Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. — Numbers 33:51-53

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’ in Hebrew, selem, has an ancient near eastern link to the word used elsewhere for idol statue, salmu. We’ve added vowel sounds to Hebrew, which was traditionally just written as consonants, so slm. 

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA

 

“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR

 

He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say (the times ‘statue’ appears from here on in are ‘salmu’):

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

 

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

Is X sinful? Some thoughts on why the answer to this question is almost always yes (and what to do about it)

Is it possible that Christians spend far too much time trying to decide whether a particular action or thought is sinful, and not enough time thinking about what sin really is, or what goodness really looks like as an alternative? We’re worried about our hands and eyes, where perhaps we should be more worried about our hearts. Is it possible that we’re obsessively worried about sin, when perhaps we should be excited and thankful that despite our inability not to sin, God forgives us and changes our hearts through Jesus, and invites us to follow his example. Is it possible this worry comes through in the way we present the ‘good’ news of the Gospel?

isxsinful

Sin and defining ‘good’

In the beginning, God looked at the stuff he made in this universe and declared it ‘good’ — but what does ‘good’ mean?

I’ve always injected a bunch of my own understandings of the word ‘good’ into the first chapter of the Bible, which typically revolve around my fairly modern assumption that goodness is a sort of material quality, perhaps even an aesthetic quality. God made a good world like IKEA does not make a good table. God made a good world like an artisan specialty coffee roaster makes a good flat white. It’s good because of what it is, and how I experience it.

But what if ‘good’ means something other than that the universe was, as declared by God, materially excellent? John Walton is a guy whose looked at what the ancient world understood the existence of a thing (the nature of ‘being’ — the fancy word is ‘ontology’). He suggests that if you were trying to define something in the ancient world, the world in which Genesis was composed, you would define a thing in terms of its function, and a declaration by someone who made something that this thing was ‘good’ would be caught up with it being able to perform a function. When God declares the world he makes ‘good’ he is declaring it good for the purpose for which he made it. Walton thinks that Genesis invites us to understand the world being created as God’s cosmic temple, with Eden functioning as the sanctuary in the Temple, and us humans functioning as God’s living images in that temple. The creation of the Temple later in the Old Testament has huge echoes of this creation week, this isn’t a controversial proposal, but it does significantly alter the way we have to read the early chapters of the Bible. Walton’s proposal is one I spent a fair bit of time interacting with in my thesis, and one that I am convinced by (and convinced has massive implications for what it means to function as God’s image bearers, or what being made in God’s image actually means). It’s interesting because our first response as modern readers is to, like I always have, read Genesis as answering ‘material’ questions about the universe, when in fact we should be answering ‘functional’ questions about the universe if we want to treat the text as a product of its world, answering questions its earliest readers were asking (as well as answering questions we should be asking).

When we’re repeatedly told that “God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1 we’re being told that the world God makes is meeting the function he has designed for it. When God makes us humans he gives us a vocation — described in Genesis 1 — which outlines the function of humanity (our function is also caught up in the word used for image, and how that word was understood, and in the description of how he forms and places Adam in Genesis 2). We have a good job to do, ruling God’s good world, according to its inbuilt purposes, for and like God. Presumably being fruitful and multiplying, and extending God’s presence as his image bearers also meant extending the garden sanctuary across the whole world. What’s important here is that the nature of what it means to be human — at least in the Genesis 1 sense — involves a created function or purpose. Our own goodness is a product of whether or not we achieve that purpose.

If you had to answer the question “what is sin?” from the first two chapters of the Bible it would be a failure to be ‘good’ in the sense of failing in this divinely appointed vocation. A failure to bear God’s image and represent him. In Genesis 2 we see Adam bearing God’s image by naming the animals (just as God has named the things that he made). All is good in the world. Except that Adam is alone.

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

This aloneness doesn’t fit with the Genesis 1 picture of ‘goodness’ — or the function God envisages for humanity. In Genesis 1 God describes humanity’s image bearing capacity, our ability to represent the loving triune God, and ability to be fruitful and multiply caught up in us being made male and female. Not alone. So this ‘not goodness’ is fixed in Genesis 2 when Eve is introduced. Eve is also introduced in the narrative because none of the animals is suitable for the function God’s purposes require. The declaration ‘not good’ is a declaration that God’s created purpose is not being met. So God fixes things.

Proposition 1: God defines what ‘good’ is.

Then we break them. If part of God’s purposes for the world was to defeat evil — especially evil as it is embodied in Genesis 3 by the serpent — by creating and spreading his temple and presence in the world through his image bearing people then things seem to go very wrong in terms of God’s purposes in Genesis 3. Genesis 3 is where we get our first picture of sin. Our first sense of how to answer the question ‘is X sinful’ — but Genesis 3 also massively changes the playing field for answering that question because it massively changes us. Presumably prior to Genesis 3 everything about who we are as people is aligned with God’s function — our hearts, our desires, our thoughts, our actions — after this point, it seems none of those things line up with the idea of being fruitful and multiplying God’s presence as we live out his purposes. At least according to the way the story of the Bible works, from this point on, we all live out our own purposes. Our hearts and desires become evil, oriented to ourselves and to things other than God.

So if ‘goodness’ is about God’s purposes being met by the things he has made, and ‘not goodness’ is a frustration of those purposes, then what is at the heart of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3? I think there are actually a bunch of things they do wrong in Genesis 3, but the fundamental ‘wrongness’ is actually a failure to live as image bearers of God when push comes to shove. When the serpent enters the scene what he tempts them with, and what they display, is a life where its their own purposes that define ‘good’… and this, is sin.

Proposition 2. God defines what good is, sin is when we come up with our own definition of good, apart from God.

The classic answer to the question of ‘sin’ in Genesis 3 is to identify the specific act of transgression. Adam and Eve disobey God’s clear instruction and eat the bad fruit. And that’s certainly a sin. But sin is more than simply a disobedient act. I think we get into massive problems as the church — and massively confuse people about what sin is — if we run around looking for equivalent acts of transgression, rather than talking about the hearts that produce those transgressions. Here’s something interesting in Genesis 3.

Notice here, in the same words we’ve read already in the first two chapters of Genesis, it’s now Eve deciding what “good” is, and its the opposite of what God tells Adam to do in order to be meet his purposes.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

Adam and Eve desired what the Serpent promised — that they would be like God (a thing they already had). I reckon they’ve failed to ‘guard and keep’ the garden, the literal instructions God gives Adam in Genesis 2:15, simply by letting the Serpent in. I think they’ve given the Serpent’s lies more weight than God’s truths, and before they eat the fruit — which is where most people think they sin — they’ve already replaced God with themselves and are living and making decisions according to their own purposes. This becomes evident in their actions, which are the fruit of their hearts. But its their hearts that are oriented away from God and his purposes first. And any action from a heart like this is an action of a person not living according to God’s purpose for humanity.

According to the rest of the story in the Bible, the result of this Genesis 3 failure is that we’re now genetically predisposed to be just like Adam and Eve. To not live like God, but to live for ourselves. Their mistake repeats in every human life, but now its because we’re born inheriting this pattern of life, and born outside the sanctuary of Eden, not image bearers formed in the garden-temple, but people with hearts ready to reflect whatever it is in God’s world that we want to replace God with. The image we’re made to carry, and God’s purposes for humanity, aren’t totally wiped out by our autonomy, that’d give us too much power. His common grace, and his love for people, means that there’s something written into our DNA that means we live and breath and love and do things that seem good, even though our motives always have something of our own interest or desire to autonomously define ‘good’ involved.

Proposition 3. Hearts that define their own ‘good’ define their own gods (and are defined by those gods).

Sin is any product of a disordered heart — a heart that sets its own agenda and produces actions according to that agenda — even if the things we do appear to be obedient to God’s purposes, even if we look like we’re living, breathing, images of the living, breathing, God, if our hearts are pointed towards our own ends as we do those acts, are those actions not infused with and given life by our disordered hearts? In the Old Testament these disordered hearts lead us to produce idols in Isaiah this is literal… and its a parody of Genesis 2 which leads to dead images (and ultimately dead people). Images and idols are conceptually linked through the Old Testament, because when God made us we were meant to be his living images that represented him in his temple — which is exactly what other religions did with their dead idols.

All who make idols are nothing,
    and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
    they are ignorant, to their own shame.

The carpenter measures with a line
    and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
    and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
    human form in all its glory,
    that it may dwell in a shrine.

They know nothing, they understand nothing;
    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
    and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”— Isaiah 44:9, 13, 18, 20

The “they” here is a little ambiguous, and speaks both about the idol and the idol-maker. Psalm 115 makes this connection explicit.

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. — Psalm 115:4-5, 8

In Ezekiel we’re told idols aren’t just physical things a person carves, but the product of hearts turned away from God.

“‘When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet to inquire of me, I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them and make them an example and a byword. I will remove them from my people. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” — Ezekiel 14:7-8

In Romans 1, Paul talks about the human condition in this way too, suggesting that our hearts are darkened because we turned away from God and worshipped the things he made instead.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21

In Paul’s logic in Romans all the things we might use to classify different Xs as ‘sin’ — the moral categories we might use to assess our actions— are said to flow from this fundamental cause. Us exchanging God for stuff God made.

Proposition 4. Hearts that are turned away from God are hearts that are darkened and turned towards death.

All our hearts do this. It’s why God promises to step in and replace hearts shaped by stone idols with living hearts shaped by his Spirit. Interestingly, the sort of process  described here (washing, restoring, and a sort of ‘re-breathing’ ritual) is what countries in the Ancient Near East did if their idols were taken during conquest by another nation to re-establish them in their temples. This is a promise to restore God’s people to their created purpose.

“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. — Ezekiel 36:24-27

Focusing on symptoms rather than the disease

Just to be clear, I think the answer to the question “is X sinful” is always yes, in this world.

So long as our hearts are still tainted by sin.

Some acts that are clearly disobedient to God and his revealed standards are more clearly sinful than others, but any failure to live as image bearers of God, any failure to appropriately imitate God are failures to live up to the purpose we were made for, and that failure is caught up in the idea of autonomy, or living as though we’ve replaced God, where we live as though we get to make declarations about what the ‘good’ for a thing God has made is (including defining what we think is good, according to our own desires). These failures which definitely include those moments of direct disobedience to specific commands, but will also include disobedience to general catch-all commands like ‘be perfect,’ ‘be holy,’ and ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart.’ In Genesis 3, immediately after they’re caught, but before they receive God’s response  — the curse — the way Adam and Eve speak about their bad decision, and each other, shows that their hearts have already changed. They are acting out of self-interest, and not according to God’s purposes. They’ve defined their own good, and their judging each other accordingly.

Proposition 5. From this point on our hearts are a mixed bag. Humanity is still made in the image of God, but we keep remaking ourselves in our own image, and conforming ourselves into the image of our other gods.

A good summary of the Old Testament’s view of humanity (a fancy word here is anthropology) is that we’re a complicated mix of people made by God to do one thing, and we know what that thing looks like, but our hearts have been so frustrated by evil so that we do another. God is patient and good though, and merciful, so he keeps providing guidelines to help people try not to be evil (this just keeps looking like a to do list though). It’s unhelpful, then, to say that sin is simply not obeying the list of rules in the Old Testament law, as though its all about a moral code, when the defining principle for God’s people, following in the footsteps Adam and Eve should have walked in is to “be holy because I am holy”…

I think we get sin massively and unhelpfully wrong when we try to write a list of actions that are, or aren’t, sinful. Our actions indicate our hearts, and whose image we’re bearing, but its this question of whether or not our lives are aligned with God’s purposes that actually determines whether or not we’re sinning.

If all this is right, there are interesting implications in this for how we answer this question, especially in how we deal with the difference between experiencing the results of a broken and cursed world, and deliberate decisions to express our autonomy through actions that have no redeeming features. I can see how this could be heard as being massively pastorally unhelpful when people ask the question “is X a sin?” with an agenda or with a lack of self-insight (such that asking the question is sinful). Often this question has been used to demonise, rather than humanise, another person (and often the people answering the question have not been particularly ‘human’ in their responses). A couple of examples are when people ask “is same sex attraction a sin” or “is anxiety a sin”… it is massively unhelpful to say “yes” to these questions without the massive caveats that “all human sexuality as we experience it from autonomous broken hearts is sinful” and “all views of life in the world from autonomous hearts are sinful”… but I think its safe to say that the diagnosis of the human condition in the Old Testament is pretty consistently a diagnosis that our hearts are fundamentally oriented away from God’s purposes, and that orients us as people away from God’s function.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. — Genesis 6:5

Proposition 6. Sin is: taking a good thing (including people and abstract things like love) that God has given a good function and created to serve a good purpose and using it for some purpose other than the purpose God created for us, in line with our own hearts.

I’ll get to this below, but I think the human reality everywhere, in every heart, this side of the new creation God promises at the end of the Bible, is that every thing we do will involve some bit of our self-seeking, sinful hearts as a motivating factor.

Proposition 7. This is a universal problem and a description of the human condition for all people.

It becomes less and less a motivating factor as we’re conformed into the image of Jesus, but it’ll still be there. Everything we do on our own steam is sin. This is true for things we do for ourselves, and things we do for others. It’s true for things we do by ourselves, and things we do with others. Our collective actions will be a mix of the goodness God made in us raging war with the self-seeking (or not-God seeking) desires of our hearts.

Proposition 8. Because this is a universal problem, and we are affected, we can’t perform heart surgery on ourselves, neither can other sinners. 

 What wretches this means we are. Who can save us?

How Jesus both cures our sinful hearts, and shows us what healthy hearts looks like

Proposition 9. The answer to Paul’s question posed above — who can save us? — is Jesus.

I think, according to the above framework and the way Paul’s use of Adam seems consistent with it in Romans, that Paul’s description of human thought and life in Romans 7 is about the dilemma we experience as people made in God’s image who are infected with sin — and his cry for help is the cry of the human heart to be restored.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. — Romans 7:22-23

Paul wants out of this way of life.

Which happens when Jesus makes it possible for us to be children of God again through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8), as we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

One of the fundamental promises of the Old Testament is that God will intervene with the human condition to give us ‘new hearts’ — reoriented hearts — hearts not shaped by the ‘stone’ dead idols we worship, but by the living God (cf Psalm 115, Ezekiel 36:26), hearts that allow us to obey God — or meet his purposes again (cf Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31).

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. — Ezekiel 36:26

Proposition 10. Jesus came to fix our hearts because our hearts are the heart of our problem, and make what we do sinful.

Proposition 11. The way Jesus talks about the problem of sin shows that it is a problem of the heart not properly loving God, not a question of a list of rights and wrongs, or Xs that are sinful, or not sinful.

Some people who operate with the assumption that sin is specific transgressions against a particular rule have a hard time accommodating Jesus’ ‘new ethic’ in the Sermon on the Mount. For these people, suddenly thought crime is a thing. But what if Jesus isn’t bringing a new ethic to the world, what if he’s showing people that they’ve got the old ethic wrong, that the way to understand the Old Testament law was that sinless humanity required imitation of God, and what if this is why the Old Testament had a ritual of atonement built into the law, because imitating God and fulfilling God’s purpose for the law is impossible for sinful us. So the rich young ruler who says “I’ve kept all the laws” might be right, but this doesn’t make him sinless? What if Jesus as God’s real image bearer, the one who sees God truly, does fulfil the law in terms of its purpose by ‘being perfect’…

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:8, 17, 48

What if the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that X is always sinful, but its the wrong question? What if Jesus isn’t worried about answering the question “is X sinful” at all, but about offering the transformed heart promised by the Old Testament so that “is X sinful” is the wrong question? What if the other bit where Jesus talks about the law and the prophets is related to this idea of fulfilment, and Jesus is the one who perfectly loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and loves his neighbours as himself?

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:37-40

Just remember, the point is not that any individual action is not sinful, but that every action from a heart that doesn’t truly imitate God is sinful. The point of the picture of humanity in the Old Testament is that nobody loves the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and mind. Even in their best moments. Even the best of people. And this is the ‘greatest commandment’ which helps us understand the purpose of all the other commandments, and the law, and the prophets, and so, the purpose of our humanity. This is what living life in God’s image looks like, and its what Jesus does — and in doing so, what he secures for us in him through his death and resurrection (as well as making payment for our failure as a substitutionary sacrifice. We still need atonement, just like people in the Old Testament. Because there’s a gap between how we live and how we were made to live that is expressed in our every action.

Here’s a cool thing. I’ve been grappling with this sin question for a while and wondering how what I think fits with this emphasis on the heart fits with a verse like:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew records this bit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where it fits with this idea that we are imperfect from the inside out, it comes right after Jesus says:

“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The heart, mind, eyes and hands are all connected in this picture of what being a person looks like. Matthew puts it in the Sermon on the Mount, Mark puts this bit in some of the things Jesus teaches on his way to Jerusalem. He says:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” — Mark 9:43-47

The word behind ’cause to stumble’ in the NIV which is often translated as ’cause to sin’ (see ESV etc) is the Greek word which transliterates as scandalise (σκανδαλίζῃ), it means what we think it means in English, carrying a sense of causing offence. One thing to remember is that the Bible describes sin using a bunch of different words, and we lazily translate them all as ‘sin.’ These passages might seem to support the idea that sin is simply a wrong action (or thought) and leave us legitimately trying to solve for X. So that we know what to chop our hands off for, and pluck our eyes out for… except… in both Matthew and Mark Jesus lays the blame for sin somewhere else. Both Matthew and Mark record this as Jesus answering the Pharisees questions, and correcting their understanding of, the point of the law… The Pharisees are playing the “is X sinful?” game and coming up with some incredibly stupid things to ask the question about, leading them to add stuff to what God has commanded that leaves them imitating man, not God.

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” — Matthew 15:6-20

Mark doesn’t do much more with this, he too records Jesus quoting Isaiah, and then saying:

 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” — Mark 7:14-23

We don’t need to chop off our hands, or gouge out our eyes. These don’t actually cause us to sin at all, they are instruments controlled by our hearts. Defiled hearts cause scandalous hands. We need to chop out our hearts. Or rather, we need Jesus to do that for us.

Jesus’ judgment on the Pharisees and their approach to the law — predicated on deciding that X is sinful, but missing the point of the law — is that their hearts are hard. That’s why he says Moses wrote the law (he’s specifically answering a question from the Pharisees about why the law allows divorce) in Mark 10, and again shows they’re missing the point when they essentially ask “is X sinful” (where X=divorce) and Jesus’ answer is essentially that they should be looking internally for sin…

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. — Mark 10:5

Matthew says plenty about the heart too — and the link between who we are as people, and what we do being a reflection of who we are (though also being that which indicates who we are).

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” — Matthew 12:33-37

What we do comes from who we are — if we’re what Paul calls “in Adam” or reflecting the image of Adam, this means we’re a mix of autonomous God-replacing desires and people who bear the image of God, if we’re in Christ it means we’re a mix of this and the Holy Spirit, which is conforming us into the image of Jesus, a transformation that will ultimately be completed in the new creation.

Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees and their approach to their God-ordained purpose in Matthew, but he makes it clear that he is the way back to a new heart he quotes Isaiah and puts himself in the picture as the solution to the problem with our humanity:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ —Matthew 13:15, which is a slight adaptation of Isaiah 6:9-10 that presents Jesus as the answer to the question “how long O Lord?”

Proposition 12: Jesus came to heal calloused, idolatrous, sinful hearts, and to offer a way for people to be ‘good’ living images of God again, representing him in his world.

A healthy approach: getting the balance right between disease treatment and health

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation…  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:13-15, 19-20

There’s a bit of a conversation happening online in Aussie circles at the moment about whether we adequately present the Gospel when we emphasise penal substitutionary atonement at the Cross — that’s the thing Colossians 1 describes above, where Jesus swaps his perfection for our imperfection at the Cross, making atonement for us. The Cross certainly does this. But it does a little more than this, and simply treating the Cross as an antidote for sin leaves us emphasising sin as our problem, and may leave us asking the question “is X sinful” as we live in response to the Cross. But what if the Cross isn’t just about a substitution? One other stream of thought is that the Cross is also our example — often this is held up against substitutionary atonement, almost as an alternative Gospel. But what if we’re actually meant to hold them together, and what if our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is caught up in our obsession with the wrong thing? Not sinning, rather than imitating God. They’re linked. Obviously. Because God doesn’t sin, but sin is also, if the above is correct, the result of not imitating God.

If sin is a heart disease, our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is like fighting heart disease by emphasising the need for a heart transplant. But when you get a heart transplant you also need to know how to live. You need to know the pattern of life that comes from a healthy heart, and keeps it healthy. We can’t hold our need for atonement apart from what the ‘good’ life is meant to look like. Our version of Christianity sometimes feels more like “don’t be sick” than “this is what it looks like to be well” — and I think that’s because we tend to focus on penal substitutionary atonement, rather than holding it alongside the example of Jesus (what, in latin, gets called Christus Exemplar). Sometimes the thing we emphasise when we talk about the good news of the Gospel as substitutionary atonement is the Gospel’s implications for us (typically as individuals) rather than the Gospel being centred on Christ. It is good news about him, first, isn’t it?

Proposition 13. The Cross is where Jesus gives us new hearts to re-shape us and recommission us into God’s (and his) image bearers again while taking the punishment for our darkened hearts, and where he shows us what it looks like to live ‘good’ lives as image bearers. 

The story of Jesus’ life and his mission for hearts and minds as recorded in Matthew and Mark culminates in the ultimate expression of humanity defining its own good, of humanity rejecting God’s vision of ‘the good’ and what his plans for the world look like. The story of Jesus is not a different story to the story of Genesis 1-3. Jesus is the real image bearer, and we see Adam and Eve’s behaviour fulfilled at the Cross, where humanity collectively (but especially Israel and Rome) rejects Jesus, God’s king. God’s image bearer. We kill God’s divine son. This is Adam and Eve’s autonomous redefining of the good writ large.

Proposition 14. The Cross is sin in its purest form. This is the desire of our hearts being expressed — life without God. But it’s also God’s heart being expressed in its purest form, and his ‘good’ victory being won. It’s where the good purpose of the world is revealed.

The Cross is why Jesus came. It’s, at least according to John (see below), and Peter, the moment the world was made for. And it’s where God’s offer of healing and a new heart is made reality, the Spirit arrives in people’s hearts because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Cross is Jesus imitating God. God’s character is defined by this act of self-giving love for one’s enemies. This voluntary sacrifice —the giving up of everything — is Jesus showing what it looks like to love God, and his neighbours — with all his heart. Perfectly imitating God and fulfilling the law. It’s also where Jesus defeats evil, and through the resurrection and its promise, Jesus re-kindles the hope and promise that God’s kingdom will spread all over the earth.

The Cross is humanity being evil, and Jesus being good, simultaneously. It is victory. It is where God defeats evil. And its an incredible picture of God’s temple harking back to creation as his image bearer dwelling in his world to give life. It’s the moment the world was heading towards, and the moment the serpent is defeated. Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve fail. John describes this aspect of God’s plan as Jesus being “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) and in the picture John paints of the significance of the Cross he sees this being the decisive moment that guarantees that the serpent, the Devil, loses and God wins (see Revelation 20).

I wonder if the question “is X sinful,” while well-intentioned, misses the point that in this life our hearts are still tainted by sin, and still a work in progress. We’re fairly constantly called to flee particular sorts of sin in the New Testament, but every one of the sins we’re called to flee is linked to idolatry, which is linked to the orientation of the heart. The sins we’re called to flee are products of our poisonous hearts, and really fleeing this behaviour actually requires us to live life — to act — out of the new part of our heart, not simply to stop doing that other stuff. Christians are post-operative heart transplant recipients. The permanent internal change has taken place but still working their way through our bodies and our lives. I wonder if we’re better off asking questions about what the fruits of our new nature look like — the part of our humanity that is now the product of the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Christ.

Paul describes this new aspect of our humanity in 2 Corinthians 3. The internal work of the Spirit on our hearts is different and better than the Old Testament law, because human readers of the Old Testament law miss the point of the law without the Spirit, because our nature — our hearts— get in the way.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

… Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:2-18

We’re no longer simply a bifurcated mix of image of God and sinful heart — we’re people whose hearts are being transformed by the Spirit into the image of Jesus. To fixate on the broken bit of our humanity misses the sense that we’re also called to imitate Jesus as he imitates God, not just by not doing bad things, but also by doing good things. This, I think, is the right way to think about the social implications of the Gospel (for this to make sense, read Stephen McAlpine’s excellent review of a book by a guy named Tim Foster who suggests the key to reaching urban Australians is to move away from substitutionary atonement and towards what he describes as a telic Gospel (it’s also worth reading Tim Foster’s reflections on some of the reviews of his book, especially this one). This series of posts essentially asks what the Gospel is, and how we should preach it in our context. I know some people (like Richard Dawkins) say substitutionary atonement is an ugly doctrine, but I think our problem is that its an incomplete Gospel. It’s not ugly. It’s too individual in its emphasis, and to focused on the disease and not enough on the cure and the new life the cure brings. The life we’re inviting others to find, the life God created them for. We get Jesus’ perfect life in exchange for our diseased one, and we’re invited to join him in living it. Forever. That process starts now. We’re reconnecting with God’s vision of what ‘good’ is. This is an invitation to have a ‘good’ life.

I think, given the above, I want to go back to Martin Luther, who was big on a Christian anthropology being simul justus et peccator (which in English means simultaneously justified and sinful). I think our anthropology is threefold, and we’re calling people in our world to rediscover God’s purpose for the bit of them that still reflects his image, by connecting themselves to Jesus. In a letter to a preacher friend Luther suggested preachers need to express their real humanity in their preaching. Including their sin (rather than obsessing over is X sinful, perhaps).

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.

I’d want to add, as Paul and John do, that justice does reside here a little, in the form of the love of the justified. In us. As we imitate Christ. Especially the Cross. Through his death and resurrection, and the heart-changing gift of the Spirit, Jesus frees us to bear God’s image again as we bear his image. As we imitate him.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. — Ephesians 5:1-2

Or, as John puts it in 1 John 3… What “not sinning” as God’s children looks like is loving like Jesus loved…

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. — 1 John 3:2-11, 16-24

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

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