October 31, 2008

Ogre God vs. Gentle Jesus?

[This essay is based on the idea that Jesus' understanding of the OT must be the key to unraveling the apparent conflict between his teachings and those of the Mosaic era.]

It's a curious thing that when we read the stories of the Torah (the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament) most people see a God of wrath and vengeance, a divine tyrant, not to be trifled with. Yet, in the New Testament, when Jesus taught, he spoke of God as Father (or 'Abba', an even more familiar title) and urged his followers to do likewise. Are we missing something? Did Jesus know something we don't? Is God an ogre, or is there more to the story?

It appears that Jesus was well aware that there were parts of the Judaic scriptures, especially, the Torah, that were misunderstood, even misused, over the centuries up to his day. In numerous places, he corrects the misapprehensions of his Jewish listeners, and, naturally, can only use quotations from their holy writ to illustrate his case.

The most notable occasion was the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5) in which he explicitly tells his audience, in effect, 'The Law of Moses says this, but now I'm telling you what the actual intent behind the words really is.' In each example he cites, the spiritual intent of the written law goes far beyond the superficial meaning of the words. E.g. It states 'Thou shalt not kill,' but it really means you should not do anything to bring harm of any kind to another person. While some zealots think that what Jesus was doing was simply raising the performance bar for all disciples, the truth is far more transcendent. Jesus was demonstrating that the intent behind all law is so high that in reality, no human can possibly attain to it! Are we to just give up, then? No; by no means! What the neophyte Christian comes to understand is that only one human could ever live up to the holy, divine standard-- and his name is Jesus. And importantly, each one of us can partake, vicariously, in his perfect life (and have it ascribed to our record) by entering into covenant relationship with Christ. We do that by believing in him, and accepting him as our 'Lord and savior,' which is symbolically attested to thru baptism. What most preachers fail to teach from the Sermon on the Mount is how Jesus concluded it, by enunciating the 'Golden Rule,' and openly stating that it encapsulates the 'Law and the Prophets' (see Matt 7:12).

Jesus acknowledged the harshness of the Mosaic Law, for example, when he taught "Moses' Law says 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;' but I tell you if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other." No scholar advises that this is to be taken literally, but the spiritual intent is not obvious. I think Jesus wants his followers to forget about exacting revenge; instead, look for peaceful ways to defuse the situation. But, it does appear that he is contradicting the scriptures. What Jesus was trying to do is (as we say today) raise the consciousness of his listeners; to move them beyond the old mentality of equal retribution, to a higher road. And there's little doubt, he was in fact indicating that the Mosaic system was intended for that particular time for the Israelites in their particular circumstances of the day. God cut them some slack, in other words; but it was not an eternal or universal covenant.

Daniel's prophecy of 9:24 gives the life-span of the old system, from Daniel's day. ["Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.] As scholars know, it outlines 490 years ('seventy sevens') remaining before a number of spiritual goals were to be accomplished. Other verses disclose that they would be achieved by 'the Anointed One,' the Messiah to come. Precisely on schedule, Jesus appeared, and in his three and a half year ministry, completed the mission prophesied in Dan 9:24. In accomplishing these goals, Jesus fulfilled all the prophecy and foreshadowing of the previous 13 centuries from Moses (see Matt 11:13), and introduced a new system, one based on mature, spiritual relationship, not on legalistic adherence to rules.

Yet, he demonstrated to his listeners, friend and critic alike, that the essence of his new system was, in fact, to be found back in the Torah. For example, when the lawyer challenged Jesus, 'which is the greatest commandment?' (which sure sounds like a childish question typical of the average church member), his answer was drawn right from the books of Moses (Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18). Another time, the Pharisees accused his followers of 'gathering food on the Sabbath,' and he responded with a story from David, where the King and his men ate the 'show-bread' from the temple, against ritual law. Jesus' point (which religionists today would do well to heed) was that in any case of human need or charity, the existence of ritual, prohibiting laws is never to take precedence. The same principle was drilled home when he was accused of healing on the Sabbath, and he pointed out that they don't hesitate to pull an animal out of a ditch on Sabbath, so why can't someone heal a human on Sabbath?

Everywhere, Jesus was trying to get his dull hearers to understand that God is not a tyrant, out to get people by throwing the book at them over any breach of the letter of the law. That is what I call good news! (The gospel). Sadly, most people didn't get it, back then in his day; and neither do they get it even in today's churches. Most people are like the group who approached Jesus (in John 6:28-29) and asked what should we do to do what God wants? That's what we like: just tell us what to do, and we'll do it. Jesus' reply was (too) simple: believe in God and the one He sent! Apparently, In Jesus' mind, he didn't see an angry, vengeful God in the scriptures-- so why should we?

So, the mental picture we have of the God in the OT as a mean-spirited, omnipotent grinch has to be adjusted to accord with the portrait painted by Jesus in the NT. We don't fully understand how God was dealing with His chosen people of those ancient times, when they progressed from an extended family clan living under Egyptian law, to a 'nation' in need of a constitution as they were led toward a homeland. He had to give them a 'package' of civil, health, moral, and spiritual guidelines. We don't know with certainty where God's laws end and where Moses' interpretations and codicils begin. As we see, Jesus doesn't focus at all on the prohibitions listed at length in Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Instead, he finds the little gems that encapsulate the essence of Godly living.

For Christians, it is not productive to focus on the old stories of the Israelites invading and capturing their promised land by the edge of the sword and the spilling of much blood. The original promise of God was that His people would NOT have to fight to take their homeland, because God would drive out the existing inhabitants. But, the Israelites couldn't 'buy it,' and they took matters into their own hands, battling their way into Canaan by force of arms. Rather than abandon these willful rebels, God altered His plan, and went along with the bloody program, that ended up taking 40 years to complete. Some 13 centuries later, Jesus came along to institute a spiritual revolution, a paradigm shift as we'd label it. The whole, 'sub-optimal' program based on the Law of Moses, and specific to the descendents of Jacob/Israel, was to be superceded with the original covenant that was made with (actually, for) Abraham, almost 2,000 years before Christ. That covenant was based not on works, rules, and temple sacrifices, but on simple faith in God. ('Abraham believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.') Abraham, and many after him, enjoyed the benefits of that covenant, but it was only ratified ('confirmed' as per Dan 9:27) when Jesus did the work outlined in Daniel 9:24. Looking at the whole span of existent holy scripture, we can see how stunningly integral it really is. The eternal covenant is inaugurated with Abraham, implied in the Sinai, temple/sacrificial system, prophesied by the prophets, especially Daniel, and then finally confirmed by the Anointed One. It's truly amazing! The full cycle took roughly 2,000 years; and here we are, some 2,000 years after the fulfillment by Christ, awaiting his promised return. And yet, many ostensible Christians are trying to live life by looking in the rear-view mirror, convinced they are bound by the Law of Moses, and hence, still looking over their shoulder for the angry God who's seeking to throw that old book of the law at them. Worse still, those whose understanding ends with the Old Testament books, seem to believe that if Israel of old could get what they want by force, waging war, then it must be expedient today to gain what we want by force. Hence, the American evangelicals are manipulated by fast-talking preachers into supporting US and Israeli aggression in foreign affairs on the basis of 'hastening the hand of God,' or implementing God's promises on His behalf! It boggles the rational, Christian mind. Truly sad.

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