Friday, February 08, 2008

Not Negative

My friends at Reading Through the Bible are contemplating the Ten Commandments, first presented to Moses on Mt. Sinai, after the people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Note that the commandments begin by mentioning this context: "I am the Lord thy God which brought you out of shall have no other gods before me." God then goes on to list ten rules, ten commandments mostly having the form, "You shall not..." Does this seem odd? I have heard the complaint that the commandments are "negative", and that it would have been better for God to have used "positive language". Yet here He is, right after reminding his people that they are now free men and women, delivering this set of "negative" rules. Doesn't he get it?

Is such a formulation of law really negative? Or perhaps the question can be better formulated, "Which type of law restricts our freedom more, prohibitions (thou shalt not) or prescriptions (thou shalt)?" I propose that prohibitions are the least restrictive form of law, and that is why God casts his commandments in that form right after setting his people free. The Ten Commandments are not only consistent with their new freedom, but are excellent signs and symbols of their new freedom.

Consider the Garden of Eden. What could Adam and Eve do? Everything....except one single activity, one simple rule. They could climb trees, cut down trees, make love under the trees, make love in the trees, burn the wood, use the wood, eat the fruit from every single tree, run around, sing... whatever. In short, every conceivable activity under the sun was lawful except one: don't eat fruit from this one tree. "Thou shalt not eat the fruit from this one tree" was the absolutely least restrictive rule one could imagine, because it was negative. By saying, "Don't do this", God is allowing everything else. Imagine He had formulated His commandment in the positive. How would that be stated? "Act in accordance with My will." There's a positive formulation, but what does it mean? At every act, A and E would have to consider, " this according to God's will?" Talk about anxiety! Perhaps God could have said, "Do everything except eat from the tree in the middle of the garden." In the first place, this still contains the negative, but now it contains a daunting positive command: do everything else. So now they have to make love in the trees, and have to run around and sing, have to burn the wood and every other conceivable activity.

Most of our own laws work the same way. The laws in a free land generally do not prescribe behavior but simply forbid a small subset of specific behaviors, leaving its citizens free to do anything that is not specifically prohibited.

The simplest and least restrictive form of law, which is simply the declaration of God's will as distinct from His creature's, is prohibition. The Ten Commandments leave entire worlds of possible activity open to us. We can relate to God in all sorts of ways, exploring our own individuality in our worship, but we can't worship anything but our creator. We can say anything we want; we can sing, write poetry and plays, and explore all the rich possibilities of language written, spoken and sung; but we cannot dishonor God's name or use it trivially, nor can we malign our neighbor. We can enjoy all the aspects of sexual love, madly, wildly, as often as we want, wherever we want; only with our spouse. We can take all kinds of things for our own use, and create all manner of secondary things with them; only we cannot take for our use what someone else has taken for his, nor can we use these things as gods.

The Ten Commandments are simply the boundaries of our design as creatures. We were made a certain way, with certain wonderful strengths, and the commandments are in a sense our "specs". As Israel contemplated their new freedom from slavery, God was showing them that they were now able to make all sorts of choices they could not make as slaves. They could be merchants, or farmers, or herdsman, or craftsmen. They could live in what village they wanted. They could build their homes large or small, east or west, marry whom they willed, move when they wanted. They were free. Only, there were these ten kinds of things they could not do without harming themselves and their community. These commandments, in their simplicity and in their "negative" form, presumed and were emblematic of the people's freedom.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Apocalypse Code

I read Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth in the early 70', in college, when the European Union consisted of 10 nations, the Unites States backed Israel, and Russia backed her enemies, making the Arab-Israeli conflict a very credible tinderbox for worldwide nuclear holocaust. Having only been a Christian a few years at that time, it was my first encounter with "End Times Prophecy", and I was very interested. As many of the points in Lindsey's timeline required the identification and counting of ancient kings, I took some courses in Ancient Near Eastern History. It was immediately clear to me that there is nothing simple or clear about ancient history, and that the matter-of-course manner in which Lindsey asserted his own interpretation of ancient and modern history was intentionally misleading to his readers, at the very least as regards the level of certainty with which the underlying historical facts can be known. It just wasn't that simple, and his self-assurance was unwarranted and smug. I tentatively accepted his general premillenial framework, because it seemed to be part of the general evangelical system of belief and I knew no better. I didn't pursue it any further, as it didn't seem to be something one could actually substantiate.

Some years later, in my mid 20's, I came across More Than Conquerors by William Hendriksen. This book introduced me to the idea that the Book of Revelation was written for and could be understood by the church throughout the ages, not simply the church that happened to exist just before the end. Of course! II Tim 3:16 applies to all scripture, including Daniel and Ezekiel and Revelation, and all Christians down through history. Revelation itself begins with the blessing, "Blessed is he who hears the words of this book and keeps them." How would a first century Christian "keep" a book about international political intrigue, attack helicopters, biological warfare and intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 20th century! (or's getting pretty late, Hal.) It treated the Book of Revelation literally, ie, as literature, meant to be interpreted in the way it was written, by human beings who understand written language in all its forms. God had gone to great lengths to develop and teach a manner of expression suitable to the magnitude and sublimity of His works, and was using this language in the book intended to orient all his people, throughout the church age, to their own futures. This made great sense to me, and made all the king-counting and crazy ad-hoc mathematic contortions unnecessary, as the prediction of which part of the world was Gog and which Magog was entirely beside the point! I loved it. I still highly recommend it to anyone who is skeptical of all this Last Days Madness but feels that it goes with the territory of being a serious, Bible-believing Christian. It does not, and the good news, rarely heard in evangelical America, is that belief in such contorted end-times history is not the position of the Church through the ages, but a rather recent idea (end of the 19th century.)

Most recently, a gentleman in one of my Sunday school classes gave me a copy of Hank Hanegraaff's The Apocalypse Code. Do not confuse it with Hal Lindsey's "Apocalypse Code." Hanegraaff's subtitle is "Find out what the Bible really says about the end times, and why it matters today." I highly recommend it. Though it uses apolcalyptic literature (Revelation and Daniel and Ezekiel) as the context, it is really about correct exegesis and hermeneutics. It teaches one how to interpret the Bible, using the Bible as its own guide. The title expresses the core idea that the "decoder" for the book of Revelation is the Old Testament itself, as interpreted by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. The concept is simple: God's purpose is to communicate truth to us, primarily truth about His nature and ours, and He has developed a rich linguistic, symbolic and metaphorical language to do so. He teaches us this language by using it in the context of known events in the Old Testament, then having Jesus himself use it in the context of events in the New Testament. Then, when he gives his great revelation to John on the island of Patmos, he uses the very same language, now presumably understood by His people who know his prior word, to lay out for them a vision of the Church age and its consummation in the New Jerusalem.

This book is great. Very readable, very honest, not the least manipulative, and not primarily concerned that the reader adopt a particular view of future history. He is more concerned that the reader learn how to understand Biblical imagery, and that the reader not adopt a wooden literalism in interpreting prophecy. He is also concerned to prevent the nearly-heretical aspects of some popular end-times interpretations, such as that a new temple must be built to reinstate the blood sacrifices that pointed to Jesus and that were fulfilled (and made obsolete) by his own sacrifice once for all.

Get it. Read it. Then talk about it.

(Click here for a site with podcasts of Hanegraaff discussing his book and the issues it addresses.)