Tag Archives: Baal

How Little I Can Possibly Fathom

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal….”
Jeremiah 19:5 (NIV)

Let’s be real. There’s a smorgasbord of negativity out there. Media and a 24/7/365 news cycle continually bombards us with sensational cries of things for us to fear or be anxious about. The right cries for us to fear the left. The left cries for us to fear the right. Beyond politics there is a steady stream of anxiety stirring doom we’re told to perpetually fear from nuclear war, global warming, gun violence, terror attacks, product safety, GMOs, cancer, Zika virus, flu, vaccinations, poverty, earthquakes, floods, oil spills, pollution, asteroid hits, and etc, and etc, and etc.

A month or two ago Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by a Harvard professor. He attempted to provide some much needed perspective on our current life and times.

A few excerpts:

Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. There is still no lack of very real and hard work to be done to make this world a better, more peaceful, and just place. What I increasingly have come to understand, however, is that it has become harder and harder for a person like me, living in the first-world of the 21st century, to understand how absolutely brutal life was in the days of the ancient prophets like Jeremiah. Reading through the writing of the ancient prophets can feel like a long slog. It’s whole lot of doom and gloom from a time and place that is very, very different than my reality.

I struggle with the harsh images and the violence in Jeremiah’s messages. But I also have to remember that I have no clue how harsh and violent daily life was in the middle east in 500 B.C.

Amidst today’s chapter, Jeremiah hints at what was happening, even within the walls of Solomon’s Temple, in his day. The God of Abraham, Moses, and David had been almost completely forgotten. Solomon’s Temple had become an open, free-market for the worship of local gods. In the case of Baal, people would sacrifice their own children and burn them alive as a form of worship. Just let the image of that sink in for a moment.

There’s a reason that God was angry. He commanded his people to love their children, to raise them up well. God commanded his people to teach their children and grandchildren His word, and to teach them to keep His commands about being honest, pure, just, content, and faithful. Now God’s people are worshiping local fertility gods with religious prostitution and drunken sex orgies. They are burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to Baal. And, when God raises up a prophet like Jeremiah to speak out against what is happening they tell him to shut-up and threaten to kill him.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling these things over in my head. I’m not foolish enough to believe that things are perfect in this day and age, but I also don’t want to be equally foolish by denying the fact that I live in a world that is far better off than when my parents and grandparents were my age. I live in a world in which daily life is infinitely better off than it was for humans who lived centuries and millennia before. I can’t really imagine a day in the life of Jeremiah.

These thoughts lead me to look at Jeremiah’s writing differently. Rather than trying to layer Jeremiah’s poetic prophecies with my 21st century first-world understanding I want to let go of my preconceived notions. I want to cut Jeremiah some slack and try to see his world from his perspective. As a parent I addressed my daughters differently when they were five than I do when they are twenty-five, so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that God addressed humanity differently in the days of the Jeremiah than He does today.

I feel myself increasingly led to embrace the reality of just how little I can possibly fathom. Yet that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility. My job on this spiritual journey is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of understanding what God has been saying to humanity throughout the Great Story.  Perhaps that sounds hard to do given how different my life is compared to Jeremiah, but I also happen to live in a time and place where I have almost all of the research and resources in the entire world literally at my fingertips.

And that’s a daily reality I daresay Jeremiah couldn’t possibly fathom.

Tom’s Miscellaneous Messages on Audio and YouTube

Human Manipulation Present and Historical

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
Numbers 25:1-3 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I enjoy being a student of history is that it so often affords me the wisdom to put current events into historical context. In the 24/7/365 world of network news and social media it is fascinating to watch people getting whipped into a frenzy by every trending story of the moment. In this past year the story about Russian interference in American elections has driven an incredible amount of airplay. The truth is that countries attempting to effect the outcome of foreign elections, or the opinions of a foreign people, has a very long and rich history around the globe and including my own government here in the United States. There are always slimy political agents willing to play both sides, or any side, for profit.

Today’s chapter is an ancient case in point.

Balaam the Seer may have appeared to be a faithful follower of God in the previous few chapters. Balaam knew God’s voice and he knew enough that it was not profitable for him to curse Israel if God was on their side. Balaam was also the prototypical double-agent. If military victory against the Israelites was out of the question, perhaps a campaign of religious and moral subversion would introduce chaos and disruption to weaken the Israelites.

So, women were sent to seduce Israelite men into joining them in the rather depraved sexual fertility rights of the local fertility god named Baal (Btw, men being easily seduced sexually for political or personal advantage is another well-documented historical pattern). It was not just a one night stand, but the narrative says the men “yoked” themselves to the Canaanite deity, which is a word picture of servitude. The disruption worked. The spiritual, moral, political, and religious struggle between God and Baal would continue for nearly a thousand years and eventually become part of the recipe that divided Israel into a long civil war.

What is fascinating is that the shadowy political operative manipulating things behind the scenes was none other than Balaam the Seer. In a few chapters (31:16) we discover that it was Balaam who instigated the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into Baal worship.

This morning I’m thinking about manipulation. I can be manipulated so easily. I live in a world in which the microphone on my cell phone can pick up my conversation and feed marketers the ads I’m likely to be interested in. I live in a world in which I may see only what the cameras of my news program of choice want me to see. I live in a world where relatively few inflammatory social media posts, strategically placed, can disrupt the collective thought of a nation. This isn’t new, it’s just old spiritual, commercial, political, and social paradigms discovering new and more powerful tools.

As I enter into a new work week, I’m reminded over Jesus excellent advice to His followers:

Be shrewd as a serpent; gentle as a dove.”

Have a good week, my friend.

Trusting the “Purposes of the Almighty”

When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family.
2 Kings 11:1 (NIV)

The ancient stories of blood, corruption and political intrigue continue in today’s chapter. As we pick up the stories of royal succession, the nation of Israel had now been divided in two for almost a hundred years. The northern kingdom, called the Kingdom of Israel, had been led by a succession of kings who killed and conspired to both gain and hold the position. The southern kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Judah, continued to follow the royal line of David. Judah trusted Nathan’s prophetic promise that the throne of David would be established forever and, through David, the Messiah would come.

Jerusalem was the capital of Judah and Solomon’s Temple continued to be the center of worship for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, worship of the local fertility god, Baal, had become popular in Judah just as it had been in the northern kingdom of Israel. Just like Queen Jezebel in their northern counterpart, Judah’s Queen Mother Athaliah was a Baal worshipper.

When Jehu seized power in the north, he killed both Joram, King of Israel, and Ahaziah, King of Judah. Athaliah saw opportunity to make a power grab of her own. She, like Jehu, also followed the bloody playbook of ancient takeover and commenced killing all of her son’s children (her own grandchildren) in order to establish her control and make sure the nation could not put one of her grandchildren on the throne.

There was also a religious element to Athaliah’s massacre. Destroying the “whole royal family” would essentially end David’s line. Doing so would render Nathan’s prophecy moot, and it would end the possibility of the prophesied messiah to come. This would cripple the worship of Yaweh and make way for the ascendency of Baal.

Athaliah’s plot is foiled when her infant grandson, Joash, is secreted away from her and hidden in the temple. David’s line survives to eventually give birth to another infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways our present reality hinges on past events. Wendy and I have been watching the television series The Man in the High Castle which is predicated on the notion of what life might have been like if the Allies had lost World War II. Historians studying the American Civil War tell us just how close Abraham Lincoln came to losing the election of 1864, which most likely would have led to a peace settlement between the Union and the Confederacy. How different our lives might have been had that happened. Lincoln’s faith was not well-defined, but he came to believe that the purposes of the Almighty were perfect and had to prevail.

So it is that I wonder about our own present realities. There is much turmoil in the world and much angst and anxiety. Here in my little Iowa town I have little power to do much about the course of history. I can only influence the lives around me and leave such legacy as I am able. Nevertheless, as a follower of Jesus I believe that there is a plan for this Great Story. Jesus made it clear that He came to fulfill the plan that had been laid in the law and prophets, and He said there was a plan for how the Great Story would end, as well. Like Uncle Abe, I’m trusting that the purposes of the Almighty must prevail.

Featured photo courtesy gageskidmore via Flickr

Elijah, the Spaghetti Western, and Me

28857-man-with-no-nameThe Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of theLord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-12 (NIV)

Elijah is such an intriguing character. His personality seemed uniquely created to be the person God needed. He appears on the scene like Clint Eastwood‘s “man with no name” in Sergio Leone‘s spaghetti westerns. Out of the wild comes this charismatic loner displaying miraculous qualities and a passion for God. He seems invincible. Outnumbered 450 to 1, Elijah gets into a spiritual shoot-out with the prophets of Baal and, thanks to a heaven-sent fiery climax, he finds himself the last man standing. It’s the stuff of a Hollywood action blockbuster.

Then, the story takes an unexpected twist. The invincible hero does a complete 180 degree turn and becomes shockingly human.  Fresh from the miraculous victory at Mount Carmel, Elijah learns that Queen Jezebel has put a price on his head and he withers on the vine. After three years of famine, scratching out an existence in the wilderness, and the big showdown on Carmel, God’s heroic prophet is physically, mentally, and spiritually shot. He shows the all too familiar human qualities of fear, anxiety, depression, despair, and suicide.

Elijah runs away. He gives up. He throws in the towel, lays down to die, and begs God to bring the end quickly. He then goes on a self-pitying pilgrimage to the mountain of God. Upon his arrival, there is a cyclonic wind, a great earthquake, and a raging fire. God was nowhere to be found in the cataclysmic manifestations.

God appears in a whisper, and asks His man a profoundly simple question: “What are you doing here?

I find in this story of Elijah so much of my own frail humanity. I experience amazing, miraculous moments along the journey and then seem to forget them when petty anxieties paralyze me. I have episodes of victorious faith, then run from the next challenge. Given to blind, self-centric drama I fail to see all that God is doing in and through those around me while I project the weight of the world on my  own shoulders, blow my own problems grossly out of proportion, and then slink into a corner to obsess and lick my petty emotional wounds.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And yet, I am strangely encouraged by Elijah’s story. I am no different than this hero of the faith. Human frailties are common to every spiritual hero, because every hero is limited by his or her own humanity. The question is not whether I will experience common human episodes of fear, anxiety, insecurity, despair, depression, self-pity, weakness, and conflict. We all experiences these things. The question is how I will respond when they happen. And, they will happen. Too often I pray for and expect God to send dramatic winds of change, a seismic shift in circumstance, or a explosive miracle to sweep away my humanity. I am beginning to learn that what I need to listen for is God’s still, small voice meeting me right where I am, in the midst of my all too human condition.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 25

Lies

It started when the women invited the men to their sex-and-religion worship. They ate together and then worshiped their gods. Israel ended up joining in the worship of the Baal of Peor. God was furious, his anger blazing out against Israel. Numbers 25:2-3 (MSG)

I remember many years ago catching my youngest daughter in a lie. It was a small thing but I came down hard on her and she was visibly surprised by my earnestness in the matter. It wasn’t the small, isolated act but the principle that I wanted her to understand. When a child learns that lying is acceptable, then they can easily go down a path which leads to much larger deceptions and falsehoods. Pretty soon, you’ve wandered far off the path of truth.

It’s easy to read today’s chapter and scratch our heads at God’s anger and reaction to the actions of his followers. Baal worship was prevalent in those days. It started as a type of “fertility” worship which was common in ancient cultures. It morphed in a myriad of ways as it spread through middle eastern tribes and regions. What it became was an ongoing, blasphemous sexual free-for-all. And, when the Baal followers sexual “worship” produced babies, they would sacrifice the baby to Baal by burning the baby alive. Unbridled and unrestricted sex with no responsibility for the outcome. (Hmmm, the more things change…..)

Like a loving parent, God knew that Baal worship would lead His children down a tragic path that would be incredibly destructive to the entire nation. I have to believe that in this early confrontation between God and Baal, God wanted his young nation to understand how serious He was about avoiding entanglements with Baal worship.

Today I’m reminded that even when it seems that my Heavenly Father is being unfair or harsh, He knows the plans He has for me. They are plans for life and hope, and I can trust His will.

Enhanced by Zemanta