Land and biblical theology

An excerpt from Jesus and the Land by Gary M. Burge

“Walter Brueggemann is correct when he suggests that land might be the central theme of biblical faith. “Biblical faith is the pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging.” And if this is so, he continues, land might be a way of “organizing biblical theology.” Brueggemann invites us to think carefully about (biblical) Israel’s experience with land along three trajectories: land promised, land possessed, and land lost. And in each of these categories we can discover the magnificent opportunities found in God’s grace and covenant, Israel’s historical struggles to possess this land in righteousness – to become the sort of people God intends – and the judgment that falls on Israel in the exile when all is lost.”

What did Jesus achieve?

What did Jesus achieve? Jews at the time of Jesus expected the messiah to achieve a number to things: to defeat the enemies of Israel; to restore the Temple; to gather the exiles of Israel; and to teach the Torah to the nations.

The earliest Christians, who were Jewish by and large, saw Jesus as fulfilling these expectations, but in unexpected ways. Jesus had taught that Satan was their true enemy, not Rome; that he would rebuild the Temple on the third day; that he had come for the lost sheep of Israel; and that his word would never fade. His disciples saw Jesus as fulfilling these messianic expectations through his life, death, and resurrection.

Throughout the ages, Christians have tended to drill down into different aspects of this. Some have tended to emphasise Jesus as warrior, defeating Satan and freeing God’s people; some have tended to emphasise Jesus as prophet, teaching God’s wisdom and modelling God’s ways; some have tended to emphasise Jesus as priest, offering himself as a sacrifice for our injustices. Each of these ways explains an aspect of his achievement, of the different ways in which the Messiah, Jesus, mediates between divinity and humanity.

The Journey Of The Magi

The Journey Of The Magi
By T S Elliott
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Exploring the Bible story as a chiasm

I have not often made this so explicit, but I tend to view the Bible story as a five act drama with a chiastic structure.
I would illustrate it most simply as follows:
A: Creation 
     B: Covenant 
          C: Christ 
     B’: Church 
A’: Coming Soon 
In each act there are high points and low points.
The Creation story tells of humanity and the fall. It begins with God calling humanity to act as priests within creation at large. But then there’s the fall, the banishment from Eden, and an ongoing slide into more and more corruption that climaxes first in a devastating flood, then later with God scattering the nations and leaving them to their own devices.
The Covenant story tells of Israel and the exile. It begins with God forming of a new people, who later come to be known as Israel, to act as priests within humanity at large. But even they fall into corruption, which eventually leads to exile. And even when the people return from exile, to Judea and Jerusalem, God’s glory does not return to the Temple.
The Christ story tells of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It begins with God sending Jesus to heal the sick, eat with the alienated, and announce the kingdom of God. But then opposition grows, and he is beaten and crucified. But in a stunning twist God raises him from the dead. It is in this twist that the story of Jesus, Israel, and Humanity are reframed.
The Church story tells of the church and its mission. It begins with God calling the church into a new covenant in and through Christ and sending it out to bear witness of the resurrection in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And this is the part of the story that we find ourselves in.
The Coming Soon story tells of Christ’s return and the final judgement. It offers glimpses of the things to come and things already upon us. Of both the renewal of creation and the final defeat of Satan, sin, and death. It leaves us with a challenge and a hope. The challenge of answering God’s call. And a hope grounded in Christ crucified, an event already accomplished.
Looking at the story this way helps me to understand why the apostles framed the story the way they did when they shared it with different groups. Amongst other Israelites, Peter shared the good news in terms of the covenant (B) and the renewal of the covenant (B’) through Christ. Amongst other nations, Paul shared the good news in terms of the creation (A) and the renewal of the creation (A’) through Christ. In every case, however, it should be observed that Christ (C) was shared as the climax and turning point. The good news is ultimately about Christ, whatever perspective we’re approaching it from.

The alabaster jar of our lives

In the Gospel of Luke the following story is told,

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.”

When the pharisee criticises both her and Jesus for this disgraceful display Jesus corrected him,

“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

 So what significance does this story have for us? Just this. God calls us to break open the alabaster jar of our lives.

The Satanic Verses

It seems to me that much of what the church has said about the fall of Satan over the years is based on figurative (specifically: anagogic) interpretation of Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 24 rather than literal interpretation.

Indeed, if we were to restrict ourselves to literal interpretation there would not be much we could say about Satan’s fall at all. As, at face value, these verses are not about Satan, but rather, the Kings of Tyre and Babylon.

How ironic then, that it’s self identified “literalists” who are most committed to the figurative sense of Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 24, and visa versa.

Stories that shock

I think many people come to the bible with many false expectations. One of the expectations that I frequently hear people express is that the heroes of the bible should be great moral examples. Then they’re shocked and angered when they find out they’re not. But that’s to confuse the function of narrative: it’s about description, not proscription. I actually think one of the strengths of the bible is that it’s brutally honest about how flawed people can be. I think what we’re supposed to see is that God can achieve amazing things even with complete assholes so there’s hope for all of us.