And Elohim said, “Let them swarm the waters a swarm of life . . .” Genesis 1:20 (my translation)
Swarm – Genesis 1:20 describes God’s formation of the life of the sea and the air and everything that creeps on the earth. We take it for granted that these creatures are distinctively different from human beings. But maybe we need to pay a bit more attention. Maybe we need to ask why these creatures are distinctively different. Answering that question pushes us to realize something about ourselves; something that warns us about ourselves.
Avivah Zornberg points out that the midrash concerning the Hebrew word sheretz (swarm) recognizes that the word describes any living thing that operates en masse. In other words, these are living things that survive, multiply and expand as an indistinguishable group. When the word is used to report the self-perception of the spies who return from Canaan (Numbers 13:33), sheretz reveals an utter lack of understanding about the uniqueness of human beings. “To breed, to crawl, these are the acts of the sheretz. At one pole of failure, the midrash imagines men as grasshoppers, who compulsively ‘climb up and fall back down’ into the jar, are incapable of learning from experience. To be trapped in the reality of ‘crawling between earth and heaven’ is to be doomed to repeat irrational patterns of the pack, the rhythmic movements generated by the blind urge simply ‘to be more.’” God does not form Man as sheretz, but men are perfectly capable of living that way. Today our equivalent is “group think,” and “group think” is the biblical equivalent of insect existence. If you can’t imagine yourself as a bug, try applying this word to addictive behavior, the endless repetition of irrational patterns generated by a blind urge, crawling between earth and heaven. From a biblical perspective, men and women are perfectly capable of degenerating into swarms, into pack behavior. But this is not what God intended.
While it is true that the Hebrew worldview focuses on the community rather than the individual, it is not true that God does not intend or expect individual responsibility and action. God only points out that we are all connected, not that we are all one swarm. God has constituted each of us as responsible moral agents, standing (not creeping) between earth and heaven. That fact that our individual actions have communal effect does not efface the personal quality of our being in the world. Only we are able to make ourselves into swarms, into something not human. Zornberg notices that the swarm mentality is characterized by complaining about God’s design to stand as God’s representatives in the world. The “essential dilemma” of being human is how to deal with the urge to conform to the swarm, to lose ourselves in the herd mentality of blind behavior. Perhaps this is the concern of Jacques Ellul when he suggests that Christianity pushes the masses toward doctrinal conformity rather than individual authenticity. Perhaps it is just easier to be a blind, instinctual bug than a human being.
The young India woman said to me, “But everyone else throws litter on the street. What difference would my little bit make?” Sheretz. The divorced father said, “Yeah, I know she’s messing with drugs, but everyone her age does that.” Sheretz. I said, “Everyone says it’s no big deal, so why shouldn’t I try it.” Sheretz.
The greatest of all sins is determining for myself what is good and what is evil.
Topical Index: sheretz, swarm, group think, Genesis 1:20, Numbers 13:33
 Avivah Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, p. 12.
Just in case you ever wondered about God’s glory, here is a shot of the sun with 94% of the surface covered by the moon. Without special filters, this is still way too much light to look at or capture in digital. And even with the filter, at 160th of a second there is still too much light. Imagine what it would be to see God’s glory.
This annular eclipse was shot at the Grand Canyon on May 20, 2012.
And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. Revelation 21:21 NASB
Gold – You’ve heard the advertisements, I’m sure. “In a volatile economy, gold is your only real safety net.” “Gold! It has never been worth nothing. Experts say it may even double in the next years.” “Gold is security in times of trouble.” “Buy now before it’s too late!” Whenever we think of gold, we think of value. We think of riches. We think like the people of this earth. But John’s vision paints a little different image.
First, we must notice that whatever kind of gold John has in mind, it’s like nothing we have ever seen. I know of no pure gold that is transparent like glass. In fact, I can’t even imagine such a substance. As far as I know, glass and gold don’t mix. So whatever John saw, it wasn’t like anything on this earth. That should tell us to pay attention to the fact that this is apocalyptic literature, a genre that uses many, many symbols to represent other things.
Secondly, before you get excited about tearing up this street and carrying home a piece of gold for yourself, notice what this gold is used to construct. This is the heavenly version of the Yellow Brick Road. And that’s exactly what gold is good for in heaven – making bricks for the road. In other words, heavenly gold has the same value as mud (what bricks were made of in the first century). In fact, it is so plentiful that even the streets are made of gold. If this is the case, what is the “street” value of gold? Not much. How much would you give for a piece of the sidewalk in front of your house? Anything?
Clearly what John saw isn’t anything like the gold that we so admire. The imagery is all symbolic. When you get to heaven, you may in fact find a street of transparent gold (whatever that is), but it won’t be valuable enough to take to the bank. What is of value in heaven is not reflected in what we consider valuable here on earth.
If John isn’t writing about any kind of gold we know, then what is this all about? Perhaps John’s imagery is simply to express the magnificence of this vision. Perhaps it’s only about how overwhelmingly beautiful the new Jerusalem will be. Who really knows? That’s the problem with apocalyptic literature. Its symbolic structure allows multiple interpretations which fit nearly any age. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is not to provide us with a timetable of the future or even the contents of some coming world. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to offer hope. Things will be better. Things will be restored. Justice will prevail. And when hope is fulfilled, it will be like walking on streets of gold. Something unimaginable is coming. Something glorious. Something amazing. Just wait. You’ll see.
If you thought heaven was there to fill your bank account, you missed the point. Try reading John’s vision as the imagery of hope and resolution. And leave the bricks alone.
Topical Index: gold, street, apocalyptic, Revelation 21:21
In Scripture, the desert is a significant place and an important theme. It is the place where God is found when men realize they cannot live without Him. Each of us must make a trip to the desert, and wander until we learn that reliance on Him is the only means of sustaining our lives. With that in mind, here is a picture of the beauty in this God-not-forsaken place.
Just for this American holiday!
In the first two volumes of this series, I explored the radical differences between our contemporary culture with its Greek-based paradigms and the biblical Hebraic worldview. In this third volume, I examine the topics of the Church, evangelism, prayer, justice, and Law vs. Grace. With over 275 pages of material, this volume will take the reader into the depths of the Biblical text, often revealing insights that can only be gained by understanding the Bible in its own culture and context.
The topics are essential for a clear understanding of our relationship to the God of Israel.
Click here to order Spiritual Restoration, Volume 3.
And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2 ESV
Have not – How we agonize over this verse! Paraded before the cringing audience in the pews, preachers hammer believers for their lack of “love.” When we read Paul’s statement in quiet meditation, we come away convicted. We are crushed under a standard that few if any can achieve. Our world is filled with the pursuit of prophetic powers, of understanding mysteries, of bottling faith that moves mountains. But love? Oh no, that is too much to ask. That, we are told, means sacrifice, denial, crucifixion. How can Paul expect such behavior of simple men and women?
There is an easy answer to the weight of this glory. It is to move in the opposite direction. It is to treat love as part and parcel with Christian morality. How can we meet the standard? All we need to do is reduce Paul’s exhortation to acting ethically, being a good person, treating our neighbor with occasional kindness, being “nice” to others. That will do, won’t it? After all, if we go the route of sacrifice, who will be left to run things? If everyone becomes a humble servant, who will be in charge? We may not have all knowledge, but that won’t matter if all that is necessary is to live a moral life.
Both directions are wrong. Neither relieves the tension. Love cannot be a standard so high that no human can achieve it nor can it be a method so easy that no one can miss it. When Paul uses the Greek echo me, he tells us that this “love” is conditional. In order for it to be present, some conditions must be met. Without those conditions, no matter what else is added or subtracted, “love” vanishes. Jacques Ellul provides the insight that explains these conditions. “No recognizable revelation exists apart from the life and witness of those who bear it. . . . If Christians are not conformed in their lives to their truth, there is no truth. This is why the accusers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were right to infer the falsity of revelation itself from the practice of the church. This makes us see that in not being what Christ demands we render all revelation false, illusory, ideological, imaginary, and nonsalvific. We are thus forced to be Christians or to recognize the falsity of what we believe. This is undeniable proof of the need for correct practice.” In other words, “love” is the practice of our claims of believing, and for those who follow YHWH, that practice turns out to be specifically defined by Torah. This means that Torah-less practice actually denies the revelation of the God of Israel. Torah-less faith is biblically inconceivable since the God who instituted Torah is the God of the Bible. Ellul is absolutely correct. If we do not live the Scriptures, we deny the revelation of all the Scriptures.
It is obvious that Christianity does not practice Torah. Theologians since 200AD have carefully and deliberately distanced themselves from the “Jewish” Torah. But doesn’t that imply they have also distanced themselves from the God who reveals Himself in the history and practice of Israel? Is it even reasonable to claim that Yeshua, Paul, James, John and Peter were not practicing the faithful observance of the revelation of God in Israel? Would any of these men have claimed that the Tanakh is no longer valid?
This line of thought forces us to ask, “How did Christianity become so far removed from its own source that it denied Jewish practice?” Until we answer that question, we have no right to claim to be biblically-based “Christians.” When we answer that question we may discover that we have no reason to be separate from Messianic Judaism.
Topical Index: love, history, Christianity, practice, Torah, 1 Corinthians 13:2
 Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, pp. 5-6.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8 ESV
Philosophy – Paul warns us about the enticement of philosophy, but we seem to have completely ignored his alarm. I don’t mean that we have been enticed by the world’s philosophical systems. I mean that we have been seduced by theology which turns out to be nothing short of a reversal of the God of the Bible. I mean that Christian believers have followed their champions of the faith into religious beliefs; beliefs that are no more than the kind of philosophical systems Paul cautions us to avoid. Before you jump up to refute such a claim, let’s examine the meaning of the Greek word philosophias. Kittle defines this Greek term as “systematic efforts to understand the world, especially by sensory perception. The aim is to reduce phenomena to principles and hence to achieve knowledge of eternal and unmoved being. philosophía is both knowledge as a whole and the individual discipline.” 
In other words, philosophía attempts to reduce the world we experience (including the reports of such experience in history) to a set of eternal principles or statements that are called the Truth. This is precisely the project of the systematic theologian. Theology is the philosophy of God. And it exactly fits Paul’s concern. The Bible is not a philosophy, nor is it a theology. It is a story, a history of God with His people. As history, it is not reducible to some set of statements or beliefs. But theology is not concerned with the unique historical events of Scripture. It seeks deeper meanings in systematized knowledge. You might ask yourself why we engage in the project of theological knowledge. Perhaps it is for reasons that are not so biblical after all.
Listen to the words of Jacques Ellul: “. . . once the transition was made from history to philosophy, all that they [theologians] said was completely correct and true. They expressed a profound and authentic faith marked by a concern for truth. Yet it was all completely falsified by the initial transition. This is why the deviations were stronger than the truth that they retained. Very soon they forgot the essential point, that God does not reveal by means of a philosophical system or moral code or metaphysical constructions. He enters human history and accompanies his people. The Hebrew Bible (even the wisdom books) is not a philosophical construction or a system of knowledge. It is a series of stories that are not myths intended to veil or unveil objective abstract truths. These stories are one history, the history of the people of God, the history of God’s agreements and disagreements with this people, the history of loyalty and disobedience. There is nothing else but history, temporal (not eternal) history, lay (not sacred) history, a history that tells us that God is with and for us, but that does not speak about God in himself, or provide any theory about God. Like all human history, the Bible is a book that is full of questions but never gives any answers.”
Isn’t this exactly what Paul would say as a Jewish rabbi? Heschel tells us that to believe is to remember. His remark reminds us that revelation is history, not theology. His statement implies that we are to enter into a culture marked by a common history, a common storehouse of cultural memories that supply us with identity, meaning and practice. Once we divorce ourselves from the historical continuity of the culture of God’s people, we are no longer in the stream of God’s actions. We are no longer biblical believers. We are theologians or philosophers, pursuing abstractions about God . We are not adherents to the revelation of God. When Christianity became a philosophy – a religion – it no longer was part of the history of God’s people. It became something new on the earth – a system of thought divorced from the historical reality that spawned it. Today Christians no longer practice the culture of the God of the Bible. They practice a new religion, a religion that was invented by the systems of Greek philosophy and their influence on the early Church fathers.
Today Christians have a powerful philosophy, but they no longer have a biblical cultural identity. The evidence is undeniable. Just ask yourself if Christians follow the biblical calendar or keep the biblical commandments or practice the instructions of Torah. Why do Christians separate themselves from this historical reality? Because they now follow a system of thought that is alien to the Scriptures. The Scriptures become merely the jumping off point for religious theory.
Who is the enemy here? Isn’t it us? Aren’t we the ones who, having been seduced by the power of analysis and the temptation of understanding, left the tribe and walked our own way? Doesn’t that suggest that theology is about control, about usurping power that rightfully belongs only to God by asserting that the Church now holds the words of life? Is it any wonder that there is no Jewish systematic theology?
Topical Index: philosophy, philosophía, history, revelation, Jacques Ellul, Colossians 2:8