Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Faith vs Entertainment

There once was a day when people were able to listen to, or read, lengthy discourses on problems of the day. They understood what was being said or written and knew the difference between statements that were logical and coherent and those that were self-contradictory. Most people in North America have lost that capability.

Today we are bombarded with sound bites and visual images, most of which have no relevance to our lives. News has become entertainment, giving us the impression of being informed without giving us any useful information. Events in distant corners of the world are made known to us as soon as they happen, but no context is given to understand why or what it may mean. Local events are reported with the same lack of context or coherence, leaving us more and more estranged from our neighbours.

This is the thesis of Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It was first published in 1985 and is still as illuminating as it was then.

Something similar has happened in Christian circles. Many people take a hop, skip and jump approach to Bible reading, trying to get to all the interesting bits without bothering to have to figure out the context. Reference Bibles reinforce that approach, making it easier for people to find those interesting bits. Most of them subtly offer their own analysis of what those bits mean, which is often not quite what you will find if you actually read the whole book.

Bible Story books for children do much the same thing, picking out the events that make the best stories. The lessons they draw from those stories don’t always coincide with what you will discover if you read the whole story in the Bible.

Expository preaching seems to have largely fallen out of favour, people’s attention spans having grown shorter than they used to be.

What can be done? May I suggest that we abandon all the so-called helps and go back to reading the Bible, the whole Bible. I realize that to most people that may seem like a recommendation to tedious drudgery. But people in past generations found the Bible interesting, engrossing, hard to put down.

Some of us still do. So, I guess our task is to talk about the Bible and how interesting and meaningful we find it to be.

Fast food Christianity

We are told, and it is obvious if we are paying attention, that there is a great decline in Bible knowledge among evangelical Christians who claim their faith is built upon the Word of God. What is the cause?

Jack Miner told of an elderly Scot who said, “In my day children were raised on the Bible and oatmeal porridge, today they are being raised on the Eaton’s catalogue and corn flakes.” Then pounding the podium, he said “I tell you folks, it can’t be done!”

Leaving aside the fact that I was allergic to oatmeal (I broke out in hives) and that the Eaton’s catalogue is long gone, this anecdote does reveal that there once was a time when it was believed that children were not too tender or dull to be exposed to the Bible just as it is.

My observation, as an old-timer, is that the decline in Bible knowledge is a direct result of the tools we are using to enhance our Bible knowledge. I am thinking primarily of children’s Bible story book, study Bibles, and Bible reading plans that lead one hither and yon in search of interesting elements of Scripture, but never allow one to get the whole picture.

We have advanced so far in this that readers are likely to dismiss such ideas as the incoherent rumblings of an old curmudgeon. Perhaps I am somewhat of a curmudgeon, but consider the evidence before you reject what I am saying.

What could be more innocent than a Bible story book? Look at the stories closely and you will see that each one is told to teach a moral lesson. Sometimes this requires some editorial tweaking by the writer. And sometimes the moral is altogether different from what you will find if you read the full account in context in the Bible.

I will examine some of the more egregious examples of this in future posts. But the overall effect of Bible story books is to create a kind of pseudo-Christianity that is described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the thought that God has given us the Bible to teach us how to live moral and upright lives and to teach us to feel good about ourselves. That may not sound so bad, but years ago people believed the Bible existed to help us know God. That is what I still believe.

Study Bibles are like the fast food restaurants who used to advertise “Don’t cook tonight, Call Chicken Delight!” or “Colonel Sanders makes it finger-lickin’ good, with his secret blend of herbs and spices.” If you don’t think reference Bibles have their secret blend of herbs and spices, I don’t think you’re paying attention.

That’s enough for an introduction. Stand by for more rumblings in future posts.

Dumbing down the gospel

I think it is dawning on many people that evangelical Christianity has shallowed out over the past generation or two. I will be so bold as to suggest some causes which are not often mentioned by others.

Children’s Bible story books: Parents have felt inadequate to help their children understand what the Bible is all about, and these attractive, nicely illustrated books have seemed like a godsend. But are they? The writers pick some of the more dramatic accounts in the Bible and attempt to weave a stand alone moral teaching into each story. This requires the insertion of editorial comments that may miss the relationship of the event recorded in the Bible to the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. The writer’s comments are well-intended, but sometimes presume an ability to read God’s mind to draw conclusions that are not even hinted at in the Bible.

Study Bibles: People feel intimidated at trying to study and understand the Bible, so many turn to reference Bibles that promise to aid them in their study of the Bible. The problem is that these study Bibles really become a substitute for personal Bible study. The point of view of the compiler of the study Bible is not blatantly displayed, yet it affects how they see the relationship of one passage of the Bible to others. Their point of view leads them to link passages that really have no connection to each other, to miss other links, and to use one passage as the key to understanding other similar passages that really say something quite different. It is would be better to trust the Bible to interpret itself and not separate verses from their context.

The desire for Christian unity: The desire is good, but the approach leads to downplaying denominational differences in doctrine and practice. I think most of us will admit that not all the differences were inspired by God, but to just abandon them has in many cases led to abandoning clear Scriptural teachings. True spiritual unity cannot be achieved by a spirit of compromise, but only by obedience to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is not the same thing as deciding to make nice to each other in public.

The remedy to all of these things is to become like the Bereans and search the Scriptures daily and to obey its teachings.

Jephthah and his daughter

“And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31).

Did Jephthah offer his daughter to God as a burnt offering?  Josephus and many commentators and writers of children’s Bible story books assume that he did, and offer deprecatory editorial comments on his foolishness and wickedness.  But is that really what happened?

Let’s look at the whole story.  Jephthah was the son of Gilead, born of a prostitute.  He appears to have been raised by Gilead and his wife until he reached manhood, then Gilead’s wife demanded that he be sent away because he was the son of a foreigner and should have no right to share the inheritance with her children.

Jephthah went to the land of Tob, and was followed by other propertyless men.  The land of Tob is not clearly identified, but appears to have been an unsettled area east of Gilead.  Jephthah and his men settled down, established families and gained renown for the vigorous defence of their territory.

When the Ammonites made war with Israel, the elders of Gilead went to Jephthah and asked him to be their captain to defend them against the Ammonites.  Circumstances had made them desperate enough to accept the leadership of the man they had once driven out.

Jephthah went back to Mizpeh and was made head and captain of the Gileadites.  His first act was to pray to God at Mizpeh.  Then he sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites to inquire why they were troubling Israel.  When the king replied that Israel had stolen his land, Jephthah recounted the history of how during the Exodus the children of Israel had not set foot on the land of the Ammonites and Moabites, but had taken the land of the Amorites.

Jephthah then made the vow reprinted at the beginning of this article and went out and utterly routed the Ammonites.  Upon his return, his daughter came out to meet him and became subject to her father’s vow.

Jephthah lived six years after this and judged Israel until his death.  He is named in 1 Samuel 12:11 as one of the judges that God raised up to deliver the Israelites from their enemies.  He is named once more among the men of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

How can we reconcile Jephthah, the man of God and hero of the faith with the Jephthah who offered his daughter as a burnt offering?  Are we perhaps missing something in the story?

Here are some reasons to doubt that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering:

1.  This was strictly forbidden in the Hebrew scriptures.  Deuteronomy 12:31 says: “Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.”  This is repeated In Deuteronomy 18:10: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire . . .”

2.  Numbers 18:15-16 states that the firstborn of men and beasts belonged to God, “nevertheless, the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem.”  Leviticus 27:2-8 speaks of vows and the amount to be paid for redemption.  Verse 4: “And if it be a female [from twenty years old to sixty years old, according to the previous verse], then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels.”  The following verses give the amount to pay to redeem those who were younger.  Thus all that was required for Jephthah to fulfil his vow was to pay the amount to redeem his daughter.

3.  Many writers seem to assume that Jephthah’s vow was secret.  This is not evident from the text.  If he spoke the words publicly, then we must believe that his daughter willingly offered herself.

4.  Judges 11:31: “shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”.  Cambridge reference Bibles give an alternative reading in the margin: “or I will offer it up for a burnt offering”.

5.  In fact, the whole passage, “shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”, consists of three words in Hebrew: YHVH (the name of God: Jehovah or Yahveh) ‘âlâh (ascend, lift up, offer) ‘ôlâh (step, ascent, burnt offering).  The remaining words are supplied by linguistic experts according to their understanding of the context.  ‘âlâh and ‘ôlâh are different forms of the same word and have a great range of meanings.

6.  The great sorrow of both Jephthah and his daughter is that she will forever remain a virgin.  She was Jephthah’s only child, thus he will be left with no posterity to carry on the family.

7.  The conclusion of Judges 11 states: “And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.”  The margin gives the alternate reading of “to talk with the daughter of Jephthah”.

8.  The conclusion of commentator Adam Clark is that the daughter of Jephthah was dedicated to the service of God in the sanctuary that was at Mizpeh and remained unmarried all her life.

This conclusion makes more sense to me than to assume Jephthah committed the gross sin of human sacrifice.  It grieved Jephthah that he would have no posterity, yet he and his daughter were united in devotion to God and did not hesitate to fulfil the father’s vow.

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