Romans 10 – Why we should read the WHOLE Bible

The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

Jesus quotes the Old Testament about forty-five times, depending upon who you ask and what you’re counting as a quote.  Other New Testament writers also use the Old Testament.  Paul quotes the Old Testament eleven times in this chapter alone. (The segment of the chapter I’ve included above is a quote from Deuteronomy.)  The previous chapter quotes the old testament ten times.  I think this should be reason enough for us to read the Old Testament: if it was important enough for Jesus, then it should be important enough for me.  But lots of Christians (I’m looking at you especially, Red Letter followers) decide not to read most of the Bible.

The Bible is dense and esoteric in many places, especially in the Old Testament.  It’s gruesome and cruel in many places, too. That can take a lot of mental energy.  So while I’m a proponent of all Christians reading the Bible, I also don’t think we need to rush through reading the whole Bible. Those read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans have their place, but I think they hurry you through some things that probably deserve more than a day’s thought.  Just look at this blog – at the risk of scaring you off, it’s going to take me about seven years to get through this whole thing, chapter by chapter.

The cultural influence of the Bible cannot be overstated.

If nothing else, we owe it to ourselves to read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, in order to understand the profound, ongoing influence it has on our culture.  In fact, the best secular argument I’ve seen for reading the Old Testament comes from (in his own words) a “lax, non-Hebrew speaking  Jew,” a “hopeless and angry agnostic,” Slate contributor and author of Good Book, David Plotz.  Plotz gives us an example (from this Slate Article) of just how influential even the seemingly un-important books can be:

“I thought for a few minutes about the cultural markers in Daniel, a late, short, and not hugely important book. What footprints has it left on our world? First, Daniel is thrown in the “lions’ den” and King Belshazzar sees “the writing on the wall.” These are two metaphors we can’t live without. The “fiery furnace” that Daniel’s friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions’ den, sealing in a holy man who won’t stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus. Daniel inspired the novel The Book of Daniel and the TV show The Book of Daniel. It’s even a touchstone for one of my favorite good-bad movies, A Knight’s Tale. That movie’s villain belittles hero Heath Ledger by declaring, “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting”—which is what the writing on the wall told Belshazzar.”

At the least, it’s an intellectual pleasure to connect these dots.  More importantly, it helps us understand the cultural assumptions and historic pressures that may be exerting invisible influence in our lives.  Which segues me from my secular reason to my religious reason for reading the Old Testament:

If we don’t read the Bible, someone else will do it for us and tell us what to believe.

Let me give you an example from my own life, one that I think many around my age can probably identify with:  As a teenager and young adult, I believed that homosexuality was sinful.  I mean, it tells us so right there in the Bible, in black and white, right? And honestly I didn’t think much about it until college, when I had my first gay friends.  When I started questioning whether or not these people whom I had come to know and love were doomed to hell, I got an answer that, I think, was supposed to be comforting, but instead was vague and unsatisfying: “we are all sinners, so it is not for us to cast the first stone upon their sin, but yes, they are indeed sinning.”

That answer felt like it was side-stepping the issue: weakly admitting that we’re all sinners so that church authority wouldn’t have to outright condemn gay people (and maybe scare a few out of their pews, taking their money with them) yet still letting those in power (self-admitted sinners, as you’ll remember) bar people from full fellowship with God. So I started reading the Bible.  I didn’t know what the clobber passages were, and I definitely found a lot of nasty stuff in there, but more than anything I saw a God of love.  Even in the Old Testament, I saw a God of love.  So, how could a God of love condemn people acting out of love?  The readings I hadn’t been pointed to before, the readings I found myself, pointed to the idea that God would not do such a thing.

Then, fast-forward to this blog, and I now have a chance to refute the clobber passages point by point.  I’ve done the two of the seven or so (you can read here and here) and I’m excited to debunk the rest of them as they come up organically.  I no longer believe homosexuality is sinful. I know there are others struggling with the same ideas that my younger self held – blindly following the conclusions of others even though something is unsettled in their heart.  My hope is that they will pick up their Bible and study it for themselves.

Of course, it is important to find good teachers.  I will totally admit I didn’t get half of my material for this blog from just reading the Bible.  I’ve relied on everything from news outlets like HuffPost to scholarly journals like Vetus Testamentum and books from a range of authors (see my 2020 and beyond reading list of non-straight, non-white faith writers here) to help further reveal the depths of the Bible.

The Bible as a constantly evolving source.

I want to end by reminding you that the Bible is not static, to see it as such does it a real disservice.  I can come back to the Bible again and again and learn something new from even the same readings, noticing something I’d never noticed before.  I like to compare it to The Princess Bride – it was my favorite movie to watch with my father as a kid.  (Actually, I think it was his favorite movie to watch with me, and I’m sure he was subtly steering me towards making the decision to watch that movie instead of having to sit through, say, Rainbow Brite or Cinderella, but I digress.)  As a five year old heavily into Princess Culture, The Princess Bride was a princess movie, and I enjoyed it as such.  As I got older, I started getting some of the jokes that went over my head as a kid.  Now that I have kids of my own, the movie is steeped in nostalgia that didn’t exist in years past.  Are any of these enjoyments of the movie “wrong” or “better?”  No, they are all perfectly valid, and ones I wouldn’t have reached if I didn’t come back to the movie again and again.  The same basic principle is true of the Bible as well.

Many have used the Bible to uphold colonialist, racist, and sexist social structures that benefit only a privileged few.  Which is why it is even more important that we read it. “No,” we can say, “you are interpreting that verse wrong, and here’s why.  And while we’re at it, here’s some more verses to further prove our point.”  But that only happens when we read the Bible, become familiar with it, and allow it to guide us, to comfort us, and to challenge us.  Let me reference Isaiah 2:4 to close out this post: If others have used the Bible as a sword, wielding it for evil, let us beat it into a plowshare, turning it into a tool for good. Get reading, folks.

 

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.

 

Matthew 7:1-6 – Judging Others

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

Fun side-story: I actually have been torn to pieces by pigs. At least, one pig took one piece of me.  One afternoon last summer I went out to do afternoon chores and saw that a sow had dropped piglets sooner than expected, so they were in with all the other pigs sans even a nest, which isn’t ideal.  I could see one piglet wedged up beside the feed trough and thought it might be dead, and wanted to get eyes on the other piglets.  I kept a wide berth because I knew the sow would be protective.  What I didn’t count on was the dad being protective, even from my far-away stance.  He gave me a warning gouge in the thigh.  I let all the pigs know who was boss with some wild kicks and a lot of screaming (side side-story: I’ve won two other intimidation contests with boars; I don’t recommend it, you have to be ready-to-murder-with-your-bare-hands angry), and then drove myself to urgent care where I got my giant puncture wound and trailing gash cleaned and stitched up.  Oh, the stupid piglet was totally fine, by the way.

I definitely tell this story to interns to boost my own bad-ass factor, as well as drive home how dangerous the pigs can be.  But you know what this story really is?  A series of stupid mistakes on my part.  Stupid mistake number one: I know what keyed up pigs sounds like, and should have been paying more attention to the others, not just the sow.  Stupid mistake number two:  a few extra buckets of feed dumped on the ground well away from the piglet might have allowed me a better (safer) look at it.  Stupidest mistake of all: trying to check on the piglet from inside the fence in the first place.  That definitely should have been an evaluate-and-strategize-from-the-outside sort of job.

This whole judging others bit of the Sermon on the Mount is an invitation from Jesus to check our egos and our stupid.  You do not throw your pearls to pigs, because they will trample them and they will turn on you.  You also don’t get into a pissing contest with a skunk (a saying a first heard from my mother-in-law and absolutely adore).  These metaphors are telling us to save our wisdom for those ready to hear it, and to recognize that we don’t have all the answers, or even all the facts to make the answers.  I cannot tell you how many times I have gone off half-cocked, biting Chris’ head off for something I think he did. Just the other night I bitched at him for losing his temper with Betty over a little spilled milk while I was out of the room for less than a minute.  Turns out, it wasn’t just an accident, she was being a little snot, pouring it on her dinner, and then throwing the sippy cup when Chris transferred said milk into a less pour-able container.  We got in a huge fight, and I had to sheepishly apologize when I heard what had actually happened.  I feel like these sort of slap-down reminders from God happen to me a lot when I act out of anger instead of taking the time to consider everything that might be going on.

The best piece of advice when it comes to not judging others, or reserving your wisdom for the right time, may come from The Big Lebowski.  “New shit has come to light, man,” the Dude says, about a supposedly simple situation that just became a lot more complex.  We need to make sure we understand the whole situation before we start preaching.  In other words, don’t be like me: a maker of stupid mistakes and quick judgments that often leave me back-pedaling and apologizing, cleaning up messes both emotional and physical, and feeling pretty idiotic and petty. Be like the Dude: check your ego, check your stupid, and let all that shit come to light before you act on anything.  Who knew the Dude would end up being a spiritual role model?  God really does work in mysterious ways.