Biblical studies: March 2009 Archives

It's Not About You

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I had a friend who used to conclude from his conviction of God's sovereignty and the fact that a young woman he was attracted to happened to cross his path that day that God was sending him a message about his future with that young woman. It was hard to convince him that just because it was part of God's plan that he run across her path that doesn't mean it was for the reason he might think God had them cross paths. It could be because his running into her reminded her of something she needed to be reminded of that day. It could have been because of something unrelated to the two of them, though, for instance maybe because God wanted them each to be at separate locations shortly after that, and the best way to achieve that at the precise times he wanted them to arrive was for them to walk right by each other. It could have even been so that he could have this conversation with me and be reminded that it's not always about him and what he wants.

I Kings 20 is an interesting case study in a chapter we don't look at all that often. Ahab, the King of Israel, engages in continual conflict with Ben-Hadad, King of Syria. It goes on for a while until Ben-Hadad decides he can get the better of Ahab's forces by fighting in the valleys, claiming that the gods of Israel are gods of the hills, and the gods of Syria are gods of the valleys.

At that point God sends a prophet to Ahab to tell him that Ben-Hadad's statement is the reason he's going to hand him over to Ahab. Interestingly, he quotes it as a statement that God is a god just of the hills, where Ben-Hadad seems to have used a plural verb, indicating plural gods (the noun, I believe is the same in either case, so I believe you have to go by the verb to know which it is, because 'Elohim' is a plural name for God; someone who knows some Hebrew should correct me here if I'm wrong, but that's what I think is going on here). If that's right, then Ben-Hadad was referring to God even though he thought he was referring to several gods of Israel (and the evidence of the surrounding chapters is that Ahab did worship other gods), because there is only one God for Israel even if they pretend otherwise.

The result is sobering. Ahab is handed this amazing victory, basically because God thought it was a good time to bring Ben-Hadad down. It's not about Ahab at all. I think it's a natural human tendency to take things going well for us as a sign that God approves of what we're doing, but here's a clear counterexample to that. This has nothing to do with Ahab, and it's clear from the surrounding chapters that God absolutely disapproves of the defining characteristics of Ahab's life. This is about judging Ben-Hadad. Just as Rehoboam was judged by God via Jeroboam's rebellion and subsequent separation of more than half the kingdom, so here we have Ahab benefiting from God's judgment on Ben-Hadad, when it has nothing at all to do with Ahab.

In both these cases, the King of Israel was judged for something else later, Jeroboam for how he ruled once he had his own kingdom and Ahab most immediately for not completing the task and letting Ben-Hadad go, just as Saul had done with Agag and the Amalekites at the very beginning of the Israelite monarchy. Something similar occurs in Isaiah 10, where we see judgment on the God's for doing it for the wrong reason (in that case the king of Assyria gets judged for how he caries out judgment on Israel, since he does it for his own glory and while thinking it's his own power that achieves it).

One interesting part of all this is that God delivers a real blessing to Ahab, one of the wickedest of Israel's many wicked kings. God chose to give him victory with serious odds stacked up against him -- but the reasons God gives for this choice were very clearly nothing to do with Ahab. It's a nice instance of the general principle given to Israel at its founding. They were chosen not because they were large or strong but because God wanted to demonstrate something.

A passage in Thomas Aquinas' discussion of predestination often reminds me of this biblical principle. Aquinas wonders what basis God might use to single out particular people to be predestined for salvation or damned. He can't imagine God does it by something akin to flipping a coin or some such arbitrary method, because God isn't arbitrary, despite how a lot of Calvinists sometimes want to think of God. At the same time, it can't be based on the actions people do to deserve salvation, because everyone at the most basic level does not deserve grace, or it wouldn't be grace. It has to be an unearned gift. [For those stumbling over how a Catholic can say this, see the footnote. This is the official Roman Catholic doctrine, even if it doesn't sound like it to Protestant ears.] So whatever leads God to choose particular individuals to be saved must have nothing to do with their earning it in any sense. It must have to do with other things. In effect, he concludes that God's reasons for choosing certain people to be saved or damned would be for something like artistic reasons. It makes for a greater providential plan to choose someone like Paul, coming out of his Pharisaical training and resistance to the gospel and having his skills to be used in developing the canonical epistles. It makes for greater spread of the gospel for God to work through certain people. It shows God's mercy and grace in special ways. There's plenty of room for God to have purposes that aren't arbitrary that are in some sense about you but not in the sense of the title of this post. It's not about you in that sense.

It should catch our attention that this same pattern recurs in scripture. It's not just Saul, Jeroboam, and Ahab. You see it in different ways with Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson in the book of Judges, to name three other examples. People receive God's grace because of reasons having nothing to do with their own deserving, and in some of these cases having nothing to do with the person at all. They then proceed to take God's grace as a sign of God's favor, or at the very least they aren't grateful enough for God's blessing that they proceed to live in a way that honors the God whose blessing they've received without deserving it. In some of these cases, that vastly understates how significantly they slight God and insult his gracious bestowal of favor. It must be particularly fearsome to receive such blessing only to end up in a place of severe judgment, as Ahab certainly did.

But isn't this the story of the whole Bible? Humanity as a whole has continually rejected God's favor and spat in his face, and his patience and love is shown all the more for his willingness to pursue those he is bringing to salvation even amidst their constant rejection of many of the opportunities God gives to pursue holiness and reject inferior substitutes for God. We would do well to remember the lessons of these figures, because God will bring to completion the good work he started, and he calls us to participate in his transformation of our hearts and wills to serve him as we work out the salvation he's working out in us.

[Footnote: Aquinas does not hold the caricature of Roman Catholic theology that has Christians straightforwardly earning their salvation. Salvation is a gift of grace and totally unearned initially. He does think God, at the end of your life, evaluates the actions you did through the Holy Spirit as being righteous actions, and only in that sense is your salvation merited because the God-produced works you did do match up to what God wants of you in that they were produced by the Holy Spirit. But even this isn't meant to cancel his claim that you don't earn the initial grace that puts you in a position to be transformed by the Spirit to do good.]

The Ethics of Borrowing

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Last Tuesday, after the Bible study I attend, several of us had a relatively heated discussion about Exodus 22:14:

If a man borrows anything of his neighbor, and it is injured or dies, the owner not being with it, he shall make full restitution. [ESV]

The context is a set of laws about how Israelites were to handle problems that occurred when one person was in possession of someone else's animal and something happened to it. Different circumstances involved different issues. If it was loaned at the request of the borrower, the borrower has more responsibility than if the borrower was holding it on request of the lender, since the lender had taken the initiative to institute the situation. But in the standard case of borrowing (and not renting) at the initiative of the borrower, if something were to happen to the animal not in the presence of the owner, it was the responsibility of the borrower to repay the full price of the animal (perhaps by simply repaying an animal of equal quality).

The question arose about whether someone today should derive the general moral principle that a borrower should repay the full price of damage if something should happen while borrowing something (not just an animal but anything). If I borrow your car and crash it, the principle should apply. I owe you for any cost to you in repairing it. But what if the transmission fails, and it's been on the fritz for over a month? It just happens to go when I have it in my possession. Even worse, what if you deliberately let me borrow that car rather than your other car in the hopes that it would die when I had it so the obligation would be mine, knowing I would take this text to apply that way today?

According to several people at the study last week, I have the moral obligation to pay the several thousand dollars that it costs for a new transmission. When I called that unjust, they said Jesus' death was unjust, so I should suck it up, as if God doesn't care about justice even though the very context of these laws is so obviously concerned with justice and getting the details of each situation right so that the hard cases can be handled fairly. I know no theory of the atonement that has the cross making me morally responsible for what I didn't do, just those that remove what I did do. This view seems to have the absurd conclusion that if you borrow my pen just as the ink has run out, you have the moral obligation to buy me a new pen when it runs out in your possession.

I think there's a fundamental mistake going on here, and it's not so much a new covenant vs. old covenant confusion, because I think whatever moral principles underlie these laws ought to apply in any context. I think what's going on could actually be a problem in the old covenant itself. What if a farmer decided to take advantage of his neighbor by lending him the ox that he knew was in poor health, hoping that it gave out in the possession of his neighbor when he wasn't present, knowing it would have a hard time handling the kind of work the neighbor wanted to borrow an ox to do? It seems unjust to hold the borrower accountable if the lender is deceptive in hiding this condition from the borrower. So the problem arises even in the setting immediate to the Torah if it's to be applied in the way that my conversation partners last week were taking it.

My suggestion is that we're thinking of case law wrongly when we derive that sort of conclusion. Case law in the Torah describes some hard cases to illustrate some general moral principles, principles the judges in any individual case might have to apply a little differently in a different case. Stealing an animal required payment of more than just what was stolen. If it was a sheep, it would be fourfold. An ox would be fivefold. What about a donkey? We're not told. The reasons behind the original law would then have to be applied thoughtfully by judges to determine a just repayment if a donkey got stolen. We see several instances of variations in circumstances determining a different outcome in this very chapter, but many probably occurred that it doesn't discuss. There would be exceptions for lots of possible situations, and the law wasn't intended to cover every details. It was meant to provide guidance for judges to figure out the just decision in some of the harder cases. If a farmer obviously abused the borrowing law in the way I just described, I'm pretty sure no judge would make the borrower pay. It's not a violation of v.14 to make such a call, unless you take case law in the Torah to be absolute in the way that we know it's not. We know this by the examples of exceptions that we do see and the knowledge that the exceptions listed in the Torah are not exhaustive.

Other relevant considerations might also come up in the car case. We're not dealing with an animal but a means of transportation that involves huge expenses with a lot of long-term wear-and-tear that could without notice cause a failure. There's a lot less of that, and certainly with less expense if it occurs, with farm animals. We also don't have a situation where I'm likely to have a transmission to give to someone else the way we would likely have with an agrarian society whose people mostly did have some animals. If it can be shown that I caused the problem, I'm responsible. If it can't, and there's good reason to think I'm not, I shouldn't be held responsible. It's only in the case where it could go either way that we've got a worry in how we apply it, but those are the hard cases. The case I imagine shouldn't be a hard case. It's just not the kind of case that v.14 has in mind. Other morally relevant factors are present, and case laws aren't intended to cover every case like the one described, just the most typical ones where other factors aren't present.

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