hand grasping golden apple

The Mind of Christ

In my last post, I talked about the claim from some preachers that if you are born again, you are a “little god.” I argued that is not true, first by pointing out that when the Bible says we were made in the image and likeness of God, that is not the same as being a god.

I’m sure some of them will say, “Well, what about Philippians 2:5-6?”

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

(KJV)

See? It says we should have the mind of Christ Jesus and think it is not robbery to be equal with God.

Problem is that reading is out of context. Context is so important to understanding the Bible, so let me explain what that means. Reading in context is about trying to figure out what the author meant when he wrote it, and what it meant to the audience it was originally written for. When I say something is being read out of context, I’m saying that is not what the author meant when he wrote it, and/or that is not what it would have meant to the original audience. When the author of Genesis 1:26-27 said the first man and woman were made in God’s image and likeness, he did not mean they were equal to God. The original audience would have thought of an image or likeness in the same way they would have thought of a statue, drawing, or painting of a person. It can look just like the person, but it is not the person. Therefore, reading image and likeness as equality is out of context.

With that in mind, does Philippians 2:5-6 say we should think of ourselves as equal to God? What does it say in context? That’s what I am about to examine.

Context: What does the verse really say?

To answer that, we have to dive into the Greek a little bit. If you didn’t know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew—except for a few chapters of Daniel that were in Aramaic—and the New Testament was written in Greek. Or maybe they thought Paul wrote in King James English. If so, you need to know he wrote in Greek, because that was the language of the people of his congregations. And because King James English was over a thousand years and hundreds of miles removed from even one person speaking it, but I digress. For us trying to understand today what any of the Biblical authors wrote, it is inevitable that some things will get lost in translation.

In Greek the word translated robbery in the KJV is harpagmos, which could mean “robbery” but also could mean something taken, plunder, a prize, or a thing to be taken or held onto forcibly. Most other translations say “a thing to be grasped.” So should we consider it not robbery to be equal with God, or should we consider equality with God not a thing to be grasped? More context is needed.

Context: What does it mean within this particular section?

In this case the section we are looking at is Phil 2:5-11. Here is the World English Bible’s translation, which I am using because it is not copyrighted.

5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(WEB)

The Mind of Christ

So Paul starts with “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). I prefer the NRSV, which says , “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phi 2:5 NRSV). What does it mean to have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus? That is what Paul explains in the rest of the passage. We believe verses 6-11 were a hymn. If so, it could be the oldest Christian hymn we have record of. They didn’t know how to write music then, so we can only guess how it was sung. But the Christians in Philippi would have known and probably sung along in their minds as it was read to them.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death.

The hymn starts by describing Jesus as “existing in the form of God,” but then goes on to say in verse 7, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” So the hymn begins by contrasting his existence before he became a man with the human form he took as a man called Jesus of Nazareth. And when he was “in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, [even] the death of the cross.”

In between his being in the form of God and in human form, verse 6b says he “didn’t consider equality with God” harpagmos. In that context, which is more likely, that he did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, or did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped? Considering how verses 7-8 stress how in his human form, he humbled himself, taking the form of servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, that does not sound like someone going around saying, “I don’t consider it robbery to call myself equal with God.” That sounds like someone who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. Unlike us, he already existed in the form of God. He had the right to claim equality with God. But instead, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Paul is saying that is the mind of Christ that you should have.

Context: What else does the Bible say about this?

I’ve already talked about Genesis 1:26-27, where it says human beings were created not equal to God but in God’s image and likeness. This passage from Philippians makes the point more powerfully by saying even Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. That particular phrase also connects this passage with the Creation story in Genesis.

First, God placed them in a Paradise and gave only one restriction.

15 Yahweh God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. 16 Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”

(WEB).

They can eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They should consider that poison, because “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” They were fine with that until a serpent told them,

4 … “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

(Gen 3:4-5 NRSV)

They probably never thought about being like God before. But now that the serpent put that idea in their head, they thought, “That would be awesome.” So at a tree on a hill, they considered equality with God a thing to be grasped, and they grasped it. Because of that, they were banished from the Garden. God would still be with them, but it would never be the same.

hand grasping golden apple
Photo by Alan Cabello from Pexels;

The Second Adam

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul describes Christ as a second Adam. When he was brought to a tree on a hill, he did NOT consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross—the perfect act of faithful obedience to God and loving self-sacrifice for us. And in so doing, he reversed the curse and restored our broken relationship with God.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death. He had a right to claim to claim equality with God, but instead he submitted himself to God’s plan to redeem humanity. How much more then should we stop grasping for equality with God and show God’s love through service and humility?

God Highly Exalted Him

That was the first half of the hymn. The second half describes how God highly exalted Jesus in response to his perfect obedience. He gave Jesus a name that is above every other name, confirming his status as Christ and Lord. Because God glorified him, he can be called equal with God. We cannot expect to be glorified in the same way. But Paul said in the book of Romans we are children of God and heirs with Christ “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17 NRSV). If we share in his suffering to redeem the world, we will also share in his glory.

Furthermore, he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 NRSV). We still won’t be equal to God. But whatever we are, it will be awesome.

Jesus is not a model for us to claim equality with God. He is the model of a servant who submits to God’s will, even when it means suffering unjustly at the hands of others. God’s will was for the redemption of humanity, even those who persecuted him. God’s will was to show the extent of God’s love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Only after Jesus’s death and resurrection did the disciples understand what it meant for him to be the Messiah. It meant suffering and death, not for its own sake, but to save others.

A Suffering Messiah

It was foreshadowed in one of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. God prophecies of someone called “My servant,” who is beaten so much that he does not even look human anymore. People see his suffering and think it must be the wrath of God on him. The servant does not demand justice, because he understands they do not know what they are doing. They are like lost sheep who have gone astray. Somehow they see God glorify him, and their conscience is pricked. They seek the one whom they once despised and rejected and want him to teach them the ways of justice and righteousness (Isa 52:13-53:12).

And the irony was he could have rescued himself. He could have grasped the equality with God that was already his. Before he came to us in human form, he was in the form of God. But he willingly surrendered that status as Son of God to become the suffering servant. If you want the mind of Christ, meditate on that for a while.

So if you think this verse is about how you can become equal with God, you have missed the point entirely.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back next time. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and Peace to you.

Word of Faith and a Cult Checklist

How do you know if a religion, sect, or organization is a cult? I posted earlier about the time my sister thought I was in a cult. This was in reference to the Word of Faith (aka, Prosperity Gospel), which I believed in for several years. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t fully a cult, but it wasn’t healthy either.

An organization called International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) has an article on their website called “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups” that lists a number of patterns that are consistent throughout all cults. Some groups may check several boxes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a cult.

I will go through this list, using my experience with the Word of Faith. You might want to consider answering for whatever group you are thinking of.

If you want a primer on the Word of Faith, I did a video about it.

Number 1: The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

As a group, Word of Faith (WoF) believers are devoted to their pastor, sometimes even referring to him/her as an apostle or prophet. They also have celebrity preachers that they follow closely. I became disenchanted with one of my churches when the pastor quoted a particular televangelist more than Jesus. It seems at times they take what their leaders say as just as much the Word of God as the Bible, even more so in extreme cases.

The lines between commitment to God and commitment to your leader can get blurred sometimes.

I will say yes to this.

Number 2: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

They are not punished but definitely discouraged. They encourage you to question and dissent outsiders, traditional churches, seminaries, “the fake news media,” experts, scientists, doctors, evidence, and anything that does not agree with their narrow interpretation of the Bible. But if you question, doubt, or disagree with them, you are automatically wrong, because their leaders are appointed and anointed by God. They might even tell you this is the reason your prayers aren’t being answered, because in questioning them, you think you are smarter than God.

I’ll say yes to this.

Number 3: Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

The only one on that list they practice is speaking in tongues, and it’s not done as a mind-altering exercise. It is to fulfill what they believe is a restoration of the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

(NRSV)

I don’t remember it as altering my mind, except on a few occasions, and there was no one to witness it. I did not do it in the church, because later in that same letter, Paul says only speak in tongues in public if there is someone to interpret it (1 Cor 14:28). They do believe in meditating on God’s word, but chanting is too new-agey or Buddhist-like for them.

But I’m not sure I can say no to this. The ones who invite people up for healing have gotten good at using the placebo effect. That requires some mind-alteration for people to believe they are healed when they aren’t. I was in my church choir for several years, so music is a big part of the worship experience for me. The way they use music, however, is to make you more suggestible or induce a sense of euphoria, so you will be easier to manipulate.

I will say yes, they do use some mind-altering methods, even if not the ones listed specifically.

Number 4: The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

In my own experience, they would express opinions on some of these issues, but they would not command or forbid one way or the other. They did not tell you what job to take, who to marry, what clothes to wear, where to live, etc. However, they did tell you how you should think, act, and feel in other ways.

If you prayed for healing, they would tell you things like, “Don’t consider your body. Don’t consider your feelings. Don’t consider your symptoms. Consider only the Word of God that says, ‘By his stripes you were healed.’” In other words, ignore the obvious signs that you were not really healed. They would not forbid but strongly discourage seeing a doctor, taking a prescription, getting vaccinated, or doing anything for your illness that did not come from the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

They would tell you that if you have Jesus, you can’t be depressed. For someone with undiagnosed clinical depression, I’ll let you guess how well that worked for me.

This is a tough call, but I’m going to say yes to this.

Number 5: The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

They did not have a specific leader they considered to be the Messiah, although as I said earlier, there were a few preachers they exalted to a level that felt equal to Jesus. That was when I really had problems with it. They also were somewhat elitist in thinking they were the only ones who believe the Bible, the only ones who stood for the word of God, and the only ones totally devoted to God. Traditional churches were dead as far as they were concerned.

You didn’t have to be part of their church or movement specifically to be saved, but you were considered a lesser version of Christianity. They were not happy with Billy Graham, because he would encourage those who came forward to give their lives to Christ at his crusades to join a local church. They wanted him to tell them to join a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church.” In other words, you have to join a church like ours, because we are the only ones who believe the Bible and teach it correctly.

I will say yes to this.

Number 6: The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

They believe they are persecuted, which fosters an us-versus-them mentality. And to them, that is confirmation that God is on their side, because Jesus said those who were faithful to him would be persecuted.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

(Mat 5:10-12 NRS)

When they do and say crazy things, and people say they are crazy, it means they are blessed. They are righteous. The more they are reviled and ridiculed, the more they think that is proof that they are right. But not all persecution is for righteousness’s sake. When a minister drives Mercedes S-Class or Bentley, or has a private jet, or is known to pull in tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and people ask how they can afford that, they complain. “Tom Cruise makes $20 million per movie. No one asks him how he makes so much. No one asks about the pastor who drives a Toyota. Why do they ask me about my Rolls Royce?”

Here’s why. Maybe Tom Cruise does make too much money, but we know where his money comes from. He doesn’t require people to give him 10% of their income to buy a ticket to his latest movie. My pastor drives a Toyota. We don’t ask him how he got it because we know how much he gets paid. The members of the church saw the budget proposal and approved it. We know his car is what he could reasonably afford. We don’t begrudge him any of his salary or benefits because being a pastor of a church our size will keep you pretty busy. We don’t want him to have to work another job just to make ends meet and take care of his family. But if he drove up one Sunday in a Mercedes, Rolls Royce, or Bentley, you’d better believe we would be asking him how he got it. And if he told us it was none of our business, we’d probably fire him.

Number 7: The leader is not accountable to any authorities.

Yes, and this is a big problem. The pastor or leader of the church is considered to be “the man of God” and accountable only to God. When I left my WoF faith for the Presbyterian church, one of the first things I noticed was they have an annual congregational meeting where they propose a budget for the next year. Everything the church spends money on, including compensation for the clergy and staff, is laid out for everyone to see. We vote on it and approve it. We can propose changes if we like, but usually everyone is satisfied with it. Any leader of a church or ministry who is not willing to do that should not receive your money. They should never tell you it’s none of your business how they spend your donations.

Some won’t even accept accountability to the government or law enforcement. One who was investigated by the Senate for possible fraud said the IRS has the right to audit their finances, but the Senate does not. He used to say Christians should obey the governing authorities according to Romans 13:1. Why does everyone else have to answer when the Senate comes knocking, but he doesn’t? Is he a Constitutional lawyer? Freedom of religion does not include the right to commit fraud. The church I’m in now would have no problem showing their financials if that happened. We have nothing to hide.

blond woman hiding face behind money
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Number 8: The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

The ends justify the means. Defending the indefensible. It does happen, though I can’t think of many examples from my own time in WoF. I’ve seen it a lot more looking from the outside now. Even as hospitalizations and deaths mounted, they kept telling people not to wear masks and not to get the vaccine. Too many of them are not doctors but they play one in the pulpit.

When they said God will make you healthy, wealthy, and successful in all your endeavors if you send money to them—be it tithes, offerings, or “seeds”—at first I did not consider it reprehensible. I thought they were preaching “the Word of God.” It was silly dead church traditions that hid God’s promises of reaping a harvest from the seed–i.e., money–you sowed into God’s ministries. That changed when I saw the only people receiving the promised “harvest” were the preachers who received all those “seed offerings” and tithes. I went to one convention with my favorite televangelist at the time. I had been so looking forward to it, because I thought he was the most Spirit-anointed man walking the face of the earth. The first night, he told the story of how someone promised to give him a plane, didn’t do it, and died. That happened to three people, according to him.

I was horrified. He’s claiming God killed three people, because they lied about giving him a plane? Before I was really in the WoF camp, that would have been a stone-cold deal breaker for me. This guy was not only a heretic. He was dangerous. But I rationalized it by saying Jesus said and did things that offended a lot of people too. If I want to be anointed like this guy, I need to listen and not question. If God has anointed him, maybe I’m wrong. That thinking kept me in the WoF much longer than I should have been. Thank God I figured out he’s not really anointed. He’s just good at mind control.

I will say yes to this.

Number 9: The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

There were times I felt shame and guilt, but it’s hard to judge how much of it was self-inflicted. The fact that I didn’t know I was living with clinical depression did not help. They tell a lot of stories of people who stood steadfast in their belief for answer to prayer. It did not matter what the doctors said. It did not matter what the experts said. They kept believing for a miracle, and they got it. So if you don’t see the answer to your prayers, you have to keep believing. Keep praising God as if your prayers have already been answered, and you will get what you pray for. But if you doubt at all, that will cancel out your prayers. So there is pressure to believe things they say, even when you know they are not true.

They had me believing it was my fault that all those promises in the Bible were not coming true for me. That would make me feel guilty and ashamed, so I would double down. Read the Bible more, pray more, sow more seed offerings, and listen to more tapes of WoF stars to build up my faith, because “… faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17 KJV). Keep listening to WoF teaching, and your faith will grow. As your faith grows, your prayers will be answered. That’s how it works, according to WoF doctrine. Except no matter how deeply I immersed myself in their way of reading the Bible, it never worked for me. After I figured out this was a different Gospel, and what they spoke was not of the Holy Spirit, then I was able to walk away from them and their shame and guilt.

I will say yes to this.

Number 10: Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.

They are more likely to say pray for your family and friends than cut ties with them. Unless the family member or friend is LGBTQ, or “living in sin,” however they define that. Then they will tell you to cut ties with them until they “obey the Word of God.” With that one caveat, I will say no to this.

Number 11: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

I think any church wants to bring in new members. But generally, they are more concerned with saving souls whether or not they join our church. I will say no to this.

Number 12: The group is preoccupied with making money.

Many of them claim that God will not answer any of your prayers if you’re not tithing. So 10% of your income (gross, not net) is the cover charge for even getting in God’s presence to pray and be heard. The preachers brag about how rich they are and claim God will make you rich too if you give them money. Here are a few sound bites I’ve heard recently.

  • “You want your loved ones saved? Get yo’ money! You want peace of mind? Get yo’ money! You want respect? Get yo’ money!”
  • “Mone-e-e-e-e-e-e-y cometh! To me! Now!”
  • “Tithing is the door that opens up the door to all the blessings.”
  • “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing.”
  • “Why are you coming to church if you’re not tithing? You’re not going to get anything from it.”
  • “I’d like to take all the non-tithers outside, hand out uzis to the ushers, and shoot ‘em all dead.”

Yes, they are preoccupied with making money.

Number 13: Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

They would have Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services. That is more than the Presbyterian church I’m in now, but I don’t consider that inordinate.

Number 14: Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

No. Generally, they recognize you have work, school, and a life outside the church. You should act morally in all aspects of life, but they are not complete separatists. There is no compound where everyone lives.

Number 15: The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

I’m not sure what this looks like. I didn’t fear reprisals from the group, but they would speculate about whether you were still saved or not. “Why would anyone leave us? We have the truth,” was a common attitude. Parents who see their children leave “the faith” often feel shame, wondering where they went wrong. But I wouldn’t say they feel there can be no life outside the context of the group, at least in my experience.

I will say no to this.

Conclusion

There were fifteen items on the list. I said yes to ten and no to five. Some of them I couldn’t answer definitively yes or no. For about a third of them it was difficult to give a definite yes or no, which is why some of my explanations were long. I can think of some cults where I would say yes to all of these. If I were more generous, I might have answered seven or eight yes instead of ten. Just out of curiosity, I ran my PCUSA church and pastor through this checklist and answered everything no.

So back to the original question, is WoF a cult? You could say it’s relative. Compared to Scientology, no. Compared to most traditional churches, yes. However, having been in it and now out of it, I can say there is enough mind control, authoritarianism, and manipulation to be concerned. And knowing my current church checks none of these boxes, even one yes is a red flag for me now.

It’s no fun to think you were in a cult or even a half-cult. Whether it’s a cult or not, Word of Faith is something I am never going back to.

If you are interested in in learning more about the checklist and the dangers of cults in general, you can follow this link to the ICSA website.

Have you had experience with cults? Do you wonder if you or someone you know is in a cult now? Did this questionnaire provide any clarity for you? Let me know in the comments.

Links

Michael D. Langone. Characteristics Associated with Cult Groups—Revised. ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 10

ICSA – Founded 1979 – About Us (icsahome.com)

Is the Word of Faith movement biblical? | GotQuestions.org

My sister thought I was in a cult (and I’m not sure she was wrong)

Why did she think that? I’m not sure. I know it had something to do with the Word of Faith movement. At the time, I had a great uncle who had Alzheimer’s. Everybody was saying there was no cure, which medically was true. If you’re in the Word of Faith, you don’t accept no cure. Your answer is, “Oh yes, there is. Faith in Jesus Christ.”

One of my word of faith teachers preached on using fasting to increase the power of your prayer. The text came from Isaiah 58. By the way, spoiler alert. That’s not what Isaiah 58 says when you read it in context. This teacher that I thought was so brilliant and so anointed and just spoke the uncompromised Word of God, yeah, he took it out of context, like just about every other Bible verse he preached. But I didn’t know that at the time.

And I was thinking I was the only one who believed in the power of faith to heal. Everyone else believed, “God can heal, but you don’t know if it is God’s will.” And I’d be like, “Well, Isaiah 53:5 says, But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (KJV). 1 Peter 2:24 says, Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (KJV).

Note: I’m using the King James Version because when I was in the Word of Faith movement, it was the preferred translation. It is not necessarily the most accurate. More on that in future posts.

They taught and still teach if you belong to Christ, the Bible says Jesus’ death didn’t just bring you forgiveness of sins. It’s not just about the sweet by and by. It’s about the rotten stinking here and now. You can have peace of mind and healing for your body along with forgiveness for your sins. Why settle for one when you can have all three?

If it says it in the Bible, then it is God’s will. If you can find a verse in the Bible that says you have it, it’s yours. If you find a promise in the Bible, you can claim it. And if you do that in faith, and believe and do not doubt, and don’t believe the lies of the Devil that you are sick when the Bible says you’re well, God will have no choice but to give you what to ask. That is what I learned from the Word of Faith on how to get your prayers answered yes.

With all the focus on health and wealth, it can sound selfish. This wasn’t selfish. My great uncle had Alzheimer’s, and it was ravaging his brain. He needed to be healed. I had one side telling me we don’t know if it’s God’s will to heal your uncle. I had another side telling me it is always God’s will to heal, because the Bible says so. Which do you think I chose?

If it is to be, is it up to me?

But inevitably, there will come a time when you pray for healing and don’t get healed. Or you pray for someone else to be healed, and it doesn’t happen. How can that be if God promised it? It’s because either you didn’t know about the promise of God, or you didn’t believe that God would heal you or whoever you prayed for. You started out in faith, but some doubt crept in, and that stopped your prayers from being answered. Those are pretty much the only reasons. It’s never because it wasn’t God’s will, because they say it is always God’s will to heal.

I was the only one in my immediate family who believed this way. Therefore, I was the only one who could exercise faith to get my uncle healed. If it was going to happen it had to be through me, through my faith and my belief. And I needed all the help I could get. My favorite televangelist preached on this passage on Isaiah 58.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

(Isa 58:6 KJV)

So fasting will supposedly release you from bands of Satan and break every yoke the Devil has put on you.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.

(Isa 58:8 KJV)

There it is, thine health shall spring forth speedily, because you fasted. The televangelist quoted that and then would tell stories about himself or other big names in the Word of Faith when they fasted because they weren’t getting their prayers answered, or some stubborn demon wouldn’t leave, and they would be saved, delivered, and healed because they were super-charged with the power of the Holy Ghost. So I thought that was what I needed to do.

I think my brother is in a cult

One weekend, I came home from college. My sister was there. My parents had gone away, and we were supposed to call Domino’s or Pizza Hut to get a pizza or something for dinner. But I couldn’t eat. I was fasting so I could focus my prayers for uncle Raymond. So I told my sister that I wouldn’t be eating anything for dinner, so she could get whatever she wanted. She kind of freaked out. In fact, anytime I fasted, none of them took it well. I was like, “What? Like this hasn’t been a common religious practice, not only in Christianity but Judaism and Islam and Buddhism for thousands of years?”

I thought she was overreacting. But like I said, I was deep into this Word of Faith doctrine. And if I remember correctly, she had just recently seen a movie about people who got sucked into a cult. That’s how it always works with a cult. You kind of get sucked into it, because they seem to have all the answers you seek. They may not be correct, but they’re easy to understand, and they appear to make sense out of your life. When I listened to this one teacher, I felt like he was pulling back the veil and revealing the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms.

People’s Temple cult leader, Jim Jones, in sunglasses and priest’s collar.
Caption: Not “Word of Faith, “ but definitely a cult leader. Rev. Jim Jones at an anti-eviction rally Sunday, January 16, 1977 in front of the International Hotel, Kearny and Jackson Streets, San Francisco. Photo by Nancy Wong

And so, you think you are getting the truth from them, and you can’t get it from anyone else. Maybe you think they can teach you how to have supernatural gifts and manifestations of God, just like you read about in the Bible. You end up doing things you wouldn’t normally do in the name of your faith.

She had watched me for years with my, shall we say, eccentric ideas about God and religion and faith. So I’m guessing it wasn’t just what I said about fasting and praying for our uncle to be healed that she was reacting to. I think she had been worried about this for a while, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So she called the pastor of the Presbyterian Church the rest of the family attended. My Word of Faith teachers called churches like this “one of those dead churches, stuck with their dead religion that care more about their dead traditions than they do about the Bible. And that’s why they don’t get their prayers answered, and then they say it’s the will of God. It wasn’t the will of God. They don’t believe the Bible.” That was their standard answer basically to everything that was wrong with denominational churches. So, if I wanted help getting my prayers answered, I knew I couldn’t get any help from that pastor.

Poor guy. He just had no chance with me at the time. I mean, the Word of Faith was promising me miracles and supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit with power. And that church was telling me I could pray, but it was really up to God.

But she called him and said, “I think my brother is in a cult.” She even wanted to have me kidnapped and deprogrammed. I guess she had seen that in the movie. She had told me this years ago, but she never told me what he said to her. I just knew that somehow he had talked her out of the whole kidnapping and deprogramming idea.

But I found out what he said, and I wish I had known back then, because I would have respected him a lot more. She and her husband came to visit. Down here — this was so cool — It was in February of 2020, just before Covid restrictions, and in our little town, the oldest venue there is the Opera House, which was hosting Jeremy’s 10, a Pearl Jam tribute band. So I called my brother-in-law (or maybe texted him) and I was like, “You want to see a Pearl Jam tribute band?”

And he was like, “Do they really sound like them?”

“I think so.” I sent him some links from their website.

Wisdom in action

They came down for the weekend. He and I went to see them, and my wife and sister had their fun just hanging out and talking about whatever sisters-in-law talk about when they get together. They watched a couple of episodes of Cold Case. I didn’t watch that when it first came out, but my wife and I ended up watching the whole series on Roku.

Anyway, during that weekend she brought up that incident, and I finally found out what he had said to her. He asked her what was happening that made her think I was in a cult. After she explained it, he said, “It doesn’t sound like he’s a danger to himself or to you. If that changes, call me.”

I did a video and post earlier on what I think makes a good pastor. It’s not comprehensive. It was just a few thoughts off the top of my head, because where I am now the pastor is getting ready to retire, and he’s been really good. One of the things I am learning more and more is how important wisdom is for any kind of leadership, and how rare it is. So it is really important for a pastor to have wisdom, because you’re going to be getting calls like what my sister did that night. And you’re going to have to help them navigate not just theological territory that is confusing for them. You’re going to have to help them navigate some scary emotional and family situations. And his answer was perfect wisdom. He didn’t dismiss her concerns, and he had the wisdom to recognize the most important question is not, “Is he in a cult?” but “Is he a danger to himself or others?” Because even if she was right, I don’t think anyone could have convinced me I was in a cult. In my mind, I was in the Truth (with a capital T). But knowing I was not a danger to myself or others set her mind at ease.

My family in general did not know how to handle me. That’s because no one knew about the Word of Faith back then. There was nothing to prepare them or guide them in dealing with a son or brother who swallowed this strange new theology hook, line, and sinker. Word of Faith was new to a lot of people, and I think because I had these strange ideas that were coming from someone who claimed to speak the Word of God, which of course meant you couldn’t question it in any way, it looked like a cult.

What is “the Word of God”?

And speaking the word of God did not just mean quoting scripture. Sometimes, they would even start speaking words from God directly, punctuating them with “says the LORD,” or “says your God,” so you know it’s not the preacher speaking now. It’s God. That was so exciting. I wanted to be able to access God directly like that. How can a traditional Presbyterian church compete with that?

These days, you hear people talking about the Prosperity Gospel. Well, Word of Faith was Prosperity Gospel before Prosperity Gospel. Our pastor did try to address it in one sermon. But even he didn’t understand why it had a hold on me and why it can have a hold on anyone, especially if you have a heart that wants to please God. And I doubt any of his classes in seminary taught him how to counter this false gospel.

He said at one point, “Nowhere in the Bible does God promise health and wealth and success if you have faith,” or something along those lines. Well, if it were that simple to refute, I would have left it a long time ago. But when people said something like that, I would think, “What do you mean nowhere in the Bible does it say that?” And I could roll off a whole bunch of scriptures that said just that, like, Isaiah 53:5 “By his stripes we are healed.” There’s the promise of healing. First Peter 2:24 promises forgiveness of sins and healing of the body. Protection from harm? Psalm 91. Healing for your loved one? Psalm 107:20. He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions (KJV). When I pray for my uncle, God is sending his word to heal him and deliver him from destruction.

Prosperity? 3 John verse 2. Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. (KJV). Okay, so there’s prosperity and health right there.

Abraham was rich because God blessed him (Gen 13:1–2). And Galatians 3:13–14 says, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (KJV).

Jesus died on the cross, so that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles. Well, that means if Abraham was rich, I have a right to be rich. I am entitled to any blessing God gave Abraham, because I belong to Christ. If it says it in the Bible, you have a right to it.

And people would say, “God answers prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.” The Word of Faith said, if it’s promised in the Bible, don’t take no for an answer. God is looking for people who will challenge dead traditions, who will not take no for an answer, who will believe the Bible, who will take God at His word and believe it above all circumstances, above their symptoms, above what the doctor says, above how they feel, above their bank account, above everything, seen and unseen, that contradicts it. David believed in God more than he believed in the size of the giant, and God gave him victory because of it. That’s the kind of faith you need to have if you want to get your prayers answered. And if you don’t have that kind of faith, don’t expect any answer except No. If you’re happy with God saying No, believe that old time traditional church teaching. If you want to know how to get God to answer yes, listen to us.

Gothic church with many spires and statues on top of each
Anyone want that “old time religion”? Photo by Alessandro Cavestro on Unsplash

Full Gospel or Fool’s Gospel?

Eventually, I found a “full gospel” church (that’s what Word of Faith folks liked to call themselves) that preached this message. The pastor one time imitated religious folk with, “‘Well, brother, we hope and pray…’. Then he countered, “God already said in his word, knuckle head! I didn’t mean that! I didn’t mean that! I apologize! I was talking to myself.”

We had a good laugh out of it, but that was basically the attitude we were taught to have. When you pray for something that is already promised in the Bible, you don’t hope and pray. You don’t pray, “If it be thy will.” If it wasn’t God’s will, God wouldn’t have put it in the Bible.

Of course, in order to maintain that belief, you have to ignore verses like,

And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:

(1Jo 5:14 KJV)

See, there’s the rub. If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. There were situations where even Jesus did not heal every sick person he saw. There is no guarantee that if you pray for healing, it is according to God’s will. Or this?

Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.

(Jam 4:13–15 KJV)

They say praying If the Lord will shows a lack of faith. Yet that is exactly what James says to do, and it is in keeping with the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. And all their promises of prosperity do not explain this verse.

Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

(Jam 2:5 KJV)

What does that say about all those claims that if you are rich and making a lot of money, it’s because God is blessing you? Or if you are faithful to God, God will make you rich and successful in everything you do?

I think I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live that long. The Bible is only the word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. When you read the Bible in context, there are basically only two promises God makes to you and me as individual believers: forgiveness for our sins, and he will be with us always. That’s it. No promises of perfect health, abundant wealth, protection from diseases like Covid, or success in all your endeavors. When they quote verses like Isaiah 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24; 3 Jn 2; Psa 107:20; Psa 91; Isa 58:6-8, or pretty much anything in the Bible, I’m telling you they are quoting it out of context. My Presbyterian minister–and the rest of my family, for that matter–had that right. But I didn’t know that then.

Failing the smell test

I don’t know how much of the specifics my sister knew, but she knew I followed some televangelists who did not pass the smell test. And she had seen enough I guess that when I talked about fasting so that I can pray for our uncle like it was under my control — that I could make it happen because of my faith, regardless of whether it was God’s will or not — then she couldn’t help thinking I needed serious help. She was right about that. I’m still not sure if it was a cult, but I needed help. The problem was I don’t think anyone knew — me least of all — what kind of help I needed.

Word of Faith, or Prosperity Gospel, I don’t believe is a cult, because there isn’t one authoritative figure that everyone follows. I was never part of an isolated community like the Jim Jones cult. Their theology is strange and a different gospel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a cult. However, it is possible that they have adopted standard cult methods of mind control to manipulate true believers, like I once was, to believe their message. Looking back, especially at that one teacher and self-proclaimed prophet I followed more than any other, I think I was manipulated. So that’s why I say I’m not sure my sister was wrong.

In case you haven’t guessed, my uncle was never healed of his Alzheimer’s. I carried that burden of trying to “believe God for his healing” for years. Thank God by the time he died, at least I had finally learned that it wasn’t because I lacked faith.

Whether I was in a cult or not, I have seen many ways religion can hurt people. If anything about my experience sounds familiar to you, maybe you should reconsider whether you are on the right path. If you want to know more, or you know you need help but don’t know where to turn, the International Cult Studies Association’s website is a good place to start. 

Beyond that, let me tell you this. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean God promised it to you. The Bible does say Abraham was rich, and that through Christ we have access to the blessing of Abraham. That does not mean God promised to make you rich. God also blessed Abraham with a son when he was 100 years old. God did not promise that same “blessing” for you or me (Thank you, Jesus!). I’m not saying God won’t give you health, wealth, or success. I’m saying God never promised to give you that. This might not be what you want to hear, but I’m telling you, that is the truth that set me free.

WRITTEN BYDavid Anderson


David Anderson is a multi-passionate author of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book is Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

More from David Anderson

Jan 16

The 49ers “Won” Super Bowl LIV

Would you like to take a little stroll down Memory Lane to a time before the Covid lockdowns? I thought so. Super Bowl LIV was exciting because the Chiefs struggled for three and a half quarters. The odds against them were staggering, but they did not give up. And in the last seven-and-a-half minutes, we finally got to see Patrick Mahomes going all Patrick Mahomes! They went on a tear and won 31–20. That kind of never-give-up attitude was admirable, and they could not have won without it. In football, as in politics, it is admirable to never give up while there is still time on the clock. …Read more · 8 min read


Jan 11

400 Prophets Can’t Be Wrong! Or Can They? Part 2

In the last post, we began a story about Ahab, King of Israel, in 1 Kings 22. At some point, the Arameans had taken a city called Ramoth-gilead from Israel, but the two kings reached a truce. They were at peace for three years, but Ahab wanted to take that city back. Of course, if the king of Aram defeated him before, it would not be easy, so he enlisted the help of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. As kings would normally do before going into battle, they inquired for a word of Yahweh. …Read more · 17 min read


Jan 11

400 Prophets Can’t Be Wrong! Or Can They? Part 1

I had written this post before the incidents of January 6. Ironically, that is Epiphany, the day many churches celebrate the visit of the wise men. But it looked like wisdom decided to take a holiday from Washington, D.C. I don’t have a lot to say that hasn’t already been said. But I will say my goal as a Christian is to follow Jesus’ commands, specifically, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Do unto others as you would have them to do you”, “Love one another as I have loved you”, “Love your enemies”, and “Turn the other cheek.” I don’t see any way to reconcile that with insurrection, terrorism, and storming the Capitol to stop our democracy from doing what it has done since 1789. But what do I know? …Read more · 12 min read


Jan 1

What Happened When God Lost an Election?

Some of my Christian brothers and sisters are disappointed with the results of the election. Well, disappointed is an understatement. To be honest, I’ve been disturbed at their inability to accept reality. I mean, the electoral college has met, and Biden has 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 228. That’s about the same margin of victory as Trump had over Clinton in 2016. I know denial is one of the stages of grief, but at some point you have to move on to acceptance. You will never recover from this if you don’t accept reality. …Read more · 12 min read

1


Dec 25, 2020

Who Were the Magi?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

(Mat 2:1 NRSV)

The Greek word for “wise men” is magoi, the plural of magus. It may read “magi”, “kings”, or “wise men,” depending on your translation. The word is usually more closely associated with magic than royalty or wisdom, so magi seems the most accurate. Gingrich’s Lexicon says it can mean “wise men” or “astrologers.” Friberg’s Lexicon says it refers to the high priestly caste of Persia. Thayer’s Lexicon says it was a name the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians used to refer to “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” …

six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category

Vlog Part 2

six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category
In the last photo, notice the Nonfiction winner (humble brag)

The May/June issue of Writer’s Digest is out, listing the winners of the 2019 Self-Published E-book Awards. You’ll see in this montage my lovely wife put together, I am listed as the winner in the Nonfiction category. I know I’ve told you about it, but seeing it in print is so exciting.

I have my own YouTube channel called Almost Ordained. You can follow the link to check it out or even subscribe. “Almost ordained” because I have two seminary degrees, but never got ordained. That means I have the theological and biblical training, but I can’t pastor a church or perform sacraments or weddings. My sister took up that mantle.

I have links to the latest episodes below, along with running times so you can gauge whether you have time for it. This is an example of a vlog (video blog). As the name implies, it is a blog done on video. Keeping some kind of diary or journal is often helpful in getting through a stressful time, so I encourage you to do it, whether on video, your blog, or the old-fashioned way.

Episodes

Kingdom Priorities (23:18)

Wisdom from Psalm 30 (30:05)

A New Haircut, The Stockdale Paradox, James 1:2-5; and Letting Perseverance Complete Its Work (28:08)

Confessions of an Ex-Prophet (58:07)

Coronavirus Confessions, and Why Gardening Is Good for Depression (12:08)

The Second Sign of a False Prophet (30:39)

The Second Sign of a False Prophet

In an earlier post, I talked about the first sign to look for in a false prophet. If they prophesy something in the name of the LORD, and it does not come to pass, the LORD did not speak that. They spoke presumptuously. They are a false prophet (Deut 18:20-22).

But what if what they say does come to pass? Could he/she still be a false prophet? The Old Testament warned the Israelites it is indeed possible. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 told the Israelites even if what the prophets or those who divine by dreams say comes to pass, but they tell you to follow gods other than the LORD who redeemed you from slavery in Egypt, you must not follow them. Any prophet who tells them to forsake the way of the LORD their God and follow other gods was to be put to death. As I said in another episode, ancient Israel was a theocracy, but we are a republic. We can’t put false prophets to death here, and I’m glad for that. Because of that, I’m going to focus more on the New Testament.

Jesus said, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Mat 24:11 NRS). And again, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mat 24:24 NRS). What stands out for me in this is:

  1. False prophets will produce great signs and omens.
  2. False prophets will lead many astray.
  3. Even the elect, those who are saved, can be led astray.

So don’t think if you received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you can’t be fooled by false prophets, because you have the Holy Spirit within you. Oh yes, you can.

A Warning to the Galatians (and Us)

Paul said this to the Galatians.

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”

(Gal 1:8-9 NRS).

If it were anyone else, I would say, “What an egomaniac. He won’t let anyone say anything contrary to what he told them. That’s what cult leaders do.” But over the years, I have heard gospels contrary to what we received from Christ and the Apostles. They led me astray, so I understand why he gives such a dire warning about this. The members of the church in Galatia had the Holy Spirit. False prophets or false teachers came among them, and they were fooled. Don’t think it can’t happen to you.

And notice, Paul even says if we … proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you. He includes himself in this curse. He has shut the door on ever changing the gospel he first proclaimed to them. Ain’t gonna be no, “You know what? I was wrong. What I told you before wasn’t the real gospel. Let me proclaim a different gospel to you now.” No, he said if I ever do that, let me be accursed. That was how important it was to get this right.

And he also says … if an angel from heaven should proclaim a different gospel to you, let him be accursed. One would expect an angel to be able to produce some of the great signs and omens Jesus referred to. But if he proclaims a gospel different from what they received, they must not believe him or follow him. So is it possible that someone could produce signs and omens in Jesus’ name while proclaiming a different gospel? Absolutely.

When I Followed a Different Gospel

One church I was in was all about “the anointing,” which was supposed to manifest in signs and wonders, like the spiritual gifts of 1 Cor 12:8-10. In the vast majority of churches today, you are not going to see the kind of signs and wonders that are in the New Testament. Some people point to that and say, “That church is dead.” The implication is, “We’re not dead. We have the supernatural gifts. We have the anointing.”

I used to believe them. Now, I’m not so sure. If they really have those supernatural gifts of healing, miracles, signs, and omens, or whatever, as Jesus and the Apostles did, they should get the same results. But instead, when they fail to get those results, they make excuses that Jesus and the Apostles never had to make.

Our preacher referred to one particular televangelist in every sermon, and everyone in the church thought he was so anointed because of the healings he did, and the way people fell down in his services. It’s called being slain in the Spirit, and it’s quite common in charismatic and Pentecostal services. Anyway, our preacher was quoting this televangelist more than he quoted Jesus. That is always a bad sign. I mean, are we really getting the Gospel of Jesus Christ when he talks about some televangelist more than Christ?

Tithe or Die

The final straw for me came when he quoted the televangelist saying, “I can’t heal you, because you’re not tithing.”

I have read the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular, multiple times over my life. One thing I know for sure. Jesus NEVER told ANYONE, “I can’t heal you because you’re not tithing.” He never connected tithing with getting healed. He would go into towns, and every sick person who was brought to him got healed. Not everyone who tithed. Everyone period.

But here’s a trick question. What if after saying that, they had some signs and wonders and portents that came true? Should we believe them? If they claim to serve the Lord Jesus and tell us, “You must give me 10% of your income before God will answer your prayers,” remember the Lord Jesus never said that. Even if what you say comes true, I’m going to borrow from Deuteronomy 13 and say, you must not heed the words of those prophets who tell you to follow a Jesus that neither you nor your ancestors have known. Okay, Deuteronomy did not mention Jesus specifically. But if we call him Lord, the meaning is the same.

They will usually use Malachi to justify this. “But Malachi 3:9-10 says you are cursed with a curse because you are robbing God by not bringing your tithes. God can’t bless what is cursed.”

God can’t bless what is cursed? That’s not in the scripture. You just made that up. That’s what I mean that they make excuses Jesus never had to make. Jesus raised people from the dead. You can’t get any more cursed than that. Don’t tell me God can’t bless what is cursed. That is a gospel contrary to the one we as the body of Christ received.

To Lead Astray Even the Elect

Even if some of their prophecies come true, don’t follow them. Even if some people get healed, or they produce signs, omens, and wonders that make you gasp and think the anointing is on them, don’t follow them. And don’t give them your money, whether they call it tithes, offerings, or “sowing a seed.” The gifts of God cannot be purchased with money (Acts 8:18-20). If they claim you can be healed by giving them money or solve your financial problems by giving them money, that is a different gospel. Do not believe them. Do not follow them. And do not give them your money.

Yes, Jesus received money from those who wanted to support his ministry, but he never charged anyone for healing, miracles, or any blessings of the Holy Spirit. And the Apostles followed that example. Read the book of Acts or the letters of Paul, Peter, and John, and you will not find any example that they made people pay for the gifts of the Spirit.

And I can’t believe I have to say this, but if they speak hatred from the pulpit, that is not the Holy Spirit. Even if they prophesy things that come true, even if they show the signs and omens Jesus mentioned, remember Jesus also said these are the kind who will lead you astray.

The Holy Spirit Is Not Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, or Xenophobic

“Social distancing is for pansies.” Yes, a preacher actually said that. Not only is he putting the public health at risk. He’s using a homophobic slur to belittle anyone who follows social distancing guidelines from the CDC. That is not the Holy Spirit. That is not the anointing. In the late eighties, one of them “prophesied” that the homosexual community in the US would be destroyed in ’94 or ’95 by fire. And the congregation cheered.

  1. It did not come true, so he failed the first test. That alone proves he is a false prophet.
  2. He did not tell them to stop cheering, so he failed the “love test.” This is a different gospel. If you follow him, he will lead you astray.
  3. The fact that they would cheer that means he has been failing to teach them the Gospel for a long time.

What do I mean by the “love test”? Jesus said our love has to extend even to our enemies. I don’t care if you think it’s a sin. I don’t care if you know it’s a sin. Every one of them is a person Jesus died for (Rom 5:8). You still have to love them, because he loves them.

The Holy Spirit is not racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic. Anyone who preaches that in Jesus’ name is preaching a different Gospel. What if they do great signs and omens? It is still a different Gospel. I don’t care if an angel or some so-called apostle or prophet promises I will get those gifts of healing or prophecy that I used to chase after if I will follow them, that is a different Gospel, and I want nothing to do with it.

God Is Love

So we can recognize a different Gospel when we hear it, let’s remind ourselves what the Bible says about the love of God in 1 Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

(Verses 1-2)

Notice speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries, faith so as to remove mountains. These are some of the supernatural gifts they thought proved the Holy Spirit was in their midst. But Paul tells them signs and omens are nothing without the love of God.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

(Verse 3)

Giving 10% or even all your possessions to them is nothing without love. It won’t make God answer your prayers.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

(Verses 4-8a).

Love rejoices in the truth, not lies, no matter how good they make you feel. False prophets have been lying to us a lot, especially about the Coronavirus.

But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

(Verses 8b-10)

Even when they had the supernatural gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12, they did not make the congregation complete or “anointed.” Even at our best, we only know in part. Even when they prophesied, it was only in part. Love is the only thing that makes us complete.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(Verses 11-13 NRS)

Jesus preached a Gospel of love so all-encompassing it left no one out, even people that we may wish were left out. That is the greatest challenge of following Jesus, but also the most rewarding. And if anyone comes to you with signs and omens but preaches a different gospel, you heard what Paul said. Let him/her be accursed.

-Grace and peace to you.

If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.

Confessions of an Ex-Prophet

Announcement

So many people staying at home now. Some of you are busier than ever with your kids at home instead of school. But some people have some extra time on their hands. I’ve been wanting to start a podcast, and now seems like a good time. So if you are bored sitting at home, you’ll have something new to listen to. The first episodes will be on faith in a time of Coronavirus. I’ll let you know when it’s up. In the meantime, here is a script for what I think will be the first episode.


I want to talk to the prophets of America. I know usually in December and January, you give a word to the faithful for the coming year. I have gone back and listened to what you predicted for 2020. One minister made it pretty easy. He asked 20 prophets to make predictions for 2020 and played them all. 20 prophets. I transcribed the program. Here is a word cloud I made from it.

What’s missing?

God is big, no surprise. Going is big, probably because you were talking about what God is “going” to do in 2020. Year is big, of course, because you were talking about the new year. I also see America is prominent, again no surprise. I see Gregorian at the bottom and Hebrew at the top to the right, because a couple of them talked about the alignment of the year 2020 on the Gregorian calendar with the year 5780 on the Hebrew calendar. Because 5+7+8+0=20. I’m sorry, but I don’t call that an alignment. 20 is not the same number as 2020.

But regardless of that, you know what I don’t see? Coronavirus, COVID-19, or pandemic. No mention of a virus at all. Nothing that would even suggest what we’re going through now. I know the Biblical writers knew nothing about viruses, but you still could have used some Biblical term, like plague, or pestilence, or disease. The word “shaken” or “shaking” should be on there. I did hear that a few times. This could be called a shaking. But even then, the rest of their message did not sound like they were anticipating this current crisis. One of them did say we would see a shaking in the first four months. That is the closest any one of them came to predicting this. And a couple of others mentioned a “shaking like nothing before.” Again, that could be a reference to what we’re experiencing now. But one of them specified “the soil will be shaken.” That sounds more like an earthquake than a pandemic.

So out of 20 prophets, who claim to hear directly from God and speak directly for God the word for today, only a couple of them even hinted at what we are going through now. And on top of that, one of them said she had just come from a conference of 42 prophets from around the world. I didn’t get the transcript of that. But if any of them saw a pandemic coming, she didn’t say so.

And you see decade is prominent? Several of them talked about not only what the year would bring, but also the decade, because this is the beginning of a new decade. Except it’s not. The decade does not begin in 2020. It begins in 2021. Even if you don’t know when the decade begins, God does. Why would God make a mistake like that?

What is this the year of? According to them, it’s the year of fire. The year of evangelism. The year of the Father. The year of the voice. The year of the mouth. In reality, it is the year of Coronavirus, the year of pandemic. Why didn’t that make it onto your list of “Year of”s? Is it possible you heard a voice or saw a vision that you thought was from God, but it wasn’t?

First Sign of a False Prophet

Back in Biblical times, this was how they detected a false prophet. This is from the English Standard Version (ESV).

… when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

(Deu 18:22 ESV)

Are you going to curse me for pointing out that your prophecies are not coming true? Go ahead. This verse says I need not be afraid of you. You prophesied miracles, healings, and the manifest glory of God in worship, where people are gathered together. They will even gather in stadiums, you said. Are people gathering together now? No, because we have to maintain social distancing. Stadiums are closed, along with businesses, and schools. Churches are closed and moving their services online. They aren’t gathering together.

You prophesied healings. Instead, people are getting sick at an alarming rate. You prophesied prosperity. Look what’s happening to the economy. People are losing jobs in record numbers. Does that sound like prosperity? You prophesied that every dream would come true this year for God’s faithful. This is not what we were dreaming.

How do we know the prophet is false? Deuteronomy 18:22 could not have summed it up any better. … if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken. You spoke words in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak. And since most of you were on that program because you’ve been doing this for years, I think it’s safe to guess that this is not the first time. These were not the first prophecies that did not come true, meaning, you spoke words in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak. You spoke presumptuously. Again, I ask, is it possible that you heard something or saw a vision that you thought was from God, but it wasn’t? It’s time to own up to that fact.

A Democracy, Not a Theocracy

What was the penalty in ancient Israel for speaking false prophecies? According to Deuteronomy 18:20, the prophet was put to death. There are some indications in the Bible that was not practiced consistently, but still, that was supposed to be the penalty. Think about it. Speaking a word in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak? That is taking the Lord’s name in vain, a violation of one of the top ten commandments. We usually think of taking the Lord’s name in vain as saying like, OMG! Or Jesus Chr…! But that is a minor offense compared to false prophecies. When you speak in the name of the Lord, and God did not speak to you? You speak in the name of the Lord presumptuously? That is much more serious.

So in ancient Israel, they were supposed to put someone to death for that. We can’t do that here. Israel was a theocracy, and we are not. In a theocracy, you can put someone to death for blasphemy or speaking the Lord’s name in vain. You can’t do that in a democracy or republic. And personally, I’m glad for that. Because if we were still living by that standard, I shouldn’t be alive today.

Redemption Is Possible

Sorry for scaring you with that talk of the death penalty, but I want you to get this is serious. And I want you to know redemption is possible. We are not in the theocracy of ancient Israel, so no one is going to stone you to death or put you in front of a firing squad. But you are still accountable to God for every careless or presumptuous word you utter in God’s name (Mat 12:36-37). But redemption is possible.

I did not get on stage or broadcast prophecies to the public, but I did say things to people who came forward in church services seeking a word from God. And I spoke in the name of the Lord. But looking back, I have to admit I had no idea if it was the Lord or not. And sometimes, it was clearly not the Lord. How do I know? Because it did not come to pass, or it led me or others to do the wrong thing. I know what it is like to hear something and think it is from God and then find out it wasn’t. It’s a really tough pill to swallow. It will make you question everything you thought you knew about God. But even though it is scary as hell, it’s a good thing when you own up to it.

I Spoke Presumptuously Too

I used to belong to a church that encouraged people to flow in the gifts of the Spirit according to 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Part of your task as a believer, they said, was to uncover which of those gifts was yours. I felt drawn to gifts of prophecy and healing. I didn’t know if either of them was for me, but I thought if I didn’t try, I would never know. I was cautious at first, but with practice I grew bolder. One time, a young man came forward who I knew pretty well. We were both involved in the youth ministry of the church. He had just been married, and he was worried about being able to provide for both him and his wife, and potentially children down the road, and he said he wanted some security. I could hear the distress in his voice. I told him something like, “I hear the Lord saying, security does not come from your job. Security only comes from trusting God. The Lord will provide.”

Did the Lord really say that? Or was I just parroting what I had always heard in the church? “Trust God for your needs. God will provide, no matter what the circumstances. Jehovah Jireh, the LORD will provide.” To this day, I don’t know. I do know that even as I said it, I felt like a fraud. I was single. I had never had to take care of anyone other than myself, and I was barely doing that. Still, I had money coming in. I knew where it was coming from. I had security. And whenever it looked like I might lose it, did I say, “That’s okay. I trust God. God will provide. I’ll be fine.” Oh, no. I was scared spitless (as in, when you get scared, your mouth gets dry). Who was I to “prophesy” to my friend, “Don’t worry. Be happy. Trust God”? I didn’t know it for a fact, but it sure felt like I had spoken in the name of the Lord presumptuously.

I didn’t do much prophesying in the church after that. And when I did, I played it a whole lot safer. I wouldn’t tell people to do things I wasn’t doing myself.

I Wasn’t the Only One

As I saw how people in that church were pursuing the gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:1-11 for the full context), I became more and more disillusioned with the whole thing. I saw people prophesying things that did not come true. Not just church leaders, or members who believed they had the gift of prophecy. I’m including the televangelists they held up as being the most anointed people on earth, people like the ones on this “Prophecies for 2020” program. They “prophesied” things “under the anointing” that did not come true. They told people, “Your cancer is gone. Your arthritis is gone. Your MS is gone.” None of it came true. How many times did I go forward to get healed of my Irritable Bowel Syndrome? I can’t even remember. Guess what? Never healed.

Jesus himself told us, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Mat 24:11 NRS).

I know you never thought you would be one of those false prophets. Neither did I. You thought your gift of prophecy was real. So did I. But if you know deep down you are a fraud, it’s time to come clean. Look at what you prophesied for 2020 and compare that with what is really happening. It doesn’t match. One “prophet” even said on February 28, it would not become a pandemic. Did you miss the news? It became a pandemic. You said God doesn’t do anything without first telling God’s prophets. Why didn’t God give any of you a heads up?

Giving up Too Early?

You might be thinking, “The year is not over. The good things I prophesied can still come to pass.” Maybe so. At some point, we will get control of the Coronavirus. We will be able to contain it, because of measures like shelter-in-place, social distancing, and quarantines, and hopefully, because of new medicines and vaccines. After that, we’ll see people gathering in churches and stadiums again. When people know it’s safe to go out, not only for themselves but for their elderly neighbors and relatives as well, they will start shopping and spending money again. The economy will bounce back when people get back to work. That’s not the prosperity you prophesied. That’s just the natural order of things. You don’t get any credit for that. And besides, we don’t know if the economy will be as strong as before, even after Coronavirus is gone. Some businesses closed that might never reopen.

Where are the healings you prophesied? The US now tops the world in number of Coronavirus cases. We need those healings, and we need them now. Did you claim you were anointed to heal with the same Spirit that anointed Jesus to go about healing all who were oppressed of the Devil? Are you going to do like Jesus and go into New York or California or one of the other hot spots and say, “Let all who are sick come and be healed in the name of Jesus”? The fact that you’re not doing that, that you have never done that, speaks volumes to me. If you do that and have cures medically verified, then whatever I say about false prophets and fake healers doesn’t apply to you.

The Truth Will Set You Free, But …

But if you know you have prophesied things that did not come true, redemption is possible. I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It will be painful. You know, when Jesus said, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Joh 8:32 NRS), I think he should have added, “But first it will hurt a lot.” Here’s what you need to do. 1) Confess; 2) Repent; 3) Get back to basics; 4) Embrace uncertainty; 5) Focus on the Fruit rather than the Gifts.

Confess

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

(1Jo 1:9 NRS)

You will have to confess that you spoke presumptuously. You will have to admit you were wrong. Not just to God, but to the people who have been watching you in church, on YouTube, on TV, or whatever. See, I told you it would hurt. But the good news is God is faithful. If you confess, God will forgive and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. The people may or may not understand, but you have got to get right with God before you can minister to them.

Repent

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

(Mar 1:14-15 NRS)

Jesus came to announce the Good News that the kingdom of God has come near. What is the proper response? Repent. Repent means stop and turn around. Turn away from the path you are on and follow the way of the Good Shepherd. That means you must stop prophesying. In fact, you should give up your ministry entirely for a time, so you can finally unlearn the errors you’ve been preaching.

“But the Lord called me to preach and prophesy.”

Maybe. But did you or did you not prophesy falsely and presumptuously, even when you were sure it was the voice of the Lord? That shows how spiritually disoriented you’ve become. If you try to preach to people now, you are the blind leading the blind.

When I first started hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, I was thrilled. I could hear God speaking to me. But then, the truth became unavoidable. That voice that for years I thought was the Holy Spirit within me was something else entirely. Was it the Devil, or was it my own imagination? I don’t know, but either way the result was the same. My whole world crumbled to the ground. But that was when my relationship with God really began. Because I finally learned to follow the truth, wherever it led. Even if I had to let go of some of my most cherished beliefs, I made a commitment to accept the truth.

I don’t care how deeply you feel it, or how sincerely you believe it, or how many Bible verses you quote. If the facts on the ground say it’s not true, it’s not true. We don’t need false prophets speaking from their own imagination, wishful thinking, Bible verses taken out of context, the devil, or whatever they are hearing. We don’t need to hear, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We need the truth. That is the only thing that will set us free.

I know this hurts. Being a prophet has become part of your identity. It always hurts when we find out we are not what we thought we were. I’ve been there. But how can you effectively minister in the name of the Lord when you yourself are following a voice that is not of the Lord?

I think you should take a sabbatical, so you can get reoriented to the truth. But if you won’t do that, then at least tell the people since you prophesied things that did not come true, you are clearly not qualified to be a prophet. You will preach the Gospel, but you will not be giving any more prophetic words. Furthermore, there will be no more prophetic words in your services or prayer meetings from you or anyone else. There was no judgment in the Bible for not speaking false prophecies, only for speaking them.

“But people will leave the church. We will lose money.”

Do you remember Jesus saying, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Mar 8:36 NIV)? God does not call ministers to scratch itching ears by telling them what they want to hear. God calls ministers to feed his sheep by making the truth of the Gospel known to them. I was so disoriented I didn’t even know what the Gospel was anymore, which brings me to the next step.

Get Back to Basics

Remember this verse?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

(Joh 3:16 NRS)

Martin Luther called this the Gospel in a nutshell. God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only[-begotten] Son for us. Through Christ, we have eternal life.

And notice, it’s not about health, wealth, success, and making every dream come true. Nothing about prophecies, healings, miracles, signs, or wonders. It’s about receiving the gift of eternal life, which means life in relationship with God. God loves us. That is the Gospel, and Gospel literally means “good news.”

Are we worthy of that love? Absolutely not. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). That is the reason God gave his only Son. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRS).

Our relationship with God is broken because of sin. But Christ died so our sins could be forgiven, and our relationship with God restored. That is eternal life. And because our relationship with God has been restored, the kingdom of God has come near.

And eternal life does not just mean we go to heaven when we die, though that is also part of the good news. Your relationship with God begins in this life and will continue even after you die.

Paul told it this way to the Corinthians.

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”  

(1Co 15:3-4 NRS)

Christ died for our sins. He was buried. He was raised on the third day. All in accordance with the scriptures. God promised in the scriptures to send a Messiah, who would bring righteousness and the kingdom of God to this earth. Jesus Christ was that Messiah, who fulfilled God’s will according to the scriptures. How do we know? He rose from the dead in accordance with the scriptures. Death did not end his life, and it will not end ours. Nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39).

Those are the basics. When was the last time you preached a good sermon on that? You don’t need any supernatural gifts of the Spirit to share the basics. Get to know them again before you even think about taking the stage, the microphone, or the pulpit again.

Embrace Uncertainty

When I first had to face up to the fact that the brand of Christianity I was following was wrong, I mean, not just wrong but egregiously wrong, I didn’t know what to do. This scripture came to mind.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

(Mic 6:8 NRS)

The gifts were not working for me, so I thought I had fallen out of favor with God. I thought God was going to require some great sacrifice, and I didn’t think I could go through with it. Praise God, I didn’t have to. Just as the angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, the Lord stayed my hand from making one of the worst mistakes of my life.

God wasn’t looking for any great sacrifice to prove how much I loved him. God didn’t require me to obey every voice that said it was God without testing it first. God wasn’t blocking gifts or blessings from me because I didn’t instantly obey the voice I once thought was God but was beginning to question. God did not want me inventing new doctrines that cause division based on a Bible verse here or there that I or someone else took out of context.

What does God require of me and you? Do justice. Treat others with love and kindness. Walk humbly with your God. That’s all.

Now, if you are used to thinking of yourself as a prophet, that last one will be the most difficult. When you thought you were one of the chosen few mouthpieces of God on earth, you walked with God but not humbly. After my great humbling, I had to rebuild my faith starting from zero. Certainty was no longer a virtue. It was a sin. If I was to continue walking with God, I had to completely redefine the most basic terms for a life of faith, like faith, Gospel, discipleship, obedience, the Holy Spirit, sin, holiness, the Word of God, salvation, healing, redemption, the truth, etc. I had to admit I didn’t know what any of those terms meant anymore, and I was going to have to learn from scratch. My walk with God was now a limp. I could not even stand in faith without leaning on Jesus. That may sound scary. You may think you want to avoid that at all costs. Truth is, if it had been my choice, I wouldn’t have chosen to go through that. But I’m telling you, that is where I learned what it means to walk humbly with God.

Some people think faith means being certain about whatever you say. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Or, “The Lord told me this.” “God told me that.” “This is the word of the Lord for 2020.” And all the while, God is saying, “Leave me out of this!”

Faith is confidence or assurance, but it is not certainty. There is no humility in certainty. You can’t learn and you can’t listen when you are certain of everything. There is no way we as mortals can know everything, so embrace uncertainty. Try walking humbly with God for a change.

Focus on the Fruit Rather Than the Gifts

I can’t blame anyone for wanting the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10. Gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, they must have been spectacular to see. What must it have been like not only to see them, but to wield these gifts like Peter or Paul? I can only imagine what it would be like to actually have and use these gifts. The key phrase there is, “I can only imagine.”

Even though at times I thought I might have some of these gifts, I really never did. It looked like I would almost get there, but I never quite made it. Over the years, I have come to doubt whether these gifts really are for the church today. Maybe they were just for Jesus and the first Apostles, because the foundation of the church was still being laid.

But even if you do believe in these gifts for today, remember Jesus warned us that such gifts are not in and of themselves proof that the man or woman is of God. “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mat 24:24 NRS)

When it comes to false prophets, this is what he said. “You will know them by their fruits” (Mat 7:16 NRS). We need to look for what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit before we accept any signs and omens. What kind of fruit should we look for?

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

(Gal 5:22-23 NRS)

If you give up on your so-called gift of prophecy, what should you do? Cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, first in yourself, then in your ministry. They used to tell me that a church without the gifts of the Spirit had no Holy Spirit and therefore was dead. Now, when I look for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a church, I don’t even think about the gifts. I look for the fruit of the Spirit. When I see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then I know the Holy Spirit is present. And where the Spirit of God is, there is life.

Eternal life, that is.

Paul’s Lesson about God’s Timing

Finally, I’d like to say again if you realize you have prophesied falsely and are willing to come clean with it, God bless you. I know it takes a lot of courage. But I want to suggest again that you step down from whatever ministry you are involved in. I’m speaking from experience. I know how disorienting this is, and you will need time to rebuild your faith from the ground up.

If you won’t listen to me, think about Saul of Tarsus. He persecuted the church because he was absolutely certain that he was right, they were wrong, and God was on his side. Then Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said, “No, Saul. You’re the one who’s wrong.” I’m actually paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.

Do you get how disorienting and humbling that must have been for him? To go from thinking he was absolutely right because he was standing for God and the scriptures, to finding out he was absolutely wrong, and God and the scriptures were not on his side? I have a pretty good idea. How long do you think it took him after that to go on his first missionary journey? According to some New Testament timelines I’ve seen, it was about thirteen years. What did he do during that time? We get a hint of it in 1 Corinthians.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …  

(1Co 15:3-4 NRS)

So this is the Gospel he preached. That Christ died for our sins, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day, all in accordance with the scriptures. But he wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples before his death, so how did he know the Gospel? Look what he said at the beginning of verse 3. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.

He had to receive the message of the Gospel from the disciples before he could hand it over to the Corinthians, or to any of the cities he evangelized. After this verse, he goes on to explain some of the details of how he learned from them. If he had clung to his certainty that he was right in the face of overwhelming evidence he was wrong, he never could have learned the good news that would eventually turn him from Saul of Tarsus to Paul the Apostle.

Second, even though the message of the Gospel was simple, the implications for a man like Paul were staggering. I think it took him that long to come to a place where he knew again what he believed, why he believed it, and what that meant for his life. For him to try to take his place as a minister of the church before then would have been a mistake. You believe in God’s timing, right? He followed God’s timing. If he hadn’t, well, who knows? We might never have even heard of Paul the Apostle.

Conclusion

There are a lot of false prophets in the world today, just as Jesus warned us there would be. Some ministers have taken it upon themselves to expose them. I think that is important work. I have watched them on YouTube and learned a lot from them. Some of these false prophets are definitely wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on people’s earnest desire to draw closer to God, taking their money in exchange for words that feel good but hide them from the truth.

However, I know it’s possible some of them honestly believe they are speaking the Rhema words of God. I’ve been there myself. One of the good things that may come out of this crisis is that it is exposing false prophecies.

You spoke only what you heard, but what you heard was not from God. You believed it was. I understand that. You don’t want to admit you were wrong, not only this time but also in times past, because that would mean the end of your prophetic ministry. I understand how scary that is. Where I might have sounded harsh, it was only because I wanted to break through that fear and stubbornness, so you could see the truth. The truth will set you free, if you accept it. It will hurt, but it will set you free.

Redemption is possible, if you follow the five steps I laid out for you: confess, repent, get back to basics, embrace uncertainty, and focus on the fruit of the Spirit. I know because I’ve been there. Even if you lose the world, you will find your soul. The false gods must be swept away before we can know the true God.

Kill Any That What on the Wall? A Character Study of David, Nabal, and Abigail

One way I like to combine my love of Bible study and writing is with character studies of fascinating Biblical figures. David is one of the most interesting characters in the Bible. One particular story from 1 Samuel 25 tells us a lot about him and a woman who eventually became his wife. I am reposting it because it seems like a good time to bring it back. This is the first of a two-part series.


When you hear David and _______, what do you fill in the blank with? Or rather, who do you fill in the blank with? Probably David and Goliath, perhaps David’s most glorious moment. Maybe you think David and Bathsheba, definitely not David’s most glorious moment. Have you heard of David and Nabal?

The story of David’s dealings with Nabal (1 Samuel 25) is one of the most controversial episodes from David’s time before he became king. Many commentators read it this way: David asks a rich man named Nabal for some food for his men, so they can have a feast. When Nabal refuses and insults him, David totally overreacts and almost commits a mass murder. He tells his men to kill every male of Nabal’s household. Only the intervention of Nabal’s wife, Abigail, prevents him from slaughtering many innocents.

This is true for the most part. However, many people read this as David’s M.O. He would first ask for what he needed. If they gave it to him, no harm would follow. If they did not give it to him willingly, he and his men would ride roughshod over everyone, kill all the males, and take everything they could carry. Among those who present that view are Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord. This is an excellent work of Biblical Fiction concerning David, written from the perspective of Nathan, David’s court prophet and close adviser.

In The Secret Chord, while David is on the run from Saul, he gathers together a band of men, in part for his protection, and in part because leading warriors is something he’s good at. If you have an army, one of the most urgent and constant questions is how are you going to feed them? According to Brooks, he does to everyone what he does to Nabal: He asks and waits. If they give him the food he needs, he leaves them in peace. If not, he kills all the males of the household. The reason is more than just revenge. He wants to send a message to all he will encounter, “Give us what we want, or there will be no mercy.”

Was this David’s M.O.?

This was an old tactic among armies in the ancient world. Wholesale slaughter of one city creates terror in the surrounding areas. The next city might not even resist if they know how dire the consequences will be. And even if they do, a terrified enemy is much easier to defeat. His men, David tells Nathan, are his first responsibility. He will do “whatever is necessary” to feed them and care for them.

In many ways, Brooks did a wonderful job of fleshing out David’s story. However, when it comes to the question of whether or not this is how David normally operated, I have a different take on it. This is the only text where we see David behave this way, so let’s take a look at it.

Nabal the “Fool”

There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean; he was a Calebite.

(1 Sam 25:2-3 NRS)

Nabal means “fool” in Hebrew (v. 25). You have to wonder what kind of parents would name their son “Fool.” It also says he was a Calebite. It’s hard to know whether this was a significant detail or not. Every culture has its racial and ethnic stereotypes. Were they known for being surly and mean? (Cf. 30:14; Jos 14:13; 15:13). Whether or not he is typical of Calebites, we will see in this story he lives up to the name his parents had given him.

David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep.

1 Sam 25:4

This is an important detail. Shearing the sheep for sheepherders and goatherders was like the harvest for farmers. This is when they get paid for the work they’ve done. They have plenty, they will usually celebrate with a feast, so this is when they are normally most generous. But, as we’ve been told, Nabal was surly and mean.

A Peaceful Delegation

So David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name.

“Thus you shall salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.'”

1 Sam 25:5-8

Look at verse seven for a minute: …we did [your shepherds] no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. Why do people think this is referring to some mafia-style protection racket? I suppose if you have Godfather movies on the brain, this might sound like a veiled threat. But the rest of the chapter makes it clear: They missed nothing, does not mean “We didn’t take anything, so you owe us.” It means David and his men protected them from bandits, who would have taken anything they wanted by force.

Let’s pause for a minute and notice a few things:

  1. David did not approach Nabal with all 600 of his men brandishing swords, which would clearly have been a request “they could not refuse.” He sent a delegation of ten. That doesn’t sound like he’s looking for wholesale slaughter.
  2. His greeting and request could not have been more polite, not like common bandits would ask.
  3. He asks at a time when Nabal has plenty, so it will not place any hardship on him.
  4. He reminded Nabal of the protection he had given his men and flocks before this. Since Nabal has reaped the benefits of David’s protection, was it unreasonable to ask him for help when he needed something?
  5. The bandits who roamed the land, looking for easy plunder, would not have been so polite. They were the reason why Nabal’s sheep and goat herders appreciated David’s protection.
  6. He asked on a feast day, when it was tradition to share your bounty with those in need.

On a Feast Day

Why does David mention they have come on a feast day? In Hebrew, the phrase is yom tob, literally, “a good day.” However, the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (BDB) says yom tob sometimes refers to a “festal day,” or a feast (cf. Est 8:17; 9:19, 22; Zec 8:19).

Here’s an example from the Book of Nehemiah. On the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the priest, Ezra, reads the entire copy of the Torah to the people, and they have interpreters to help people understand. The people weep, probably because they know they have disobeyed it. But Ezra is quick to tell this festival is not about putting a guilt trip on them. It’s a time to celebrate and thank God for all the ways God has blessed us.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Neh 8:10

A festal day, a day that is holy to our LORD, is a day for celebration. It’s a day to enjoy your bounty and share it with those for whom nothing is prepared. The Law of Moses even told them to collect a tithe for that purpose.

Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.

Deu 14:28-29

And again in Deuteronomy,

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments:

Deu 26:12-13 NRS

Part of the purpose of the tithes was to make sure everyone would have something to eat on the religious holidays, or as is said in our passage, a feast day. Those who had an abundance were supposed to share with the poor and needy on the feast days. David and his men were needy. Try feeding 600 men, plus their wives and children, in the middle of a wilderness if you don’t believe me.

This is said today as part of the Passover Seder:

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat: Whoever is in need, let him come and celebrate the Pesach”.

(Haggadah)

I know this comes from a time long after David. But like most traditions in the Haggadah, they were well known among the Jews and Israelites long before they were written down. I’m not saying this was part of the Passover Seder in David’s time, but the spirit of it was in their culture. You see it in the tithes they collected for the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows. They should never go hungry but especially on a festal day. David’s request for some food, so he and his men could celebrate a feast, just like Nabal (who was enjoying a feast fit for a king, v. 36), was consistent with the spirit of the Law of Moses regarding feasts. That’s why he makes a point of saying it’s a feast day.

The Fool Responds

So David’s men make the request and wait. In vv. 10-11, we get Nabal’s response.

But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

(1Sa 25:10-11 NRS)

Nabal says, “Who is David?” as if he were a nobody. He likens David to a fugitive slave – because he ran from Saul. He compared David to an outlaw, the very kind of people David and his men protected Nabal’s flocks and herders from.

He said David and his men “Come from I do not know where.” He called them aliens. They really weren’t, but calling them this made him even more culpable. What does the law in Deuteronomy 26:13 say again? “Then you shall say before the LORD your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to…the resident aliens.’” If they are resident aliens, as he said, the Torah specifically requires him to share his abundance with David and his men, even if they had not protected him all year.

For a guy who claims not to know David, he seems to know exactly what insults will wound him the most.

Of course, David is furious. He orders 400 of his men to come with him while 200 stay with the baggage. Why? They need to protect their own stuff from bandits (see ch. 30).

Quick, Tell Abigail

The 400 who came with David were out for blood. Fortunately for Nabal’s household, one servant told Abigail.

But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.

(1Sa 25:14-16 NRS)

One of Nabal’s herders says he had felt safe because of David’s protection. Back in verse seven, David’s envoys told Nabal, “Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel.” Was this as a description of David’s mafia-style “protection” business? “You got some nice sheep and goats here. Would be a shame if something happened to them.”

I might be open to that kind of interpretation if it weren’t for two factors:

  1. David and his merry band of outlaws were not the only armed nomads in the area. If they had been, that interpretation would be likely. However, the land of Israel was notorious for bandits. It was a great territory to operate if you were a criminal. Because of the many caves, you and your gang could hide from the authorities, if they ever happened to show up (which many times they did not).
  2. The eyewitness report of the young man who tended Nabal’s flocks. He said they were very good to us…we suffered no harm…we never missed anything…as long as they were with us. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, so no bandits could slip past them and steal from us. Does that sound even close to what you would say about mafia henchmen coming to collect their “rent”?

Now let’s hear the rest of his testimony.

Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”

1Sa 25:17

See? You were gonna skip that, weren’t you? How did he know evil has been decided against our master and against all his house? Because that’s how David operated.

No, that’s how bandits operated. How did he know David was planning evil against them? Because he saw his master take good from David and reward him with evil (v. 21). He knew David and his men were skilled warriors. He heard the insults Nabal hurled at him, and yes, David had his pride. He could not let such insults go unpunished. Any fool would have known that. That is, any fool except Nabal, a man so ill-natured that no one can speak to him. I bet the young man tried, but it was like trying to reason with a brick wall.

I imagine he had a lot of experiences like this: His master acting like an ass, and no one could tell him to shut up. He had learned where to go when his master was mean and surly. We’ve already been told Abigail, unlike her husband, was smart (v. 3). She knew what to do. Whenever you see a fool like him somehow rich, it has to be one of two reasons: 1) he inherited it; or 2) he has a clever wife who covers for his idiocy.

She gathered together enough for a feast for David and his men, loaded it on donkeys, and sent them ahead of her. She did not tell her husband, of course (vv. 18-19). Duh! We already know she’s no idiot.

Evil Is Coming

Next, we find out exactly what evil David has planned against Nabal and all his house.

Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good. God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”

1Sa 25:21-22

Most modern translations clean up the language. However, if we go back to a time before such sensibilities about cursing in a holy book, this is how the King James Version renders that last verse.

So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.

1Sa 25:22 KJV
Who's Next Album Cover
Better not let David catch you, boys.

In other words, any male—man or child—who is old enough to stand up to urinate, is good as dead. And now we are back to the question, was this David’s normal way of supporting himself and his men while he was on the run from Saul? So far we’ve seen not only David but Nabal’s own servant say he had been protecting Nabal’s men and flocks, so no. This was not his M.O. The next questions I think need to be answered are,

  1. What was he doing instead?
  2. Why did he change his mind here?

What Was He Doing Instead?

This is my take. I haven’t seen anyone else say this. But if David was not taking what he wanted by brute force, how did he support himself and his men? I think the answer is in what he had done for Nabal up until this point. He protected honest farmers, herders, and villagers from outlaws, and in return they gave him and his men the food they needed. Ever heard of Barzillai? Probably not. We don’t meet him until the second book of Samuel, but his history with David went back to these same days before he became king.

Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man.

(2Sa 19:32 NRS)

He had provided the king with food. David protected Barzillai, and Barzillai fed David. I don’t think he was the only one. There were humane reasons for it, and practical reasons on both sides. Men like Barzillai needed protection from bandits, who will kill anyone who stands in their way and take everything. David and his men needed food, so you gave them what they needed, and they would protect you from the bandits. If you hired guards, you would have to feed and pay them anyway, so this was not unreasonable.

For David, it helped him keep practicing his leadership and military skills. It also built support for him among the people. Saul either could not or would not protect them from outlaws. David did, and they would remember that when he became king.

In his King Arthur trilogy, Bernard Cornwell wrote the story of Arthur from the perspective of Arthur’s friend, Derfel. In the first volume, The Winter King, one of my favorite scenes is where Arthur explains to Derfel why they can’t just rush into villages and slaughter and plunder anytime they have a disagreement with the people.

It’s easy for us, he tells Derfel, to come in and take whatever we want and kill whoever we want. We have swords, shields, armor, and horses. They don’t. We are trained to fight. They aren’t. But there’s an unspoken agreement between us. We fight to protect them, because they can’t fight for themselves. In return, they grow the food that feeds us, produce the clothing we wear, and forge the armor and weapons we use to fight. As long as they know we are on their side, we don’t have to take what we need. They’ll either give it or sell it to us.

I think that is the kind of ethic David was trying to live by, and that he was trying to teach his men to live by. Which brings us to the second question.

Why Did He Change?

This is not an apology for David. I am not interested in defending the indefensible. I am, however, interested in understanding his state of mind at the moment. Writers need to understand their characters’ motivations, whether they agree with them or not. In David’s case, I think he felt pressure in a number of ways to behave like a bandit and outlaw. He resisted successfully for a while, but this was the moment when many factors came together at once and pushed him over the edge. Those factors were:

  • The death of Samuel (1 Sam 25:1).
  • It was a rough world.
  • A “Biblical” concept of justice
  • His men wanted him to do this
  • Building frustration over having to hide like a criminal
  • Insults that touched his own insecurities

Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.

The Death of Samuel

Just before this story begins, we are told,

Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah. Then David got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran.

1Sa 25:1

Anyone can feel lost after the death of a mentor. Samuel was the one who started David on his journey that had taken him from being a shepherd to being commander of the king’s armies. Samuel had been with the people when they demanded a king. Against his better judgment, he accepted their pleas and anointed Saul. But after an act of disobedience, Samuel told Saul the LORD had rejected him as king. Since kings ruled for life, he could not remove Saul from the throne. That didn’t stop Samuel from calling David out of the fields and anointing him as king, even though Saul was still alive.

After defeating Goliath, David caught the attention of Saul, who brought him into the palace. He made David an officer in the army, where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a commander. Saul probably did not know Samuel had anointed David (they would keep that a secret for obvious reasons), but he still saw David as a threat. His jealousy over David’s rising popularity led him to put a price on David’s head, which was why David was hiding out in the wilderness.

That is a greatly oversimplified summary of how David got into the situation we see him now. All of that was to say Samuel’s death had to have affected him. All of Israel mourned for Samuel, and David probably mourned him more than most. The man who anointed him king was now dead. He had been on the run from Saul for years at this point. How does that make sense if the LORD had chosen him to be king? Samuel’s death probably left him with some unresolved questions.

It Was a Rough World

We’ve already noted bandits roamed throughout the countryside. You could barely travel from one city to another without running into them. The men David would have attracted could easily have fallen in with one of these gangs. They knew the ways bandits and outlaws operated. They accepted David’s leadership, but he had to be strong to keep their respect.

He told his men they would kill “every male of all that belongs to him,” but he did not invent that expression. It was already well known, both as a saying and as a tactic, among the outlaws and armies. I’m not saying he was right. I’m saying it was a rough world, and people sometimes sink to the lowest level of their world when they are under pressure.

“Biblical” Justice

David’s reasoning was, “We protected all that belongs to him. Now, we will kill all that belongs to him.” We wouldn’t call that justice, to kill the innocent of an entire household because one man returned evil for good. But there are parts of the Bible that show for people of that time, that kind of logic partially defined justice for the Israelites. For example, here’s an early pronouncement against men who abuse widows and orphans.

You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

(Exo 22:22-24 NRS)

If you abuse any widow or orphan, I will kill you. Then your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. It is the same kind of logic David used to justify what he was about to do. Over time, that attitude would change. In the later prophets, like Jeremiah, you see the people, and God, coming around to an idea that people should pay for their own sins, not for their masters’ or their parents’. To Israelites of that time, however, there was justice in what David was planning.

His Men Wanted It

This is another example of what a rough world it was. He was leading rough men. They respected him, but his hold on them was tenuous (1 Sa 30:1-6). I’m sure they were watching to see if David was strong enough to do what was “necessary” when someone tried to take advantage of David’s decency.

When David announced his plan, did any of his men say, “Wait a minute, David. Don’t you think that’s a little extreme? Of course we’re gonna kill Nabal, but come on now. We know the young men who watched his flocks. They’re good people”? No. I bet they were excited, like, “This is what we’ve been waiting for! Every man, strap on his sword!” At a time when David needed a voice of reason, there were none.

Rising Frustration That Came to a Head

David was supposed to be king. God sent Samuel years ago to anoint him. Why was he still having to hide out in the wilderness? In most nations, when one man believed the gods have made him king, he claimed it by killing the current occupant of the throne. David could not do that, and he could not send someone else to do it. His conscience would not allow him to lift his hand against the LORD’s anointed (1 Sa 24:5-6). Yes, the LORD had rejected Saul as king. That was why Samuel anointed David to take his place. But as far as David was concerned, once God anointed someone, that anointing never left. Even though Saul was trying to kill him, David could not defend himself like he would against any other enemy. So basically, he was waiting for Saul to die by God’s hand. Today, we would call it natural causes.

Now Samuel was dead. Maybe some questions he had been carrying in his heart became more urgent. If God has anointed me king of Israel, why must I live like a fugitive? Why would God anoint me before I could take the throne? Maybe Saul found out. Of course. That is the reason why Saul thinks I want to kill him. And why he will never believe I mean him no harm. There is nothing I can do to change that, so why did God put me in this position? How long will I have to wait before God fulfills his promise to me?

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

(Psa 13:1-2 NRS)

Pressure was building inside him, and it only took one fool to say the wrong things to make that volcano blow.

Insults that Touched His Own Insecurities

I mentioned before that Nabal knew exactly what insults would wound David the deepest. He compared David to a fugitive slave, because he was hiding from his master, Saul. That wasn’t true, of course. Even though God had made him a rival to Saul’s throne, he always tried to do right by Saul. He couldn’t bring himself to kill Saul, even when God gave him into his hands (ch. 24). But this could be interpreted in a bad way. He was living like a fugitive and an outlaw, despite his best intentions. It was a sore point for David, a scab no wise person would pick at. But what do you expect from a man whose name means “Fool”?

Nabal said, “Who is David?”

David thought, “Who am I? I’m the one who’s been protecting everything that belongs to you, your young men, and your flocks.”

Nabal said, “Who is the son of Jesse?”

David thought, “Oh, so he insulted my father too?”

Nabal said, “Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”

David thought, “The reason you have this abundance of bread and water and meat is because my men and I have been protecting you. Without us, bandits would have taken all of it. And after all that, you talk as if I don’t even have a right to be here in the whole territory of Maon? I was anointed king of Israel. This whole nation is mine. I’ll show you who has a right to be here, and who doesn’t!”


This was a crossroads for David. If he had gone through with his plan, I don’t think it would have stopped with Nabal. I think it would have changed his character forever. The irony would have been he would have become exactly what Nabal accused him of. But remember, Abigail was already working behind the scenes to clean up her idiot husband’s mess—again (I guarantee this was not the first time she had had to do just that). What she did to assuage David’s anger was positively brilliant. I will pick up with that in the second part of this character study.

Paperback excerpt: The War on Thanksgiving

This blog post was originally posted December 1, 2016. Then it became part of my book, Dark Nights of the Soul. The holidays are upon us, so I’m posting this excerpt to remind folks not to forget to give thanks during the Christmas season. I want to encourage everyone to shop stores that are closed on Thanksgiving day.


Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music and put up Christmas decorations. Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now, it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store. It was sunny and almost 80 degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

And a few years ago, stores started opening on Thanksgiving day. Really? You can’t wait until Black Friday for your big sale?

Good or Bad for Business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is the question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving Day sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.[1]

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

Why Am I Talking about This on a Blog about Faith and Depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: the fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money.

Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Grace and peace to you.


[1] Josh Hafner, “To Open or Not? Inside Stores’ Thanksgiving Dilemma,” USA Today, October 19, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2016/10/19/open-not-retailers-wage-battle-thanksgiving/92380280/

Lot’s Daughters—Sodom and Gomorrah, Part 4

***Advisory: This post touches on topics of incest, child sacrifice, and prostitution. You’ve been warned***

In the previous scene, two angels told Lot he and his family needed to run to the hills for safety, because they were about to destroy all the cities of the Plain. Zoar (previously called Bela), however, was spared because Lot asked if he could go there instead of the hills. Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot is left now with only his two daughters. We pick up the story from there.

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and settled in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar; so he lived in a cave with his two daughters.

(Gen 19:30 NRS)

He settled in the hills… and lived in a cave. That’s what he was trying to avoid earlier (vv. 19-22). I got the feeling earlier Lot did not want to go back to non-urban living. I imagine his daughters were not thrilled about it either. But he was afraid to stay in Zoar. The people there must have been as bad as Sodom. Now they are living in a cave with no one else around.

Not If You Were the Last Man on Earth!

And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

(Gen 19:31-32 NRS)

I hardly know what to say now. Why does the firstborn daughter propose this to the younger? She says, “There is not a man on earth to come in to us….” Some commentators say this shows how important the command to “be fruitful and multiply” was. It was so important to people in the ancient world to procreate and pass on their name to the next generation, more so than today. Everyone was expected to bear children unless they physically couldn’t. They had to be sure their family would survive after their deaths, even if it meant they had to sleep with their father. All of that is true. But was fooling their father into making them pregnant the only option?

They say there is not a man on earth. True, they had witnessed widespread devastation upon the whole plain of the Jordan. Did they really think this was the whole earth? Even if it was, Zoar survived. Were there no men in Zoar? If not, why was Lot afraid to stay there? Of course there were men in Zoar. Lot moved them out of the city, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t sneak off, hang around and pretend to be prostitutes like Tamar (Gen 38:13-26).

Why didn’t they share their concerns with their father? Could it be they did not trust their father after he almost threw them to the wolves (v. 8)? That would be understandable. But they never voice any such concerns when they hatch this plan. Compare that to the detail about Tamar’s motivations to trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her, because he would not honor his obligations of Levirate marriage to her (Gen 38). And even with that consideration, their only concern appears to be to preserve offspring, even if it has to be through our father.

There are no other men living in their cave, but that cave is not the whole earth. At this point, I am tempted to joke that they must have been teenagers, because they think anything outside the world they know doesn’t exist. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

What if they were correct? Women sometimes say of a certain man they would not date him if he were “the last man on earth.” What if Lot really was the last man on earth? And they were the last women on earth? If he dies without impregnating them, the whole human race dies with them. And they felt pressured to do it quickly, because our father is now old. In that case, their plan probably would be justified. But they are not the last people on earth, are they?

The Daughters’ March to Folly

In her book, The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara W. Tuchman analyzes some of the greatest acts of folly nations have committed in history. She defines folly as having three characteristics:

  1. The leader/nation pursued a course of action clearly against their self-interests.
  2. The actions prompted warnings from wise people, but they were ignored.
  3. A clear and reasonable alternative existed.

Was this clearly against their self-interest? Yes, but if they were stupid enough to believe their father was the last man on earth, they probably never thought that far ahead. Did they ignore warnings against it? No one could warn them, because they did not share their plans with anyone. Even so, I believe they still had a warning. I believe (this is just me) they must have had a still small voice inside them saying, “You don’t have to do this. The world is a big place. Find another man.” Did a clear and reasonable alternative exist? YES! In fact, several alternatives existed.

For one thing, they could have shared their concerns with their father, as I said before. I don’t mean, “Father, there is no man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Will you do it, so we can have children?” They could have eased into it, like, “It looks like we are the last people on earth. Are we?” Maybe they didn’t know the destruction was targeted against specific cities, not the whole earth, but Lot did. So he could have told them, “No, we are not the last people on earth.”

“But where is a man who can produce offspring for us?”

He could have told them, “There are men beyond Zoar and beyond these hills. In fact, Uncle Abraham and Aunt Sarah are out there in Canaan. They will certainly be able to find husbands for you.”

They could have found men in Zoar, as I said before. If Lot forbade them, they could have got him drunk (first part of the plan). Then instead of sleeping with him, they could have gone back to Zoar for a night and snuck back before he was the wiser. Even that would have made more sense than what they planned. They could have asked to go to Haran, where Uncle Nahor still lived, or to find Uncle Abraham. Either of their great-uncles could have found men suitable as fathers and husbands.

But for some reason, they think the only option to “be fruitful and multiply” is to use wine as a “date rape drug” on their father. In spite of clear and reasonable alternatives, they went through with their folly.

So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.

On the next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Look, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger rose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.

(Gen 19:33-36 NRS)

I wonder what they told their father when he saw they were pregnant. Next, we get to the point of this story.

An Origin Story of Two Rival Nations

The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.

(Gen 19:37-38 NRS)

This begs the question, what kind of children will come from a union like this? Their names even hinted of ignoble origins. Moab means “from the father,” or perhaps even “from her father.” Whose father? Oh yeah. And it echoes the phrase “through our father” in verses 32 and 34 (Moabinu). Ben-ammi means “Son of my people.” ‘Ammi can refer specifically to a father’s relatives or one’s particular tribe, so it is often associated with close family ties. Only one man there is of her people. What happened when Lot heard the names, remembered the nights they got him drunk, and put two and two together? (AWKWARD!)

So this is an origin story of the Moabites and Ammonites. Moab and Ammon were two ancient enemies of Israel. This story portrays them as being founded in folly and sexual licentiousness, and that was in line with stereotypes the Israelites had of their neighbors east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Don’t Know Much about Moabites

The territory of Moab lay east of the Dead Sea. The capital was Dibon. The Israelites encountered them during their forty years wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 22-25). Balak son of Zippor was king at the time. To sum up, Balak and the people were afraid of the Israelites, so Balak hired the prophet Balaam to curse them. That backfired. The LORD spoke through him, and the curse turned into a blessing. When Balak was like, “I paid you to curse them, not bless them,” Balaam said, “Must I not take care to say what the LORD puts into my mouth?” (Num 23:12 NRS).

When that didn’t work, they sent their women to seduce them. The Israelite men slept with the women and bowed down to their gods. They yoked themselves to their chief god, Baal of Peor (Num 25:3). Yes, this is after they received the Ten Commandments, and God almost wiped them out when they built a golden calf to be their god. This is what Moses told them after that incident.

You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice.

(Exo 34:15 NRS)

Yet for all this, they broke the first commandment again in a big way. They did all of that with the women of Moab, most likely the cult prostitutes of Baal of Peor. Not only that, when Moses told them to stop, they refused.

God sent a plague that started killing the Israelites. As it spread, the people came to the tent of meeting to repent before the LORD. But one man, Zimri son of Salu, flaunted God and his people by taking his woman into his tent right in front of everyone. Phinehas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, took it upon himself to stop the plague. He charged into the tent with his spear and killed them both in the same stroke. (So they were having sex right at that moment.) That is when the plague stopped. Once again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

This became a cautionary tale for every generation of Israelites and Jews. What kind of opinion do you think they had of the Moabites? They were treacherous, idolatrous, and sexually amoral. If anyone asked why they were that way, just look at their origin story. They are the product of incest between father and daughter, so what do you expect?

Don’t Know Much about Ammonites

The territory of Ammon was east of the Jordan River, between the valleys of Arnon and Jabbok, in the modern nation of Jordan. They once occupied the fertile eastern banks of the Jordan River, along with the Moabites, but Sihon king of the Amorites drove them out. Perhaps their greatest infamy was that they introduced their god Milcom, a.k.a. Molech, to the Israelites. His image showed the face of a bull and arms outstretched to receive babies for sacrifice. And like their god, the Ammonites themselves were cruel (1 Sam 11:1-2; Amo 1:13). Again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

"The idol Moloch with seven chambers or chapels"), from Johann Lund's Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer (1711, 1738).
You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:21 NRS)

So when the young generation asked what kind of people would do this, they could remind them of the origin story. The Ammonites, like the Moabites, were the product of incest between father and daughter. Whether or not the story of Lot and his daughters was true or another urban legend, I don’t know. But it was the kind of story they would tell young people to warn them not to intermarry with the Ammonites and Moabites, because they would entice them to bind them to their gods (Exo 34:16; Deu 7:3-4; Jos 23:12-13). The distrust of the Moabites and Ammonites was so great Moses forbade them from joining “the assembly of the LORD” for ten generations (Deu 23:3-4).

The LORD forbade the Israelites from sacrificing children to Molech or to any gods, including himself. That was supposed to be one of the lessons of when Abraham offered Isaac to the LORD. The angel stopped him, saying,

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

(Gen 22:12 NRS)

They would use this story to teach their young ones, “This is why we don’t sacrifice our children like people of other nations do.” But there is evidence from the Hebrew Bible they did it anyway (Lev 18:21; 20:2-3; Deu 12:31; Jdg 11:30-31; 1 Kg 11:7, 33). In fact, even the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem had a shrine to Molech.

Blood Is (Still) Thicker Than Water

But in spite of all this, Moses told the Israelites not to harass or make war with Moab or Ammon, because God said, “I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot” (Deu 2:9; also v. 19 NRS). The Bible does not tell us how and when God made this promise to Moab and Ammon. Why would God do this? God blessed Ishmael and Esau because they were descendants of Abraham. Lot was not Abraham’s descendant, but he was kin by blood.

It’s never stated outright, but God seemed to have a stake in protecting anyone belonging to Abraham’s family. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, but God also provided land for the descendants of Moab, Ammon, Esau (Deu 2:5), and Ishmael (Gen 17:20), despite their inhospitable treatment of the Israelites (Num 20:18; Deu 23:4).

This is an example of the grace of God. One definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” We saw how God strong-armed Abimelech in order to protect Abraham and Sarah, even though their behavior was unworthy of a prophet and his wife. Unmerited favor. God granted favor to Ishmael, Moab, Ammon, and Esau, even though they were not worthy.

I said in an earlier post called The Meaning of the Wife-Sister Episodes, “From what I’ve gathered, God appears to Abraham for these reasons:

  1. To make promises to Abraham (usually through a covenant).
  2. To keep promises to Abraham
  3. To protect the bloodline of the Messiah.”

For God to tell Israel certain land did not belong to them because God promised it to someone else is in keeping with a God who keeps promises. And it is also in keeping with protecting the bloodline of the Messiah. Even though they were not Abraham’s seed, Moab would one day become part of the bloodline through Ruth (see below). This has led some Jewish commentators to portray Lot’s daughters in a much more positive fashion. On verse 32, Genesis Rabbah 51:8 says:

R. Tanhuma in the name of Samuel: “What is written is not, ‘So that we may keep a child alive from our father,’ but rather, ‘so we may preserve offspring through our father.’ That is to say, the king-messiah, who will come from another source.”

Sometimes in reading these Rabbinic commentaries, I feel a little stupid. I don’t see the difference between “So that we may keep a child alive from our father” and “So we may preserve offspring through our father,” but an article on The Torah website explained it this way:

According to this understanding, the daughters may not believe that they are part of the only family left on earth, but intuit that it is essential that Lot’s line continues, since the king-messiah is destined to come from this line.

Lot and His Daughters’ Motives for their Incestuous Union

Wow! I did not see that coming. Talk about things getting lost in translation. If they somehow intuited Lot’s line had to continue for the Messiah to be born, that would mean they were not just a couple of silly teenagers who showed extremely poor judgment. They were prophets who knew this unseemly act really was necessary. And (if the Rabbis are correct), it changes everything I said about their folly earlier.

Was it against their self-interest? Yes, but they understood the sacrifice they were making so that the Messiah could come into the world. Were there any warnings against it? No. When that still small voice spoke to them and said, “You can find another man,” they would have answered, “The Messiah has to come through our father. Now that Mother is gone, we are his last chance.” Did a reasonable alternative exist? If the issue was not just whether they would have children but whether all the pieces of the Messiah’s lineage would be in place, then no. And there is even evidence in the Hebrew text that Lot might have taken them away from Zoar to isolate them in a cave, so that the daughters would have no other alternative (Genesis Rabbah 51:8-9).

Jan Matsys's portrayal of Lot with his Daughters
“On the basis of what is said in the following verse: ‘He who separates himself seeks desire’ (Prov. 18:1), it is clear that Lot lusted after his daughter” (Genesis Rabbah 51:9).

Considering how conservative the Rabbis were about sex, I’m surprised they take such a positive view of Lot’s daughters. But one thing is clear. The Rabbis recognize that through Moab, Lot became a branch in the family tree of the Messiah, and they judge Lot’s daughters through that lens. It was because of Ruth that her ancestor, Moab, had to be born, so let’s see how she becomes part of the most important lineage in the Bible.

Forbidden Fruit Is Sometimes a Good Thing

In the time of the judges, an Israelite named Elimelech brought his wife, Naomi, and two sons to Moab to escape a famine (Rut 1:1), which indicates sometimes relations with Moabites and Ammonites were friendly. Ruth, a Moabitess, married one of Elimelech’s sons (despite Moses’ prohibition). When Elimelech and both his sons died, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to go back to her hometown of Bethlehem, alone. She urged Ruth to go back to her family, because there was no way as a widow she could take care of Ruth. But Ruth wondered who would take care of Naomi, so she insisted on going back with her. Her promise to Naomi has become one of the most famous expressions of loyalty in all of literature.

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

(Rut 1:16-17 NRS)

Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Jews call this type of conversion being “born again.” Because first, you are born as part of one people, and the gods of your people become your gods. It was that way in the ancient world, and Jews were no exception. Therefore, most Jews are simply born that way. But what if a Gentile wants to convert to Judaism? That means accepting the Jewish people as his/her own people and the Jewish God as his/her God. Thus, a convert is “born again” as a Jew.

Ruth, in effect, has just been born again to be part of Naomi’s people. It meant leaving her family, her nation, her gods, everything she was familiar with behind, so her mother-in-law would not be alone. That takes guts. When they made it to Bethlehem, they encountered a man named Boaz, who just happened to be related to Ruth’s dead husband. Under the rules of Levirate marriage, if a man dies without a son, his nearest male kin (usually a brother or cousin) must take care of his widow. His choices are

  1. Lie with her and give her a son, so she will have a share in her son’s inheritance.
  2. Marry her, and accept the obligations that come with it.

Ruth asks Boaz for option 2 based on his kinship with Naomi. There is one other man who is closer kin and has the first right of redemption. But Boaz convinces him not to claim it, clearing the way for him to marry Ruth.

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.

(Rut 4:13 NRS)

And she bore a son, that was always the most important result of a Levirate marriage. However, since she became his wife, their relationship did not end there. And here’s the surprise ending. She became the great-grandmother of David, thus placing her in the chain of ancestry of the Messiah (Rut 4:17). For her loyalty to Naomi, the women of Bethlehem praised Ruth.

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

(Rut 4:14-15 NRS)

More to you than seven sons is truly remarkable praise for any woman, let alone a Moabitess, in such a patriarchal culture.

The next-of-kin, or “kinsman-redeemer” (see Translation Notes) refers to the son Ruth bore through Boaz, who loved Ruth not just for her outer beauty but recognized her inner beauty in how she cared for Naomi, his relative.

May his name be renowned in Israel! Considering his great-grandson would be King David, no one could deny that blessing came true. But it would not have happened if he had not had the courage to defy convention and marry a foreign woman, a Moabite no less.

Undoubtedly, the character of any Moabite or Ammonite would be suspect to the Jews until proven otherwise. They needed a story like this to show them the danger was not in marrying someone of the wrong ethnicity, race, nationality, or skin color. The danger was in marrying a woman who embodied the morality of Moabite or Ammonite culture. Ruth’s actions showed she was a valorous woman (Pro 31:10ff), no matter who her ancestors were.

References

Who were the Moabites?

Who were the Ammonites?

Who was Moloch/Molech?

Lot and his daughters’ motives for their incestuous union

Lot’s Daughters: Midrash and Aggadah

Wikipedia

If you or your library have a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review, you can read this article: “Ammon, Moab, and Edom: Gods and Kingdoms East of the Jordan.”

Translation Notes



… or when she arose

וּבְק֗וּמָֽהּ׃ (Gen 19:33 WTT; ubiqumah) The dot over the qaph is an editorial mark called a Puncta Extraordinaria. It possibly changes the meaning from “[he did not know when she lay down] or when she arose,” to “[he did not know when she lay down], but he knew when she arose.”




Goel: The kinsman-redeemer.

גֹּאֵ֖ל (Rut 4:14 WTT) (go’el) = “Next-of-kin.”

In form, this is a masculine singular participle of the verb ga’al, meaning “to redeem.” Go’el in the NRSV is translated “next-of-kin,” but in other translations it is rendered “redeemer.” The term was often used in a specialized sense of the obligation of the nearest male kin to redeem a family member from slavery, to buy back family property lost through debt, and—in this case—to deliver a male relative’s widow from childlessness by marrying her and giving her a son. When used in the context of the obligations of the nearest male kin, I believe “kinsman-redeemer” is the best way to translate it.

Hol1362  גָּאַל (ga’al) verb qal participle masculine singular absolute homonym 1

make a claim for a person or thing > reclaim him/it, redeem; — 2. duty of the male relative of s.one who has died leaving a childless widow to deliver her from childlessness by marriage Ru 44•6, the man in question being called go’el, deliverer Ru 220.

-Halladay, p. 53.

Moab = “from (the) father”

The meaning of the name Moab is not certain. The name sounds like the Hebrew phrase “from our father” (‌מֵאָבִינוּ‎‏‎, meavinu) which the daughters used twice (vv. Gen 19:32, Gen 19:34). This account is probably included in the narrative in order to portray the Moabites, who later became enemies of God’s people, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:37, sn 102.

Strong’s Data

04124 מוֹאָב Mow’ab {mo-awb}

Meaning:  Moab = “of his father” n pr m 1) a son of Lot by his eldest daughter 2) the nation descended from the son of Lot n pr loc 3) the land inhabited by the descendants of the son of Lot

Origin:  from a prolonged form of the prepositional prefix m- and 01; from (her [the mother’s]) father; (TWOT – 1155 [emphasis mine]).

Usage:  AV – Moab 166, Moabites 15; 181.

Ben-Ammi = “Son of my people”

cf. Lo-Ammi = “Not my people” (Hos 1:9); `am = “people.”

The name Ben-Ammi means “son of my people.” Like the account of Moab’s birth, this story is probably included in the narrative to portray the Ammonites, another perennial enemy of Israel, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:38, sn 103.

Strong’s Data:

01151 בֶּן־עַמִּי Ben-`Ammiy {ben-am-mee’}

Meaning:  Ben-ami = “son of my people” 1) son of Lot, born to his second daughter, progenitor of the Ammonites

`Ammon = “tribal”

A nation believed to have originated from Ben-ammi.

Strong’s Data:

05983 עַמּוֹן `Ammown {am-mone’}

Meaning:  Ammon = “tribal” 1) a people dwelling in Transjordan descended from Lot through Ben-ammi

`am = “people”

6342  עַם

I עַם: sf. עַמִּי; pl. sf. עַמָּיו, עַמֶּיהָ, עַמֶּיךָ: [father’s brother, f.’s relative >] relative: sg. in name, Gn 1938; coll. father’s relatives Je 3712; pl. father’s relatives: Gn 258.

6343  עַם

II עַם: עָֽם, הָעָם; sf. 1. (a whole) people (emphasis on internal ethnic solidarity) Gn 116;…people to whom s.one belongs: benê ±ammim fellow-countrymen Lv 2017;… — 3. oft. not a whole people but a portion: people, inhabitants:…people attached to an individual Gn 328….

(Halladay, pg 275)

Ancient Hospitality–Sodom and Gomorrah, part 2

***Advisory: This post touches on topics of homosexuality and rape. You’ve been warned.***

The last time Abraham saw Lot, he had to rescue him from enemy kings. Lot settled in what are called the cities of the Plain (Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, Zeboiim, and Bela). The kings of those cities when to war against the kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, and Goiim. One battle went badly for the kings of the Plain, and Lot was captured along with others. To get a sense of how wealthy Abraham was, he led his own trained men, 318 of them, in a surprise raid that defeated the four kings, rescued Lot and the other prisoners, and brought back all the treasure the four kings had taken (Genesis 14:1-16).

This is the only scene where we see Abraham as a military commander, but he obviously had some experience in this area. He had hundreds of trained men, so these are not just shepherds and cowboys who pick up a sword or spear only when called to war. They were soldiers. And he successfully led a nighttime raid. Any military expert will tell you that is not easy, especially when you don’t have night vision goggles. I really wish we could have seen more of this side of Abraham.

After that, Abraham probably hoped his nephew would join up with him again. Lot chose to stay in Sodom, and that decision would come back to bite him.

Now, God has come down to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah and determine whether God should destroy them wholesale or spare them. Abraham got God to agree that if there are “ten righteous” in the city, God will not destroy them.

Next stop, Sodom

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom.

(Genesis 19:1a)

The LORD is no longer with the two angels. We were told the LORD went his way (18:33). It appears the LORD was not there to visit Sodom but to share his plans with Abraham. Why was Lot sitting in the gateway of Sodom? The text does not tell us, but could it be because he wanted to protect any strangers who came to stay in the city?

When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.”

They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.”

But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

(Gen 19:1b-3 NRS)

Notice how similar Lot’s invitation to these strangers is to Abraham’s (Gen 18:2-5).

  • Both begged them to turn aside to their house and not pass them by.
  • Both addressed the strangers as “my lord(s).”
  • Both referred to themselves as “your servant.”
  • Both offered to wash their feet.
  • Both offered them sleep or rest.
  • Both prepared a feast for them.

This must have been a standard way of offering hospitality in their culture.

When the angels said, No, we will spend the night in the square, Lot insisted (compare Judges 19:15-20). And like Abraham, he made them a feast. That is still typical of the hospitality the Bedouin.

Bedouin Chief
Don Belt, wrote in National Geographic, he was “short, slim, dark—and had face as fierce as a shrike, with a pointed beak and sharp little beard thrust forward like a dagger.”

He baked unleavened bread (or rather, his wife did) because it was late. There wasn’t time to let the bread rise.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

The purpose of this scene is to show what it looks like when an entire city of people has become so evil God has no choice but to destroy them all. If there are any righteous in the city, even as few as ten, God will spare the city for their sakes. Now, all the people to the last man surrounded the house. In most any place, you would say there are some good people and some bad. Not in Sodom. There is no one righteous, no, not one (Psalm 14:2).

Men of Sodom demand Lot hand over the strangers to them
Inhospitality in Sodom

Bring them out to us, so that we may know them. In case you have never heard the phrase, “to know someone in the Biblical sense,” they were not asking for an introduction.

I haven’t seen you around here before. What is your name? How long are you staying? Overnight? So you’re traveling. Where are you headed? Beer-sheba? Great! If you see my Uncle Ziklag, say hello.

No! They did not want to know who they were. They wanted to know them “in the Biblical sense.” This has led many people to mistakenly think this story is about homosexuality. It’s not. It’s about inhospitality. That will become clear as we work our way through the story.

Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

(Gen 19:6-8 NRS)

Okay, this is another moment where I have to reiterate, I am not defending his actions or motivations. I am trying to clarify a cultural practice that is significantly different from ours. When the men’s intentions toward his guests are clear, Lot offers his two daughters to them in their place. That is hard for us to understand. Why would he do that? Because, as he said, they have come under the shelter of my roof.

Ancient Hospitality

Remember how Abraham and Lot gave almost the exact same invitation to the angels. Think about the culture that taught its people, when you see a traveler passing by your home, immediately offer hospitality to them. Take them in. If they refuse, insist. Give them the best food you have, wash their feet, and give them whatever they need to refresh themselves.

Their sense of right and wrong in many ways was based on how they practiced hospitality. One corollary of that was when you take a stranger into your home, your duty to protect them was even greater than protecting your family (cf. Judges 19:23-24).

If a conflict occurs the host is expected to defend the guest as if he were a member of his family. One Bedouin told National Geographic, “Even if my enemy appears at this tent, I am bound to feast him and protect him with my life.”

Bedouin Appearance, Customs, and Character

Another sacrifice he is making. His daughters are virgins and betrothed. One of the most sacred duties of a father was to keep his daughters virgins until their wedding night. Men in that society wanted to marry virgins. The contract for marriage would have been rendered null and void. If they survive, the daughters will not only lose the men they are promised to. Their chances of finding any husband would be slim to none.

You may not agree that he should have offered his daughters this way. I don’t blame you. In fact, I hope you don’t agree with it. I’m just saying this is what their culture taught. And their hospitality really is beautiful under normal circumstances. In the next verse, I want you to think of how someone from that culture would view the response from the men of Sodom.

And just in case anyone is thinking this, Lot did not offer his daughters to them because it is morally better to rape women than men. Rape is rape, and it is always wrong.

But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down.

(Gen 19:9 NRS)

This would be the epitome of evil to those from a culture like Abraham and Lot’s. And it would have been shocking to the story’s original audience, even more than today.

Now we will deal worse with you than with them. Lot, so far, has shown exemplary hospitality to the angels. The men of Sodom, on the other hand, wanted to exploit them to gratify their own base desires. The law of Moses repeatedly told the Israelites to be kind to the alien who lives among them. Now, they despise Lot for being an alien. He tries to meet his duty to protect his guests, and their response is to deal worse with you than them. To see just how bad their intentions were, see Judges 19:25.

This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! But in this case, it is not Lot who will judge them.

But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

(Gen 19:10-11 NRS)

The angels came to see if the cry against Sodom and Gomorrah was as great as they heard. There is no more benefit of the doubt. They had heard with their ears. Now they see with their eyes. They rescue Lot and his daughters by striking the men with blindness. The author of Hebrews said not to neglect hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Heb 13:2). The men of Sodom showed inhospitality to angels unawares, and that cannot end well for them.

But what about homosexuality?

This is what most people think of when they hear Sodom and Gomorrah. The term Sodomy comes from this story. Kind of makes it ironic that the Village People, a group with such obvious appeal to gay men, would record a song about it. I’d really love to know the “Behind the Music” story on that.

I have avoided linking this story with homosexuality, and that was deliberate. As a reminder, let’s look at that passage again.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

You’re probably thinking, “You already said they wanted to know them in the Biblical sense. How is that not homosexuality?” The same way when a man rapes a woman, it’s not about heterosexuality. It’s about rape. Rape is wrong no matter what the gender.

This scene follows the hospitality of Abraham and Lot to the angels. What would be the complete opposite of that? Harm, torture, humiliate, then kill. They did not just want to have sex with them. It wasn’t just, “Ooh, those men are so hot!” They wanted to torture and humiliate them. Why? Because they could.

Travelers are vulnerable. They don’t know anyone there. They don’t know the area, the customs, and may not know the language. Taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability to gratify your own urges, and taking pleasure in their suffering, are the worst impulses humans have. This story depicts an entire people who have given free rein to those impulses.

In the world at that time, the greatest humiliation you could inflict on a man was to use him as a woman. There are ancient depictions of conquering armies (I don’t remember who, but I’ve seen them) bending the enemy soldiers over and taking them from behind. The message is clear. We not only defeated them. We utterly humiliated them. We made them our “bitches.” That was what the men of Sodom wanted to do.

WWJD?

My final proof comes from Jesus himself. When he sent the Twelve out to the towns of Galilee and Judea, he told them what to do if they receive them, and what to do if they don’t. Then he described what would happen on the day of judgment to those that don’t extend hospitality to them.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

(Mat 10:14-15 NRS)

Whenever Jesus talked about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, he referred to inhospitality, not homosexuality. Refusing hospitality to Jesus’ disciples, he said, was an even greater sin than refusing hospitality to angels. They knew what happened in the latter case.

I know that sounds harsh. But what I want you to see here is in their world, the worst sin is inhospitality, not homosexuality. And not just for the Hebrews. The ancient Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon hits the same themes of ordinary people welcoming Zeus and Hermes into their home, unaware that they are entertaining gods. They are rewarded for their hospitality, while their town is punished for its inhospitality.

As modern readers, this should be a reminder that these stories did not come from a modern world. That means in some ways their values will be different, and in some ways they will be the same. Their ethic of hospitality was much more generous than ours. Their ethic of kindness to the alien and stranger was much more serious than ours. You cannot understand the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah without understanding that.

Did Abraham miscalculate?

Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city–bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”

So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up, get out of this place; for the LORD is about to destroy the city.”

But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

(Gen 19:12-14 NRS)

In the last post, I raised the question of whether each member of Lot’s household could have counted towards the “ten righteous.” The last time Abraham saw Lot, he had flocks and herds, and servants and herdsmen to manage them. He might not have had his daughters yet. If they were betrothed to men, but never married, they probably would have been in their young teens. Abraham might have been thinking, “Lot, his wife, his servants and herdsmen, and maybe a son or two. That’s at least ten.”

But Lot is no longer a herder. He’s a city-dweller. He did not need the servants and herdsmen anymore, so he let them go. Now, they are down to Lot, his wife, two daughters, and two sons-in law (not married but promised to his daughters). And even among them, there are serious doubts they could count if they were not part of Lot’s household. The (soon to be) sons-in-law think Lot is jesting. If being righteous includes recognizing when and how God is moving, they just failed.

Here is more irony. What Abraham thought must have been at least ten was at most six, now down to four. Clearly, it is time for Lot to leave, and anyone he has in the city: his wife and two daughters are all who have any chance of escaping the wrath of God. In part 3, we’ll see how they fare. Spoiler: Not well.

Translation Notes

האֶחָ֤ד בָּֽא־לָגוּר֙  (Gen 19:9 WTT)

This one came to sojourn…

Hol1494  גּור verb qal infinitive construct homonym 1  

stay as foreigner and sojourner (« g¢r) Gn 2123•34;

Gur is in the infinitive form, which is usually to + verb. To sojourn or to stay as a foreigner, is how that would work in English. However, we don’t always have to be so literal. An infinitive can also be used as a noun. So other translations say, “This man,” they said, “came here as a resident alien” (Gen 19:9 NAB). “This one came in as an alien,”  (Gen 19:9 NAS). “This fellow came here as a foreigner,” (Gen 19:9 NIV). All of these are legitimate translations.