Why Steal the Household gods?

Ever wondered why Rachel stole her father Laban’s household gods in Genesis 31? Was she really that devoted to these idols? Perhaps something else was going on. See this note from Gen 31:19.

household gods. One of the purposes of these idols was to obtain oracles (Ezek. 21:21). It may be that Rachel stole them to prevent Laban from using them to divine Jacob’s route of escape. In addition, possession of family gods symbolized title to family property in the ancient Near East, so Rachel may have stolen them to safeguard her inheritance rights.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible

This is another example of why it can be so helpful to understand the culture and context of biblical narratives. Here are two possibilities for Rachel’s motives in this story that I never would have known nor guessed without this background info. Divination or inheritance rights being tied to household gods is simply not self-apparent to me, given my own cultural and historical context. Interestingly, if the second possibility is what was going on here, then we see in Rachel an echo of her husband’s particular sin – seeking to wrest her inheritance rights in her own strength, rather than trusting in the promises of YHWH. As is usually the case, this backfires. And Rachel comes awfully close to losing her life because of her deception.

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This Magical World

This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread. Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out. We have only to be quiet and listen, as Patrick learned to do during the silence of his “novitiate” as a shepherd on the slopes of Sliabh Mis.

This sense of the world as holy, as the Book of God – as a healing mystery, fraught with divine messages – could never have risen out of Greco-Roman civilization, threaded with the profound pessimism of the ancients and their Platonic suspicion of the body as unholy and the world as devoid of meaning.

Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, p. 133

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The True Riches of the Church

“With the way most plant churches among Muslims, we end up attracting only the rejects and the freaks,” said my friend with a scowl. “You’ll never start a movement that way.”

While spoken with some concerning overstatement, my friend’s comments were coming out of observations made within contemporary missiology, noting the largely ineffective traditional methods of church planting among Muslims. The shoe often fits. The congregations started by evangelical missionaries among Muslims have often attracted mostly the poor, the outcasts, and the mentally unstable. As the theory goes, most evangelical missionaries among Muslims have not focused enough on reaching the honorable leaders of the community – the patriarchs, chiefs, mullahs, and others. When these leaders are bypassed and the majority of attention is shown to those on the fringes of society, joining a movement to Jesus is prevented from being viewed as a real possibility by those in the mainstream of the culture – and especially by the leaders. And as I wrote in my previous post, these mental categories of “Not an option for people like me” or “It’s an option for people like me” really can make a practical difference in the mysterious interplay of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

I feel this critique. It is true that those of us coming from the West often bypass the societal leaders of an honor-shame community. We often do this even without thinking about it. “Why should I go visit the mullah or the neighborhood strongman? Can’t I just move in and get to work building relationships?” I myself have not done the best job of honoring the community’s leaders through preemptive visits of respect. I am wired as a grassroots, bottom-up reform kind of guy. And sometimes I just forget. Other times, a part of me wants to ignore these domineering leader types just to mess with their sense of self-importance. Perhaps this is the red-blooded American in me that has inherited some distaste for hierarchy and classism? Yet there is wisdom in considering how showing honor to those in positions of authority helps us to have a good testimony (Rom 13:7), creates space for us to cause some trouble, and may even open the door for these leaders to embrace a costly belief in Jesus – and perhaps for others to follow them. I need to be more balanced in this area.

And yet whenever this conversation comes up, I hear this line from church history echo in my mind, “These are the true treasures of the church.” This sentence was spoken by Lawrence (Lorenzo – from Spain), archdeacon of Rome in the year 258. Emperor Valerian had issued an order to have all the leaders in the Roman church killed. And as the one in charge of the church finances, he had ordered Lawrence to turn over the church’s treasure, and he would be spared. Lawrence asked for three days and then slyly distributed all the church’s money to the poor. He then marched the poor, the crippled, and widows into the presence of the emperor and when asked about the church’s treasure, proclaimed, “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.” He was, of course, then put to death. Tradition says that he was roasted on a fire and that he also had a witty sense of humor. “I’m well done, turn me over!” he is alleged to have said while being killed (thereby becoming the patron saint of the poor and of chefs at the same time). I like this guy.

When Deacon Lawrence proclaimed the poor and the broken as the true treasures of the church, he was echoing Paul.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)

And he was echoing Jesus, who proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, and who scandalously befriended the sinners, tax collectors, and the demonized rejects.

This area is yet another tension we face as missionaries. We do attract the outcasts. And some of them are remarkably broken. Broken people take a lot of time and investment and while on the slow road of healing can wound many others around them. They are not always the most stable foundation for a new church. I often beg God to bring us stable locals who will not implode our fledgling groups because of their deep trauma and broken pasts. Yes, we are all broken to some degree. And yet we live in a region of the world with very recent (and ancient) scars from war, dictators, genocide, sanctions, and other horrific experiences. It seems as if everyone here is traumatized in one way or another. And this makes church planting in this place at times seem utterly impossible.

What are we to do? An ideal approach would seek to minister to both the outcasts and the leaders, improbable as that initially seems. This much is clear – In the end, we must not hinder the “little children” from coming to Jesus. The kingdom of God belongs to them. It would be just like God to build the foundation of the church among my focus people group on the nobodies and rejects, just like Jesus did 2,000 years ago with his group of motley Galileans. Does this openness to the “rejects and freaks” hinder a movement from taking place? The research may claim this, but I doubt it. That’s just not how the kingdom of God works. If it does prove a hindrance to multiplication, then so be it. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. What genuine believer, after all, could actually choose a movement of Christians that is mainstream and respectable, but not open to the broken and the outcasts? Is this really a better alternative? If I have to choose, I will opt to gather with those who repulse the respectable.

On the last day I would rather stand with the orphans and the widows than with those this world honors. This simply seems to be the route more consistent with the heart of God as displayed in the ministry of Jesus. That may mean we end up less “effective” in the metrics of missiology. But does that really matter when the king returns? Rather, we would be wise to pay attention to how he characterizes the ministry of his true, known, followers: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me” (Matt 20:40).

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The First Eastern Footholds

The question of when the Church of the East began, defined as the start of missionary activity east of the Euphrates, leads directly to the conflict between Nestorian tradition and the testimony of textual criticism. No fewer than ten names appear among those who claim to have been the first to carry the Good News to the east. Tradition and scholarship do concur, at least, regarding where Christianity first took hold, namely in Edessa (Urfa) and Adiabene (northern Iraq). Reports that the Three Kings or the pilgrims who had been in Jerusalem at Pentecost were the first missionaries to the Parthian Empire clearly belong in the realm of myth. Likewise, we must not concern ourselves with the traditions about Peter, Benjamin and Bartholomew, who are associated with India, as well as Lycaonia, Ethiopia, and Arabia and Armenia. Abha was, for his part, simply a companion of Mar Mari. The names of St Thomas, Mar Addai, Mar Aggai and Mar Mari however, ought to be taken seriously, especially since they occupy the first four places in the official chronology of the patriarchs of the Church of the East.

Baumer, the Church of the East, pp. 14-15

I actually disagree with the author here about the pilgrims from Pentecost being only a possibility in the realm of myth. We have a precedent in Acts in the example of Antioch for normal believers leading the way in witness, with apostolic leaders being called for once a community of Christian faith has taken root. If it happened that way for Syrian Antioch, why not for the two of the major cities on the highway East of Antioch, Edessa and Adiabene (Arbela)?

But there does seem to be some evidence for the early arrival and work of Thomas, Mar Addai (St. Thaddeus), Mar Aggai (St. Haggai), and Mar Mari (St. Mares). Notice how the Aramaic-ization (is that a word?) of these names and titles makes them feel a little foreign to the Greek-icized names of the New Testament – and how, at least for me, seeing the familiar forms of the names makes them feel more at home as the successors of what we read about in the book of Acts. These language shifts are actually a fitting example of what was likely the gospel’s first departure from the Greco-Roman world into a neighboring cultural and linguistic sphere. Not that Greek wouldn’t have had some speakers in Mesopotamia, but it was definitely majority Aramaic-speaking. It’s not surprising then that the first evidence we have of the gospels being translated out of Greek and into another language takes place in Adiabene.

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Your Hungers Are Rewarded, You Are Going Home

The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind – and, therefore, does not preclude suffering – all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind’s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.

Patrick could speak convincingly of these things. He could assure you that all suffering, however dull and desperate, would come to its conclusion and would show itself to have been worthwhile. He could insist that, in the end, you too would hear the words “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home. Look, your ship is ready.”

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 131

Why The Poet Said Cretans Were Liars

Remember that sweeping accusation from Titus 1:12-13, where Paul that all Cretans are “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons?” Well, it’s actually a quotation. And that quotation has a known context, which I had never heard before. Turns out it’s a fight about whether or not the chief of the gods could be dead in a tomb. Paul – whether he’s alluding to this context or merely commandeering a well-known literary rebuke – agrees, following with quite the understatement. “This sentence is true” (v. 13). Clearly, Paul and the Holy Spirit weren’t messing around. This Cretan tendency toward empty and deceptive talk had gone far enough.

“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. Paul quotes Epimenides, a Cretan poet from the sixth century BC. In his poem Cretica, Epimenides accuses the Cretans of being liars and evil beasts because they claim to host a tomb of Zeus, the chief of the gods. Since Zeus “lives and abides forever,” the Cretans must be liars. Paul quotes from this same poem in his sermon to the Areopagus in Acts 17:28. Crete also claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus, known in antiquity as the Dictaean Cave, which legend placed on the slopes of Mount Ida, Crete’s tallest mountain. Reputedly from Knossos, Epimenides was supposed to have the gift of prophecy, which was bestowed on him after he allegedly slept for 57 years in a cave sacred to Zeus.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, Note on Titus 1:12-13

Ever feel offended by broad-brush statements of scripture like this? That feeling’s probably a good sign of an area where we are being shaped more by our culture’s mores than by God’s word. Anytime we feel that inner twitch – that’s a good place to pause and lean in. Why exactly does this rub me the wrong way? And what might that mean?

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Then I Will Never Follow Him

I have a refugee friend in the US who is a member of a minority stateless people group. Being traditionally nomadic, his ancestors migrated from their original country to the country next door. This was about a hundred years ago, when the concept of the nation-state and firm borders was still very new in this part of the world – and for nomads, not really relevant. They had always migrated back and forth across the borders of empires, and even built a lifestyle around the advantages of this (such as smuggling). However, once the nation-state they settled in became more centralized and formalized, the government refused to recognize this people group as citizens. Their original country wouldn’t take them either. So they were stuck, and to this day no one really claims them.

My friend was eventually resettled in the US. But in his final years over in this part of the world he was taken hostage by a terrorist group. Rescue came just in time, when the group was getting ready to execute him. But – and my friend was very keen on pointing this out – he made it through this situation whole and with all of his teeth. He was not so fortunate as a new refugee in the US. For questionable reasons American city governments like to resettle refugees from war zones in some of the most dangerous parts of their new host communities. The idealistic claim is that refugees will use all their immigrant drive and energy to revitalize these drug and crime-afflicted urban neighborhoods. The result, not surprisingly, is often to add trauma on top of trauma. My friend came from a desert country where walking the streets late at night was very normal and mostly safe – even families with small kids are out shopping at midnight. But in his first weeks in the the States he was out walking at 1:00 am and he was mugged – getting one of his front teeth knocked out. “I get kidnapped by terrorists, I keep all my teeth. I come to America, I lose my tooth! Why?” he often asked. All we could do was shake our heads and try to empathize with him.

This friend started studying the Bible with me and even visited church with us regularly for a season. He would show up, long-haired, in a suit that was too big with a collared shirt unbuttoned and showing chest hair, 1970’s style. My fellow bible college students always complimented him on his unique Central Asian style. I had high hopes that as we studied the Bible together, my friend would come to see the beauty of the gospel.

Things went pretty well until we reached Matthew 5:43, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” My friend, far from being struck by the beauty of this kind of teaching, was instead deeply offended.

“If you follow Jesus,” I explained to him, “He will ask you to love your worst enemies and no longer to hate them.”

“What?!” He responded. “Even them? Do you know what they did to my people?” He was alluding to one of the dominant regional people groups that had historically oppressed and committed genocide against his minority group.

“Yes, even them. That is what it means to follow Jesus. We can’t naturally do this. But God loves us when we are his enemies, he gives us new hearts, then he calls us to love our enemies.”

“If that is what it means to follow Jesus, then I will never follow him. I will never stop hating them. It is impossible!”

And with that, he closed his Bible, and disappeared out of my life for the next year and a half. We all know that the truth of the gospel can be offensive. Some doctrines are naturally compelling to certain individuals and cultures while others are naturally offensive. Timothy Keller has called these the A doctrines and the B doctrines. For my friend, the call to love his enemies was a bridge too far. For many a Westerner, this teaching is one of the A doctrines, one of the outcomes of the good news that we find very compelling. But for my friend, coming from a minority oppressed people group who had suffered for centuries, even suffered genocide, it proved to be the teaching that was too hard to bear. He would hold onto his hatred of his enemies rather than be forgiven – and asked to forgive.

The more I learn about how much suffering has taken place in this part of the world, the more I understand his reaction. Every group here has experienced incredible suffering – and has dirt. Just go far enough back in history and everyone is guilty of taking someone else’s land, committing slaughter and genocide, and oppressing the groups weaker than theirs. In fact, this is not only true of our region, but of the whole world. We just lack the historical memory or records sometimes and so we become fixated on the actions of the most recent dynamics of oppressors vs.oppressed within a society. And yet it’s never this simple. My friend’s Muslim people group had been victims of genocide in the last few decades. But few of them knew their own history well enough to know that one hundred years ago they had been active participants in the genocide of ethnic Christian groups. And they are by no means unique. Throughout human history, the oppressed became the oppressors almost every single time. Yes, the Jewish Israelis have some very real historical grievances. Yes, but so do the Palestinians. And both have in turn done some terrible things. How then should we think about justice and forgiveness when all of our ancestors are genocidal murderers? Or do we somehow believe that the victimization of our more recent ancestors somehow wipes away the atrocities of our more distant ancestors? No, to believe that we come from a line any less tainted with oppression than any other line is to embrace both a historical and a biblical naivete.

We don’t often remember the historical context of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The Jews by that point had been under the thumb of foreign domination for five hundred years – with only a brief interlude of Maccabean independence (and even that full of corruption). The things that the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Greeks and the Romans did to the Jewish people were horrific. A little perusal of the life of Antiochus Ephiphanes will give you a sense of how bad it got, including 80,000 residents of Jerusalem at one point slaughtered in cold blood. So when Jesus said those little words, love your enemies, it’s remarkable that he didn’t spark a violent riot on the spot. This deeply offensive posture – that the deepest problem of the oppressed was not their societal and political oppression, but their slavery to sin – was one of the reasons the political right and left of his day got together to support his sham trial and unjust murder. And yet, Jesus knew every detail of their oppression to an infinitely greater degree than they did. And into this deep knowledge of their suffering and injustice he told them to go two miles if their oppressor asked them to go one, to turn to their head and expose cheek if their oppressor hit them in the face, and to even pray for and love these very real and very cruel enemy occupiers. How shameful. How offensive. How inhuman. How desperately needed in places like this – in a world like this. Nothing else can break the cycle.

My friend eventually got back in contact with me, years later. I’ve gotten to share the gospel with him a few more times in depth. I still pray for him. He has softened considerably toward his enemies, through the comradery that comes to be built between former enemies who simply struggle through the refugee experience together. But he still doesn’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know yet what it is to live inside of God’s love for his enemies – a love so powerful it makes them adopted sons and heirs. I pray that one day he will know this love and be transformed by it. And in doing so, become a reflection of God himself.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)

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Ancient Mesopotamian Baptists

Although the Apostolic Council resolved the question of circumcision within the Roman Empire, the issue re-emerged among the Nestorians of Mesopotamia after the seventh century as a result of the Arab conquest. Islamic scholars reproached Christians for failing to have themselves circumcised, as their prophet Jesus had been. They replied that baptism had replaced circumcision, as Christ had abolished the latter by his own baptism. Neither an external sign nor ritual cleansings were crucial for the covenant with God, but rather the symbolic death and resurrection in baptism and the inner purity of the heart. ‘What good does it do a darkened house to have lamps on its outer walls while the rooms within remain unlit?’ Regarding the replacement of circumcision with baptism, the East Syrian metropolitan Odisho of Nisibis (1250-1318) wrote, ‘The Jews had to distinguish themselves bodily from the other heathens, since God had determined that the messiah would appear among their descendants. In the same way [like circumcision] a man marks his camels, sheep, and horses, to distinguish his possessions from those of strangers. The baptism of true believers [however] encompasses the mystery of death and resurrection. For immersion in an abyss of water is similar to death, as one no longer has senses, as when one is buried in the earth. The emergence from the water is they symbol of resurrection, resembling rising from the grave. For this reason, the apostles required that, before baptism, the candidates wear black penitential garments and afterwards white robes, to represent the transition from the world of darkness to the world of light.

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 13-14

The Dreams of a People

In order to rediscover the amazing connection that Patrick made between the Gospel story and Irish life, we need to delve deeper into the consciousness of the Irish people at this singular hinge in their history.

Their consciousness – and, maybe eve more importantly, their subconscious. For in the dreams of a people, if we can read these aright, lie their most profound fears and their most exalted aspirations. We know something of Irish dreams, for we can piece together their mythology – their collective dream-story – from the oral tales of the pre-Christian period (such as the Tain) that were subsequently written down and from the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists. Since neither the tales nor the artifacts can offer us a whole mythology – the complete Irish dream cycle – we must read these materials as if they were the fragments of a great papyrus.

It would be an understatement to assert that Irish gods were not the friendliest of figures. Actually, there are few idols that we have retrieved from barrow or bog that would not give a child nightmares and an adult the willies. No smooth-skinned, well-proportioned Apollos and Aphrodites here.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 126

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Not Demigods

969 years. Although by our standards the pre-flood people lived long lives, one of the purposes of this genealogy was to be a polemic against Mesopotamian mythology, in which people lived for tens of thousands of years. Babylonian texts record the lives of ten kings who were demigods and lived exceptionally long lives in pre-flood times. The Sumerian King List names eight kings prior to the flood who lived a total of 241,000 years. The OT criticizes such myths; humans lived long lives before the flood, but they were not demigods who lived for an exaggerated amount of time.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 21

I find this to be an interesting note on the purpose of the pre-flood genealogy in Genesis. Who knew that a pre-flood life of 969 years at that time of Moses’ writing might come across as awfully conservative? If you want to peruse the Sumerian King List, you can do so here.

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