Tuesday, May 23, 2017

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God, Culture and Revelation

Today in America we live in a culture that is pluralistic with respect to many things. Religion is no exception. Some people are part of “traditional” faiths like Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism. Some are part of “fringe” faiths like the Nation of Islam or Scientology. Others are part of cults like the People’s Temple (from the infamous Jim Jones). Years ago, hundreds of Australians listed their religion as “Jedi.”

One caveat of our pluralistic society is that we are supposed to accept all religious beliefs. We cannot tell anyone they are wrong about God, and for the sake of society we cannot impose our own religious beliefs on another. Of course, to assume that all views about God are equal is to impose a view about God on others … but hey nobody said pluralism was logical.

Just like today in America, Jacob lived in a pluralistic society of sorts. The ancient near east had established religious cultures. Religious practice varied by locale; different regions had different gods and similar yet different religious practices.

In the setting for this week’s Parsha, Jacob has fled from his relative Laban. The entire history of this encounter is not critical here, but what is important is that Jacob and Laban make a covenant (treaty) according to ancient practice. Laban ratifies the covenant between them by reciting a most curious formula in Genesis 31:53:

The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.

This translation (ESV), as with most Christian English translations, has a bit of a gloss. The problem is the word “judge” because it is plural (not singular). Thus Laban is likely referring to god(s) for Abraham and god(s) for Nahor. A better translation, in my opinion, comes from the JPS version (a Jewish translation):

May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor—their ancestral deities—judge between us.

This position is in fact more consistent with the rest of Scripture because Joshua 24:2 informs us that Abraham’s family served other gods besides the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (i.e., Adonai). Abraham of course later in life served Adonai, but perhaps Laban did not understand that Abraham was not exchanging gods by cultural norm, but rather by revelation.

The point here is that Laban saw god(s) through the eyes of his culture. It was expected that Canaan had a set of gods and so did Ur and so on. To him and his culture, there was likely not much difference because there were many gods to be found across the ancient near east, and Adonai was just one of many gods. But this god of Jacob’s father spoke to him in a dream (Genesis 31:29) so perhaps Laban was willing to be more cautious than usual.

Jacob, however, ratifies the covenant in a different way: by the fear of the God of his father (Genesis 31:53), which is a seemingly cryptic reference to Adonai. In other words, Jacob did not swear by the same gods that Laban did, but rather he swore by the God he knew: Adonai. After all, Jacob learned earlier that God was not limited to a single locale when he fled to Bethel (Genesis 28:16) although his revelation was far from complete. So much for PC.

The faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would have been considered a “fringe” religion of sorts in their day. The idea of a single God was radical for the time.

The same is generally true for us today. When we present the gospel in a Jewish context, we are fighting against cultural religious idols. Jews (defined as descendants of Jacob) are not supposed to believe in Yeshua. Christians (defined as followers of Yeshua, or Jesus) are not supposed to live like Jews. Yet our mission is to present the gospel to a Jewish-American culture. We can expect that it will confuse some, upset some and intrigue some.

But like Jacob, or Yeshua for that matter, we can’t afford to be PC about it. Rather we ask the Ruach HaKodesh (i.e., the Holy Spirit) to guide us to state and live the truth in love and leave the rest in God’s hands.

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