Posts Tagged ‘Yahweh’

2 SAMUEL 7:1-14a

 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

It seems nearly inescapable that once religion gets located and our sacred representations of God are arranged just so in the holy space of temples and shrines and churches, human society falls into the divisions of ranks and classes. When our god is believed to dwell more inside the sanctuary than outside among the people and in nature, those whose job is to supervise the rituals of worship, recite the blessings and prayers, and authorize the official orthodoxy, become increasingly decked out in special insignia and perched in places of high honor.

Deacons, elders, junior priests, parish priests, cardinals, bishops, archbishops, high priests, and so on, form an ascending gradient of value and influence, from common folk in the secular world to the ordained hierarchy of the sacred realm. Inevitably we have insiders and outsiders, members and aliens, the “chosen people” and the heathen throng.

Yahweh had first been revealed as the God of slaves, whose special favor was on the underdogs, the low-born, the orphans and rejects of the world. Perhaps that is why he was so adamant against the tower of privilege that temple-based religion so easily becomes. Centuries after Solomon made the fateful decision to build a temple in Jerusalem, the prophets continued to rail against its excesses and abuse of power.

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2 SAMUEL 7:1-14a

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

In a time when the gods of other tribes and nations were represented in idols and established in sacred shrines and temples, Yahweh, the deity rediscovered by Moses in the mountains of Sinai, was acknowledged as being not only non-representable but also unwilling to settle down inside the more permanent structures of religion.

Yahweh had cautioned the exodus community against fashioning graven images of the divine likeness. And since the early experience of God took shape during an event of radical transition, as the people were moving from one place to another, the presence of Yahweh needed to be ‘portable’ and not tied down to location. In the forty years of wilderness wandering, Yahweh’s dwelling was a movable tabernacle, and whenever Moses needed to consult the oracle of the deity he went outside the boundary of the camp to the tent of meeting and waiting for God’s word.

There we have some of the essential history behind the conflict between David’s desire to make for God a more permanent dwelling place (temple) and God’s refusal to be clapped up inside a building. David’s intention was innocent enough, and we notice that even the prophet Nathan thought it was a good idea at first. It’s always more convenient to have a place where God stays put.

2 SAMUEL 6:1-5, 12b-19

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13 and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

The Ark of the Covenant was about as close as ancient Israel was allowed to come in representing the deity named Yahweh, who had revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai through the burning bush. Graven images of the god (idols, reliefs, portraits) were prohibited, and even mental images (or concepts) of Yahweh were rejected by the more puritanical critics as sacrilegious attempts to reduce the transcendent mystery and holy otherness of Yahweh to visible and inferior form. While the Ark did not itself represent Yahweh, it was believed that the god resided in the sacred space between the outstretched wings of two golden cherubim positioned on either side.

As we might expect, and knowing the tendencies of human nature, there were some who made the Ark itself into an idol. A story from earlier in 1 Samuel tells of a terrible defeat suffered by the army of Israel at the hands of the Philistines, having advanced to the battle line in the belief that victory was guaranteed so long as the gold-plated war box was out in front. For his part, however, David appears to have kept the Ark in perspective, celebrating its history and presence with his people, but acknowledging all the while that the reality of God is beyond every symbol. Valid symbols and healthy ceremony relate us to the Divine without making absolute claims for themselves.

DEUTERONOMY 34:1-12

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan,all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Traditionally the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) are attributed to Moses, who was supposed to have authored them during his busy campaign of liberating the Hebrews and leading them to the Promised Land. This passage in particular is often cited in challenging Mosaic authorship, since it contains a reference to the death of its author! How could Moses write about his own death, where he was buried, and how his reputation lived on?

Of course, even pre-modern commentators had noticed this strange detail, but questioning the authenticity, integrity, or logical coherence of the Bible didn’t become a serious issue until the modern period. It was then that new critical methods of literary research started encouraging treatment of the Bible as a collection of writings ranging from history, prophecy and apocalypse, to poetry, legend and myth. As scholars looked more closely at the texts, different theological traditions started bobbing to the surface.

The current theory recognizes at least four major traditions behind the so-called Book of Moses, each one with its own concept of God, worldview, and moral agenda. At various production points, these occasionally conflicting voices were blended together, with different stories and texts stitched at the edges to give the impression of continuity. Still, clues remain: two creation myths, two flood stories, two originally rival names for God (Yahweh and El), two competing vocations (prophets and priests), two models of society (nomadic and agrarian), all the way down to a discrepancy over who supposedly killed the giant Goliath (David or Elhanan).

All of this makes the Bible much more “messy” than how it seemed when single authors were given credit for larger sections or “books” – or still today when authorship of the entire Bible is attributed to God. Messy, maybe; but much more human as well. Some will even agree that it makes the Bible more approachable, more interesting, and more relevant when we can (or are allowed to) see the signs of human insecurity, fallibility, and prejudice, alongside the insight, wonder, and hope stained in its pages.

NUMBERS 11:24-30

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

The later writer of what is known as the Gospel of Luke used this episode from the Book of Numbers as one of three Old Testament sources for his story of Christianity’s charismatic beginnings (Pentecost, Acts 2) – the other sources being the Genesis myth of Babel (Gen 11) and the prophecy of Joel (2:28-29). The common theme throughout is this gift or visitation of God’s spirit on human beings.

There is a tendency in every religion – even in every form of human organization – to eventually erect out of the spontaneous sympathies of communal life a hierarchy of “command and control.” Those who put themselves or are perhaps elected to occupy the pinnacle of this hierarchy inevitably, it seems, begin taking to themselves certain attributes and privileges that separate them from everyone else farther down. In religion especially, we often find individuals trumpeting themselves as divine mediators, high holy reverends whose god-appointed position makes them exceptional.

This passage comes out of a minority report which was critical of what must have been the Old Testament’s equivalent to our pompous evangelical stage performers of today. Moses was the archetype of charismatic liberators: standing against Egypt’s pharaoh, calling down plagues, and ascending the holy mountain to meet with Yahweh, the Sinai warrior deity who rescued the Hebrews and helped them conquer settled villages on their rampage through Canaan.

Moses was a stand-alone leader. He didn’t meet with committees or consult the people in deciding his next course of action. God spoke and he did as commanded, regardless the human cost in victims.  The message: You don’t mess with Moses.

But out of this minority tradition comes a story of a time when Yahweh’s spirit was taken from Moses and distributed among seventy second-tier leaders – seventy-two (a symbolic number throughout near-eastern religions) if we count Eldad and Medad who were not with the group at the time. And we need to count them, for they are what makes the story both controversial and instructive. They were not among the Mosaic Pentecostals when the spirit was parsed out, and yet they were given the ability to prophesy.

                                                                                               

The power to prophesy is not quite the same as the ability to “speak in tongues” (or other known languages) as happened in Luke’s story. And neither is it anything like what confronted the apostle Paul in that Corinthian congregation where individuals began “speaking” ecstatically in a private “language” no one else could understand. In fact, Paul puts his favor on the gift of prophecy over that of ecstasy, since it is something intended for the edification of the community rather than the validation of an individual’s uniqueness.

In the Bible, to prophesy is literally to “speak before” – announcing, predicting, or forecasting something before it happens. This is what Moses had done, and so consistently that it became his identity. He announced the day of liberation (exodus) and spoke to the people of what Yahweh would do with them and through them – or to them, if they didn’t cooperate. Prophets were men and women who reputedly had a god-given ability to foresee what is coming and help people anticipate, prepare, or change their ways so as to avoid it.

This ability can be highly coveted, as you might imagine. The one who can put an ear to the ground or see changes on the horizon of the future is typically someone you want to listen to. Unless he’s a fraud, where he might manage to pick your pockets before you even realize he’s skipped town. To put some controls around this, Christianity (for instance) has tended to elevate prophets to a special status, regulating them with education and ordination requirements even as it venerates them as supernaturally gifted.

So when Eldad and Medad started demonstrating prophetic abilities outside of Moses’ awareness or consent, the lesson was simple: The spirit of God moves of its own will and is not a respecter of titles, reputations, or positions. Just like that, the hierarchy is pulled down and everyone stands equally before God.

PSALM 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    I have no good apart from you.”

As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
    in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
    their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
    or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
    in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
    because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
    my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
    or let your faithful one see the Pit.

11 You show me the path of life.
    In your presence there is fullness of joy;
    in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Today as in ancient times, we have to choose from among a pantheon of deities who demand our devotion. For many it is wealth, security, sex, or power. To the degree that these are the focus of investment, obsession, obedience and sacrifice, they serve to inspire our dreams and attract our worship. In other words, they are our gods.

What difference is there, really, between Baal, the fertility and harvest god in biblical times whose cult frequently competed with that of Yahweh of Israel, and Money, the god of prosperity and affluence in our day? The cult of Money – along with its attending saints Profit, Greed, and Conspicuous Consumption – drives social progress, big business, technical innovation, scientific research, class mobility, personal happiness, and even religion.

The poet believes that his deity, the Lord (Yahweh), is superior to the gods and goddesses of neighboring nations. While they might ensure a bountiful harvest or victory in war, his god provides something much more personal and, we should say, inwardly personal: inner peace, spiritual guidance, and fullness of joy. In other words, God isn’t merely an agency behind something that humans want or need, but the real presence and gracious mystery at the heart of life itself.

Interestingly in other parts of the ancient world as well, a searching intelligence was opening to the depths of existence. The Upanishads in India and Philosophy in Greece were simultaneously directing their meditations underneath and behind the phenomenal realm of everyday distractions. What were they looking for? In a word, reality.

We use this word glibly these days, but what is reality? Very literally, it’s the realness of something, its res or present being. Reality isn’t something else, on the other side of the world we sense and know. Rather it’s the depths of being itself, the really real, the real presence of mystery deep within all things. As the psalmist understood, this also means deep within ourselves.

As a causal agency behind the things that make the world go round, a god is nothing more than a personification of something we need but can’t explain. With this mystical (inward) turn, devotional focus was effectively detached from the conventional representation of this or that deity and plunged into the depths of a contemplative experience where God is present.

Not a personality but a present mystery. Not an agency behind things, but divine reality – not just a being but the very ground of being itself. God is not here to serve your needs. And – if you’re ready to hear this – God does not need your worship or devotion.

God is the heart of reality, the really real, even now rising from your depths with the invitation to an authentic and fully awakened life.