Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hurricane Season

A poor man who oppresses the lowly Is like a driving rain which leaves no food. 
An ancient proverb, also known as Proverbs 28:3

Saul was a quiet guy who knew his place—recognizing that his place was at the bottom of the barrel.  He was of the tribe of Benjamin, which not only was the smallest tribe but it had the worst reputation of all of the tribes of Israel at Saul’s time (just before the first millennium BC).  Perhaps the reputation had to do with one of their villages raping a Levite’s wife all night long, so she died and then defending that village from the other tribes of Israel until almost all the Benjamites died, and the few men that were left had to steal their wives from other tribes.17  But it could have been something else, you never know.
            So Saul, one of the descendants of this greatly reduced people was humble.  He kept a low profile and kept his head low—which required a bit of effort, because he was a tall guy.  Then one day he met someone who changed his life. 
This someone was Samuel, the famous prophet of Israel that was often just known by his title “the Seer”.  He was an impressive fellow, of the tribe of Levi, a priest, and the most important man in Israel.  He had a short fuse, and the day he met up with Saul, he was ticked off.  He had just found out that the people of Israel were rejecting his sons as leaders in his stead, and wanted a king like all the other nations.  Samuel was complaining loudly about this, “What’s wrong with what we’ve always had?  Why can’t you just be content with God leading you?  I mean, sure, you keep running away to idolatry, and God punishes you, but how is a king going to help you with that?” 
God was just saying to Samuel to mellow out and allow God to choose them a king when Samuel bumped into Saul.  It was like bumping into a brick wall with a steel frame.  This guy was tall, he looked tough.  Well, said God, impressed, huh?  Make him the king.  So Samuel declared to Saul that he would be king over all of Israel.  Then Samuel set up a meeting among all of the leaders of Israel to declare Saul king.
It was a ceremonial setting and all of the pomp and ritual of a good crowning.  Every tribe was accounted for, and a rolling of the dice to see who God would chose as king.  The tribe of Benjamin was chosen.  The family of Kish was selected.  And then, finally, Saul himself was chosen.  
They called for Saul.  No one answered.  
They called again.  Silence.  
Saul’s father was called.  He said, “I know he’s here, he came with me.  But he seems to have disappeared.”  
A search was made, and finally Saul was found—hiding among the lamp oil and tent pegs.  As he stood up, everyone knew why he was selected.  He was a head taller than anyone else and built like a Sherman tank.  He was immediately declared to be king before all the leaders that were gathered there.  And as soon as he was declared king he made the bold action of returning to his father’s farm and working the fields.18
It was there in those fields that Saul first heard of the Terrible Incident.  The Ammonites surrounded the town of Jabesh-gilead and enslaved them.  The Ammonites wanted them to be enslaved without a fight, and so threatened to carve out each one of their right eyes unless they were in agreement with the oppression.  
In a last ditch effort, the town said, “Give us seven days to see if anyone would help us.”  The Ammonites laughed, “Go ahead and try!”  So messengers were sent, and the word soon came to Saul as to the plight of this Israelite town.  Saul stood in his father’s field behind the plow when he receive the news.  He turned red then a shade of purple until finally he exploded.  He couldn’t believe the callousness of both the Ammonites and his own people to the plight of these needy townspeople.  
He took out a butcher knife and slaughtered the oxen at the front of the plow.  Then he cut the two oxen into twelve pieces19 and gathered messengers around him—“Each of you take a piece of this to the leaders of each tribe,” he commanded.  “Give the leaders this message, ‘If you refuse to assist Jabesh-gilead immediately, then I will come and personally make sure you end up looking like this!’” 
A large army arrived at Jabesh-gilead within a couple days and made short work of the Ammorites.  This confirmed Saul’s kingship, and soon he had a large house, a standing army and taxes began rolling in.  All of this was fine to the Israelites, for there were many peoples around them attempting to oppress them.  Saul was a good, if strict, commander of the army, and he offered them more security and law than they had had for more than a century and a half.20

Thus did Israel obtain a king who was humble and concerned about the oppressed.

But Saul was sometimes harsh, and not wise in his obedience to God.  Once he broke God’s command, offering a military sacrifice that only the priest (Samuel) should offer, because the priest was late.  Once he tried to kill his own son for mistakenly breaking his own vow. Another time Saul disobeyed God’s command due to his “humility” of paying attention to the people’s greed instead of God.21
Samuel had had it.  He said, “What kind of a king do you think you are?  Justice doesn’t happen at your own whim, but in following the commands of God.  Sure, Saul, you made sure that all those who practiced occult practices were kicked out of Israel.  But, you know what, your disobedience is just as bad as witchcraft!  Since you rejected God by your rebellion, God has rejected you as king!”  Samuel walked away and Saul, weeping and begging for mercy, grabbed onto his robe, which tore in his hands.  Samuel stopped, turned to Saul, and said, “In the same way God will tear from you His kingdom.”22

At this point, we could say that Saul went a bit nutzo in the head.  He was prone to angry outbursts, murderous rages and epileptic fits.  Today he might be labeled schizophrenic, or perhaps bi-polar.  The Bible—being so unsophisticated—said he had an evil spirit that oppressed him due to his disobedience.   Whatever the case, Saul was not a well man.  Some wise Israelite had an inking of the future wise saying, “Music hath charms that sooths the savage breast” and so hired a harp player to calm Saul down.
Ah, the harp player.  Who was to guess that he was to be the greatest military mind the Hebrews would produce for a thousand years?23  First there was the Giant Event—not meaning a huge car sale, but an actual giant.  The harp player—his name is David, in case you didn’t guess—wiped that giant out with quick motion, no armor and a speedy weapon.  Then his little troop began knocking down the enemies of Israel.  Then the cheerleaders—the final downfall of Saul—began chanting, “Saul defeated crowds/David multitudes!”  Once he heard this shout—once or twice a day, a hundred times during victory parades—he knew one thing—David must die.24
First, in a fit of rage, he threw a spear at David.  Missed.  Next, he tried to have David kill himself.  “Hey, Dave.  I was just wondering, you wanna marry my youngest daughter.  Oh, don’t worry, I’d love to have you as my son.  But there is a price.  Just bring me a thousand penises from our enemies.”  Next thing you know, two hundred Philistines were singing soprano and David’s father-in-law had a lot more sex toys than he knew what to do with.  Then Saul sent assassins.  But David’s new wife heard of the plot, and threw David out the window to save him. 
After Saul raged at Jonathan for being friendly with David, David figured it was time to high tail it outta there.  So he ran to the desert with a small band of men.   Saul, in his delirium, knew that David was running away in order to establish an army to overthrow him and become king himself.  Since he couldn’t find David himself, he began attacking the “supporters of terrorism”.  When his son, Jonathan, spoke in favor of David, Saul threw a spear at him. 
Then Saul heard from his foreign spy, Doeg the Edomite (Edom was a national enemy of Israel) that David was last seen in Nob, where the ark of the covenant was being held.  Saul rushes to Nob with a small force and confronts the high priest there, Ahimelech.  “Son of Ahitub, what assistance have you been giving my enemy, the traitor David?”
“I have not helped any of your enemies, my king.  But to David I gave supplies and the sword of Goliath.”
“Why have you helped that son of a whore?  You have even sought God for him so that he might ambush me at night!”
“Who is a more faithful assistant to you than David?  He was going about your business and so we helped him.”
“Liar!  You are all traitors to me”
Then Saul turned to his men and said, “Put them all to death!  The whole village!”
Saul’s men stood, looking at their sandles.  One was emboldened to say, “How can we touch the priests of God?  We will not be cursed by doing such evil!”
Saul proclaimed, “Will no one dare to obey me?”
“I will.”  And Doeg the Edomite pulled out his sword and killed each priest, each woman, each child in the village, while not a single one raised a voice in protest out of obedience to their king. 25

Thus did Saul change from being the humble king to an oppressor of God’s people.

*     *     *

The story of Saul is the story of many of God’s people.  Lowly and dejected God raised them up to salvation and to gain power and importance they could have never achieved on their own.  But instead of seeing God as the one who raises up the humble, they reject others who were in a lowly state as they themselves were.  Instead of being the “helper of the poor” they become oppressors themselves.  Soon, their full-time job is to protect their own wealth and position, seeking to keep it from those who want to “take advantage of them.”  The fears and unrighteous indignation of the uplifted then attack the lowly, accusing them of terrible crimes and motives with no proof.  The people of God could soon be called “the hurricane that destroys all food”, as Proverbs calls the lowly who oppresses the poor.26  Jesus himself spoke of the steward, in charge of all of his master’s household, yet he chooses to abuse his fellow slaves, and revel in pleasure.  He said, “His master shall come when he does not expect him, cut him into pieces and cast him to the unbelievers.”27
We see ourselves as sinners, as unrighteous, as saved only by the grace of God.  Yet how often have no grace on the lowly who are around us?  Instead we expect the lowly to be like us, only without the resources we have at our disposal.  We act as if it were money that makes the world go ‘round, when really, it is mercy.

17. Of course, this is the story told just a couple posts before.  Due to the horrific incident, there was a war between the Benjamites and the other 11 tribes, which caused almost the complete annihilation of Benjamin as a tribe, including all of the women.  In order for Benjamin to continue, the eleven tribes turned their heads when they stole wives from neighboring towns.  The whole story is in Judges 20-21.
18. This part of the story is found in I Samuel 8-10.
19. Interestingly enough, this is the same method the Levite “pastor” called Israel to war against Benjamin.  Except the pastor cut up and sent out his wife instead of an ox.
20. From the time of Joshua, actually.  This part of the story is found in I Samuel 11.
21. I Samuel  13, 14 and 15 respectively.
22. Paraphrase of I Samuel 15:22-29
23. Of the Hebrews, probably only Judas Maccabeus would be close to David’s equal in military genius.
24. I Samuel 17.  David and Goliath story.  Don’t worry, you probably already know it.
25. I Samuel 18-22.
26. Proverbs 28:3.
27. Matthew 24:48-51.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Top Ten Ways to Oppress the Poor

        (as expressed by Hebrew Prophets)

Police slashing the tents of the homeless
before they throw them in dumpsters
·      Refusing to defend the needy 37

·       Stealing from the poor 38

Most of us ignore those in most need.
After all, they make us uncomfortable.
·      Unjust judgments against the poor 39

·      Not assisting the needy 40

Cash advance stores take advantage of those in need,
taking their needed pay so the poor 
need not have their utilities shut down.

·      Taking interest for loans 41

·      Enslaving a people 42

Children are a growing casualty of wars all over the world.

·      Excessive violence in war, especially against innocents 43

"Yep, we made you a loan we knew you couldn't afford.
You deserve to be homeless for trusting us."

·      Excessive rent against the poor 44

·      Accepting bribes 45

·      Turning away those who need shelter for a night 46

I guess if Amos or Isaiah came today, they'd be pretty busy.


37. Isaiah 1:17, 23; Jeremiah 5:28.
38. Isaiah 3:14-15
39. Isaiah 10:1-2
40. Ezekiel 16:49
41. Ezekiel 18:15-17
42. Amos 1:6
43. Amos 1:13
44. Amos 5:11
45. Amos 5:12
46. Amos 5:12

A Job Done Right Doesn't Make You Friends

Without a prophet you can't have Civilization

Thus says the LORD, "For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they sell the righteous for money And the needy for a pair of sandals. These who pant after the very dust of the earth on the head of the helpless Also turn aside the way of the humble; And a man and his father resort to the same girl In order to profane My holy name. On garments taken as pledges they stretch out beside every altar, And in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined. Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them, Though his height was like the height of cedars And he was strong as the oaks; I even destroyed his fruit above and his root below. It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt, And I led you in the wilderness forty years That you might take possession of the land of the Amorite.”
An ancient prophecy, also known as Amos 2:6-10

What does God do when a king or a nation or a town does the opposite of their command from God?  What if they oppress instead of assist the poor?  What does God do, how does He right the wrong?

            Well, in ancient times, God would first send out a prophet.  He might send an Elijah, to pronounce punishment on a nation,28 or he might send an Elisha to reform the government.29  But usually God will first send a spokesperson, a warner, to clearly inform the people what would happen if they continue in the route of oppression.  This is Amos.

            Amos was a shepherd, who cared for his flock and plowed his fields.  He wasn’t doing much one day when God spoke to him—‘Amos, you’re my prophet now, go out and tell the king what I said.”  

Amos was shocked, “I am no prophet!  Do you see me flailing around like a prophet?  Do you see me speaking to kings?  Do you see me trying to grab the ear of the high and mighty?  I’m a humble man, just a shepherd.”  

“Try again, Amos—I make prophets, and so that’s what you are.”  

Rasputin was quite the ladies' man
Most prophets of ancient days weren’t of the John the Baptist model.  Most of them didn’t hang out in nowheresville, prefering their mesquite raw, straight off the tree, and hold the meat, please.  No, most prophets liked the high life, the rich clothes, the occasional orgy (when they aren’t fasting, of course), and getting the attentions of the nobility—especially the female nobility.  Most ancient prophets followed the model of Rasputin rather than Gandhi.  The occasional trance, a flood of flattering comments, a lucky break in a prediction and a number of sermons against the king’s enemies and a prophet can have room and board for life, as well as a significant advisory position.30

            This model of prophet—shockingly!—led to much abuse.  I know it’s hard to believe, but many prophets of this type didn’t actually hear from God at all!31  Some of them might even be said to—and I say this in fullest confidence—be deceiving those they spoke to.  This is why God had to pull his true prophets from different stock.  He didn’t want his prophets to be concerned primarily with the desires of the high and mighty.  Rather, he wanted his chosen spokespeople to say the hard truths, and to speak for the lowly and needy.  Thus, God made unlikely choices for prophets—Jeremiah, the young; Michaiah, the irritating; Jonah, the xenophobe; Habakkuk, the questioner of God; and Amos, the lowly shepherd. 

            Well, Amos had heard prophets before, and he knew that they flattered the nation and preached against the kings enemies. But Amos had a judgment against Israel—a nation his own home (Judah) has had border disputes for decades.  How would the king of Israel, Jeroboam II, ever listen to that?  Let’s see, Amos thought.  Ah, I know.  God has plenty to say about the surrounding nations, why not start with them?  So Amos stood before Jeroboam II and opened his mouth and spoke first about Damascus

Damascus,” he said, “used excessive violence in war, and so Yahweh, the God of Jerusalem will destroy him.”  So far, so good.  Even though Amos mentioned that Yahweh was of Jerusalem, not Carmel where Jeroboam worshiped Yahweh: at least Jeroboam was still listening.  

Gaza,” he continued, “enslaved a whole  people, and so Yahweh will destroy them and all of the Philistines.”  The king is nodding now—that’s a good sign.  Then Amos continued with condemning Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab.  All neighboring countries, all condemned to punishment.  The king wasn’t displeased, but he didn’t hear anything really new.  This was the kind of stuff he could hear from any of his local prophets. Now, thought Amos, we can reel him in.  

“As for Judah, they have ignored Yahweh’s laws and so they will be destroyed by fire.”  King Jeroboam II was smiling now, for Amos, a prophet from Judah, was condemning his own nation.  He liked this new prophet—Amos was saying what he wanted to hear.  But there was a bit of confusion as well… What were these laws of Yahweh?  He couldn’t remember any laws that God had laid down that Judah wasn’t obeying that the king’s own nation was.

Now it was time for the coup d’gras.  “But Israel, you are also condemned.  You say that you worship Yahweh, but you ignore the law of God daily.  Look at what you are doing to the poor?  The poor have debts and so you steal their livelihood to force them to repay!  You sell those who owe you money into slavery because they weren’t able to repay you for a pair of shoes!  You raise the rents of the poor, so that they would be bound to you eternally!  And if someone needs shelter for a night, you drive them away!  You immoral, godless people!  When you were under the thumb of the Amorites, didn’t God deliver you?  And when you were enslaved in Egypt, didn’t Yahweh redeem you?  Then why are you acting like the power, the great, the mighty?  You are but a nation of slaves, set free by God!  You are but the poor, made wealthy by God!  Show your gratitude by doing justice to the needy!”

This rampage became so heated, that a priest, standing by his king said, “Why don’t you go back to Judah and prophesy to them?  We have plenty of prophets here.  We don’t need to hear your diatribe!”  

Amos responded, “I am not a professional prophet, but a shepherd, called by God to come here and speak to Jeroboam.  Because, you priest, are complaining about God’s messenger,  simply because he isn’t saying what you like, then your wife will trade her sexual favors to strangers for food and your house will be divided and sold to immigrants!” 32

A prophets life isn’t easy.  It isn’t easy to tell people with power and authority God’s true message that they’re messing up and will face judgment unless they change their ways.  It’s not a popular message.  But God has always found someone to say it.  Most of the time, God was telling his people to live according to His law, that he gave to Moses.  And very frequently, he was reminding them to do right by the poor.  Isaiah told the people not to steal from the poor.33  Ezekiel told them not to take interest on loans to the poor.34  Jeremiah reminded them to defend the needy in the court.35  And all of them, at one point or another, commanded the people to assist the poor when they were in need—do acts of charity.36  To not give to the needy was a sin before God, disobedience to his law.

28. I Kings 21
29. II Kings 9
30. An excellent example of the difference between the professional prophets and the God-called prophet is in I Kings 22.
31. Kind of like how the present system of having a professional salary for a pastor doesn’t really call the God-inspired so much as the money-educated.  
32. Ouch.  That had to hurt.  It really happened, too.  The last few paragraphs are a summary of Amos 1-2, 7:10-17.
33. Isaiah 3:14-15.
34. Ezekiel 18:15-17.
35. Jeremiah 5:28-29.
36. For example, Isaiah 58:5-7; Ezekiel 16:49; Daniel 4:27; Amos 5:12; Zechariah 7:10.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Putting the O-Pressure On

You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow's garment in pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.
An ancient Hebrew law, also known as Deuteronomy 24:17-18

Perhaps, at reading the story in the last post ("Not for Children"), you might find it too shocking to be in a Christian blog.  However, all the major points of this story, including almost all of the most gruesome bits, are contained at the end of the book of Judges.  It is certainly one of the most shocking stories in Scripture.  And it is a parable about the world’s response to the anawim.

The actions of Gibeah of Benjamin in Judges 19-20 is intended to remind one of Sodom (of Sodom and Gomorrah fame).  In Sodom as well there is a man inviting strangers to his house.  There was a group of men threatening to rape the strangers. And women were offered in place of the men.  However, that story ended remarkably differently, for the strangers were actually powerful angels.

While most homophobic preachers emphasize the sodomy of Sodom (which is not necessarily to be neglected, as Jude in the NT also makes a point of it), both Genesis 19 and this story emphasize something different—the abuse of immigrants and women.  It is clarified in Ezekiel, spoken to the tribes of Israel, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.”7  And this oppression, while possibly the worst,  is only one of the many oppressions mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

Violent oppression was the most heinous act in the ancient law.  To oppress is to abuse or take advantage of another because of their weak position in society.    Some of the oppressive acts punished in the law of Moses8 are:

·      Poverty pimps: Abusing immigrants, slaves, poor by taking what little they have.9
This would include any taxes or fees on people because they are poor.  Like ticketing the homeless because they are “camping”.

·      Abuse of wealth: A creditor harming one who owes him money.10
This would include any creditor taking away the ability to work or live because of a debt owed.  Like the government taking away a driver’s license from a professional driver because of fines owed.

·      Palm greasing: Judge determining against the poor due to a bribe11

·      Guilt by association: Judgment against one for the sin of another.12
For instance, throwing someone in prison for years because they were in the vicinity of someone selling or making drugs.

·      Perpetual debt: Refusing to cancel the debt of the impoverished every seven years. 13
This would include punishing a person for their debt until the end of their lives, or insisting that another generation pay the parent’s debt.

·      Loan denial: Refusing to lend to a brother in need due to their inability to pay back.14
This would include the government refusing to help out a citizen in need because of a lack of picture ID.

·      Withholding wages: Neglecting to pay temporary labor at the end of the day.15
For example, holding one’s wage they need to live on for the sake of processing.

·      Classism: Not allowing the helpless and poor to have equal justice as the wealthy and important.16
Such as the wealthy having the ability to purchase legal teams able to manipulate the law for their own purposes, while the poor granted only the overworked lawyers.

From the perspective of our society, some of this we can truly see as oppression—no one should thwart justice due to a bribe, nor should violent abuse against the weak be left unpunished.  But what about “neglecting the needs” of a poor person, or refusing to lend to a poor person?  How can these constitute “oppression”?  Oppression in Mosaic law has a particular context that is constantly referred to—“Remember that you were immigrant slaves in Egypt.”  Because all of Israel itself was, at one point, an oppressed minority, they should remember what it felt like and so avoid responding to others in ways they found evil themselves. 

            Because Israel was once a slave, they should treat slaves well, and offer them freedom after seven years.  Because Israel was an immigrant in Egypt, they should treat immigrants well.  Because they were poor in Egypt, they should not ignore the needs of the poor when they arise among their own nation.  Because at one point Israel had no protector, no patron to assist them, they should in turn assist the widows and orphans who have no patron, no one to assist them. 

7. Ezekiel 16:46-50.

8. The “law” is traditionally the first five books of the Bible, or the “books of Moses”.

9. Exodus 22:21-24.  The poor are usually categorized the “widow, orphan and stranger” and sometimes includes the Levites and the poor farmer.  The first three are categorized without exception as the “poor” because they have no voice in a court—for women, children and foreigners were not allowed in official business.  For women and children, it was assumed that the husband and father would represent their interests.  The “stranger” is simply an immigrant, one who is a part of another nation and moved to join in the prosperity of Israel.  Such an immigrant is never given full rights of a citizen, although their children might be.  The Levites were considered vulnerable because they were landless and were dependent on people’s obedience to the tithing laws for income.  The poor farmer is one who might have had a bad year for one reason or another and needs a loan just to get a “hand up” for a temporary period.  In our society, the categories of poverty are different, but for similar reasons: the single parent, the homeless, the recent immigrant, the elderly, the mentally ill, some of the disabled, the felon.  For all but the first category, they might have no, or limited, rights in court.  And they are all vulnerable to the ravages of our economics.

10. Exodus 22:24-26

11. Exodus 23:8-9; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Deuteronomy 27:25.

12. Deuteronomy 24:16

13. Deuteronomy 15:1-6

14. Deuteronomy 15:9-11

15. Deuteronomy 24:14-15

16. Deuteronomy 24:17