Jonah 01 – Contrasts in Caring

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

A (re)introduction to the Minor Prophets

The twelve books at the end of the Old Testament are called The Book of the Twelve, or the Minor Prophets. They are shorter in length than the preceding prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and hence are called “minor” for that reason. I like reading them during Advent (I read Hosea last year and Malachi the year before that) because Advent is a time when we anticipate the return of Jesus, both as a wondrous baby and glorious king. Both events were alluded to by these prophets, and the greater truths evident in the layered history surrounding both Old Testament events and contemporary times continue to make these writings relevant.

An Introduction to Jonah

Jonah getting swallowed by the whale is one of the first Bible stories taught in Sunday School. But there’s a whole second half of the story that I, at least, didn’t remember learning as a child. It’s unique in the Minor Prophets because it focuses upon one linear narrative in Jonah’s life. This linearity is probably one of the reasons it lends itself to Sunday School lessons (along with giant fish and storms and all that cool stuff).

Jonah was written after Israel had regained some of their power and autonomy from Damascus in the early 8th century BC. According to my NIV text notes, Israel had become complacent and vain regarding their special status with God. Prophets like Jonah, Hosea and Amos were sent to warn them out of their spoilt and jealous attitudes. God’s concern for not only Israel, but also the Gentiles, foreshadows Jesus’ arrival and mission. Again, according to my text notes, the book of Jonah “depicts the larger scope of God’s purpose for Israel: that she might rediscover the truth of Xyr concern for the whole creation and that she might better understand her own role in carrying out that concern.” Let me just drive that fact home for a minute: Throughout the Old Testament and the New, God calls first Israel then the followers of Jesus to be priests to the whole world. Their status is special, but not special to the exclusion of everyone else. Instead, that special status is meant as a responsibility to the entire world, a responsibility to be God’s agents on Earth – spreading love and justice and peace to all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Contrasts in Caring

Chapter One of Jonah finds him receiving his charge from God to go and prophesy at Nineveh, a city of Gentiles and enemy of Israel. Jonah flees from this duty; angry, supposedly (as we find out later in the text), that God would send him to warn such a people. He obtains passage on a ship, which is hit by an outrageous storm that is only calmed after Jonah gets thrown overboard by the crew. God takes pity upon Jonah and sends a “great fish” to swallow up Jonah and carry him through the sea. Every step of the way, we see others’ concern for their fellow man, a stark contrast to Jonah’s own callousness.

Take, for example, the captain. He seeks out Jonah, the only man aboard who is not fervently praying through the storm. Side note – I’m wondering if the “deep sleep” that is described in verse five isn’t some sort of depressive state brought on by guilt. Having suffered depression I know how it can cause you to be sleepy and overwhelmed even at the most inopportune times. But back to that captain: his concern is for his crew and the passengers of his ship. “Get up and call on your god!” the captain commands Jonah, “Maybe he will notice us, and we will not perish.”

The relationship between the crew and Jonah is a particularly interesting and educational one. Even after the crew finds out that Jonah is the one who has brought the storm upon the ship, and that Jonah’s god is a god of ultimate divinity, they do not immediately throw him overboard. “Instead,” v. 13 tells us, “the men did their best to row back to land.” You see, familiarity on both sides had instilled a mutual fondness. Jonah offers himself up as a solution. “Throw me into the sea,” he says. Isn’t it interesting that this is a pagan crew, praying to all manner of gods, yet Jonah wants to save them? And isn’t it interesting that they have their salvation right in front of them, yet are reluctant to take it because it means forsaking someone they have come to know personally? I think if more of us reached out to get to know those who are different from us, much as Jonah was forced to do by the proximity of Iron Age sea travel, the more mutual support we would see across all aspects of community. But I’ll step off my soapbox now.

Finally, even God shows concern for Jonah, Xyr wayward prophet, despite having every reason to be mad at him. Instead of drowning in the deep, Jonah is swallowed up by a great fish and carried along in relative (though probably very stinky and dark) safety. Jonah, someone who has forsaken God, is saved by God through no merit of his own but God’s own great love and divine plan.

God is Love

The takeaway? God is patient, God is kind. God sees past religious beliefs, cultural differences, and even personal shortcomings. God acts through the kindness of many different people, and is working through even the recalcitrant among us, like Jonah. God is calling upon us, all of us, to reach out to our neighbor, to care for our community. Because above all, God is love, and God wants to see us foster that love throughout the world. What a wonderful thought for the beginning of Advent, wouldn’t you agree?

Psalm 81 – Be Safe This Thanksgiving

13 “If my people would only listen to me,
    if Israel would only follow my ways,
14 how quickly I would subdue their enemies
    and turn my hand against their foes!
15 Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him,
    and their punishment would last forever.
16 But you would be fed with the finest of wheat;
    with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

This Psalm has so many parallels to todays’ realities, it’s uncanny. First, it takes place at a festival, most likely the Feast of the Tabernacles. Like Thanksgiving, the Feast of the Tabernacles (also called Sukkot) occurs in Autumn, during the harvest-time. It also involves a lot of food, celebrating, and getting together.

Second, many of the words uttered by the “unknown voice” in this Psalm could be uttered from any epidemiologist who warned about the pandemic, if you take out the God language. For example, vv. 13 and 14 would sound something like this: “If only the people would listen, if they would only follow directives. How quickly we could subdue this virus! How quickly we could prove naysayers wrong!”

Finally, and most importantly, the warning against false gods in vv. 8-9. “Hear me, my people, and I will warn you—if you would only listen to me, Israel!  You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not worship any god other than me.” The idea of foreign gods has been on my mind a lot as I listen to travel and infection rate predictions for the holiday weekend. No one (that I know of) is still praying to Molech or Baal, but other “foreign gods,” gods that take us away from the one true God of love, have become much more insidious. How much do we follow Selfishness, Greed, Exceptionalism, and Exclusion? These have become our gods.

Collectively, we allow Selfishness to govern us when we decide to not take precautions during Covid, because it would inconvenience us. Collectively, we allow Greed to govern us when we hoard PPE, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. Collectively, we let Exceptionalism govern us when we think, “but it won’t happen to me.” Collectively, we allow Exclusion to govern us when we refuse to share information, such as vaccine research, and resources, such as more liberal PTO or stimulus checks that mean something. Selfishness, Greed, and all the rest do not have one single altar we can destroy, one high place we can decry, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful, and in following them we have fallen away from God.

I wrote a few weeks ago about our own Thanksgiving’s continually racist traditions, so I’m not going to rehash that right now. Today, all I want to do is urge you, beg you, really, to be safe and prudent this holiday season. I know it’s hard. It is so, so hard. And I’m not trying to shame the people who have to support their family, send their kids to daycare in order to do so, or go on essential travel. But so much of what I see happening out there isn’t that. To make it worse, it isn’t done carefully. I find it disturbing that, despite infection rates skyrocketing past 150,000 new cases per day, there are still large, unmasked gatherings happening. Take, for example, the Million MAGA March, or Polyface Farm’s 300 person mask-less pop-up event, which in the last paragraph of the event description categorically denies the CDC, accepted contagion theories, and basic protective measures.

So please, remember that we are all children of God. God loves each and every one of us, and therefore we should love each other, too. One of the best ways we can do that right now is by keeping each other safe and healthy. Perhaps you won’t get sick, but in moving across the country you could bring one community’s infection back home to your own, where it will kill someone’s grandmother, someone’s partner, someone’s child. The time for festivals, gatherings, and celebration will come again, but only if we are patient and restrained now.

Leviticus 03 – Gratitude and Generosity with Fellowship Offerings

“‘If your offering is a fellowship offering, and you offer an animal from the herd, whether male or female, you are to present before the Lord an animal without defect. You are to lay your hand on the head of your offering and slaughter it at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall splash the blood against the sides of the altar. From the fellowship offering you are to bring a food offering to the Lord: the internal organs and all the fat that is connected to them, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins, and the long lobe of the liver, which you will remove with the kidneys. Then Aaron’s sons are to burn it on the altar on top of the burnt offering that is lying on the burning wood; it is a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Today’s chapter talks about Fellowship Offerings. Fellowship Offerings are a voluntary act of worship made in gratitude to God, and are also the only burnt offerings that include a communal meal. These offerings, sometimes translated as Peace Offerings, symbolize peace and wholeness between the offerer, the congregation, and God. As it is a recognition of peace and gratitude, as well as communal, I think this might be my favorite offering.

If you didn’t read the chapter, basically it talks about pulling the fat off the animal and dedicating it to God’s altar. There seem to be two schools of thought on why this fat was so important:

Fat as a choice cut

First, that in offering God the fat of the animal, we are offering something of value – a choice cut, if you will. The fat, nowadays all too often ignored, has historically been viewed as one of the best parts of the animal. Loaded with energy, helpful in cognitive function, and easily rendered into shelf-stable products like tallow and lard, fat is also what makes meat flavorful. A fun little side note about why this chapter makes special stipulations for lambs’ tails: there is a breed of sheep common in the Middle East (and thought to be raised by ancient Israelites) that has a particularly large and fatty tail. It is, according to my reading, delectable. I, for one, am a huge fan of oxtail (the fatty, meaty tail of a cow) so have no doubt that’s true. Taken as such, this offering is a symbolic gesture of giving God our best. In gratitude and thanksgiving, worshipers were giving God the choicest cuts, which, at the time, included lambs’ tail.

Fat as a symbolic covering

A second hypothesis to why the fat is so important as to be dedicated to God is that it is a protective covering. To oversimplify a concept about which many, many volumes have been written: Much of Levitical law has to do with making sure that holiness and uncleanliness don’t cross-contaminate. Often, things were ritually cleansed. But just as often, they were ritually covered, thereby protecting the mundane from the divine and vice versa. The fat that covers an animal’s inner organs is a protective covering, and therefore highly symbolic of the many layers of covering and separation that Levitical priests were responsible for maintaining. (I have to thank the guys over at Almost Heretical for introducing me to this idea – if you want to explore it further you can listen to episodes 84-88. Also, Mary Douglas may have been the first to explore this idea from an anthropological standpoint, and I read her 1993 paper “Atonement in Leviticus” with great interest – available on JSTOR.).

Jesus as fulfillment of Levitical Law

In perhaps the most important blog entry I’ve written so far, I discuss how the faith of Jesus Christ (as opposed to faith in Jesus Christ) allowed his blood to become the ritual covering and purification that we needed to be in fellowship with God all the time. Thus, Jesus didn’t render Levitical law obsolete. Rather, he fulfilled it by fully and completely atoning for our sins and fully and completely cleansing and anointing the world. Jesus is the choicest cut of humanity, if you will, and his blood – like the fat of fellowship offerings before him – ritualistically covers our mundanity so we may commune with the divine.

Generosity and Gratitude

Luke 12:48 reads “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” And through Jesus, we have been given everything. To be in fellowship with God is a joyous thing, but it is also a responsibility. Nowadays that doesn’t mean ritually burning intestinal fat from a sheep’s stomach, but we can still learn from this chapter, recognizing it as a metaphor for doing good work in God’s name. When we give – whether to the church, or an organization, or a friend – we need to do it freely and in good faith. When we receive, let us be truly thankful. And let us continue to look for ways to keep giving and keep being thankful.

Being generous and thankful is harder said than done, especially right now with a global pandemic, contentious political season, and ongoing denial of human rights for everyone from Syrian refugees to Black Americans. Just yesterday I told my husband that I am really afraid – I truly believe that the democratic USA might not survive the next four years. Fear is normal, and necessary. But it does not negate our need to be generous and thankful. In fact, being generous and thankful right now is probably of the utmost importance. Joy can be an act of defiance in and of itself. It is our responsibility, as Christians, to spread that joy. We must exercise the virtues of generosity and gratitude because it is exactly what the world needs more of, in the face of fear.

Once more I want to reiterate the fact that God made this special fellowship offering so all worshipers could have communion with God. The meat is shared between the altar, the priests, and the worshipers. It is an invitation from God to be with Xyr in celebration and gratitude. It is up to us to accept that invitation. Now that we are fully covered in Jesus’ blood, we are able to do so all the time. We won’t always live up to the standards set for us, but that’s the great thing about Jesus: we get to keep trying. So try with me, won’t you? Let us be generous and grateful in the world, counteracting fear with joy. Let us continue to bring God our best, in good faith and in loving fellowship.

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