Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

JerusalemIn Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem, Bradley Jersak has given us an insightful study on the destiny of humans after death. For the most part, he examines scriptural categories associated with heaven and hell to glean their most likely meanings, and this is the most helpful part of the book. His overviews theological positions in the church from the Church Fathers to contemporary evangelicals does not give much depth but it does make sure the reader is at least basically informed on the major strands of thought.

He discusses briefly several relevant New Testament words such aionos but what was really new and revelatory to me was the distinction between kolasis and timoria. They both refer to punishment but although timoria could be unrelenting, kolasis is always remedial, and that is the word Jesus always used for punishment.

The extended discussion of Gehenna is particularly valuable. It is fairly well-known that Gehenna was the massive garbage dumb just outside Jerusalem where indeed the flames were never extinguished, as Jesus said. Jersak explores the use of the image in Jeremiah, noting that Jesus often imitated Jeremiah as a suffering prophet and was influenced by his prophecies. It is Jeremiah who denounced the Valley of Hinnom for the child sacrifices committed there. It is this valley that was used for the garbage dump in later generations, making it a shadow side of Jerusalem. Jeremiah announced that Jerusalem was subject to the same destruction as the Valley of Hinnom for the sins of Israel BUT when Jeremiah proclaims the new covenant in chapter 32, he declares that God will make this unholy valley holy again. That is, God will redeem Gehenna!

Jersak also has an extended discussion of the “lake of fire” which he correlates with the Dead Sea and finds in scripture the same redemptive thrust for this place of horror as well.

By following through on the redemptive passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Gospels and Revelation, Jersak makes a strong case for the eternal, irrevocable offer of salivation and healing for all comers. That is, those cast outside the city in Revelation are still invited in at the end of the book.

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Abolishing Sacrifice to Establish Mercy

Jesus_cleansing_templeThe story of Jesus knocking over the tables in the temple and driving out the animals shakes us up but then we wonder what we should be all shook up about. Jesus’ act can be seen as the climax of repeated protests of the Hebrew prophets against the sacrificial cult in the temple. Jeremiah mocked his listeners who jabbered: “This is the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!”  (Jer. 7:4). Then there is God’s mocking question from Psalm 50 and repeated elsewhere: “Do you think I eat the meat of bulls and drink the blood of goats?” Amos proclaims God’s hatred of festivals. Most telling are the words of Hosea that Jesus quoted: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6.) There is much debate as to whether the prophets wanted the abolition of the sacrificial cult or a reformation that would bring it in line with moral values. In driving out not only the money changers but also the animals about to be sacrificed, I think Jesus is doing a bit of guerrilla theater to prophecy the end of the temple cult, a prophecy fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the combined violence of militant Jew and the imperialistic Romans resulted in its destruction.

When asked to explain his actions, Jesus said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) This literalist interpretation is promptly debunked by the evangelist when he says that Jesus was “speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2: 21). So much for biblical literalism. The implication that Jesus is replacing the temple with his risen body is a strong indication that he intended to abolish the sacrificial cult. What was wrong with the sacrificial cult? The quote from Psalm 69 “zeal for your house will consume me” shows us the problem if we note the context. Psalm 69 begins with “Save me O God for the waters have risen up to my neck.” The psalmist tells God that he is suffering the same reproach people level against God: “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” This psalm is referred to as one of the “passion psalms” and has been interpreted as a prophecy of Christ. However, I don’t think the psalmist was gazing into a crystal ball and seeing Christ’s Passion; I think the psalmist was complaining about collective violence that was happening to him at the time. The number of persecution psalms and the fate of many prophets, suggests that the Gospels are revealing the human tendency to solve social conflicts by uniting against a victim which is precisely the outcome Jesus predicts when he explains his actions at the temple. T

he prophets consistently denounced the sacrifices made on the “high places,” pagan sacrifices to deities like Moloch who even required the sacrifice of their children. The sacrifice in the temple was more humane in that it was restricted to animals, but the practice derived from the notion that “god” was angry and would be appeased only by sacrifices. The prophets’ denunciations of the temple cult were consistently coupled with denunciations of social violence and injustice where the poor were sold for a pair of sandals as Amos complained. Although it is argued that the prophets thought the temple sacrifices were acceptable, maybe even laudable, if accompanied with righteous actions in the social sphere, but they seem to have a sneaky suspicion that the practice of sacrifice tends to encourage social injustice. The temple setup was, after all, a terrible financial burden on the poor. (I think Jesus was not edified but outraged over the widow who gave the last two coins she had to live on.) The logic of sacrifice was that some living being was always dispensable precisely as the victims of collective violence at the times of social crises were dispensable and their deaths “necessary.” Caiaphas stated the sacrificial logic baldly when he said that it was better “to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50) In modern times this sacrificial logic is expressed by the regretful term “collateral damage.” These considerations suggest that the prophets were convinced that something was fundamentally wrong with sacrificial rites.

Jesus, on the other hand, has a totally different, opposite logic; a logic that Paul says is foolishness to the rest of the world. In John 6, Jesus says that everybody the Father gives him will come to him and nobody who comes to him will be driven away. The parable of the lost sheep makes the same point that it is not the will of our Father in Heaven that even one of his “little ones” should be lost. Jesus believed this so strongly that he would accept death on the cross to make the point and, more important, return as the forgiving victim to gather all who will come to him so that none of us should be lost. The pagan deities wanted sacrifices made to them. The prophets kept trying to get it across to everybody that God pours out sacrificial love to all of us through creation and redemption and that God wants the mercy God gives us in return, not sacrifices .  Caiaphas was willing to sacrifice Jesus and anyone else who put a spoke in the wheel of the sacrificial logic. Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself rather than sacrifice any of us. That is why we do not slaughter bulls on this altar but pass around the bread and wine through which Jesus gives His very self to each one of us.

A Highway to Seeing the Glory of the Lord

treespath1After her humiliating defeat by Babylon, Israel was broken. The movers and shakers who had kept the society going were taken to Babylon where they couldn’t move or shake any more. Then, fifty years later, the prophet known as Second Isaiah proclaimed comfort to Jerusalem: the exiles will return, travelling through the desert on “a highway for our God.” Jerusalem will be made whole once again! This return of the exiles is a new thing, at least as great a new thing as God’s delivery of the Jews out of Egypt. Not only that, but, like the earlier new thing, this deliverance is a re-creation of the world by the God who is now proclaimed to be the sole creator of the world out of nothing.

René Girard suggested that the levelling of mountains and valleys stood for the levelling of society that precipitates a sacrificial crisis. I have a counter Girardian suggestion: the levelling of the desert landscape is God’s removing of the obstacles that prevent us from seeing God. The obstacles here are the social tensions created through mimetic rivalry that tear a society apart. For Isaiah, this levelling is God’s work and removing obstacles is what God does. God does not create social crises; humans do that. Isaiah said that, with the highway smoothed out, “all flesh” will see the glory of the Lord.” Not only that, but if a Gentile king had made this return possible, how much greater would the outreach be from Jerusalem to all Gentiles once the Jewish nation was reunited?

But such was not to be. The Jewish nation broke again and this time it was the Jews who broke it, not the Babylonians. Denunciations of social injustice protested by the Isaianic prophets before the Exile were repeated by Isaiah’s successors after the exile. The movers and shakers who had returned from exile also returned to moving and shaking at the expense of their weaker Jews. An anonymous victim, known as the “Suffering Servant” paid the price for the nation’s brokenness. The mountains and valleys had been recreated and the glory of the Lord was hidden once again.

“The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” is the opening of Mark’s Gospel. The Greek word “arche” also refers to the ultimate beginning of creation and the two attempted re-creations in Jewish history. Mark quotes the words of Isaiah to announce that once again (or still) God is creating a highway for God. So it is that the subsequent appearance of Jesus and his baptism by John is yet a new beginning for humanity. Once again God is removing the obstacles and just as quickly, humans are putting the obstacles back in place, with the result that Jesus was left hanging on a cross.

By coming round every year, the Season of Advent proclaims God’s removing of obstacles so that all of us, together, can see the Glory of the Lord. Will we join God, at least a little, in the work of removing obstacles so that we can glimpse the glory the obstacles hide?

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem“Jerusalem, Jerusalem´ was the outcry of Jeremiah in his Lamentations, and of Jesus when he was rejected by the leadership in in the holy city. James Carroll’s searingly excellent book of this title is an extension of this outcry with historical, theological and spiritual depth.

This book is not so much a history of Jerusalem as a history of the idea of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the imagination. The history of the city itself, of course is deeply affected by the ideas and imagination projected on it, almost always to its detriment. Jerusalem is an image of the ideal, the perfect city and yet this great ideal has shed more blood than could fill an ocean and at the present day the ideal threatens the survival of humanity and the planet we live on. How can this be?

Carroll finds the groundwork for an answer to this troubling question in the thought of René Girard. The anthropological insights into mimetic desire and the resulting rivalry often arising from it is most apt a framework for working through the troubled history of the city on the hill. Carroll’s introduction of Girard’s thought is concise, pointed, and highly insightful even for those familiar with Girard’s thought. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

The sacrifice of Isaac, imagined to have been nearly committed on the rock where the temple was later built, is another underlying motif of the book and is a powerful illustration of how God’ revelation of peace and love gets twisted towards violence. A story that almost certainly was intended to reveal the wrongness of human sacrifice got twisted to praising the obedience of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son which then lead humanity to be willing to sacrifice its children, not just “half the seed of Europe” but at least half the seed of the whole world, “one by one” in the words of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem on this story. (See Abraham out on Highway 61.)

The Jerusalem of the imagination is narrated through the Jewish establishment of the city as the capital of Judah, a city that became loved when it was lost during the Babylonian exile. It is the city where Jesus ended his preaching ministry and died under the Roman authorities. It is the city the first Moslems wanted because of their share in the tradition of Abraham and the prophets. It is the city that swirled through the Christian imagination, spurring a virulent anti-Semitism that reached its climax in the Shoah. Jerusalem inspired the crusading ideal that lead millions of soldiers and civilians to their deaths. The Battle Hymn of the Republic powerfully sings this violent ideal of the crusade in its purple poetry and Hubert Parry’s noble hymn tune gives force to the ideal of conquering the holy city anew.

It is not possible to do justice to the scope and depth of this book. Anyone interested in religious studies, theology, history, human culture and almost anything else would do well to give the reading of this book a high priority and to read it slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. I do not agree with quite every detail in Carroll’s analysis. Some of his interpretations of the New Testament seem to confuse the content with its reception history, although his analyses of the reception history is fully accurate. The overall thrust is highly compelling and will give every reader, whether Jewish, Christian, Moslem, atheist, or anything else a stiff challenge to one’s thinking, imagination, and relationship to violence, most especially supposedly “noble,” “redemptive” violence.