Fundamentalism III. God’s Words

I have many friends, including Bud Clarkson, who refer to themselves as conservative evangelical Christians. These friends genuinely care about me, and I care about them. They do not see themselves as fundamentalists, and most will tell you they have never heard or read the word “presuppositionalism,” much less the ideas behind it. I respect their faith. Even so, I shall raise questions for them and for myself about how that faith takes the shape it does.

I hesitate, because I am not theologically trained. I am mainly self-taught, having prepared Bible lessons as a Sunday School teacher over the course of almost 40 years. That doesn’t qualify me to teach you anything about religion. But perhaps I can put some ideas before you, and let you judge.

Here are 3 more questions that I hope my conservative evangelical and fundamentalist friends might consider along with me: (1) Can wisdom go wrong when it is possessed rather than lived? (2) Can love for God, when pursued as a goal to be achieved, become the object of its own desire? (3) Does the world empty, does it become depopulated, if God alone chooses?

Here is an old story about a tribe of people in a land far away:

At almost the beginning of this tribe’s history as a people, their God gave them –not an image, not a temple, not a ceremony – but Words. They almost refused them at first, so strange did this gift appear to them. But over time God’s Words along with a wooden box that held them became this tribe’s most precious possessions. The Words in the box marked wisdom and judgment for them. The people of the tribe flourished, multiplied, grew strong. They drew admiration as well as envy from those who surrounded them.

In time the people of the tribe began to give attention not so much to the meaning of God’s Words, but to the Words just as they were in the box that held them. They began to count the Words a source of power. Molding discipline and command around the Words, they conquered lands, captured cities, exacted tribute and labor from those who survived their conquests. God’s Words became their power.

One day the tide of battle turned against the tribe who possessed God’s Words. Some of their mightiest men fell before the enemy. Others ran back to the place where God’s Words stayed. “Bring the Words to the battle” they begged their priests, “so that God will save us from the power of our enemies!”

The priests carried God’s Words in the box to the battle. All the camp rang out with shouting, so that the earth resounded. The enemy cringed at first, some of them saying “A god has come into the camp. Woe to us!” But others said, “Take heart, be men, lest you become slaves. Be men and fight.”

The battle raged. The enemy stood strong, moved forward. The priests who brought God’s Words into the fight were slain. The enemy captured God’s Words.

In their city and in their own temple, the enemy found that God’s Words had power beyond their capacity to withstand. For seven months while the Words stayed in their land, the people of the enemy suffered a plague. Their diviners took counsel and decided to send God’s Words back to the tribe who first possessed them, but not without an additional offering of submission. They added golden images of mice and tumors of their plague as a guilt offering, placing them in a second wooden box beside the one containing the Words.

Among the tribe receiving back God’s Words, seventy men died that day, killed by God because they dared to open the boxes and look at God’s Words which the enemy had returned to them. Later another man died when he simply touched the box containing the Words.

In time the tribe learned to live with God’s Words again and to give them due respect. The tribe began to flourish again. Their golden age dawned. They built a temple to hold God’s Words, which were never carried into battle again.

Centuries passed. The tribe became a nation, strong enough to be reckoned among the powers of the earth. God’s Words remained in the heart of their temple, but eventually not so much in the hearts of the people of the great nation.

Then a new enemy far stronger than any other came down from the north and laid siege to the city where God’s Words resided. God set His face against the people He once had chosen. The new enemy prevailed. The city fell. The temple was burned and thrown down. We do not know what happened to God’s Words. We can guess that the stone tablets bearing the Words were smashed, broken, ground into dust.

Among the greatest of prophets ever called by God to witness to His people was a man who lived through those terrible days. He said this, not about God’s Words, but about the wooden box that held them, “It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again.”

I’m sure that it didn’t take you long to recognize that what I have called “God’s Words” were the Ten Commandments that Moses carved on stone tablets. You might not know that the original commandments were very short, as each commandment may have been expressed as the negation of a single Hebrew word. In Hebrew they are called not the Ten Commandments, but instead the Ten Words.

The box of acacia wood holding the Words is better known, of course, as the Ark of the Covenant. You can judge for yourself if I have told the story of the Ark in good faith as it appears mostly in the latter chapters of Exodus, 1st Samuel chapters 4 and 5, and Jeremiah 3:16.

If you are medically minded, you might speculate that the tumors afflicting the Philistines were buboes, which are swollen and bursting lymph nodes typical of bubonic plague. And the mice? Bubonic plague is a bacterial contagion spread by fleas that live on rodents.

Speculation aside, what’s most important is how to grasp the meaning of the prophet Jeremiah’s remarks about the Ark.

The family background of Jeremiah discloses a broken relationship with the Ark of the Covenant. Jeremiah’s family was “of the priests who were in Anathoth.” The priests of Anathoth were descendants of those who had charge of the early Hebrew worship center in Shiloh. Two of the Shiloh priests, Hophni and Phine’has, took the Ark into battle, died in the fight, and lost the Ark to the Philistines. After a plague beset the Philistines, they returned the Ark to their Hebrew enemies.

When King David later established his capital city as Jerusalem, he maintained a strategic relationship with the descendants of the influential Shiloh priesthood, who by this time lived in Anathoth near Jerusalem. But they were not David’s chief priests.

Some 330 years after David’s reign, Jeremiah could have pondered and regretted the false understanding of the Ark’s meaning by his own ancestors, which led to misuse of the Ark as a source of power.

In Jeremiah’s time the Ark of the Covenant and the stone tablets inside it formed no small part of the identity of the nation and religion of Judah. The Ark and its contents were the holiest objects in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem.

After ignorance and rashness in Bethshe’mesh led to 70 fatalities among the men who opened the Ark sent back by the Philistines, we find no mention that the Ark was ever uncovered over hundreds of years to view its contents. In Jerusalem the Ark was visited only once a year by the high priest in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Holiest of Holies.

How can we explain, then, that the Babylonian soldiers who leveled the temple could also smash the Ark and the stone tablets inside? Whoa! The Bible makes no mention of what happened to the Ark! Maybe it was spirited away and kept in a secret place until it was discovered simultaneously by Indiana Jones and archaeologists from Nazi Germany, to the great misfortune of the latter.

Sorry. Entertaining theatre for an action film does not make good theology. If you believe the Bible, Jeremiah’s statement, “It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again,” leaves no room for a continuing role of the Ark of the Covenant.[1]

My tentative conclusion is that God abandoned the Ark of the Covenant. By the time the Babylonians burst into the sanctum, the Holy Presence no longer floated above the box of acacia wood. God abandoned it, because of what it had come to signify.

Jeremiah understood that the Ten Words were meant to provide a standard for living a good life. The Judaeans knew this, but they also came to regard the Ten Words as a possession. The holy Ark and its contents signified to them favor bestowed to them by God above the neighboring nations, and they forgot accountability to God. The words that were meant to be lived instead remained hidden in the box, and the box itself became an object of worship, an idol, a focus of nationality rather than faith. It was this idolatrous aspect of the Ark of the Covenant that Jeremiah discounted.

Can wisdom can go wrong if it is possessed rather than lived? The story of the Ten Words and the Ark that held them suggests an answer. Yes, wisdom can go wrong when it is possessed, when it is misused as a means to claim power, distinction, status by those who deem themselves the possessors, guardians, and beneficiaries of that wisdom.

Does the story about “God’s Words” have any relevance to “God’s Word” itself – the Bible?

The Ark of the Covenant and its contents were objects that came to be worshipped as holy possessions. As significant as the stone tablets and the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod were, God had no intention of letting that kind of idolatry endure. Is the Bible today sometimes viewed as an object that merits worship as a holy possession?

Historically the Ten Words were expanded and supplemented by the Torah, which comprises the first 5 books of the Jewish Bible. The Torah was explained and supplemented by the national history of the Israelites and Jews, the wisdom books, and writings of the prophets. These completed the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament. Subsequently the Jews added the Talmud and other writings. Christians added the New Testament.

Jeremiah helps us again. The Ten Words along with the Torah described a covenant, or agreement, between God and the children of Israel. But that covenant was broken. While in exile with his people in Babylon, Jeremiah wrote about a new covenant:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel     after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” [Jer 31:31-34, NIV]

Let’s not confuse the new covenant described here with the New Testament. The new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah introduces an idea of inner knowledge and not merely a new set of writings. Prophets led by the spirit would be familiar with inner knowledge, but Jeremiah’s new covenant extends it to all the people.

Jesus spoke about “the new covenant in my blood,” validating for Christians the importance of Jeremiah’s concept. The Christian idea of the new covenant extends beyond Jeremiah’s concept, but does not refute the meaning Jeremiah gave to it.

Jeremiah warned against overreliance on physical, tangible symbols of God’s wisdom. He emphasized wisdom “in their minds and…hearts.” I wonder if his warning applies to a person who says of the Bible, “It’s there in black and white. These words will get you to heaven.” I don’t know the answer. But if voicing assent to the written words marks the end of the story, how can the new covenant take on the role that Jeremiah and Jesus seem to give it?

 

Next post: Fundamentalism IV. Favor and Doom

Previous post: Fundamentalism II. What Does the Bible Say?

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Ark of the Covenant image © 3drenderings | Dreamstime.com

[1] Jer 3:16.

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