Category Archives: Faith

The Books of Leviticus and Numbers

There seems to have been an ancient work, long since lost, documenting conquest of Canaan. It is in a way parallel to the story of the patriarchs (partially recorded in Genesis) and the establishment of the Kingdom (in Samuel). In the scriptures we now have, it seems primarily scattered in Exodus (covering the baptism of blood and the construction of the Tabernacle), Numbers (called The Wilderness in Hebrew), and Joshua (the action-climax and post-action denouement of the story).

It’s also the story of Moses’s moral decay: that "most humble man" is the Walter White of the Bible. But just as Breaking Bad is the story not just of Walter’s decay but of the grief of those around him, these scriptures are the story not just of Moses’s decline but the story of the deaths of those he loved.

To see this, look at the book immediately before Numbers: Leviticus. It is primary a book of laws, a journal of the well ordered place of fetishism in human society. But there’s one chapter of narrative in Leviticus that’s required to understand Numbers — the death of Aaron’s sons:

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.

So fire went out from the LORD
and devoured them,
and they died before the LORD.

And Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke, saying:

‘By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.’"

So Aaron held his peace.
Leviticus 10:1-3

The baptism of blood in Exodus may symbolize the loss of the part to save the whole. But Leviticus-Numbers feels like just loss. Aaron loses his sons. Moses loses his brother Aaron.

Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son;
and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain.

Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. Now when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron thirty days.
Numbers 20:28-29

Moses loses his divine authority.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron,

"Because you did not believe Me,
to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel,
therefore you shall not bring this assembly
into the land which I have given them."
Numbers 20:12

And then even his humanity.

And Moses said to them: "Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately.
Numbers 31:15-17

The same theme of loss is reflected in the adversaries of the Israelites, the Canaanite kings who fear the loss of their lands, and the wizard Balaam who prophesied the victory of Almighty God:

They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of those who were killed—Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian.

Balaam the son of Beor they also killed with the sword.
Numbers 31:8

And even the people themselves:

For the LORD had said of them,

"They shall surely die in the wilderness."

So there was not left a man of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.
Numbers 26:65

Through Leviticus-Numbers Aaron the High Priest lost his family, his life, and even (though the horrific actions of Moses) his legacy through his brother. Battles will be won in the future, after the end of his natural life, but for the wilderness generation there is pain, and murmuring, and death, and loss.

What should be made of this?

The High Priest loses everything, including his life, including the lives of his people. He is betrayed by those entrusted to help him. He loses those closest to him.

These themes are documented elsewhere in the Bible. That sense of successful futility in Ecclesiastes and Job, the slow political destruction of Kings, the horror of Lamentations or the post-Resurrection despair felt by John. Are these all types of Lent, best understood as reflections of the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?

If we are to imitate Christ who harrowed hell on that day, what does that mean for us?

I don’t know. But whenever I feel pain I have experienced intellectualized like this, I feel like Aaron: hurt, sarcastic, questioning:

And Aaron said to Moses, "Look, this day they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and such things have befallen me!

If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?"
Leviticus 10:19

What else are you expecting me to do?

What else, when even holding our peace is too much to bare?

I read the books of Leviticus and Numbers in Robert Alter’s translation.

Impressions of “The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices,” by Peter Bouteneff

I recently read Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s overview of Orthodox Christianity, The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices. I had previously read Medieval Christianity: A New History about Catholicism, as well as Wrestling the Angel about Mormonism. Bouteneff does a brilliant job comparing the theology of Orthodoxy to both Catholicism and Protestantism. The continuity of the Orthodox with the Catholic tradition, combined with the affection of many early protestants for thinkers still revered by the Orthodox like John Chrysostom — and of course the skill of the author — make this straightforward. Many of the differences strike one as a change in emphasis (whether the Trinity is emphasized as being One-God-in-Three-Persons or Three-Persons-in-One-God, for example), pastoral practices (emphasizes a holistic imitation of Christ or an enumerated list of deeds to perform or not), and yet-to-be-unpacked legacies of linguistic fossils (such the specific formulation of Mary’s conception without sin, taught by both Catholics and Orthodox).

More interesting to me were the ways in which the Orthodox Church seems to be a version of the Catholic Church that never experienced the Middle Ages. (This can be rephrased as saying the Catholic Church is an Orthodox Church that experienced the Middle Ages). Three medieval waves that affected Medieval western Christianity — the Friars, the Councils, and the Counter-Reformation — simply did not occur. A fourth difference — the humiliating surrender of the Orthodox Church to the Turks – is totally elided by Bouteneff. Another phenomenon — the difference in what constitutes the "Scriptures" between the Orthodox and other Christians — is likewise left out.

The Reforms

The Friars were a reform movement based on evangelization that arose in the 13th century. Separated into different orders with different focuses — the Franciscans, Scholastics, and Dominicans — the friars emphasized evangelization and living the Gospel. Instead of stationary monks praying on a cycle, the friars would engage with heretics, care for the poor, and let their service to Christ through good works be viewed by all. This obeyed Christ’s great commission, where he asked his followers to make "disciples of all the nations":

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
Matthew 28:16-20

Christ’s specific commands require being a better individual, spreading, the Gospel, and serving others. The friars’ focus on the Great Commission was an intentional attempt to rebalance these three, after the long middle ages where self-improvement through the glorification of God in prayer had become almost the exclusive focus on Christianity. Orthodoxy was not affected by the friars reform movement at the time, and throughout Bouteneff’s book service and teaching are barely mentioned.

Likewise, the Orthodox Church was unaffected by the Counter-Reformation, a Catholic movement aimed at correcting the abuses of an increasingly centralized church — a situation that did not exist on the ground for the Orthodox. The Counter-Reformation’s focus on the Bible as a foundation to the faith was a useful tool for clearing away corrupt practices, such as the selling of indulgences or the Vatican charging for the use of specific paper in letters written to it. But it also lead to a loss of very old traditions that the Orthodox retain. The cycle of Saint Anne from the Protoevangeliun, for instance, is almost completely missing from Catholic churches but a focus of the Liturgy in Orthodox parishes.

Bouteneff does not describe why this difference exist. The history of western Christianity barely exists in this text (even as a mechanism for giving reader context). But if I had to chose a cultural source of the difference, I would put it at Pope Innocent III. Orthodox readers may know Innocent as the Pope who organized the Fourth Crusade. But Innocent also brought the Holy Roman Empire to heel, as well as used the power of the papacy to address local corruption in this west. Innocent’s organizational and political brilliance, whatever else one thinks about him, changed the nature of the Papacy forever. It created a central mechanism (or opponent) for all future reform movements — the Bishop of Rome — and by investing the Papacy with its own political power, allowed it also to become a meaningful source of corruption.

Orthodoxy had neither this opportunity nor this risk. During the Byzantine era, the Orthodox Church was a tool of the state. Afterwards, during the Ottoman era, the Orthodox Church was a tool of a Muslim state. The Orthodox Church has spent less than a century spread throughout nations in a manner similar to what the Catholic Church has spent 2,000 years. This is not trivial.

The Councils

The Orthodox and Catholic Churches make near-identical claims about themselves (both represent the One Catholic and Apostolic Church Christians across the world pray for), and generally recognizes the legality (if not the legitimacy) of ecclesiastical claims made by the other. The split is driven largely by politics, and how the method of meeting to resolve disputes — Councils — should be understood. The first Council, in Jerusalem, occurred shortly after the death of Christ when the relationship of Christianity to gentiles was discussed. After "the apostles and the elders came together to discuss [a particular] matter," the Acts of the Apostles records this resolution:

Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.

They wrote this letter by them:

The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,

To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:


Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, "You must be circumcised and keep the law" — to whom we gave no such commandment — it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Acts 15:22-29

The text states the "whole church" chose to send missionaries and also wrote a letter. But what does it mean for the "whole church" to make such a plan?

  • The Catholic view is that a Council has the ability to speak for the whole Church.
  • The Orthodox view (since the Catholic-Orthodox split int the 15th century) is that a Council’s actions are only valid if it speaks for the whole church.

So which is it? This theoretical difference came to ahead after the Orthodox Church in 1439, when a legally convened Council united the Orthodox and Catholic Churches after a series of confusions and misunderstandings.

Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice. For, the wall that divided the western and the eastern church has been removed, peace and harmony have returned, since the corner-stone, Christ, who made both one, has joined both sides with a very strong bond of love and peace, uniting and holding them together in a covenant of everlasting unity. After a long haze of grief and a dark and unlovely gloom of long-enduring strife, the radiance of hoped-for union has illuminated all.

Let Mother Church also rejoice. For she now beholds her sons hitherto in disagreement returned to unity and peace, and she who hitherto wept at their separation now gives thanks to God with inexpressible joy at their truly marvelous harmony. Let all the faithful throughout the world, and those who go by the name of Christian, be glad with mother catholic church. For behold, western and eastern fathers after a very long period of disagreement and discord, submitting themselves to the perils of sea and land and having endured labors of all kinds, came together in this holy ecumenical council, joyful and eager in their desire for this most holy union and to restore intact the ancient love. In no way have they been frustrated in their intent. After a long and very toilsome investigation, at last by the clemency of the holy Spirit they have achieved this greatly desired and most holy union. Who, then, can adequately thank God for his gracious gifts?’ Who would not stand amazed at the riches of such great divine mercy? Would not even an iron breast be softened by this immensity of heavenly condescension?
Pope Eugene IV, Laetentur Caeli

Later, the Orthodox side — without a further Council — withdrew from the agreement. Indeed, to do so the Orthodox discovered a new doctrine that they had previously rejected, that a Council is not an agent or meeting place of agents of the church — a Council cannot make "the Whole Church" agree, but the actions only become binding if sometime afterwards "the whole Church" agrees. But elsewhere he insists on the validity of the Council of Chalcedon, even though numerous Orthodox national churches do not agree to that council to this day. I do not understand the logic behind this.

The Scriptures

I was disappointed more was not said about what makes the Orthodox definition of Scriptures unique. I have read and enjoyed books which the Orthodox consider to be part of the Bible, such as the Prayer of Manasseh and the Second Book of Esdras. Likewise there are some books accepted by some Oriental Orthodox that are rejected by the mainline Orthodox Church, such as the Book of Enoch. I’m familiar with the Protestant reason for rejection of some Catholic scriptures like The Books of the Maccabees and Book of Tobit, but not why the Orthodox have kept some additional books and rejected others. The difference in the definition of "Scriptures" is briefly mentioned, but no reasons for it are given.

This is especially disappointing as I enjoyed Bouteneff’s description of Tradition as understood by Catholics and Orthodox. Unlike Protestant denominations, the Orthodox churches in their current form were recognizably part of the Catholic Church during the time the Canon was decreed. As such, Orthodoxy-Catholocism was one religion that formed the Bible, not (like the Protestant churches) religions formed from the Bible. Indeed, the first bishops and even the first Pope are active in their offices during the events of the Bible! Thus, the Bible is a subset of the Tradition — those things passed down from ancient times. Bouteneff also describes Tradition in another way, as a method for making sense of the Bible by placing it in its proper context. This made a great amount of sense to me. But the Tradition is ultimately described in more detail and with no attention than the Bible itself — perhaps there is a message in this.

The Turks

The role of reform movements, and the role of Councils, lead to a topic so momentous in its importance that Bouteneff’s complete avoidance of it is shocking: the Turks. The context of literally every Orthodox decision, from and including the repudiation of the Council of Reunion, was under Turkish influence. The "saint" who encouraged apostasy from the rest of Christendom and the end of the common communion of Christians, Mark of Ephesus, was a bishop in an Ottoman town soon eradicated by the Turks. The actions of the Orthodox leadership during the fall of the Byzantine Empire is comparable to the Judenrat under the Nazis.

The waves of reform and counter-reform — of Martin Luther, John Calvin and the Council of Trent — all occurred in societies at least nominally Christian. The rejection of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation by the Orthodox, by contrast, was pre-decided by the Turks. Even now the first-among-equals of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, serves only under Turkish law and at Turkish pleasure. The primary seminary in Orthodoxy, Halki, was extinguished by the Republic of Turkey Perhaps Bouteneff is silent to prevent an even greater eradication.

This is not to deny the faith or suffering of the Orthodox during the Turkish centuries — which for the Patriarchate of Constantinople, continue to this day. Rather, it is to recognize that the Orthodox are churches on the cross, like the crucified Nestorian Church of the East, imprisoned by an anti-Christian powers that are hostile to the Gospel. There is literally nothing, at all, from Bouteneff about this. No recognition of any sort of the Turkish influence on the Orthodox community, or of the ongoing consequence of the Turkish captivity. This fault is so grave and monumental that it forces one to question the selection of any topic or fact in this work.


The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices is a fine introduction to the Orthodox churches, Christian communities that split from Rome around five hundred years ago under grave Turkish pressure, but whose history involved only minimal exposure to the Friars, the Pontifical movement, and other aspects that defined the High Middle Ages and the Modern World. Much of the emphasis of the Orthodox Church preserves an older tradition of Christianity and has much to recommend it. But for reasons never discussed or acknowledged, Bouteneff ignores the fundamental fact of Orthodox history — the Turkish captivity — and leaves the consequences of that collective martyrdom to the imagination of the reader.

I read The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices in the Audible Edition.

The Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

Note: As with my take on the Book of Samuel and the Book of Job, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.

I finished the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which along with the Book of Job make up the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament. The books have very distinct narrative styles. For most of his book, Job is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective” – downbeat, cosmic, anti-natalist. The Book of Proverbs reminds me of Dave Ramsey — upbeat, optimistic, and practical in a theological context.

Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,
And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

Go to the ant, you sluggard!
Consider her ways and be wise,

Which, having no captain,
Overseer or ruler,

Provides her supplies in the summer,
And gathers her food in the harvest.

How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep?
Proverbs 6:5-9

And Ecclesiastes… I hear Ecclesiastes the voice of John Derbyshire. The writer shares with Derbyshire a general pessimism and skepticism, a fear of chaos greater than a fear of arbitrary rule, and a rational take to maximizing enjoyment of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry” is one memorable line — “of making books there is no end” is another.

The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails,
given by one Shepherd.

And further, my son,
be admonished by these.

Of making many books there is no end,
and much study is wearisome to the flesh.
Ecclesiastes 12:11-12

You can see the difference in emphasis in how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes judge kings. They are the arbiters of justice:

The king’s favor is toward a wise servant,
But his wrath is against him who causes shame.
Proverbs 14:35

And the cause of censorship:

Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter.
Ecclesiastes 10:20

Proverbs reminds me of the praise hymns and the sermons that we all kind of remember from childhood. Job is what happens when that world view encounters death. Ecclesiastes is after an even more challenging confrontation: the ups and down of a mostly successful life.

The Five Books of Moses (the lost world of Genesis, the Breaking Bad arc of Exodus-Numbers, the sacrifices of Leviticus, the true intentions of Deuteronomy) are more mysterious.

The Former Prophets (the war story of Joshua, the westerns of Judges, the Shakespeare + Game of Thrones * + House of Cards* intrigue of Samuel, the Battlestar Galactica destruction of Kings) are better stories.

But the Wisdom Books (the philosophical horror of Job, the cheery ministry of Proverbs, the skeptical and human theology of Ecclesiastes) are more thought provoking. They are the closest the Hebrews came to philosophy and, by emphasizing the human measure of all things, are in many ways superior.

The Book of Exodus

I recently re-read Exodus. I used Robert Alter’s excellent translation, but this time read it at quicker pace. Instead of a one chapter a day, ready out loud to myself, I read multiple chapters a time. This had costs. The characters were flatter, and much of the subtly was lost. But the faster pace made some patterns clearer, especially after having read the full Bible. And one of these is the relationship between circumcision and sacrifice.

The Bridegroom of Blood

The Book of Exodus hangs on an episode that, read in isolation, is inexplicable: God tires to kill Moses, but instead his wife circumcises their son. But by tying together death, sacrifice, motherhood, and life, it is nearly a key to the whole Bible:

And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him.

Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said,

“Surely you are a husband of blood to me!”

So He let him go. Then she said,

“You are a husband of blood!”

— because of the circumcision.
Exodus 4:24-26

Shockingly, Moses does not perform the circumcision. Nor does his brother Aaron, the priest. Nor even his sister Miriam, the prophetess. His wife must do it, and only after the LORD sought to kill him. And this is the second time he was saved by a woman. His wife offered his son to the blade, as his mother offered him to the waters:

And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she took an ark of bulrushes for him, daubed it with asphalt and pitch, put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.
Exodus 2:1-4

Circumcision and the Heart

When Circumcision is first introduced in the Bible, it is likewise paired with sacrifice. Circumcision typically is performed on the 8th day. It took seven days to Create the world, seven days to inaugurate the Temple in Jerusalem, and seven days to prepare the Temple of the Holy Spirit — the body — after birth:

And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.

He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.

He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
Genesis 17:9-14

Yet this birth would be a demanded sacrifice: God later tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.

These themes build momentum through the Bible. The story of the men Abraham and Moses becomes the story of an entire nation, whose circumcision of the heart is now demanded: Instead of the blood of the male member thrown on Moses’ feet, the blood of the pure heart needs to be poured out:

Break up your fallow ground,
And do not sow among thorns.

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD,
And take away the foreskins of your hearts,
You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Lest My fury come forth like fire,
And burn so that no one can quench it,
Because of the evil of your doings.
Jeremiah 4:4

And finally, this applies to the whole human race.

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
but he is a Jew who is one inwardly;
and circumcision is that of the heart,
in the Spirit, not in the letter;
whose praise is not from men but from God.
Romans 2:28-29

The pinnacle of this story — of Zipporah at the Inn — is the Immaculate heart of Mary. Luke the Evangelist emphasizes, twice in quick succession, how she pondered in her heart:

And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:18-19

even without understanding:

So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”

And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.

Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart.
Luke 2:48-51

The parallel to Exodus is clear. As with Mary, in quick succession: Pharaoh’s heart is referenced, but the outcome is tragically different.

For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
Exodus 7:12-13

and again:

The fish that were in the river died, the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink the water of the river. So there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.

Then the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments; and Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
Exodus 7:22

And now we come to the most important moment in the life of Pharaoh and Mary, and one Zipporah only bridges. For her son lived. Pharaoh’s son died:

And it came to pass at midnight that the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. 30 So Pharaoh rose in the night, he, all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.
Exodus 12:29-30

As did Mary’s:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!”
John 19:25-26

The Bridegroom and the Blood

Moses, whose own son was saved by a circumcision presented by his wife, would see a Christophany within a Mariophany:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush.

So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.

Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”
Exodus 3:1-3

And now we see how this ties together. The LORD sought to make a sacrifice of Isaac. And Moses. But he put of this demand until His own Son would be on the cross. Because His Son, being truly God, would not be stopped by death. Being truly Man, His own mother would be a witness:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
Mark 16:1-7

The Lord places himself as the sacrifice. Instead of Isaac, instead of Moses, instead of us all, his blood spilled. When we suffer we join our suffering to Him, and when we bleed we join our blood to him. For Moses was always a forerunner — it is Christ who is our bridegroom of blood:

Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.” And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.

Then he said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'” And he said to me, “These are the true sayings of God.”
Revelations 19:7-9

Impressions of “My God is the LORD: Elijah and Ahab in the Age of Apostasy,” by M.B. Van’t Veer

My God is the LORD by Van’t Veer is a commentary on four chapters in the First Book of Kings, focusing on the conflict between the Prophet Elijah, King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and Prime Minister Obadiah. But it’s also the story of conflict between God and Israel, and even God and Ba’al Melqart. It echoes the story of Moses, and points toward Jesus. But this story’s core is Elijah wrestling with an external antagonist he did not recognize until the very end.

This post is organized like the book, each focusing on a passage of Elijah’s story. I look at the narrative or plot the Holy Author uses to instruct us. Throughout this post I excerpt from descriptions of the three-act structure to place passages in dramatic context. While Van’t Veer and I agree on much, we disagree on the extent to which Elijah had individuality and agency. Hence, we disagree on whether these events have a plot at all.

I read My God is the LORD on the recommendation of Rev. Steve Boint, author of Did Jesus Die for Dogs. It was my honor to do so.

The Hook

And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. And it will be that you shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”
1 Kings 17:1-2

The three chapters begin with a hook, God and Elijah declaring a a rain embargo on Israel:

The hook comes in many forms, but stripped down to its lowest common denominator, the hook is nothing more or less than a question. If we can pique our readers’ curiosity, we’ve got ’em. Simple as that. The beginning of every story should present character, setting, and conflict. But, in themselves, none of these represent a hook. We’ve created a hook only when we’ve convinced readers to ask the general question, “What’s going to happen?”

How is the rain going to come back? Will everyone die? Will God and Elijah be overthrown?

One level of drama in this story is God versus Israel, a political drama of a nation under occupation. Van’t Veer correctly understands that a “Covenant” is an instrument of surrender, a political declaration between a conquered people and a foreign suzerain. Such a covenant is made consensually but typically under duress – in Israel’s case, it was formed through Moses in the wilderness when Israel had no home. Van’t Veer is right both that Israel “but no one is forced to take his place in the ranks of those who say yes” (211) but also:

The Lord wants a willing people, a people who have their hearts set on His commandments. Any use of force would eliminate one of the two “parties” as a “part to the covenant and would destroy the two-sided character of the Covenant.

Of course, this is also a human drama between two men behind the offices. Elijah is a Prophet or ambassador whose place it is to to appear before the people in the name of God,” (375). King Ahab offices empowers him to use coercion to order a human society. And our minor characters, Prime Minister Obadiah (who is sympathetic to Elijah) and Jezebel (who loathes him) are also human beings with their own motives. This is not a terrifying vision of an angel but a conflict between men (one of whom is a woman).

There are two more levels of conflict. One is the supposed struggle of God against Ba’al Melqart for control over Israel. And another is a conflict we will explore later. This is “holy war” (165), but one fought to save and not destroy. The antagonist a human protagonist sees as a horror may be seen by God as a friend, or even a pet:

This great and wide sea,
In which are innumerable teeming things,
Living things both small and great.

There the ships sail about;
There is that Leviathan
Which You have made to play there.
Psalms 104:25-26

The Introduction

And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.” Then the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived.

And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives!”

Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is the truth.
1 Kings 17:21:24

The Holy Author introduces God and Elijah through scenes among unclean birds and gentile women. In these scenes we learn what God and Elijah are like:

Depending on the number of characters or the complexity of your setting, you will probably want to space the introductions throughout several early scenes. The most important thing to keep in mind is the necessity of giving characters enough space in these early chapters so you can focus on developing them.

Both Elijah and God are patient, forceful, and looking for something else than what they have. Elijah goes into the wilderness and eats from unclean hands. And God, while ignoring His own people, use both animals and gentiles to feed Elijah. Both Elijah and God are immensely powerful. They can bring the dead back to life — the woman whose child was brought back must have been grateful to both. And Elijah and god can make courageous decisions. They are willing to go into the unknown, to go outside the covenant. Neither are bound by the law of the Covenant or its provincial focus on Israel.

Gods in the ancient Near East were understood to be powerful but bound by law and rules. Individual gods might rebel against order, but this would likely bring chaos and an organized response. Commonly, gods obeyed a divine international law which established norms for the conquest and rule of human cities and nations. But because these Covenants were themselves lawful, a cunning weaker party could use superior negotiating ability to bind a god to their will. The Assyrians even declared their legalistic victory over their gods :

Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. Sitting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy

That covenant peoples could exploit the law to control their gods was behind Babel’s attempt to “make a name” (establish sovereignty) for themselves. They tried to build a new home for God. Doing so would reverse the traditional relationship, making God’s security and comfort dependent on man’s will. (For obvious reasons, God not only rejected this proposal, but worked to prevent a similar act of aggression in the future.)

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Genesis 11:4-7

The LORD will not be bound. He does not even need Israel to materially support his ambassadors. When Israel does not feed his prophet, the ravens and widows of foreign countries do. The message to Israel is clear: God does not need you. Israel’s attempts to bind God will fail, as did Babel’s.

Van’t Veer agrees in part. He recognizes that Canaanite thought their gods could be bound:

[Ba’al Melqart’s] praying priests believe they are exercising the strongest possible pressure on their god. Their prayers must be accompanied by heavier and heavier pressure until their god is finally forced to give them what they want. (227)

But also writes that our God can be bound!

Elijah’s prayer was not simply an “attempt,”for it served to bind the Lord to His Word of promise. (310)

This is wrong. God is above the law because God created the Law. He created the Law for a reason (logos, for man. The Law was created to bring man closer to God. The covenant God formed with Israel is legally a treaty, but emotionally a marriage. As both Rabbis and Pharisees (in the Letter to the Ephesians) would agree, the Law is a tutor in the absence of a God who walks the earth.

Extended analogies of God’s relationship to Israel as a treaty are found in multiple Old Testament books, including Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, and Samuel. But also as a romance in Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, and Jeremiah. Van’t Veer almost gets this — though he quotes Songs of Songs appropriately, his legalism still gets the better of him:

[Israel] was not like the bride in Song of Songs, who first let the Bridegroom knock on her door in vain and then ran after Him, full of repentance, looking for Him and crying out: I sought him, but found him not; I called him but he gave us no answer” (5:6)

But the language of Songs isn’t covenant duty: it’s love, it’s romance, it’s playful, it’s missed connections and the excitement of what the future will bring. Songs isn’t a manual for weak submission: it’s a romance:

I have taken off my robe;
How can I put it on again?
I have washed my feet;
How can I defile them?
Song of Songs 5:3

These two themes of treaty and romance bookend the Bible. The fate of nations and the joy of family are tied together in the first book…

Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?”

So he said, “Here, in the tent.”

And [God] said, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.”

(Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.) Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.”

But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid.

And He said, “No, but you did laugh!”
Genesis 18:9-15

and in the last:

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying,

“Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.”

And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.

Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal. Also she had a great and high wall with twelve gates, and twelve angels at the gates, and names written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west.
Revelations 21:9-13

Even outside Israel, history shows us what happens to a religion based only on a legal Covenant. The Chinese Imperial Religion was entirely centered on the Covenant of Heaven. The consequence was a religion completely separated from spirituality or love — a moral system centered around sacrifices that temporarily appeased an invisible celestial despot. One Emperor was a Buddhist who sought to escape the burden of sacrifices through future non-existence! Fortunately the God of Israel uses the Covenant to bring us to Him, and not as an end in itself.

First Plot Point

And it came to pass after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth.”
1 Kings 18:1

Elijah’s safe, God is using the gentiles, and Ahab is stuck in a barren desert. Then comes the first plot point:

The first major plot point changes everything. This is the point of no return for your characters. Often, this plot point will be the inciting event; if not, it will be the key event (next week, we’ll talk about the differences between these two events). The first plot point is the moment when the setup ends, and your character crosses his personal Rubicon.

God’s command to Elijah to visit Ahab and two other commands (Elijah’s confrontation with Obadiah, and the promise of God’s conflict with Ba’al) form this section. They change everything. Indeed, the passages between God’s command to Ahab and the next serve to build tension by emphasizing the extent of the drought, and dramatize Elijah’s return to Israel and the scattering (in a number of senses) of the Royal Court.

So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab; and there was a severe famine in Samaria.

And Ahab had called Obadiah, who was in charge of his house. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly. For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab had said to Obadiah, “Go into the land to all the springs of water and to all the brooks; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, so that we will not have to kill any livestock.” So they divided the land between them to explore it; Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself.
1 Kings 18:2-6

Elijah and Obadiah

Now as Obadiah was on his way, suddenly Elijah met him; and he recognized him, and fell on his face, and said, “Is that you, my lord Elijah?”

And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.'”

So he said, “How have I sinned, that you are delivering your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to hunt for you; and when they said, ‘He is not here,’ he took an oath from the kingdom or nation that they could not find you.

And now you say, ‘Go, tell your master, “Elijah is here”‘!

And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, that the Spirit of the Lord will carry you to a place I do not know; so when I go and tell Ahab, and he cannot find you, he will kill me.

But I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth. Was it not reported to my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid one hundred men of the Lord’s prophets, fifty to a cave, and fed them with bread and water?

And now you say, ‘Go, tell your master, “Elijah is here.”‘

He will kill me!”
1 Kings 18:7-14

Elijah’s travels up from gentiles up to King Ahab. But first he sees the Prime Minister, or “Steward”, Obadiah. As Prime Minister, Obadiah has been mediating Ahab’s demands in the best way possible. Obadiah saved other prophets from Ahab, while saving livestock for Ahab. Lower than the King but higher than others, Obadiah did not hold Ahab’s royal dignity but exercised royal efficiency.

Van’t Veer, of course, is eager to ignore the human dimension. Both those who helped Elijah when outside Israel, and Obadiah who helped him inside the country, see their works of charity written off

It was the Lord — and no one else — operating by way of the instruments He had chosen.The Lord’s providence in Elijah’s case was very special. Who would deny this in contemplating these miracles…

The Lord fashions and equips His own instruments. What Obadiah did to hide the LORD’s prophets is not presented to us as an example first and foremost. Instead, we are to view it as an indication of the Lord’s gracious and wonderful deeds. (pp 148-49)

But this is a blind spot, especially for a Christian. The steward has awesome responsibility, he is not a mindless instrument. To understand the scale of what Veer is denying, consider the following parallel constructions. First, King Hezekiah’s Prime Minister Eliakim:

‘Then it shall be in that day, That I will call My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah…

The key of the house of David
I will lay on his shoulder;
So he shall open, and no one shall shut;
And he shall shut, and no one shall open‘.
Isaiah 22:20,22

Second, King Jesus’ Prime Minister, Peter:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16:18-19

And another, unnamed Prime Minister for King Jesus:

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write,

‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true,
He who has the key of David,
He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens“:
Revelations 3:9

A Catholic reader would see important words about the Pope, but even a Protestant like Van’t Veer should see the human responsibility of a human steward of God in terrifying clarity. Here is why: the best argument against the Pope being the successor of Peter is that all Christians are successors of Peter. In his first letter to the Church, Peter arguably transferred the power of the Prime Minister to every believer, words that seem to specifically evoke Obadiah and Elijah:

And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”

Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.

As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another,
as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.

If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God.

If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies,
that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 4:8-11

It is vital to insist on Obadiah’s agency for this reason: Obadiah “does not appear to have had strong character” (148). Neither, by the same standard, does Peter.

And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest. But Peter stood at the door outside. Then the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to her who kept the door, and brought Peter in. Then the servant girl who kept the door said to Peter, “You are not also one of this Man’s disciples, are you?”

He said, “I am not.”
John 18:15-16

What about Peter’s successors? What about the Popes? What about us?

This is to critical for all stewards (whether Popes or protestants) because faith is not separate from character, faith is a work of character. Faith is not just what a steward thinks, it is what he does. As Van’t Veer writes:

Fortunately, faith is a gift. Otherwise, who would believe? But faith is also a deed, something we do. Otherwise the command to believe would make no sense. “This the work of God [i.e. the work God asks of us], that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Even though no one has faith if it not first given to him, believing is also an activity in which we engage.

… Without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith reaches out for the powers that the blessing of the Lord introducing into our life. Between the promise and the actual blessings stands a deed of believing obedience. (104)

If we believe that Obediah’s works are the Lord’s and Lord’s alone, we ignore the responsibility we all have to be steward’s of God’s grace.

At his best and most glorious, Elijah is demanding Obadiah — the steward of the king — do his job.

Elijah and Ahab

Then Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely present myself to [King Ahab] today.”

So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah.

Then it happened, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?

And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and have followed the Baals. Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
1 Kings 18:15-19

Elijah is becoming the anti-Moses. Moses and Elijah perform the same actions, plead with the same God, but for opposite reasons. Even the steps are reversed. Just as God told Elijah to speak with Ahab, and instead he spoke with Obadiah, God gave Moses a series of intricate steps…

Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them,

‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying,

“I have surely visited you and seen what is done to you in Egypt; and I have said I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”‘
Then they will heed your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt; and you shall say to him,

‘The LORD God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now, please, let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’
Exodus 3:16-18

… which Moses didn’t exactly follow…

Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.'”
Exodus 5:1

Moses finds water for the people in the desert. Elijah takes away water from the sky. While Moses is zealous for love of the people, Elijah is zealous against God’s treaty interests. Both are correct but both are incomplete. Elijah is the better functionary of God when God is viewed as a foreign emperor. But Moses better loves the people, using his position for a foreign suzerain to help them (as later did Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah). The whole point of the Covenant was to bring the people to a loving relationship with God, not to have them die in the desert. And not to blot out the righteous from the Book of Life either!

Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people,

“You have committed a great sin. So now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin — but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.”
Exodus 32:30-32

Van’t Veer is exactly right that these two prophets, so complementary in their human form, point the way to a Prophet greater than both:

Through [Christ’s] work as an office-bearer He would unite the two elements that Moses and Elijah were not able to bring together. What the people of the Lord needed was an office-bearer who could harmoniously reconcile these two elements — justice and love, law and gospel, satisfaction and atonement — in the one edifice of God’s redemption. (379)

Fortunately, the two incomplete halves of Moses and Elijah would meet on earth, with the One greater than themselves:

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.
Mark 9:2-3

The Midpoint

So Ahab sent for all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together on Mount Carmel. And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word.
1 Kings 18:20-21

The first half of our story was how they responded to the consequences of their actions. Now we’re at the midpoint, and they are once more the characters driving the action:

Like the first inciting event, the midpoint directly influences the plot. It changes the paradigm of the story. And it requires a definitive and story-altering response from the characters. The largest difference is that the character’s response is no longer just a reaction, but the moment at which he begins to definitively take charge of the story and act out against the antagonistic force.

The Relationship of God to Ba’al Melqart

Then Elijah said to the people,

“I alone am left a prophet of the LORD; but Ba’al’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.”

Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.”

So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!”

But there was no voice;
no one answered.

Then they leaped about the altar which they had made.

And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
1 Kings 18:22-27

“Ba’al means “lord.” The god most commonly known as Ba’al, Ba’al Hadad, is the god of lightening who is Canaanite stories defeats death and parts the sea – the Romans thought of him as the Semitic Jupiter. The specific “Ba’al” worshiped by Jezebel was Ba’al Melqart — the Semitic Hercules. This is important because every character — including Ba’al’s priests and Jezebel — are aware that Elijah’s God is the creator of the universe. Even that other ba’al, Ba’al Hedad, concedes that!

Indeed, our creator is eternal
Indeed ageless is He who formed us
The Ba’al Hedad Cycle

The reason is that in no Near Eastern religion, other than Judaism, considered the Creator of the Universe particularly important. (For that matter, Mormons still don’t). The Romans worshiped Jupiter though they thought he was created, Jezebel obviously worshiped Ba’al Melqart though he was just Hercules! The question was not who created the universe from nothing, or even who had the greatest absolute power: no one believed that Ba’al Melqart / Hercules had “The sun and the moon, rain and dew, the entire realm of mysterious natural forces” (45) assigned to him. The question was who was the most effective patron right here and right now.

Hercules didn’t have a chance.

The Relationship of God and Israel

And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said,

“Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,

let it be known this day that

You are God in Israel

and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word.”

“Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.”
1 Kings 18:36

Earlier Elijah referred to the LORD as “God of Israel” (Elohim Ishral). Now he withdraws God from Israel. First he calls the LORD “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” (Elohim Abrem Itzchq u Ishral) — separating “God” from Israel” by a genealogy. Then, as “God in Israel” (Elohim b’Ishral). This is the first time in the Scriptures in that “in Israel” (b’Ishral) is used as an identity, rather than a location, of God. It indicates God happens to be present in Israel but has no special connection to the land. And last God’s title does not include the name of Israel at all, but only His Name: “the LORD.”

Van’t Veer appears not to notice the shift from “of Israel” to “in Israel,” and makes nothing of it. He only sees the list of “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” as excluding “the possibility that the problem might have to do with the ten tribes alone” (264) — true enough, but Elijah’s point is not to bring Judah closer to God but place Israel farther away. And likewise Van’t Veer understands the alienation effect of using “The LORD” instead of “LORD of Israel,” but sees this as evidence that “the conception of a the LORD as a national god was a deformation.” No reason is given for this logical leap. Does he think that God deformed his own revelation?

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘
Exodus 4:22-23

Just at the national God of Israel was not a deformation from God the Creator, the grafting of the gentiles onto Israel was not a deformation of Israel’s national God.

And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
Romans 11:17-18

Paul’s analogy, not of deformation but of grafting, echoes Christ’s own words. He uses it to emphasize the linear and organic nature of God’s unfolding revelation. It is not just a story of God love affair with man, told with his love affair of a nation. It is also God’s love of man, which would lead him to live among men, and within them.

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.”
John 15:1-4

The Beginning of the Second Half

Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!”

And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Brook Cherith and executed them there…

So he said [to his servant], “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot, and go down before the rain stops you.'”
1 Kings 18:38-39,44

God and Elijah take the initiative. The story now changes dramatically: Ba’al Melqart and Israel are weak and irrelevant. The real action is what becomes of our protagonists in the beginning of the second half

The second half of the second act begins (just as the first half did) with a strong action from the character. He rises from the drama and trauma of the midpoint and grits his teeth. He immediately responds with an action that fights back.

Elijah orders the killing of the priests of Ba’al. Van’t Veer’s depiction of this is ambiguous. He’s insistent that the killing of the prophets is the will of God and not Elijah. But his logic in support of this is just horror at the possibility that this is not true. Veer also does not consider that God’s motives may have been righteous, but that Elijah may have been bad. And he considers no bad motive other than revenge — not even the more vile motive of pride:

There is no place for personal revenge before the judgment seat of the One who says: “Vengeance is Mine.” There is no room for personal motives in the Lord’s service, for every deed must be performed in His Name. If the personal motives were behind the slaughter of the priests of Baal, the prophet’s office would be out of the picture. We would then have to say that the prophet suddenly brought the unholy fire of his personal desire for revenge to the altar that had been lit by the holy “fire of the LORD.”

But in any case, the priests of Ba’al certainly do die.

And then God sends the rain. Elijah alienated God from Israel by just referring to him as the LORD — the people are delighted to have the LORD under any title. Likewise, Elijah’s instruction to King Ahab is curt and seemingly outside of the prophetic domain. It may be good advice, but the logistics of a king’s schedule should be organized by the Prime Minister, not dictated by the Prophet.

Our two protagonists — God and Elijah — have both increased in their apparent power. One of them will get a comeuppance.

The Third Act

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”
1 Kings 19:1-4

We’re finally at the third act. We met the characters, we had the second inciting incident. No more introductions. Everything happens fast now.

The third act is the moment we’ve all been waiting for—readers, writers, and characters alike. This final section of the story is the point. It’s what we’ve been building up to all this time. If the first and second acts were engaging and aesthetic labyrinths, the third act is where X marks the spot. We’ve found the treasure. Now it’s time to start digging…

Like all the other acts, the third act opens with a bang, but unlike the other acts, it never lets up. From the 75% mark on, the characters and the readers alike are in for a wild ride. All the threads we’ve been weaving up to this point must now be artfully tied together. The main character must finally face (and presumably overcome) the antagonistic force by way of first learning from and then overcoming his own internal conflict.

Elijah has been zealous against Israel. His actions lead to the death of hundreds within the contest, and unknown more from prolonging the drought. And what is the effect?

Another fight. God is no longer “God of Israel” according to Elijah, but the people of Israel shout for God. The King and Queen recognize God as suzerain, but then they withdraw recognition the ambassador who brought it about. Elijah wasn’t so strong after all. He was only as strong as a woman. It turns out a king weak enough to follow a prophet’s instructions on when to drink is also weak enough to obey his wife.

No wonder Elijah wants to retire. Or at least die by the hand of God. Any stay in a foreign land cannot be home after all. And if Elijah goes back he would be killed by a woman. So instead Elijah asks God to do that woman’s bidding.

There’s a grim humor here, one the Holy Author used before.

But a certain woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. Then he called quickly to the young man, his armorbearer, and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest men say of me, ‘A woman killed him.'” So his young man thrust him through, and he died.
Judges 9:53-54

The third act is where the antagonist is faced. But here God and Elijah’s actions most clearly diverge. Elijah thought the antagonist was Israel. He declared an embargo only for God to end it, he alienated God for Israel only for Israel to embrace even an alienated relationship with God. The one that God overcame was not Israel, but Elijah.

Elijah’s true conflict was with God all along, He went beyond his orders as a prophet, as an ambassador, and instead attempted to minimize or lift the Covenant. And here Van’t Veer’s arbitrary method of reading Elijah — either as without agency or fully in sin — is so dangerous. Van’t Veer is completely wrong when he says Elijah’s focus is virtuous.

We do not read about [Elijah] praying for the curse to be removed, as Moses did, for he had no lawful basis for asking that grace be shown to a people that refused to turn away from its sin. (81)

But even had God been bound by the Covenant — even if God did not create the Covenant to bring Israel to himself — this is not true. Elijah knew damn well — literally, damnably well — what the Law said. A Prophet greater than Elijah certainly remembered.

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 22:37-40

We thought we were seeing the story of God and Israel, or Elijah and Ahab. Or maybe even God and Ba’al Melqart. But instead we have seen, step by step, the moral corruption of Elijah as he confused his will and his anger with the love and wrath of God.

Our protagonists have never been in the same place. Because that is saved for the climax, when Elijah turns out to have been the antagonist all along.

The Climax

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.”

And behold, the LORD passed by, and

a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD,
but the LORD was not in the wind;
and after the wind an earthquake,
but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire,
but the LORD was not in the fire;

and after the fire a still small voice.

So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said,

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

The climax begins with a tornado, and it just gets more intense from there

The climax is where we pull out our big guns. This is a scene that needs to wow readers, so dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas. Instead of a fistfight, why not a fistfight on top of a moving train? Instead of a declaration of love, why not a declaration in the middle of a presidential inauguration?

We began by looking the human (Elijah versus Ahab), social (God versus Israel), and alien (God versus Ba’al Melqart) levels of conflict, but the real conflict is between a man and his God. Elijah is outmatched, but by misdirecting us earlier, the Divine Author has turned a fait accompli into a drama.

Van’t Veer correctly identifies this as a crisis, as the moment where Elijah faces off against God. But by missing Elijah’s slow burn — his step by step alienation of God from Israel, his refusal to obey God’s direction instructions, his turning away from both the Law and love — Veer misses the human story. Elijah is not a puppet on a string who once let off immediately sins. He’s a man who is brought to confrontation against God by his own actions.

He forgot about Obadiah and the prophets who fled. There was no thought of a faithful remnant to hold him back. He wanted to die believing that he was the only one left. In this prayer, then, the office-bearer Elijah was letting go of God’s people, who were also his people, and surrendering them to the forces of hell.

Veer’s appraisal of the situation is close but misses the point. Elijah has not only forgotten the faithful, but the lost sheep as well. Elijah became a legalist without the Law. As an ambassador, there is nothing narrowly wrong with what Elijah is doing. He is an ambassador whose credentials were denied by the station he was posted at. He traveled back to his sovereign’s territory, to await further instructions while requesting his own requested future abode. No martyr can be expected to give more than his full effort. It’s hard to imagine more of an effort left in a mortal man.

But Elijah’s belief had become cold. Elijah did not act as if he believed in the God of the Law

His sin was that he sought to save his life by fleeing. Thereby he scorned the weapons God had given him. If Elijah had believed in the Lord of hosts, he would have used the power of the God of Mount Carmen against Jezebel if that were necessary to carry the Lord’s victory all the way through to the end. (333)

Elijah not only wanted death for his enemies but for himself. Elijah first wanted to use the Law to reject Israel. But now his request to die itself rejects the Law:

I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing;

therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;

that you may love the LORD your God,
that you may obey His voice,
and that you may cling to Him,

for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
Deuteronomy 30:19-20

God did not abandon his people at Elijah’s prompting. And while Elijah may have tried to negate Moses, this story would once again be inverted. The Prophet Elijah would be defeated by a wicked queen, but a virtuous queen would raise up another. Instead of the Elijah, Jezebel, and condemnation, in the future we will have the Prophet Simeon, Queen Mary, and the glory of Israel

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
Luke 2:39-32

And we see this in the show God puts on for Elijah. God’s throne room is made of fire and wind. While other prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel visit the throne room, now God’s throne room comes to Elijah:

When a king visits one of us cities, his coming is preceded by cannon fire, the approach of cavalrymen and mounted police, and a ceremonial procession of high officials. All of this announcement that the sovereign is on his way, even though the king himself does not travel with this vanguard. He comes later in the procession, after his coming has been announced by all this pomp and splendor. (393)

The relocation of the Court of God to Earth may have happened once before:

Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he came down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.
Exodus 34:29-30

It certainly happened once afterward:

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Acts 2:1-4

The Resolution

Yet I [the LORD] have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth.

Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him.
1 Kings 18:18-19

The resolution to the conflict between Elijah and Ahab also prepares for a sequel starring Elisha

The resolution is always a bittersweet moment. You’ve reached the end of the story. You’ve climbed the mountain, and now you can plant your flag of completion at its peak. But as the finale of all your work, this is also the finale of all the fun you’ve experienced in your wonderful world of made-up people and places. The resolution is where you have to say goodbye to your characters and, by the same token, give your readers a chance to say goodbye as well.

The story of Elijah and Ahab will continue. The love affair (with all its ups and downs) between God and Israel will continue. But our drama in these chapters — produced a national stage and focused on God’s relationship with Elijah — is now resolved in the prophetic image of the good farmer:

I drew them with gentle cords,
With bands of love,
And I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck.
I stooped and fed them.
Hosea 11:4

The Prophet Elisha is not with the oxen in the first yoke, but with the last. Elijah pointed to Christ in one way. Now Elisha points to Him — with the twelve yoke, with his upcoming departure from his parents, with the emphasis on the last — in another.

So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
Matthew 19:28-30

But inexplicable Veer breaks this analogy, denying the twelve yokes symbolize the twelve tribes, which is obvious even without reading forward:

But there is no good ground for moving from the twelve yoke of oxen to Israel’s twelve tribes… Neither can the allegory be saved by expressing the wish that the twelve tribes would work together as harmoniously as the twelve yoke of oxen pulling the one plow.

The problem with such interpretations is that the twelve yoke of oxen were pulling twelve separate plows. (421)

Twelve yokes of oxen pull twelve plows, not one. Twelves tribes are not one group, but twelve. The twelve apostles did not have one road to eternal life, but twelve. God’s personal relationship with us is based on us being members, distinct and special, not duplicates of others.

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be?
1 Corinthians 12:12-19

Elisha and the twelve bulls point not just to our existence as members, and not just to the journeys we must take, but the LORD’s presence within us and by us. God was symbolized as a bull both in the Scripture:

His glory is like a firstborn bull,
And his horns like the horns of the wild ox
Together with them
He shall push the peoples
To the ends of the earth;
They are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
And they are the thousands of Manasseh.”
Deuteronomy 33:17

… and at Israelite holy places:

Of course there were kings before Ahab who sinned by “walking in the ways of Jeroboam” and maintaining the worship of the calves at Dan and Bethel, but the idolatry at Dan and Bethel was still intended as service to the LORD. (32)

There is a Biblical tradition of associating peoples with animals — the Lion of Judah, the Donkey of Issachar, the Viper of Dan, and so on. And a tradition of Ox or Bull iconography for God. Now, that all is resolved and the audience is reassured, we know that Elijah is seeing a vision of the coming of Christ. Christ guiding the people, and Christ among the people, Christ with the last of the people, and Christ the master of the people.

For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh,
how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

And for this reason He is the Mediator of
the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under
the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
Hebrews 9:13-15

We are separate members, but in the one body of the Lord. He created us to be His imagers, and when this proves too difficult to us, he will not only tend to us, he will be an imager with us.

Elijah thought the people stumbled and should fall. But the LORD, who has loved Israel from the first, disagreed. And His Son died, for them and for us, and through Elisha with the yoked oxen we see a promise of Christ dwelling among us, in us, and for us.

The fight was between Elijah and God the whole time. It was never fair. God let Elijah fell so he could rise. Israel sinned so that the gentiles could be let in. The blood of the covenant would cover the heads of Israel from the assembly at Sinai to the whole church.

I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!
Romans 11:11-12

Now all that is left is a peace offering, a perfect bull offered as a sacrifice, once and for all.

Final Thoughts

My God is the LORD changed how I think about Elijah. Elijah had been confusing – clearly important, but appearing only briefly, and often angrily. Now I see him as part of a thread that connects Moses to Christ, a thread that the gospel writes and Paul clearly recognized.

I also gained a balanced understanding between the lawful meaning of Covenant, meaning an Instrument of Surrender, and the goal of that Covenant, God’s love embracing of Israel. My God is the LORD is written in the Reformed tradition but is far superior to Reformed works which fail to address the meaning of Covenant, such as Covenant and Creation or The End of the Beginning. Van’t Veer repeatedly emphasizes the lawful and limited natures of the Covenant and places them in the proper context (though at times he confuses the Covenant with a transcendent moral law).

Now, some nitpicks: Van’t Veer occasionally uses specific phrases that appear to have a deeper meaning, but which he never returned to or defines. These terms, such as “common grace” (50), “law of replacement” (133), “law of substitution” (289), “service of the shadows” (289), “special revelation” (263), and “law of hardening” (323) can only be guessed at. The brilliance and frustration of My God is the LORD is summed up with the book’s true title, which uses the Tetragrammaton in place of the LORD. This is because Van’t Veer writes (40) that the name Elijah literally means, My God is the LORD (with the LORD replaced with the Tetragrammaton). But it does not. The Hebrew suffix -Yah or -Jah is itself a way of eliding pronouncing the full Holy Name. Ancient Near Eastern speech patterns didn’t prohibit a two-syllable theophoric name (Jezebel’s father’s name, Itho-Ba’al, is an example of such a use). Eli-jah may literally mean “My God is Yah” or (taking Yah as a way of eliding the full name) or “My God is the LORD.” It does not mean the book’s title.

I read My God is the LORD in the hardback edition.

Impressions of “Wrestling the Angel — the Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity,” by Terryl L Givens

Before I read Wrestling the Angel by Terryl L. Givens I was confused. I could not make sense of what I heard of Mormonism. I knew a few concepts, such as spirit baptism, a theology that was a hybrid of polytheism and atheism, and an ecclesiastic hierarchy that seemed like an imitation of Rome. But I could not place it within the broader Christian tradition, nor identify even a point of divergence of Mormon thought from another Christian branch.

I expressed my ignorance to my friend Tanner Greer, who recommended that I read this book. I am glad he did so. Wrestling the Angel is a terrific book, generally sympathetic to Mormonism and by an author apparently most comfortable with Calvinist terminology. Like Medieval Christianity: A New History, which provided a context for 1,000 years of Catholic thinking, Wrestling the Angel situations Mormonism without the intellectual currents of American Protestantism (and especially American Calvinism) in the 19th century. The literary context of Mormonism (such as the View of the Hebrews or the literary significance of the King James Version) are completely ignored.

But my most valuable take away was this: cosmologically, Mormonism operates as an extremely old branch of Christianity. Much of the Mormon thought would be much more familiar to the audience of Peter’s Didache than, say, the Confessions of Augustine or the Homilies of Chrysostom. The “Weirdest” parts of Mormon thought are straight forward given the Hebraic outlook of the religion. This is most clear in the Mormon conceptions of creation, God’s literal fatherhood of mankind, theosis, and the nature of heaven. That said, it’s questionable how seriously the Mormon assertion that there is no philosophy or theology of Mormonism can be taken, given it exists within a western context. Mormonism is more Hebraic than even Judaism, because Judaism coherently responded to western philosophy in the 13th century. It is too early to tell how Mormonism will respond to philosophical thought.


All other branches of Christianity assert that God created that universe from nothing. Mormonism denies this, asserting instead that God organized the universe from chaos. A consequence of Mormon denial of creation from nothing is that the Mormon “God” is not even a “God” – he is just a supernatural alien that has better control of technology that than we do.

As a creature, the Mormon “God” is bound by the laws of the universe, and can be forced to do the will of any other creature who understands the laws. Just as Assyrians celebrated making their gods indebted to them, Mormons know that God has no freedom but to act in the way their own holiness dictates

Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. Sitting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy

Yet the Mormon focus on organization is closer to the meaning of the Hebrew Bible. The very first chapter of Genesis probably is a discussion of the universe’s organization. Likewise, the Book of Joshua tells of Canaan’s organization.  Western Christians may respond that for the God of Israel to the God of Philosophy, he would have had have created the universe from nothing as well as organized the universe from chaos. This may be the case. But it makes God contingent on the western laws of logic, instead of the Canaanite laws of order.

God’s Literal Fatherhood of Man

Given its continuity with the Canaanite worldview of the Hebrew Bible, Mormons believe that God is our literal father.  This is to say, God the Father is a man.

Abraham might not have been surprised by this. God after all ate and drank with him. But also John the Evangelist would not have been surprised. Christ sweats blood, thirsts, eats and drinks — fully like man

Jesus wept.
John 11:35

but also was in the beginning — fully like God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
John 1:1-3

These elements were also present in the stories from ancient Canaan. God’s daughter threatens to cut him open and make him bleed by a lamb. God hosts a drinking party and has a hang-over. He cries tears when Death takes Ba’al, and his male genitalia is as long as the Euphrates.

Indeed, as most Christians follow the Athanasian Creed which asserts all persons of the Trinity share attributes with all others, the extent to which God the Father fully participates in God the Son’s incarnation is interesting. But in any case God’s literal fatherhood of man is most surprising to those who hold a stronger form of spirit-body dualism than any writer of the Scriptures apparently held.

Angels, Heaven, and Hell

Mormonism teaches that humans can become angels. While this is foreign to Christian angelology, it’s not ridiculous. The 2nd Book of Enoch, written during the Second Temple period, describes Enoch fulfilling the role of an Angel. And indeed “angel” means “Messenger,” thus Mormon references to angel’s can be replaced by the ghosts of souls in heaven given tasks by God.

Likewise, Mormonism seems to use Protestant terms but Catholic conceptions of the afterlife. In Catholic terms, virtually all souls spend an extended period of time in purgatory. For those with worse sins it begins as a more painful process, but those with better works it is very pleasant, but in these cases it serves to cleanse and perfect the souls of the dead. Mormonism do have the idea of choices being made in this state that can effect the future, but on the same hand so did the allegory of the afterlife presented by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. I’m perfectly happy to see any conflict here as a result of the impoverished way we think of and talk about time.

Yet this view of purgatory — as a place decisions can be made — also helps explain another issue that troubles Christians: the baptism of the dead. The actual acceptance of baptism occurs by the spirit in purgatory (perhaps translated into Catholic terminology as the soul having received grace and the baptism by desire in life). But because Mormonism emerged from mid-19th century Protestantism that recognized only baptism by water, a proxy baptism by water is allowed that, when combined with the spirit’s acceptance of Christ, becomes a canonical baptism.

Theosis and Transcendence

One of the differences between western and eastern Christianity is a difference in focus on how to be faithful. Catholics and Orthodox agree that being faithful to Christ requires imitating him, but Catholics are more likely to emphasize immediate fulfillment of specific commands (feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so on) while Orthodox are more likely to emphasize the use of prayer and meditation to obtain a divine orientation. Mormonism is within these traditions, focusing on a rule-based ladder to spiritual betterment (made possible by grace), combined with a future goal of full participation in the divine.

This becomes problematic to other Christians when the Mormon rejection of divinity as anything other than very well ordered humanity is taken into accounts. Some people say Mormons are Arians but I don’t see how this can be true — it is not that Mormons believe that Jesus was substantially difference from the Father, but it that they do not believe the Father was substantively different from a cat. There is simply some energy state referred to as “organization” that beings we call divine (God, gods, etc) have more of and others have less of. Perhaps it can be scientifically measured one day.

This introduces a crisis in Mormon thought that Wrestling the Angel never addresses: this idea (a hidden quantity of Organization which determines observed divinity) is completely foreign to the Old Testament foundations that so much of Mormon thought is based on. It’s not a Hebrew idea, it’s not a New Testament idea. Even the Canaanite worshipers of Ba’al rejected it:

Indeed, our creator is eternal
Indeed ageless is He who formed us
The Ba’al Cycle

It is basically a western, Greek, philosophical idea of abstract concepts and hidden quantifiable attributes. The Mormon claim of not being philosophical or theological, of not having Creeds or dogma, fall apart here. Perhaps there is some resolution, but if so Terry Givens does not give a hint of one.

Judaism, Philosophy, and The Open Canon

The crisis around theosis in particular echoes the Judaeo-Christian crisis of the 13th century. The spread of philosophy in Western Europe made both Jews and Christians uncomfortable with an arbitrary or imprisoned God. Catholicism faced this through a new focus on lived imitation of Christ and the Christianization of philosophy (as with St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas). Judaism suffered a deeper rupture, in the forms of the Nachmanides’s mysical intepretation of the Torah and Maimonides Judaization of philosophys, but even the mystical school adopted the forms and competencies of rational discussion.

The Mormon bias against philosophy and theology may delay this reckoning, but it seems unlikely to stop. The empirical evidence seems that philosophical incoherence is not sustainable over the long term — no other branch of the Abrahamic face that I am aware of has maintained this. And Mormonism has a mechanism to allow to it adapt to the culture it exists in: the open canon.

Like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Mormonism has no mechanism for identifying when Scripture starts and church teachings begin. Some books, like the Mormon King James Version and the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants, change over time. Other well known Mormon works, such as the King Follett discourse, are not part of the canon at all. A similar mechanism, the Holy Tradition, fulfills a similar role in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. The faith in those churches have unfolded over great expanses of time. Mormonism will as well.

Final Thoughts

I began Wrestling the Angel knowing little about Mormon theology or cosmology. I feel I have a grasp of it now, and I thank Tanner for the excellent recommendation.

I read Wrestling the Angel in the Audible edition.

The Book of Job

Note: As with my take on The Book of Samuel, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Job in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.

The Book of Job is about a wealth, respected, non-Jewish man who worships God and cares for his family. Disaster after disaster falls on him. He blames God, but never doubts in God’s existence.

Because he is implied Job is a Canaanite he would have believed that God is like a bull. He knew the Bull was real. The only question was whether the Bull is good..

Job is the man who spoke up.

Most artistic images of Job are of a broken man, a victim and a whiner, moaning the cruelty of the world. Job is more of a man than that. A better image is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective,” clinically explaining why consciousness is a mistake and life the worst fate that could befall us.

Job, the Horror Writer

The horror writer Thomas Ligotti has condemned giving birth as a violent and evil act. He is ripping off Job

Annul the day that I was born,
and the night that said, “A man is conceived…”
Why did I not die from the womb
from the belly come out, breathe my last?
Why did knees welcome me,
and why breasts, that I should suck?
For now I would lie and be still,
would sleep and know response
with kings and the councilors of earth,
who build ruins for themselves
Job 3:3, 3:11-14

In Ligotti’s fiction, he proposes a sort of pan-demonoism, a belief that the core of reality is an oozing malevolence against which man may — meaninglessly – rebel. Job would agree

For SHADDAI’s arrows are in me —
their venom my spirit drinks
the terrors of God beset me…

I would speak, and I will not fear Him
for that is not the way I am
Job 9:4, 35

Faced with the churchy bullshit his friends “console” him with, Job does them one better, referencing a Psalm

What is man that You should remember him
and the son of man that You pay him heed.
And you make him little less than the gods
with glory and grandeur You cloak him
Psalms 8:5-6

to make a dimmer point:

What is man that You make him great
and that You pay him to geed
You single him out every morning
every moment examine him.
How long till You turn away from me?
You don’t let me go while I swallow my spit
Job 7:17-19

An Aside: The LORD in the Flesh

In Job’s speeches, there are two breaks that grab a reader’s attention. The first is quick, and is jarring because Job appears to be a contemporary of Abraham. While both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Job occasionally refer to God as “SHADDAI” and feature men who wrestle with God’s messages, in Genesis the LORD is flesh and blood, and even joins Abraham and Sarah for a meal (Genesis 18), but Job seems unaware of this:

Do you have the eyes of mortal flesh
do You see as a man would see?
Are Your days like a mortal’s days
Your years like the years of a man
Job 10:4-5

Of course, the LORD had dinner with other men and women: Peter, Mary, Martha, and others.

What, then, did Job know of that?

Would then, that my words were written
that they were inscribed in a book,
with an iron pen and lead
to be hewed in rock forever.
But I know my redeemer lives,
and in the end he will stand up on earth
and after they flay my skin,
from my flesh I shall behold God
For I myself shall behond
my eyes will see– no stranger’s
my heart is harried within me.
Should you say, “How more can we hound him?
The root of the thing rests in him”
Fear the sword, for wrath is a sword-worthy crime,
so you may know there is judgement.”
Job 19:23-29

The Man That Feeds the Mouths That Tear the Flesh

In The Gospel According to Matthew, the Lord asks us to consider birds

“Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store aware in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Matthew 6:26

Job considers birds very well indeed

“Yet asks of the beasts, they will teach you,
the fowl of heavens will tell you,
or speak to the earth, it will teach you,
the fish of the sea will inform you.
Who has not known in all these
that the LORD’s hands has done this
In Whose hand is the breath of each living thing,
and the spirit of all human flesh.
Does not the ear make out the words,
the palate taste food:
Job 12:7-11

Eventually God puts an end to the back-and-forths between Job and his friends (and even more thankfully, the rambling punk kid of one of Job’s friends), states that his friends’ churchy bullshit makes Him look bad and them look stupid, and even picks up the bird metaphor

“Does the hawk soar by your wisdom,
spread his wings to fly away South?
By your word does the eagle mount
and set his nest on high?
On the crag he dwells and beds down
on the crest of the crag his stronghold.
From there he seeks out food,
from afar his eyes look down.
His chicks lap up blood,
where the slain are, there he is.”
Job 39:27-30


Throughout the book, Job remembers his suffering and injustice, and returns again and again to the random brutality of the world.

Job’s churchy friends try to tell him that justice always wins out in our lives.

God tells those friends to stfu, tells Job that he’s at least half right (unlike his friends, who are simply wrong), but that there’s awe-inspiring and exciting parts of the universe too.

The heart of the Book of Job is in these dialogues, and there’s a fairy-tale-like story surrounding it. That story is wrapped up too. Job gets really rich, and Job’s wife (who was acting bitchy during the disasters) presumably becomes jealous of their has three hot daughters, named (in Hebrew) Dove, Cinnamon, and Eyeshadow.

But like in Ezekiel something is wrong with the narrative. Job doesn’t end where it begins, there’s no follow-up to the bet between God and Satan. What was the point of it all? Who won? Why did any of this happen?

Why did any of this happen?

Impressions of “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites,” by John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton

The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest is an examination of the Israelite conquest of Canaan as described primarily in the Book of Joshua. John H. and J. Harvey Walton argue the war was fought to properly order Canaan under God’s sovereign rule, and not as punishment for the Canaanites. The term herem, normally translated as “place under the ban” or “utterly destroy,” should be translated as “remove from human use” or even “purify.”  The process of establishing sovereignty in an area — called “Making a Name” or “Placing a Name,” — is completed by God through the Temple (though Saul, the builders of the Tower of Babel, and many other kings  previously tried to make a name for themselves, as recorded both within and outside the Bible). The authors introduce the idea of The Ban as a type, or foreshadowing, of Living in Christ, but do not convincingly argue this. Likewise, the propose an explanation for the apparent presence of inhuman monsters in Canaan. during the Conquest

Seven Days that Shook the World

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; 6 but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Genesis 2:2-7

The Book of Joshua is a war story, the third book the ExodusNumbersJoshua narrative that chronicles the life of the savior of Israel, Joshua, who follows (and then apparently deposes) Moses and leads an army against the Canaanite cities. Men, families, and entire cities are placed “under the ban” and “doomed to destruction” (herem). It is as exciting as a tale of the rise of ISIS told from the perspective of a military commander would be. Angels, stars, prostitutes, and spies are all characters in a book that makes church ladies uncomfortable all over the world.

But it came to pass on the seventh day that they rose early, about the dawning of the day, and marched around the city seven times in the same manner. On that day only they marched around the city seven times.
And the seventh time it happened, when the priests blew the trumpets, that Joshua said to the people:

“Shout, for the LORD has given you the city!

Now the city shall be doomed by the LORD to destruction, it and all who are in it.
Only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent.”
Joshua 6:16-17

This pattern will be created later, when the Temple is opened in seven days. The Creation, the Conquest, and the Indwelling of the LORD in the Temple are are three stages in the proper ordering of the universe. God creates the universe, God is granted title to the land, God is invested in the Temple. A force completely outside the cosmos orders the cosmos and lives in the cosmos. Christians of course will see parallels — antitypes — in this process to the Creation by the Word, the Victory at the Cross, and the Indwelling of the Spirit at Pentecost.

At that time Solomon kept the feast seven days,
and all Israel with him, a very great assembly from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt. And on the eighth day they held a sacred assembly,
for they observed the dedication of the altar seven days,
and the feast seven days.
On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their tents, joyful and glad of heart for the good that the Lord had done for David, for Solomon, and for His people Israel.
2 Chronicles 7:8-10

Under the Ban

The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest could have been written as an extended examination of two verses:

So all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took and struck with the edge of the sword. He utterly destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. But as for the cities that stood on their mounds, Israel burned none of them, except Hazor only, which Joshua burned.
Joshua 11:12-13


For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants.
Leviticus 18:25

Examining the three words in bold, the authors argue

  • utterly destroy, or herem, means remove from human (as opposed to Divine) use
  • defiled, or tm’, means ritually unclean or unfit for use, as in Judges 13:4
  • punishment, or pqd, means determine the density, and
  • iniquity, or ‘awon, means purify as with fire, as in Numbers 31:23
  • vomit is accepted as such, but can proceed the proper use of a thing, such as the whale’s vomiting of Jonah

The authors argue that Joshua “utterly destroyed” the kings by killing them,t the city of Hazor by burning it to the ground, and the other cities by transferring their sovereignty from the Israelite army (which had it by right of conquest) to God. The authors also argue that that Leviticus 18:25 really should read

For the land is unfit for use; therefore I will determine the density of its cleansing on it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants

The proposed translations are similar to Robert Alter‘s translation of the verse in Joshua:

And all the towns of these kings and all their kings Joshua took and struck them down with the edge of the sword, he put them under the ban as Moses servant of the LORD had charged. Only all the towns standing on their mounds Israel did not burn, except for Hazor alone that Joshua burned.

as well as Leviticus:

And the land was defiled, and I made a reckoning with it for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants

This is persuasive. The Land of Canaan is to be put through an earthly purgatory, but the goal is to make it properly ordered, not to vindicatively punish it. As Rabbi Stuart Federow argues, many Christians ignore the Biblical emphasis on proper ordering by trying to reduce all forms of disorder to sin, just as some Christians ignore the Biblical emphasis on faithfulness by trying to reduce all forms of faithlessness to doubt. The lesson here, that God desires proper ordering of things and our allegiance to Him, means giving up some of pop Christianity.

Make a Name

The Israelite Idea of “Covenant” emphasized that Israel already surrendered to God, and was under an occupation regime similar to Japan’s experience after World War II. God, not Israel, was sovereign. Not just certain cities, but the entire nation, was under the General Orders (or “Laws”) of the Sovereign God-King.

This pattern (to a smaller extent) already existed in the Near East. The Babylonians, for instance, would grant specific cities or fields to their Gods similar to how modern companies will grant sovereign rights to consular compounds:

As long as heaven and earth and mankind will be, in future no son of man may inhabit [this land. I have offered] it to Tesub my lord, together with fields, farmyards, vineyards… [Let] your bulls Seri and Hurri [make it] their own grazing land

Yet because the other Near Eastern peoples treated Gods as a very powerful external partner, but not their ultimate Sovereign, they could congratulate themselves on entering into alliances with gods who were then bound by law to defend them. As one Assyrian memorial records:

Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. SItting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy

Thus, what is happening in Joshua is that the Israelites are conquering a country and then transferring the title to The LORD in keeping with the Instrument of Surrender (“Covenant”) negotiated by Moses. By removing Canaan from Israelite use — making it herem — it is God, not Israel, that places his name in the Holy Land as recorded in the Chronicles

Yet I have chosen Jerusalem, that My name may be there, and I have chosen David to be over My people Israel.
2 Chronicles 6:6

This contrasts with King Saul’s attempt in The Book of Samuel to indicate that he, and not God, is sovereign

So when Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul, it was told Samuel, saying,
“Saul went to Carmel, and indeed, he set up a monument for himself; and he has gone on around, passed by, and gone down to Gilgal.”
Then Samuel went to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the LORD! I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”
But Samuel said, “”hat then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”
1 Samuel 15:12-14

As well as against the Babylonian’s attempt to do likewise with their Tower

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
Genesis 11:4

Living in Christ

If the theme is the rule of God — His creation of the universe, His sovereignty over Canaan, His indwelling at Zion — what does the King of the Universe want from us? Simple this: the full use of us.

The Waltons connect Herem from the Hebrew Bible with the Christian idea of being in Christ, or putting off the “old man” in the Letter to the Ephesians

But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:20-24

The old man is “put off” (or “crucified” in Romans 6:6), not as a punishment, but as a necessary preparation for something greater. As the Waltons write:

We don’t destroy our former selves because they committed crimes and deserve to be destroyed; we destroy them because they are in the way of God using us for his purposes.

The logic of this is that just as God placed Canaan as herem or “under the ban,” God also placed us under the ban as well

Herem of identity in the new covenant means removing from use all identities (which recapitulate the Canaanite nations) other than Christian from the self (which recapitulates the land)

This is fascinating, but not as convincing. For one, the Septuagint Bible used by Bible translates Herem as Anathema, a term he never uses for living in Christ. Further, the Waltons extend the claim to viewing our individual identities not as things for God to use, but as things for us to reject. This seems to lead to a reductio ad absurdum of placing one’s identity as male or female under the ban, but the Waltons seem to accept this

On the other hand, and privilege or status that accompanies the identity markers is not to be asserted. Paul has the identity of apostle, but he repeatedly refuses to assert the rights that accompany that identity.

The obvious scriptural counter-argument to this is never addressed:

He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created.
Genesis 5:2

Inhuman Monsters

A second interesting idea is explaining the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of Rephaism and Nephalim in the Joshua accounts. Rephaim appear to be the ghosts of dead kings (as in the Canaanite Story of Danel), while Nephalim would be the gigantic offspring of half-angelic / half-human hybrids. The Waltons argue that this is part of the trope of invincible barbarians called “umman manda” who are described with inhuman features.

There hands are destructive and their features are those of monkeys; he is one who eats what [a goddess] forbids and does not show reverence. They never stop roaming about…
they are an abomination to the gods’ dwellings. Their ideas are confused; they cause only disturbance.

I was fascinated by this. The apparent presence of these supernatural creatures in both Genesis and Exodus is striking, and whether these are thinking creatures or Augustinian symbols, the Divine Author meant something by them. But the Waltons’ interpretation does not square with the description in Numbers and Joshua as the Canaanites as having strong, established cities. The Waltons’ later claim that Gog represents another form of barbarians, instead of something more bizarre or post-modern, is also questionable.

And as before, the obvious Scriptural complication to a purely human view of inhuman monsters is not mentioned

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 6:12

Final Thoughts

I have trouble recommending The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest because of the way it is embarrassed by the Scriptures, and bows too much to church ladies all over the world. Likewise it is not as persuasive a discussion of a concept as was Salvation by Allegiance Alone or even The Lost World of Genesis One. But it gave me a new way to understand herem, and tied it both to later discussions of King Saul and the Apostle Paul, as well as older Near Eastern myths and documents.

I read The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest in the Kindle edition.

The Book of Samuel

Note: It took around three years for me to read the Bible, beginning with Robert Alter’s translation of The Five Books of Moses. At first the material — the text, the stories, the real thing the never teach you — was so new I was mostly reacted in stunned silence. My first blog post on the Bible was The Book of Kings in December 2014. In March 2017, I published my last reflections on The Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Sirach, and the The Prayer of Manasseh that formerly separated the Old and New Testaments.

The turning point for me was the Book of Samuel. I don’t know the words to say the importance of this book to me. The reason the Scripture contains different genres of books is to reach different genres of hearts — Samuel reached mine! Samuel was the first time my short facebook notes on my Biblical reading expanded into something more. Indeed, I wrote four different posts on the Book.

So, in order to combine my thoughts, I present those four takes here, a sort of redacted post from earlier documents. I’ve kept later editing to a minimum… only what was needed.

1 Samuel and 2 Samuel

The Book of Samuel is hard reading. Not hard to read — Atler’s translation is wonderful. But hard in its implications. The spiraling damage — to Saul himself, to the lives of his ‘enemies’ and even the moral character of David — only gets worse. But Saul did not seek the Kingship — his request to Samuel was only for the location of some lost donkeys, and he physically hid from his own coronation.


As Samuel makes his grand statement he believes he has discovered a great rhyme in history: LORD, Tomb, Donkeys, Father, Son. Israel is a stubborn people, perhaps the tribes are donkeys. But perhaps something else is being described

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said:
“Is it not because the Lord has anointed you commander over His inheritance?
When you have departed from me today, you will find two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say to you,
‘The donkeys which you went to look for have been found.
And now your father has ceased caring about the donkeys and is worrying about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’
1 Samuel 10:1-3

It very much feels like someone had the idea to make the young woman from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as monarch. Indeed, the horror of the paired “Is Saul, too, among the Prophets?” episodes — the first time Sunday-schooly and humorous,

Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you. You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.”

So it was, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, that God gave him another heart; and all those signs came to pass that day. When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them. And it happened, when all who knew him formerly saw that he indeed prophesied among the prophets, that the people said to one another, “What is this that has come upon the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?
1 Samuel 10:6-11

The second time is sad and terrifying — is the horror of “Repulsion”: Saul’s suffered from psychosis the entire time he’s been in the story.

So [Saul] went there to Naioth in Ramah. Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah.
And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night.
Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?
1 Samuel 19:24

I have a ways to go before the Book of Job, but that seems like small potatoes compared of the Book of Samuel.

If the Book of Numbers was war as an adventure, and The Book of Judges was war as a Western, the Book of Samuel is war as a tragedy. A few mistakes by a few people build and build, leading to a complete moral collapse that our heroes are drowning in.

Shakespeare’s got nothing on this.

Including the Beginning of 1 Kings

There’s a director’s cut!

The Book of Samuel, which mostly felt like a cross between House of Cards and Game of Thrones, ends in the dark. King David is an aging prisoner of Generalissimo Joab, who climbed the ladder of power and murdered the General of the Army of Israel, the General of the Army of Judah, and the pretender King Absalom (David’s son).

But Joab has another fate.

The last four chapters 2 Samuel are like the sepia-toned conclusion of The Godfather: four scenes that lose the psychological realism of the main work, and instead twist the knife. These stories are kind of fairy tales — they don’t have the bitter realism of most of the Book of Samuel, but they feel… wrong. Like the that sepia-toned ending of the Godfather, which ends with Michael all alone, the wrongness of the story is just below the service.

There’s a story of David condemning the sons of Saul, and regretting it. As he pardoned Joab, the murderer of Saul’s general, and surely regretted it.

There’s a poem from David’s youth, celebrating the Lord of Armies and how God granted him military victory. But from old age, surely King David knew who commanded the military — Joab.

There’s David’s last poem, praising the importance of a King and saying that “worthless men” must be dragged out. But Joab was originally of David’s “worthless men,” a man with nothing to lose who would follow him.

There’s a story of David conducting a census, against the recommendation of Joab, and regretting it. Because like Michael Corleone, like Frank Underwood, Joab, was many things, but never stupid.

So the Book of Samuel ends, David a prisoner, Joab the Generalissimo, and the reader’s head spins.

Although my house is not so with God,
Yet He has made with me an everlasting covenant,
Ordered in all things and secure.
For this is all my salvation and all my desire;
Will He not make it increase?
2 Kings 23:5

But there’s a director’s cut.

That’s not the original ending.

The Book of Kings, which immediately follows, is a compilation of 400 years of dynastic history. Like any such history, the writing style swings dramatically, because it is a compilation of chronicles, of wiki updates over the centuries.

And the first two chapters are the conclusion of Samuel. The same psychological realism. The same sadness. But a real ending.

David isn’t Michael Corleone. He’s Vito.

In his dying words, David praises God and theen asks Solomon to get him his revenge, to kill Joab so he cannot die peacefully. And Robert Alter said, David’s faith is so complete it borders on the subversive

Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man.
And keep the charge of the Lord your God:
to walk in His ways,
to keep His statutes,
His commandments,
His judgments,
and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn;
that the Lord may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’

“Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me,
and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel,
to Abner the son of Ner
and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed.
And he shed the blood of war in peacetime,
and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist,
and on his sandals that were on his feet.
Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace.
1 Kings 2:1-6

One by one, Solomon isolates Joab, using the law to his ends, finding judicial reasons to kill one supporter after another. Until Joab, old and feeble and no longer able to fight, flees to the Arc of the Covenant and holds on, crying for safety.

Who could kill someone in the House of the Lord? Who could deny sanctuary to a fugitive in the Tent of Meeting?

But unlike David (whose grasp of the Law of Moses was sentimentally and shaky), Solomon remembered the Law

But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.
Exodus 21:14

Well, mostly,

So Benaiah went to the tabernacle of the Lord, and said to him, “Thus says the king, ‘Come out!’”

And he said, “No, but I will die here.” And Benaiah brought back word to the king, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.”

Then the king said to him, “Do as he has said, and strike him down and bury him, that you may take away from me and from the house of my father the innocent blood which Joab shed.
1 Kings 2:30-31

The Witch of Endor

I vaguely remembered “The Witch of Endor,” the woman who summoned the Prophet Samuel to King Saul. The story includes with some comic relief — the witch screams and flees, not having expected her spell to actually work.

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice.
And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!”
1 Samuel 28:11-12

Saul has been beaten into frailty by the evil spirit, his psychosis. Samuel — the the prophet, seer & priest – berates him for being a horrible king, tells him that Saul and his sons will die tomorrow, and leaves.

Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy?
And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me.
For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day.
Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines.
And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.
The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.
1 Samuel 28:16-19

The witch, after the episode, slaughters a calf, giving Saul some food to eat and a place to sleep on the last night of his life.

Now therefore, please, heed also the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.”
But he refused and said, “I will not eat.”
So his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he heeded their voice.
Then he arose from the ground and sat on the bed.
Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she hastened to kill it.
And she took flour and kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread from it.
So she brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate.
Then they rose and went away that night.
1 Samuel 28:22-25

Before starting Alter’s translation of the Old Testament, I had only read Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan as a gentile. But they are even more meaningful in light of Jewish traditions. Who is the priest? Who is the good Samaritan?

Final Thoughts

Years after finishing it, I have never read anything like the Book of Samuel. I thought about this or that part of it daily for more than a year. The two ‘cuts’ of it in the Hebrew Bible (one ending at 2 Samuel 24, the other continuing through 1 Kings 2) are like a great theatrical cut and great directors cut: both brilliant but in different ways.

Reading Samuel under Alter’s translation has impacted my other readings. The Art of Biblical Narrative helped shape my view of how to understand the parts of the Bible I read on my own, while Saul, Doeg, Nabal, and the Son of Jesse helped me focus on “minor” characters in the text. I don’t think its possible to understand the Transfiguration without the context of the nightmare Israel experienced trying to reconcile the Kings and the Prophets.

I read the Book of Samuel in Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “Eight Homilies Against the Jews,” by Saint John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom was a Doctor of the Church, Ecumenical Father, and Archbishop of Constantinople during the Roman Empire. His sermons were before the Catholic-Orthodox split, and our revered in most mainline Christian traditions. He addresses multiple simultaneously and clearly is concerned for his flock. His writing affirms core Christian beliefs on salvation, and can help Protestants and Catholics understand each other. But he also has falls. His attempt at a disputation against “Judaizers” is only partially coherent on Judaism, and unlike Augustine he appears not to have spoken to Jews about the meaning of the Old Testament.

But First, there’s no getting around this: John Chrysostom’s Against the Jews — a Doctor of the Church and Patriarch of Constantinople — directly and repeatedly blames the Jews for the murder of Christ

Against the Jews

Jesus died for our sins. We are at fault. And Christians more at fault than others, for we know the cost of sin and do it anyway.

In this context, Chrysostom’s words are both ironic and terrifying:

Is it not foolish, then, to show such readiness to flee from those who have sinned against a man, but to enter into fellowship with those who have committed outrages against God himself? Is it not strange that those who worship the Crucified keep common festivals with those who crucified him? Is it not a sign of folly and the worst madness?

Even if this was a truly held theological point, it is no longer a permissible one. The Council of Trent clarified that all sinners share the guilt for the death of Jesus. He died for John Chrysostom’s sins as much as for those of the Jews.

Should anyone inquire why the Son of God underwent His most bitter Passion, he will find that besides the guilt inherited from our first parents the principal causes were the vices and crimes which have been perpetrated from the beginning of the world to the present day and those which will be committed to the end of time. In His Passion and death the Son of God, our Savior, intended to atone for and blot out the sins of all ages, to offer for them to his Father a full and abundant satisfaction.
Catechism of the Council of Trent Article IV, Part 2, ‘Reasons why Christ Suffered’

In the same sub-part, it is clear that Christian sinners suffer more guilt for the death of Christ than the Jews:

This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him.

But even if Chrysostom was gravely wrong about the guilt of the Jews, his target was not actually people who we would call Jews!

Against the Judaizers

There seems to have been a Messianic movement in Christianity that called itself Jews, but kept up animal sacrifices and many of the Jewish festivals in the Bible. When Chrysostom attacks the so-called “Jews” for these sacrifices he’s entirely right! Using only the Old Testament, he successfully disputes the claim of these “Jews” that they are following Jewish law

And that is the reason why God commanded sacrifice [in Jerusalem] only: you have heard the Law that has now been read among us — it runs as follows: “For they shall bring their sacrifice to the doors of the Tent of Witness” — and it goes on to add the reason: “So that they will not sacrifice their idols and to the vain things which which they themselves engage in prostitution.”

Chrysostom is completely correct here. No branch of Judaism practices animal sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. Indeed, the Christian sacrifice is qualitatively different than the Jewish one. And while much of Christianity is is continuous with Second-Temple Judaism, the requirement for recurrent animal sacrifices is not one of them.

That said, much of Chrysostom’s attacks on Jewish-style ritual seems hyperbolic. This passage is emblematic: in two sentences Chrysostom incorrectly states that all Jewish festivals are forbidden outside Jerusalem, and that Jews would never control Jerusalem again:

I did enough to complete my task when I proved from all the prophets that any such observance of ritual outside Jerusalem is a transgression of the Law and sacrilege. But they never stop whispering in everybody’s ear and bragging that they will get their city back again.

Against Salvation by the Law

Chrysostom is on much stronger ground on another area: a firm rejection of both “works of the law” and “faith as a mental state only.” Certain passages read like they could be directly lifted from Reformation-era writers.

That he has justified our race not by right actions, nor by toils, nor by barter and exchange, but by grace alone. Paul, too, made this clear when he aid: “But now the justice of God has been made manifest independently of the Law.” But the justice of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not through any labor and suffering.”

as well as:

All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift. But those who wish to find justification from the Law will also fall from grace. They will not be able to enjoy the King’s loving-kindness because they are striving to gain salvation by their won efforts; they will draw down on themselves the curse of the Law because from the works of the Law no flesh will find justification,

While others appear to be as “Catholic” as one would expect from this Catholic bishop, 600 years before the schism between east and west:

For their is one defense left to sinners after they have sinned: to confess their sins.


Your good deeds will not only bring praise to you but also rapid release from your sickness. The nobility of your choice will win God to even greater good will; all the saints will rejoice at what you have done; they will pray for you from the bottom of their hearts.

The solution of course is that faith and faithfulness were not distinguished in Greek. Indeed, Chrysostom specifically preaches on the parable of the three servants to make that point. In this parable, a rich man gave us servants money to spend or invest. A foolish servant, who did not try to make any profit, was condemned by the rich man.

Like Paul in The Letter to the Romans, Chrysostom believes that laboring for Christ is categorically distinct from “works of the Law,” a legalistic interpretation of the Torah aimed at maintaining a distinctive Jewish ethnic identity as a matter of religion. The Greek word translated as “faith” or “believe” in English, ” pistis, also means “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” For instance, a venture capitalist who provides start-up capital to a new company would call that company’s director “faithful” if he can turn a profit on the money.

Then each of us will be able to hear those happy words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; because you have been faithful over a few things I will set you over many; enjoy into the joy of your Master’

Both the Apostle Paul and Archbishop Chrysostom assumed what Reformation-era debaters on both side did not realize: the emotionally charged argument over “faith” from the beginning of the modern era was not a question of belief or works, but of whether a divine Rule of Law would save one from a Divine Judge. As in Samuel or Solomon, the answer was obviously not. John Chrysostom, who also wrote in Greek, displayed the same unity of understanding about faith.

And I say to you what Paul said to the Galatians: “Become like me, because I also have become like you.” What does this mean? He was urging them to renounce circumcision, to scorn the Sabbath, the feast days, and all the other observances of the Law.

It is this focus on splittism, dividing up one faith along sectarian lines, that drove both Paul’s and Chrysostom’s attacks on reforming Judaizers of their day. I suspect Chrysostom shares my view of both the Catholic-Orthodox split, and the Protestant Reformation:

Moreover, the first thing I have to say to the Judaizers is that nothing is worse than contentiousness and fighting, than tearing the Church asunder and rending into many parts the robe which the robbers did not dare to rip.


Fasting at tiffs or that time is not a matter for blame. But to rend asunder the Church, to be ready for rivalry, to create dissension, to rob oneself continuously of the benefits of religious meetings — these are unpardonable, these do demand an account, these do deserve serious punishment.

and finally

So let me finish my discourse at this point, and let us all pray together that our brothers come back to us. Let us pray that they cling fondly to peace and stand apart from untimely rivalry.

Like the money in that parable, good works can produce interest beyond their initial investment.

If somebody else does what you did, you will carry off the reward because it was you who gave him his start, it is you whom he emulated.

The goal of allegiance of Christ is not the ritual celebration of festivals or yearly fasting. These may be tools, but they are not the goal. The goal is to imitate Christ

Why are you a Christian? Is it not that you may imitate Christ and obey his Laws? What did Christ do? He did not sit in Jerusalem and call the sick to come ot him. he went around to cities and towns and cured sickness of both body and soul.

No fasting, no sleeping on the ground, no watching and praying all night, nor anything else can do as much for you as saving your brother can accomplish.

Writing before the debates over the Reformation, and being able to span them through his fluent Greek, he also cuts through another debate: does justification occur organically (by a change in our soul — implying the need for a state or place or cleansing if our soul is not sufficiently clean upon death) or mechanistically (where sins are simply not counted, due to Christ’s saving blood.)

The answer is both, and much more:

To show that David made this whole prophetic prediction in behalf of Christ when he said ‘Sacrifice and oblation you id not desire,’ David went on to say: ‘But a body you have fitted for me.’ By this he meant the Lord’s body which became our common sacrifice for the whole world, the sacrifice which cleansed our soul, canceled our sin, put down death, opened heaven, gave us great many hopes, and made ready all other things which Paul knew well and spoke of when he explained: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable are his ways!’

Against Sin, but for the Sinner

Augustine and Chrysostom go by different ways to build empathy. Augustine’s methods are self-centered — you learn about his childhood, his parents, his job, his friends. Reading Confessions feels like meeting a new friend. The Catholic Church’s strong history of protecting Jews as an intellectual community doubtless owes a lot to Augustine’s personal struggle. It’s one thing ot say that serious interpretation of the Old Testament is necessary to understand Christianity — its another to see a Doctor of the Church reject Christianity as incoherent until Jewish hermenutics are introduced to him!

Chrysostom is completely different. After reading Eight Homilies I don’t know how old he is, how he became Christian, what his friends like to do, or how he came to his opinions. From Chrysostom you can hear the same Christian humanist voice that Pope Francis uses so well in our own day

A human being is worth more than the whole world. Heaven and earth and sea and sun and stars were made for his sake.

John also provides the best homily over the story of Cain and Abel that I ever encountered. Though he uses the Septuagint Bible, which translates some context different, it is so moving:

“Even so, Cain did not listen, he did not stop, he did commit that murder, he did bathe his hands in blood from his brother’s throat. But then what happened? God did not say: ‘Let him go now. What further use in there of in helping him. He did commit the murder, he did slay his brother….’

God neither said nor did anything like that. Instead, he came again to him, corrected him, and said: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ When Cain said he did not know, God still did not desert him but he brought him, in spite of himself, to admit what he had done…

‘I have committed a sin too great for pardon, defense, or forgiveness; if it is your will to punish my crime, I shall lie exposed to every harm because your helping hand has abandoned me.’ And what did God do then? He said ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain shall be punished sevenfold!… For the number seven in the Scriptures means an indefinitely large number..

And Cain himself became a better man again. His trembling, his fear, the mental torment which never left him, his physical paralysis kept him, as it were, shackled. They kept him from leaping again to any other dead of boldness; they constantly reminded him of his former crime; through them he achieved greater self-control in his soul.”

This focus on pastoral service to individual sinners would largely be lost in the west until it was revived by the Friars. I wonder if this remained in the East and, if so, if its loss in the west was a result of Augustine’s autobiographical (and thus, self-centric) style).

Cain Punished

Chrysostom also is aware he is speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. For instance, as Patriarch of Constantinople he has priests reporting to him. But as the foremost pastor of Constantinople he is also responsible for the souls of the common people. And as a literary figure his words would be read for centuries.

So he is careful to provide a hermeneutic key, or statement that is literally true, true in context, and true in how the document as a whole should be interpreted. Thus, threats of damnation or Hell must be read as a way to help people act better, and not a sign that God forgets about them

Mothers who love their children also do this: when their children cry, they often threaten to throw them to the jaws of wolves. Of course, they would not throw them to the wolves but they say they will to stop the children from bothering them. Everything Christ did was done to keep us bound together and living at peace with one another.

And just as God came down and was closest to Cain, the emotional meaning of the text is closest to the common believer. While Chrysostom was a pivotal father of not just Christianity in general, but of Orthodox branch in particular, he is careful to praise the common believer, and even flatter him, for good works

If you pour out many words and do everything in your power and still see that he refuses to heed you, then bring him to the priest. By the help of God’s grace the priests will surely overcome their quary. But it will all be your doing, because it was you who took his hand and led him to us.

For Understanding of the Gospel

Like his contemporary Augustine, John Chrysostom appears heavily influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy. Thus he looks forward to heaven, correctly, but his goal appears to the pure spiritual life of heaven rather than a reincarnated life on the New Earth

He knew their obstinancy and shamelessnessm, their willfulness and disobedience; he knew that they would not easily choose to give up their former way of life, conducted with sacrifices and burnt offerings, and go toward the higher, more spiritual life of the Gospels

Indeed, Chrysostom appears to believe the “New Earth” is simply a metaphor for a heaven where our old friends the planets no longer exist

We are citizens of a city above in heaven, where there are no months, no sun, no moon, no circle of seasons.

Chrysostom is extrapolating on a passage in The Revelation to John.

The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light.
Revelation 21:23

Now, a lot is going on in this question. St. Thomas Aquinas spends considerable time on it in Summa Theologica. But that the sun is simply a lamp, and in bright places there is no need for it, is hard to agree with. Bright artificial lights can even now evenly illuminate indoor rooms more usefully than the sun. It does not mean the sun is not our Brother, or that we are not happy to be with him.

That said, some of Chrysostom’s inferences are thought provoking. When I first began writing these impressions, I thought that Chrysostom’s conlusion

We read: “Seventy weeks are cut short for your people, no longer does God say: “for my people.”

referring to this passage…

“Seventy weeks are determined
For your people and for **your holy city,
To finish the transgression,
To make an end of sins,
To make reconciliation for iniquity,
To bring in everlasting righteousness,
To seal up vision and prophecy,
And to anoint the Most Holy.
Daniel 9:24*

…seemed arbitrary, until I read the whole chapter, and saw “your people” and “your city” parralleled Daniel’s prayer to God.

“O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us.
*Daniel 9:16

In this context, Gabriel is literally repeating the phrase, but turning its meaning around. I feel like I did the first time I realized cities could be not just holy, but sacred. I don’t agree with Chrysostom’s inteprtation, but he translates correctly and is striking in his explanation.

Wholly absent from Chrysostom’s interpretation are attempts to explain away Bible verses through allegory. This both helps him and hurts him. Famously, Augustine suspected both the “whales” (from the Book of Jonah) and the “fishes” (from the Gospels) were symbols of what actually appeared:

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

As the Scriptures are composed of many genre, this means that sometimes that each hermeneutical approach is acceptable at times. The Book of Jonah reads like a comedy, if not a satire, and an allegorical explanation is only natural. Augustine’s attempts to explain away the miracles of the Gospels, though, perhaps are less admirable.

Unsurprisingly, there are several methods of interpretation which are missing entirely. There are no references to literary genres of the Bible. Temple literature, Canaanite mythology, Second Temple literature are absent from Chrysostom’s methods.

In Biblical times, a “covenant” was an instrument of surrender” dictated by the triumphant power to the weaker power, demanding allegiance in exchange for grace and justification. Contemporary Jews believe there are two operative Covenants in the Hebrew Bible — the Mosaic Covenant and the older Noahide Covenant through which God justifies the gentiles. Many Christians argue the complement, that the Mosaic Covenant is itself complemented by the new and everlasting covenant. Numerous other covenants, both secular and religious, can be identified.

But Chrysostom and Dumbrell make almost opposite errors. Dumbrell insists there is only one covenant. Chrysostom states that while there were old, they have been abrogated and only the new is operational.

Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Hebrews 10:8-10

What is “the first.” The clear meaning is “Sacrifice and offering burn offerings, and offerings for sin.” The second is doing God’s will — having lived faith. Chrysostom (incorrectly identifying the author of Letter to the Hebrews as Paul) writes:

In expalnation of this text Paul said: ‘He annuls the first covenant in order to establish the second.’

Dumbrell goes to the other extreme, arguing there is only one covenant in the entire Bible.

“What this means in real terms is that there is only one biblical covenant, with the end to be reached from the beginning always in view.”
William Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pg. 8

For Celebration of the Mysteries

In keepng with the Orthodox tradition he would help found, Chrysostom calls Catholic sacraments “mysteries”:

If you approach the altar on the very day of the Sabbath and your conscience be bad, you fail to share in the mysteries and you leave without celebrating the Pasch. But if you wash away your sins and share in the mysteries today, you do celebrate the Pasch in precisely the proper way.

Yet Chrysostom implicitly seems to focus on the need for excitement by the congregation. Though he never explicitly says it, Chrysostom appears to be grant the Judaizers a great compliment: their mass is more accessible to an illiterate or marginal population. He specifically calls out the popularity of Jewish-type rituals for women:

For indeed, I know that most of the crowd that is drawn to go there is composed of women. Now then, the blessed Paul says, “husbands, love your wives”; and again, “The wife should fear her husband.” But I am seeing neither wives’ fear nor husbands’ love.

As well as other marginal populations and social outcasts:

But now that the devil summons your wives to the feast of the Trumpets and the turn a ready ear to this call, you do not restrain the, You let them entangle themselves in accusations of ungodliness, you let them be dragged off into licentious ways. For as a rule, it is the harlots, the effeminates, and the whole chorus from the the theater who rush to that festival.

At least part of the reason is the Jewish-typical festivals are more musical, and more ngaging

But you dsire to hear a trumpet! Then listen to the trumpet of Paul, the spiritual trumpet blaring out from the heavens and saying, “Take up the full armor of God.”

Having once attended a Messianic Synagogue with a friend, these strengths of Judaeo-Christian festivals can still be seen. In the Eastern Churches, John Chrysostom is still credited with having created the contemporary Orthodox Liturgy. The Orthodox Style, with its beauty and ritual, may owe much to Chrysostom’s need to compete with what we would now call a form of Messianic Judaism.

Final Thoughts

John Chrysostom’s Eight Homilies Against the Jews is a complex book. The repeated claim, that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ, has been explicitly rejected since the Counter-Reformation by the Catholic Church. Perhaps the greatest Greek-speaking Christian intellectual since Paul, Chrysostom’s focus on face, grace, and imitation of Christ help us under salvation by allegiance to Christ, and not the Law. He humanize the Gospel, focusing on God’s love for the sinner and our need to care for each other. He provides a straight-forward, but not literal, interpretation of the scriptures that is a good complement to Augustine’s methods. And of course, he is the father of the Orthodoxy Liturgy.

I read Eight Homilies Against the Jews in the Kindle edition.