Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Perplexing passages

Some stories in the Bible frankly baffle me. Today's Old Testament reading has one; it's from the book of Judges. You may know the story of Samson, who was astonishingly strong and had really quick reflexes. His character was flawed, but that didn't stop God from using him.

Eventually, he fell in love (or in lust) with Delilah, who badgered him into revealing the secret of his strength: it was related to his vows as a Nazirite. Samson should never touch anything dead (though he did that on at least a few occasions), never eat grapes or drink wine, never cut his hair. This is the baffling part: he had already broken the Nazirite vows -- when he ate honey from the carcass of a lion, and when he slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (it of course was dead, too). But his strength didn't leave him until he got his hair cut.
21Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding in the prison. 22But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.
Judges 16:21-22
After his hair grew back, his strength returned. What is God telling us in this passage? That it's all about the hair? That if you take a 3-part vow, it's not really broken until you break 2/3 of them? It's opaque to me.

Yet there are things I can learn from this:
  • power of one kind (physical or intellectual for example) doesn't guarantee power of another kind (self-control or moral fortitude).
  • Weakness of one kind (unruly passions) can destroy effectiveness of a strength (brain or muscle power)
  • You never can tell what God is going to do (really this is just saying the future is unknowable).
I think the point for me is to be watchful in times of success.

And another

The other story in today's reading that perplexes me is from the New Testament, where Jesus turns water into wine. You can read about it in John chapter 2. At the end, they take the wine to the master of the banquet,
9and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."
John 2:9-10
So this suggests that, contrary to what some people say about wine in the Bible (that it had no alcohol) is probably not true. Notice, too, that Jesus created some of this stuff (probably not de-alcoholized).

But what to make of "you have saved the best till now"? When Jesus turned water into wine, he didn't make "Two Buck Chuck"; he turned it into some really good stuff. But what does that mean for you and me? Here are a few possibilities:
  • When God makes something (or someone), he does not make junk.
    That may be true in general, but I don't think we can count on that in all cases. The Bible itself talks about animals with defects. What about the man who was born blind? Were his eyes (or optic nerves or something) not broken at birth?

  • God is astonishingly generous -- extravagant, even.
    The water which was turned into wine was in "six stone jars... each holding from twenty to thirty gallons" (John 2:6). 5 bottles/gallon, 4 cases/jar... this is over 24 cases of wine. I think this one is also a valid conclusion.

  • God's plan was perfect, but sin and disease and corruption entered the world afterwards.
    I'm not sure this verse quite proves that, but one might reasonably conclude that based on other parts of the Bible.

  • Good Christian businessmen should never produce goods for the low end of the market.
    In other words, the makers of "Two Buck Chuck" are sinners? I don't think so.

  • Good Christians should try to produce the best work possible, as Jesus did.
    People of a certain personality type might think so, but I wouldn't necessarily agree with that statement as it stands. I mean, Jesus produced the best wine that was drunk that day, but does that mean that a Christian who makes wine should do everything possible to produce the best wine in the world? The proverbs tell us that diligence is good, and that it's bad to be slack in one's work. But always trying to be the best? I don't see that here.
People sometimes justify their perfectionism (or workaholism) with verses like this, which to me just seems wrong.

No, rather than that, I think the points are more like these: that the world wasn't supposed to be full of disease and corruption and suffering. Thousands of children aren't supposed to be orphaned daily by AIDS/HIV. Bridges aren't supposed to collapse because of defective construction. Neighborhoods and subdivisions aren't supposed to be terrorized by gangs of criminals.

And that our God is generous and extravagant; he's created a world filled with beautiful things, and given us the capacity to derive great joy from them.

revised 5/3

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