A Cautionary Tale

March 2, 2018

The Book of Judges is a cautionary tale. It recounts a dark period in Israel’s history. It begins with Israel’s failure to conquer the Promised Land completely. Because of this failure, the idolatry of the original inhabitants becomes a snare for Israel. The cycle in Judges is Israel commits idolatry, they become oppressed by their enemies and cry out to God, God raises a judge to deliver them, and eventually the cycle begins again.

The judges were military leaders who brought deliverance to Israel. That is probably not our first definition of a judge, although Deborah did in fact hear cases and dispense justice (Judges 4:4-5). Yet, the judges often demonstrate deep flaws which show them to be men of their times. Gideon makes an ephod that becomes a snare to the people and a temptation to idolatry. Jephthah makes a rash vow, but he also slaughters some in Israel who refused to help him. Sampson seems to make military victories only because of bad choices with Philistine women.

But the book ends with even darker stories. Jonathan, the grandson of Moses, helps steal an idol with the help of armed men and sets up an idolatrous worship site in Dan, which lasts “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30). This is followed by an account of the rape and murder of a priest’s concubine. (Should a priest have a concubine in the first place?) This incident nearly leads to the wholesale slaughter of the tribe of Benjamin.

But these dark stories are not without a point. A refrain that occurs within the books states: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25, ESV). The Book of Judges answers the question of what happens when a people wander away from God. The moral decline illustrated in Judges is a cautionary tale.

It is a lesson that it difficult for modern society to hear. Society doesn’t always want God in the public square. Society often likes its morality to be relative. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” could be our own nation’s slogan.

But then we wring our hands when violence and crime occur. Evil, violence, and crime will always be with us as long as this age lasts. But when a society goes through a moral decline such evil will increase. This is a morality problem that statutes won’t cure. It is not that statutes are unimportant. They represent a social contract which should be based on shared values and common morality. When values and morality differ, statutes become difficult to enforce. Witness the drug problem in our country. In other words, morality and values are the deeper issue.

The safety of my person and property are dependent on the morality of the people in my community. When the moral decline becomes so great, even the authorities cannot stop what happens next. Societies can descend into anarchy. And periods of anarchy are what we see in the Book of Judges. For those willing to hear, Judges provides a cautionary tale.


Survey Says or God Says?

September 21, 2017

A recent survey involving 2000 respondents in the U.S. and Europe studied their experiences and feelings about the number of sexual partners. A part of me hates polls. Their validity depends a great deal on getting the proper sample and not having people refuse to take the poll. Further, I’m concerned that polls are used to shape opinion as much as discover it. But with those caveats in mind, what did the researchers find.

  • At what number of sexual partners do you think a person becomes too promiscuous? Females: 15.2, Males: 14
  • What do you think is the ideal number of sexual partners for a person to have in their lifetime? Females 7.5, Males 7.6
  • At what number of sexual partners do you think a person is too sexually conservative? Females 1.9, Males 2.3
  • With how many partners have you engaged in sexual intercourse over your lifetime? Females: 7, Males 6.4

Of course, you may be wondering whether respondents are telling the truth. That question was also a part of the poll. Males said they had not lied about the number of partners 58.6% of the time, and females 67.4%. If we assume that the respondents are reasonably telling the truth, we see that people are basically saying their own behavior is close to ideal.

G.K. Beale makes a great observation about our society, “Worldliness is whatever any culture does to make sin seem normal and righteousness to be strange.”* The above survey is telling us that it is normal to have multiple sexual partners and strange to limit sex to the marriage relationship between one man and one woman. But for the Christian it should never be about what the world views as normal but what God views as moral.

Paul wrote to a basically Gentile audience in 1 Thessalonians. These new Christians came out of a culture not unlike our own. What does Paul tell them?

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8, ESV

God defines what is sexual immorality. He defines it in scripture as sex outside the marriage relationship of one man and one woman. Paul encourages them to abstain from the world’s passions and live lives of holiness. He warns them that God is an avenger against immoral behavior. He reminds them that to ignore this teaching is not to ignore human teachers but God himself. So, what will it be: survey says or God says?

*G. K. Beale. We Become What We Worship, p. 300.

The Problem of Masters and Slaves

February 22, 2013

For the skeptic, the subject of masters and slaves in the Bible is a moral failing. For the beginning Bible reader in the West, it is something very foreign to our lives (unfortunately, slavery still exists in the 21st century). The problem for us is bridging the context with two different ancient cultures.

Slavery in the Old Testament was debt servitude somewhat like indentured service in U.S. history. The Mosaic law attempted to protect the poor in many ways, but servitude was the answer to extreme poverty in the ancient near east. The law regulated and humanized this practice. Paul Copeland argues that if the principles of the Old Testament had been practiced, slavery would not have existed in the United States.1 What were those principles?

  • The law limited the time of servitude to six years. In the seventh year, the slave was to go free. Exodus 21:1
  • The law prohibited kidnapping, so slave traders were illegal and subject to the death penalty. Servitude in Israel was something an individual entered into voluntarily because of debts. Deuteronomy 24:7
  • The law protected the slave from harm. If harm came to the slave (e.g., a broken tooth), the slave was set free. Exodus 21:26-27
  • The law prohibited the return of a runaway slave. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 This stresses the voluntary nature of the financial arrangement. If conditions were too harsh and the slave could escape, he or she would not be returned.

The New Testament context was different from that of the Law of Moses. Yet even here, the context was different from the American experience. Slavery was not based on race. Most slaves gained their freedom. Some slaves held important positions like doctors, teachers, and government workers. Yes, conditions could also be harsh. Slavery is never a good situation (unless the master is God).

Christianity ultimately brought an end to slavery. The New Testament prohibited kidnapping or slave trading (1 Timothy 1:10 ). It taught the human dignity and equal spiritual status of all people including slaves. It encouraged slaves to gain their freedom whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:20-22). The end of slavery in the West came because Christianity transformed society morally from the inside rather than by political rebellion in the first century. And when slavery has occurred in history since, it has often had Christian leaders at the forefront to end it.

Once we have bridged the cultural contexts, I believe we will have answers for skeptics as well as lessons for today. From Paul’s letters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1), we can learn about Christian ethics in the workplace. From Peter’s letter (1 Peter 2:18-25), we learn how to respond to unjust treatment. But as readers we must enter into a very different world with understanding.


1Paul Copeland, Is God a Moral Monster?, p. 132

For further reading, see the relevant chapters in: Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copeland and Reason for God by Timothy Keller.


Sold for a Song

September 14, 2012

I read the following quote in a book on technology.

Twentieth-century pop music transformed sexual attitudes on a global basis. Trying to summarize the power of music leaves you breathless.

The author wasn’t trying to argue the case in the sense of marshaling a series of facts as proof. He assumed the reader would agree. The author also did not appear to be a Christian, and he did not necessarily view the change in sexual attitudes as a bad thing. It is for him simply a matter of this is the way it is.

I’m a little leery of one factor analysis. I suspect that we could broaden the quote to include the influence of our entertainment culture adding movies and television. But that a change has occurred is without doubt.

  • The percent of births to unmarried women in 1940 was 3.8%, but it was 41.0% in 2009.
  • More than 2/3 of married couples today say they lived together prior to marriage; the number of couples living together increased 10 times from 1960 to 2000.
  • The divorce rate for first time marriages is between 40 and 50% twice what it was in 1960.

This has all happened during a time when the majority of Americans would identify themselves as Christian. That percentage in 1948 was 91%, and according to Gallop, the percentage is 78% as of 2011. Weekly church attendance, however, is only around 43%. Of course, we can’t help but notice a downward trend.

What happened? The merchants of music and entertainment did not hold the same values as the rest of our culture. They did not share the same moral agenda, and they used their position to influence the culture. The consumers of this culture did so uncritically. It is possible to like a tune, a harmony or great bass guitar riff without agreeing with the lyrics of song. But this takes thought. We could have voted economically with our dollars spent on things that upheld our values rather than undermined them.

We must awaken to the reality of the past few decades and think Christianly about our consumer society. We have a message of good news to share. Regrettably, Christian values were sold for a song.


Is Life a Test?

March 4, 2011

Dr. Gregory House is television’s fictional curmudgeonly doctor. House is a misanthrope and an atheist. In a scene where the characters were considering whether there is anything to people seeing a white light at the end of the tunnel in near death experiences, House retorts that it is simply the chemical reactions to the brain shutting down. There is nothing after death, and he finds that comforting. When questioned about this being comforting, he replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that this isn’t simply a test.”

The scene succinctly raises an important issue about life. Is life a test or not? The Christian worldview gives a much different answer than the one given by the fictional Dr. House. The question is worth pondering.

I suspect that the comfort gained from saying life isn’t a test goes something like this. Death is the end. There is no judgment, heaven, or hell. We can’t get life wrong. It’s like the elation of the student who finds out there is no final exam.

Yet, this perspective comes with a terrible cost. It would mean that life has no ultimate meaning despite the fact we all seem to seek to make our life meaningful. It would mean that no moral values exist, other than the ones I subjectively create for myself, or we decide as a group, or some elite, powerful group decides for us. Yet such values are more akin to “I like chocolate; you like vanilla” than they are to “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” The dictator who exterminates millions, the gunman who takes out passersby in a shopping mall, or the woman who donates time at a soup kitchen are all just different ways of living life. Who’s to say which is better? They all die. If life is not a test, no one passes or fails.

Believing that life is a test certainly has ramifications. Since my choices in life can lead to eternal loss or eternal bliss, choices are filled with meaning and cannot be taken lightly. A choice between good and bad really exists. Doesn’t my sense that some things are not fair suggest that there is something about moral decisions that goes beyond my subjective feelings about them?

Such a life is more than a pass or fail for the afterlife. Life becomes a moral adventure. We have the opportunity to grow in goodness, love, and kindness. We learn the challenges of standing up for justice and fairness in a world that is frequently unfair. Honesty grows into transparency as we learn to be honest about who we are in all circumstances. The trials of life produce patient endurance.

I find comfort in life being a test. It means life matters, and death is not the end.

It’s a profound question. The course of your life will be affected by your answer. Is life a test?


A World of Moral Consequences

October 26, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel by Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray is a nineteenth century English gentleman having his portrait painted by artist Basil Hallward. During a sitting for the portrait, Dorian meets Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian is such a handsome young man and the portrait captures him so well, that Dorian laments that the picture will stay young, while he will grow old, horrible, and dreadful. He would give anything for it to be the other way.

Henry Wotton befriends Dorian and leads him down a path of hedonism. Wotton’s philosophy is: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Under this influence, Dorian cruelly breaks a young woman’s heart. Upon returning home, he sees the portrait has changed. He sees cruelty around the mouth that he hadn’t seen before. He hides the portrait because of what it now reveals about himself.

Years pass, and the portrait keeps a record of his soul. Dorian appears young and good, but the rumors about him swirl. The hidden portrait reveals the truth. Basil visits Dorian and learns the terrible secret. In a fit of passion Dorian stabs and kills Basil. In the aftermath, Dorian fears discovery of his crime. The novel states:

It was imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin…. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak.

The quote raises the question of whether there are moral consequences in our world. By the way, the wisdom literature of the Bible wrestles with the same thing. Proverbs gives the general truth that it is better to be righteous (Proverbs 4:18), but even the wisdom literature (especially Ecclesiastes) knows that sometimes it appears that the wicked prosper (Ecclesiastes 7:15, 8:10).

We may ask: Why doesn’t God punish us immediately for every sin? Wouldn’t it be fairer and clearer, if like rats in a maze we were zapped at every wrong turn? I suspect that God doesn’t do that because He wants more than people who negotiate moral choices correctly. A constantly zapped people might make the right choices, but would they love the good, and more importantly would they love God?

Interestingly enough, The Picture of Dorian Gray does give an answer to the assertion that the wicked are not punished. It vividly describes the ruin on the inside even if the world does not see the condition of the soul. Moral consequences exist even if they do not seem to work out perfectly in this life. Righteousness produces a different kind of person than wickedness. The general truths of wisdom can be observed in this life, even if we struggle with some exceptions: “The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin” (Proverbs 10:16, ESV). Like it or not, we live in a world of moral consequences.


Living in a Sex Saturated Society

March 28, 2009

Paul’s world was not unlike our own-it was a sex saturated society. Permissive sex, homosexuality, perversions, divorce and bawdy theater were a part of the Roman world in the first century AD. In spite of the culture, Paul called Christians to live “…not in passionate lust like the Gentiles” (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, ESV).

Paul notes that God’s will is our sanctification This word implies a process in which the Christian is maturing, growing in holiness, and becoming more like their Father in heaven. Paul later in the letter states, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it’ (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, ESV).

A part of holy living is avoiding sexual immorality. The word, porneia, translated “sexual immorality” and traditionally rendered “fornication” (see for example the KJV) is a broader concept than our English term “fornication.” The word fornication in English means sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other. But concerning porneia the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters writes, “This Greek word and its cognates as used by Paul denote any kind of illegitimate-extramarital and unnatural-sexual intercourse or relationship” (p. 871). For Paul, there was only one kind of legitimate sexual relationship, the one between a man and a woman who are married.

The consequence of sexual immorality is judgment. Paul solemnly warns “the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thess. 4:6, ESV). Elsewhere Paul warns that the sexually immoral, adulterers, and homosexuals (as well as a list of other sins) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

To a world that often approaches such issues from a very subjective viewpoint, Paul ends his discussion of sexual immorality with very strong words. “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8, ESV).

God calls us to holy lives even when we are living in a sex saturated society.