Sunday, September 28, 2008
In God We Trust-- an Essay on the Idolatry of Security
I have just returned from a first rate symposium on the issue of security (political, spiritual, eternal, economic and other forms) where a group of theologians, Biblical scholars and ethicists gathered to discuss what the Bible had to say about various forms of security at North Park Seminary on Sept. 25-27. The papers in general were excellent and in due course will appear in a future issue of Ex Auditu. Walter Moberly a top drawer OT scholar and churchman who teaches at my alma mater the University of Durham presented one of the best and most challenging papers, and he kindly consented to let me reproduce the text of it here. The notes will appear with the edited form of this in Ex Auditu. Let me know what you think of his reflections.
"IN GOD WE TRUST"? THE CHALLENGE OF THE PROPHETS
R. W. L. Moberly (Durham University)
Security is perhaps the most basic of human longings and needs. Nations, communities, families and individuals all in their various ways seek security – safety, protection, confidence, stability. Negatively, security means a context of living in which people are free, or protected, from dangers and threats, while positively it means a context in which people are able to flourish together, ideally also with the existential awareness that this is so.
If one wants to put "being secure" into biblical Hebrew, the root that most readily springs to mind is bth; there is a common verb batah ("trust"), and a related noun betah, which standard lexicons render as "security". Another Hebrew root is ys(, whose common verb and noun forms (hoshia(, yeshu(ah), generally rendered with "deliver/deliverance" and "save/salvation", cover related conceptual ground. Of the numerous other roots that might be mentioned, the noun shalom ("peace") should perhaps be singled out as belonging in this context. These are prime terms within the OT for depiction of the divine-human relationship as it should be. And of course the concept and reality may be present with no particular terminology to depict them.
Yet the more important the human need, the greater both the potential for, and the seriousness of, its misunderstanding and misuse: corruptio optimi pessima. Unsurprisingly, it is the prophetic corpus within the OT which most obviously and extensively addresses misdirection and malpractice in the whole area of the longing for security. Indeed, this is one of the prime reasons why the prophets have been valued down the ages; their highlighting of the ways in which the heart of life under God can be perverted has given the prophets an enduring existential challenge to groups and individuals alike.
Within the OT, the temple in Jerusalem is the prime place of the presence of YHWH with His people, a place of enormous symbolic significance. The Psalms in particular often celebrate Zion as the focus of YHWH's good pleasure, and the place where His people can expect to meet with Him and receive His blessing. In many ways, the temple symbolizes security. Here Israel can sing: "God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved… The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge" (Ps. 46:6,8 [ET 5,7]).
However, where much is given, there much is expected (cf. Lk. 12:48). A recurrent failure on the part of Israel/Judah to live up to those expectations and conduct themselves in a way commensurate with the presence of God in their midst is a prime concern in the prophetic literature. So I propose to look at three famous prophetic "temple sermons", passages that focus on the mismatch between the priorities of YHWH and those of Israel/Judah.
AMOS'S TEMPLE SERMON: AMOS 5:18-27
It must be admitted that it is not self-evident that my initial "temple sermon" is a temple sermon. I propose this, however, as a reading strategy, because the ten verses read well as a unit, and there is direct address to people engaged in the practices of temple worship. Within the context of the book one can imagine the temple in Bethel as its location, with the hostility of Amaziah as its response (Am. 7:10-13).
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
The people Amos addresses have a confident expectation associated with God, an expectation depicted as "the day of YHWH". The precise nature of this day is assumed to be known, and unfortunately this assumption no longer holds for Amos's readers. Nonetheless, one main point is clear, that this is a time which can be depicted as "light", which would mean a time when in some special sense God's will is done, and God's people could expect to rejoice in it. Amos inverts this: "darkness, not light" is how the day of YHWH will be. This is illustrated by a picture of a man vainly trying to escape deadly animals – he escapes from a lion (intrinsically a remarkable feat) only to be confronted by a bear, and when he escapes from the bear into a house, presumably imagining himself safe at last, an unnoticed snake bites him. The inexorability of disaster is reminiscent of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28. Moreover, at the risk of over-reading the text, I would at least note that the imagery has strong canonical resonances: the lion is an image of YHWH's judgment in Kings, and YHWH's roar like a lion introduces Amos's whole message (Am. 1:2, cf. 3:8); while "the house" (habbayith) is the most common term for the Jerusalem temple. So one could perhaps read the man's fleeing from a lion as an image of Israel's fleeing from YHWH, with the suggestion that there is nowhere safe to hide and even (or, rather, especially) the temple offers no refuge. In any case, Amos resumes and intensifies his depiction of the day of YHWH as that which utterly confounds hopeful expectation (v.20).
Why should this be? A reason (additional to those earlier in the text of Amos) is directly given.
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The text focusses on what YHWH rejects and on what He seeks, and concentrates on what the people do (the many activities of temple worship) rather than on what they do not do. Yet the point is clear and emphatic: worship without concomitant practice of justice and righteousness is not merely worthless but actively affronts YHWH and is an object of loathing to Him. The imagery of rolling, flowings waters suggests that the practice of justice and righteousness should be both strong and constant, an integral aspect of Israel's life. Integrity in public life is the sine qua non of true worship.
25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images that you made for yourselves; 27 therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.
There are numerous well-known difficulties of interpretation here, the first of which is probably the separation of 5:25 from 5:24, since the negative rhetorical question about sacrifices best belongs integrally with 5:21-24 (despite the fine interim climax that is made by the summons for justice and righteousness). For present purposes we may simply note that Israel's worship not only lacks the necessary accompaniment of integrity but also is directed to recipients other than YHWH, such that YHWH is not the "one and only" focus of Israel's acts of devotion (cf. Deut. 6:4-5). As a consequence, Israel will not only lose temple and land by going into exile, but YHWH himself will be the instigator of that loss (no doubt through the agency of one of Israel's enemies). The "day of YHWH" will be darkness, and the form that darkness will take will be the loss of all security through defeat and deportation. YHWH becomes, as it were, the enemy of his chosen people. How this should be understood is an issue to which we will return.
MICAH'S TEMPLE SERMON: MICAH 3:9-12
No narrative context is given for the passage from Micah which follows, yet its content qualifies it as a "temple sermon". Moreover, the appeal to these words of Micah as a precedent for Jeremiah in the narrative account of Jeremiah's "temple sermon" (Jer. 26, esp. vv.17-19) implicitly locates Micah within Jerusalem, and the text of Micah also imaginatively invites such a location.
9 Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
10 who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
11 Its rulers give judgement for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the LORD and say,
"Surely the LORD is with us!
No harm shall come upon us."
Micah's address is direct and blunt. He speaks to the leaders of Israel, those with responsibility for its common life (3:9a), and portrays them as corrupt, failing in their obligations for just dealings in public (3:9b), and maltreating those labouring on public and/or private building projects with a harshness that is careless of life (3:10). The leadership in its various forms – both 'secular' (rulers) and 'spiritual' (priests, prophets) – is venal; the justice and guidance that should enable healthy communal life have become commodities, to be had only for a price – which intrinsically (though the point is implicit) subverts their true nature (3:11a). Yet apparently these leaders do not see their conduct as incompatible with strong religious claims; they acknowledge their dependence upon YHWH; they claim YHWH's presence "in our midst", which is clearly a reference to the Jerusalem temple as the focal point of YHWH's presence with Israel/Judah (as celebrated in the psalms); and they regard YHWH's presence in the temple as a guarantee of security from their enemies (as also celebrated in, for example, Psalms 46,48).
12 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be ploughed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
Micah brusquely draws out the implications of the mismatch between the leaders' practice and their religious claims, and "connect[s] fault with fate". It is precisely because of their complacent corruption that the disaster they are confident cannot happen will happen: city and temple together will be reduced to ruins overgrown by vegetation. What will happen to the people is not specified; though insofar as the site of city and temple returns to the wild, the implication is that its inhabitants will not be there to rebuild, and so will either be dead or deported into exile.
Although various questions can be put to this, not least in relation to the account of Micah's reception in Jeremiah 26:17-19, we will for the present move directly to our third temple sermon.
JEREMIAH'S TEMPLE SERMON: JEREMIAH 7:1-15
Jeremiah's well-known temple sermon is perhaps the only one of our three passages that would be generally recognized under this nomenclature. But although it is lengthier than the other two, and is provided with a clear narrative setting, there is, as will be seen, a striking commonality of content and understanding between all three.
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 Stand in the gate of the LORD's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'
Jeremiah is to position himself in a place of maximal exposure to temple worshippers, and initially say three things. First (v.3a), he challenges temple worshippers to "amend their ways"; in other words, as Jeremiah puts it elsewhere, they are to "turn"/"repent" (3:12,14, 4:1, 18:7-8); change of conduct is necessary. Secondly (v.3b), he holds out a positive consequence of such turning, which is that YHWH will let the people of Judah stay in their land and not (by implication) be defeated by their enemies with consequent deportation for the survivors. Thirdly (v.4), he warns against a deceptive thought, a false presumption, that is the (implicit) assumption that YHWH's presence in the temple means security for Judah from its enemies. It is important, moreover, to see that what Jeremiah pronounces to be "deceptive" – "This is the temple of the LORD" – is on one level undoubtedly true: as a matter of fact the Jerusalem temple was the temple of YHWH. The way in which something that is good and true can become deceptive or false is central to Jeremiah's prophetic message.
The rest of Jeremiah's address expands these three points.
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors for ever and ever.
First, Jeremiah gives fuller content to the initial challenge to amendment, and spells out what is involved. The basic requirement is to practise justice (mishpat, v.5b) – a key term as also in Amos (5:24) and Micah (3:9). This is specified in terms of not taking advantage of those of whom advantage might most easily be taken – the resident foreigner, the orphan, the widow – because they lacked normal social security as embodied in kin or head of the house. As so often in the OT, the assumption is that if justice is given to those who are most easily denied it, then justice will (in principle) be practised elsewhere too. Shedding of innocent blood could envisage either the oppressive maltreatment of labourers (as in Mic. 3:10), or the manipulation of legal procedure (as against Naboth, 1 Kgs 21), or possibly some other malpractice; whichever way, exploitation and violence are seen as the denial of justice. Going after other gods represents fundamental disloyalty to YHWH (a denial of the first of the Ten Commandments and of the Shema), and would also entail Judah's undoing ("to your own hurt"). In all these ways, the Judahites are challenged to change for the better.
Finally, YHWH's gift to Israel/Judah of its land in perpetuity ("for ever and ever") is implied to be no guarantee against YHWH's depriving them of that gift. The prophetic understanding is that gift implies expectation, and so failure to live up to expectation can imperil the gift and amendment is needed to retain it. Jeremiah's account of what that expectation entails now leads into his speaking further about how the people of Judah's belief in their security with YHWH, because of His presence in the temple, has in fact become false, and so idolatrous.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say "We are safe!" – only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.
Just as vv.5-7 expanded v.3, so now vv.8-10 expand v.4. The people's mantra, their "deceptive words" that "This is the temple of the LORD", is now resumed and clarified by the claim "We are safe", which makes more specific the belief that YHWH's presence in the temple means the deliverance of Jerusalem from its enemies. Yet Jeremiah sees self-contradiction here. In essence, Jeremiah's point is that the claim to YHWH's presence and protection is self-involving language, language that implies a human way of living commensurate with the divine presence that is invoked. But Judah is living in flagrant disregard of YHWH's priorities, and their specified transgressions reads like a summary of disobedience to the Ten Commandments. To suppose that one can use the language of YHWH's presence and protection and yet detach oneself from the intrinsic moral and spiritual dimensions of YHWH's will is to misunderstand one's language, to empty it of content and to abuse it. This is what turns claims about YHWH's temple, which on one level are factually true, into something deceptive, a falsehood.
Jeremiah next develops further the issue mentioned in v.3b, only casting it now not as hopeful possibility but as pure warning of disaster, where the possibility of hope can only be realized if the warning is heeded and acted upon:
12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, says the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim.
The warning is backed by appeal to a precedent – the temple of YHWH at Shiloh which by Jeremiah's time had been reduced to ruins and had been abandoned (i.e. Shiloh exemplified Micah's depiction of Jerusalem, Mic. 3:12). If the corruption of Israel led to the overthrow of Shiloh – where the strong emphasis on divine action in overthrowing is presumably to be envisaged in terms of YHWH's use of human agency – then the heedless and unresponsive corruption of Judah can similarly lead to Jerusalem's overthrow at the hands of an enemy, operating at YHWH's behest. The consequence will be the familiar fate of the vanquished, already experienced by the northern kingdom – deportation into exile. The irony is that YHWH Himself, to whose divine presence in the temple the Judahites complacently appeal as protection against disaster, will be the primary cause and agent of that disaster.
SUMMARIZING THE TEMPLE SERMONS
I hope it will be readily apparent why I have grouped these three passages together as temple sermons. Each criticizes corrupt practice in Jerusalem, which could be summarized as a failure to practise justice (mishpat); each criticizes spurious trust in YHWH, focussed in some way upon His presence in the temple; each sees the trust as spurious because it is complacent and has become detached from an obedience commensurate with the trust; each warns of a coming destruction of the temple and/or the Judahites' deportation into exile; and each sees the destruction and/or exile as the act of YHWH.
Because the implied dynamics of these prophetic messages are in principle familiar within Jewish and Christian thought, it would be easy to resort to shorthand formulations to summarize our expositions. One possible shorthand would be some form of "Ethics trumps ritual". However, I consider such a formulation unhelpful, as it oversimplifies the complex relationships between moral practice and the activities of worship. It is one thing to say that the rituals of worship without appropriate moral practice are empty, indeed offensive; it is another to denigrate ritual as such in relation to moral practice. Yet shorthand formulations in this area almost always imply some such denigration. A much better shorthand would be the first line of the well-known chorus, "Trust and obey", for such a combination indeed goes to the heart of the prophetic understanding of life with God. Nonetheless, even the best theological shorthands perhaps risk encouraging a certain kind of complacency, in that there is a danger that one may come away thinking "I knew that anyway" or "Nothing new here" without having felt afresh any existential challenge from the biblical text. So instead I propose briefly to offer a few preliminary reflections to try to exemplify what it might mean to take seriously these prophetic texts today.
First and foremost, any use of these biblical texts in relation to our concern with the idolatry of security today necessarily involves the adoption of analogical and metaphorical modes of thought, as the means whereby we may do our constructive thinking today in attentive and faithful dialogical relation with the ancient text. For the fact that the Jerusalem temple has long since disappeared does not nullify the prophetic challenge, or make it anachronistic, since there remain other prime symbols of trust in God, the human dynamics in relation to which may be strongly similar to those in relation to the temple.
Within a Christian context the two prime symbols are probably the Bible and the dominical sacraments (baptism and eucharist). In many and various ways these are understood to be vehicles of the divine presence, and as such become focal points of hope and expectation, and also of assurance that God is with His people. Yet Christians who attend diligently to reading and studying the Bible and hearing it preached, or who regularly attend eucharists and develop spiritual disciplines related to eucharistic worship (confession, fasting, etc), may become lax in their moral practices that relate to the wellbeing of others. If so, if there develops a significant mismatch between their religious practices and their way of living, they may need to hear a challenge that their religious practices have become empty, even offensive, to God.
SCRIPTURE, SECURITY AND CHRISTIAN ZIONISM
That which applies initially with relation to primary Christian symbols can pertain also with relation to larger concerns, such as church, race, country. At the risk of pointing to the speck in someone else's eye, while ignoring the log in my own, and/or raising an issue where heat can easily predominate over light, let me suggest that some of these problems are evident in major strands of premillennial dispensationalism and its outworking in Christian Zionism with its distinctive kind of political, financial and military support for certain aspects of the state of Israel.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are at least two core characteristics of this movement. One is a focus on OT prophecy as predictive, indeed as predictive in an as yet unrealized way, awaiting realization once the timetable of the end times gets under way after the rapture. Quite apart from the way in which this ignores the intrinsically conditional and response-seeking nature of much biblical prophecy, the peculiar emphasis of this approach also effectively ignores the passages we have been looking at, which stress that without the practice of justice God's favour and protection is forfeited. Thus the more or less no-questions-asked support for Israeli militarism and for Israeli settlements in the West Bank in disregard for Palestinian concerns represents a failure to grasp that which is central to prophetic concerns. It is an approach that is incapable of hearing Jeremiah's warning that a land given in perpetuity may be forfeited through, among other things, unjust oppression of the weak and vulnerable.
A second characteristic is the indirect concern for America's own security, through the prime emphasis given to God's words to Abraham in Gen.12:3a, "I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse." The explicit logic of some Christian Zionism is that America must bless Israel (i.e. provide financial and political support) so that God may bless America (i.e. give America security and victory over its enemies). There is here a deeply chauvinist streak, perhaps most famously exemplified in Hal Lindsey's scenarios of God giving America ultimate victory over its enemies in the end times. There is less concern with America discerning and doing what is just, than with America positioning itself advantageously to receive blessing (security) now and in the end times.
This kind of Zionism involves at its heart a self-serving reading of the Bible, which fails to understand how God's promises relate to God's demands. It is ironic, indeed tragic, that Christians who seek to be distinctive by their faithfulness to Scripture should have allowed themselves to be misled in this way into idolatrous practice. As in the days of Micah, those who lead bear special responsibility.
JUSTICE, LOVE AND THE WRATH OF GOD
I would also like briefly to touch on a major theological issue posed by our prophetic texts: how are we to understand God? The OT portrayal of YHWH as one who brings conquering armies against His people, armies which destroy cities and carry the defeated into exile, is one that makes some believers nervous, especially in a contemporary context of heightened anxieties about the relationship between religious belief and violence.
This can be posed as an issue about the use of Scripture in forming belief, where there are ready polarized positions. On the one side, anything the Bible says about God must be straightforwardly accepted as a true self-revelation. On the other side, God is a literary figure within the biblical text and any relationship between that God and a true God is both unknown and unknowable. And there are, of course, significant mediating positions. But rather than approach the issue in this way, I would prefer to work with the classic Christian understanding that there is a true self-revelation of God within both testaments of Scripture, and that in prophetic texts such as the ones we are considering we hear an authentic message from God – and to ask what follows morally and theologically from this.
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, let me suggest that a major problem for much contemporary Christian thinking is that of "de-moralizing" God. We rightly proclaim and celebrate God's "love" and "grace", yet we wrongly fail to understand the inescapably moral and demanding nature of that love and grace. In the terminology made famous by Bonhoeffer in the opening words of his The Cost of Discipleship we are prone to "cheap grace". Or, in the terms of this paper, we have forgotten and/or neglected the nexus between knowing God and doing His will which is repeatedly formulated within both testaments and given particular emphasis by the prophets.
Another way of putting this, in general theological terms, is that we have become uneasy and/or unfamiliar with the biblical concept of the "wrath of God" ()aph yhwh, orge theou). Yet it is one thing to recognize how easily this language is corrupted, and another to fail to understand its right use. In general biblical and theological terms, "wrath" is what happens when God's good and loving purposes (hesed, agape) encounter human complacency and intransigence (stiffness of neck, hardness of heart, impenitence, unbelief). Here a prime way in which the reality of God's moral character can be expressed is through warnings to try to engender a right response, rather than through affirmations of love and mercy, which can simply engender in the unresponsive the sense that they can get away with whatever they want. Or, differently expressed, heaven and hell are related dimensions of the realities of responsiveness, or its lack, to the call of God.
When such warnings are addressed not just to individuals but to a people, they will naturally tend to take those forms in which trouble and hardship would most readily come upon a people in that particular culture. For many Western countries today, especially those within NATO, warnings might not be meaningfully expressed in terms of the military overthrow that was an ever-present possibility for small countries such as ancient Israel and Judah – though no doubt things look different from within Kosovo or Georgia. To be sure, deep existential cultural fears remain, both in relation to the horrific potential of nuclear weaponry in unreliable hands, and in relation to the way in which the terrorist threats of Al Qaeda (among others) have assumed enormous imaginative significance. However, it is not at all clear how best, if at all, contemporary warnings might be formulated in relation to these – beyond recognizing that the Islamist critique of Western culture as decadent, arrogant and imperialistic contains important truth, if only one can find appropriately discriminating and non-ham-fisted ways of formulating the critique from within the culture.
In short, the challenge to discern an appropriate form of warning to the heedless and complacent in contemporary culture is a demanding corollary of a biblical and Christian vision of God.
In the above reflections I have somewhat narrowed our theme of "the idolatry of security" into a focus primarily upon two issues: the use of Scripture, and the relationship between grace/gift and demand/expectation. I trust that other papers will address other dimensions. The reason for my approach is that it is all too easy, within a context of Christian theologians in a Christian academic setting, to use familiar biblical language and concepts with insufficient reflection on their real significance. Those who have learned to inhabit the world of the Bible can readily bring biblical content to bear upon today's world – and I am all in favour of that! But a little reflection upon what we are doing ought to make us more alert in both watching our language and attending to our practice. As we ponder some of the many ways in which the human longing for security can become idolatrous and lead to corruption of self and injustice towards others, I hope that we will not ourselves be beguiled by the security of familiarity with the Bible and an academic context into idolatrously detaching ourselves and our love of the Bible from obedient attentiveness to God's priorities for His world.