Vacation Bible Peanuts #3

I have been a fan of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip my whole life. If you’re a fan, too, you’ll know how often the strip includes quotations from the Bible. Over the next several weeks I’ll be sharing some of my favorites.

I’m calling this series the “Vacation Bible Peanuts” because it’s high time I took a vacation. I’ve been posting a weekly Bible study blog since the end of 2017. That’s 183 blogs and counting! I’ll be back with more reflections in September. In the mean time, enjoy the Bible through the eyes of Peanuts.

Carol M. Bechtel

 

 

 

 

 

Fair Use Copyright Disclaimer:

This site contains copyrighted content not authorized for use by the owner, but its use falls under the guidelines of fair use (see Section 107 of the Copyright Act). The nature of this use is solely for non-profit educational purposes.

Vacation Bible Peanuts #2

I have been a fan of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip my whole life. If you’re a fan, too, you’ll know how often the strip includes quotations from the Bible. Over the next several weeks I’ll be sharing some of my favorites.

I’m calling this series the “Vacation Bible Peanuts” because it’s high time I took a vacation. I’ve been posting a weekly Bible study blog since the end of 2017. That’s 183 blogs and counting! I’ll be back with more reflections in September. In the mean time, enjoy the Bible through the eyes of Peanuts.

Carol M. Bechtel

 

 

 

 

 

Fair Use Copyright Disclaimer:

This site contains copyrighted content not authorized for use by the owner, but its use falls under the guidelines of fair use (see Section 107 of the Copyright Act). The nature of this use is solely for non-profit educational purposes.

Vacation Bible Peanuts #1

I have been a fan of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip my whole life. If you’re a fan, too, you’ll know how often the strip includes quotations from the Bible. Over the next several weeks I’ll be sharing some of my favorites.

I’m calling this series the “Vacation Bible Peanuts” because it’s high time I took a vacation. I’ve been posting a weekly Bible study blog since the end of 2017. That’s 183 blogs and counting! I’ll be back with more reflections in September. In the mean time, enjoy the Bible through the eyes of Peanuts.

Carol M. Bechtel

 

 

 

 

 

Fair Use Copyright Disclaimer:

This site contains copyrighted content not authorized for use by the owner, but its use falls under the guidelines of fair use (see Section 107 of the Copyright Act). The nature of this use is solely for non-profit educational purposes.

Justice for Job’s Wife

Read: Job 1-2

Then [Job’s] wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9, NRSV).

The commentators have not been kind to Job’s wife. Augustine dubbed her, “the devil’s accomplice.” Others have suggested that she was part of Job’s “punishment.”

I think she deserves better.

Step one in rehabilitating her image is acknowledging that she has a name. Granted, we don’t know what it is, but if we’re going to honor her individuality, it won’t do to refer to her as an extension of her husband. So, for the purposes of this reflection, I’m going to suggest we call her Bracha. It means “blessing.” This may seem like an ironic choice given the fact that she’s famous for telling her husband to “curse God and die.” Nevertheless, I maintain that, on balance, she is a blessing—both to Job and to us.

You’re probably familiar with Job’s story. But you may not have thought about it from Bracha’s perspective. Let’s try.

First, there is the “horrible, no-good, very bad day” in which she and her husband lose all of their worldly goods and all ten of their children (Job 1:13-19). Then her husband is smitten with a loathsome skin disease (2:7-8). He is sitting on an ash heap scraping his sores when she famously suggests that he “curse God and die.” It’s her first and only line in 42 chapters, and under the circumstances, it makes a certain amount of sense.

But what are those circumstances—theologically speaking?

Presumably, Bracha knows that her husband is a righteous man. (Some might even say he is obsessively righteous—running around offering sacrifices on behalf of his children just in case they have sinned.) Remember that she knows nothing of the heavenly bet behind the cruel sequence of catastrophes that have consumed her family. (We’ll consider that troubling wager some other day.) Finally, she must be familiar with the popular theology which assumes that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. (This is the theology that will be articulated with such certainty by the three “friends” later in the book. Notice that she doesn’t even consider the explanation that comes so easily to them: that Job has done something to deserve this.)

Are you beginning to see things from Bracha’s perspective? Her recent experience has demonstrated that the righteous are not always rewarded. In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. In her situation, God does not seem to be playing by the rules. And if God cannot be trusted, then we may as well curse God and die.

It’s a brutal conclusion, but it’s easy to see how she comes to it. Perhaps you have come to a similar conclusion at some point—standing in a cemetery or an emergency room or a lawyer’s office.

It is not, however, the only conclusion possible under such circumstances. Job eventually discovers another possibility. It will mean letting go of tidy theological equations that oversimplify the riddle of human suffering. It will mean learning to live with uncertainty. It will mean serving God even if he can’t be sure of a reward for good behavior. But in the end, Job will decide to bless God and live.

Would Job have discovered this new version of faith on his own? Who can say? What we can say, however, is that his wife, Bracha, is the first to see what’s at stake. It’s the brutal clarity of her outburst that helps Job to see it, too. Her words propel him off the ash heap. He spends the whole rest of the book trying to prove her wrong, and that quest helps him to find a more profound faith.

That, I think, is reason enough to call her “Blessing.”

Ponder: Why do you think people have been so critical of “Bracha” over the centuries? How do you feel about her?

Pray: Help us to know how to enter the sacred space of others’ suffering. Help us to discover what it means to bless God and live.

The Power of a Single Voice

Read: 1 Kings 19

[God said to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in this mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-14, NRSV).

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “What difference can I make? I’m just one person—one small voice.”

The story of Malala Yousafzai puts the lie to that kind of logic. As a child in Pakistan, she defied the Taliban by speaking out for women’s education. They retaliated in 2012, shooting her in the head as she returned home from school. Miraculously, she survived the attack. In 2014—at age 17—she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, Malala’s story also illustrates how dangerous it is to speak up.

The prophet Elijah knew all about such risks. At the beginning of 1 Kings 19, Elijah is running for his life. Queen Jezebel is hot on his heels, furious over the fact that Elijah has just made an object lesson out of 450 of her favorite prophets of Baal.

We can hardly blame Elijah for being depressed. He’s been on the run for the traditional “40 days and 40 nights,” after all. And even though an angel stopped by at one point with a picnic basket, Elijah now finds himself holed up in a cave on Mt. Horeb.

That location hints that the story may be coming to a head. Horeb is another name for Sinai, so as readers, we are primed for something spectacular. Elijah, on the other hand, is only primed for more depression. When God asks what he is doing there, Elijah erupts with a series of complaints. “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts,” he says. “For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Everything Elijah says is factually correct—as far as he knows. But people aren’t usually so blunt with the Almighty. And God could hardly fail to catch the critical subtext of Elijah’s outburst. (Why have you abandoned me?) So, when God orders Elijah out of the cave and tells him to “stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by,” we can’t be sure whether Elijah is about to get a medal or a lightning bolt.

What he gets is an object lesson, and it defies all expectations. First there is a wind, then an earthquake, and finally, a fire. All of these things are just the kind of special effects we might expect on Mt. Sinai. But to our surprise—and probably Elijah’s—God is “not in” any of these spectacular events. God does show up, however, in what the NRSV calls “a sound of sheer silence.”

This is a translation that must be under the influence of Simon and Garfunkel, because it bears little relation to what’s in the Hebrew. Translated literally, the phrase means something more like, “the sound of a faint whisper.”

Now, ask yourself: Why might this be relevant for Elijah’s situation? Why might it be relevant to ours?

Elijah thinks he is alone. He thinks he is no more than a “faint whisper,” soon to be silenced by the powers that be. But God’s elaborate object lesson declares this perception irrelevant. God is not always in the spectacular, the impressive, and the powerful. Sometimes, God shows up in the still, small voice.

Maybe that’s the message Elijah needs to hear. Maybe that’s the message we need to hear.

Of course, if we read the rest of the story, we see that God’s point is pretty much lost on Elijah. When God repeats the “what are you doing here” question, Elijah says exactly the same thing as before. But God gives him his marching orders anyway—which, to my mind, suggests that sometimes we have to speak out even if we’re still feeling very much alone.

Who knows? Maybe when we speak out we’ll discover that we are not as alone as we thought we were. That’s what happened for Elijah (see v. 18).  But regardless, isn’t it freeing to know that God can speak through the sound of a faint whisper?

Ponder: Can you think of examples from history—or your own life—where a single voice made a huge difference? How would you answer God’s question, “What are you doing here?”

Pray: Give me the courage to use my voice for good even when I am afraid.

Waiting for the Resurrection

Read: Luke 23:39-43

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43, NRSV).

What happens to us—and our loved ones—at the moment of death?

I’ll come back to that question in a moment. For now, let’s start with a story.

I was teaching an adult Sunday school class at a local congregation. This is not usually a dangerous assignment, but there was a definite fear factor in the room that day. Of course, it didn’t help that I was a seminary student. I was zealous about my topic, and a good deal younger than most of the people in the class. In short, I don’t think they trusted me any further than they could throw me and my half-finished degree.

The topic? The resurrection of the body. Everything was going well until I pointed out that this was not the same thing as the immortality of the soul. This was news to them, and they did not receive it well. I found myself with my back, literally, against the sanctuary wall. When I realized that there was a carved-in-stone copy of the Apostles’ Creed on that very wall, I pointed to the relevant phrase in in the Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The class granted my point, but they weren’t happy about it.

I was not the only one who was afraid that day. In retrospect, I realize that they were afraid, too. They were afraid of losing the comfort that comes with knowing that we are instantly safe with God at the moment of death. For their money, the idea of the immortality of the soul seems to guarantee this. The resurrection of the body, on the other hand, seems to suggest an unspecified wait.

Nobody wants to wait around for the resurrection.

I could bore you with theories about the “intermediate state,” but this more of a pastoral problem than it is an intellectual one. We need comfort, not theories.

There is powerful comfort in Jesus’ words to the thief just one cross over. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he says. Today. But how does that square with the resurrection of the body? some will ask. How can it be “today” if we have to wait for the general resurrection?

Maybe we need to remember that God is the original Time Lord. After all, a thousand years in God’s sight are “like yesterday when it is past” (Psalm 90:4). Or maybe we need to remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:50-52. It’s a mystery, he says. “We will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” That’s a comforting phrase if ever there was one. It suggests that even if there is a “wait,” we won’t be aware of it.

I love the way Marilynne Robinson’s character, John Ames, reflects on this in the novel, Gilead. Contemplating his own imminent death, Ames says, “I imagine a kind of ecstatic pirouette, a little bit like going up for a line drive when you’re so young that your body almost doesn’t know about effort. Paul couldn’t have meant something entirely different from that. So there’s that to look forward to.”*

Ames also gives a nod to an analogy from earlier in the chapter, where Paul points out that “what you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Cor. 15: 36). In the novel, the elderly Ames is writing a letter that he hopes his infant son will read after Ames is gone. His words read well for all of us in need of both comfort and courage:

While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been, in the strength of my youth, with dear ones beside me. You read the dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man, and I live in a light better than any dream of mine—not waiting for you, though, because I want your dear perishable self to live long and to love this poor perishable world, which I somehow cannot imagine not missing bitterly…. I have wondered about that for many years. Well, this old seed is about to drop into the ground. Then I’ll know.

Ponder this short video by Todd Billings on his book, The End of the Christian Life. What does it mean to live and die in such a way that we “give ourselves over to love”?

Pray: Grant me on earth what seems Thee best, till death and Heav’n reveal the rest (Isaac Watts).

*From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 142. The passage quoted at the end of this reflection is from p. 53.

Body Language

Read: Acts 17:16-34

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this” (Acts 17:32, NRSV).

I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.

I was sitting in the refectory at Yale Divinity School with some graduate school colleagues. The topic was resurrection. (That’s the sort of thing graduate students discuss over lunch.) When I confessed that I believed in the resurrection of the body, the conversation came to an abrupt halt.

“Wait. Literally?” one of my friends asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

My colleagues exchanged glances. It was an awkward moment. Finally, one of them said, “Wow, how…quaint!

Ouch. No self-respecting graduate student wants to be called theologically quaint.

While it’s true that I didn’t particularly appreciate that designation at the time, I’ve since come to embrace it with more equanimity. First, I now understand how I got that way. Second, I have a better appreciation for the assumptions that swirl around most discussions of this subject.

As to how I got this way—I blame the Old Testament. If you’ve been following this blog for the past few weeks, you’ll know about the Hebrew word nephesh. It’s that “package deal” that God creates in the garden in Genesis 2:7. Sometimes mistranslated as “soul,” this “living being” is a combination of physical, spiritual, and mental attributes.

Now, I know that the authors of those early chapters of Genesis were not writing science. It won’t work to wave a Hebrew word around as if it were a literal description of reality. But even if we don’t take it literally, we ought to take it seriously. This stuff in the early chapters of Genesis is meant to teach us deep truths about who we are in relation to God and the rest of creation. I, for one, think we need to pay attention.

The apostle Paul had spent his life steeped in the Hebrew scriptures as well, so he would have known all about the nephesh. And if you know about the nephesh, then the resurrection of the body—both Jesus’ and our own—comes as less of a shock. In fact, it makes a certain, thrilling sense. It’s just the kind of thing God would get up to.

Of course, it made no sense at all to most of the people Paul was talking to in the Areopagus. Steeped, not in the Old Testament, but in a dualistic view of body and soul—where the soul was clearly superior—the Greeks had no patience for Paul’s talk of resurrected bodies. Why on earth would you want your body resurrected? Good riddance to it, according to their way of thinking. So they wrote Paul off as theologically quaint and drifted off to find a better philosopher.

If you have spent your life thinking that you have an “immortal soul,” then you’re probably going to find this whole conversation disconcerting. Not only that, but you may find yourself asking painful questions about what happens to you—and to loved ones—at the moment of death. Those questions are important, so let’s consider them more carefully next time.

In the meantime, remember that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).

Ponder: How has your physical body shaped your personality? What makes you “you”?

Pray: Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my nephesh to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my nephesh to resurrect.

Pets in Heaven

Read: Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (Genesis 1:27, NRSV).

Do pets go to heaven?

That’s a question every parent dreads. We dread it because we want to spare our children pain. (Although, if they are asking the question, it probably means they are in pain already.) But we may also dread it because we are afraid that the answer will turn them against God. (It’s bad enough that God didn’t save their pet even though they prayed really hard. Now we’re supposed to tell them that animals don’t have “souls,” and therefore, can’t go to heaven?) Or maybe we just dread the question because we don’t know what to say. (We’ve been asking it ourselves ever since we lost our first pet, and the answer isn’t any clearer to us now than it was when that loss was fresh.)

What if we are making this question harder than it needs to be?

First, let’s unpack the assumption that animals “don’t have souls.” What if I told you that in the Bible, the thing that distinguishes humans from animals is not the possession of a “soul”? Read carefully. In Genesis 1, the thing that sets humans apart from the rest of creation is that humans are created in God’s image. While it’s not entirely clear what that means, it seems to involve both honor and responsibility.

Now let’s take a look at Genesis 2. In this version of the creation story, God creates the first human from “the dust of the ground.” When God breathes on this little art project, it becomes “a living being.” Some translations mislead us by translating this as “a living soul,” but that translation says more about the translators than it does about the Hebrew text. The word at issue is nephesh. As we explained last week (see Lost in Translation), a nephesh is a package deal. It is everything that makes us who/what we are—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

But here’s the fun part: The Bible uses this same word to describe animals. It does so not once, not twice, but at least 171 times. It’s not that humans “have a soul” and animals do not. We are all living beings.

There is one thing that carries more weight on the “do pets go to heaven” question than anything else, however. Have you ever thought about the overall plot of the Bible? Sometimes we act as if it’s all about us. We even assume that the “point” of Christianity is to “go to heaven when we die.” This is so arrogant. And if that’s the best we can do, “it’s time we rubbed our eyes and read our texts again” (N. T. Wright, Simply Christian, 2006, p. 219). Read carefully. God has a much bigger agenda. The overall story arc of the Bible includes nothing less than the renewal of all creation.

Obviously, this is bigger news than just an answer to the question of whether pets go to heaven. But it’s relevant, nonetheless. If God cared enough to create the animal kingdom in the first place, then there are good biblical grounds to believe that God will include animals in the “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). After all, it wouldn’t be much fun without them.

So, do you have to explain all this when your child asks you if pets go to heaven? No. Just take your child in your arms and say, “Yes!” But maybe now you can say it with a little more conviction.

Ponder the words and music of the hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Listen for the line, “I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails the new creation.”

Pray: Thank you for the friendship and joy that your creatures give us. Help us to entrust them to your care when it’s time to say, “Goodbye—for now.”

Lost in Translation

Read: Genesis 2:4-9

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7, NRSV).

Language is tricky business. Try learning another one and you’ll soon find that out. First, there are the “false friends”—words that sound like words in your own language but turn out to mean something quite different. I once tried to order iced tea in Italy. “Tè caldo,” I said confidently. It turns out caldo in Italian means “hot” (as in “cauldron”). Oops. Or the words that sound alike, but most assuredly are not. A pesca (peach) gelato is lovely, but a pesce (fish) gelato is not.

Then there are the words that get “lost in translation”—often with funny results. Like the folding chair from China with the label warning the owner not to “stand or jump on this throne.”

Then there are the linguistic misunderstandings that can have dangerous—or even deadly—consequences. I will always be grateful to the teenager at the Fourth of July party who thought twice about the fireworks instructions that read, “Point toward audience.”

Bible translations are not immune to such misunderstandings. Some of these can prove to be dangerous for our theology. Take, for instance, the Hebrew word, nephesh. This is the word behind the phrase “a living being” in Genesis 2:7. Many other translations render this word as “soul.”

So, what’s the problem, professor?

It’s not so much one problem, as several in sequence. First, there is the problem of finding an English word that captures what a Hebrew nephesh is. In short, there isn’t one. A nephesh is what we might call a “package deal.” It’s everything that makes us who/what we are—physically, mentally, and emotionally. English has nothing for this. Sometimes you just have to learn a new word.

But now we have arrived at the second problem. Translators don’t want to learn a new word. It feels like a defeat. So, they scrounge around in their own language until they find a word that they think will work—as if it were as simple as slapping an equals sign between two words that aren’t really the same at all. This is a bad idea. (Remember our conversation about peaches and fish? Yuck.) And yet, many translators use the word “soul” to translate the word nephesh.

What do you think of when you hear the word “soul”? Merriam-Webster defines it as the “spiritual part of a person.” The soul is seen as being distinct from—and superior to—the body.

Welcome to the third problem. A soul is not a nephesh. Remember the “package deal”? There is no body in soul. That’s why—in our culture—we talk about body and soul. So, in the time that it takes to make one bad translational decision, we have imported a whole set of assumptions that have no business in this part of the Bible. Yuck.

Again I hear you asking, What’s the problem, professor?

Maybe we should stop talking about problems. Let’s talk about possibilities instead.

  • Would you like to know why Christians affirm the resurrection of the body and not the immortality of the soul? (Oh, my gosh—we do? Yes. Check your copy of the Apostles’ Creed.)
  • Would you like to know why your body is good, and why sex is part of God’s good creation? (Wait. They are? Yes. Both are flawed, but both are God’s good ideas.)
  • Would you like to know why your pet will go to heaven? (But professor, animals don’t have souls? How is that possible? Wait until next week. I’ll tell you.)

Every single one of these questions is addressed by this notion of the nephesh. In the coming weeks, tune in for more episodes of what my students call, “Professor Bechtel explains it all.” We’ll do our best not to get lost in translation.

Ponder: What surprised you most about the Hebrew word nephesh? Does it change anything about the way you see yourself?

Pray: We praise you, O God, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

For Goodness’ Sake

Read: Genesis 1

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:31, NRSV).

“How many times do I have to tell you….?”

Most of us have been on the receiving end of this rhetorical question. It doesn’t really require an answer, and if we gave one, we would be in even more trouble.

God must have considerable sympathy for exasperated parents who ask this question. After all, God tells us not once, not twice, but seven times in Genesis 1 that creation is good. But evidently, seven times is not enough, because we still need reminding.

In the introductory class that I teach on the Old Testament, we take extra time with the book of Genesis. “Well begun is half done,” I tell my seminarians. There are things in this book that are simply worth taking extra time over or the results can be disastrous. It’s a bit like taking extra time when planning a trip. If you’re not careful you may end up somewhere you do not want to go. Hawaii and Hoboken both start with “H,” but they are very different places.

So, what are the risks of ignoring God’s repeated reminder that creation is good?

Have you ever encountered Christians who cared more about saving “souls” than saving lives? Never mind that you are starving; here’s a Bible.

Have you noticed how easy it is to treat living things as commodities? Why shouldn’t we cut down the rain forests? They’re just trees, for goodness’ sake.

Have you ever been taught that the body is bad and the spirit is good? And we wonder why we’re confused about sex?

These are just a few examples of how we can end up somewhere we don’t want to go by not taking God seriously with regard to the goodness of creation. In the next few installments of this “Double Takes” series, we will take a closer look at some other examples.

For now, however, maybe it’s enough just to hear God asking, “How many times do I have to tell you…?”

Don’t answer that, or you’ll be in even more trouble.

Ponder: Have you ever been taught that the body is bad and the spirit is good? How is that working for you?

Pray: For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies; Lord of all, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

From the hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth”; text by Folliott S. Pierpoint (1835-1917).