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Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The Prodigal Son Part 2

Jesus and The Failed Gentile Mission

When Jesus called Peter to become a fisher of men, I seriously doubt the Apostle had any thought of the role he would someday play in fulfilling Israel’s sacred mission to the Gentiles. For him, one who most closely related to the older brother in The Parable of The Prodigal Son, sharing the heart of the father for the gentiles, proved a stressful ministry challenge into his older years.

Before we are too harsh on our great brother, let me ask you a question. How many Israelite characters can you name who ministered to Gentiles?

  1. Moses came out of Egypt with a mixed multitude who were absorbed into Israel.
  2. David had Gentiles as part of his entourage… like Uriah whom he murdered after stealing the poor man’s wife.
  3. Elijah won Naaman in 2nd Kings 5 after healing him from a skin disease.
  4. Jonah was instrumental in the conversion of the sailors through both his proclamations of YHWH’s glory and his own “death” at YHWH’s hand in the midst of the storm. He also preached a message to Nineveh and turned many from their wickedness, no matter how unhappy he was about the deliverance.
  5. Daniel and his friends were powerful witnesses for YHWH even in the face of death threats… and actual murder attempts.
  6. The exile and diaspora forced Jews to spread abroad, advancing YHWH’s fame (even if by accident) through their dedication to preserving Torah and Synagogue.

The First Great Commission

When God called Israel out of Egypt and met with them at Sinai, he gave them a commission. It was the natural extension of the commission to man in the garden of Eden. (Genesis 1:26-30) God created the world with a purpose; He created it to become something, and put that “something” into the hands of His regents in the world—humanity.

It was a commission whose fulfillment was promised through THE ONE when humanity fell into sin (Genesis 3:15), that ONE person who would perfectly represent the Creator in this world. For though man should fail, God will not allow his word to return void. He will accomplish His purposes. Creation will become what God intended it to become when He made it… even if He has to come to earth as a man to fulfill it Himself… one standing in for all.

It was a commission handed off to THE ONE, Noah, and then adapted for the Seed of THE ONE, Abraham, chosen from among all the sons of men to bear it forward. Israel, Abraham’s seed, was called to be a nation of priests, holy to YHWH, fulfilling His purposes in creation, representing the Nations to God, and God to the nations. (Exodus 19:5-6)

The Commission Inverted

This commission falls on hard times, however. Isaiah 2:1-4:6 unpacks the trouble. God has called Israel to be a light to the nations, which is an ongoing theme in Isaiah, a mission to be fulfilled ultimately by THE ONE great Messiah who is to come. Israel, however, strives not to affect the nations, but to be like them. They forsake Torah and emulate the vile practices of the peoples around them; they worship idols and give themselves over to bloodshed and immorality. God, however, will fulfill His purposes in and through them. He will use exile to purge them of this tendency, to create usable instruments for His glorification the world over out of a remnant of Israel, the seed Abraham, the seed of the woman.

When Israel returns to the Holy Land after exile they are cured of Idolatry… sort of. They are so skittish about idolatry that one risked instant stoning and riots at the very hint of physical idol worship. This says nothing of the human tendency to establish idols in the heart, but there would be no truck with actual images.

Rise of the Pharisees

Unfortunately, as is the won’t of human nature, they also became so antiseptic, so paranoid, and so determined to keep themselves unstained by the world, that, far from fulfilling their commission as a nation of priests, a light to the Gentiles, they enculturated hatred for the Gentiles. It becomes a defining feature.

Pharisaic disdain for non-Jews (and less committed Jews) is expressed in their writings with enough vehemence as to make your average hate monger blush. “The Traditions of the Elders,” a stimulus for Jesus’ personal Gentile mission in Mark 7, is not a code word for Jewish oral law in general but represented 18 vigorously enforced, and newly passed, oral laws that were specifically designed to strain all Gentile Jewish relations to the breaking point. Their single aim was to drive a wedge of hatred between the Jew and the non-Jew.

The heartland of Judaism (Judea) manifests its most vicious forms. As one spreads out from Judea, the rule-keeping grows sloppier. The Pharisees work aggressively to bring the regions of Galilee and other outlying areas into line with their own rigid sense of Torah keeping. They also have strained relations with Hellenistic Jews who have been forced to live abroad in the Roman Empire… a tension that carries on within the Christian church thereafter. They also relegate classes of people like sinners whose Jewish sloppiness was unbearable to them, and tax-collectors who earned their keep working for the Roman authorities to tax their fellow Jews.

So, in the face of Jewish leadership’s failure to fulfill their commission as a people called to be a kingdom of priests, a light of the nations, not to mention their antiseptic self-congratulating trust in their own goodness before God the Father, Jesus decides to school them on the nature of the Father’s heart for all His Children and not just for those who “were born to the right parents,” and who “do everything right.”

Jesus and the Gentiles

Why does Jesus eat and drink with tax-gatherers and sinners? Why does Jesus receive them? Is that really the question? Based even on the most basic elements of human compassion, (demonstrated in the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son) which is an empty shell compared to the compassion of the Heavenly Father, the real question is, “Why don’t they?”

There are prodigal sons, prodigal daughters, prodigal people groups, prodigal nations, and Jesus arises as THE ONE son of David, THE ONE son of Abraham, THE ONE seed of the woman to fulfill Israel’s commission to the world.

He establishes a church whose own commission encompasses the others. God’s regents are meant to win the lost… everywhere. Thus, Jesus commissions, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

So, Jesus’ promise to Peter that he would be a fisher of men, is illustrated in The Parable of the Prodigal Son, calling him to share the heart of the heavenly father for the lost the world over. It is also met with the Great Commission as Jesus’ last words on earth to him.

 

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Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The Prodigal Son Part 1

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Allegory or Analogy?

Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 says:

THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.

The beauty of this manifesto is powerfully illustrated in The Parable of The Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

There is something in the prodigal son story that resonates with almost everyone who reads it. In one sense, every sinner who has come to Jesus is a prodigal come home, for every heart is born far from God, and it is only through repentance that we return to that place from which our first parents fled—God is our home.

Interpreting the Prodigal

The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been a powerful witness to Jesus’ mission but has also fallen victim to bad interpretation. Being imagined to possess meaningful applications to life and worship that can be found in the smallest of details, The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been picked over like a chicken carcass. Not infrequently this feeding frenzy is done without regard to the rules of parable telling in Jesus’ own day and in complete obliviousness to the context of its telling.

One of the biggest confusions is that some approach the prodigal son as an allegory while it is, in actuality, an analogy. The difference is monumental.

Now I love a good allegory (I cut my teeth on Pilgrim’s Progress) but if one treats an analogy like the Parable of the Prodigal Son as an allegory even its good things can warp into ugly things. This is because, in an allegory, we treat everything as having meaning. The smallest points suggest to our seeking minds the most significant truths… even if we have to add to the picture to do so.

Luke 4 As Allegory

In an allegorized Prodigal son, specific reference is sought in every detail of the parable. The Father represents the heavenly father, the prodigal represents the sinners and tax-gatherers, and the older brother represents the religious leaders. So far so good. How far should we push the details though?

Should we seek specific meaning in the famine? The pods of the pig slop? The pigs? What about those around the prodigal who “gave him nothing?” What specific meaning should we give to the ring? The robe? The shoes? The fatted calf? Who do the servants represent? Honestly, do we really want to go there? Do we believe Jesus intended us to go there?

More pointedly, if the older son represents the religious leaders of the day, do we really want to suggest that the father’s words to his older son in the parable are point-for-point words of Jesus to the religious leaders? Does Jesus preach to Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees, on behalf of the Father, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”?

If we go with allegory rather than analogy, is the younger son is still out of his inheritance? If all that the father has belongs to the older brother, what remains for the younger brother? “Welcome back, Son, but you are still impoverished.” “Now that the party is over, let’s talk about that new job as a hired hand.”

How much crazier could we get if we began to imagine details drawn from the world of family farms and sought meaning in them? There is no end to the possible mischief we could get up to if we allegorize. I’ve seen it… it gets ugly.

Luke 4 As Analogy

As an analogy, however, one seeks in the prodigal son story a broad situational comparison. The details are present to add commonly recognized realism to the story. In analogy, we learn simple lessons about one thing drawn from general similarities between it and some other common occurrence.

Jesus is dining with those whom the Pharisees have labeled tax collectors and sinners. These are, however, people who have become Jesus’ followers. Do the religious types want to know why he would allow them to become part of His ministry? Jesus answers their question with three connected parables. We might label these three together as—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. While there are some vague representations found in the audience (Each person in the audience is supposed to find himself or herself somewhere in the stories) the details must not be pushed too hard. The big picture speaks.

Jesus asks twice, who wouldn’t rejoice if a lost precious thing were found?

The answer is found in the final story, but the details are meant to enhance the main point rather than making independent points of their own. These are analogies NOT all-encompassing allegories.

 

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Moses

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

God on god Violence

When going to Bible college, my professors were wont to say that God’s ten plagues against Egypt were attacks against the gods of Egypt. Did not Yahweh say to Moses in Exodus 12:12, “…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD”? Just as three meant few, forty meant many, and seven was a sacred counting, so also ten plagues, matching the ten fingers on the human hand, did represent a type of fullness… here, a fullness of judgment against Egypt and her gods. When, however, I would ask what Egyptian gods were involved and how the plagues diminished them, I never got more than one or two obvious ones tossed back at me, like “attacking the Nile (Hapi)” and “blocking out the sun (Ra).” They would usually mumble off after those and say to the rest of the class, “Any other questions before we move on?”

So that you don’t have to suffer the same unmet curiosity, let me give you a list.1 When Pharoah boasts, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Yahweh shows Pharaoh exactly who He is. He is the Lord of Lords.

1. The Nile turned to Blood

Hapi was the god of the yearly flooding of the Nile, which was the very source of Egypt’s life. Pharoah made the Hebrews cast their sons to the Nile, and when it was struck with Moses’ staff, it ran red like the blood of those drowned there and devoured by fish and crocodiles. Hapi was often called, “Lord of fish and birds and marshes,” as well as “Lord of the river bringing vegetation.” Everything in the Nile died.

2. Frogs Swarm the Land

Heket is a fertility goddess with the head of a frog. The frog was a fertility symbol. Yahweh makes them fertile indeed. Rather than rising with the Nile they exit from the Nile, swarm the land, and fill Egypt with putrefaction. Though Heket was also “She who hastens birth” it is the Hebrew women worshiping Yahweh alone, who “are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

3. Lice From the Dust

Geb was the god of the soil, i.e. the dust of the earth. Yahweh “invades his territory” and brings forth lice rather than rice. He is also regarded as the father of snakes, giving a deeper sense to Moses’ staff becoming a serpent and swallowing up the Magicians’ serpent staffs.

4. Swarms of Flies

Uatchit, also called Wadjet, was the goddess of the marshes where papyrus and swarms abound. She is the goddess of the heat of noon which empowers the swarms and was closely associated with the Sun god Ra. She both wore and was the image of Pharoah’s crown, a protector of the land. Yahweh blots out the sun with swarms and devastates the land over which the Swarm goddess stood sentinel.

5. Death of Livestock

The Cow goddess, Hathor, like many Egyptian deities, has a complicated history. She was pictured as a cow or a woman adorned with cow horns. Like other cow goddesses, Hathor is also associated with the sun and sky, and thus the symbolic mother of the Pharaohs. Cows were revered as nurturers and givers of milk. She is symbolically struck down with Yahweh’s plague against the cattle of the land.

6. Ashes Turn to Boils

Isis, the goddess who resurrected her brother, Osiris, had legendary magical powers and is commonly associated with magic spells of healing for everyone, even common people. Here, even Pharaoh’s magicians could not stand before Pharaoh because the boils were tormenting them.

7. Hail and Fire From the Heavens

Exodus 9:23 says, “Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth.” As with the swarm goddess, when swarms destroy and the frog-headed fertility goddess when frogs overrun and pollute the land, Yahweh “seizes control” over the heavens and rains down lightning and lethal hail. There are a few different sky deities at play here. Primarily, we have Tefnut, goddess of sky moisture, we have Shu, god of winds and air, we have Horus, god of kingship and sky, the spirit of Pharaoh in life, and we have Nut goddess of the sky, a nourisher suckling the world. None can hold back Yahweh’s hand.

8. Locusts Plague From a Strong East Wind

Seth was the ruler of the red land, i.e. the east and west desert regions surrounding the black land of fertile Egypt. As the desert was a protective flank, Seth was thought to play his part in warding off the chaos from Egypt. From “Seth’s desert,” however, Yahweh brings locusts to finish off what remained from the hail.

9. Blocking Out the Sun

Ra, the noon-day sun, ruler of the sky, earth, underworld, and kings. He was divine order and the source of creation. The Egyptians called themselves the cattle of Ra. Yahweh’s penultimate strike was to blacken out all the light of day and night so that painful darkness spread throughout the whole land.

10. Killing the Firstborn

Pharaoh was worshipped as the son of Ra, Horus on earth, and Osiris in death. Not only does Yahweh strike down every firstborn from beast and man, from the lowest servant to the very house of Pharaoh, but here Pharaoh is defeated in his resistance to releasing the labor force of Israel to go their way.

 

Conclusion

God said to Moses in Exodus 7:2-5:

“…tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”

Yahweh did. Egypt did. Pharaoh did. Israel did.

 

1I’ve seen some variation in the list from different scholars, particularly those who mistake Khepri for a fly-headed god, but this is a good list.

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Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The Story of Joseph

Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Most of us know the story of Joseph well. And there are many lessons to be learned from this historical and dramatic narrative. I want to point out one of the central ideas of this story that, despite its importance, is often overlooked. It has to do with the idea that God was with Joseph. Here’s the question I want to answer: “Why was God with Joseph?”

 

The Story of Joseph

Joseph is favored by his father, Jacob, and given a “coat of many colors.”1 Joseph also tells his brothers of dreams, dreams where his brothers would bow down to him. His jealous brothers throw him into a pit and sell Joseph into slavery. A traveling merchant then purchases Joseph and takes him to Egypt. While in Egypt, Joseph faithfully serves a military officer named Potiphar, until he is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown in prison.

 

During his 13-year imprisonment, Joseph interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants and does so accurately. When Pharaoh has a strange and unsettling dream, one of the servants recommends Joseph as an able interpreter. Because Joseph was able to interpret the dream, he is made second in command over all of Egypt. In Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph foresees a coming famine. Wisely, Joseph advises the Pharaoh to store grain before the famine hits. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food. When they arrive, they soon discover that little brother Joseph now runs the entire kingdom and doles out the food when scarcely any could be found. They end up bowing to Joseph, just like Joseph’s dream had predicted so long ago.

 

God Was with Joseph

At one of the key moments in the story, the narrator tells us this: “The Lord was with Joseph…” (Gen. 39:21a). This comment comes right after Joseph found himself unjustly placed in prison.

It is tempting to think that God was with Joseph because of what Joseph did just a few verses before. Joseph demonstrated tremendous courage and integrity by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph risked his comfortable and prestigious position to do what was right. So, when we are told that “God was with Joseph” immediately after he is locked away, it may lead some to interpret the text as teaching that God was with Joseph because he did what was right. Sometimes, though, well-intentioned people can still misinterpret the narrative.

If we read the narrative again closely, we notice a few important details. For example, the Bible never says that God was with Joseph because of what he did. If we take that view, then we must read that into the text. Instead, Joseph’s dreams show that God was with Joseph at the very beginning. Joseph’s dreams show that God had planned to bless Joseph and bring him to a position of power and influence so that his brothers and even his father would bow down to him. The text confirms that these dreams were from God when we see them dramatically fulfilled at the end of the story (cf. Gen 43:28).

But why is God with Joseph if Joseph does nothing to deserve God’s favor? Joseph himself gives an almost direct answer to this question. After his brothers discover that Joseph is a ruler in Egypt, they desperately sought his forgiveness. Joseph tells them, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Gen. 45:5). Joseph adds, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:7).

Therefore, according to Joseph, God had at least two purposes for being with him. First, Joseph’s position in Egypt and his ability to interpret dreams meant that there would be food for everyone during the famine; Joseph would “save lives.” Through Joseph, God provides physical sustenance to many nations when they need it most.

Second, through Joseph, God would specifically save the lives of Jacob’s family. This preserves  a “remnant on earth.” Understood within the wider context of the book of Genesis, we see that through Joseph, God keeps his promise to Abraham, to make him into a “great nation” (Gen 12:2). Without Joseph, Abraham’s family would have died in the famine. Ultimately, God would bless all people through Joseph because it is through his family that God would send the Messiah, Jesus, to save the world (Gal. 3:8).

 

God’s Reasons

So, God had his own reasons for favoring Joseph that had nothing to do with Joseph’s actions. God’s purpose in blessing Joseph was to bless others. God chose a particular person and God worked through the circumstances of Joseph’s life to include, ultimately, the entire world in the blessing of Abraham. Once we get a full picture of what God was doing through Joseph, we see that God blessed Joseph to bless all of us. God was with Joseph, in part, so that one day, he could be with all people through his Son.

One of the lessons we learn from Joseph’s story is that God loves humanity and that he will keep his promise to bless the world through Abraham, no matter what. In Jesus, we find the proof that promise has, indeed, been kept.

1It is likely that Joseph’s coat was a meticulously made tunic. The idea that it was a “coat of many colors” comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew versions suggest it was an embroidered tunic.