*note, this piece is part of an ongoing series. If you’re just joining this korero, I would encourage you to start with part one, which you can find here
Progressive Patient Revelation
As I’ve engaged in this korero, I often sense fear coming from my conservative Christian whanau. Not a fear based on hate, or homophobia, I want to be clear, it is a fear that is sincere and understandable. It is a fear that if we don’t get this right, than people we love and care about are going to spend eternity in torment.
This fear makes it difficult for us to love and accept people unconditionally. We become afraid that by loving indiscriminately, somehow, we will be confused with condoning certain practices or beliefs which we may believe to be sinful or harmful.
This is of course on full display in how the dominant voice within the church interacts with the rainbow community. Many of us feel this need to publicly state our position on what is sin and what is not to those who come into our space. We want to avoid any confusion, to be clear, hoping that by doing so we can save people from eternal torment (we’ve dealt with hell briefly in this blog check it out for a refresher).
As a result, we often keep people at arm’s length, failing to love them fully because we are afraid.
And what are we afraid of?
Quite simply that if people do not believe the right things, or live the right way, that they are in danger of the “fires of hell.”
So, we find ourselves in this position of needing to make certain that everyone “outside of the church” (as defined by our theological framework and the boundary markers set by our particular traditions) understands clearly what we believe and how we define sin, hell and all that jazz, out of fear that our love and acceptance of people will not lead to a confusion of belief that will result in “God’s wrath and judgement.”
However, it would seem to me that God is not as concerned about right belief as his church-dwelling-whanau. In fact, as I look throughout scripture, I see that there are numerous times where God chooses to remain silent rather than correct errors within his peoples thinking all for the sake of remaining in relationship with them.
God’s love for his people and his desire for them to receive that love and be in relationship with him, overrides any need for him to force his people to think the right thoughts about him.
Rather, God walks patiently alongside his people, slowly revealing himself to them, bit by bit, until he can make himself fully known through the final and full revelation which is Jesus Christ.
So, where do we see this demonstrated within scripture you might ask?
There are numerous examples of this, more than I could do justice to within the confines of this blog. However, why don’t we start with the Israelite’s belief that God demanded – and in fact was pleased by – animal sacrifice as atonement for their sins.
The first time one of God’s people uses animal sacrifice as a means of offering worship to God is found in Gen 4.
The text says that Abel – seeking to worship God and perhaps atone for his sins – chose the “best of his first-born lambs” and offered them as a sacrifice (vs 4).
Nowhere in the text does God request or demand this sacrifice.
So, if God didn’t demand animal sacrifice then why did Abel believe that it was necessary?
I would suggest that from what we know of the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context Abel was living in, his understanding of how to interact with God was culturally conditioned by that culture he was in. ANE people believed that the gods demanded or rather desired such sacrifices.
So, operating out of his culturally conditioned understanding of what pleases the gods, Abel offers a sacrifice up to God, hoping to please him.
The next time animal sacrifice appears within scripture is again in Genesis. This time following the flood, Noah chooses to offer worship and thanks to God by preparing an animal sacrifice (8:20).
Once again, God does not command this sacrifice, and though the writer of the text appears to believe that the Lord is pleased with this offering, God remains notably quiet on the issue.
Abraham is the next to offer animal sacrifices to God. However, once again when we pay attention to the text we notice that God does not explicitly ask for these sacrifices to take place (15:9-10; 22:15). Rather, he is silent leaving both the author of the text and Abraham to mistake his silence as acceptance.
At this point you might be saying, “but hey, what about the books of Law, doesn’t God explicitly demand animal sacrifice in like Leviticus and Numbers etc?”
Well, I would agree that it certainly appears that way. Operating out of their culturally conditioned lens the people of Israel believe that this is what God is requesting of them and as a result this is what is recorded in the text (Lev 1-9; Numbers 15; Dt. 21:1-9).
Your response at this point might be “Well there it is, God said it, that settles it.”
Our problem is that the narrative of scripture does not stop in the Torah.
As the scriptures unfold we begin to get a new revelation as we move past the books of Law and through to the prophets.
Though in much of the OT God had remained silent, eventually this silence comes to an end at a time when God deems his people are ready both to listen and understand.
Speaking through his prophet Isaiah the Lord says,
“What makes you think I want your sacrifices?… I am sick of your burnt offerings… I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls…. When you came to worship me who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts… your offerings disgust me!… they are all sinful and false… they are a burden to me… I cannot stand them… (Ish 1:11-17).”
Reading this, you may think what’s God on about? Is God schizophrenic? Didn’t he explicitly demand animal sacrifice (Lev 1-9; 12:6; Numbers 15, 28:3-5; Dt. 21:1-9 11)?
So, either God is contradicting himself here, or (to borrow theologian Greg Boyd’s favourite phrase) “Something else is going on.”
Animal sacrifice was so deeply imbedded into the ANE culture that I suggest God recognized that challenging that system at the early stage of his relationship with Israel, would have been beyond their comprehension. Instead of violating their free will, and downloading “right belief” into their brains, he chose to be patient. He remained silent for a time, choosing to reveal himself to them slowly, as he led them step by step into a fuller revelation of his true character.
Further proof for this view comes as we take a wider look at the narrative of scripture. When we step back we see that God is willing to allow his people to believe wrong thoughts about him in order to be in relationship with his people (we see this same pattern in relation to the Bible’s perspective on violence and revenge [Exd 21:23-25; Matt 5:38-48], polygamy, marriage and divorce [Dt 24:1; Mark 10:4-12; Matt 5:31-32], oath keeping [Num. 30:2; Matt 5:33-37] and a range of other popular issues). God is also willing to work within the culturally conditioned frameworks that his people have, choosing silence when necessary, and patiently waiting until his people are ready to accept and receive a more perfect revelation of who he is and what he desires.
And if we continue reading Isaiah and the prophets God begins to reveal to his people that it is not sacrifice or religious rituals which please Him, but Love for one’s fellow human expressed through a commitment to social justice for the poor, needy and oppressed (Ish 1:16-17; 58; 61:8; Micah 6:6-8; Hosea 6:6; Psalm 40:6-8).
And if we read further still into the New Testament we see that God reveals himself through the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:18; 10:30; 14:6-11; 17:25 Col 1:15). Stripping away all the culturally conditioned misunderstandings that the Jews had held on too, Jesus sums up the entire Law and the Prophets with the words “Love God and Love others (Matt 22:37-40; Luke 10:26-28)
This later became the measure which the early church used to discern what it meant to live a Christian life and obey the commands of Christ (Rom. 12:10; Gal 5:14; 1 Thess 4:9; Heb10:24; 13:8- 9; James 2:8; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11; 23; 4:7-8; 11-12; 2 John 1:5-6).
The author of Hebrews further clarifies this correction in Chapter 10 quoting Psalm 40:6-6 she goes on to say of God that “You did not want animal sacrifices… nor were you pleased with them (Heb 10:8).”
And Paul, also seeing the need to provide further clarification explains how Jesus revealed that it was never ritual sacrifice that saved, but rather faith (Rom 4:3; 5:13).
And so, what we see here is God’s willingness to work with and through humanities cultural conditioned lens, at times choosing to remain silent when he knows his people are not able to understand nor accept his words. He allows his people space to grow, even when this means allowing them to believe wrong thoughts about him.
So what does this mean when put into the context of our current korero? We’ll discuss this in our next blog.