30 Nov 2019

Defending Christmas … From Christians

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Church History, Culture, Hanukkah, Sectarianism
Example of Christian Fake News Paraded on the Web

Fake News

It is not even “Thanksgiving” and misguided Christians are already rolling out the “Christmas is pagan,” “Christmas is a departure,” “Christmas is sin,” nonsense. You would think these well meaning, but misguided, disciples had suddenly joined hands with the ACLU 🙂

I love Christmas. Not every one does. (I do not necessarily love the crass commercialism in America). Indeed already this very morning, I have had three things in my Facebook feed that claim Christmas is pagan and related to the Sun/Sol (or Saturnalia). Even Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory has spouted this made up tripe.

All of this goes back to what some historians now call the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century War on Christmas, which was part of liberal Protestantism’s attempt to unhinge everything they deemed Roman Catholic by rooting it in late paganism. The same was done with “Easter.” It is easy to find a myriad of old (often blatantly sectarian) Protestant sources, especially in “restoration” circles, that regurgitate this fake news.

Modern historical scholarship (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and even atheist), however, has recognized the baselessness – and agenda driven – nature of that fake news. Frankly, I blame preacher training schools and even our colleges who do not require some basic learning in Christian history, for the continued passing on of this nonsense. C. S. Lewis once said he “pitied the man who imagined the world began with the dawn of his own consciousness.”

Pre-Black Friday Defense of Christmas

First, Paul wrote that Holy Days were both good and acceptable to God. Paul and the early church kept Holy Days. Jesus kept them all, including the “unauthorized” Hanukkah (John 10.22ff, See Jesus the Jew and Hanukkah). Paul notes that no one was/is obligated to keep them as conditions of justification. However we (he) are not only free to do so but that they are “unto the Lord“(Romans 14.6). But Paul also says these words,

Therefore do not let your good be spoken as evil” (Romans 14.16).

There are those who are not satisfied with Christian liberty. They rail against what other believers consider valuable and even “holy” . Paul spends a chapter telling us not to do that. But he also says believers do not have to sit idly by and let their freedom be attacked and spoken of as evil. And contrary to popular thinking Paul never associates days – or even food – with the “weak” in Romans 14. He never uses the word “strong” until chapter 15. (cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s, When In Romans, pp. 91-92, 107-113).

So I will defend Christmas liberty from the misguided gainsayers. In fact I grow weary of nonsense ripped off from various internet sites and memes created that contain nothing but made up stuff.

Second, Christmas did not evolve from the celebration of the Sun or Saturnalia. Constantine, much less Rome, had anything to do with origin and meaning of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, nor for that matter why December 25 became associated with the birth of the Savior. These claims were all manufactured beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries but there is no evidence to support them in the first thousand years of Christian history. Today historical scholars of all religious persuasions, and even nonbelieving ones, recognize the fallacious nature of these claims. It is sad that some would rather gainsay something than take the time to learn some basic historical facts.

It is true that the word “Christmas” is not in the Bible. But guess what the word “Bible” is not in the Bible either (the Greek word “biblio” is not simply “the Bible”). Yet, just because the English word “Christmas” was not used by early Christians (they did not speak English) does not mean that early disciples did not have an interest in the birth of Christ that has more space devoted to it than other event in Jesus’s life except his Cross. Luke 1-2 are fairly long!

It is without a doubt true that the early church placed far more emphasis on the death of Jesus and thus Pesch/Easter has been with Christianity since the very beginning. By the end of the second century, long before a Pope btw, Christians were quite interested in Jesus’s birth and by the 4th century AD two basic dates were accepted for the birth of Jesus, December 25 and January 6. These dates were not chosen because of paganism nor because of the Pope (who did not exist as people think of a pope today) but related to how redemption was understood.

There are parts of the modern traditions of Christmas that come from northern Europe and may have pagan roots but that has nothing to do with the origin and significance of the day be it Dec 25 or Jan 6. The day was arrived at by the early church because of the death of Jesus.

I celebrate the Incarnation of God as a hinge of redemptive history. I make no apologies for it.

See also:

A Doctrinal Christmas: Two Theological Gifts of Christmas

And Emmanuel: Why Christmas is Essential to Biblical Faith

Some Historical Resources

Andrew McGowan, How December 25 Became Christmas, Biblical Archaeology Review (2002) (Linked in title)

McGowan is a premier authority on early Christian worship and professor at Yale

C. P. E. Nothaft, “From Sukkot to Saturnalia: The Attack on Christmas in Sixteenth Century Chronological Scholarship,” Journal of the History of Ideas 72 (2011): 503-522

C. P. E. Nothaft, “The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research,” Church History 81 (2012): 903-911

Nothaft is professor in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College in London

Thomas Talley, “Constantine and Christmas,” Studia Liturgica 17 (1987), 191-197

Thomas Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year.

Talley is one of the foremost historians of early Christian worship.

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas

Some believers are, seemingly, under the impression that human activity does not have any significant, detrimental, impacts upon God’s creation. Because God promised that God would not destroy the world (Gen 9), they surmise that we humans cannot kill God’s property. Even though we all know of myriads of now extinct species killed off by humans. We know where there was once vast tracts of forest that are now parking lots (where are the legendary “cedars of Lebanon”). We all know of rivers and lakes that are not only unsafe for drinking, playing in but are aglow with toxic waste. But we tell ourselves this does not matter, humans do not alter the environment.

To even bring it up they claim you are being “political.” But again those who claim to follow the Bible often know very little about the Bible. So God’s prophet, Hosea, chastised Israel because they had sinned. There was “no knowledge of God” in the land. In our modern north American context we translate this as “there is no church attendance in the land” or “there is no patriotism in the land.” But this is not what it meant in Hosea’s day and is not what it means in our own.

What does the lack of knowledge of God do? Let’s see,

Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel;
for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness, no love, no knowledge of God
in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds and bloodshed follows bloodshed

That certainly sounds like a society without knowledge of God doesn’t it? It sounds like a list of infractions against the Ten Words/Commandments in fact. But Hosea, inspired by the Holy Spirit, does not stop in verse 2. He states that human sin does something to God’s creation. Note carefully,

THEREFORE [v.3 is the conclusion of v.2] the land mourns,
and all the who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing

(Hosea 4.1-3)

It was not God destroying the creation, human sin was. Animals, birds, even fish are dying because there is “no knowledge of God.” The Bible speaks to this matter quite frequently (to the surprise of many). For example, Isaiah tells us that among the many crimes that God would judge the Assyrian king Sennacherib for was that he made war on those famous, but now nearly extinct, cedars of Lebanon. He “laid waste to all the nations {the people} and their lands {the dirt}).” He threatened little Judah and bragged of his destructive power. Isaiah sent a letter to Hezekiah delivering the judgement of God against him. The Lord quotes the king’s arrogant boasts, “I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses” (Isaiah 37.24).

In two texts Babylon is singled out for similar reasons. In Habakkuk 2.17, Yahweh tells the Babylonian king “for the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of the animals will terrify you.” Here Yahweh is returning to Babylon the destruction she has sown against creation. In Isaiah 14 it is the trees themselves that break out in exultation because God has destroyed their Babylonian destroyer, “the cypresses exult over you, the cedars of Lebanon, saying, ‘Since you were laid low, no one comes to cut us down.” (Isa 14.8).

Modern westerners read right over these, and similar texts. They do not register in our post-Enlightenment platonic worldview. But the Bible declares that the trees belong to the Lord (Ps 104.16f) and that humans are themselves “creatures” who are part of a community of God’s creatures.

The Bible teaches that humans most certainly impact, through their sin, the creation that belongs to God. Our interaction with creation shows our knowledge of God. And God, according to the Bible, cares a great deal about our destruction of what does not belong to us. In the last book of the Bible, the Creator God and the Messiah face the nations that rebel against divine kingship. But God’s wrath has come,

but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and
all who fear your name, both great and small,
” (Revelation 11.18).

Here is the thing my beloved friends. If I am a Christian (and I am talking to folks who believe in the God of the Bible), when the chips are down it does not matter if I believe or disbelieve in “global warming,” or if I believe humans impact the world. Caring for God’s creation is a matter of faithful discipleship to God. According to Genesis that is why God created us in the first place, to be gardeners. That is, we were created to care for the good creation on behalf of the Lord of Creation.

The Knowledge of God … is it in our churches?

Texts you may want to read in addition to those cited here are Genesis 1.1-2.4; Psalm 104; Joel 1-2; Colossians 1.15-21; and Romans 8.18-21.

Sometimes after the death of a loved one, a well meaning brother or sister will say “how precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”

These words are intended to be comforting. There is no malice when such has been said. The intention is good.

But it is frequently not comforting. It is even sometimes understood that death was a good or desirable thing. Now in scripture “death” is more than the moment our heart stops beating. The end of terrible pain can be a moment of grace. But in the Bible, the pain, the suffering, the decay of life is all part of the working of death in God’s good creation. It can indeed be a moment of mercy when terrible suffering ceases.

Our attempts at comforting the bereaved is not wrongheaded but a failure to understand the Psalm and death … which does not say the death of God’s people is a good thing in the sight of God and warms God’s heart.

In Psalm 116.15 we have an example of the power of tradition in English Bible translation. Psalm 116 is from first verse to last a declaration of praise from deliverance from death not a thanksgiving welcoming it. So, the Psalmist declares Yahweh heard his/her cry

O Yahweh, I pray, save my life … you delivered me from death” (vv. 1, 4, 8)

When I was brought low, he [Yahweh] saved me” (v. 6)

For you have delivered me from death” (v. 8, TNIV)

In response to God’s deliverance from death, the psalmist will offer praises and lift of the cup of salvation as in a toast to Yahweh for the bounty of life bestowed (v.12).

what shall I return to Yahweh
for all his bounty to me?

The word that is traditionally translated as “precious” in the KJV tradition and those influenced by it (including the NIV here) does not mean desirable. Had the psalmist’s death been “desirable” to Yahweh, God would not have rescued him from certain death. Had it been desirable the psalmist would not have been desperately crying to the Lord to rescue him/her from that death.

Sometimes it really does pay to check with other modern, contemporary English, translations of the Bible, especially those outside the King James family tree. Here are a few translations that capture what Psalm 116.15 actually means. I will emphasize the word …

How PAINFUL it is to the LORD
when one of his people dies!
” (Good News Translation)

The death of the devout
costs Yahweh dear
.” (Jerusalem Bible)

Costly in Yahweh’s sight
is the death of his faithful
” (New Jerusalem Bible)

The death of His faithful ones
is grievious in the LORD’s sight
” (TANAKH: New Jewish Translation of the Hebrew Bible)

The death of the LORD’s faithful
is a costly loss in his eyes
” (Common English Bible)

The death of the Psalmist, of any of God’s faithful people, is not in fact desirable to God. It is painful. It is costly. It is expensive in his sight.

There is a parallel to our text in Psalm 72. The king, as Yahweh’s vice regent, takes special care of the poor and needy. Note the words in v.14 but I will begin in v.12

he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he
” (GNT)

It is our life that is valuable to God, not our death.

In fact the Bible teaches that God hates death. Jesus came to destroy death and banish it from God’s good creation. Paul states, in fact, death is the enemy that will be destroyed (1 Cor 15.26, 54-55) and John said death would be cast into hell itself (Rev 20.14). The Resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, as the first fruit of all the human race, is God’s resounding no to death.

If you want to know what God thinks of the death of those whom he loves then look at Jesus weeping uncontrollably at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11.38-44).

Psalm 116.15 is the victim of well meaning believers, especially ministers, lifting a text out of its context (and ignoring that context) and the unfortunate retention of a translation fossil in the word “precious.”

Psalm 116 is the celebration of life that has been rescued from the clutches of the satanic power of death. It tells us, as we see in Jesus, that the death of those whom God created is painful and costly the Creator. God sheds tears over death. God hates the pain, the suffering, the decay. God delivers us from any and all death.

Psalm 116 is part of the Hallel Psalms (Pss 113-118) used in the Passover liturgy. Jesus sang Psalm 116 on the night he was betrayed. After having told the Story of salvation in the Passover and singing this hymn with the disciples (the Hallel were sung as a unit like a medley today) it may not be to difficult to understand the prayer Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus did not want to die anymore than the Psalmist did. In the death of the Son of Man – the representative of all humans – we finally see just how costly to the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.

And God refused to let death keep the Son of Man … and thus all of us.

How I look forward to the resurrection on that day when death is banished to hell.

Psalm 116 remains a comforting text, even more so. First, God has promised to deliver creation from the shackles of death. Second, God shares our pain and grief when our – and God’s – loved one succumbs to the power of death. I am thankful to know my Creator does not find our deaths desirable but comes alongside and sheds tears with us.

It is not uncommon to find learning and scholarship put down in some quarters of the church. The mantra rings out, “You do not have to be a scholar to understand the Bible.” “Scholars just mess us up.”

It may be true that one does not have to be a scholar to read the Bible in English (but there are in fact difficult things in the Bible). But it is true that God used scholars to write the Bible.

Some may be surprised that the biblical narrative is loaded with some fairly amazing and sophisticated scholars. Yes, bona fide scholars. Women and men who, in their day, were among the most educated people of their day. They were scholars with a love for the Creator God, the God of Israel. The flame of love flowed in, and through, them. They practiced the Shema by loving the Lord with their mind (Deut 6.4/Mt 22.37).

Who are they? Here is a sampling but is hardly exhaustive.

+ Moses, the Prince of Egypt is second to none in the realm of scholarship. He received a massive royal education. He had mastered all the wisdom and knowledge of Egypt. “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7.22). His humility and love for the people is equally renown.

+ Solomon, was a man endowed with thirst for knowledge. The son of the victimized Bathsheba loomed in his psyche, he begged the God of Israel to help him be a wise and just ruler. The book in the spirit of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, tells us that he pursued every avenue of wisdom and knowledge. Yes, God granted him knowledge but he also had to exercise his brain. And he did so. The sages of Israel followed Solomon’s example and were students of the knowledge and wisdom from the world around them. However, Solomon, like many, often did not live in line with wisdom.

+ Song of Song’s Woman. I belong to the ever growing crowd of folks that believe a woman wrote the Song of Songs (a female speaks about 70% of the book). Song of Songs is, hands down, the most challenging Hebrew in the Bible. This woman (or if it was a man) had an immense command of the Hebrew language. I think she is inspired by Lady Wisdom that shows up in Proverbs 1-9 and 31. Lady Wisdom does not believe that ignorance is a fruit of the Spirit. In my opinion, only Isaiah of Jerusalem and the NT’s Hebrews Preacher can rival this Woman’s sophistication in the use of language.

+ Isaiah the Prophet. Years ago (about 1992ish) I was in a Hebrew readings class with Dr. James Smith and he referred to Isaiah as “the beast.” By that he meant that Isaiah was extremely complex, and the prophet had memorized the now long lost Hebrew thesaurus! Isaiah, like Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Ezekiel, was a priest for starters. He was already trained in God’s word. But he was a master of cultural world of his day. If vocabulary is any indication of a person’s educational attainment then Isaiah was in fact a Harvard Ph.D. and editor, along with the Song of Songs woman, of the Jerusalem Unabridged Hebrew Dictionary.

+ Daniel. If there ever was a scholar on the face of this planet it was Daniel. After Nebuchadnezzar had defeated Jerusalem, he directed that the cream of the crop of leaders should be taken to Babylon. So men who were already masters of knowledge and “versed in all wisdom” (1.4-5) were to be taken to Babylon. In Babylon, Daniel was enrolled in a three year Ph.D program (1.5) where he was to master the “language and literature of the Babylonians.” So as the vision suggests later in 10.17, Daniel set his mind to master and learn all the knowledge and become skilled in even dreams (long before Freud!!). Daniel was the scholar among scholars in the book of Daniel. Yet he was humble and kind and loved God with all his heart.

+ Saul, aka Paul the apostle. I struggle with who would win a game of chess, Moses or Paul. Paul was a walking Concordance and had the Bible memorized (as most rabbis did). But Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel the renowned rabbi of his day. This is like going to Oxford or Harvard today. It’s like a physicist saying Stephen Hawking was his PhD supervisor. Paul can quote, with ease, Epimenides, Aratus, Epimenides, and Menander in the pages of the NT reveals that Saul was one educated “dude” (to quote from Ted).

+ The Hebrews Preacher. The Hebrews Preacher, like the Song of Songs Woman or Isaiah, has the most amazing Greek of the NT. His (or her) style is elevated in the same way as reading Shakespeare next to the newspaper. The Preacher has a firm grasp of Greek rhetoric and uses it brilliantly. Yet the Preacher also is the master of Jewish traditions from the Septuagint to the Maccabees and Wisdom of Solomon. Once again if Isaiah’s vocabulary is an indication of his education then so is the Hebrew’s Preacher who even makes Paul look almost common.

+ Luke the famous Doctor. Luke was a highly educated man. Scholars today debate if he was an ethnic Gentile or at least a God-fearer (or proselyte). Along with the Hebrews Preacher he has the most sophisticated Greek in the NT, a person who lived in two worlds at once, a Greek world and a Jewish world. He can write in a brilliant “biblical” manner (copying the LXX) to make his writings have a “biblical” aura about them. He is the master of historical and theological detail and can siphon echoes from Genesis to Judith to the Prayer of Manasseh.

We may be surprised by how many scholars there are in Scripture. Even the Twelve were in a three year master of divinity program with the master Rabbi himself, Jesus. And after the resurrection Rabbi Jesus took them once again through a 40 day graduate seminar in the Hebrew Bible.

These women and men were servants first and foremost of the King. Servant and knowledge were not, and are not, antitheses.

I do not ask God why he sent some brilliant women and men as his servants. I am just glad he did. Can we imagine a Bible without Moses, Solomon, Song of Songs, Saul/Paul, Hebrews and Luke-Acts?? What a different Bible it would be.


I am grateful for women and men who, like Daniel, have dedicated their lives to mastering the language and literature so most of us can even read the Bible in English. Every time we open an English Bible we should say a prayer of grateful thanksgiving to the Lord.

I personally have been the recipient of amazing teaching by amazing scholars. I praise God for every single one. Each one has shown me what it means to love the Lord my God with all of my heart, soul, strength and “mind.” I am a better servant of my Lord because of them.

True scholarship is simply recognizing that “I” am not sufficient in myself. That “I’ need help because what I know and have experienced is not nearly sufficient. Scholarship it would seem, by definition, confesses its inadequacy and that is why it seeks other’s input and wisdom from the “get go.”

A Pink Floyd Introduction

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re O.K.
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money, get back
I’m all right, Jack, keep your hands off of my stack.
Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set
And I think I need a Learjet

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away

(Money, by Pink Floyd from Dark Side )

The Chasm

One of the great chasms between biblical faith, the early church and contemporary north American Christianity can be summed up in just a few words: attitudes toward money, “personal” property or possessions.

Money, mammon, is indeed the great cultural, even religious, value in the western world. Money drives our attitude toward almost every ethical issue facing disciples.

I share in this chasm as much as anyone. I will share four brief vignettes.


David spent years collecting materials and saving up “money” for the temple. He ended up donating his personal fortune to God (1 Chr 29.3). David then asked a crucial question,

Who am I, and what is my people, that we are able to make a freewill offering?

This is actually a critical question, it reframes how we see mammon and our relation to it. David then confesses,

For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are but aliens and transients before you” (1 Chr 29.14-15).

David believes that, in reality, he has no property. He does not even own enough to offer God a freewill offering. It is already God’s.

David’s understanding pervades the Hebrew Bible. The people of God were, in reality, to regard no one as an alien because God’s people themselves are, by definition, “aliens and transients.” People who live off the generosity of another (in this case God). They owned nothing.


We find this perspective did not change in the so called New Testament. Luke tells that strange, to us, story in Acts 4. We probably have never heard a sermon on it because it is part of the “pattern” we feel free to discard. Luke tells us,

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4.32).

The language here echoes our text from 1 Chronicles 29.9. As the NRSV renders, Israel gave with a “single mind” but it is quite literally with a “single heart” or a “perfect heart.” They regarded themselves as “aliens and transients” and people who live of the generosity of another … the God of Israel.

Basil the Great

Basil, the great Church Father from what we call Turkey today, preached a sermon from Luke 12 on the Parable of the Rich Fool (12.13-21). He calls the Fool a “robber and a thief.” Why? because by keeping “his” possessions he was robbing others who had need. Here is an extended quotation. Basil understood David’s prayer and the teaching of Luke. He asks profound questions. The great preacher asked,

Tell me, what is yours? Where did you get it and bring it into the world? It is as if one has taken a seat in the theater and then drives out all who came later, thinking that what is for everyone is only for him. Rich people are like that. For having pre-empted what is common to all, they make it their own by virtue of this prior possession. If only each one would take as much as he requires to satisfy his immediate needs, and leave the rest to others who equally need it, no one would be rich — and no one would be poor.” [End Quote]

What is “mine?” Who are we that we can give? No one claimed private ownership. We are but aliens and transients. It is who we are.

Nashville Bible School Tradition

David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, founders of the Nashville Bible School “tradition” among the Churches of Christ would Amen loudly David, the images of the gathered people in Acts 4, and make Basil’s words their own.

God calls us to be rich in trusting faith and generosity that flows out of a full self consciousness that “nothing belongs to me.” We find fellowship by sharing.

If I have my needs met for today then I have enough to share with another. This sharing, Lipscomb/Harding called it “fellowship” is actually a “means of grace.” We are brought into genuine communion with Christ Jesus himself as we both emulate his actions and find him personified in the face of the needy. We share, in reality, from the family table. It is not mine but ours equally.


It is no wonder that we want to argue about trivia as American disciples. Those fine points cost us nothing. And we ignore, sometimes outright deny, the great themes of biblical faith and legacy of the early church because those are the things that actually call us to change, to give things up, to deny ourselves.

I admit, this is hard to do. But we have to allow the Spirit to challenge us.


I have not arrived. That is my beginning and ending point of this blog. I want to receive grace and mercy and I want to extend grace and mercy.

The year is 1994. I moved to Louisiana to preach for Barton Avenue, a congregation in a New Orleans metro suburb. They were good to me and my family (both my daughters were born there). It was a good place for me to begin full time preaching ministry. I did a lot of growing with those brothers and sisters. I preached on (in New Orleans!) the evils of beer (and was gently told I needed to study more and I did). We learned a lot about the Holy Spirit, prayer, and I introduced them to the Hebrew Bible. And I even spoke on prejudice occasionally.

My Naivete Exposed

I had prided myself as not “having a bigoted bone in my body.” I even said that out loud. And I condemned racism. Bluntly sometimes. I addressed issues from a Christian point of view, or so I thought.

See, I grew up in an Italian family in North Alabama. Black people were in our house on a regular basis. We had dated across the “color line” Mom and dad were sort of “progressive” on that level. I was convinced I was not a racist. But I was thoroughly socialized into the southern way of thinking. I had a Confederate battle flag bandana hanging from my truck’s mirror, I had Robert E. Lee, two swords and the Confederate battle flag emblazoned on my high school class ring. All of which just made me a good ole boy in my view (at the time).

One day a gal, not much older than me, named Alisha Pierre came to me. I liked Alisha, her father Claude and the whole family. They were kind, encouraging, loving and took care of my family. Alisha was articulate. She was very smart. And one day she stunned me. She came to me and shared some concerns with me. She was diplomatic but I was still offended to high heaven. (Alisha is black if you did not get that yet). In fact I was angry. She said to me,

“Bobby you talk about racism and you tell us racism is a sin. And you are right. But Bobby sometimes you sound like a racist.

Did you see what she said to me? “You sound like a racist!” She might as well had dropped napalm on me. I was incensed! I was extremely defensive! There was no way that “I” could sound like a racist! I love black people! How could I sound like a racist!?

She said a few other things like, “how much do you know about Black people themselves?”

I was miffed! I called my wife (of the time). She was shocked. I was shocked. I was offended! I was not a racist!!

I recall the topic that brought her to me. I had addressed a “Christian view of affirmative action” in my class. Alisha was in my class.

I thought I had told the truth. It did not take long to find out that I was ignorant as the day is long.

About the same time, maybe 1995/6, I began to teach a men’s class in the city at the Louisa St church. I had a series of conversations with Robert Birt the preacher there. He told me almost the same thing Alisha did. He put a book in my hands a book by Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower, that would forever change my life.

What I Learned? Negative Discoveries!

When Alisha had first talked to me I was not able to hear what she said. I had to defend myself rather than listen to what she actually shared with me. At first I thought she was attacking me but I knew that she was my friend. I had to overcome myself to give any credence to what she said. With love and patience from her and Robert, I made lots of “negative discoveries” (negative discovery is a phrase coined by Daniel Boorstin that refers to entire realms of knowledge that we have no idea exists).

First, I learned on every page of Before the Mayflower that I was extremely naive and one of the most uninformed persons on the planet. Alisha was correct, I knew nothing.

Second, claiming I do not have a bigoted bone in my body did not mean I didn’t have a bigoted bone buried inside me. The most insidious racism is not the KKK. It has a smile and comes in the form of supposed gentleness. Racism is not merely prejudice though they are related. I can confess freely that I hate racism. I do. But I’ve come to understand that racism is a principality and power in this world and that I have benefited from and participated, even while denying and blind to it, in the structure of racism.

Third, I learned that we white people – at least I was – extraordinarily sensitive and defensive. The cross burners were racists, not me. I had “black friends.” And thankfully I actually did (and do) have black friends and family that are not afraid to say, “Bobby, let me share with you …”

Fourth. I learned that being anti-prejudice is not the same thing as being pro-justice. In fact I had virtually no understanding of what “justice” meant. But the Bible calls me to LOVE JUSTICE. Justice is very hard.

Fifth, I learned I was wrong. I had been deceived. I learned that some of the hardest working and most qualified people ever had benefited from “affirmative action” (I also learned there had been generations of affirmative action for whites but we did not call it that). I learned I knew very little of genuine American history. I learned that other people’s experience of America has been radically different than mine. I am still growing. I learn more about myself and racism every day. I wonder if my love for justice grows equally.

I now look back on that fateful day when Alisha came to my office as one of the defining moments in my walk with God. I had many conversations with her and Robert about Before the Mayflower. I’ve read dozens of books since, hundreds of articles, and feel I’ve learned a lot. I still wake up in the morning and pray,

Lord help me have ears to hear today because I failed miserably yesterday. Lord help me to love justice today, I was too concerned with mammon yesterday. Lord help me to remember Alisha’s words and help me grow beyond my experience and my blindness. Thank you for those who love me enough to help me be like you. Amen

I probably still sound like a racist at times. I do not want to. Forgive me.

You May Be Interested In These Articles

Learning & Thinking about Race as a Southern White Disciple of the Jewish Messiah

Social Concerns in Churches of Christ, Trends Since the King Years, 1955-2000

Some may be offended by this post. But that is not my intention. However, I believe this is quite serious and needs to be addressed.

What kind of God do you worship?

The Psalms have reshaped my view of God. They have helped me see Jesus of Nazareth as he really is. The psalms lead God’s people into the worship of God in Spirit and Truth. The last five psalms of the book form a cascading literary conclusion to the whole book of Psalms, doxology upon doxology till it shatters the universe in Ps 150.

The praise of the Psalms is a direct response to the kind of God Yahweh is. You see, in the Bible, God’s people are not merely theists, as opposed to atheists. It is not enough to merely believe that a god exists. Biblical faith begins and ends with faith in a certain kind of god. The biblical God is alone, God.

Idolatry is not primarily bowing to stones. It is fashioning a false god that is unlike Yahweh. What kind of God do you, and I, believe in? This is the crux. Lots of folks believe in “god,” but it seems to me some have a false god.

Psalm 145 quotes Israel’s God Creed. It was pronounced first by Yahweh, in the hearing of Moses. It was in the midst of tremendous failure, the Fall of Israel. Every bit as much a fall as that of Adam in the Garden. The Golden Calf. Yahweh proved his love, and who Yahweh is, by forgiving. The Psalms exclaim, near the end of the Psalter, we have come this far and sang 144 songs together, this is who we confess,

Yahweh is gracious and merciful
slow to anger

and abounding in HESED/steadfast love.
Yahweh is good to all
and his compassion is over all that
he made
” (145.8-9)

Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Grab the trumpet, grab the lyre, grab the cymbals, grab anything and Praise the Lord. Dance and praise the Lord. Men, women, young and old, praise the Lord.

Why praise?
Because Yahweh is good.
Why, praise in music and dance?
Because Yahweh is infinite Hesed.
Why worship?
Because Yahweh remembers widows, orphans, aliens (146.7-9).

Even the creepy crawlies praise the Lord (148.9-10). Why? Because Yahweh is good to them.

Yahweh is compassionate.
Yahweh forgives.
Yahweh is hesed.
Praise the Lord.

The Psalter ends with pure praise. The Psalter ends with exuberant, over the top, praise. This praise can only be done by people who truly know what kind of God Yahweh is.

The other morning, when Casper and I finished reading the Psalms, I checked the fifty or so notifications I had on Facebook. I should not have. When I read, and sometimes comment, on posts in various “Church of Christ” groups, I ask “what kind of god do these people believe in?”

That morning I asked that literally out loud.

It does not matter the day. You will find in the CofC groups two constant themes in any of these groups:

– Instrumental music
– Is wine a sin

These are always filled with so much (literally) made up stuff, it is shocking. There is no Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness that twists scripture or makes false statements – and could care less – as on these threads. Sometimes we imagine we know the Bible, and I do not say this out of some self-righteousness but rather a genuine sense of lament, but we do not.

But this morning I saw one that I was unprepared for what I read.

“If someone is in a coma or other ailment, will this cost him his salvation because he forsakes the assembly?”

There was a long thread. It was shocking how many affirmed YES! and it is shocking that the person posting was asking a serious question!

What kind of god do they believe in? It is not the God of Psalms. It is not the God of Exodus. It is not the God of Jesus. It is not the God Yahweh.

I wept for these people. My heart was broken. I asked God to deliver us from the false preachers who have convinced these, his people, of this kind of skubala. May the Lord have mercy upon us all.

What kind of God is the God of Israel? The one who elicits such praise (those answering the thread would likely leave the service described in Pss 145-150). This is the biblical answer,

Where is another God like you,
who pardons the guilt of the remnant,
overlooking the sins of his special people?
You will not stay angry with your people forever,
because you DELIGHT in showing unfailing love (HESED).
Once again you will have compassion on us.
You will trample our sins under your feet
and throw them into the depths of the ocean!
You will show us your faithfulness and unfailing love
as you promised to our ancestors
Abraham and Jacob long ago
(Micah 7.18-20, NLT)

The biblical narrative reveals a God of infinite, passionate and costly love – hesed. The teachers of these misguided brothers and sisters make Jonah seem wise by far. At least Jonah had no doubt as to the mercy and grace of Yahweh, it was God’s gracious hesed that Jonah was running away in order to keep the Assyrians from being saved. He knew what kind of God Yahweh was.

But this was very distasteful to Jonah and he became angry [Heb, evil]. He prayed to Yahweh, ‘O Yahweh! Is not this what I said while I was still at home? Is this not why I ran away to Tarshish at the beginning. Because I KNEW that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in HESED, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4.1-2)

Behold the God of the Cross. Behold the God who would rather let Jesus die than be God without us. Behold the Biblical God. I am so glad I read the Psalms and worshiped the King of Glory, the King of Love this morning.

This is the God that I worship … the Father of Glory, who has given us the Son and embraced us in the Holy Spirit.

Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary …
Praise him for his mighty deeds (works of salvation).
(Ps 150)

P. S. I disavow the technical god of Precision Obedience.

28 Sep 2019

Hesed: The Gospel of Ruth

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Love, Mission, Proverbs, Ruth, Women

I love doing seminars on the Five Megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). I’ve spent many days reading and praying through them. It does not take long to read any of them. These books, both intimately connected to the worship of the biblical calendar (Passover and Pentecost) are profoundly rich. Sadly they are often fairly ignored books in the Bible.

A Dystopian World

Ruth is probably the most popular of the Five. Ruth is set in a time of political chaos, the Philistines were rampaging through the land, while national leadership was a joke. Samson was a perpetual teenager seeking selfish sexual gratification and Jephthah was a Conan the Barbarian type. The one bright light, nationally, was when God raised up the prophet like Moses – Deborah! This is the setting of Ruth, the time of the “Judges.” Watching Conan with Casper last night reminded me of the “days of the Judges.” Ruth lives in a dystopian world.

Into this time of chaos and fear we have the scroll of Ruth. Ruth is, in my opinion, a counter voice to the mess of Judges. God does not work only or perhaps primarily through the “great men of history” to bring about God’s kingdom. God works through women and even the aliens!

The Story of Ruth also take place during the barley harvest (1.22; 2.23) and is associated with the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) or Pentecost. It is read during that festival to this day.

A Pagan Woman Models the Heart of the Matter

In fact Ruth is a marvelous commentary on the central theological value in the Hebrew Bible, Hesed. Hesed is the heart of God, as Yahweh declares in Exodus 34.6. The concept is sprinkled across the Hebrew Bible and saturates the Psalms (the term occurs over 150x in the Psalms). See Reflecting on God’s Hesed: The Heart of God.

Preachers in Evangelical/Restoration circles do not talk nearly enough about hesed, sometimes so infrequently that disciples do not even know the word nor what it means. Yet it is the central character trait of Yahweh and it is the primary virtue in human relationships. It is the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the “Jesus Creed.” See God Creed, Jesus Creed: Center and Circumference of Christian Faith.

In Ruth 1.8 we encounter some radical teaching on hesed. Naomi says to her widowed daughter in laws, Orpah and Ruth,

Go on. Go on back, both of you to her own mother’s house, and may Yahweh do HESED with you, AS YOU HAVE DONE with the dead and with me.” (my translation)

Do you see that? Ruth, the Moabite – a pagan, has imitated the God of Israel. “She has practiced hesed. She may not even have known that Yahweh claims this as God’s own. But the scroll, through Naomi, declares Ruth acts like Israel’s God. May Yahweh do for her what she has already done. She did hesed.

Moses speaks of hesed a lot. Yahweh claims hesed is the beginning and the end of God’s identity (Ex 34.6). The Psalms refer to Hesed well over a hundred fifty times. In the days of the Judges hesed was hard to come by. It was not in Samson. It was not in Jephthah.

Where could hesed be observed?

The scroll of Ruth’s divinely inspired answer to that question is: hesed was seen in Israel’s archenemy, the female widowed pagan … Ruth!

The book of Ruth does not merely teach hesed through a command. Ruth shows us what hesed “looks like” in 3D.

The alien from Moab practiced the central characteristic of the God of Israel in her relationships, her husband and her Israelite mother in law. She practiced the second greatest command of the law of God and in doing so she imitated Yahweh.

Meanwhile the heart of God was missing from the people of God … has this ever changed? (See Jonah!)

When the Holy Spirit wanted to teach God’s People what it meant to faithfully love [hesed is faithful, committed, costly love] our neighbor as ourselves, that Spirit told the story of an alien. A foreigner.

It dawned on me as I was reading Ruth over lunch that Ruth is the “Old Testament” Samaritan. When Jesus wanted to tell a deeply committed Bible student the real meaning of hesed for our neighbor, he also chose a foreigner, an enemy, one that was thought to be theological trash. He confronted the Bible student with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Parable of Hesed.

A Note on Canonical Order

One more Ruth nugget for today. There is more than a slight chance that some intentional arrangement has occurred in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Ruth follows the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew order not Judges. This is fascinating.

First, Proverbs ends with the personification of Lady Wisdom and describes her as a “worthy woman” (lamely) or a woman of noble character (better) or perhaps a woman of great value/abilities or a woman of valor. This is in Proverbs 31.10. This Hebrew phrase only occurs one more time in the whole Bible. Where? In the very next book in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth. This is what Boaz calls Ruth on the threshing floor in Ruth 3.11. Boaz address Ruth the Moabite with the exact epitaph that describes the great woman in Proverbs.

Second, Lady Wisdom, the woman of ability and valor, is a teacher. In fact she teaches the central truth of God, hesed.

English translations completely obscure this. They read, as the NIV,

faithful instruction is on her tongue.” (31.26)

The NRSV has “the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” This is better because it recognizes she is a teacher.

But the text says, “she opens her mouth and the teaching of hesed is on her tongue/fill her mouth.”

A woman preaches the central claim about Israel’s God.

These are among the last words in Proverbs. The next person we see is the story of Ruth! Proverbs ends with a woman preaching God’s heart (hesed) and the next book shows a pagan woman, Ruth, practicing God’s heart (hesed) Ruth is the very embodiment of hesed. This is quite intentional.

Final Words on Ruth

Our world today is much like the time of the Judges. Not merely that everyone does what is right in their own eyes. But that we are in a world devoid of hesed. It seems that hesed is not only devoid in the world but it is scarce among God’s own people.

I wonder if the Spirit want’s us to hear – maybe for the fist time – that Ruth is not the story of a Disney Princess. Ruth is the story of shocking hesed from directions we automatically discount, the alien. Sometimes it is the outsider who looks the most like God.


Have you ever heard of the “Covenant of Shalom/Peace”?

Covenants. I grew up on the language of “old” covenant and “new” covenant. In my world the “Old Covenant” was synonymous with the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament. Much of my education regarding covenants was by way of contrast: negative for the old and more positive for the new.

That “old” covenant was a colossal legalistic mistake and thankfully “nailed to the cross” as the old saw says.

But I did not know the Bible very well, honestly. I didn’t. I knew the standard topics that were important to my little band of non-sectarian sectarians. But I did not know that the Bible bears stunning witness to the truth that:

1) the Bible does not reduce itself into “old” covenant vs. “new” covenant;
2) there are numerous covenants in the Bible;
3) except for God’s covenant with creation in Genesis 9, all covenants are have Israel, or a person within Israel, as the object of the covenant;
4) what the NT calls the “old” covenant is not a synonym with Genesis to Malachi;
5) All of God’s covenants are of Hesed/steadfast love and grace.

Covenant of Shalom

Have you heard of God’s covenant of shalom/peace? We find this stunning covenant buried in Isaiah 54. It is a beautiful text spoken to the people of Israel who are “dead.” That is they are in exile. They are in exile because they have grievously sinned. Their sin is characterized throughout the Hebrew Bible as adultery (idolatry). Israel is in the tomb of exile by a self-inflicted wound.

The people of God, Zion, are addressed as a barren woman and a woman that has been caste off in divorce. These are powerful and graphic images both in there historical setting and still gripping in our own. But this woman is commanded by Yahweh, of all things, to sing.

Singing is associated with joy but this woman has no apparent reason for joy. Or does she.

God, not Israel, has acted in tomb shattering grace. God is calling her out of death and into life. She has a grace alone given status! She will forget her shame … her self-inflicted shame. This why she is told to rejoice in song.

Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth
and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.
For your Maker is your husband—
the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer

She is no longer barren, she is no longer a divorcee. She has a “husband” who is non-other than the Creator God, Yahweh of Israel. The divorcee is married by God!

Indeed, Yahweh says that it was only for a short time that Israel endured God’s wrath (i.e. spurned love). Israel had been faithless for centuries on end. Yahweh has truly been “sloooooooooooow to anger.” Israel’s wound was self-inflicted.

But Yahweh will not let the story end in her ultimate death. God refused to allow the story end in either divorce or death.

It was in a “surge of anger” that for ” brief moment” God let the chips fall where they may in exile. “But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you” and bring Israel back.

Yahweh then says that the history of Israel had reached a “Noah’s flood” type moment. Human bloodshed had vandalized the good creation and the flood was unleashed. But then God swore to never again strike the earth in such a fashion. So now Yahweh makes the astounding promise, based on nothing but God’s own integrity, “ I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.

So astonishing is this promise of God that the Lord seals it in a covenant just as in the days of Noah.

my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my COVENANT OF SHALOM shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

God’s hesed, declared to be God’s name in Exodus 34.6 in the face of the Golden Calf, and shalom will never be removed from the pulled out of the grave people of God.

What a powerful, indeed revolutionary, word of the Lord. God has entered into a “covenant of shalom/peace” with even those who were dead in their trespasses, buried in the Babylonian exile, who were where they were by their own hand. Yahweh refused to let the Story end there.

Have you heard of the Covenant of Peace? For many years I never did. It is another one of those texts that I had no engagement with. But Paul the apostle knew of the covenant of peace and its gracious language lies behind those epic words in Romans 5.1-11.

Isaiah 54, God’s Covenant of Shalom, has been for many years now been one of my favorite passages of the Bible. It preaches God’s grace as loudly as Augustine or Luther ever did.

May God’s Shalom surround you on this day

Nanos volume contains some extremely helpful essays on reading Galatians as a first century Jewish document.

Galatians is a book that will tax a readers reading. It is a swirling vortex of Pauline applied theology. The letter was written to a very specific place, in space and time dealing, with a very specific issue. As readers of this letter two thousand years later it demands we check our assumptions at the door. We may find that they are quite alien to AD 49.

In my life this examination of assumptions has not happened with the scrutiny that Paul may need. Many of the presuppositions we bring, I am convinced, can have serious repercussions on how we hear the letter. Many of the assumptions we have historically read this letter through have to do with Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. So in an effort to read the Galatian letter more faithfully in its first half of the first century context, I offer these Sunday evening reflections.

First. Perhaps the foundational assumption of all assumptions, grounded in centuries of caricature, is that the “Old Testament” and Judaism is legalistic and exclusivistic. This assumption, compounded by F. C. Baur’s thesis that this legalistic Judaism was in dire conflict with Paul’s grace approach to faith has seriously colored Protestant interpretation of Galatians. These two intertwined assumptions have been shown to be historically false however. The Law of Moses does not prohibit Jews from eating with, much less associating with Gentiles. In the Second Temple period there are numerous texts that indicate Jews (who had various opinions btw on the matter) had table fellowship with Gentiles under a wide array of circumstances. We think of Letter of Aristeas, Judith, Philo and others. Jews regarded Abraham as the model of hospitality for being a gracious host and an “ideal guest.” It just is historically incorrect that Jews, as a matter of course, would refuse to eat with Gentiles. When this fact hits us we are then forced to deal with the text in Galatians in its actual historical context.

Second. Whoever the “men from James” were, we know at least two things about them. 1) These men were in Antioch, not Galatia. Paul never says, nor implies, the troublers in Galatia are from Jerusalem or the folks who came to Antioch. 2) These men do not actually represent James’s or the Jerusalem church’s views. This is confirmed by Paul himself because he notes that Titus, a Gentile, was not “compelled to be circumcised” even in the presence of James. Since Titus was not told to be circumcised the question arises, did James and the Jerusalem church make Titus eat by himself while in Jerusalem? I honestly do not believe that to be the case. Some how Titus enjoyed table fellowship even while in Jerusalem itself.

Third. What is most interesting is that Paul never mentions food, kosher or otherwise, in Galatians. Peter did withdraw table fellowship in Antioch, but Paul does not say it was because of food. Protestants have in fact, though, read the text as if it does mention food. Perhaps it was but the text does not state that. And in light of the previous two facts, we are confronted with the likelihood that it was not merely non-kosher food (and again we do not know it was non-kosher or table with both) that offended the men who came from Jerusalem to Antioch (but recall they are not in Galatia). I have come to the position that when Peter withdrew out of fear, that the “Jews” are non-messianic Jews in Judea probably with some connection with the Zealots. Remembering the extremely volatile situation in Judea during the late AD 40’s and 50’s that culminate in the outbreak of war at least makes a plausible case that something beside food spooked Peter. Thus I agree with F. F. Bruce’s observation in his Commentary on Galatians that Peter’s move would be a pastoral move which is why Paul does not say he was guilty of apostasy but hypocrisy.

Fourth. It seems upon historical investigation extremely likely that the troublers in Galatia, not the men from Jerusalem in Antioch, are Gentiles who have converted to Judaism at some earlier point. They are not ethnic Jews. This seems to be what Paul actually says. Note the following renderings of 6.13

For not even they who RECEIVE circumcision do themselves keep the law” (ASV)

those who LET THEMSELVES BE CIRCUMCISED do not observe the law” (Goodspeed’s New Testament)

the ones who ACCEPT circumcision …” (New American Bible)

even those who RECIEVE circumcision …” (New English Bible)

deSilva’s is the most complete Evangelical commentary on Galatians. Though he takes a different view than Nanos on some matters, this is a must for any study of Galatians

This language makes absolutely no sense of a Jew like Paul, Peter, and James who was circumcised on the eighth day of life. Paul states clearly what “we Jews know by birth know” in 2.15-16,

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law by but through faith.”

In Romans, Paul makes the same point by quoting the Psalms “Do not enter judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps 145.2, quoted in Romans 3.20)

But it is “those” who have allowed themselves to be circumcised who are troubling the congregations of Galatia. These are Gentile proselytes, who have a vested interest in getting Gentiles to go through the same initiation rites they themselves have done to become “full fledged Jews.” Paul is adamant that this is not in line with the truth of the gospel.

For Abraham to be the father of many nations Gentiles did not, eschatologically, become Jews. The Gospel is not about making Gentiles into Jews. Nor is it, btw, about making Jews into Gentiles. Abraham is the father of Jews as Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles through the Gospel. The Gospel as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham is that now the nations, as the nations, have left idolatry and join with Jews in worship of the One True God.

There are many other assumptions that need critical examination when reading Galatians. But when the assumption that Jews, as a matter of course, refused table fellowship with Gentiles is rejected as false (because it is) things suddenly change and Galatians sounds quite different. And when we realize that Jerusalem and Paul are actually on the same page and the men “from” James are not in Galatia, that impacts the reading of the letter. And when we realize that the agitators are almost certainly Gentile converts to Judaism and not ethnic Jews this too greatly impacts understanding the letter. And finally when we notice that food is actually never once mentioned in the letter it is almost breathtaking.

But with each assumption falling by the wayside we come closer to hearing the actual meaning of Paul’s letter. Galatians is about how Gentiles as Gentiles can be citizens in the commonwealth of Israel. It is not some timeless expression of Paul’s view on the “Old Testament” as such or the “law” in particular.

P. S. You may be interested it this:

Romans is not Galatians! Welcome to the Most Jewish Letter in the NT: Assumptions and Surprises