David’s Census (2 Samuel 24)

But wait; if we’re criticising Solomon, we need to remember that his dad made his share of mistakes, two of which are highlighted as his major flaws. The first is straight-forward – David has an affair with a woman named Bathsheba, gets her pregnant and, when he can’t cover it up, has her husband killed. David pays the consequences of that, and rightly so – there’s no way a situation like that isn’t going to end badly.

His other big mistake is stranger – he takes a census. The man who took down Goliath is brought low by a census. To make matters more complicated, it’s a census that God orders him to take so that God can punish him for taking a census.

What?!

This is one of those stories I don’t quite know what to do with. But here’s an idea.

It’s obvious from the passage that everyone knows that taking a census of Israel’s military is a bad idea. I can see the logic in this – they’re not meant to trust in the strength of their army or their resources, they’re meant to trust in God. After all, the Bible is full of examples of God using a small force to defeat huge armies. Maybe counting the fighting men is the thin end of the wedge, an example of misplaced confidence that could end up with a king having lots of horses (and their associated chariots), thus trusting in their own strength and not God’s. I can understand that.

But then God manouveres them into a stuation where they’re going to get punished for something he told them to do. It seems a little unfair – if they need to be punished, then punish them for what they did in the first place.

(Interestingly, the 1 Chronicles 21 version of this story says that Satan instigated the census, not God… But as Satan’s role in the Old Testament is often to test people’s faith in God, the end result is the same. After all, David has a choice in all this. That said, this post would have been way easier had I just gone with Chronicles…)

So allow me to indulge in some random speculation again: What if God is expecting an argument?

Stick with me. It’s not like people haven’t argued with God before. Back in Genesis, God tells Abraham he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Realising that his nephew is living in Sodom, Abraham starts bargaining with God – “Would you save the city if I could find 50 good people living there? What about 45? What about thirty? Twenty? Ten?”

And instead of getting angry, God goes along with it. It doesn’t pay off, as ten good men can’t be found, but still Abraham tried and got a positive response. God responds to an act of compassion, even if Abraham does have a vested interest.

And then there’s Moses’s disagreement with God. In Numbers 14, the Israelites are on the verge of rejecting God, deposing Moses and electing themselves a leader to take them back to Egypt. God is understandably furious at this lack of gratitude and decides to wipe them all out and start again with Moses.

Moses says no.

“Look, if you kill them all, everyone will say that you couldn’t carry out your promise to give these people a land of their own. Can you forgive them instead?”

And it works, to a degree. The instigators of the rebellion are killed by a plague, and entry into the land is delayed for a generation so that the people aren’t always so eager to go back into slavery in Egypt, but Israel survives. Again, God responds to an act of compassion.

Right, now look at the consequences of David’s census. He carries it out, a plague falls on the land and wipes out thousands of people. David realises what’s happening and sets up an altar to God at his own expense in order that he might intercede on behalf of his people. He does, the plague stops and God responds to an act of compassion.

Which raises the question, what would have happened if David had said no to the census? What if he’d argued with God? Eventually he gets involved on behalf of his people and God relents; would acting sooner have made a difference.

Well maybe, maybe not, but sometimes we need to take a risk on behalf of others. Abraham did, Moses did, David did eventually. And God responds to that, which is understandable, because that’s exactly what he does in the New Testament, with nail pierced hands on a Friday afternoon.

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Epic Monarchy Fail: Solomon and how not to be a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

So, let’s talk about King Solomon.

Solomon’s an ambiguous figure. Known for his wisdom and for being the guy that built the Temple in Jerusalem, he also sent his kingdom down a path that would result in division and idolatry. As track records go, he’s all over the place.

Frankly, he has no excuse for his failings. The fact is, Deuteronomy lays down some rules for kings , so obviously Israel’s monarchs would be eager to follow them, right? After all, they’re not that complicated. Any idiot should be able to follow rules like “The king must not have lots of horses, or buy them from Egypt”.

Um…

“He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.”

Err…

“He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.”

Oh dear.

This is the irony of Solomon’s story – early on he asks God for wisdom to run the kingdom, but while he recives this – historically it’s his USP – he still manages to mess up, and this is despite his initial faithfulness to God (he built the Temple, after all). His actions lead to the kingdom being ripped in two, with two royal lines made up of largely hopeless kings. Both monarchies, Israel and Judah end in disaster as the Jews are carted off in exile to Babylon, one of their great national catastrophes.

And effectively it’s all down to one man, the man renowned for his wisdom. That’s a sobering thought. He couldn’t blag a successful monarchy based on his talents; it all came down to where his heart was, and it wasn’t with God.

Now that’s a sobering thought. Deuteronomy warned against kings falling prey to power, sex and money, and yet it happened almost immediately. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised – it’s easy to trust in our own abilities or resources. Sometimes that’s hubris, sometimes its just the struggle with the way in which God’s plans are often invisible right up to the moment they unfold. Either way, there’s a need to trust in God, and the more responsibility and power you have, the greater that need for trust.

But then Solomon’s story is also one of compromise. He doesn’t have one or two big disasters like his father; rather he just seems to break the laws set down for kings almost by mistake. He falls in love easily, marries women from a different religion, and before we know it, he’s setting up altars to at least three other gods. I don’t actually think he did this on purpose, but somewhere along the line his moral compass has got out of whack.

Now that’s bad enough, but look at what he’s squandering. He’s been given a phenomenal gift of wisdom by God and yet he’s wasting it by going off the rails. The scary thing is, he’s still making a name for himself. The guy’s a celebrity, visited by dignitaries the world over, but he’s losing it, and all the wealth, power and fame in the world won’t save his kingdom. Jesus told a parable about wasting your talents by burying them in a hole in the ground; Solomon may as well have thrown his talents in the Mariana Trench.

So I guess the question is, are we squandering what God has given us?

And would we recognise it if we were?

Blood Cries Out: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)

Yesterday’s post diverted slightly into the story of Cain and Abel, and so I thought I’d look at this in more detail…

It’s a world famous story. The sons of Adam and Eve, one a good and godly man, the other dangerous, arrogant, murderous. Both of them bring offerings to God – Abel the pick of his livestock, Cain the scraps of his harvest. This simple act starts a chain of events that continues the consequences of their parents’ actions.

Maybe we should have guessed what was coming the moment we find out their jobs. Abel was a herdsman; Cain was a farmer. Although the quality of their offerings wasn’t to do with meat vs vegetables, there may be something deeper going on – a herdsman is mobile, nomadic, a farmer is settled. That contrast continues through their descendents – the people who chose (willingly or otherwise) to be mobile go on to become the fathers of Israel; those who settle in cities tend to find themselves drawn into compromise, like Lot. Maybe staying in one place is an attempt to recapture the Eden they’ve lost, and as such is denying their need for God. Themes weave their way through these early chapters, and we glimpse a world long gone, with reactions and beliefs that we can’t even process.

But despite this ambiguity about settlement, the core of the dispute is in their attitudes towards God – Abel gives the best of labours, Cain gives grudgingly (I suspect God got small, comedy-shaped vegetables, which isn’t exactly showing respect to the creator of the universe), and yet Cain is still annoyed when God rejects his offering. “What more do you want?!” you can imagine him saying, deluding himself about his holiness.

And yet God’s fairly chilled about it all – “Look, get your attitude sorted and you’ll be okay. If not, sin is always waiting to pounce.” Which is fair enough, but it just seems to anger Cain more. He asks Abel to go out into the fields with him, and there Cain murders his brother.

It’s the first murder, but it’s also part of a process that began with the Fall – if Adam and Eve eating the fruit drove a wedge between humanity and God, then Cain killing Abel creates a faultline in human relationships and the burgeoning society. The whole story of these first few chapters of Genesis is how a brand new world progressively gets screwed up, with relationships between humans, and between humans and God, breaking down. In this sense, these chapters are the prologue to God’s salvation story that unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible, culminating first in Jesus and the Cross, and then in the restoration of heaven and earth in Revelation.

That’s why Abel’s murder has a hold on the writer of Hebrews – Abel’s righteousness and offering to God were things to be respected as expressions of faith, but his death – the first death – is bigger than one murder. His blood speaks cries out against the consequences of the Fall, against violence, anger, rejection of God and death itself. The writer returns to this in Hebrews 12 – Abel’s blood represents one state of affairs between God and humanity, the blood of Jesus represents something greater than that, the moment things are put right.

Not that this immediately helps Cain. He’s already denied responsibility for his family (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks, but the unspoken answer to that should be “Yes, you are.”), now he’s banished from them – his settled life is over and he becomes a “restless wanderer on the earth”. Of course, he’s more worried that someone will kill him (that genie’s out of the bottle – he’s realised that what he did to Abel could just as easily be done to him) than in expressing remorse over his crime, but here’s the interesting thing.

God protects him.

The Bible doesn’t say exactly what ‘mark’ God placed on him, but whatever it was, it prevented anyone from hunting him down and taking vengeance. God is showing grace. It’s in his nature.

(Random speculation time – if God places a mark on Cain to protect him, maybe that’s twisted by the actions of the antichrist in Revelation, where a ‘mark’ places people under the protection of the embodiment of evil…? And is there a link between these two passages and Ezekiel 9?)

Anyway, despite Cain complaining that he’ll be a restless wanderer (and if there is a tension between wandering and settlement, maybe this nomadic lifestyle could have lead to his redemption somehow – random speculation time again!), he eventually has a son and builds a city. Did he ever repent? We don’t know. He walks away from the blood-soaked earth, his motivations and his intentions a mystery. His crime still scars the earth, and while we know from the Bible’s bigger, glorious story that redemption and healing are available, the first step towards that still has to be taken.

Sometimes that’s the longest step of all.

Hollywood Bible #1: Pulp Fiction and Ezekiel 25:17

Okay, this is something new I wanted to try out on the blog. Let’s see how it goes.

The Bible is one of the foundational documents of western civilisation, and even though it’s not as widely read as it once was, you can still see its influence in culture. After all, it keeps cropping up in unlikely places, like metal albums and horror films. One of the most dramatic uses of a Bible quote in Hollywood is in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where a passage from Ezekiel is used as both a hitman’s signature and a possible path for his redemption.

Of course, the main reason it’s dramatic is because it’s quoted by Samuel L. Jackson, who is possibly the coolest man on Earth, and therefore if he comes after you quoting the Bible you listen carefully. And then you run away, because he’s probably gonna shoot you.

At the risk of calling down his vengeance though, I should point out that he’s not quoting the Bible.

Oh, he says he’s reading Ezekiel 25:17, and in context I doubt anyone’s about to argue with him. But here’s what he says:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.”

But here’s what Ezekiel actually says:

“I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them.’”

The reason for the discrepancy is obvious – Tarantino wanted Jackson to say something awesome and biblical and wrote something that sounded right but that also helped advance the plot of the film. Straight forward enough, but as this blog only really exists to poke around in the Bible, I thought it was worth looking at a little closer.

See, towards the end of the film, Jackson’s character, who’s had something of an epiphany, explains why he quotes the Bible. He confesses that, in the context of the pseudo-passage, he’s been “the tyranny of evil men”, but he’s now trying to be the shepherd.

Now that’s interesting, because shepherds, good and bad, are a theme in Ezekiel. Flick forward nine chapters in the actual Bible, and you’ll see that Ezekiel 34 is an extended attack on the bad shepherds – leaders of Israel who are leading their people astray. That’s the problem with Jackson’s speech – the people meant to be shepherds have been dropping the ball, leaving one person to take over, God himself. Hence the other famous passage about shepherds alluded to in Tarantino’s speech, Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing…even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil…“). In other words, when religious and political leaders drop the ball, God himself takes up the slack. And that’s why there’s an emphasis in John’s gospel on Jesus being, yep, the Good Shepherd. We can also cross reference that with the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke, which is a parable of redemption.

I guess this ties in to the other famous story refered to in Jackson’s speech – “For he is truly his brother’s keeper” echos “Am I my brother’s keeper?” from Genesis 4. Here it’s a dismissive thing – Cain’s stroppy response to God asking where Abel is (the answer is that Cain’s murdered his brother and God’s about to bust him). There’s a sense in which the murder is only a part of Cain’s crime – in one violent act, he’s also shattered the bonds of family and community as well (possibly out of arrogance and an identity crisis). “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, yes, you are, and you’ve screwed up. To show his divorce from society, Cain ends up as a “restless wanderer upon the earth.”

That’s why the more aspirational use of the phrase in Pulp Fiction sounds right – it echoes the idea of loving your neighbour, of going the extra mile, of healing the wounds inflected by Cain. Jackson’s character says he’s going to “walk the earth” like another Caine (the guy from the show Kung Fu). Hmm.

So there you go; the quote version of Ezekiel may not be real, but it has echoes of the actual Bible, some of which tie in with the wider plot of the film. And it reveals another truth, less important but nevertheless cool:

The Bible always sounds awesomes when it’s read by Samuel L. Jackson.

King Saul and the Witch of Endor: It’s not about the Ewoks (1 Samuel 28:3-25)

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I’ve been writing this blog long enough to be comfortable in making a confession: some biblical stories are just awkward.

Especially when they take place in Endor, which as far as I’m concerned is a moon in Return of the Jedi.

Here’s the deal: while Saul is still nominally king of Israel, he’s been rejected by God. The new king in waiting, David, is growing in strength, and the metaphorical wheels have come off Saul’s reign. He finds himself facing a serious battle with the Philistines, and while it’s standard practice to ask God what to do in this situation, the doomed Saul is getting no reply.

This is where it gets messy.

None of the usual means of enquiring from God are working, so Saul tells his servants to find him a witch.

This is how far from grace Saul has fallen. Leviticus 20:6 says “ I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute himself by following them, and I will cut him off from his people.” Saul is on a sticky wicket here, especially as he’s previously outlawed mediums. Now he thinks one will help him get a message from God.

This is why this story is awkward: it works. Or seems to at least. They find a witch, and Saul visits her disguised as an old man. And then something weird happens. She appears to summon up the… Ghost? Spirit? of the prophet Samuel.

I don’t know what to do with this.

On one hand it implies that this stuff is real and dangerous; fair enough, as there’s no evidence that the source of ‘Samuel’s appearance is anything good. Fair enough.

But the message he gives is right. God has rejected Saul, he has appointed David to be king. The battle does end in Saul’s death. So is this God allowing a message through in extraordinary circumstances? Doesn’t that just seem wrong somehow? Am I using too many italics here?

But wait – maybe this whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe, up to this point, Saul had a chance to end his reign in a better way? Maybe the message from ‘Samuel’ messes with Saul’s head so much that it affects the outcome of the battle? The man was tormented by an evil spirit at one point, and maybe shows signs of depression – the decision to visit the witch may have been more catastrophic than he expected. Maybe God’s earlier silence forces Saul to face the consequences of disobedience throughout his reign, leaving him easy prey for whatever spiritual mojo is being used by the witch.

The simple fact is, I don’t know what to do with this story. Saying it warns us not to get involved with mediums is one thing, but there seems to be more going on than that. And I don’t know what that is.

Any ideas? Leave a comment!