TheBibleProf

Musings on the greatest set of books ever written, etc.

“Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek”

So far, we have looked at tithing as described in the book of Deuteronomy. But the practice of tithing in the ancient Near East certainly predates by far even the time of Moses, the leader who is quoted at length throughout that book. In the New Testament (the last part of the Christian Bible), we read in the book of Hebrews, chapter 7, that “Father Abraham” (the traditional ancestor of the Jews and Arabs, and a number of other ancient peoples) paid tithes to someone named “Melchizedek” (see verses 2, 4, 6). A reference back to Genesis, chapter 14, gives us further information about this Melchizedek who is said to be both king and priest (the name in Hebrew is often translated “king of righteousness,” but probably originally signified “legitimate [i.e, “righteous”] king,” a king who is not a usurper, one who is born to the throne). In this Genesis passage, which is undoubtedly ancient, possibly even contemporary with the events it describes, Abraham (here named Abram) is pictured as a resolute tribal chieftain who must rescue his nephew Lot from a coalition of enemy kings (actually glorified “kinglets” ruling over small city-states in the Late Bronze Age). Still, Abram’s courage is exemplary, for he and his small army of allies, including some 318 men from his own household (note the exact number as given in v. 14, a sign of contemporaneity), do succeed in rescuing Lot and recovering all his possessions; and in gratitude for this success, offers a “tithe” of the spoils of war to the aforementioned Melchizedek, who is described as “king of Salem” (probably a shortened name of the city-state of Jerusalem), and “priest of God Most High” (Hebrew, El ‘Elyon). Once again, this “tithe” is specifically said to be from the spoils of victory (see v. 20), representing a one-time gift in gratitude for victory in battle (the practice of tithing was widespread in the ancient Near East—indicating a typical amount of generosity in giving to temples and/or royal officials).

So then, why is this tithe brought up in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament? Answer: this is once again the typical gift one might give to a temple and/or royal official (in a nice bit of parallelism, the recipient here is both a temple and a royal official, a point particularly stressed by the writer of Hebrews!). Also in a further bit of allegory, the writer of Hebrews then stresses that Levi (the ancestor of the Levitical priesthood—the priesthood found in the Mosaic Tabernacle, and later in the Temple of Solomon), as it were, himself paid tithes to Melchizedek (since his “seed” already existed, as it were, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham). Talk about “paying it forward”!

OK, a lot of biblical details here. The point is, Melchizedek was greater than even Levi, the ancestor of all the later Israelite priests and temple officials (one pays one’s tithes to someone greater than oneself). In fact, even Father Abraham himself is not greater than Melchizedek (who in the book of Hebrews is taken as a type [or specific foreshadowing] of Jesus Christ—the greatest king/priest of all). The point of these chapters in Genesis and in Hebrews is that Abraham was great, but Melchizedek was greater. (Maybe, especially for the Hebrews references, one can also argue that we can bless our great-grandchildren in advance by giving a tithe of our victory-spoils to those who have blessed us in our military endeavors).

So in conclusion, next time you win a battle against a powerful enemy, celebrate your victory by giving one-tenth of your spoils of war to any powerful king/priest who has given you a blessing. After all, it was the accepted thing to do back in the ancient Near East.

Shalom.

“Use the silver to buy whatever you like”

In my ongoing series on tithing in the Bible, I now come to what is probably my favorite passage on the subject—the “yearly” tithe of Deut 14:22-27, a portion of which I have already quoted in the title to this blogpost (from v. 26, NIV). Many people already know that the central theme of the book of Deuteronomy is “only one God, only one place of worship” (see especially chs. 6 and 12). Now, the system of sabbatical years in the Torah is also familiar to many: there were to be six years of cultivation of the land, but in the seventh year the land is to lay fallow (see Leviticus 25:1-7; compare Deut 15:1-11). So the “storehouse tithe” paid every three years (see my previous post on “robbing God”), would in actuality be paid in year three and six of the seven year system, and the present “travel tithe” be paid in years one through six, but not year seven (no harvest of crops, no tithe required—see Deut 14:22). I myself suspect that this “travel tithe” was not paid in years three and six (when the “storehouse tithe” was exacted), but I cannot prove this one way or the other. (And in reality, most scholars suspect that the overall Deuteronomic tithing system was more idealistic and utopian than precisely enforced anyway).

Now, I have used the term, “to pay,” for this “travel tithe.” But to whom was this tithe “paid”? Here, it gets very interesting! In Deut 14:23, this tithe is “brought” into the one place of worship Yahweh will designate in the Promised Land (eventually, of course, this was the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem), and “eaten” there. And the purpose of this tithe? Just to have a party in Yahweh’s sanctuary, complete with meat and wine (see vv. 23, 26)? No, not just a party. Certainly not a “pity party”! But rather, a “fear party” (to coin a term). To remind the tither that he or she should “fear” Yahweh God. But also, for the family to “celebrate” him (v. 26, NLT). Now, that’s a party! (Note that “fearing” Yahweh means putting no other gods before him—see Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7, 28-29; etc.)

Years ago, I ran into a woman who took this tithe seriously, and used her tithe money to pay for a trip to the Holy Land. I really couldn’t argue against that, at least from the book of Deuteronomy, although I would not advise people to do that as a matter of course, today. (The pastors of some local churches might be unhappy with the results, for example.) But she was on the right track, biblically speaking.

So let’s review: This “travel tithe” (or “party tithe”?) is to be used to have a good time (NLT puts it well in v. 26, “use the money to buy anything you want—an ox, a sheep, some wine, or beer. Then feast there in the presence of the LORD [Yahweh] your God and celebrate with your household”). Maybe it’s a good thing the contemporary church and synagogue do not normally practice strict tithing any more (I will argue as most everybody does these days that the New Testament church urged generosity—especially toward the poor—rather than strict tithing for its members). But, as with the storehouse tithe for the poor, how practical the Bible (yes, even the Old Testament) is concerning our use of money. So let’s have a party!

Shalom.

Robbing God?

Recently, Pope Francis visited the country of Brazil (Brasil), and, among other things, he walked through the Varginha slum, greeting the people warmly. As Time magazine put it:

Francis blasted what he said was a “culture of selfishness and individualism” that permeates society today, demanding that those with money and power share their wealth and resources to fight hunger and poverty.

“It is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry — this is an act of justice. But there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy,” he said.

(As a side note, I love Pope Francis’ priorities here—he addresses forthrightly both spiritual and physical hunger, and ranks them most appropriately—the one being of great importance and the other even more so.)

Now, what does all this have to do with robbing God? In a relatively familiar text in Malachi chapter 3, we read about “putting the whole tithe into the storehouse,” and by doing so, not robbing God (see verses 8-12). A tithe is ten percent of one’s income, and the “storehouse tithe” is that dedicated to the widow, the orphan, the alien (the non-native), and the Levite (the religious workers who have no land to support themselves). (All this is spelled out in detail back in Deuteronomy 14:28-29; see also 26:12-15.) Thus, in a nutshell, when we rob the poor, we rob God! God’s special people are the poor (see, for example, Proverbs 14:31; also Deut 10:17-22). I don’t know about you, but I certainly do not want to be accused of robbing God!

Shalom.

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This is the first of a series of blogposts on the subject of tithing in the Bible.

“Render unto Caesar” redux

[This blog post is a lightly revised version of my Memorial Day post, updated for the Fourth of July, which is a national holiday in the United States, celebrating the signing of the “Declaration of Independence” back in 1776, and thus establishing the new nation as separate from England (after winning a “War of Independence,” of course).]

A Hermeneutical Shift (No, It’s Not a Dance)

I was reading Psalm 41 recently, and when I came to the end, I was reminded that I had just completed “Book One” of the Psalter (“the Psalter” is not a condiment dispenser, but another name for the Book of Psalms). I of course knew about the various “Books” to be found in the “Book” of Psalms (there are a total of five), but still it caught me afresh, bringing back into conscious recollection the complicated nature of the editing of the current collection of the 150 poems and hymns found in that “book.” Like hymnbooks in churches and synagogues “back in the day,” the Psalter represents a carefully chosen collection of “the best of the best”—individual hymns of praise, corporate hymns of praise, and—in contrast to more traditional hymnbooks—a surprisingly large number of laments as well (the gloomiest psalm of all has to be Psalm 88, with no note of hope pervading the darkness anywhere in the poem).

But back to the “hermeneutical shift.” The term “hermeneutics” simply means “interpretation,” but often in a more careful and precise manner than that found in popular thought. And everyone knows what a “shift” is—some sort of change or alteration. So the “hermeneutical shift” I have in mind is some type of intentional variation, or change in perspective. And for that, we need to look at Psalm 1, the first psalm found in the Psalter. Like any psalm, this “torah psalm” was once an independent composition, not part of the one-hundred-fifty chapter work which now constitutes the psalter. As just noted, this psalm stands in praise of “torah” (basically representing the five books of Moses which are placed at the beginning of all Jewish and Christian Bibles). Psalm 1 was not originally written to head the other collection of five books—the five books of the psalter—even though it now stands as the introduction to that very collection. I guess some later editor is responsible for this—and he or she is the one who now signals the “hermeneutical shift” by that current placement. For we find another “torah” of sorts in the book of Psalms, with its five subsections. Psalm 1 (verse 2) declares to its readers that a truly blessed person “takes delight” in studying Torah, meditating on it “day and night.”  But now we know that a blessed person—at least in the opinion of a later psalms editor—should also take delight also in studying the “torah” which is found in Psalms. Many have meditated “day and night” with great profit on the words of the psalter—for example, I recall that in the middle ages, priests up for ordination in the Catholic church were expected to commit the entire psalter to memory!

So do you catch the “hermeneutical shift”? Now, Psalm 1, in its current location, serves to indicate that there is more than one five-volumned “torah” to enjoy. Of course we are to continue to meditate on the Torah of Moses, and enjoy its varied and often surprising teachings. But we are also to enjoy the “torah” (the basic idea of this Hebrew term is “teachings”) of the Psalms too—again with their varied and definitely surprising observations. Therefore, be encouraged to meditate on these poems day and night. And be blessed.

Shalom.

P.S. Don’t be upset if you still don’t understand the exact nature of the “hermeneutical shift.” Just be aware that the current location of Psalm 1 now encourages us to meditate on the following psalms as well as on the original books of Moses. [The term “hermeneutical shift” in this context was employed by the noted OT scholar Brevard Childs, who in turn cited its use by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.]

King Hezekiah, Man of God (Continued)

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In my last blog post (“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter”), I talked about King Hezekiah, the great Judahite reformer king who reigned in Jerusalem near the end of the eighth century BCE. Once again, in Proverbs 25:1-2, the editor tells us that it was under Hezekiah’s auspices that chapters 25-29 of that book were compiled. And once again, I quoted the great German bible scholar Gerhard von Rad concerning kings being patrons of wisdom literature (that is, champions and promoters of all searching after wisdom to live a more satisfying and successful life). We were reminded in the very next verse, Prov 25:2, that it is the glory of God to conceal matters, but (or, and?) the glory of kings to search out and reveal matters.

In passing, I made reference to Hezekiah’s seal impression, the one once again pictured above (the formal name for such clay seal impressions is “bullae” [singular, “bulla”]). I translated the Hebrew words found on it (in essence, “Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah”), but I did not discuss the curious iconography (that is, the analysis of symbols—akin to the “symbology” of Robert Langdon’s fictional fame) which is found prominently on the bulla. The symbol in the center is, of all things, a two winged scarab or dung beetle—an insect depicted as rolling a piece of dung with its two front legs! And this circular bit of dung represents, of all things, the circular sun disk as it rises in the sky (compare Malachi 4:2, “For you [Judeans] who revere my name [that is, Yahweh’s name], the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings”). This iconography ultimately derives from Egypt, but more immediately from Phoenicia, which was basically located in what is now the nation of Lebanon. Recently I have written a summary article about the importance of Phoenicia, and more immediately, of the seacoast city of Tyre (see my brief entry in the recently published New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 693-694). The city of Tyre figured prominently in the history of monarchical Israel and Judah since the time of David and Solomon—and the present bulla of Hezekiah only gives more evidence of its continued influence (at least, culturally) on the little nation of Judah in the eighth century BCE, although by this time the empire of Assyria mostly held political and military sway throughout the region. It is one of history’s great ironies that the nation of Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, the infamous worshipper of the Phoenician god Baal back in the ninth century (see 1 Kgs 16:29-33; 19:1-2; 21:1-24; etc., for details), is thus pictorially represented on the royal seal of Judah’s later great worshipper of Yahweh (see 2 Kgs 18:1-7, and especially verses 5 and 6 [” . . . there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah . . . for he held fast to Yahweh, he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that Yahweh had commanded Moses”]). This was the same Hezekiah who, as we have just noted, was the promulgator of significant parts of the biblical book of Proverbs, and, indeed, probably of the books of Kings, as well. As my late mentor, Professor Frank Moore Cross, put it:

“Both Hezekiah and Josiah [the later prominent king of Judah who ruled in the seventh century] instituted religious reforms to centralize worship [of Yahweh] in the Jerusalem Temple and to purify the cult [of Yahweh]. From the evidence thus far available, it appears that the reforms of Josiah were more rigorous in their anionic thrust [that is, condemnation of all pictorial images in line with the Ten Commandments of Moses] than those of Hezekiah” [this quote, and much of the above discussion is indebted to Frank Cross’s article found in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April, 1999, pp. 42-45, 60].

So Hezekiah, the great Yahwistic king (according to 2 Kings chs. 18-20, as well as 2 Chronicles chs. 29-32), had a Phoenician symbol of the sun disk on his royal seal? One never knows how later history will treat one’s religious actions (or in this case, inactions, since Hezekiah is probably only representing popular artistic motifs current in Israel at the time). In any case, as Frank Cross concluded his article, “it is quite extraordinary to be able to look at original impressions formed by the seal of one of Judah’s most important monarchs 2,700 years ago.”

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NOTE: For the next several weeks, I suspect I will only publish a blog post about once a week or so—so please be patient if the blog posts diminish in frequency during this time.

 

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter”

hezekiah_up_deepened

In Proverbs 25:1-2 we find a curious editorial reference to the king under whose authority the next five chapters of this book were compiled—King Hezekiah of Judah. You might have expected King Solomon, the famous patron of wisdom in ancient Israel, and traditionally the king who wrote (or at least compiled) the book of Proverbs (see Prov 1:1, 10:1), but, no, it is the eighth century King Hezekiah (above is a drawing of his seal impression, with the reference to “Judah” at the top, and to “of Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king . . . ” at the bottom). Hezekiah is one of the heroes of the books of Kings and Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible; indeed, I (and many others) have argued that under the auspices of Hezekiah a very important edition of Kings was first compiled.

Let’s look at what we read in the very next sentence in Proverbs chapter 25, just after the reference to the literary efforts of King Hezekiah:

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, / but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”

And that is precisely what the book of Proverbs (or, for that matter, the entire wisdom tradition in the ancient Near East) aims to do: to make the hidden come to light, especially in the realms of successful living among people in general and among court bureaucrats in particular. For the proverbs (short, apt sayings, easily memorized) in Proverbs give us good advice: when to talk and what to talk about, when to be silent, what to expect from others, etc.

But let’s look again at the proverb I just quoted. Many of the proverbs give sharp contrasts (“A wise son brings joy to his father, / but a foolish son grief to his mother” [Prov 10:1]), but here the contrast is between the work of God and the work of a king. God delights to conceal things (life is often much less straightforward than you might expect), so the work of a king (like Hezekiah, and before him, Solomon) is to reveal what God has concealed! So does that mean that kings are to “undo” the work of God? Well, maybe it does. Some years ago, an eminent German biblical scholar named Gerhard von Rad, in commenting on this verse, expressed it well:

“This is a fine, wide-ranging sentence which can set one’s thoughts moving in many different directions. It speaks of the king’s glory in investigation (at that time the king was the foremost champion and promoter of all searching after wisdom); but before this there stands the saying about God, whose glory lies in concealing, whose secrets, therefore, are to be worshiped by men. God conceals, kings discover—to both, glory is due. What a profound knowledge of God and of men is encompassed by this handful of words!” [from von Rad’s Wisdom in Israel, p. 34].

Well, we (at least in North America) do not believe much in the wisdom of kings any more. But, be that as it may, we all now have access to “wisdom,” whether ancient or modern. And therefore we too can “undo” the work of God (or, “the gods,” or “providence,” or even “dumb luck” and fate) by seeking after, and then promoting widely, discoveries of the practical principles which can so help us succeed in life. Let’s end with some painful but profitable advice found earlier in the book of Proverbs:

“Anyone who rebukes a mocker [or scoffer] will get an insult in return. / Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt.

So don’t bother correcting mockers; / they will only hate you.

But correct the wise, / and they will love you.

Instruct the wise, / and they will be even wiser.

Teach the righteous, / and they will learn even more.” [Prov 9:7-9, New Living Translation]

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My advice: go “uncover” some new stuff today. Let’s “undo” the work of God!

Shalom.

[NOTE: In my next blog post I will discuss the Hezekiah seal impression in more detail.]

 

 

“An eye for an eye . . . “

Hammurabi_Code

Critics of the Bible often get ammunition from seemingly bloodthirsty sayings like the following: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” They say, not without reason, that plucking out an eye or a tooth is harsh punishment for committing a crime. Thus, any god who commands this, such as Yahweh the God of Israel, must be a cruel god without compassion, prone to wiping out the innocent due to the actions of the guilty, and showing no mercy. (The instructions to the early Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites without exception would also demonstrate this very thing: see Deut 7:1-5; 20;16-18; Josh 6:21; 11:14-15; etc.) But what about “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”? Should we take this literally? As Tevye in “The Fiddler on the Roof” reminds us, then the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.

First of all, we should look at the larger context for this saying. The classic exposition is to be found in the so-called Book of the Covenant in Exodus chs. 21-23, “[But] if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). Here Moses is depicted as speaking the very words of Yahweh, addressing the people of Israel less than half a year after they escaped in the “Exodus” from Egypt (whence the name of the book). The “Book of the Covenant” takes its name from a statement in Exod 24:3-8, and especially verse 7.

But there was an earlier “lawgiver” who also took pride in the fact that he had his lawcode reduced to writing and available for all to see (all who could read, that is, and since it was written in the complicated cuneiform of Old Babylonian, this would have been only a small minority of the upper class). Still, this “Hammurabi” (sometimes spelled “Hammurapi”—I told you it was a tricky language to read), depicted above as receiving the commission to write his famous lawcode from the sun god Shamash—recorded some 282 separate laws, plus a prologue and an epilogue extolling his royal role as keeper of justice, a “salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight.” And Hammurabi ruled back in the 18th century BCE, at least three, and more likely five, centuries before the time of Moses.

Now you can figure out where this essay is going—back to the “an eye for an eye” legal principle. Sure enough, Hammurabi uses the same criterion for his expression of justice:

[Law number] 196: If a seignior [feudal lord] has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.

197: If he has broken a(nother) seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.

198: If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner or broken the bone of a commoner, he shall pay one mina [60 shekels; 700g or 1.5 lbs.] of silver.

199: If he has destroyed the eye of a seignior’s slave or broken the bone of a seignior’s slave, he shall pay one half his value.

200: If a seignior has knocked out a tooth of a seignior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

201: If he has knocked out a commoner’s tooth, he shall pay one-third mina of silver.

202: If a seignior has struck the cheek of a seignior who is superior to him, he shall be beaten sixty (times) with an oxtail whip in the assembly.

203: If a member of the aristocracy has struck the cheek of a(nother) member of the aristocracy who is of the same rank as himself, he shall pay one mina of silver.

204: If a commoner has struck the cheek of a(nother) commoner, he shall pay ten shekels of silver.

205: If a seignior’s slave has struck the cheek of a member of the aristocracy, they shall cut off his ear . . .

Well, you get the idea.

The “eye for an eye” principle was common in the ancient Near East, and it simply signified that the punishment must fit the crime—no less than, but also, no greater than the extent of the crime. (Of course, back in Hammurabi’s time—and for that matter, typically throughout the history of any socially stratified society—aristocrats experienced much more lenient “justice” than did commoners or slaves.) Moses—or if you will, Yahweh—actually advanced the legal principle that any Israelite male would be treated equally before the law (it took much longer, alas, for women to be included). So the biblical “eye for eye” principle represented, of all things, an improvement on the legal practice of the time. And of course, the “eye for eye” principle was just that, a principle, not a literal punishment. Monetary fines or the like were the rule of the day.

Let me sign off with what was the ideal legal status of ancient Israel: shalom [peace, completeness, blessing].

Shalom.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”

DISCLAIMER: The following blog post is geared toward an ongoing debate among Christians, and therefore it may seem tedious to others (yeah, yeah, even more tedious than usual, I know, I know). You have been duly warned!

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I have been noticing something over the past few years, something which has concerned me more and more—Christians unthinkingly equating the primacy of Jesus (“the Word”), with the Bible (also colloquially known as “the word”). The first chapter of the Gospel of John declares in the very first verse, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God”; and later on in verse 14 we read that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Christians will immediately recognize that both these references to the “Word” are references to Jesus of Nazareth, considered by Christians to be the Messiah and the Son of God. The reference to “the Word” therefore is to a person, not to a written book or part of a book. (What the Greek term “logos,” translated here as “word,” signifies theologically is more complicated—probably something like “first principle” or the like is in view—but that issue is beyond the scope of this post.)

Now it is common for Christians also to identify the Bible (and even more typically, the New Testament) as “the word.” Christians ask, “what does the word have to say about tithing/divine healing/church on Sunday/etc.?” They are urged to read “the word” in their devotional time every day. They are to compare any new or different theological idea with “the word.” You get the idea. And you also probably get the idea that “the Word” [Jesus] can be uncritically equated with “the word” [the Bible]. That equation is, of course, not accurate or precise theologically, as Christians would see it, but it still can become second nature to them. And then the Bible becomes divine—in some cases a collection of magical formulas which should be memorized so as to be recalled at a moment’s notice. Now don’t get me wrong: I love the Bible, and I have been led to spend my entire life (at no little cost to my immediate family) studying and proclaiming it. But the Bible is not divine—in fact, from a Christian point of view, the Bible, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is just another collection of ancient books. For Christians, Jesus is divine; in fact, he is the center of all existence. We are to do nothing apart from his teachings and his example. We are even to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. (Sorry to go all Dan Brown here with the italics.) 

So next time I hear the reverential intoning of “studying the word,” I might bring up this question: are you studying Jesus? (as all Christians at all times should), or are you studying the Bible? (which, apart from Jesus, spiritually signifies nothing). And as I blog with fellow Bible-readers on issues such as evolution or the age of the earth (believe it or not, in North America these are hot topics among quite a few Christians), I hope I both remember and remind my fellow bloggers that for Christian believers, it is Jesus who matters, not the six (or seven) days of creation week in Genesis chapter one, or whatever. “In the beginning was the Word.”

Shalom.

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Next blog: back to a wider look at biblical topics. I think I will discuss “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” both in Torah and also in the Code of Hammurabi.

“Render unto Caesar . . . “

In the United States, today is Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those who have served and are serving in the Armed Forces, and especially those who gave their life (“their last full measure of devotion,” as Abraham Lincoln so memorably put it) in such service. The comment is often given that “freedom is never free,” and how true that is—we forget this at our own peril. It is of course altogether good that we devote a day to help ensure that such ultimate devotion not ever be forgotten.

As some of you know, I recently taught a lecture class at the University of Minnesota, one entitled “World of the Bible: Religions, Empires, and Discourses of Power.” I did not choose this title, but I liked it; it has the requisite academic colon demarking further definition of the original title, and delineating what particular direction the class will take concerning the overall subject. (And it also includes a nice usage of the Oxford comma.) I am mostly proficient in the Hebrew Bible, and it is an adventure when I venture into the Christian New Testament, but I think that out of the scores of bible references we consulted, the following quote (I want to say “quip,” but that might be too light-hearted for the original occasion) from Jesus of Nazareth says it best: “render unto Caesar [i.e., the foreign political power currently occupying the land] the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (see Mark 12:13-17). Talk about “religions, empires, and discourses of power”!

Now, this is not to put down Caesar—or still less, Memorial Day. We must render (appropriately give) unto Caesar—the overriding political power in the land, whether chosen or unchosen—appropriate honor. “Caesar” contributes much to our own sense of peace and prosperity—“freedom is not free.” Jesus, in my opinion, is certainly not putting down the political status quo here. But he is reminding his audience (in this case a strange alliance between Pharisees (the religious moderates of the day, and no fans of the foreign occupying powers) and the Herodians (supporters of the political status quo) of proper priorities for his followers—for that matter, for anyone who must choose between important political and religious alternatives. (Most of my readers will not have to be reminded that political is religious—at least for their devoted adherents—and religious is often quite political as well!) So it is a reminder to us as well: Caesar deserves his due, how much more a republican form of government which tries to guarantee freedom for its citizens; and this support should be far more than grudging or formulaic. But for people of faith, such support will always, and necessarily, be secondary to the support they are to give to their God and to his/her human “kingdom” or realm.

So happy Memorial Day! Let us pause to remember—indeed properly memorialize—those who gave so much to keep us free. And let those of us who are people of faith also continue to remember—yes, properly memorialize—those faith perspectives we most hold dear. It is not “either/or” but “both/and.”

Shalom.