Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Own Faith Journey

I found my “own” faith when I went away to Anderson College, not yet a reasoned and evidenced belief system, for that came later, years later. At college I finally had the freedom to decide for myself what my personal philosophy or faith could be.  Because of this I don’t recognize the legitimacy of the conversions of children and teenagers since these spiritual experiences occur while still under parental control. Deciding to follow Christ as an adult is like signing a contract as an adult. Society recognizes that children do not have the mental capacity to freely give genuine consent with all the responsibilities pertained thereto. They have a “received” faith, not a personally “owned” or constructed belief system. At the time when I first took my adult steps into following Christ I became a voracious reader of the Bible. I read it for hours. I read it before my textbooks. I read it as a priority above relating to other persons on campus. During those first two or three years I consumed its pages and as a result I knew its contents at least as printed, and where to find what it said on most topics.

During this time when I consumed the biblical text I processed it at a very nonacademic level, but with one difference. When I was able I checked its information for accuracy. Numbers were verifiable and since math was one of my strengths I confirmed what the text read. While reading through the Bible I came across a problem in Numbers 3. This chapter narrates the numbering of the sons of Levi, for the families of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari to be specific. The census section (3:14-39) gives the tallies for the various families, Gershon 7500, Kohath 8600, and for Merari 6200 with a total of 22,000 “by their families, every male from a month old and upward” (3:39) The total listed however was incorrect. The actual numerical total is 22,300. Given that the precision level was at the hundreds place this constituted a serious problem. Could Numbers be this bad when calculating numbers? Check this out for yourself! At the time I noted it, but I had no idea how to process this discovery since it clearly conflicted with the uninformed faith I then had. All I understood at the time was that I had found a real error in the Bible that could not have any errors.

The time of biblical consuming noted above was before the radical transformation evoked by my cafeteria encounter with Dr. James Massey and Prof. Marie Strong. On that occasion while I was eating a meal by myself, one sat at my right and one at my left.  These two instructors then retold the story of the talents. All the time I was thinking I know this parable, I can tell it to you too. They then confronted me with an application that I had never considered. One of them asked, “Jim, on judgment day what are you going to answering God when he asks why you buried your brain in the ground?” I was struck with the awesomeness of the question and a need for immediacy of a solution. At the time I was a committed member of the group that I now label: “the being stupid for Jesus crowd.” Wrestling with this serious question enabled me to reevaluate my approach and I decided to become a thinking follower of Christ. After I became a critical reader of the biblical text I began to learn the biblical languages, to use grammar and linguistic reference works, to process commentaries in a skeptical way, and to build a new rational faith.

The Numbers 3 example given above represents a prime example why any reader of the biblical text who want to understand its contents as presented while rejecting personal reconstructions must use capable scholarly biblical commentaries. For not all references printed are truly capable or accurate. Years later after much critical study I located a capable commentary that reasonably solved my problem. If you are using a commentary that ignores this problem or others like it, find another one.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The concern for absolutes in ethics asserts that ethical teachings or understandings exist that are in fact valid for all times, for all people, for everywhere. Absolutes are universals. When someone claims that a particular activity was right in ancient times, i.e., herem the practice of holy war where the inhabitants of whole cities are slaughtered, but wrong now, they are in fact denying and abandoning the concept that absolute values are found in Scripture. One could just as easily argue the opposite as many in fact do, that what was prohibited in ancient times is acceptable now.

Back in 2001 after the tragedy of the towers I introduced discussions to reveal how difficult it should be to assess such horror among those who take the Book of Joshua quite literally. I started by citing the evidence of the ancient custom of herem, translated "utterly destroy" (NRSV). The Israelites wanted to follow the practices of other nations (1 Sam. 8:5). They did not wish to be unique and they were not unique. This was also true for the herem for it was also practiced by the neighbors that surrounded them as ancient texts prove:

And Chemosh said to me, "Go, take Nebo from Israel!" So I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maid-servants, for I had devoted them to destruction for the (god) Ashtar-Chemosh. Moabite Stone (14-17) ANET3 (1969):320

The practice of herem is idealized in the Torah but especially in the legislation of Deuteronomy (Num. 21:2-3; Deut. 7:2, 12:2, 20:16-20, but save the fruit trees) and up to the time of David may have been a customary element of battle. It forms the very heart of the contents of the Book of Joshua where the practice of "holy extermination" is a central religious idea of the conquest stories (Joshua 2:10; 6:21; 8:26; 10:28,35,37,39,40; 11:11,12,20,21). It is the code by which Samuel is told to have functioned and judged Saul (1 Sam. 15: 1-33). Such a view would be blatant triumphalism and parochialism for one to condemn what Moab practiced in honor of Chemosh (since a false god cannot express his will since he cannot speak) while blessing what Israel practiced in honor of YHWH (because one asserts that that the God who can speak) and Father of Jesus Christ (the source of the teachings contained in the Sermon on the Mount) commanded the wholesale annihilation of Israel’s enemies.

How can they who give their blessing to the slaughter of Joshua then judge the actions of those who seized the jets and crashed them into the towers in honor of Allah? I emphatically reject in these cases that deity (Chemosh, Yahweh, or Allah) is the source of oracles commanding such pillage. Humanity is the source of such hatred. And since this is the case I can easily believe that humans will commit great atrocities in the name and on behalf of any deity they confess to follow. History is full of such examples, including unfortunately many committed by Christians.

So how can we understand such commands for annihilation? We should start with the Torah commands to abandon the worship of any god but Yahweh. Obedience to monotheism (actually henotheism) demands that Israelites avoid any social interaction that would lead to involvement with other gods. The teaching that Israelites are to have no dealings with Canaanites especially marriage thus represents a practical way to follow monotheism. Avoiding these prohibited social involvements if exaggerated to the extreme ends with a radical solution, the practice of herem. Simply stated if you empty out a land of false god worshipping foreigners, then any threat to following idolatrous customs would be totally removed.