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   Bible Studies  - # 1 - 4 - # 5 - 9 -  #10 - 13 -  #14 - 21  


From The Word

God's Promise to Every Species

by Stephen Charles Mott

    Professor Calvin DeWitt, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, tells of a student who returned from the Kirtland's Warbler preservation project in northern lower Michigan (Green Cross, Winter 1996). She complained about how much was being wasted to save a tiny bird. DeWitt asked her if she remembered from what kind of wood Noah's ark was made. She recalled that it was gopher wood. DeWitt went on: "Yes, the price of gopher wood is very high these days. Certainly we can find something more productive on which to spend our time and money!" She said, "I get the point, and it is a very good one!"

    The point indeed was well taken because the account of God's deliverance from the flood has far reaching implications for environmental justice, and particularly for the preservation of the species. When the flood had subsided, according the account in Genesis, God told Noah, "Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh--birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth--so that they may abound on the earth . . . " (8:17, NRSV). There is an echo of creation. "Bring our with you" is the same term as "bring forth," the command of creation in Genesis 1 (cf. Gen. 1:24, for example). Through the ark and Noah, God is continuing God's creative activity by preserving it.

    God then makes a covenant, a solemn agreement, the Noadic Covenant, one the key covenants in the Bible. God promises not to destroy the earth again with a flood. This promise of protection from a judgment which would annihilate is given not only to humanity but also to every kind of created being. It is given to every species. "I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark" (Gen. 9:9-10, NRSV).

    In the next verse God continues, stating that God is establishing the covenant so that "never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood" (v. 11). "All flesh" refers to all living beings. We as humans are included with them as flesh. We share in their creatureliness, dependence, and vulnerability. We have a common lot that needs protection.

    God then identifies the sign of this covenant. Covenants have signs. Water, for example, is the sign of the covenant of baptism. The rainbow is "the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature" (v. 12). This reference to God's inclusion of every kind of living being continues to be repeated over and over throughout this passage.

    The commitment to every type of biological creature reflects the stress in the account of creation in Genesis 1 that every species is precious to God. There repeatedly God declares "good" the great diversity of the various kinds of living things: "fruit trees of every kind," "plants yielding seed of every kind," "water creatures of every kind," "birds of every kind."    

    Since God is committed to preserving "the manifold and various loveliness" of the creation, as St. Augustine described it, we who have responsibility to care for the creation (Gen. 2:15) must not allow any kind of creature of God to be made extinct, if it is our capacity to prevent that. The rainbow should be a reminder to us of God's commitment to the variety and diversity of the creation and of our corresponding responsibility as God's lieutenants on the earth to preserve the species. Noah's still are needed.

From The Word

Fill the Earth' and Population Control

by Stephen Charles Mott

    After giving humanity dominion over the non-human creatures (Gen. 1:26), God blesses it, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it (v. 28, NRSV). Population growth is connected to humankind's dominion and power over the rest of the creation. Opponents of population control find support in this passage; others discover evidence of a biblical contribution to the destruction of the environment. Is there any sign in the text of a responsibility that humankind is given for the non-human creation that could qualify uncontrolled population growth?

    Humankind is viewed in Genesis 1:26-28 as having a governing role. In v. 27 humankind is created in the image of God. Many scholars have perceived a royal aspect to the idea of the image of God. In the Ancient Near East rulers would set up a statue of themselves to proclaim themselves the ruler of a particular area. As the image of God, humanity is God's statue in the midst of creation, giving evidence that God is the Lord of creation. The monarch in turn was the image of the god (cf. H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, 159-64). Human beings have a role of rulership, but they rule only as a re-presentation of God.

    Bernard Anderson, a veteran scholar of the Hebrew Bible, reinforces this understanding that the humanity which is to fill the earth is also a viceregent of God (in Biblical Studies in Contemporary Thought, ed. M. Ward [1975] and more popularly and directly in Bible Review 8, 5 [1992]). Professor Anderson notes significant similarities between Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8. In both there is the subjection of the non-human creatures to humanity (Ps. 8:7-8).

    Psalm 8, like Genesis 1, understands human beings as having been given a royal rule. Anderson notes that when the Psalm states that God has "crowned them with glory and honor" (v. 5), it is using language which describes a ruler. When Psalm 45:3 pictures the earthly monarch as girded "in glory and majesty" (NRSV), it is using the same Hebrew words. God's having "given them dominion" (Ps. 8:6), is normal language for a reigning monarch (cf. Isa. 19:4; Mic. 5:2). "You have put all things under their feet" is like the booty possessed by the victorious monarch (cf. Ps. 2:8).

    This rule, like the image of God in Genesis 1, is not an autonomous rule, Anderson also emphasizes. The real ruler in Psalm 8 is God, "our Sovereign" whose glory is set above the heavens (v. 1). By God's grace the creature so tiny and insignificant in light of the awesome expanses of the nightly skies has been drawn into the sphere of God's sovereign rule. In its responsibility of ruling under God, humanity reflects the "glory and honor" which properly belong to the Creator (Pss. 29:1; 104:1).

    In Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 humankind is raised above the non-human creation. This elevation, despite its destructive potential, is to a position of responsibility not found if humanity was on the same ground as the rest of creation. Humanity's elevation is to represent God's rule. True biblical rule is one of service (Matt. 20:26-28 par.; cf. this column, April, 1992). Human rule represents the Creator who rejoices in all the creatures (Ps. 104:24, 31).

    The meaning of multiplying anbd filling the earth must be understood in the context of humanity's representation of God's caring and gracious rule. In the present context that would appear to mean using our distinctive reason to limit our growth for the sake of future human and non-human subjects of God.


From The Word

The Expanding Internationalism of Isaiah

by Stephen Charles Mott

    Nationalism remains a horrifying source of violence and potentially of nuclear violence. The breakout of warfare among peoples previously subjected to the Soviet Union reminds us that human sinfulness will continue to be amplified in the larger groups in which the ego finds security and glory.

    Religion provides a heavy anchor of nationalism. It also can be a penetrating force overcoming it. The Hebrew Scriptures provided important preparations for the international inclusiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The most forceful are in the book of Isaiah.

    In Isaiah there are two different significant breakthroughs toward international inclusiveness. The first puts other nations on a similar level to that of Israel. The other, like the New Testament, disbands the religious significance of nations in favor of individuality.

    In Isaiah 19, following a message of destructive punishment on Egypt, the prophet provides a startling promise of restoration. In the center of Egypt there will be an altar of Yahweh (v. 19). When the Egyptians "cry to Yahweh because of oppressors, he will send them a saviour, and will defend and deliver them" (v. 20 NRSV). They have the protection and healing of God that the chosen people had in the time of the judges, and the deliverance is described with in the language of the Exodus.b

    Isaiah then includes Assyria in this new order. Israel in that day will be "a third" with her historically worse enemies. Egypt is called "my people"; and Assyria is named "the work of my hands," a title elsewhere used of Israel (Isa. 60:21; 64:8). Professor Walter Gross, who describes these approaches in Isaiah in a recent essay (in Der neue Bund im Alten, ed. E. Zenger [1993]), notes significantly that unlike other places in Isaiah there is no subordination or even relationship of this development to Zion, as when the peoples come to Zion. This a parallel to Israel, not a development out of its salvation. There are many peoples of Yahweh.

    Isaiah 66 takes another path to internationalism. The concept of a people of Yahweh no longer functions, Professor Gross argues. The wrath of God will be "on all flesh" (v. 16) from both Israel (v. 6) and the nations. From both there will be individuals who will be saved. The survivors of the nations not only will be members of the worshipping community "just as the Israelites" (v. 20); some of them will even be included among the priests (v. 21).

    The concept of a people of Yahweh is dissolved according to Professor Gross. There is a new entity composed of the survivors of the judgment and salvation which cuts through both the former Israel and the former nations. This new entity is rather "all flesh" (v. 23) indicating that there is no more Israel, no more people of Yahweh, no more dichotomy between Israel and the peoples. In this new heaven and new earth (v. 22), the identifying factor is not identity with the former groups. It is all "the humble and contrite in spirit, who tremble at my word" (v. 2b).

    The teaching that there is but one God leads in this direction. As Gross perceives, once the Yahweh of Israel is identified as the one God, critical thoughts arise about the relation of the other peoples of the earth to Yahweh. Isaiah 66 begins with God's declaration, "Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would prepare for me . . .? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine" (NRSV). Isaiah discerns that to this God also belong all humankind, diminishing the claim of one people over another.


From The Word

Justice as Light to the Nations

by Stephen Charles Mott

    The early church, particular as portrayed in Luke and Acts, had a strong sense that their task was to fulfill the mission prophesied for Israel. This perspective is important for acknowledging the social justice aspect of the mission of the church today.

    The early church understood themselves as the restored Israel. Jesus' work had been both to renew Israel and to sum up in himself the essence of God's people. Now the church had the promise and the power of carrying forward Israel's mission. Each of these roles was manifest in the flexible image of the servant of Yahweh and its fulfillment.

    Behind the sense of mission was the fundamental promise to Abraham that in his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed (Acts 3:25). That fundamental good and deliverance would come to all peoples through Abraham was a powerful way in which he would be always honored. The cherished promise was that Abraham would be this unique channel of good to others.

    The image of the servant of Yahweh of Isaiah 40-55 was placed into that context. Luke presents Isaiah 49:6 as fundamental to universal mission of the church. Referring to the Lord's servant (v. 6a), it states, "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (NRSV). Jesus' mandate before his Ascension that the disciples would be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth" was an exact quote of the Greek translation of Isaiah 49:6. They are the servant of the Lord bringing light and the fulness of God's salvation to all peoples. This had been Jesus' task as the servant of the Lord (Acts 26:23; cf. Matt. 12:18). Simeon in the temple had early seen that in Jesus this hope of the faithful remnant of Israel was found. Here was the light to the nations (Luke 2:32). This promise of Isaiah now identifies and explains the mission of those representing Jesus (Acts 13:47).

    We as the church are the servant of the Lord. We have the missionary task of Israel. We are the light to the nations through which Abraham's covenantal promise is fulfilled. Our task is clarified by looking closely at the Israel's missionary task in the Hebrew Scriptures.

    The task of the servant of Yahweh includes bringing justice and God's instruction on how to live to the nations. This is said to be an aspect of bringing light to the nations (Isa. 51:4-6; cf. 42:1-4). As light to the nations the servant brings healing and the release of prisoners (42:6-7). That justice for the nations is central to purposes of God and carried out through God's people is clearly stated in the original covenantal mandate and promise to Abraham in Genesis. As the agent of God's blessing for all nations, Abraham is expected "to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice" (Gen. 18:19, NRSV)

    As Roy Melugin clearly notes, the goal of the promises throughout Isaiah 40-55 is the glorification of Yahweh. Whether providing justice or bringing the nations into the people of God, the ultimate purpose is that all flesh will know that Yahweh is God (in Problems in Biblical Theology, ed. H. Sun and K. Eades [1997]). Carrying forth justice among all peoples and to the ends of the earth is an important contribution to the recognition of Yahweh's universal lordship, which Melugin identifies as the most central affirmation of these chapters. Bringing justice and salvation involves the incorporation of the peoples into the rule of God (51:4-6).

From The Word

Biblical Faith and International Rights

by Stephen Charles Mott

    International rights, rights which can and must be affirmed for everyone no matter their nation, are an implication of biblical faith. This perspective is inherent in the core of biblical faith despite the central role of a particular chosen people. Although he does not apply it to international rights, Christopher J. H. Wright's work on the missional thrusts of the biblical economic perspective is very helpful for this purpose.

    The greatest contribution that faith derived from the revelation to Israel can make to international rights is its conception of God. The understanding of God provides an ultimate grounding for claims of universal obligation. Marxist thought, for example, with all its power can appeal no higher than acting consistently with the definition of what it is to be human.

    Professor Wright notes the social importance of the Creator's sovereign ownership (in Missions Studies, Vol. XII-2, 24, 1995). "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it" (Ps. 24:1, NRSV). All human claims, all recognition or denial of claims are subservient to God. No sphere of activity, whether economic, social, or governmental, is autonomous. Human beings, social groups, and nations, are God's tenants, belonging to God and using God's world. No region can be excluded. Fundamentally, valid international rights are requirements that God places upon God's tenants. There is one God, one source of moral conduct. Ultimately, there is thus but one set of human rights.

    Professor Wright, however, notes perceptively that the thrust of biblical monotheism goes so much further than this claim that God is one, as significant as this is for the conception of international rights. The assertion of the revelation for which Israel existed as trustee is that Yahweh is this God. "The Lord is God; there is no other" (Deut. 4:35, NRSV). God has been revealed as a particular kind of God. The fact of monotheism upholds the possibility and necessity of international rights. That Yahweh is this one God points to what those rights are. As Professor Wright observes that is why the proclamation of God's rule is a matter of joy. "Our God reigns! Let the people rejoice!"

    The Lord is a sovereign God who exercises cosmic ownership on behalf of the poor and needy. Out of that rule come demands of basic obligation that become foundational for human rights. "The Lord your God is God of gods, the great God . . . , who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger . . ." (Deut. 10:17-19, NRSV).

    God's justice corresponds to God's character. Human justice, including the justice of the human ruler (Ps. 72:1), is to correspond to that justice. Rights are the fabric of justice. They consists of such basics for life in community as "food and clothing," a Hebraism for what is indispensable. The demand is so basic that it is not only for God's people; the stranger too must be included.

    Further, as was suggested in the previous reflection, "Justice as Light to the Nations," the chosen people themselves serve as a model intended for all peoples. Israel was to be different in its obedience; but this was not for itself, but as a priest to the nations, just as the church later was also to embody compassion and justice.

    This social and economic dimension of its mission, as Professor Wright demonstrates, is fulfilled in the new creation, which includes economic and political life. International rights accordingly are also an anticipation of the eschatological vision.

From The Word

The United Nations and the Tower of Babel

by Stephen Charles Mott

    The United Nations engenders fear in some observers. The unity among the nations of humankind reminds them of the biblical images of the anti-Christ and of the Tower of Babel. The heightened potential for evil that unity can provide is rightly seen in the story of the Tower of Babel, in which humankind sought to build for themselves a city with a tower in the heavens. God saw that they were "one people" and had "all one language" and that this was "only the beginning of what they will do" (Gen. 11:1-5, NRSV). God responded by confounding language, saving humanity from the self-destruction that would result if it united in proud sin.

    According to the Revelation of John, however, at the end of history that dyke will be removed in a "horrific global unity of deception and rebellion" (Christopher Wright, An Eye for An Eye [1983], 106).. The kings of the earth will be "united in yielding their power and authority" to the anti-Christ beast, who will be worshipped by "all the inhabitants of the earth" (Rev. 13:7-8; 17:13).

    The unification achieved by the United Nations is perceived as a fallen human attempt to overcome the protective fragmentation that God provided in judgment at Babel. It is viewed as opening the door to a centralization of power that will lead to the ultimate opposition to Christianity in the anti-Christ.

    Both these biblical images contain important and dangerous truths, but in applying them politically one must take into account two different biblical themes.

    First, there also is a biblical vision of unity of the nations and peoples of the earth, starting with the promise to Abraham, directly following the Babel judgment (e.g. Gen. 12; Isa. 23, 60: Zeph. 3; Hagg. 2; Rev. 11, 21). That this unity is based in the worship of God must be noted; nevertheless God is working in history toward unity.

    Second, to the end of the age there is an intensification not only of evil but also of good. The Reign of God has been introduced into history with the coming, death, and resurrection of Christ. Paul Minear has noted that two cities are disclosed in the Revelation of John (in New Testament Studies [1966], 89-105). Through them history is viewed in the light of two interlocking mysteries--God's and the Devil's.

    One great city has fully historical identities as Babylon, Sodom, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Rome, yet it reveals a unitary, universal, and eschatological pattern of hostility to God. It is the "great city" of the crucifixion and of universal audience to the suffering of the church. The other city is also Jerusalem. It is the holy city and inner sanctuary of true worship. The witnesses stand in the streets of this city and in the inner sanctuary of true worship.

    We are faced with the simultaneous presence of both cities and the choice that they present before the end of history. The institutions of our societies, including the United Nations, are not to be divided up into categories according to these two cities. Rather the coexistence of the cities is nearly universal.

    The unity that is achieved and promised in the United Nations must be viewed in this framework. It must be neither sacralized or demonized. Rather there must be critical evaluation of the ethical principles that are providing its vision and of the nature of its accomplishments. The potentiality for tyranny or for chaos should be exposed. The ideals and achievements of cooperation, peace, and justice that are consistent with the principles of God's Reign must be supported.

    Christians should be alert to this movement and involved in it because the greater the unity, the greater is the potential for both good and evil.

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