“You Can’t Call God on the Telephone” and Other Christian Teachings Specifically for Children

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telephoneI have a very clear childhood memory of siting at a tiny little table in a room full of toys, coloring a picture of different types of telephones and then crossing them out while listening to someone explain that you can’t call God on the telephone. I was five years old and it was part of a Sunday School lesson on prayer. To my mind, it seemed that I was being taught a great theological truth about the nature of God and telephones. This idea was reinforced by the fact that “You can’t call God on the telephone” was a maxim that was repeated whenever prayer was the topic of a Sunday School class for the next several years. Apparently, this is considered a good way to begin discussing prayer with small children.

*sarcasm alert* Look, kids, Jesus can't hear you unless your head is bowed!

*sarcasm alert* Look, kids, Jesus can’t hear you unless your head is bowed!

That strikes me as being extremely odd. Evidently, the point was to distinguish prayer from human-to-human conversation, but why is that such an important point to make? Why do people think that it’s the first and primary thing about prayer that young children need to know? Wouldn’t it be more significant to point out that prayer actually is sort of like talking to a person, and that it’s a really special blessing to be able to talk directly to God? Besides, it’s not as if a telephone somehow blocks prayer from reaching God’s ears. If someone was to pray while holding a telephone to their face for some reason, that wouldn’t negate the prayer. But that is also an unnecessary point to specify when defining prayer for children, because the topic of prayer is not intrinsically linked to the topic of telephones. At least in my case, the discussion of telephones was a distraction from the subject of prayer, not an instructive illustration of the concepts being taught.

Cutting out pictures of butterflies is a very edifying activity.

Cutting out pictures of butterflies is a very edifying activity.

Little-kid Sunday School, at least as I remember it, relied on a lot of canned phrases and irrelevant craft projects to discuss things in vague terms that would have been better if they were just taught explicitly. We were told over and over again that “God is everywhere” and that we were supposed to “Always trust in God” without any additional explanation or discussion of those concepts. Old Testament stories were taught as if the whole point of them was how righteous certain “characters” were and how we should be just like them. Bible stories from the gospels were learned by coloring pictures of Jesus and talking in vague terms about how loving Jesus is and how He always cares for us. The epistles were completely ignored until around fifth or sixth grade, at which point those teachings were incorporated into Sunday School lessons by having each student look up a certain number of verses, all taken out of context, that related to a certain theme. That theme was sometimes moralistic (like how important it is to love everyone) and sometimes encouraging, (like how God doesn’t want bad things to happen to Christians) but it was always something fairly vague and rarely had to do with salvation and justification. Instead of learning the Ten Commandments or discussing Law and Gospel, we looked at cartoons of children engaged in various activities and pointed out which ones were misbehaving and which ones were being good. Coloring on the walls is bad, setting the dinner table is good, pulling people’s hair is bad, and helping a friend who fell down and scraped his knee is good. Maybe the occasional Sunday School lesson happened to mention Jesus’ crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins, but if it did, that was a trivial point compared to the primary purpose of telling stories illustrating goodness and badness, or reminding us that God is [insert any generic adjective with a positive connotation].

When I was little, I thought that coloring on the wall was an unforgivable sin, because Sunday School kept telling me how naughty it was.

When I was little, I thought that coloring on the wall was an unforgivable sin, because Sunday School kept telling me how naughty it was.

For teenagers and preteens, most Sunday School lessons try very hard to prepare students for the possibility that they will have to defend themselves to peers who may tease them for going to church. I remember many, many lessons that involved watching videos or looking at stories written in comic book form, showing a Christian teenager explaining to his/her friends that he/she can’t participate in a certain social event on Sunday morning because he/she had church. The friends would laugh at the protagonist, say that church wasn’t important, and (horror of horrors) call the protagonist a “religious nut.” Then the protagonist would resist peer pressure, meekly walk away from the conversation, decide that those kids are terrible people and bad influences with whom no Christian can be friends, go home, do his/her chores and homework, and read the Bible for an hour before going to bed and getting at least eight hours of sleep because that’s the right thing to do. He or she is a good and faithful Christian, everyone else is bad and should be avoided, and the lesson is over.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad with teaching kids moral values, emphasizing the greatness of God, or warning teenagers about peer pressure and anti-Christian sentiment in popular culture. But I don’t understand why most adults think that children can’t understand anything beyond empty clichés and the distinction between good and bad. It would be so easy to take a stereotypical moralistic Sunday School lesson and expand it into a meaningful Law/Gospel lesson by adding a few words to the effect that Jesus died on the cross to pay for all our sins. That’s not an intellectually challenging concept; at least one of my younger sisters was able to articulate it as soon as she was old enough to talk in sentences. It would be so easy to take a popular theme or Bible story and expand it into a meaningful message by taking the fluff out of Sunday School lessons and using that time to read entire Bible passages instead of individual verses. It would be so easy to remind Sunday School students what their church teaches in addition to what their friends are likely to think about their church. Little kids would benefit a lot from having some substance in their Sunday School lessons, and older kids would benefit even more because their lessons tend to follow an even narrower theme than little kids’ lessons do. Just because teenagers face peer pressure doesn’t mean that all they need to hear is how important it is not to give in to it.

Kids, don't give in to peer pressure or Jesus will be sad.

Kids, don’t give in to peer pressure or Jesus will be sad.

It’s true that Christians are subject to hurtful stereotypes, especially on the internet, and that Christians do sometimes experience peer pressure that will try to turn them away from the church. It is very true that Christianity is distinctly set apart from the secular world, which is why “secular” is even a word in the first place. And it makes sense to occasionally warn teenagers about the anti-Christian messages that they will often encounter. (Here, I use “anti” both in the sense of “opposed to” and in the sense of “instead of”) But despite the non-Christian values of our society and the negative view of Christians that is propagated by certain aspects of the media and held by many individuals, this culture is still a very safe and easy place to be a Christian, at least in comparison to many parts of the world. In this country, not only is it legal to be a Christian, but it’s fairly normal.  Peer pressure and anti-Christian stereotypes are issues that Christian teenagers face in this society, but it isn’t exactly the constant hardship that Sunday School lessons tell them to anticipate. For one thing, Christianity is common enough that most Christian teenagers have friends who share their faith and would never tease them or alienate them for their beliefs. Besides that, very few atheists will suddenly dump a best friend for being Christians. Sure, religion does occasionally tear relationships apart, but it’s unlikely that those kinds of issues will occur out of the blue sometime when someone teases you for going to church on one specific Sunday.

I myself have never been directly and specifically mocked by a peer for being a Christian. There have been occasions where someone has questioned my values and beliefs or has expressed surprise and confusion about my unwillingness to skip church on a whim, but (unless you count the occasional hateful anonymous internet comment) I have never been victimized on account of my religion. But there’s something else I have encountered quite a lot, something that Sunday School never told me might ever happen. People ask me genuine, sincere, curious questions about religion all the time. Atheist or agnostic friends are curious about what exactly Christianity is all about, non-Lutheran Christians wonder what exactly Lutherans believe, and occasionally, people who are completely on the same page as me want to hear what I know about a particular topic. It’s a good thing that I go to church and Bible study regularly and grew up in a Christian home, because Sunday School alone wouldn’t have prepared me to be able to give even the most basic explanation of what my religion is. As it is, I admit that there have been a number of cases in which I have responded by mumbling something random and inarticulate that may or may not have resembled actual words. But there have been quite a number of other times where I have had a very interesting theological conversation with someone who genuinely wanted to hear about my faith and who had no intention to respond with insults or mockery. Those kinds of conversations are always good experiences, and I’d like to think that the other person gets something out of them, too.

LIKE AND SHARE IF YOU LOVE JESUS!

LIKE AND SHARE IF YOU LOVE JESUS!

At any rate, I think it’s an important thing for Christians to know and be able to articulate what they believe. It seems to me that Christianity in general is following the dumbing-down trend set by Sunday School lessons. Just take a look at the ways people express their faith on the internet. It’s impossible to avoid the “share if you love Jesus” facebook posts and the inspirational “Christian” quotes that have nothing to do with Christ. When we were kids, we were taught that faith means being good, or being able to tell when other people aren’t being good, or resisting peer pressure by letting everyone know just how much we love Jesus, or making generic and vague statements about how good God is. So that’s what Christianity means in our culture now. And, based upon what I have seen and heard, the result is that some Christians and most non-Christians really are unaware of what Christianity is. People actually don’t realize that Jesus’ death and resurrection is what’s important, and that the central teaching of Christianity is that His death and resurrection gives us salvation from our sins. That’s a much more important teaching, not only for the grownups, but for people of every age group. When it comes down to it, there’s no distinction between Christian teachings for kids and Christian teachings, because kids should be allowed to know what their religion says.

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More Stuff that Martin Luther Didn’t Say

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Martin LutherA little more than a year ago, I wrote this blog post, expressing my annoyance that Martin Luther is often incorrectly associated with certain liberal ideas such as a mistrust of organized religion and the subjectivity of biblical interpretation. Seriously, Martin Luther is among the most misquoted historical figures of all time. According to the Editor’s Introduction to the Augsburg Confession in the 2006 publication of the Book of Concord, the time-honored tradition of grossly misquoting Luther dates back to 1519 in a book written by John Eck for the purpose of turning people against Luther. But I think that some of the current non-Lutheran viewpoints associated with Luther actually have the opposite purpose; they come from some people’s desire to claim that Luther’s reforms were heading in the direction that certain current denominations are going. At any rate, Luther never wanted the Bible to be subject to personal interpretation and he by no means believed that religion is a one-on-one individualistic relationship with God that doesn’t have anything to do with church. That’s basically what I said in the aforementioned blog post from last summer.

It has come to my attention since then, though, that Martin Luther’s name has also become associated with transcendentalist ideas. There are a number of popular bogus Luther quotations that get posted all over the internet, and I am aware of one particular facebook page that bears Martin Luther’s name, but has posted the words of Romantic-era transcendentalist poets with the assertion that they have some connection to Luther’s teachings. I later unfollowed that page after noticing that the admin had done that kind of thing on several occasions, but I am disturbed to know that such a page exists and that there are many people who repost those things with the idea that those heretical (or, at best, heterodox) quotations are profound, true, and consistent with Lutheran beliefs.

Transcendentalism is the philosophical idea, associated with Romantic-era literature as well as with a few much older beliefs, that nature is itself divine. Depending upon who is being quoted and what the context of the statement is, transcendentalists may assert either that there is no God apart from the natural world, that God speaks to us directly through the natural world, or that He can be studied by immersing oneself in the natural world. Transcendentalism can be rectified with various different beliefs about what God or the gods are like, but it is not consistent with biblical Christianity. In all fairness, I suppose it is technically possible for someone to be a Christian with a transcendentalist point of view, but this cannot be supported by scripture and is not in keeping with Lutheran doctrine. (I am here defining “Christian” as a person believing in the existence of the triune God, viewing the Bible to be God’s Word, and having faith in the salvific work of Jesus Christ, who was both true God and true man and who lived a sinless human life and died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for the sins of all humankind so that we may have eternal life in heaven.)

Luther quoteThere are several fake Luther quotes out there that speak about finding God in nature. The most famous of these is “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Another one, which is very similar and perhaps is just a variation on the same quotation, says, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime”.  There are others out there on the internet that are along the same vein. Not only have the people of the internet been unable to cite a source for these statements, but they don’t even sound like Luther. Martin Luther’s rhetoric is not known for being cutesy and fluffy. He certainly had a way with words, but he often used it to disagree with people who taught false doctrine. Basically, if you can use a quotation as the caption for a beautiful and inspirational picture of the natural world, either it’s probably not a Luther quotation, or you’re probably pretty bad at captioning your pictures. Here’s a website that gives genuine Luther quotations. (I would like to point out for the record that Luther did not specialize exclusively in insults and name-calling; he also had much of importance and significance to say about God.)There’s also a twitter page where someone posts these Luther insults in response to false doctrine that Joel Osteen puts on Twitter. Frankly, I think that Martin Luther would approve of this posthumous use of his words. It’s very much in keeping with the way he used them when he was alive. It’s certainly more consistent with Luther’s personality and his beliefs than are vague transcendentalist statements about finding God in nature.

I have no doubt that Martin Luther was as capable as anyone else of acknowledging the beauty of certain aspects of the natural world, and that he appreciated the fact that God had created that beauty. You don’t have to look any farther than the Small Catechism (for example, the explanation to the first article of the creed) in order to see that Luther saw creation and every good thing in it as a direct gift from God. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging that God created something good and thinking that he communicates with us through it.

It is commonly said by Christians of all denominations that we can see God’s hand in the natural world, and this is certainly true to some extent, but God does not literally speak to us through nature. In fact, the existence and beauty of the world around us obviously does not constitute proof of the existence of God, because if it did, there would be no atheists or agnostics. Even if someone was to conclude that there is a God just by looking at plants and rocks and shining lakes and majestic sunsets, they wouldn’t be able to know anything else about God from those sources of information.

Jesus on the CrossOne truth that we can learn from the natural world is that people aren’t the only beings that experience disease, destruction, and death. Even in a relatively wild and untouched place, there will be plants and animals that suffer and die and rot, and that may suffer and/or look ugly in the meantime. While it’s true that the creative hand of God can be seen in nature, the destructive effects of sin are also written there very clearly. And nature doesn’t tell us which is which; if it wasn’t for the actual real Word of God, we would have no way of knowing that God gave us a perfect world and that it was sin that damaged it. Many people actually do see the imperfection of the world as evidence that God either doesn’t exist or that he isn’t entirely benevolent. Those are the doubts that come from ignoring the Biblical teachings about sin. Furthermore, the natural world doesn’t inform us that this destruction caused by sin isn’t the end of the story, that God has already fixed things for us. There is nothing in nature that tells us about Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection. To receive all of that crucial information, we need the real Word of God, which is the Bible. And Luther never said anything to the contrary; he firmly believed in Sola Scriptura.

Anyone who claims that Luther said or believed otherwise is misrepresenting him. And anyone who says or believes otherwise themselves is placing faith in something other than God by reading divine messages into something that God has never said He would use to communicate with us. It’s essentially a belief in omens and signs, no different than in many pagan religions. At best, it’s a form of superstition that shouldn’t blend with Christianity, and at worst, it’s a completely non-Christian religion that is particularly evil because it falsely calls itself Christianity.

Why I Don’t Like Liturgical Dance

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I was a dance major in college, and on more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that I ought to do liturgical dance in church. That disturbed me, especially in one particular case where it was a visiting pastor who said it. I don’t want to sound overly judgmental about the idea of liturgical dance, because I know a number of well-meaning and sincere Christians who have participated in liturgical dance, and besides, there technically is nothing heretical about it. But there are a number of reasons that liturgical dance just isn’t a very good idea. I was reminded of all these reasons when I saw a youtube video on facebook yesterday of a liturgical dance performance in a Lutheran church. I should acknowledge the fact that the person who posted the link and the other people who commented on it shared my dislike for liturgical dance, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people who don’t see what’s wrong with it. As someone who has had to express a specific opinion on this issue before, I’d like to offer a list of reasons why I don’t approve of liturgical dance.

1. Dance is a performance art where the focus is on the performer

praise danceIn general, a choreographed dance is intended to display the skill of the dancer(s) and/or to be a form of artistic self-expression for the choreographer and dancer(s). Either way, the focus is on the dancer(s) themselves, and the viewers’ impressions and reactions are supposed to reflect that. Yes, dancers and choreographers can and do use dance to tell stories, to convey emotions, and to express ideas, but those stories, emotions, and ideas are based upon and centered around the dancers’ bodies. I think that dance is the most performer-centered art form. If you don’t agree, think of what happens when dancers and musicians perform together. From the audience’s point of view, and usually from the performers’ perspective as well, the dancers are the real stars and the musicians are just providing accompaniment. I am not saying this to insult dance as an art form or to imply that dancers are egotistical. As someone who has spent an awful lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears on dance, I definitely think that dancers deserve appreciation for their talent and dedication. But I also think that it is inherent in the nature of dance that it is impossible for the audience’s focus to be on anything other than the dancer. For that reason, dance does not belong in a worship service. Even if the dancers genuinely are doing it in praise of God, the audience is paying attention to the dancers, not God.

2. Liturgical dance tends to have theological problems

I suppose that it would be hypothetically possible to choreograph a dance piece that had accurate theological significance. But all of the liturgical dance videos that I can find on the internet seem to fall into one of two groups: they are either a meaningless and repetitive series of generic dance moves set to a theologically shallow praise song, or they portray a personal struggle that ends with the main character finding her way to God. (I say “her” because I actually haven’t seen much of any liturgical dances featuring men) I realize that there really are some Christians who actually believe that Christianity is all about winning a personal struggle against evil and achieving faith and salvation, but that’s not a biblical idea. If these dances were theologically accurate, they would first make it clear that the main character is a sinner herself, not an innocent victim of vague evil powers, and then show that it is God Himself who brings salvation to the sinner, rather than an individual’s own personal victory. The choreography also ought to work the crucifixion and resurrection into its story, because those are absolutely central to Christianity, and any “Christian” message that leaves them out is running the risk of not really being Christian. If the congregation doesn’t want to see a liturgical dance that doesn’t portray the individual Christian as the hero, then they obviously don’t have the kind of devoted faith in God that their lead liturgical dancer shows at the end of her performance, and probably are confused about what faith is anyway. Faith is not wearing a white dress and making graceful gestures towards the altar while nobody dressed in black pulls you back anymore; it is belief in God and the salvation that comes from Him. These people would benefit a lot more from hearing the law and gospel in their service than from watching an artistic expression of what the Christian life is like.

3. “Do everything to the glory of God” isn’t just about the church service

I'm really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

I’m really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

This oft-quoted phrase is from 1 Corinthians 10:31, and it is often completely taken out of context, since that passage is about whether it’s okay for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods. That isn’t an outdated and irrelevant passage because it applies to other situations where the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. But it really has nothing to do with the worship service. A variation of this phrase also appears in Colossians 3:17, but it’s still quite a stretch to read that passage as saying that a person is compelled to display all of their God-given talents in the worship service. There’s this thing called vocation; it means that it’s good and godly for us to do whatever we’re supposed to do in every aspect of our lives, and not just in the worship service. Even a world-famous professional dancer wouldn’t be compelled to dance in church in order to justify the fact that dance is his/her God-given talent. After all, the church service can’t encompass everyone’s individual abilities. What if you’re a rocket scientist or a marine biologist or a soccer player or something? Good luck finding a way to showcase those useful and significant God-given talents in a worship service. If everyone actually believed that doing something to the glory of God required doing it in church, the worship service would be nothing but a talent show. I think it’s really a symptom of the trend towards Sunday-morning-only-Christianity that anyone would believe that performing in a church service is somehow more Christian than using whatever talents you have been given throughout your life, even in contexts that aren’t exclusively Christian.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really... edifying. I'm sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really… edifying. I’m sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

4. Liturgical dance is not liturgical, it’s a distraction

I got this on google but I can't figure out what the original source was.

I got this on google but I can’t figure out what the original source was.

I have heard people comment with surprise about the fact that churches of different denominations sometimes have very similar liturgies. For example, the traditional Lutheran liturgy is pretty similar to the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. That is not just a weird coincidence. It’s a result of the fact that every traditional liturgical church can trace the history of its liturgy back to the early church. Over the centuries, many traditions have stayed more or less the same because they just work so well. It’s not just a matter of the aesthetic beauty of an “old-fashioned” church service; the ancient liturgy is theologically rich. Law and gospel are embedded within the order of the service itself, most of the responses come directly from the Bible, and old hymns tend to be much more meaningful and didactic than modern praise songs. That’s not to say that innovations are evil. There’s nothing wrong with singing a hymn that was written relatively recently, just as long as it is theologically accurate and actually says something. There’s nothing wrong with using an instrument other than a pipe organ, just as long as that doesn’t lead to singing songs that aren’t theologically accurate and don’t actually say anything. There’s nothing wrong with using technology in the church service, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. And by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with adding something new and artistic to the liturgy, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. But liturgical dance doesn’t serve a purpose because it doesn’t offer anything that the ancient, traditional, liturgical service is lacking. It just interrupts the flow of a service that has a logical and meaningful order without it. At least a musical solo can be smoothly incorporated into the service because the liturgy is already characterized by music. People who want to see liturgical dance or other diversional performance acts in the worship service are just looking for entertainment, and that’s not the purpose of worship. In fact, catering to people’s desire for entertainment in church can be dangerous because it reinforces the belief that religion is just another kind of recreational hobby.

In conclusion, I think that liturgical dance is parallel to popular Christian praise music. Both are creative art forms that have little or no theological value and don’t belong in the worship service. But in both cases, they are perfectly acceptable and maybe even good things outside of the divine service. There’s no reason that mainstream art and culture can’t include non-satirical references to God, sincere praise for God, and positive portrayals of Christianity. If Christians find those types of music and dance to be likable and entertaining, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t enjoy them in their everyday lives. Maybe some people will even find that such things reinforce their beliefs and values to some extent. But no religious-themed but theologically shallow art form is faith-giving, or acts as an acceptable substitute for the divine service or for any aspect of it.

In Which I Continue To Rant About Bad Theology On the Internet

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The picture used in the article being discussed

The picture used in the article being discussed

A few days ago, I happened to see this online article: 10 Political Things You Can’t Do While Following Jesus, by Mark Sandlin. After wondering whether it was meant to be some kind of satire and looking for signs of sarcasm, I have had to come to the conclusion that it was written in all seriousness. It just sounds silly because it misrepresents Jesus so badly. What bothers me about it is that I’ve heard these exact same arguments from so many people on so many occasions. I understand that the people who say and write these kinds of things are doing so out of good intentions, genuine interest in other people’s well-being, and the belief that they are doing what the Bible tells them to do. But the Bible isn’t a handbook on social justice, and if you read it that way, you’re missing out on a lot. Furthermore, many of these arguments just aren’t supported by the Bible anyway. I’m writing this blog post in the format of a direct response, but I’m not so much criticizing that particular article as explaining why I’m frustrated by the common mindset behind it. Here are Sandlin’s ten “things you can’t do while following Jesus” and my response to them.

10) Force your religious beliefs and practices on others

If the point here is that it’s impossible for government to enforce faith, of course that’s true. And if the point is that it’s immoral for the government to try to enforce faith, I agree to some extent. A theocracy based upon Biblical doctrine is a nice idea, but that’s not the kind of government we have, and we wouldn’t be doing any good if we tried to turn this country into a theocracy. But I don’t think that’s what this article is saying, given the fact that it continues, “One of the strengths of the faith Jesus taught was its meekness. The faith he taught valued free will over compulsion- because that’s how love works.” Really? Jesus was so humble that He didn’t care if people believed what He said? And Jesus said that free will is the same thing as love? Where does the Bible say that? I’m finding verses that say things like, “…but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God”, (John 3: 18) and “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) Contrary to what Sandlin says, Jesus talks about freedom less frequently than He talks about belief, and when He does discuss freedom, he says things like, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) I have a feeling that’s not what Sandlin means when he uses the term “free will”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can or should try to force people to become Christians. The Bible also says that “this [faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) I am not by any means advocating for a campaign to turn this country into a theocracy. But there is no Biblical basis for the postmodern belief that religious differences don’t matter or that we shouldn’t want people who we love to come to faith.

9) Advocate for war

Jesus: An Artist's Rendition

Jesus: An Artist’s Rendition

Interestingly enough, the first actual Bible quotation cited in this article is quoted in order to disagree with it. Sandlin quotes Matthew 10:34 (although he doesn’t actually give the reference in the article), which says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He even acknowledges that there are a couple other verses that say the same thing, but discounts them because “they don’t hold a candle to the more than fifty-some verses where Jesus speaks about peace and peacemaking.” He doesn’t offer any such verses, so I got out a concordance and looked them up. I counted, and Jesus used the word “peace” or a form thereof 24 times in the four gospels in the King James Version. In many of these cases, it is part of the phrases “hold thy peace”, “peace be with you,” or “go in peace.” In the parable being told in Luke 11:21, the word is “safe” in most translations, and it refers to possessions, not people. Luke 14:32 also is part of a parable, and “peace” is not what the parable is discussing, as is made clear six verses earlier. Then there is the aforementioned Matthew 10:34 and the corresponding verse in Luke, and a couple verses in Matthew and Luke in which Jesus tells his apostles to bring their peace to a house that is worthy, but not to a house that is not worthy. That leaves five verses that Sandlin could have quoted. I have a feeling that Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers…”) is what he had in mind here. (Incidentally, the beatitudes tend to be misused; one ought to remember that a person who is “blessed” is someone who has received a gift, not someone who has earned a reward.)The others are Mark 9:50, (which ends “…and be at peace with one another”) Luke 19:42, (“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”) John 14:27, (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you”) and John 16:33. (“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”) There’s a big difference between “In me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation” and “In the world you will have peace because of me.” Jesus said the first one; He never said the latter one, and Matthew 10:34 (“I did not come to bring peace, but the sword”) is not, as Sandlin implies, in contradiction with the rest of the Bible. Of course, war is a bad thing and should be avoided. But it happens, (Matthew 24: 6 and 7) and when it’s necessary, Christians are not compelled by their faith to oppose it.

8) Favor the rich over the poor

This one is absolutely true, and in fact Sandlin could have used Bible verses to back this one up, particularly from the Proverbs (14:21, 19:17, 31:9) and then there’s the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, which doesn’t actually include the word “poor”, but it does say “those of humble estate.” And Jesus Himself occasionally talks about giving to the poor.  I’m a little puzzled as to why the author of this article didn’t choose to quote the Bible. I rather suspect, though, that he’s hinting his disapproval at some particular law or practice in our culture, and I’m not even sure what that is, unless, of course, he’s arguing for a communist or socialist society. In that case, it’s obvious why he can’t find verses to go with that idea. Jesus wasn’t a political figure and he didn’t have a lot to say about politics except “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) which isn’t exactly a radical or controversial statement. Jesus is saying that we’re supposed to respect and obey the government, which applies to any kind of political system and has nothing to do with who is rich and who is poor.

7) Cut funding that hurts the least of these

Who ever said anything about government funding? The government in Judea under the Roman Empire did not, as far as I know, have any kind of welfare system at all, and there is no place in the Bible where Jesus has much to say about that lack. If He had had a choice, perhaps Jesus would have been in favor of a welfare system, but we don’t know because the Bible doesn’t
specifically say. It obviously wasn’t an important enough issue to have a place in Scripture. There’s a reason for that; the Bible is about what Jesus did for us, not about how Jesus thinks the government should treat us. Here, Sandlin finally gets around to quoting something from the Bible to support his argument: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” He doesn’t give the reference, though. I can’t actually find it, but I think that this verse was taken out of context; I seem to recall that Jesus was talking about children, not poor people. If I’m incorrect about that, I do apologize, but either way, this verse isn’t about government welfare and budget cuts.

6) Let people go hungry

Pictured: Not Jesus

Pictured: Not Jesus

Ooh, now we get a Gandhi quote! Seriously, did he not have his Bible accessible when he was writing this article? Or did he look, and realized that there’s no Bible verse that says, “And Jesus said, ‘When anyone is unable to provide food for his or her self, it is the government’s job to provide food for them.’”? Sorry for the sarcasm, but it’s just absurd to quote Gandhi in an article about what “Jesus-followers” should do. Of course Jesus didn’t want people to starve; in fact, He performed miracles on a couple of occasions in order to feed His followers. But there was nothing political in that act of providence, and He never said anything to indicate that we are required to view it as a precedent for government policies.

5) Withhold healthcare from people

When did Jesus discuss healthcare specifically? Sandlin makes this point on the basis that Jesus healed people. Yes, He did, that’s true. The author goes on to acknowledge that we cannot work the miracles that Jesus could, but says that modern health care is pretty close to a miracle. That statement is dangerous; it sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to put modern medicine and/or government funding in the place of Jesus. There’s a word for something that tries to take the place of Jesus; that word is “antichrist”, and it’s generally considered by Christians (or “Jesus-followers,” if you will) to be a bad thing. Again, I’m not denying that Jesus was in favor of taking care of people, but how do you start from that premise and suddenly insist that this means that Jesus expected the government to pay for healthcare?

4) Limit the rights of a select group of people

Okay… what “select group of people” are we talking about, and what “rights”? I agree with this statement as presented, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a subtle way to refer to some specific issue, and I’m not even sure which one. But anyway, Jesus didn’t talk a whole lot about “rights”, and an awful lot of the things that twenty-first century Americans label as “rights” aren’t discussed in the Bible. The phrase “certain unalienable human rights” comes from the Declaration of Independence, which is a very nice document and one that we, as Americans, should respect. But we ought to recognize the difference between biblical doctrine and American ideology, even where they don’t conflict and we agree with both. And even the Declaration of Independence says that these rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which is so vague that you can’t use it to really make a case for many of the political agendas that I think the author may be subtly referencing. I want to reiterate once again that I’m not completely disagreeing with the goodness of the principle, or saying that it’s totally incorrect. But this principle in and of itself is not biblical and cannot be used to support the kinds of arguments that I think are being implied here.

3) Turn away immigrants

Again, where does this come from? Sandlin lists travelers in the Old Testament and points out that “Christian heritage runs through Judaism. We are an immigrant people. Even our religion began somewhere else.” I understand the point, but where does Jesus say that a government is compelled to never deny immigration? Examples do not make a principle. If Sandlin is speaking against racial discrimination, he could build a better case by quoting any of the several verses in the Epistles that talks about Jews and Gentiles, but even then, this in no way indicates that the government doesn’t have the right to turn away an immigrant when those in authority believe that there is good reason. The current immigration issues in our country are problematic, and I personally don’t know what needs to be done, or whether a “liberal” or “conservative” approach is better.  Certainly we shouldn’t make it illegal for people to move, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any restrictions, or that we shouldn’t do anything to prevent people from sneaking across borders without the approval of both governments. It’s not an issue with only two sides; there are many different things that our political leaders need to take into consideration. The Bible doesn’t give an answer on this issue. It doesn’t specifically discuss the political aspects of immigration.

2) Devalue education

Sandlin says this based on the use of the word “wisdom” in the Proverbs, which isn’t really a valid point because “wisdom” is not synonymous with “education”.  Perhaps that’s splitting hairs a little, but once again, what does this have to do with government funding? The author’s assertion is making the assumptions that a) education is the responsibility of the government and that b) more funding automatically means better education. Both of these are debatable, and neither of these is something that Jesus talked about.

1) Support capital punishment- execution

Christ on the CrossThis is the worst part of this list, and what makes it even more horrible is the fact that it comes in at number one. It isn’t the sentiment itself that I mind so much. Although the Bible doesn’t say anything against capital punishment, in theory there wouldn’t be anything wrong with a country deciding not to use that particular authority. But the argument that Sandlin gives has nothing to do with the authority of the government or with the Bible. It starts by saying, “Jesus died by execution. He was an innocent man.” For just a moment, it looks like there’s finally something in this article that sounds like Christianity. Here we finally have a mention of Jesus’ death on the cross, and even a hint that the purpose of his death was sacrificial. But that’s not where this article is going. It goes on to say that it’s unloving to kill, and ends, “It’s time to stop the government-sanctioned killing.” Is this article really telling us that the message we’re supposed to get from Jesus’ death is that capital punishment is bad? Instead of seeing what Jesus has done for us, we’re supposed to see a reason to criticize our own government? Instead of receiving forgiveness of sins and salvation, we’re supposed to receive motivation to push for the abolishment of a law we think is “unloving”? This isn’t just ignoring the cross; it’s using the image of the cross to cover up the purpose of the cross!

I know that there are Christians on both sides of any social or political issue who see Christianity as a reason for their position, and I know that both Republican Christians and Democrat Christians often have a tendency to mix religion and politics. Sometimes, that isn’t even such a bad thing, because it’s true that religious morals should cause us to do good things in our lives, including the areas where politics are concerned. But when we use faith to inform our political and moral values, and when we use the teachings of Jesus to explain these values, we need to make sure we’re actually agreeing with those teachings, not just manipulating them and mixing them with clichés and Gandhi quotes in order to say whatever will justify our political beliefs. And, even more importantly, something is wrong when we think that Christianity is just about politics. It’s horrible and frightening when people can talk about their “Christian” faith without mentioning Christ and his crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins. It’s even worse that law and gospel have gotten so lost that people can actually talk about the crucifixion without seeing salvation and grace there. Jesus came to die for your sins, people! If Jesus’ teachings inform your political opinions, that’s a good thing, but don’t let your political opinions redefine Jesus!

Stuff That Isn’t in the Bible

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Five in the morningMistakes

“You are worth dying for.”- Jesus

You are worth dying forFor the sake of not being mean, I’m not going to specify where I saw this or who put it there. (Although I am rather hoping that they will see this blog post and realize that my objection to it went beyond the fact that it involves ending a sentence with a preposition.) The context where I first saw it isn’t actually a relevant point, because this phrase can be found in many places on the internet, and it would seem that it’s something of a cliché in the internet Christian community. As great as it is that many people use the internet to talk about religion, the problem with the internet Christian community is that it tends to be dominated by clichés.

The problem with this particular cliché is that it attributes a quotation to Jesus that isn’t actually from the Bible. One must always be careful when putting words in Jesus’ mouth, and when I say that one must be careful, I really mean that one shouldn’t do it. Paraphrasing is a dangerous thing when the distinction between paraphrasing and quoting is not clearly made. That’s true in academic writing and it’s true when talking about God.

I’m not saying that paraphrasing is bad in general, because it isn’t. As an English major who is used to writing a lot of papers, I can’t deny that there is definitely a place for paraphrasing. If I tried to deny that, I would earn the disapproval of many professors. Sometimes, paraphrasing is the most efficient way to make a point, especially when you’re trying to express a simple idea by referring to a text that discusses multiple ideas and therefore uses complex language. Sometimes, it’s the best way to draw together two related ideas that come from different texts. Paraphrasing is often necessary in order to have an opportunity to use your own writing style and voice, and it’s the only way to show your professor (or any other reader) that you actually understand what you’re saying and have put thought into your topic. Some of those reasons to paraphrase can definitely apply to talking about the Bible, and others may or may not, depending upon the context. But, just as in any form of academic writing, it’s always important when talking about Jesus to distinguish between an actual quotation and paraphrasing.

The idea behind this particular cliché paraphrased quotation is obviously to express Jesus’ love for us, which is so great that he willingly sacrificed himself to pay for our sins. That’s a good idea to express, and it’s Biblical and true and important. The problem is that it isn’t really what that phrase is saying. It’s way too easy to equivocate on the word “worth”. Actually, I’m not sure that even counts as equivocation, because the misunderstanding is what the expression is actually saying, and the intended meaning requires redefining words a little.

CrucifixThe problematic word here is “worth”. “Worth” is an expression of value, and value is generally understood to be a property of the thing being valued, not the person by whom the thing is valued. To say “you are worth dying for” is to imply that the “you” being addressed has inherent worth and is worthy in and of him/herself. This is contrary both to Lutheranism and to Christian doctrine in general. It is important to understand that our worth and worthiness are not the reason that Christ died for us, they are a cause of the fact that Christ died for us. In and of ourselves, we are not worth anything, and we certainly are not worth something as valuable as the life that Jesus sacrificed for us. If this cliché included the prepositional phrase “to me”, that would help a little, but there’s still something wrong with the fact that “you” is the subject of the sentence while Jesus is being pushed into a little prepositional phrase. Yes, it’s true that there are many Bible verses where the word “you” is the subject, but that’s different because every Bible verse is surrounded by a large and rich context. (That is, the Bible) A religious cliché that doesn’t come from the Bible has only an implied context, so if it doesn’t stand on its own, it’s in danger of saying something it really doesn’t mean. (Or at least, we really hope that’s not what it actually means.)

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

Even though the intended meaning behind “You are worth dying for” is a Biblical idea, the accidental meaning is directly anti-Biblical because it contradicts Romans 5:6-8, which says, “ετι γαρ Xριστος, οντων ημων ασθενων ετι, κατα καιρον υπερ ασεβων απεθανεν. μολις γαρ υπερ δικαιου τις αποθανειται; υπερ γαρ του αγαθου, ταχα τις και τολμα αποθανειν; συνιστησιν δε την εαυτου αγαπην εις ημας ο θεος, οτι ετι αμαρτωλων οντων ημων, Xριστος υπερ ημων απεθανεν.” Or, in other words, (English ones) “For Christ, when we were still without strength, according to the right time, for the ungodly he died. For rarely for the righteous will one die, yet for the good man, perhaps someone would even dare to die, but God commends his love for us that, we being sinners, Christ died for us.”

(As a side note, I confess that about 70% of the reason for my recent inclination to use Greek words on my blog is that it makes me feel clever, even though I realize that there’s a big difference between knowing something and knowing how to look something up. But it’s worth noting that about 7% of the reason for my use of Greek words is that Greek is just awesomer than English, and the other 23% is that quoting Bible verses in Greek is more accurate because the New Testament was in Greek in the first place. And I think that those are both valid reasons. As another side note, I would like to acknowledge the likelihood that I may have made a mistake in the preceding paragraph. As yet another side note, I would like to point out how excited I am that I only had to peek in the King James a little bit to figure out what the Greek of Romans 5:6-8 is in English. And, yeah, I think that’s enough side notes for now.)

I hadn’t really thought ahead to how I was going to finish this blog post, and now it’s morning and it’s time for me to do daytime stuff, so I’m just going to leave it there.  The end.

A Good Friday Blog Post with Greek Words in It

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Jesus' arrestI noticed something fascinating and awesome during the Good Friday service today. It was in the Passion reading from John 18 and 19, and the particular verse was John 18:8, when the chief priests and officers have arrived in the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Twice, Jesus asks them who they are seeking and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” John 18:8 is Jesus’ response the second time. In the ESV, the verse reads, “Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.’” The bit that made me notice something fascinating and awesome was the “let these men go” bit. I remembered hearing on Worldview Everlasting, my favorite youtube addiction, that there’s a certain Greek word that is often translated “forgiven” that can also be translated as something along the lines of “sent away” or “separated”, among other things. (Which is really interesting, because it means that the phrase “your sins are forgiven” is equivalent to “your sins have been sent away”)

Even after much searching, I have failed to find the Worldview Everlasting video in question, and I actually don’t remember exactly what it said or which verse it quoted. (Although I think it may have been Matthew 9:2) I did, however, find the Greek word in question.  It is αφίημι and the various forms thereof. For example, the last phrase of Matthew 9:2, “Your sins have been forgiven” in the ESV, is “αφίενταί σου αί αμαρτίαι”in Greek.  αφίενταί, according to a certain library book, is the present passive third-person form of αφίημι.  And the beginning of Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses” (in the Lord’s Prayer) is “καί άφες ημίν τά οφειλήματα ημων.”  άφες  is the second-person imperative active form of αφίημι. I have here in front of me a book that has approximately a bajillion examples of places where forms of αφίημι are found in the Bible, with a variety of different English translations depending upon the context. The point is that it is indeed a word that means forgive/ let go of/send away, etc.

The other point is that John 18:8 is in that list. (Or at least, it’s presumably there somewhere; I can’t actually find it at the moment, and I am hereby acknowledging that, just in case I’m wrong that it’s a form of the same word.) According to the internet, in the Greek, John 18:8 reads, “απεκριθη Ιησους, Ειπον υμιν οτι εγω ειμι. ει ουν εμε ζητειτε, αφετε τουτους υπαγειν”, except that I left out all of the accent marks and stuff because I’m too lazy to deal with them. (Also, some things, like the breathing marks over leading vowels, don’t appear to exist on Microsoft Word. That’s annoying.) The part that the ESV translates “Let these men go away” is the part that says “αφετε τουτους υπαγειν” in Greek. (Incidentally, τουτους is a pronoun, not a noun, so wouldn’t it make more sense for the English translation to be “Let them go away”?) αφετε is evidently the second-person imperative form of αφίημι. That’s not speculation; I looked it up to be sure, and that is indeed what the plural second-person imperative of a Greek verb is supposed to look like.

So, to make a long story short, I have spent the last few hours using various books and internet resources to verify that the Greek word used in John 18:8 was indeed the word I thought and hoped it was. A better and much quicker way to verify this would have been to ask Pastor before I left church, because the fact that I don’t actually know Greek rather holds me back from knowing what stuff means in Greek. But, y’know, on Good Friday we’re supposed to leave church in silence, so that’s what I did.

crucifixThe interesting point that I have thus far failed to make is that it’s cool that the word used in John 18:8 is the same as the word translated “forgive” because of the reason Jesus was being arrested, and then crucified. At the moment of his arrest, Jesus told his captors to forgive/let go his disciples, rather than arresting them too, just as, through his death on the cross, Jesus forgave/let go us from our sins, rather than condemning us for them.

The point of all this, in summary, is that forgiveness and salvation come through Christ’s sacrifice. Yeah, that’s basically what I was getting at here.

Some Thoughts on Genesis 24

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Disclaimer: After I finish the long quotation from Genesis, the end of this blog post is just some things that have occurred to me regarding this particular Bible passage. I’m not trying to claim that what I’m saying here is official doctrine or that my thoughts constitute theological truths. In fact, since the notes in the Lutheran Study Bible (which are extensive and very awesome) don’t make these connections, I’m willing to accept the possibility that they aren’t valid. It is entirely possible that I’m really stretching things and that it’s just plain wrong to take these things from this text. If anyone reading this has anything to say, particularly if it involves quoting Bible verses or good biblical commentary, your comments are welcome and appreciated.

Rebekah at the wellGenesis 24 is the account of how Abraham sent his servant back to his native land to find a wife for his son Isaac. The chapter begins with the conversation between Abraham and the servant, and then the servant sets off on the journey. Starting at verse twelve, here is the text as quoted from the ESV (English Standard Version):

And he [Abraham’s servant] said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink’, and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord has prospered his journey or not.

RebekahWhen the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” She added, “We have plenty of both straw and fodder, and room to spend the night.” The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.” Then the young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.

Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out toward the man, to the spring. As soon as she saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and heard the words of Rebekah his sister, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man. And behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside? For I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.” So the man came to the house and unharnessed the camels, and gave straw and fodder to the camels, and there was water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. Then food was set before him to eat. But he said, “I will not eat until I have said what I have to say.” He said, “Speak on.”

[Verses 34- 49 are spoken by Abraham’s servant and repeat everything from the previous 33 verses. Then Rebekah’s father and brother agree to send Rebekah back with Abraham’s servant, and they all eat together. The next day, Rebekah and the servant depart, and Rebekah marries Isaac at the end of the chapter.]

This is what I find really interesting about this passage: Abraham’s servant recognizes Rebekah as Isaac’s bride because of the words she speaks (“Drink” and “I will water your camels”) and the water she gives, in the same way that Christians can recognize the true church by the words it speaks (the Bible) and the water it gives (Baptism). In fact, the reason that Abraham’s servant has to take this trip in the first place is because any potential brides in Isaac’s current homeland belong to pagan religions, which is to say that they’re associated with false churches.

I'm reusing this picture of a sign I stuck on my dorm room wall, because it's a cool sign.

I’m reusing this picture of a sign I stuck on my dorm room wall, because it’s a cool sign.

That’s something I noticed while ago that I thought was cool, but this morning it occurred to me that the order of events in this account could be significant, too. First comes the part about the water, then Rebekah and her brother invite the servant into their home, then they talk things over and agree that Rebekah will marry Isaac, and then Abraham’s servant eats the food that Rebekah’s family provides. (The Lutheran Study Bible does have a note that points out that it would have been customary for the guest to eat before such a discussion, but in this case, it was important to the servant to get that matter taken care of first.) Likewise, Christians enter the church through baptism; baptism can occur even before a person makes a conscious decision to enter the church. (In this case, my opening disclaimer doesn’t apply. It is official doctrine in the Lutheran Church that infant baptism is valid because baptism is a gift from God that does not require a deliberate decision to accept Jesus. It is something that the church can give to us even before we have the knowledge to recognize what we are receiving in baptism.) However, when the church offers us food, (Holy Communion, aka The Lord’s Supper, aka the Eucharist, etc.) before we partake in this meal, we should be sure that we’re in the right place and that we are in agreement with the congregation with whom we’re eating. In the case of Abraham’s servant, that means negotiating the betrothal before accepting dinner. In the case of communion, that means two things. First, unlike baptism, communion isn’t something that should be offered to babies or to people who have not yet been instructed in the church’s teachings. Second, it’s an argument for close communion (aka closed communion), which is the practice by which a congregation only offers communion to members or to visitors who believe the same thing. (Basically, that means members of another congregation of the same denomination.)

Matthew 6The English major part of my brain is wondering if there’s something metaphorical to say about the camels. It seems important that Rebekah is so attentive to them, offering them water and then assuring Abraham’s servant that her family has plenty of straw and fodder for the camels, even though he hasn’t specifically asked about that. Obviously, Rebekah was a generous and caring hostess, but if there’s a parallel to be drawn here, I’m going to guess that it’s along the same lines as what Jesus says in Matthew 6: 25-34. (See accompanying picture) If the camels stand for something, they stand for Abraham’s worldly possessions, and the fact that they are well provided for stands for the fact that, by God’s grace and love, our worldly needs are met, in addition to the forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life that God has already given us.

The end. I reiterate that comments, corrections, and additional remarks are welcome and requested.

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