About those Short-Term Missions

February 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

One of these days I’m going to get around to posting my thoughts about the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and its work in Africa.

But meanwhile, there’s a great piece that everybody interested in missions should read, here.

Great stuff and i wouldn’t disagree with a word of it, even though my experience was actually rather different.

I was the dean of a seminary in Uganda for three years, then Director of Studies of another in Johannesburg for two. In Uganda I was the only white person for miles around, so that was interesting. Uganda didn’t have the colonial experience of, say, Kenya or South Africa, where white people came and stole land, so a lot of the barriers I experienced in Kenya and then especially in South Africa just weren’t there.

But above all i found that if you want to make any positive difference, you have to be willing to live without privilege (well, more or less without, as best you can) and to prefer the “little” people to the “big” ones. This got me into trouble in both places, but I wouldn’t do things any different at all, and won’t, if I go back.

I was eating dinner with a young priest and his family one night, as usual— they’d sorta become my best friends— when another old priest came by and sat with us. He’d had a few beers, so his tongue was loose. Do you have any idea what you’re doing? he said. I thought, Uh oh. What? And he went on to explain that never in the 80 years that the church had been there, had a white person actually sat on the floor and eaten local food with the locals, night after night, obviously loving to be with the people there as one of them. He said people were talking about me “from here to Naansana” (which you barely see in the distance). I had no idea! I was just trying to have dinner with friends, rather than eat alone!

But it would have been ridiculous for me to try to build a school or a church. Most certainly, it is better all around to hire the locals to do it for themselves. I was there to teach theology, which was something they needed and wanted, and a contribution I could make. Oh, of course it really does take several years to “get” a local culture and to know the conversations you need to have, rather than the ones you think you need to have, but on the whole, it was working out.

In every case, no matter what you do, you have to stay close to the ground— and you have to think through the economic impact. I could have asked people in America to send boxes of school supplies, but I quickly realized that that would have destroyed the little shops that made their living selling pencils and pens. So instead i asked people to send money and then i spread it around so people could go to the little shops and buy their own pens and pencils. That made everybody happy, including shopkeepers I never met!


February 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I wrote this the other day to a friend’s Facebook page. I may come back and re-edit it, but here’s the direction I’m going with the question of “inerrancy”:


It’s absolutely necessary to affirm inerrancy if you think the meaning of the Bible is outside the Bible, in history, or in science, or what have you. “True”, in that case, means, “in conformity with external reality”. When external reality is found not to conform to your text, then you either have to insist that the text is true and the external reality is wrong, or that the Bible “really” conforms to it, despite the appearance that it doesn’t. 

But if the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible itself, then talk about “inerrancy” is as relevant as talk about “inerrancy” in Lord of the Rings. 

Lord of the Rings, by the way, was one of the most deeply meaningful books of the 20th century, and perhaps of all English literature. And not a word of it was “true”. 

And before anybody responds by saying how dare i reduce the Bible to the status of a novel— let me just preempt by saying that that is not at all my point!

It’s just that arguments about “inerrancy” show only that it’s time we start trying to figure out what the writers of the Bible actually thought they were writing about, rather than imposing our need for it to be about concerns of ours. 

The Bible is flawless. There is not one single mistake in it. But the whole industry of “inerrancy” is flawed to the absolute core, because it makes the truth of the Bible dependent on archaeology, or vice versa, and refuses to take the Bible seriously as having its own voice.

You wrote, “you are absolutely correct that the core of the bible is dependent on the message it portrays and not on archaeology.”

But I didn’t say “the core of the bible is dependent on the message it portrays.” I said, “the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible itself, not outside it”. I also said the Bible is absolutely perfect, and there is not one “mistake” in it— any more than there are “mistakes” in Lord of the Rings. Neither the Bible nor the Lord of the Rings is trying to tell you about external historical or scientific facts, even though both of them profoundly are about human existence. But even then, the meaning of the Bible (or of LOTR, for that matter) is in the Bible (or LOTR) itself, not in some concept or aspect of human existence external to it— and even though the Bible and LOTR profoundly illuminate human existence.

What you want to call “literal interpretation” is far from it. What you’re talking about might be called “historical interpretation” or “scientific interpretation” or something like that, but it’s not “literal”, because it rests not on the letter of the Bible, but on the underlying and actually quite gratuitous (if understandable) assumption that the Bible’s purpose is to accurately relay facts of history or science, and it requires those facts to match up, otherwise it fails. The letter is actually of interest only when and insofar as it’s useful for showing that the Bible does, in fact— perhaps contrary to first impressions— accurately relay facts that are outside the Bible. In other words, for you, the Bible is “correct” only if you can go outside the text to some historical or scientific event and demonstrate a precise correlation. This “proves” the Bible. And you seem to have no other way of conceiving of the truth in the Bible, because that is what the truth of the Bible is.

And as I said, if that correlation did not exist— if, in fact, you ever found external historical or scientific facts that were different from and contradictory to the Bible even in the slightest particular— you’d lose your faith, because your faith is not in the Bible, but in the correlation you believe has to exist between the Bible and history or science. Of course, before you lost your faith, you would (and you do) deny that that correlation could ever not exist, either by trying to force the facts of science and history to conform to the Bible (creationism), or by trying to force the Bible to “actually mean” something it does not, for example by theories of that invoke volcanic eruptions to explain the withdrawal of the Red Sea in Exodus, or by claiming a possible “mistake” in transmission. But by making those moves, you’ve already shown that your faith is not and never was actually in the Bible as such, but only in the correlation you suppose between the Bible and events external to it.

This may be hard to grasp, because I think nobody has pointed it out before, so let me put it again in fewer words: For you, the truth of the Bible lies outside the Bible, in the correlation you assume must exist between the Bible and external events. If that correlation were not there, then “in vain have you believed”, because exactly what you believe is that the Bible accurately tells you facts of science and history. If it does not, it is not true, and not God’s word. And anyone who says it does not correlate with external events “inerrantly”, is denying that the Bible is God’s word.

You also wrote, “But, let us for a moment consider how the interpretation of that literature would change if it is not considered literally God’s word but man’s word of God’s message.”

I said absolutely nothing about considering the Bible “man’s word” or “God’s word”. At the end of the day, whether it’s “man’s word” or “God’s word” is actually of no interest at all. What we have before us is a Text. Even if every word of it, including the word “the”, is a lie— it is still a Text, a certain sequence of written letters on a series of pages, or rather, of scrolls and codices. These words are in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and they were written in stages between some 2 to 3 thousand years ago. They have been faithfully handed down from generation to generation in a lineage whose beginnings are somewhat obscure, but which can be elucidated to some extent if one is interested (not that this is of any crucial importance, but it is interesting to some of us). At the end of the day, what we have are letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, books, and a canon. And that is the only “word of God” (however you want to define that) OR “word of man” that we have— exactly this sequence of letters and pages, and no other. This is what we have to understand. Now, I hold that this Text has its own power, and does not need to be supported by anything outside it. (I also point out that it exists within an interpretive community also, in which the experiences it points to are conveyed in a living manner, but that is a whole separate topic.)

Your concern is that unless this Text correlates with external historical or scientific events, then “All literal interpretations would now become metaphorical extrapolations, which are subject to man’s interpretative will.” Such a thing would amount to “prophesying from [mere human] inspiration” and that, I take it, would lead to complete relativism and lawlessness. I also gather that you feel we would then have no way of knowing our purpose for being here, no objective meaning in life, if that correlation between Bible and science/history did not exist— if the Bible’s narrative didn’t correctly describe what an independent investigator, starting only with the world at hand, would come to, using objective mathematics and tools of discovery. Therefore it is of crucial importance that the Bible and science and history match up precisely.

I take it you do agree with my point that, if the Bible is to be “true”, there must be a correlation between external event and the Bible, when you write that “There is a difference between external reality and an archaeological claim”, and then go on to explain that several contradictory archaeological claims have been disproven, “and the story in the Scriptures has been vindicated.” “Vindication”, in the sense you use it, means that the biblical narrative matches the external event.

You then list eight “archaeological claims” that you say have been disproven, but I have a hard time recognizing most of them. Who denied that there were Hittites? Jericho is a well-known site, but “walls blown outward”??— where does that idea come from? The existence of the historical person, David, could be confirmed only by epigraphic evidence, and I’m not aware of any that is not highly contested, but nor does that mean there was no David, since mere absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Solomon’s temple has not been found, but then archaeological digging is not allowed at the site in question. Who doubts it’s there, though? Daniel after the time of Christ? Responsible scholars assign it to about 150 before Christ. About whether a historical son of a historical Jacob named Joseph was ever in Egypt, again there would simply be no way of knowing without epigraphic evidence of both Jacob and Joseph, and we have nothing of the kind. I did read an article just the other day showing that there is no evidence of domesticated camels for the putative time of the patriarchs, and pointing to plenty of evidence against the idea. But none of these things, although interesting, is any more significant to the meaning of the Bible than proving that neither Middle Earth nor hobbits ever existed is important for an understanding of LOTR. How would knowing that Hobbits didn’t exist change your reading of LOTR? How would knowing that Abraham, if he existed, could not have ridden a camel, change the meaning of the story? It’s only because you insist that Joseph, David, camels, the Temple, and Daniel MUST be the kinds of facts you can match with archeological claims, that you get alarmed when someone says that such correlations are contraindicated by artifacts (or lack thereof) in the ground. You see, your faith is not in the Bible, but in the correlation you assume MUST exist between the Bible and external facts— IF THAT CORRELATION IS NOT THERE, THE BIBLE IS NOT TRUE AND NOT THE WORD OF GOD.

Moreover, you argue that, “If God is incapable of controlling His messengers from making mistake in historical matters, how can we trust any prophetic message knowing that it could also contain mistakes?” You hasten to assert that only “the original was [free of errors] and that through the normal human process of corruption some errors have creeped in” to the Bible. I would like you to identify a couple of those “errors” so I can know what you’re talking about. I can read the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, and i am not personally aware of a single “error”; in fact I flatly deny that there is a single one, and if you think there is, you either don’t believe in the Bible or you’re misreading it.

I am certainly aware of manuscript variations, and some of them are not likely to be original, so I suppose you could consider those to be “errors”. But I take it you are not referring to misplaced letters, but to elements of the biblical narrative that do not correlate with external scientific or historical facts. If the purpose of the Text is to provide those facts, then we could speak of errors. However, to play my tune in a different key, if Charles Dickens had written, in David Copperfield, of the intersection of two streets that actually never crossed but were and are at all times actually parallel in the “real” London, we couldn’t say Dickens had made a “mistake”, unless his purpose was to provide a description of London. It is better to assume that, as a Londoner, he knew the London’s streets, and he used the words he used, to serve the purpose he had. We might ask WHY he might have had those roads cross, when in real life they do not. But we could not accuse him of an “error” unless we had determined that he actually thought they did cross and intended to represent an accurate map of London when he wrote his book. But we can’t just assume this, as you are doing for the Bible, because that may not have been his intention at all. The actual map of London may have been a matter of indifference to him, or he may have used literary license to associate events that occurred on each of those streets in other places in his book with the events of the scene in which he mentions their intersection, or some other such strategy. As I said about the Bible, the meaning of Copperfield is in Copperfield, not in the streets of London.

You apparently think anyone who denies that the Bible correlates directly with what we can learn from science and history, or vice versa, ought to be killed. Or at any rate, you say, “The test given in Deuteronomy for a prophet is pretty clear. If what they say is not true. He is to be stoned to death. This high standard by its very nature predicates that the words spoken are not from the mind of man but God.”

Actually, it does no such thing. Deuteronomy is saying that if anyone offers his own words as God’s words, and is later found to have led people astray because his words failed to come true, then he is to be put to death. By your argument, if i myself were merely to write that someone who disagrees with me ought to be put to death, this would “predicate” that my words “are not from the mind of man but God.” Maybe so, but what of it? Does that predication make it so? Would you then also agree that imams may legitimately issue fatwas against anyone who disagrees with the Holy Qur’an. Certainly, such a fatwa would predicates the Qur’an as “God’s word”. But would that predication be correct?

But leave that aside, I’m curious what you make of 2Kg 22.20 || 2Chr 34.27-28. Here, Huldah says,

Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heardest his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humbledst thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me; I have even heard thee also, saith the LORD. Behold, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same.

However, if you read 2Kg 23.29 || 2Chr 35.22-24, you will see that

the archers shot at king Josiah; and the king said to his servants, Have me away; for I am sore wounded. His servants therefore took him out of that chariot, and put him in the second chariot that he had; and they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died, and was buried in one of the sepulchres of his fathers.

Was the prophecy not spoken by the bona-fide prophetess Huldah— the one who, according to that very story, arguably gave us the very Torah itself? And yet the Bible says IT DID NOT COME TRUE. Was she “mistaken”? Was God “mistaken”? What is this book doing, in giving us both stories?

As I said about Copperfield, the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible, not in science or history.

Adam, High Priest and King

February 5th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

[You can download a pdf version of this which fits on one page here.]

Genesis 1 says that God made the world in six days and on the seventh he rested. Then Gn 2 talks about how he plan­ted a garden. These stories are different from each other, but both are talking about how God made a temple. The story of Israel building a portable temple (‘taber­nacle’) in Exodus 25–40 has the same outline and many connec­tions with Gn 1–2, and the story of Solomon building his temple in Jerusalem does as well (1 Kings 5–8). God built a temple-world, and Israel built a world-temple.

Now, every temple has to have a statue of its god, for to see the statue is to see the god. So the last thing God did in the six days was to make a statue for his temple: ‘God said, “Let’s make man in our image, according to our likeness”.  And God created man in his own image… male and female he created them’ (Gn 1.26-27). The word for ‘image’ is ṣélem, which literally is a ‘statue’, the kind you find in a temple. God made his statue out of dirt (adamáh), which is red (edóm), like blood (dam), and the statue God made was adám, ‘Blood-Red-Earth-Human’. He also made a wife for Adám, whom Adam called Ḥavváh, ‘Life-Mother’. They were to ‘have dominion’ (Gn 1.28), that is, be kings.

When your bible says that ‘the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden’ (Gn 2.15), it uses a special word— literally, he ‘set’ (nûḥ) him there, like setting up a statue. So God ‘set up’ his image, Blood-Red-Earth-Human, in his garden-temple. Now, one of the interesting things about God’s temple and his religion is that God had breathed his own breath into his ṣélem so that it would live. In God’s religion, his image would also be his priest and king.

Your bible probably says that God rested Adam in the garden ‘to till and to keep it’ (Gn 2.15). That makes him a farmer, not a priest! But the Hebrew literally says, ‘to serve and to keep’. Now, you can ‘serve’ anybody and ‘keep’ anything, but in the Bible, these verbs appear together only to describe what priests do in the temple (cf, eg, Nm 3.7-8, 18.4,7).* So Blood-Red-Earth-Human and the Life-Mother at his side weren’t there just to ‘serve and keep’— much less to ‘dress and till’. They were there to serve (as in liturgy) and to keep (as in com­mand­ments). And that’s why, right after ‘setting’ Adam and Eve in the garden, God gave them some religious com­mand­ments for the very first time: ‘Of every tree of the garden— [even the Tree of Life!]— you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for on the day you do eat of it, you shall surely die’ (Gn 2.16-17).

But Genesis is about how Adam, God’s ṣélem and High Priest, didn’t ‘serve and keep’. Instead, he ate the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. He wanted God’s wisdom without faithfulness. So God exiled him from his garden/temple, ‘lest he take of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ (Gn 3.22). And the rest of the Old Testament tells how the priest-kings of Israel made images of false gods and relied on false wisdom to sup­port greed, be­tray­al, and injustice. ‘Like Adam they trans­gressed the cov­enant’ (Ho 6.7)— they ‘trans­gressed’ (`averu), where they should have ‘served’ (`avedu). So (again!) God exiled them from Jeru­sa­lem and from his holy Temple. But the Bible also tells how God restored Israel— and Adam— through a new Adam-Priest-King-Israel, Jesus.

Genesis is famous for its genealogies. You’ll find long lists of ‘begats’ in Gn 5 & 10, and shorter ones scattered up through Ex 6. If you put them all together, you find out they run from Adam down to Phineas, grandson of Aaron the first High Priest. But they don’t give you a ‘family tree’ that shows you absolutely all your cousins. Instead, a single trunk focuses in each generation on one central line. At the center of the world is the High Priest, who is Adam’s direct heir. As Adam’s son and image (Gn 5.3), the High Priest manifests what we are. As God’s son (Lk 3.38) and image, he manifests what God is. So do you want to know what a human being is? Ask the Bible: Every Blood-Red-Earth-Human and Life-Mother = Priest.

Both priest and image bring God into the world. But God made the only true and living Image of himself that can exist. The god-images we make don’t bring God into the world; they lead to exile and death, not to wisdom and life. God’s Image is his Priest, and as God’s ṣélem-priest, our work is to serve God and to keep his command­ments in his temple-world— to practice mercy and truth— and God’s work is to supply life and wisdom!

The Bible nowhere says so directly, but Jewish and Christian tradition tell us that Adam and Eve were clothed in a garment of light. ‘Light’ is ôr (אור). When they fell, they ‘saw they were naked’, so ‘the Lord God made garments of skin for them and vested them’ (Gn 3.21). ‘Skin’ is `ôr (עור). In a symbolic reversal, God told Moses to vest the priests in garments of white (light) when he ordained them (Ex 28.41, 29.8, 40.14; Lv 8.13). The same is done for us when we’re baptized. We’re stripped naked of the garment we inherited from Adam, and vested in the garment of light that we’ll wear at the resurrection. We ‘put off… the old Adam and… put on the new Adam, which is created according to God, in covenant faithfulness and true holiness’ (Ep 4.22-24). Then, clothed as priests once more in the radiance of God’s likeness, we’re brought into the Temple, to eat once again from the Tree of Life— the Cross, whose fruit, the new High Priest, Israel’s new King Adam who hung on it— has restored our Communion with God and brought us back to Paradise at last (Lk 23.43).


*Since this is the internet and there are no page-lengths, I can give you all the references, but they’re not on the pdf which is linked:

After Gn 2.15, all occurrences of the verbs šmr (שמר) and `bd (עבד) together refer to the priests’ and Levites’ service of the Tabernacle, except for a couple of instances in which all Israel is engaged in the ‘priestly’ activity of keeping the Passover:

Ex 12.25 (all Israel: Passover); Nm 3.7,8; 3.31,36; 4.27,28,31,32; 8.26; 18.4,7; Dt 12.30 (Israel); 13.4/5 (Israel: ‘keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and serve him’); Jr 16.11 (other gods); Ez 44.14; Mal 3.14 (Israel? but context suggests priestly); 1 Chr 9.19; 23.32; 2Chr 8.14; 31.16; 35.2.

The roots šmr (שמר) and `bd (עבד) also appear together in Gn 41.10; Deut 6.12; 7.8; 11.16; 12.30; 16.12; Josh 1.7; 22.2, 5; 24.17; 1 Sam 28.2; 2 Sam 22.44; 1 Kgs 3.6; 8.23–25; 9.6; 11.11, 34, 38; 14.8; 20.39; 2 Kgs 12.22; 17.13; 21.8; Isa 56.6; Ezek 37.24; Hos 12.13; Ps 19.12; 86.2; 119.17; Neh 1.7; 10.30; 2 Chr 6.14–16— but in all these cases the root `bd is a noun (‘servant’).

The Deuteronomic usage is suggestive: šmr usually has the sense of ‘watch yourself, be careful to (or lest)’ plus ‘serve’.

‘Mission’ and Story

August 17th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

[I've taken to reposting here, stuff that i post in other venues, which i think might be interesting to collect in one place. This went up on FB today. The quote from St Isaac was contributed by someone else.]

“Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered among men to be zealous for truth as not yet learned what truth is really like: once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf.

The gift of God and of the knowledge of Him is not a cause of turmoil and clamor; rather this gift is entirely filled with a peace in which the Spirit, love and humility reside.

The following is a sign of the coming of the Spirit: the person whom the Spirit has overshadowed is made perfect in these very virtues.

God is reality. The person whose mind has become aware of God does not even possess a tongue with which to speak, but God resides in his heart in great serenity. He experiences no stirring of zeal or argumentativeness, nor is he stirred by anger. He can not even be aroused concerning the faith.”

—St. Isaac of Syria

i tend to think that’s how it is, though i’d hardly claim for myself the attainment St Isaac writes of. Sometime before or during when i was a ‘missionary’ in Uganda, i stopped being interested in ‘making’ any ‘converts’ at all. Oh, i have five god children there, and not just because i acquired them by virtue of my official capacity— i actually resisted baptizing them until i knew i was leaving, and gave in only because they desired it, and i knew they might not have gotten baptized after that, given the situation of the church there. But that’s another story. In any case I’m still not quite sure what ‘baptism’ means, or whether it means anything, much of the time.

But God— and actually, I prefer to be much more specific: the God who sent his son Jesus, the Jewish Messiah— *is* real, as the saint says, and it is *not* necessary to contend or to prove. It’s much more interesting just to listen to the stories people are telling, and to try to hear what they mean. I don’t in any way consider other stories to be on the same ‘level’ as Jesus’ story, if that means all teachers are equal— by their own words they are not!— but as stories, all stories are equal. The thing is, they can and do influence and affect and change us, and that’s true of the ones i tell too, of the gospels. My god children came to me; i did not go to them; and it was because of the stories i was telling.

I’ve just finished writing my commentary for Mt 13.33, the parable of the leaven, for the class on Matthew i’m hoping to start in a few weeks:

‘Heaven’s regime is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour’.

The usual interpretation concentrates on the contrast between the small lump of leaven and the great mass of bread, essentially the same as between the tiny mustard seed and the ‘tree’ resulting from that, in the verse preceding. And it’s true: that amount of flour would produce bread enough for one hundred people. But the parable does not say that the leaven is ‘little’; it says it is ‘hidden’, and that it has a prodigious effect. Hidden leaven penetrates a huge lump of dough till it fills the whole table.

We try to impose our ethno-phyletic solutions on others because we’re not really confident in our own stories. Often, we’ve reduced them to abstractions, that must somehow be proven, like equations, or policed, like laws. But in Africa we liked nothing better than to sit around talking about the Bible. I saw how foreign the Bible was to my friends, and hence to me. I also saw how deeply powerful it was, when you really heard it, and not just the conventional moralism that we often substitute for it. Leaven is not something you see, but it has a prodigious effect when the conditions are there.

Why is There a Dove at the Baptism of Jesus?

August 10th, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

What is the dove doing at the baptism of Jesus?

Well, probably most of us would say, Noah, dove, covenant— obvious! The dove is a symbol or sign of the covenant.

Ok, but… covenant with… who?— Noah? Israel?

Actually, the dove isn’t a sign of any covenant in the Bible. In the Noah story, God cuts a covenant with Noah, but only after he actually exits the box (‘ark’, in Latin), and a dove isn’t mentioned there. So I still wonder what the dove is.

There are 52 references to a dove (יונה) in the OT. I’m increasingly convinced that the number of occurrences of words in the Bible is significant, because the numbers are meaningful in other contexts, more often than they’d be if they were just random, but i know of no key. So i’ll just note that 52 is the number of weeks in a year, and file that away as a potential clue… to something.

But in these 52 references, the dove is mentioned—

  • in the noah story (4 times: Gen 8.8–12);
  • in sacrificial material (10 times: Lev 1.14; 5.7, 11; 12.6, 8; 14.22, 30; 15.14, 29; Num 6.10);
  • in a reference to famine in 2 Kgs 6.25;
  • in material about Israel going into or already in exile in Isaiah (2 times: 38.14— note the reference to resurrection in 38;17; and 59.11); Ezekiel (7.16); and Nahum (2.7);
  • in material about Israel returning from exile (Isa 60.8; Ho 11.11);
  • in a reference to Moab in flight/exile (Jer 48.28);
  • in material about flighty Israel in Hosea (7.11);
  • in the book of the prophet Jonah (whose name means ‘dove’) (19 times: 2 Kgs 14.25; Jon 1.1, 3, 5, 7, 15, 17–2.1; 2.10–3.1; 3.3–4; 4.1, 5–6, 8–9— all of them just naming the prophet/protagonist of the book);
  • in poetic references in Psalms (55.6 (image of escape); 56.0 (uncertain title); 68.13 (uncertain image of plunder)); and
  • in references to the bride in Song of Songs (6 times: 1.15; 2.14; 4.1; 5.2, 12; 6.9).

So, in order of usage: Jonah, sacrifice, Israel, exile, bride, Noah.

The Noah material is actually the least prominent, at least by frequency. We think of it first, mostly (I’m sure) because chapters 6-9 of Genesis are about as far as we ever get with the OT and, after all, the Noah story does come at an important place in the Bible. But Noah is not necessarily the main thing a Hebrew speaker who really knew the Bible might think of, when s/he thought of a dove.

Well, leaving aside the prophet ‘Dove’ (Jonah) for the moment— even though his name accounts for about two fifths (19/52) of all the references to a dove in the Bible— the next most frequent uses of a dove in the Bible have to do with sacrifices, particularly sacrifices of purification.

The semiotics of sacrifice are not well understood, but purification is always the repairing of some breach, which is why it’s required after healing from childbirth, a running issue of blood, or etc. It always takes place on the ‘eighth day’— which is a symbol of new creation (the eighth day is the new first day, after the Sabbath); as such it later emerges as a symbol of the resurrection, since Christ was crucified on the sixth day, spent the Sabbath in the tomb, and arose on the eighth day, the first day of the new creation, the day without evening). For purification, always two doves are required. And the sacrifice is associated in Leviticus and Numbers not only with purification, but also at the same time with atonement (reconciliation), Israel (it is an offering brought by anyone, not priests or kings), and with the poor (who can’t afford bigger sacrifices).

For some reason the dove has become a symbol of peace in our society— possibly because Noah’s dove was a “sign of reconciliation”. I’m not sure that’s quite the point in the Bible, but the dove did bring the olive twig, a sign of new life, to Noah. Even so, though— given that the Noah story is above all a good story— one still wonders why Noah chose a “dove”. But, given the popular symbolism, and because we don’t really know the Bible very well, I think we usually just assume the dove at Jesus’ baptism is “a sign of peace or something”, and don’t look any farther. But one really expects a lot more from a important symbol at a key moment. If you have some insight into this, do let me know!

But as far as i can see from the data i’ve presented, I think on the whole the dove is a symbol of Israel, and we should read the dove in the story of Jesus’ baptism as the vocation to be Israel comes upon him. This, it turns out, is quite consistent with the theology of all four gospels in general, where Jesus is the ‘true Israel’.

Arguably the dove in Noah’s story stands for “Israel” as well, since Israel was to be, precisely, a sign of hope and reconciliation and new life for God’s creation.

All of this leads us to reflect on the entire book of the prophet ‘Dove’, then— Jonah, of course— who spent three days in the belly of the whale, as a reflection on Israel’s vocation among the nations. ‘Dove’ went to Nineveh, in fact; that is, to Babylon, the place of Israel’s exile (and note how Israel goes into exile in Nineveh like a dove in Nahum 2.1-7; but God is against Nineveh and its violence in Nahum 2.8-13.

Dove = Israel, then, and when God asks Dove (Jonah), “Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jon 4.11), he is plying that question not just to Dove/Jonah, but to Dove/Israel.

So at the baptism of Jesus, the dove descends, Jesus becomes the true Israel, and we see that God’s going to get his answer.

Perhaps purification always requires two doves because, as Isaiah 40-55 shows us, there was always Jacob-Israel, who fails, and Servant-Israel, who does God’s will. One of the doves is always sacrificed as an offering for sin, and the other as an offering for atonement. Actually the one Son fulfilled both. Curiously, he is said to have done so at age 33, and 33 is the number of references to a dove in the Bible except for Dove/Jonah.

Marriage in Our Culture and According to the Bible

August 9th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

This video (about 50 minutes) strikes me as really quite good.

I think there’s a lot of need to think deeply about marriage (and divorce and all the rest) in our society. I don’t think it’s quite the same thing in our society as it was in the first century— hardly at all, in fact. These two talks would be a good start, from a couple of angles.

‘It gets better’… at BYU

April 8th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

A little surprised by this: ‘It gets better’… at BYU.

More Disturbing Info on the Kony2012 Campaign

April 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

This link contains a youtube in which Jason Russell, cofounder of Invisible Children, speaks of the group’s video as a ‘Trojan Horse to get into the schools’. Russell doesn’t go into it here, but he mentions that some kind of an unsatisfactory experience on an evangelistic mission in Uganda led him to wanting to do something and get people involved in the situation there. ‘We are able to be the Trojan Horse in a sense, going into a secular realm and saying, guess what life is about— orphans, and it’s about the widow. It’s about the oppressed. That’s God’s heart. And to sit in a public high school and tell them about that has been life-changing. Because they get so excited. And it’s not driven by guilt, it’s driven be an adventure and the adventure is God’s.’

I don’t have a huge problem with that— as far as it goes; if someone goes to Africa on an evangelistic mission and then comes to realize that it’s not about making converts to their religion but about serving the widow, the orphan, and the fatherless— that can’t be all bad. I went there pretty clear about that already, but certainly my work in Uganda confirmed my sense that religion without justice is worthless. And hence the African Education Fund (click the link at the right).

But I am both dismayed and not surprised to find confirmation of something I suspected from the very beginning about Invisible Children— that the group has deep ties, apparently, to some very nasty people: ‘…intimately linked to The Family, the secretive and powerful American fundamentalist group widely considered responsible for Uganda’s draconian “Kill the Gays” bill’, and also notoriously involved in the Bush Whitehouse. Here’s an NPR piece on The Family.

My feeling is that Russell and his group want to do good, and as far as that goes, it’s hard not to support them— but they do seem at least naive about being played. For me, too many pieces fit together too well in ways I don’t like at all: war slowly ramping up in South Sudan, another oil-rich area, oil in Uganda, all kinds of minerals in eastern Congo and southwestern Ethiopia, the Kony campaign, the US’s announcement of $50 billion in fighter jets for its vicious client, Uganda’s president-for-life Y.K. Museveni. The Invisible Children group has been very effective in garnering enormous worldwide sympathy for a country whose internal politics and geopolitical position are completely obscure(d).

The Guardian reported that ‘The African Union has announced that it will form a 5,000-strong brigade to hunt down Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), believed to be hiding in the jungles of central Africa.’ And the numbers get bigger and bigger: Kony ‘is believed to have recruited between 60,000 and 100,000 child soldiers and displaced around 2 million people.’ Actually, Kony didn’t displace. It was Museveni who forced 2 million Acholi, who had opposed his takeover of Uganda, into wretched camps and destitution which Kony could raid freely.

I see forces getting into position. Kony is a evil, insane psychopath who shold be brought to justice, although his original goal of asserting the rights of the Acholi people does have some support. He’s not the guy to bring it about, of course, but for 25 years he’s been useful, and that’s why he’s been kept around. He’s also expendable, of course, and his stale date may actually have arrived, though I’ll be a little surprised if the new brigade actually captures him. They’re more likely to capture a good deal of military aid from the West. So he has been, and remains, very useful. Invisible Children, with its brash idealism and well-critiqued paternalism has also been useful in getting people behind the buildup.

By the way, the new anti-Kony brigade ‘will be based in South Sudan’.

‘No Longer Invisible’

March 24th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Uganda's 'invisible children' are no longer so invisible.

Uganda's 'invisible children' are no longer so invisible.

This article on the Kony2012 campaign is worth reading. It’s good news if the campaign results in renewed resolve to catch the bastard. I hope they do!

But meanwhile, please don’t forget the St Nicholas African Education Fund (see the Paypal or ChipIn link at the right), especially if, as I do, you have a problem with Invisible Children spending only 32% of funds raised on any Uganda children, visible or not. As I’ve mentioned, we send 100% directly to our kids, minus only the bank fees and about $75/month for our hard-working manager in Uganda.

Update: Also have a look at “Guest Post: I’ve met Joseph Kony and Kony 2012 isn’t that bad” by Norbert Mao, a Uganda politico. As he points out, “The sky is overcast with an explosive mix of dubious oil deals, land grabs, arms proliferation, neglected ex-combatants, and a volatile neighborhood full of regimes determined to fish in troubled waters. What we have is a tentative peace.”

Nodding Disease

March 21st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Someone just sent me this link about a new disease striking families in Northern Uganda. I’ve heard of it, but haven’t ever seen anything specific about it until now. It’s not known what causes it, or can cure it. Hope they find it soon; over 3000 children have been affected so far.

As I said to him, just imagine if africa had… education, jobs, medicine, food, and peace!

Well, at least please help with the education part of it— click the paypal link to the right.

  • Help Uganda High School Students Graduate!

    Download the flyer and/or visit this page for more info.

    Contribute through Paypal here:
    These same buttons can be found at the St Nicholas Fund home page.

    You can also make automatic monthly payments:

    Yes! I'll help with (items are for example only)

    No PayPal account? Pay using your credit or debit card anyway! Just click the button anyway and find the link at the bottom of the form.

    Or just send your check to—

    St Nicholas African
    Education Fund
    102 Ross Avenue
    San Anselmo, CA 94960 USA
    Tel 415 454 0982

    Jesus Christ himself thanks you!
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