Is The Binding of Isaac A Duel Between God and Abraham?

There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, thanks to Rachel Held Evans’ post. She also has some follow-up resources that are great. When I was pregnant with my now ten year old son, I was tasked with preaching this text, and it was the most grappling I think I’ve ever done. I read so many commentaries, read the story so much my eyes glazed over, turned and turned in my sleep trying to make sense of it. I still don’t like the story, but I found a way of looking at it that made sense to me. Below is the sermon I preached, with minor edits. I thought it might be helpful for others, too.


I confess that I spent a lot of time wrestling with God over this text. Perhaps this isn’t the best story for a pregnant woman to be preaching on. Perhaps my maternal instincts are too high for me to see anything but pure insanity in this text right now. But I’m not the only one, obviously, who has struggled with this passage. Indeed, many think it is one of the most terrifying stories in all of Scripture. Countless volumes of theology and commentary have been written on this, all of whom try to reasonably explain why God would ask such a thing, why Abraham would concede, and why Isaac seems to willingly go along with it.

Just briefly, let me say that this story is often used as a parallel to Christ’s death on the cross. But despite a number of parallels between the two stories that can be powerfully persuading, the situations are COMPLETELY different. We are told from the very onset that this is a test for Abraham. I doubt any of us would say that God the Father was “testing” Himself to see if He was willing to kill His son out of faith in…Himself. And Jesus was fully aware and fully chose to die for a reason no less powerful than providing all of humanity with the ability to have everlasting life. Isaac was simply traveling unassumingly with his father, unaware of his innocent bystander role in his father’s test from God. So I’m sticking to the text tonight. There’s plenty in there for us to discuss. Jesus spent his whole life studying these Scriptures, so I’m sure he’s fine if we stick to studying them just for one night.

Let me also quickly say this: many people spend their time defending God and going into long lectures about our lack of faith and Abraham’s abundance of it and how we shouldn’t EVER question God, no matter what the circumstance. I don’t feel the need to defend God blindly. God can handle our questions, guys. If we don’t believe that we should’ve given up a long time ago.  Questioning is a central, valuable part of our relationship and faith in God. Just two weeks ago we read about how Abraham bargained with God in an attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and there are countless other stories of people of faith questioning God boldly in the Bible.

Many try to skip quickly to the end of the story, and solely emphasize the fact that God didn’t, after all, require Isaac to be killed. That’s true. But that doesn’t do justice to the incredible amount of tension in this story. And I think it misses the point. I don’t think the point of the story is about what happens once they reach the top, but about what happens as they walk to the top. Abraham is faced with an unbelievable dilemma. He has to sit with the thought of killing his son for three whole days, and then journey up the long path to the top of Mount Moriah with his son at his side. To kill Isaac would be to completely obliterate the future of Abraham’s descendents, descendents whom God has promised to bless and sustain no matter what. What would become of a future without Isaac, emotionally and literally? Abraham is faced with a totally unknown future, one that just three days ago held incredible promise. Does he trust God enough that God can make a way out of no way? Whatever this text is about, I think it’s about us wrestling with those kinds of questions. Let’s not let ourselves off the hook.

After wrestling with this question all week, I still don’t know why it is that God wanted to test Abraham, and why God would choose this as the test. There are, of course, a lot of theories. Some say God wanted to know if Abraham still had faith after his promised son was given. And it’s true that it seems to be human nature to sort of forget God after things start going our way. How do fulfilled promises affect our relationship with God? We’re joyful and filled with the Spirit for a little while, and then we quickly turn all our attention to the promise that was fulfilled and forget about Who fulfilled it. Maybe Abraham needed a little shaking up to remind him exactly Who gave him that son, and Who can take him away.

I think this story would be easier to engage if we take a cue from our Jewish brothers and sisters who see problems in Scripture as not to be ignored but to be delved into, to be questioned, to be wrestled with. One rabbi said, “A textual problem is the grain of sand in the oyster whose irritation creates the pearl.” Jewish Midrash is a central way to argue and dialogue with a text. Midrash is a Hebrew word that means “to examine, to seek out.” Midrash poses questions to the story and then grapples with possible answers. The purpose of the midrash is not to find the “right” answer, but to learn something in the process of questioning.

Some midrash stories suggest Satan came up with the whole idea, similar to the Job story. Satan tells God, “Look at that- your faithful servant Abraham just threw a huge party for his son Isaac, and he didn’t even set aside for You one measly little sacrifice. I bet he loves that son more than he loves you. I bet if you asked him, he wouldn’t lay a hand on his son.” So God seeks to prove Satan wrong.

Another Midrash asks, “Why was Abraham tested on Mount Moriah?” And it answers, “Because he favored his son Isaac over his eldest, Ishmael.”

Whatever the reason, we cannot hide from the fact that God chose to test Abraham, and God chose to do it in this way.

We also can’t deny that Abraham was willing to do such a thing. He was willing to follow God’s command all the way to the top of Mount Moriah, to the point of reaching for his knife. There are some midrash that claim Abraham therefore failed the test, because he didn’t refuse God’s command. This is actually a pretty compelling thing to say, and I think they are onto something there. Because you and I both know (or I sure hope we know) that we don’t worship a God who asks us to sacrifice our children. As a woman carrying her son in her womb right now, I can tell you: I’m not doing it. Every atom of my very pregnant being is focused on one, solitary thing: I keep this baby safe. And that goes for the sweet baby girl that’s now living on the outside, too. My job is to keep them safe from harm, not inflict harm upon them. No amount of textual gymnastics are going to convince me that God thinks that’s a bad thing.

So- let’s think about this idea that Abraham failed the test, because he refused to argue with God. (And don’t we love how arguing with God is so reverently expected? We have lost that.) I appreciate the point, but I’m not sure he completely failed the test. When I first started thinking about this story, I felt this complete dichotomy between this appeasing, unquestioning Abraham we see walking up the mountain, and the Abraham we saw two weeks ago, bargaining with God like he was at an antique auction. Something just doesn’t fit. Granted, Abraham is a complex guy, but I don’t buy that he would just grab a knife and head up the mountain without a second thought.

And then I read what Elie Wiesel, a Jewish author, had to say. It was a “double-edged test,” he said. “God subjected Abraham to it, yet at the same time Abraham forced it on God. As though Abraham said, ‘I defy you, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether you shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son- who is also Your son- is at stake!’”

Wow. Maybe Mount Moriah was a game of duel. God says, “Prove that you trust me to keep my promises, even if the person who embodies that promise is gone.” And Abraham says right back, “Fine. But I dare you to be the kind of God who would kill my son just to make a point. I DARE YOU. And I don’t believe it for one second.”

Abraham knew very well that God was bound by God’s own commandments, and to kill anyone, much less your innocent son, was certainly not in the parameters of God’s commands of righteousness. I can picture Abraham thinking, “If you need me to prove to you that I trust you, that I see you as the provider of all things even when I am faced with a future that seems ruined, that I haven’t forgotten about you after the promise of my son was fulfilled, I will willingly walk up this mountain, knife in hand. But I dare you to be the kind of God that makes me go through with it.”

And of course, God isn’t that kind of God, and God tells Abraham to stay his hand before the knife comes down on Isaac.

When I was seven or eight, I remember being very upset with my parents about something. I don’t remember what, but whatever it was, it was so bad that I took out my little Strawberry Shortcake suitcase and I started packing my bags because I was going to go live at my friend’s house instead. My mom came in, and she asked what I was doing, and I told her I was leaving the family and going out on my own. And she said, “Ok, well, let me help you then. You’ll need a coat. And here’s your pillow. And don’t forget extra socks.” And I was just completely incensed by all of this. How could she want me to leave?! How could she just sit here and HELP ME PACK? What kind of mother wants her child to run away? And when I was done, I walked to the door, and she opened it, and said, “Honey, I love you and I’d hate for you to leave. But you can go if you want.” I didn’t even get to the mailbox before I came back. She still had the door open.

Both of us knew, the entire time, that I was not actually going to run away. It was never really an option. But for whatever reason, I needed to pretend like I was leaving, and my mom went right along with it, even to the point of helping me pack.

I’m not trying to draw a straight line here metaphorically, but I wonder if Mount Moriah were not this same kind of active pretending, where something is at stake, but the players are all aware that the premise of the thing is not ever actually going to happen. I’ll pack my bag, but I’m not running away. Abraham will walk with Isaac up the mountain, but he will never sacrifice him. The thing is, in both instances, love and trust is what gets us out of pretending. I didn’t make it past the mailbox because my mom had just said she loved me, and she was standing at the door waiting for me to come back. I was no fool.

If we look at the Genesis 22 text, we can see this same sort of play-acting. Abraham gets up without any commentary whatsoever and he packs up for this trip. He cuts the wood. And then, here’s where it gets tense, when he can see the top of the mountain, he tells his servants to stay behind, and he puts the wood on Isaac’s back. It’s like he’s staring down God. “We’re almost at the top, here. I’m just going to have my son Isaac go ahead and carry the wood of his own sacrificial altar, then. What do you think of that, God?” And then when Isaac asks him where the lamb is, Abraham says (and I think he’s telling the absolute truth here) “God will provide it.” I don’t think Abraham is hiding Isaac from the awful truth that he’s about to murder him. I think he’s letting Isaac overhear what he is telling God. They make the altar, he even binds Isaac and sets him there. He terrifyingly raises his knife, and then God calls halt. The play acting is over. They’ve both proven their points.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still a terrifying story, any way you look at it. I don’t think I could even pretend to hurt my child, even for dramatic purposes. I still think that’s really messed up. (Can you imagine the walk back down the mountain? What on earth could Isaac say to his dad after that?)

But maybe the reason Abraham could so willingly walk up that mountain is precisely because he has an unshakable faith in the character of God. He knows that God will not, in the end, require such a thing. And because of that, he does not question why it is that God requires him to go through this.

The midrash I read about Abraham failing the test? It said the reason an angel addressed them at the top and not God was because Abraham should have known better than to let it get that far. In other words, Abraham went way past the mailbox. Maybe he failed the test after all. Maybe he sought a duel more than he sought a truce. God was trying to prove a point, but Abraham doubled down on it and made it a spectacle. And maybe he didn’t have to.

If this is a story about trust and faith, then Abraham shows us that we can challenge God’s character and be found right. He was right about God, in the end. But if we want to have faith stronger than Abraham, we’ll refuse to walk up the mountain altogether. Because we know God better than that.

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The Word: Zimsum

So, I’m a confessed logophile. I love words. I think it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed learning languages, and probably why Hebrew was my favorite. (They have the best words!) In college and seminary, I learned a whole host of new words to help me discuss and understand things related to God, religion, faith, and theology. Here’s the thing, though: I hate it when words create barriers. Words are supposed to invite people into something, not keep them out of it. And what I’ve noticed is that theology words, God-related words, can often make people feel left out. At Journey, where Word Nerds abide, people are in the habit of just yelling out, “What does that mean?” when one of us uses an unfamiliar word without explaining it. But you may not have that kind of a place. Which is why I’m launching Wednesdays on my blog as “The Word.” Consider it one small way to share some word love and even out the theological playing field. Because regardless of whether you went to seminary or not, there are some fabulous theology words you should know.

So, without further delay, our inaugural Word is: zimsum.

Zimsum. This will come in handy just because everyone could use more z-words in their repertoire. And no, it’s not the same as dim sum.

Zimsum describes the act by which God contracted Godself to make space for creation to happen. Zimsum is God withdrawing, breathing in, so that creation might come forth in the newly created open space. Zimsum is a word that beautifully describes this lovely truth: God makes space for us. 

If you imagine a sphere that’s full of God, zimsum is the act by which God breathes in and contracts enough to make space in that sphere for there to be a place that we can call Not-God. In the beginning when the world was formless and void and the Spirit hovered, zimsum is the idea that God’s first act of creation was this willingness to create a space we can call N0t-God so that creation could come into being.

That’s so beautiful. It’s not unlike the process by which a woman makes space in her body for a womb to expand: a not-me space so that a new life can be born.

In fact, in all of our human relationships, we zimsum. We contract, make space, pull back, so that others can be invited in, so that others can have room in our lives. We do this because God did it for us first.

I think this is what service is. I think this might be a good chunk of what love is, too. We make space for the other. We limit not all of ourselves, but part of ourselves, for hospitality reasons.

Zimsum is about creation and making space, but it’s also about revelation, too. When Isaac Luria, who is the one who can be credited for bringing this fabulous word to prominence, was pondering the Shekinah or Presence of God, he wondered, how is God present in something as small as the Ark, or the Temple, or the human heart? Well, to do that, God must contract, must concentrate Godself somehow. God not only creates but reveals who God is by this willingness to make room and to meet us where we are. This is the mystery: God is both transcendent and immanent, always.

We see zimsum all throughout the story of God. God has this habit of willing self-limitation in order to reveal Godself to us. You need me to be a pillar of cloud by day and a fire by night? Ok. Want my Presence to travel around the desert with you in an Ark? Ok. Want to build a Temple where you can come and know that I’m there with you? Ok. Want me to come and live among you as human, even unto death, even unto resurrection? Ok.

God comes to us, even when that means that God chooses to be self-limiting. When Moses wanted to see God’s face, God said, “No, you can’t handle that, Moses. But I will pass by you, and you can see just my back.”

God makes room. God is always making room. And here’s the paradox of the mystery: God is glorified even in God’s willing contraction. God is glorified even because of God’s willingness to contract, to zimsum. Zeus wouldn’t give power up without a fight, wouldn’t let go of his prominence or his position of power for anything. But the God of Abraham and Sarah? God, the Father of Jesus? He comes, as Barth says, “into the far country” in order to draw close to us. God contracts to make room so that we can become who God intends for us to be. Because God loves us that much.

How cool is this word?!?! And honestly, I could go on and on talking about it. There’s so much more. But that’s enough for now. You’ve got Zimsum Basics down. You can use it in a sentence.

I hope this week you’ll give thanks for the amazing zimsum love of God. And maybe even live into that kind of love with those around you. One of the million times you’re breathing in and breathing out this week, take a moment to ponder this movement of God, and smile.


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Seeing Christianity In All Its Forms

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today’s selection is from The Church in the Power of the Spirit in a chapter on the Church of the Kingdom of God (bold mine):

Historically, mission and the spread of Christianity created certain particular centers: the Roman empire, Europe, and America. As a result a Christianity came into being which was centered on Rome; later this was followed by a Christianity centered on Europe and America…

In modern times, hand in hand with North Atlantic colonialism and imperialism, Christianity then spread all over the world…

Christianity is more or less present in all nations. But it is frequently only present in its Western form. Indigenous forms must therefore develop, so that an authentic Indian, Chines, Japanese, Indonesian, Afrian and Latin American Christianity may grow up, with corresponding indigenous theologies.

Honestly, I think this is one of the most important, central things we must know if we are Western Christians– our form of Christianity may be dominant (for now…and even that’s highly debatable), but it is not, and never has been, the only or even the best form. This is one of the most powerful experiences I took home from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land last January. To see so little Western Christianity in the holiest places of our faith is to remember how long our history is, and how influential our Orthodox Christian family is, and to realize how incredibly global our faith is. I found no place that looked anything like my house of worship. I found very few places that would be recognizable to many Christians in Dallas, TX. The question is: when we experience that dissonance, are we going to think everyone else is doing it “wrong,” or are we going to realize that our form of worship is a beautifully small picture of the way the whole world has embraced the person of Jesus?

If we are going to act like only Western Christianity is “right,” we are missing out on so, so much. 

I think it’s beautiful that so many of God’s children worship so differently. I have no desire to squelch that or regulate it. Sure, there are forms that I prefer. Much as I appreciate Orthodox Christianity, I don’t worship with them on Sunday mornings. But when I worship in my radically different form, I remember them. I realize that my way of doing and being Church is not the only way. I see the richness of their theology, and how they decide to live into that theology in the way they worship. We agree on so many things, despite how differently we choose to express them.

Nearly 2.2 billion people on this planet confess Jesus as Lord. That’s 1/3 of the world’s population. We aren’t all going to worship the same way. And we don’t need to worship the same way. How many ways are there to embody what it means for Jesus to be Lord, to make that confession real in the midst of our culture, history, and personal lives? Well, it’s been 2000 years and we’re still coming up with new forms. If they point to the Christ–even if we don’t understand them, even if we wouldn’t choose to do them ourselves–let’s see them as not only valid, but valuable. Perhaps we will be opened to a new way of seeing God, and will be the richer for it.

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For Churches Playing KC Royals-Style Small Ball

I’ll admit, I’m no baseball fan. But I’m a huge sucker for a good underdog story, especially if the underdogs break a few conventional rules along the way. Did you know the Kansas City Royals had the worst home run record of the season?! And yet, they’re now headed to the World Series. How is that possible?

They decided to play small ball. They gave up swinging for the fences and decided to focus on getting–and keeping–players on base. In other words, power isn’t the only thing, and it isn’t the most important thing.

I think it’s working. And I think that’s encouraging for those of us who attend small, shoestring budget churches who couldn’t play the home run game of power even if we wanted.

Here’s what caught my attention this morning. It was this one sentence from Time’s article “The Kansas City Royals are the Future of Baseball:”

In the post-steroid era, the game is going through a remarkable transition.

The Church is heading toward a post-steroid era too, and in many ways,  of course, it’s already there. Think about it. We don’t have a predominance in the cultural story of Christendom anymore. People no longer go to church by default. Denominations that have always had money are finding themselves facing a threadbare future. Ten years ago many pastors were going to conferences to figure out how to grow fast, how to become a satellite church, how to mimic the success of the mega-churches. Not so much anymore.

And all the while, in the quiet fringes, small churches have been building something else entirely; something based not on what has been conventional church wisdom but on something not unlike the strategy of small ball. Forget finding a flashy senior pastor and hire a team of part-time co-pastors instead. Forget buying a building and spend that money serving the community. Don’t track growth in numbers, but encourage meaningfulness.

What do you do when you’re a church with minimal resources? Forget the fences. Just put the ball in play. You may go a good number of seasons without any playoff action, but we’re about the long game, right?

The Church is going through a big transition in this post-steroid era. Regardless of the size of our congregations, I think our focus is shifting away from some of the “conventional” metrics of the past and turning instead toward one, primary thing: health. I think that’s really, really good news.

Big or small, healthy churches are where it’s at.

Steroids are out. It’s time to hit the gym and focus on what we’ve got going for us. If that’s a big brick building with community clout, awesome. Use it wisely. If that’s twenty dollars and a handful of impassioned young adults, awesome. Let them loose.

I think Jesus is a fan of small ball. I’m not sure what else you call him and his twelve raggedy disciples living in a small fishing village in Galilee. We should trust that we’ve got what we need, even if our stats aren’t that impressive. Whatever our size, let’s play his game and not ours. Deal?

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Moltmann Monday: Where Is God?

Happy Moltmann Monday, all! Today I’m sharing a section from Sun of Righteousness, Arise! where Moltmann is talking about the presence of God:

I am not a historian, and not a biblical scholar either. I am merely a Christian theologian. That is to say, I am a Christian who struggles with his experiences of God: with the experience of God-forsakenness and with the experience of having been found by God when I was lost….

I should like to talk about…the Merciful One who shares our suffering, and about the Holy One who goes ahead of us and leads us to the eternal home of identity. But the presupposition for both these experiences of God is the descent and self-lowering of the Eternal One into our earthly and transitory world–the immanence of the transcendent God. Or in the words of the prophet Isaiah (57:15): ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a humble and contrite spirit.’ It is not just for us that it is important to experience the nearness of God in what happens to us. It is important for God too, for he wants to live among us and on this earth for ever and ever.

Okay, first, I just love that Moltmann begins discussing this big, philosophical question with such a human and humble admission. He’s just a person who follows Jesus who struggles like the rest of us to make sense of his experiences of God- ALL of them, even the moments when he can’t feel God at all. Do you see why he’s my favorite?! Other theologians would have started this section about where God is with big words and haughty pronouncements like, “We must begin at the ontological level here, blah blah blah.” Not our German friend. He’s like, “Look y’all, asking where God is is actually a pretty important question. Sometimes I feel God is with me, and sometimes I have no idea where the heck God went.”

That’s about as honest an answer as you’ll get from an academic.

But then he says this other lovely thing, which brings us (or at least me) such comfort. He says there are these two aspects of God that are both true: one part of God is merciful and stays with us, and the other is Holy and goes ahead of us to bring forth God’s future. So we feel led to a better future but not abandoned in the meantime. And that’s important to us, because for whatever other reason we want to know where God is, it’s because we long to feel the nearness of God.

AND THEN Moltmann says this: God longs to feel near to us, too. It is vital and important for God to be near us, because God has chosen to be this kind of God, who draws near in suffering, and goes ahead of us because God wants to bring us all into goodness and peace.

Sometimes I think we hesitate to believe that’s true because we’ve been told it’s too human-based, too “needy” of God to be that way, or something. But let’s be clear, here: God has designed it this way. It’s who God has consistently, continuously, and faithfully shown Himself to be: GOD WITH US. God longs to be with us, just as we long to be with God. And I’m sure God looks at us sometimes and feels this sense of divine indwelling, and other times wonders where the heck we went.

Where is God?  The Merciful One, the Holy One, is beside us and ahead of us. But above all, God is with us. Always and everywhere.

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Reading Revelation: The Four Horsemen

Yesterday I talked about a few things to keep in mind when reading the Book of Revelation. Today, I’d like to do a quick little exegesis (interpretation) of Revelation 6:1-8 to illustrate how our perception of this passage changes when we understand the symbolism. Before we begin, I want to mention that Revelation has two other thematic elements running through it. Yesterday I said it’s primarily a message of resistance and assurance. Woven throughout, John therefore engages questions of power:  who has it, what they do with it, and what God thinks of it. John is also constantly doing something Jesus did all the time, as did the prophets before him- he’s pointing out what happens as a consequence of our sins. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the text:

Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

We remember that the Lamb is the only one who is able to open the seven seals, and that the slain Lamb (Jesus) was a surprising revelation, because John was expecting to see the victorious Lion. Already, we have a statement about power. The four living creatures surround the throne, and they act here kind of like narrators and stage directors. “Voice of thunder” is an indication of divine power and majesty.

The first horse is white, and carries a bow. This would tell John’s readers immediately that the rider is from Parthia, which was a nation east of the Roman Empire. Parthia wanted war (sword) and power (crown), and was coming to get it. And remember, Parthia isn’t literal- it’s a symbol of any nation wanting to conquer.**

The second horse is red, and has a “great sword.” This horse’s rider is “permitted to take peace from the earth.” And what happens when that peace is taken? They kill each other. This, then, is the horse of war. If those conquerors want war, here it comes. The red symbolizes bloodshed, the sword symbolizes the violence of war.

The third horse is black, and the rider is carrying two measuring scales. What John’s readers would have noticed is that the numbers don’t add up. Wheat and barley was not remotely that expensive. You could get at least ten times that amount for that price. They’d also recognize that these scales are used most often when weighing grains during a famine. So the third horse brings two things: inflation of goods, and famine.

The fourth and last horse is pale green, and the rider is Death, and Hades is right there with him. Pale green is not meant to be a pleasant color, but rather bring to mind decaying or infected flesh. Bright green, in contrast, reflects life, so pale green symbolizes life that is waning. And of course it would, with Death riding it! One quick note about Hades, although this could be a post all its own: Hades is not a literal hell. It is a symbol of godlessness. It is the absence of the presence of God. Lastly, this verse mentions that a fourth of the earth was given over to sword, famine, pestilence and the wild animals. This list would remind readers of both Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, where the same list occurs after war happens.

So what is this about, anyway? Very simply, it’s about the consequences of war. It’s the natural progression of things when we turn from God’s power and attempt to gain our own power instead. The white horse is desire for power and authority, and that desire, when acted upon, makes us vengeful conquerors. And then what happens? Bloodshed. We make others our enemy. Peace vanishes. And then what? The economics of war starts rearing its ugly head. Prices go up, and who is affected? The poor. The olive oil and wine, the more expensive items, are still available to those who can afford it, but the everyday stuff is ten times more expensive, and it hits all the people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Famine happens. And then lastly, death comes, and with all that is now reigning in our hearts and in our economy and in our society, godlessness is right alongside it. We traded God’s power for our own, to the worst ends. We have exponentially combined our problems- sword, then famine, then pestilence, and then so much death that wild animals are able to take over areas that used to be inhabited by communities of people. War leads to total destruction of our humanity.

And then the fifth seal is broken, and what comes is the prayers for justice from the martyred people of God. How long, O Lord, will you let this happen? When will your justice come? And then the sixth seal is broken, and an earthquake happens, which is again a symbol of divine power and majesty, and the earthquake is so vast that the kings and generals and rich and powerful all run away to hide because they are so terrified of the justice of God finally coming for them.

God then gathers God’s people, who did not seek war and power, and marks them as his children. This great multitude stands before the throne of God and waves palm branches and declare that salvation (healing) belongs to God. Palm branches should remind us of the triumphal entry, also a sign of God’s power, where Jesus comes into Jerusalem not on a horse but on a donkey. Salvation, healing, belongs to this God, not to the gods of war.

So- what do you think now of the four horsemen? They still invoke fear, but in a different way, right?

Again, we remember this letter is about resistance and assurance. Resist the Empire’s power, be assured of God’s power. And look how different they are.


**Another side note: this white horse and rider is a good example of how symbolism can be tricky, because John also uses the same symbolism for Christ in other places. I’ve sadly read some commentaries that have tried to say this IS Jesus, but that’s just plain wrong. This set of 4 is taken altogether, and what proceeds from the first horse should easily show why it isn’t Christ. Christ doesn’t bring about the next 3 riders. So, again, a reminder to study this with care.



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How To Read The Book of Revelation

So friends, you might know that I have a bit of a soft spot for the Book of Revelation. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but I feel bad for the poor thing; it is so terribly misunderstood, and so misused. And really, it’s a pretty awesome book. It’s social justice-y and epic and it has these images of God that are breathtakingly beautiful. (God planting a tree that will be healing for all the nations? Wow, I just love that.) Mostly, though, people just use it to talk about God hating people, or God sending people to hell, or how bad the world is, or when the horrible world God hates is finally going to be destroyed. That, or people who find those ideas disdainful just don’t read it at all. Thankfully, there is a great little book written by the inimitable Bruce Metzger that is incredibly helpful in clearing up many of the misconceptions which abound. It’s called Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation and I can’t recommend it highly enough. (You can also order a kit, which includes a leader guide, perfect for small group study which would be SO GREAT for you to do.) Tomorrow I’m going to do a small slice of exegesis as an example of how, when understood correctly, Revelation is less scary and more awesome and wise. But today, I wanted to share some basic overview points, which will get us on the right track. Metzger mentions these throughout, as do many good commentaries on the subject.

So, here are some things to keep in mind while you read Revelation:

1. Revelation was written in a time of persecution, for a deeply persecuted church. It’s not dramatic for nothing, is what I’m saying. There were big things at stake. People were dying, the church was under heavy fire. Christians were fearful of how and whether their movement would survive such a sweeping attack. Some scholars differ on which time of persecution this was, actually, because there were two sections of time that were pretty hideous. The first was under the Emperor Nero, who had what can only be called a sadistic hatred of Christians. How bad was it? The Roman historian (Note: a ROMAN one, meaning, the same as Nero, and not a Christian) Tacitus said this: “a vast multitude of Christians were not only put to death, but put to death with insult. They were either clothed in the skins of wild beasts and then exposed in the arena to the attacks of half-famished dogs or else dipped in tar and put on crosses to be set on fire, and, when the daylight failed, to be burned as lights by night” (Annals XV, p. 44). So, pretty bad then. (Let’s remember this come Christmastime when some Christians will shout persecution about which stores put up “seasons greetings” signs. Whatever that is, it ain’t persecution.) Tacitus notes that even non-Christians were horrified and began asking Nero to stop. So, that mark of the beast business? That is Nero. In addition to 666 being the number of greatest imperfection (7 is perfect, so 6×3? That’s way imperfect), it’s also a cryptogram, which means it symbolizes numbers AND letters. Nero’s name adds up to the number 666. Mystery solved. (It also adds up to 616, which is the other number on some manuscripts. So either way, it’s Nero.)

The other Emperor was Domitian, whose persecutions hit their peak about 20 years after Nero’s. Domition’s was perhaps not as horrific, but was far more reaching. While Nero kept to Rome, Domition required everyone in the Empire to proclaim him “our lord and god.” Obviously, for Christians this was a problem. And the idea of being an enemy of the Empire after watching what Nero had done had to be all kinds of terrifying.

Revelation is not an “ordinary time” kind of book. It isn’t trying to get those of us in free religion America all riled up without cause-and we make a mockery of our faith’s true martyrs when we do. For just this reason, Revelation is going to feel odd to us when we read it. It might feel overdone, overzealous, maybe extreme. That’s fine. We are not being tarred and lit on fire, so that’s probably the most normal response. But we can find understanding when we see why the book was written, and to whom it was intended.

2. Revelation is not literal, and it’s also not direct. First off, we have to say that the most problematic way to read Revelation is to try to read it literally. I don’t actually know how anyone can do that, but alas, people have tried. From beginning to end, this is a book of symbolic imagery. Part of the reason for that is that it’s not really the brightest idea to write out the Emperor’s name everywhere with a bunch of terrible condemnations of him if you want to stay alive for much longer. John of Patmos was a political prisoner as much as he was a religious one, and he’s a smart guy. He writes in code that his fellow Christians would understand, but that would be unrecognizable to much of the Empire (ie. 666). Other symbolism is biblical. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the book’s symbolism is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures- 275 of the 404 verses allude to an Old Testament passage.

Revelation is not linear, either, but instead is a repetitive loop of the same things, over and over. It’s not supposed to be read like a timeline, but more like the Jewish practice of turning a diamond to see all the facets from different angles.

So, when you think about it, there are a number of layers of interpretation happening: there’s the symbol itself, and what it represents, and also the parallels or allusions to the symbols that happen in other parts of Scripture, and how those two relate to each other, and also the historical issues going on at the time, and also this cosmic sense of what God will do when history is all said and done.  That is a LOT. It’s not direct. It is not a news article. There’s no way you can sit down and read it through once and know what it’s saying. It takes time, and learning the symbols, and considering the whole arc of Scripture, etc. You can decide to let that deter  you, or frustrate you, or you can find it cool, kind of like a code letter. Whatever you do, just don’t try to make it literal, or direct. As Metzger so succinctly expresses, “The description does not mean what it says. It means what it means.”

3. The two-fold message of Revelation is resistance and assurance. John’s primary goal in writing this letter was to empower them to have hope, and by that hope, to stand strong in the face of persecution. He gives this rousing, Braveheart-like pep talk, all blue-faced and yelling, to get them riled up enough to resist the long shadows of the Roman Empire. He doesn’t want them to die, but he doesn’t want them to fail or falter or surrender even more. So the message is: Do not give in. Don’t you dare give up. Don’t even think about confessing Domition as your lord and god. Don’t you dare turn your back on your faith. RESIST. Stand strong! You get the message.

And why should they? What on earth gives them any reason to stand against the most powerful empire in the world? This one thing: the promise, the absolute assurance, that God will prevail in the end. That, when it’s all said and done, good will triumph over evil, even the evil of the enormously powerful Rome. John’s words of resistance in the letter are bookended and interspersed with this assurance that God will prevail over all the powers of darkness you ever thought possible.

Resistance and assurance. That’s the goal.

4. Revelation is shockingly peaceful. I know, I know, it gets a terrible reputation of being this war-mongering, violence-filled book, and parts of it are meant to be jarring on purpose. (That’s called “repellant realism,” and boy does John like to use it.) But when you actually take a close look at the symbolism, that’s not what you see. You see judgment, to be sure, but that isn’t the same thing. Take Revelation 5. There are these seven scrolls, and John begins weeping because nobody is fit to open them, and they may therefore never be read. But an angel says to him, “Don’t weep, for the Lion of Judah has conquered, and he can open the scrolls.” And John turns, expecting to see this Lion, this conquering King, maybe even with some vengeance and power flashing in his eyes about to get his wrath on. But that’s not what he sees. He sees, instead, the Lamb of God, still bearing marks of his slaughter. What has allowed the Lion to open the seal isn’t power, or war, or violence, but the self-giving love of God, even unto death. Or, take Revelation 19, when the rider whose name is Faithful and True comes in victorious, wearing a robe dipped in blood. But it is his blood, and no one else’s. Babylon, on the other hand, was drunk off the blood of the martyrs just two chapters before. The distinction is clear.

When Jesus conquers, he only bears one weapon, and that is his Word. That is not accidental. All the other weapons and powers have been destroyed, and all that’s left is the justice of God, the glory of God. And now, the kingdom of God, led by the King of Peace, will reign. Suffering will be no more, death and war and crying will be no more. God will walk with God’s people and the tree of life will be right there for everybody and all the nations will be healed by its leaves. The end of Revelation is not Armageddon but the Kingdom of God, come to earth to stay.

Revelation is meant to call us to action, to keep us honest and strong and faithful, but it’s also meant to remind us that God’s justice will prevail, that good will triumph over evil at the end of all things. Resistance and assurance.

Tomorrow, I’ll take us through the passage of the four horsemen. It’s going to be fun! Come back and join me.

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Moltmann Monday: Resistance, Not Rapture

Happy Moltmann Monday! I’m going to be talking a lot about eschatology (doctrine of “last things”) this week, so to kick us off, here’s a section from The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (bold mine):

Every hope is equivocal. It can fill the present with new power, but it can also draw power away from the present. It can lead to resistance–and also to spiritual escape. The countless interpretations of the book of Revelation, and especially the fundamentalist and the new political interpretations of the apocalypse, make this plain. If the call is no longer to resistance against the powers and their idols, but if instead escapades into religious dream worlds are offered in the face of a world destined for downfall– a downfall that is even desired– the meaning of the millenarian hope is turned upside down. This is always the case when it is no longer resistance that is at the center, but ‘the great rapture’ of believers before the annihilation of the world in the fire storm of nuclear bombs. But Revelation was not written for ‘rapturists’ fleeing from the world, who tell the world ‘goodbye’ and want to go to heaven; it was meant for resistance fighters, struggling against the godless powers on this earth, especially the nuclear powers; it was written, that is, out of love for this world of God’s.

First of all, I have to say that I’m kind of proud of the internets this last week for all the anti-Left Behind posts being written by so many people. It made me hopeful that we’re finally moving past what is a really terrible, unbiblical theology that somehow still took root in the US. I firmly believe it’s a short-lived one, and in 50 years (maybe less) nobody will be saying those things anymore. Just like nobody said those things for the first 1900+ years of Christianity. The arc of Christian tradition maintains its orthodoxy even when we have these little historical swings that fly outside of its bounds. For that I’m grateful.

Moltmann summarizes pretty succinctly here why the whole rapture notion is counter to the narrative of Revelation as well as the narrative plot of Scripture: Revelation is not a book about fleeing the world, or about throwing a good chunk of the world out the window like unwanted garbage, with a weird sense of violent glee and delight. It is a book written to inspire Christians to resist the Empire, which, in the time of its writing was Rome. The “godless powers on this earth” means people and systems who do not display Kingdom ethics- blessing the meek, the poor, the peacemaker, etc. The godless powers are all the powers that enslave people in something less than the whole life God is calling us into, both as individuals and as a society. Revelation was meant to give HOPE not to elicit fear, which is something we modern people continually misunderstand. We don’t have any practice reading apocalyptic literature, so it’s not entirely our fault that we don’t know how to read it “right.” How the escapist rapture camp has read it, however, totally overturns all the hope and intention of the book. God does not desire the downfall of the world– God desires the downfall of the broken systems and powers of evil in the world. Our call to resistance is done to give us a sense of hope that God’s justice will prevail, even when that mighty Roman Empire seems impossible to tackle. We still have a choice to live faithful lives based on Kingdom ethics. We still have hope, because we know that God will bring this story around.

God doesn’t abandon earth. And God doesn’t tell us to abandon earth. Revelation is not about spiritual escape or gleeful rejection of a world spiraling downward. It is about hope, and resistance, and persistence in the face of evil that seems like it might win. It’s about trusting God to do what God says, and in the meantime, doing what God told us. It was written, as Moltmann said, “out of love for this world of God’s.” Written out of love- not fear, or anger, or spite, or vengeance. Written out of love. So that we can be God’s people in the here and now.

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