Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power for strength, so that this will confirm the covenant which he swore to your forefathers, even as today.” These two verses are like the psalmist in Psalm 42 who exhorts himself to put his trust in the LORD. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Moses gives a scenario where we say to ourselves, by our power and might we have done these things. We must dismiss this voice whenever it comes up. We must listen only to the voice inside that reminds us of God’s faithful provision.

We also see in this verse that Moses connects Remembering and depending on God, with God’s covenant faithfulness. God has freely decided to bind himself to one man, Abraham, and his offspring. God is not faithful to just anyone, but always to those whom he has given his Word. In Genesis, God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to protect their descendants, multiply them, and save them from destruction. So God cannot allow Israel to die in the wilderness. He is faithful to his promises. Now, if Israel were to credit entering the promised land to their own strength, then the promises of God would appear to mean nothing. But because Israel must always attribute their possession of the promised land to God, they make it clear to all that God has been faithful and kept his Word.

Moses also included a small phrase here, “even as today.” This means that, yes, God’s covenant promises were confirmed originally to Abraham in his own life by the miraculous conception of Isaac. But also, as time goes on and God continues to be faithful, God confirms the covenant promises again and again. This is true for the Israelites about to enter the promised land, but Moses could not have imagined how much more true this would become in the future. The more that time marches on, the more God has acted in the world to confirm his covenant faithfulness. This has never been more true than in Jesus Christ, who is God’s greatest and definitive confirmation of his own faithfulness. Because God was faithful to send his own Son into the world, who suffered and died to redeem the world, we can trust God’s promises with even greater clarity and certainty. God then took Jesus, who is both true uncreated God and true created Human, and resurrected at once and together his Divine and Human natures. On that day the disciples received a foretaste of what remains to come. On the last day, we will all witness the grand marriage and reunion of God with All Creation. God will reconcile all things to himself. God had promised Abraham to show covenant faithfulness to his descendants, and through them, all other tribes. But in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see that God had a more ambitious plan. In Christ, God began to reconcile all things to himself, as 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us.

He has also given us this ministry of reconciliation and empowered us by his Spirit to proclaim to all people God’s faithfulness, forgiveness, and power to restore. We then make God’s covenant faithfulness crystal clear to the world by proclaiming that God is good, that he provides in all things, that we can trust him, in good times and in bad times. As long as the day is called “Today,” to borrow the words of the author of Hebrews, we can trust him. Through him we already have the renewal and reconciliation that will come to all things one day. You can have that now. You can have him now. Believe him, trust him, remember him, proclaim him as supreme in your entire life. Jesus himself is the ultimate gift of God. He is the true and better Isaac, the one miraculously born to continue the covenant line. He is the true and better Moses, representing the people to God and leading them into salvation and abundance. He is the ultimate ground of any success we may have in this momentary and fleeting life. We forget him to our peril and to our shame. We must remember and depend on God. By doing so, we make his faithfulness clear and paramount in our lives. 

Transition: As we conclude, we need to circle back to the beginning and the end. 

Conclusion

You may have noticed earlier that we skimmed over verse 1. That is because verses 1 and 19-20 are like bookends for this passage. Moses has talked at length in verses 2-18 about remembering the LORD, never forgetting what he has done, who he is, and his covenant faithfulness. But the passage began, and now will end, with an exhortation to obedience. What’s the point of remembering? See verse 1: “All the commands which I have commanded you today, be careful to observe, so that you will live and multiply and enter and possess the land which I the LORD swore to your forefathers.” That’s the positive way to put it. Here at the end of our text, Moses gives us the same exhortation to obedience, but put negatively. “19 If you at all forget the LORD your God, and go after other gods and serve them, and bow down to them, I warn you today of your assured destruction. 20 As the nations which the LORD will destroy before you, so he will destroy you because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” This is a warning to the future people of God who will receive this text. We must remember the LORD so that we are in a position of trust and dependency, and therefore, we can obey him. As people created by God, we cannot exceed the limits he has placed on us. As a church community devoted to God, we cannot ignore his difficult commands. As those who Christ is preparing to participate in the coming reconciliation of all things, we must obey the voice of our redeemer and Lord. How can I obey the LORD? We must Remember him in times of scarcity and times of plenty, telling of his faithfulness and care in our own lives, in the life of our community, and in the life of the world through the gift of Jesus Christ. Do this, and he will teach us to trust him. He will cause us to rejoice in his gifts. In so doing, he will train us to obey his commands. Let’s pray.

Where do we disagree?

Where does the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage really rest?

The disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage tends to revolve around the interpretation of the few passages that come closest to the topic: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and some include Genesis 19 as well. We then ask questions like, How should we translate this word? Exactly which sex act does the author describe in this passage? Can we infer from the social setting whether the sex is mutual? These are good questions, and they will matter to some degree at some point. However, we need to start with the wider narratives of Scripture, which ground and frame the particular, topical passages. For example, it doesn’t matter what the Levitical commands in 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit until we hash out, generally, how the book of Leviticus fits into the wider arc of Scripture, and how and why the teachings of Leviticus would matter today.

I do not base my position on Christian same-sex marriage on the outcome of the six exegetical debates. That approach would oversimplify the problem and understate what is at stake. Anyways, I think those passages could all be missing from the Bible and we would still get to the same conclusions, affirming or not — just as a hypothetical seventh prohibition would not necessarily tell us anything more. Instead, I base my position on wider theological convictions that come through a reading of the whole Biblical story and the place of procreation in that story. This method drives us much faster into the heart of the disagreement.

Procreation in the Hebrew Bible

In the beginning, God created humanity in the image of God, and blessed them to rule over the animals and the birds and the land. Genesis 1:26, whether read from a creationist or evolutionary perspective, tells us about the goal for which God created humanity. We are to reflect God back to the world by exercising wise stewardship over the world. The next two verses continue this point: in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. Just as in 1:26 God gives humanity a vocation to steward the earth — to act like God himself acts towards the earth — in 1:27-28 God gives humanity a vocation to populate the earth — just as God himself did when he created humanity in the beginning. We can see this concept linguistically in our latinate word “procreation,” creating forth something new. When we procreate, we participate in the work of Creation that God has already begun, continuing it, blessed to do so as if we were God, in our role as divine image bearers. Verses 27-28 cannot be separated from 26 because the unit 26-28 together claims that God created humanity to extend his own work in Creation. God made us in his image to steward the world (26) which requires sexual difference (27) for the purpose of procreation (28) to fulfill this stewardship of the world.

The rest of the Hebrew Bible illustrates and confirms this theology of procreation. God plans to redeem humanity from its fallen state by saving one man, and through him, one nation, and through that nation, one Messiah. God calls Abraham, creates a covenant with him, and blesses him with a promise to have “more descendants than the sand on the shore, than the stars in the sky.” Barrenness, decedents, legacy, familial blessing, and God’s gift of fertility dominate the pages of Genesis to follow. These themes continue to dominate the Hebrew Bible after Genesis, becoming even more prominent in times of national destruction. Ironically, the national destruction itself usually comes from kings taking many foreign wives, attempting to build massive households with hundreds of descendants. Procreation is a blessing, and when pursued in violation of Torah it becomes a curse, but either way it remains the center of the narratives. Remember the ancient context as well. Israel was a hard and rugged place. You would simply not survive if you could not have kids. Because Israel was always only one generation away from siege, pillage, exile, and destruction, the covenant with Abraham would have given promise for security and hope for a better future. The Hebrew Bible’s extensive genealogies also show us the importance of procreation. Long lists connect everyone in the nation to Abraham, to verify their membership in the promises God made in the covenant. They also helped Israelites who grew up reciting their genealogy to remember that the promise would one day extend through them to their children.

Most people agree up to this point. Few in the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage jump ship before here. (James Brownson and perhaps Sarah Coakley are two notable exceptions). This is because the above is, in my view, incontestable. The themes are too consistent and pervasive to ignore. The disagreements I want to consider in the next section are the ones which start when we move from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. Does the New Testament teach that procreation is normative? What could change that would nullify the former teaching, which crucially is rooted in our portrait of Creation?

Procreation in the New Testament

Let me give four examples of the kind of analysis that complicates the procreation mandate. Two on each side.

On the one hand, we see continuity with the former portrait. Years ago in a seminary class on Biblical Theology and Interpretation, D. A. Carson took us to Mark 10 to illustrate this continuity. Have you not read? Jesus asks. Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 for the moral question of divorce and draws directly on the older narrative without qualification. He also intentionally undermines the exception that Moses made in Deuteronomy 24. This draws us away from a possible trajectory where if something is true in Creation, but precedents are set later on, we can expand outward following the later precedents. No, Jesus avoids the later legal precedent and builds his command on Creation.

On the other hand, we see discontinuity when it comes to procreation itself. What happens to procreation in the New Testament? Why does it vanish almost entirely from the text? There are a few mentions of children here and there, about allowing them into the Kingdom, about discipling them wisely, to bring them up in the way of the Lord, and so on. These teachings help people who already have children, but they tell us nothing about the procreation mandate. Now consider 1 Corinthians 7, one of the few extended texts about sexual practice in the New Testament. Paul bases his sexual advice on martial duty (1-3), mutual consent (4-5), temptation from Satan (presumably to adultery or fornication) (5-9), God’s call to live at peace (15-16), our freedom in Christ (21-24), the coming apocalypse (25-31), our undivided focus on the Lord (32-35), and the honor of virgins and of singleness as a widow (36-40). Paul’s advice comes from numerous places in moral theology and gives us a rich picture of complex wisdom, as well as the types of sources we should value in making these complex decisions. But where is procreation?

Returning to the first hand, the relationship between early Christianity and the Mosaic Law is difficult, but not really on this question. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 decides to integrate Gentiles into the people of God and commands them to do four things: abstain from meat that has been strangled, abstain from meat that still has blood, abstain from food sacrificed to idols, and abstain from sexual immorality. These commands probably express something like the Law of Noah (though this was not explicitly developed until the early Talmudic Rabbis over a century later), which means laws God gave to all humanity through Noah, the father of all later humans. These kinds of laws are not detailed in the actual text of Genesis 6-9, but the concept lurks behind Acts 15:23-29 and Romans 2:12-16 to provide grounding for universal moral commandments. The fourth command in Acts 15 simply prohibits “sexual immorality,” but presumably all Jews would flesh out this term with Leviticus 18, where the Torah gives a detailed list of what practices count as sexual immorality. By declaring sexual immorality a universal prohibition (not limited to Jews), the Jerusalem Council made it impossible for Gentiles to use an “abolition of the Law” type argument to get around the Leviticus prohibitions.

Returning to the second hand, because Gentiles in the New Testament are “adopted” into the family of God, the need for procreation to advance the ethnic people solely of Israel has faded. The procreation mandate may seem to vanish from the New Testament, but in reality it has been transformed into the evangelism mandate. Converts are like children in the faith, raised to maturity by our faithful parentage, to become bearers of the good news of the Gospel, resulting in their own spiritual children one day. Gentiles receive paternity in Abraham by adoption through Christ (Romans 4), and so procreation is no longer necessary in its function to expand the people of God. You can draw this distinction against the Hebrew Bible too sharply — there are a few non-Israelites who join the family of God, such as Rahab, Jethro, Ruth and Naaman. But overall it seems that the multiethnic movement that begins in the New Testament accompanies the transformation of the procreation mandate because they are inherently tied together. The New Testament’s theology of adoption, then, decenters and transforms the procreation mandate.

Where do we disagree?

My reading of the disagreement leads me here. How you square these circles will determine whether Christian same-sex marriage can be morally good. Does the procreation mandate persist in marriage, or does it fade away with the coming of Messiah? Better, does the current apocalypse (1 Corinthians 7:17-31) interrupt the procreation mandate as a whole, or does it interrupt procreation within marriage? This distinction makes or breaks Robert Song’s argument in his book Covenant and Calling, which I recommend reading. If the apocalypse disrupts the need to procreate generally, then celibacy is affirmed because marriage is not required. But if the apocalypse disrupts the procreation mandate in marriage, then constitutionally non-procreative marriages can become morally neutral or good.

These questions can hinge on the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, not to mention the even wider theological topics I have not addressed here. What about natural law theology? What about gender complementarity beyond procreation (such as gender roles)? What about the sacramental end of marriage, which is that marriage signs to us Christ’s own relationship with the Church? What about gender at the resurrection? Needless to say this disagreement is complicated to an almost endless degree. It works at some of the core questions scholars pose about the relationship between the early Jesus movement and the Jewish context from which it came. The complexity of our disagreement should humble us. When you dismount your moral high horse, it becomes easier to see others eye to eye and recognize the good-faith effort they make, even when they come to conclusions you do not. This complexity may even allow for church membership across the affirming disagreement, since we already have membership with many who disagree on questions much more weighty than the technical issue with Robert Song’s argument above. For example, if your church includes Calvinists and Arminians as members, I find it difficult to exclude those who disagree in good faith on some of the biblical-theological specifics outlined here. However, traditions with a rich confessional heritage will likely come to a narrower set of conclusions, and from there we need to debate the traditions and their confessions on their own merits as such. Like all disagreements in Christian moral theology, the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage leads us down a path, bounded by Tradition and Scripture, to the God with whom we seek one common life.

My point in this post is to encourage Christians to think more widely than the six topical passages in isolation — to attempt to see those passages within the totality of our Christian moral vision and the Scriptural narratives that ground and frame that moral vision. Focusing on those passages alone allows us to misconstrue their value and place within Christian thought, as well as over-interpret them to say what they may never have meant. Submitting the meaning and function of these passages to what we already know is like building your house upon a rock: working from the firm foundation of the most central and clear parts of God’s Word to the peripheral and unclear parts. We already do this on so many other topics. Stronger biblical-theological reasoning could help the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage reach greater understanding, mutual respect, and precision. By the Spirit who guides the church into all truth, it may even lead to resolution.