Ezekiel 25 – Pulp Fiction and the Bible

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, set your face against the Ammonites and prophesy against them. 3 Say to them, ‘Hear the word of the Sovereign Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you said “Aha!” over my sanctuary when it was desecrated and over the land of Israel when it was laid waste and over the people of Judah when they went into exile, 4 therefore I am going to give you to the people of the East as a possession. They will set up their camps and pitch their tents among you; they will eat your fruit and drink your milk. 5 I will turn Rabbah into a pasture for camels and Ammon into a resting place for sheep. Then you will know that I am the Lord. 6 For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet, rejoicing with all the malice of your heart against the land of Israel, 7 therefore I will stretch out my hand against you and give you as plunder to the nations. I will wipe you out from among the nations and exterminate you from the countries. I will destroy you, and you will know that I am the Lord.’”

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because Moab and Seir said, “Look, Judah has become like all the other nations,” therefore I will expose the flank of Moab, beginning at its frontier towns—Beth Jeshimoth, Baal Meon and Kiriathaim—the glory of that land. 10 I will give Moab along with the Ammonites to the people of the East as a possession, so that the Ammonites will not be remembered among the nations; 11 and I will inflict punishment on Moab. Then they will know that I am the Lord.’”

12 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because Edom took revenge on Judah and became very guilty by doing so, 13 therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will stretch out my hand against Edom and kill both man and beast. I will lay it waste, and from Teman to Dedan they will fall by the sword. 14 I will take vengeance on Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they will deal with Edom in accordance with my anger and my wrath; they will know my vengeance, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

15 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because the Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts, and with ancient hostility sought to destroy Judah, 16 therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will wipe out the Kerethites and destroy those remaining along the coast. 17 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.’”

Does something about this passage ring a vague bell to you? How about if we read v. 17 as written in the King James Bible: “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”

It’s the basis for the Jules Winnfield quote in Pulp Fiction, which turns 25 years old this week. I just so happened to stumble across that fact last week when we watched the movie with both our farm employees. I thought, Oh, I can totally do a blog post about that passage and have it be pop-culture relevant, so here we go!

Tarantino added a lot of extra stuff to the Jules Winnfield Bible verse that isn’t actually in the real Bible verse.  In fact, the whole first half is made up.  But the second half is more or less correct.  I can see why this verse would appeal to Tarantino. Pulp Fiction is a nihilistic, violent, technicolor carnival ride of a movie, and you could say the same thing about Ezekiel’s time in ministry.

Ezekiel’s prophetic calling started seven years before the destruction of the first temple of Jerusalem, and continued for about fifteen years after its destruction.  (I read the NIV study notes.)  In the twenty-ish years preceding the 586 BC destruction of the temple, Jerusalem had had five regents, seen the rise of Nebuchadnezzar – who had laid siege to the city once before coming back and completely destroying it, and had also watched other great cities, including the Assyrian’s Nineveh, fall.  Nihilistic and violent, indeed.  On top of that, Ezekiel’s prophecies and visions were often wild and sometimes even performative.  In the chapter preceding the one we’re studying today, God literally smote Ezekiel’s wife and directed how Ezekiel should mourn as a living analogy for how the Jewish people would mourn for their lost temple. In this chapter, Ezekiel basically promises death and destruction for everyone: the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Philistines.  And next week, we’ll study the Bible story that always freaked me out as a kid: Ezekiel being sent to raise an army from dry bones. All of that is pretty technicolor wild, and sounds like it could be right out a fast-paced Tarantino flick.

But besides being an awesome place to pull hard-core movie quotes, what can we learn from this chapter?  As indicated in by-line, and as I’ll mention again:  this blog is all about finding Biblical evidence for the radical, inclusive love of God in an effort to fight hypocrisy, injustice and all this -isms and -phobias of the world: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia.  I’ll be honest, I don’t know if this is the best chapter to find radical love.  But you know what I did see?  The omnipotence of God.  The sixth century Sinai Peninsula (and surrounding areas) was a crazy place full of regime changes, violence, and ruined cities.  But even then, God was there, showing the future to Ezekiel so he could warn the Israelites. His people were embattled and broken – in punishment for their sins, according to Ezekiel and other prophets – but even in their punishment, God never fully abandoned them.  It kind of reminds me of a cosmic version of when I stand outside the door listening to my two year old in time-out, timing the best moment to bring her out.  She may feel temporarily abandoned, and angry at me, but I’m still there, even if she can’t see me.

God was angry with all of Israel’s neighbors for rejoicing in its defeat and plundering the land; and God was angry with Israel for doubting Xyr love and protection.  We do essentially the same thing when we smugly dismiss someone’s troubles – such as the persistent institutional racism that people of color have to face on a daily basis. We do the same thing when we exploit the earth through strip mining, over-fishing, or unsustainable agricultural practices. We do the same thing when we turn a blind eye to the exploitation of garment-workers, migrant farmers, and victims of sex trafficking.  This world is God’s creation and we are all God’s children, and if we ignore that, we are no better than the proud and doomed Edomites or other peoples of this chapter.

Let’s learn from the fallen Israel of the Old Testament: let us not be rebellious against God.  Because God is always here with us, and will know our mistakes. Fortunately we have a different relationship now with God through Jesus Christ – one of forgiveness and redemption.  But we shouldn’t treat it as a “get out of jail free” card. Instead, let’s give thanks that our God is a kind and generous God, and work to extend that kindness and generosity to all who might not feel it in their lives.  As this passage makes clear, vengeance only begets more vengeance.  While that makes for a great movie, it’s not a life I want to live.  As Jules Winnfield says, “Blessed is he who, in the name of the 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.” Amen, Jules, amen.

 

Leviticus 10 – Nadab and Abihu

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:

“‘Among those who approach me
    I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
    I will be honored.’”

Aaron remained silent.

Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.” So they came and carried them, still in their tunics, outside the camp, as Moses ordered.

Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the Israelites, may mourn for those the Lord has destroyed by fire. Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said.

Then the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, 10 so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.”

12 Moses said to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Take the grain offering left over from the food offerings prepared without yeast and presented to the Lord and eat it beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 Eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is your share and your sons’ share of the food offerings presented to the Lord; for so I have been commanded. 14 But you and your sons and your daughters may eat the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. Eat them in a ceremonially clean place; they have been given to you and your children as your share of the Israelites’ fellowship offerings. 15 The thigh that was presented and the breast that was waved must be brought with the fat portions of the food offerings, to be waved before the Lord as a wave offering. This will be the perpetual share for you and your children, as the Lord has commanded.”

16 When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and asked, 17 “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord. 18 Since its blood was not taken into the Holy Place, you should have eaten the goat in the sanctuary area, as I commanded.”

19 Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” 20 When Moses heard this, he was satisfied.

It is October, the month of Halloween, so I thought we might read some scary Bible stories.  Why I thought this would be a light-hearted idea I’m not sure, because things get real extra-fast.  But I’m going to stick with it, because there are some really thought-provoking stories here.

A little background for this first story about Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu.  Aaron was Moses’ brother, and the first high priest of the New Covenant God made with Israel after delivering them out of Egypt.  He was consecrated as priest, along with his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu.  All three of them literally saw God during a special worship at the base of the mountain.  Now, the first seven chapters of Leviticus go into great detail about how the Lord is supposed to be worshiped in this New Covenant, specifically how offerings should be made.  And there’s a lot: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering – all topics for another day.  Then, chapters eight and nine specifically deal with the ordination of the priests and detail how they begin their ministry in running the offerings.  Everything goes swimmingly – Aaron does all the right things, says all the right words, and the Fire of the Lord comes down to consume the burnt offerings and all of Israel sees his presence and falls down and worships in joy.

Now, the above-mentioned fire from God is important, because it was an unauthorized fire, in other words fire made by man, the Nadab and Abihu brought to altar when it was their turn to make offerings.  As an aside – not only was it unauthorized fire, it was fire all tarted up, if you will, by added incense.  Long story short – actually, short story made longer via explanation, but whatever – by bringing this man-made fire to the altar, Nadab and Abihu were indicating one of two things: either that they held the power to consume the burnt offerings alongside God, or that they didn’t trust God to send holy fire to consume said burnt offerings.

Either way, God literally just established a new covenant with Israel, and can’t have these new priests going rogue so early in the game.  Nadab and Abihu’s deaths were a signal to Israel that God alone is almighty – only God has the power to consume the burnt offerings; and that God is always ready to act – holy fire will always be sent for the burnt offering, and sin can and will be punished when it happens.

That is one punitive God, and I hope not the same one that I’m counting on.  This story has, in fact, opened up some uncomfortable lines of questioning for me, which have lain dormant for some time.  In a nutshell, is God as omnipotent as loving as we would wish Xyr to be?

In college I first came across the idea of the evolution of God in Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God.  I’m paraphrasing like crazy here, but basically there is a line of thought that believes the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament.  Either a lesser God was overthrown and replaced with a new God, or the old God turned into something new with the arrival of Jesus.  And there is plenty of evidence to support this idea:  The God of the Old Testament looks nothing like Jesus and the Holy Father.  The Old Testament God is vengeful and punitive – wiping entire villages or nations out because they have committed some offense or stand in the way of God’s chosen people.  Additionally, the Old Testament God “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh and others so that they won’t listen to the warnings of holy men, like Moses, which just seems unnecessarily cruel to everyone involved.

The God of the Old Testament kills his priests after one mistake.  Not a warning, not a demotion or removal from office, not even banishment: straight to an abrupt and painful death without warning.  And then, their father isn’t even allowed to fully mourn for them.  Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, makes it clear to Aaron that he and his remaining sons have to keep on fulfilling their duties in the Temple:  No ripping their clothes or letting their hair grow long (traditional signs of mourning), they must keep up their ceremonial dietary restrictions, and no drinking.  They aren’t even allowed to leave and bury the bodies of these two dead sons because that would make them ceremonially unclean. How poor Aaron must feel I can only imagine.  His marked silence in verse three speaks volumes. The words he must be holding back in grief, in fear, in anger are too much for any spoken language.  When he does finally speak, in verse nineteen, we can still hear his anguish.  “Such things as this have happened to me today,” he says, referring to his sons’ deaths. “Would the Lord be have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?”  Aaron is too deep in mourning to provide the grateful heart necessary for receiving the gifts from God’s altar.  He recognizes that in himself, and instead of bringing further wrath upon his own person, he abstains as respectfully as possible.  Additionally, fasting may have been the only way he could actively and outwardly mourn his sons given the circumstances.

What hard, vindictive God would wound a father so?  Specifically a man he called to be the first high priest of a New Covenant with a chosen people?  Clearly, this is a different God than the God of forgiveness, of pure love, that we come to know through Jesus Christ.

So what happened?  Did God change?  Because an evolution of God would imply that God was not perfect and whole at one point, and therefore may not be perfect now.  It also means it might be possible for our God of Love to change again, into something new and even better than a God of Love, or back into something more demanding and vengeful.  The idea of an imperfect, changeable God – or even worse, a God who can be challenged and even overthrown by another deity – is a terrifying prospect.  It would mean the rock upon which we have founded our faith as Christians is not as stable as we were lead to believe.

I’m not ready to believe the foundation of my faith is unstable.  Perhaps some people will call the explanation I’m about to give a textbook example of rationalizing – but really, isn’t any theological talk just rationalizing in some form or another?  There really is no way to know God, that is why faith is required of us instead.  But here’s the conclusion I came to:  God has not changed, but we have.

Let’s go back to parenting again, my favorite long-running analogy.  Your relationship with your parents changes as you get older.  You go from complete dependence to complete independence.  Their authority goes from total authority to varying degrees of influence, depending upon the relationship you have with them.  As hard as the God of the Old Testament seems, perhaps that was the God that Israel needed then.  The punishment of Nadab and Abihu was swift and severe, especially from today’s standpoint.  But remember: the covenant with Israel had just been established – this is a nation brand new in it’s faith.  Yes, the Israelites had been worshiping Yahweh for some time, but it was a completely new chapter with new rules (literally new rules, like the ten commandments) in a new country.  Boundaries had to be established, and quickly.  The extreme reaction to Nadab and Abihu’s unauthorized offering helped establish those boundaries and demonstrate the God was very much in charge.  You know, the more I think about it the less it sounds like parenting (because what newborn is really going to challenge your authority?) and more like training a puppy: as an owner, you have to establish your alpha position early on.  But I think the underlying point is clear:  God was demonstrating Xyr power.

I also want to point out that nowhere are Nadab and Abihu condemned beyond death.  While their brothers and father are not allowed to participate in their funeral rites, they do, in fact, receive funeral rites, officiated by their cousins and uncle.  In this I take great comfort.  I like to think that their death was the only atonement needed for their sin of arrogance, and that on the other side of it God said something to them along the lines of,  “I had to make an example of you two, you understand.  Your presumptuousness could not be the leading example for the new covenant with Israel, and had to be dealt with harshly.  Your deaths have served a great purpose, all is now right and you are fully forgiven.  Come and be with me now, my children.”

I don’t think we’re fully spiritually mature yet, but it’s a phase I’m looking forward to.  I’m blessed with a good relationship with my parents. Getting to know them as adults has been really wonderful. When you think about it, it is an amazing thing to have someone who has known and loved me since before I’ve even known myself.  I’m mature enough now to hear family stories – both funny and sad – that perhaps I wasn’t privy to as a child and allow for a lot of family and personal insight.  They trust me in (most of my) decisions but can still offer sound advice when I need it.  I want that kind of relationship with God, too.  My ardent hope is that we are, collectively, older and wiser than the Israelites wandering around the desert, new in their faith.  I hope that we have grown, and that our relationship with God has grown into one where we are ready for more than just a God of strict discipline, but a God of love and forgiveness.  Like good children, even and maybe especially good adult children, let’s keep working to prove to God that this is true, and in turn I have a feeling that our relationship with God will just keep getting better.  Perhaps one day we’ll even be able to ask God directly about Nadab and Abihu, and fully understand all sides of the story.  Lord, let it be so.

3 John – A Letter Between Friends

The elder,

To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

As a 21st century woman married to and mother of minority individuals, I must admit I read the Bible with a highly skeptical eye: one that seeks out the less than noble impulses of the writers and compilers.  I am quick to find the sexist, racist, and power-hungry undertones in a passage.  I’ll be honest: the first impressions I got from this book were that it was divisive, complaining, and controlling.  But the longer I sat with it, the more I was able to see God’s true message of love and friendship shine through.

This little book is fascinating from a historical point of view:  We get a glimpse of how the early church was working and forming, how different people and factions were jostling for control.  First, the Gnostics. Remember, a theme throughout John’s letters is his concern that Gnosticism might infiltrate the wider church.  While not as directly referenced here as in 2 John, that concern is still indirectly visible.  Basically John is saying,”Hey, don’t accept those doing evil, like those Gnostics. Instead, here’s my letter of recommendation for Demetrius – someone with a message I personally approved.”  Second, this Diotrephes guy.  John almost sounds like a little old church lady here, doesn’t he?  Maybe that’s just a fault of translation, but accusing someone of “loving to be first” and of spreading “malicious nonsense” just sounds like church lady accusations. That, coupled with the sending of a warning letter and promising to call Diotrephes out in person makes me picture John in a Sunday hat and a jello-salad in hand, quivering from head to toe in self-righteous anger.  Clearly, I’m poking a little fun at John here, but as discussed in 2 John, these early factions were of real concern, as they often did lead to schisms in the church.  There were people (including John) who knew Jesus personally still living at the time of this writing, and even with that close-to-the-source knowledge, we already see these factions – like Gnosticism and Cerinthianism – peeling away.

But why was this letter included in the Bible? It seems rather petty, doesn’t it?  John accuses Diotrephes of gossiping, but it doesn’t seem like John is doing much better here.  This short letter is a catalog of various in-fighting. Were there no other more uplifting and noble letters left behind by any of the other apostles?

There were lots of books left out of the New Testament, as it turns out.  Some of clearly dubious authorship, and others that required more debate. It seems generally accepted that the New Testament wasn’t canonized (aka set in stone, if you will) until the first half of the fourth century.  And the truth is, we may never know why, exactly, early church leaders decided to include this letter instead of, say, the Gospel of Thomas.  Perhaps these books are truly divinely inspired, which is where many online articles on the subject of New Testament canonization leave it.  Maybe it’s a little faithless of me, but the inclusion of 3 John just seems more like something man would do than God. My guess is that early church leaders liked the historical aspect of the book, and can claim that “true Christianity” won out over the warring factions that John faced.   This is a letter in which church leaders can point to and say, “See? We’re winning!  We are right and they are wrong!  John faced this sort of resistance, too, and our [insert any cause, belief, or crusade here] is righteous and justified.” In short, I worry that this book is one that can be used by those doing harm, by those so convinced that their way is right they have become blind to the love and guidance of God, to justify their bigoted beliefs.  It’s a book that encourages Christians to feel at war with anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs, especially to be at war with other Christians who don’t share their beliefs.

That sounds awfully jaded, I know.  But one of the amazing things about Jesus is his message can transcend petty human politics.  So even if this book was included in the New Testament for more worldly than divine reasons, God can still speak to us through it.  Let me tell you what else I got out of this book, and what I believe we should focus upon. It is, above all else, a letter of encouragement between friends.  John opens his letter with a kind wish: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health.” He calls Gaius “dear friend” four times in these fourteen short verses.  He offers Gaius encouragement in the face of adversity, and sends help in the form of Demitrius.  He praises, advises, and commiserates with Gaius.  In short, John is an exemplary friend in this letter.

Also, it’s critical to point out that even though John disagrees with Diotrephes, he is still reaching out.  John mentions having already sent Diotrephes a letter.  He has sent emissaries to Diotrephes’ church.  John even plans on addressing the problem in person (health and time permitting – remember, he’s an old man at this point). “If I come,” John says in v. 10, “I will call attention to what he is doing.”  This, I think, is so different than many warring factions within the church today.  We would rather hurl insults at each other than reach out to each other and try to resolve our differences.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think anyone should suffer toxic abuse, and it is 100% okay to cut vitriolic, hateful people out of your life for the sake of your own mental well-being (and definitely for your personal safety, should it sadly come to that).  But if we continue to reach out to those different than us, my firm belief is that we will, eventually, win them over.  “Kill them with kindness” was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings.  Somebody will always manage to do so, but it’s generally hard to hate someone who is warm and open and caring, even if they are completely different than you.

This week I encourage you to be firm in your beliefs while at the same time being caring towards others.  That’s a hard balance to strike.  But kindness, coupled with strong conviction, can go a long way towards making a difference.  Just look at John: his conviction in Jesus Christ helped shaped the Christianity we know today.   The next question is, how will our belief in Jesus shape the world going forward?