COMPLICATING IT (Part 2)

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” [Romans 1:16-17 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronAmong the 613 mitzvot were laws about not adding to or detracting from the commandments. Unfortunately, man’s need for rules and regulations must be ingrained. Finding the original 613 laws an insufficient guide to Jewish life, the religious leaders stayed busy for the next several centuries clarifying the law by creating even more laws about how to keep the initial ones and then determining the proper way to atone for every infraction.

For example, finding the simple prohibition of work on the Sabbath too general, thirty-nine categories of work were created which led to sub-categories and then more laws about handling any of the implements used in such work. Among the work subcategories were sewing two stitches and hammering which meant handling needles or hammers on the Sabbath also was prohibited. There were, however, exceptions to the rules. If necessary, you could move a needle to open your prayer book and, if you had nothing else, a hammer could be used to crack nuts!

The laws in Leviticus said a priest with a physical defect could not serve in the sanctuary but, since a “defect” was not explicitly defined, 140 disqualifying physical blemishes were categorized that covered everything from head to toe (and even body odor). Even the size of a disqualifying mole was specified (but, if a mole had any hair, it was prohibited regardless of  size).

True to form, when an expert in religious law spoke with Jesus about the law of loving his neighbor, he wanted to define who his neighbor might be. While a fellow Jew surely would be a neighbor, what about a convert, an Edomite or an Egyptian? Would Moabites and Ammonites (who were barred from citizenship) be considered neighbors? And what about those hated Samaritans?

Interpreting those 615 laws became as difficult as understanding today’s complicated tax code. Eventually, it became more about doing a deed than following a creed—more about works than worship—rules than relationship—laws than love—penalties rather than penitence—and thinking it possible to save oneself rather than be saved.  Jesus brought a covenant that fulfilled the true intent and purpose of the law—one in which our salvation rests solely with God by grace through faith. There’s a lot we can do for ourselves but one thing we can’t do is to save ourselves by following rules. Salvation is God’s business; ours is getting saved, not by laws but by faith.

For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. [Romans 10:4 (NLT)]

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WHAT REASON? (Part 1)

If you obey my decrees and my regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 18:5 (NLT)]

Ten COmmandments windowThe Ten Commandments are the foundation of both Jewish and Christian principles, conduct, and accountability, but they are just ten of the 613 mitzvot or commandments given to the Jewish people. In light of the big ten, many of those commands, such as using accurate scales and weights and fulfilling our promises make perfect sense as do prohibitions about speaking derogatorily of others or standing idly by if another person’s life is in danger. Moreover, laws regarding boundary markers, evidence, assessing property damages, and not perverting justice or accepting bribes certainly were necessary in a new nation. Some laws, like the ones regarding latrine placement, covering excrement, and making a guard rail around a flat roof seem reasonable from a health and safety viewpoint. Other laws may have served as a way to separate the Jews from their pagan neighbors. Perhaps it was because the Hittites, Elamites, and Sumerians were clean-shaven and the Egyptians often were clean shaven or had shaped goatees that Jewish men were not to trim the hair on their temples or shape their beards. Many laws, such as the intricate laws of sacrifice, the blue tassels on hems, reciting the Shema twice a day, and saying a blessing after meals, were related to worship and God.

Many of those laws, however, seem inexplicable. What, for example, makes land animals that don’t chew the cud and have completely split hooves (like the pig) unacceptable food? Why eat only fish with fins and scales but no shellfish or mollusks? If locusts can be eaten, why not ants? Why can’t linen be woven with wool? Why can’t a Nazarite eat grapes or raisins or cut his hair and why did every sacrifice require salt?

As I looked through these ancient laws and tried to understand God’s reasoning behind them, I missed the point. The first rule God made was the simple one he gave to Adam and Eve: don’t eat from that tree. Although He warned that death would be the result of disobedience, God didn’t explain His reasons for the prohibition because obedience to God isn’t supposed depend upon human reasoning. If we have to understand before we obey, rather than obedience, it becomes agreement and dependent on us! God, however, doesn’t require our understanding or agreement; He requires our obedience.

Abraham didn’t know where he was going when he packed up his family nor did he question God’s reasoning when he placed his son on a sacrificial altar. Building an enormous ark on dry land probably made no sense to Noah, wearing out his troops by marching around Jericho for a week seemed a questionable battle plan to Joshua, and Mary didn’t understand God’s reasoning behind her pregnancy; nevertheless, they all obeyed without understanding.

Obedience shows reliance and trust—an acceptance that God knows more than we can ever know or understand—that God is God and we are not! I don’t know God’s reasoning behind those mitzvot nor do I need to. It’s enough that God made them and expected the Israelites to abide by them. The only thing we must understand about God’s commands is that they are divinely decreed and, as such, are to be unquestionably obeyed. Rather than leading us away from God’s blessings, obedience will lead us to them.

Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. [1 John 5:3 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.  Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

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RENDERING UNTO CAESAR (Part 1)

And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. [Matthew 22:20-22 (ESV)]

The Pharisees and Herodians set out to trap Jesus into saying something that would offend either the people or Rome. By prefacing their question with flattery about His impartiality and integrity, they pressured Him into giving an answer to their politically charged question—was it right to pay taxes to Caesar. The tax about which they were asking was the tributum capitis, a sort of head tax that had to be paid by every male over fourteen and every female over twelve. Already heavily taxed by Rome, this tax was especially hated by the Judeans because they saw it as a symbol of their servitude and submission to their foreign rulers. 

Jesus’ questioners were sure they’d backed Him into a corner where He’d offend people regardless of His answer. If He said to pay taxes to Caesar, He would be denying God’s sovereign reign over Israel, supporting the hated Roman rulers, and alienating his fellow Jews. On the other hand, if He said not to pay taxes, Jesus would offend Rome and lay himself open to a charge of treason. Requesting to see a denarius, Jesus exposed his questioners’ hypocrisy when they had one. No truly devout Jew would carry a Roman coin with its idolatrous portrait of Tiberius Caesar and inscription that called him the “son of the divine Augustus.” Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus then employed a typical rabbinical technique by answering their question with one of his own. He asked whose picture was on the coin. They had to admit it was the emperor’s. Since, in the ancient world, an image on an object indicated ownership, it clearly belonged to Caesar. “Therefore,” said Jesus, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Caught in their own trap, they didn’t yet understand that we can’t outsmart God!

On the surface, Jesus’ answer points out the obligations of dual citizenship—that obligations to both government and God must be fulfilled. Like Jesus’ questioners, we have a dual citizenship and, as citizens of both the Kingdom of God and our nation, we must fulfill our obligations to both. We are to render to whatever Caesar is in power that which is his without turning from our obligations to God. Hidden in Jesus’ answer, however, is the idea that Caesar is only entitled to what is his; he cannot claim what belongs to God! In both Jewish and Christian theology, however, God has dominion and authority over everything. In short, all things belong to God!

Nevertheless, when loyalty to government is not incompatible with loyalty to God, it appears that support of the state is part of being obedient to the Lord. Like it or not, today is tax day and, unless you filed for an extension, today is the last day to do your rendering unto Washington!

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. [Romans 13:6-7 (ESV)]

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THE GRAY AREA (Lies – Part 2)

Therefore, the proud may not stand in your presence, for you hate all who do evil. You will destroy those who tell lies. The Lord detests murderers and deceivers. [Psalm 5:5-6 (NLT)]

gray catbirdYesterday, when writing about notable liars in Scripture, I thought of other less commendable circumstances when people lied. When David was on the run from Saul, he arrived in the town of Nob and visited Ahimelech, the high priest. Although his purpose was to obtain food for his men and a weapon for himself, David blatantly lied and said he was there on a private matter for the king and lied again to explain being weaponless. Ahimelech, who didn’t know of the rift between Saul and David, gave David bread for his men along with Goliath’s sword.

While the lies told by Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha can be justified, David’s lies can’t and Scripture gives us no reason to think Ahimelech was an adversary. Rather than taking the easy way through deception, David should have trusted God, explained the situation honestly, and left it up to Ahimelech as to whether or not he would help.

David probably thought his deception harmless but it wasn’t! Saul’s chief herdsman, Doeg the Edomite, heard the exchange and reported it to the king. Misconstruing the priest’s aid to David as treason, Saul ordered the death of all the priests in Nob. Obliging the king, Doeg killed 85 priests and slaughtered everyone in their families. When David learned of the massacre, he regretted his action and learned a valuable but costly lesson about honesty and integrity.

Although the Doeg never lied, he failed to tell the whole truth. When reporting the priest’s aid to David, he neglected to mention that David lied to the priest. When Ahimelech tried to explain that he had no knowledge of any plot against Saul, Doeg had a second opportunity to clarify the situation, but he didn’t and his half-truth was as sinful as any lie!

Like Doeg, Samuel also told a half-truth. Although his real purpose was to anoint a new king when he arrived in Bethlehem, he said he came to offer a sacrifice. While misleading, his answer was truthful since he’d brought a heifer with him and did have a feast. The difference between his half-truth and Doeg’s was that God instructed the prophet to answer that way!

Nevertheless, people played fast and loose with the truth several times in 1 Samuel. Saul lied to Samuel about obeying the Lord’s command to completely destroy the Amalekites and all they owned when he only destroyed what was of little or no value. After planning a ruse to test Saul’s intentions toward David, Jonathon lied to his father about David’s whereabouts. Michal helped David escape from Saul’s men by making it look like her husband was asleep in his bed. When her subterfuge was discovered, she falsely claimed that David had threatened to kill her if she hadn’t helped. Twice, David deceived King Achish and the Philistines: first, by feigning madness and later by making the Philistines think him an ally who was raiding the Jerahmeelites and Judeans when he really was raiding non-Israelite allies to the Philistines. Saul later deceived the Witch of Endor about his identity.

Some of these lies and half-truths seem justified while others do not. Some seem incredibly self-serving and some served others. While some situations seem clear cut, many others aren’t. Is there a gray area between absolute and complete truth and outright deception? How do we know what is right? Let us continue to look to Scripture for our answer.

Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. [1 Peter 3:10-11 (ESV)]

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ARE THERE RIGHTEOUS LIES (Lies – part 1)

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. [Leviticus 19:11 (ESV)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesA 2010 study on “Human Communication Research,” found that people average 1.65 lies per day. I suspect the 1,000 they people surveyed were not completely truthful and the number is probably higher! We’re all liars but are all lies equal? Is a POW’s lie to his interrogator about his platoon’s position the same as a thief’s lie to a detective? Is an undercover policeman’s lie to a drug dealer the same as not reporting all your income on your 1040? Is deceiving someone so you can give him a surprise party the same as saying the check’s in the mail when it isn’t?

Many theologians and Biblical scholars hold that, regardless of the circumstances, a falsehood of any kind is never condoned by God and is a sin. Be that as it may, there are some notable episodes of lying by some of the Bible’s heroes. We have Rahab, the prostitute/innkeeper in Jericho who saved the lives of Joshua’s spies with a blatant lie to the king’s men. Some theologians (like Calvin and Augustine), insisting that no lie ever is permissible, condemn Rahab. In that case, perhaps Joshua and his spies should be condemned. Joshua sent his men out secretly and a spy’s purpose is to deceive people into thinking he is friend rather than foe. As long as we’re condemning liars, we might as well condemn the two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who lied to Pharaoh and spared the lives of Hebrew baby boys. Let’s add Elisha to the list since he lied to the Aramean army before leading the blind troops straight into the city of Samaria.

Is there such a thing as a “righteous lie?” Are there situations when deception is permissible? Can it ever be the morally right thing to do? The hardliners hold that we are to obey God first and foremost—even before we look to our neighbor. For them, regardless of its size or the reason behind it, a lie is a sin. They maintain that the lies of Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha showed their lack of faith in God and they should have trusted Him enough to tell the truth regardless of the consequences.

While Augustine said, “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving,” the other side defines a lie as an intentional falsehood that denies someone’s moral or legal right to know the truth. For them, not all falsehoods are lies and, on those occasions when people have forfeited their right to the truth (such as during a war or a criminal act),  a falsehood is ethically permissible. For this camp, whether or not a falsehood is a lie, depends on the circumstances.

Clearly, a lie for personal gain is wrong, as evidenced by the leprosy inflicted on Gehazi for lying to Elisha and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for their lies to Peter. But, rather than being displeased with the lies told by Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha, God seemed to reward them. Rahab and her family were saved, she married an Israelite, was an ancestor of both David and Jesus, and became one of two women listed in the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith.” God blessed Shiprah and Puah with families of their own and Elisha went on to perform twice as many miracles than did Elijah.

Were their falsehoods sinful lies or, because of circumstances, were they excusable and possibly commendable? In Rahab’s case, although an arrow had not yet been shot, war between Jericho and the Israelites was on the horizon and, once she hid the spies, she’d taken Israel’s side. In the case of the midwives, Pharaoh had declared war on the Hebrews by instructing the women to kill all male infants. As for Elisha, his lie occurred during a time of war between the king of Aram and Israel. The lies they told were the kind of lies told by Oskar Schindler that saved over 1,000 Jews in Germany, by the Benedictine monk Father Bruno that safeguarded 300 Jewish boys in Belgium, and by Corrie ten Boom that hid and protected Jews in the Netherlands. Would God condemn them (or others like them) for lying in the war between good and evil?

Are there ever times when deception is permissible? Can a higher moral good outweigh the sin of a lie? Can we lie to protect a life? When lying is the only way to prevent a horrible evil, is it acceptable to God? Or is such a lie a failure of our faith? I’m not sure I know the answer. John Wesley famously claimed that he would not tell one lie to save the souls of all the world. I wonder if he would lie to save a life so that he then could save a soul.

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. [Psalm 34:13-14 (ESV)]

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JAEL’S TALE

Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. May she be blessed above all women who live in tents. [Judges 5:24 (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkYesterday, I made reference to the story of Jael. Her story takes place about 200 years after the Israelites entered Canaan in the time of the Judges—a time when “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” [17:6] Because of Israel’s disobedience, the Lord allowed King Jabin of Hazor to subjugate the people of Israel. Sisera led Jabin’s army and, with their 900 iron chariots, the Canaanites had oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. Deborah, a prophetess, was judge at the time.

When the people cried to the Lord for help, Deborah called for Barak. Promising victory, she gave him God’s command to lead Israelite warriors to Mount Tabor where God would lure Sisera and his men into a trap. When Barak insisted that Deborah join him in the battle, she warned him that the Lord’s victory over Sisera would be at the hand of a woman. At this point in the story, we assume Deborah’s prophecy is about herself.

Seeing Barak leading his men down Mount Tabor, Sisera’s troops proceeded down to the Kishon River to meet them in battle. When God sent a sudden storm, the river’s banks overflowed, flooded the valley, and Sisera’s chariots were useless in the mud. Panicked, the Canaanite troops abandoned their chariots and fled. Barak’s troops gave chase and defeated them.

Sisera, however, escaped and found his way to the Kenite camp. The Kenites were nomads, descendants of Moses’ brother-in-law Hobab, and had a long history with the Israelites. The word “kenite” is related to an Aramaic word meaning “smith” and the Kenites are believed to have been blacksmiths. As nomads, their very survival depended on staying out of other people’s disputes but, as smiths, they probably had dealings with Sisera regarding his iron chariots and Heber’s family was on good terms with King Jabin. Thinking he’d found sanctuary in the Kenite camp, Sisera ran to Jael’s tent. She invited the exhausted man inside, covered him with a rug, and gave him milk to drink. Knowing no one would look for him there since men were never allowed inside a woman’s tent, Sisera was sure he’d found safe haven. Asking Jael to keep a lookout, the exhausted man slept. Jael then took a tent peg and drove it through the sleeping man’s temples into the ground. When Barak arrived in search of his foe, Jael showed him the dead man. As Deborah predicted, Sisera died at the hand of a woman but it was Jael’s name that was sung in Deborah and Barak’s victory song.

Jael breached etiquette and usurped her husband’s authority by offering hospitality to a man (something only another man could do). She further dishonored Heber by betraying his alliance with King Jabin. Finally, she violated the ancient Near East principle of hospitality that guaranteed the safety of one’s guests. Like Rahab, she makes an unlikely heroine but, unlike the Jericho prostitute, she never makes mention of the Lord.  

Was Jael a heroine who faithfully followed Israel’s God or simply an unscrupulous double-crosser who supported whatever side claimed victory? Seeing Sisera alone and fleeing for his life, Jael knew his troops had been defeated. After greeting him with a smile and a warm welcome, did she simply take the opportunity to curry favor with the Israelite victors? Or, because of her clan’s close ties with the Israelites, had she come to believe in the Israelite’s God? Knowing how ruthless Jabin and Sisera were, did she bravely refuse to remain neutral in the face of their evil? With Sisera’s death, King Jabin soon fell and Israel had peace for forty years. Deborah and Barak called Jael “blessed among women.” What do you think? Whatever her motives were—whether to serve Israel or herself—God used her to achieve His purpose.

Sisera asked for water, and she gave him milk. In a bowl fit for nobles, she brought him yogurt. Then with her left hand she reached for a tent peg, and with her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera with the hammer, crushing his head. With a shattering blow, she pierced his temples. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet. And where he sank, there he died. [Judges 5:25-27 (NLT)]

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