Tuesday, September 4, 2012

That's Awkward: 4 Strange Stories in the Old Testament

"That's awkward." Chalk this up as yet another catch phrase frequently heard whenever surrounded by teenagers. The statement is immediately followed by the "awkward turtle" gesture of overlaid hands and wiggling thumbs. When something is said in the wrong context that may lead youth to feel uncomfortable, out of sorts, embarrassed, or unable to elicit an adequate explanation, words may even be boycotted. Instead, one solely encounters the turtle.

I am not sure where I first witnessed this contemporary gesture. I am also unsure when it became an acceptable social response to discomfort (or is it?). Yet when I read certain stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. Old Testament, my phalange friend tends to make an occasional appearance and declare, "that's awkward."

Ah, the results of nearly a decade of youth ministry...

The Bible is a very complex collection of story, poetry, wisdom, prophetic witness, and ancient depictions of history. While many have tried to level the Scriptures into flat collections of do's and don'ts to be accepted, obeyed, and proclaimed without question or challenge, the awkwardness of particular elements within the biblical witness cannot be overlooked.

They are there. They always have been and they always will be there.

These awkward narratives invite us into faithful dialogue versus blind obedience. They provoke us to ask difficult questions. They lead us to raw and honest discovery as we live into raw and honest discipleship.

This fall, the Imago Dei Youth Ministry will work through a series, "That's Awkward: Strange Stories of the Bible." Each week we will gather, with our turtles, and engage difficult stories that raise eyebrows and welcome curiosity. Our hope and prayer is that God will not only meet us in our faithful uncertainty, but also send us to live with humility and wonder as the people of God in and for the world.

Here are a few stories I find difficult, with brief, unrefined, and modest musings. Feel free to add some of your own. Stay tuned for more to come this fall...

"Uh, dad, where's the lamb for the sacrifice?" (Genesis 22)

There is no way around it. In Genesis 22 the patriarch, Abram, is called by God to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. God asks Abram, whose offspring will be "as numerous as the stars in the sky," to make a living and human sacrifice. I am not sure if this is what Paul meant when he penned Romans 12:1. Or was it?

Regardless, this story is awkward every time. Especially now that I have a son (and twin daughter) of my own, I cannot imagine this command being spoken to me. Even more, I cannot imagine myself actually asking my child to carry the wood, confident (or at least hopeful) that "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering" (22:8). Yet that is precisely what takes place just before God intervenes in the knick of time with a ram, "caught in a thicket by its horns" (22:13). Good for Isaac; not so good for the ram.

This is a pivotal story within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, with infinite meanings unable to be explored here. Yet, despite the immense awkwardness and discomfort elicited in this central narrative, God's promises are elevated to a prime position. God is the one in whom this new people of God are to place all their hopes, dreams, trust, confidence, worship, and allegiance. And this God, unlike the surrounding nations and related cultic practices of the day, does not require human blood for sacrifice. [1]

Instead, this God gives his own. For us and the whole world. That's what Christians call gospel.

Talking Ass: Balaam's Donkey (Numbers 22)

What I find most striking about this story is not that the donkey talks, but Balaam's lack of hesitancy to enter into a dialogue with his ass. The donkey says, "What have I done to you...?" and Scripture illustrates the foreign prophet as entertaining an intense back and forth with the stubborn animal. Balaam does not seem to find the situation awkward at all.

But I do. I actually find this whole story puzzling.

This foreign prophet knows the name of the LORD. Numbers does not say Balaam called upon his deity, God, or the generic "Lord." No. He replies to Balak, the Moabite king, "I will bring back word to you, just as the LORD speaks to me" (22:8). The capitalized LORD is the English variance of the sacred name of God, Yahweh. In other words, this foreign prophet, Balaam, knows Yahweh; Yahweh knows Balaam. The LORD speaks to him.

Yahweh even speaks to him, when he is en route to curse the people of Israel, through his ass. Balaam is headed one direction, bent on a course that carries destruction, and the LORD redirects him through an unlikely and improbable channel of wisdom. This raises all kinds of questions for me:

  1. Is it possible that God can and does speak to those beyond the religious and theological walls we have constructed?
  2. Is it not only possible, but also probable for those we have labeled outsiders to have an intimate relationship with and be channels of grace by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
  3. Where is God speaking to you and me, in the most improbable and unlikely people, places, and created things, in efforts to change our course of action, which may or may not carry cursed intentions? [2]
  4. If God can speak through Balaam's ass, is it not only possible, but also probable that God can and will speak through you and me? [3]
God Deaf to Prayer?: Job's Honest Concerns (Job 24)

Job is often elevated to sainthood due to a persistent faith in the wake of so much personal affliction. He loses nearly all he possesses, to include beloved family members, and yet it is said of him, "In all this Job did not sin with his lips" (2:10)

But have you read Job 24?

"From the towns come the groans of the dying and the gasp of the wounded crying for help. Yet God remains deaf to prayer!" (24:12; New Jerusalem Bible)

God proclaimed as "deaf to prayer?" Job doesn't "sin with his lips?"

Apparently, to cry out to God in despair and accusation on behalf of the poor and oppressed is not sinful...it's actually a mark of faith and obedience.

The fullness of Job's dialogue, with both his insensitive and pompous friends and God, is awkward. Better said, it is all too familiar. We have each experienced affliction, witnessed oppression, and learned of suffering beyond words. Job's witness to us is not to mince words when it comes to our prayers. Speak your mind. Even when God seems deaf to our prayers, cry out!

This is probably the most difficult of all the stories I write about here. While it does all work out for Job in the end, "and the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends; and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before" (42:10), there are many who would beg to differ. While some of my prayers have been met with double blessings, to include my children, not everyone can say the same. I hesitate to say that any of this is because I prayed harder, stronger, or for more of my friends. Actually, my prayers are sometimes even more colorful and self-serving than Job's. Still, some continue to experience immense poverty, struggle through unemployment, remain childless, witness their children starve, grieve the loss of loved one's, and wonder when, if ever, the day will come when God will make all things new and right.

So what does this then mean? There within lay the awkwardness of Job, because I am not completely sure.

What I do know is that Job encourages us to cry out loudly, honestly, and maybe offensively to God.

And when you cannot, find people who know love and grace better than Job's friends, maybe better than us, who will sit with you in your suffering. [4]

Poo du Jour: A Prophet Cooks Over Fecal Matter? (Ezekiel 4)

I believe the entirety of the prophetic book of Ezekiel is awkward. It is complicated, disturbing, lengthy, and filled with judgment upon the people of God. It does not take long for my hands to overlay and thumbs to move as a gesture of hermeneutical discomfort.

The prophet is by a river in the wake of Babylonian exile when God tells him to lay on his side and "bear the punishment" and prophesy against Jerusalem for its betrayal of the ways of God. While God speaks through Balaam's ass and saves Israel from probable curses, Ezekiel is commanded to speak against the oppressive and idolatrous behavior of God's covenanted people. That's not all. Ezekiel is told to eat, during this period of prophetic intercession, "barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung" (4:12).

Thankfully, upon Ezekiel's request, the LORD God permits cow dung as a sufficient culinary substitute. Still, the point is made: failure to live into the dreams of God should leave a bad taste in our mouth.

There is so much more that can be said in regards to Ezekiel's awkward encounters with his prophetic call. Yet, whenever I encounter this portion of the text, I am challenged to lay on my side and contemplate where there is evidence of abandonment of God's divine intentions for humanity and the created world. Where have the people of God, I included, forsaken the dreams of God and become co-laborers with death versus promises for new life.

While we may choose not to cook a la Ezekiel (for good reason; question those who do!), confession and prophetic intercession must become regular disciplines practiced by God's people. We do so not out of personal and communal piety, but in hopes that God would draw all the world, especially the Church, into a rhythm of justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).



[1] One of Rob Bell's speaking tours was, The God's Aren't Angry. Bell does a pretty good job exploring this narrative as progression in the understanding of the nature, character, and "demands" of God in antiquity. That is, God is not angry and in need of human blood.

[1] Karl Barth says it best, "God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concierto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if he really does" (Church Dogmatics I.1, p. 55).

[2] See the potential names for my blog in my first-ever post, "What's in a Name?"

[3] A great and unconventional read read is Gustavo Gutierrez', On Job. Also check out Gregory Boyd's, Is God to Blame?