When Caesar demands what is God’s—Exodus 5:14-21

Pharaoh requires the slaves to meet their daily quota of brick-making although he is no longer supplying some of the raw materials they need to make the bricks. He deliberately sets them up to fail, so he can pretend that their failure is their own fault. When they fail, their overseers get beaten.

In response to the overseers’ reasonable protest, Pharaoh mocks the Israelites’ request (not made by the overseers themselves) to go sacrifice to the Lord (5:17). Clearly the authority of the Lord and the authority of Pharaoh are on collision course; Pharaoh’s service is now conflicting with serving the Lord. Indeed, as a jealous God the Lord allows them to serve no other gods (20:5)—including Pharaoh, who thought he was one. Although Pharaoh did not likely demand that Israelites serve Egyptian gods, his demand for their service was now conflicting with the demand of YHWH.

And between the Lord and Pharaoh, these Israelite overseers are currently caught in the middle. Moses had promised liberation; instead, in the short run, they are beaten. When the abused overseers left Pharaoh they confronted Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them (5:20)—and laid into them (5:21). Moses and Aaron seemed like false prophets with false promises, who had simply made matters worse with Pharaoh, who reigned over them. They blamed not God but Moses and Aaron: “May the Lord judge you” (5:21; cf. Gen 16:5; Judg 11:27; 1 Sam 24:12). “You made us stink to Pharaoh and his servants,” they protested. The term for “stink” usually refers to the aroma of a sacrifice pleasant to God, but here it is a bad smell. Moses’s words had given Pharaoh an excuse to harm them worse, though they were probably too useful to Pharaoh for him to literally “kill” them as they insisted.

Sometimes we give up too quickly on God’s promises or God’s call, the vision he has given us to serve him. Conflict usually precedes victory, and suffering precedes triumph. Rarely do God’s victories come to us cheaply, and what does come cheaply is usually quickly forgotten (cf. Deut 6:10-12; 32:15). Suffering does not mean that God is not faithful; in fact, his path usually leads through hardship at the beginning. God has promised us the world to come, but in the present we still share in that promised world’s birth pangs.

Whom will we serve?—Exodus 5:10-14

After Moses demands that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery, Pharaoh cracks down with even harsher servitude. Now the Israelite state slaves must gather their own straw to make the bricks. Their taskmasters (the Hebrew texts literally calls them oppressors, or those pressing them to labor) still demand the daily quota.

To subsequent Israelites, who heard this story over and over, the slaves’ daily quota may provide a fitting contrast to what comes after Israel’s deliverance from slavery. When God freed Israel from slavery, they discovered a very different sort of master, a father who cared for them (Exod 4:22). The idiom for their “daily quota” in making bricks could be translated more woodenly, the “matter of a day in its day” (5:13, 19). The next time the same idiom is used, its other use in Exodus, is when God provides the people’s daily needs by manna (16:4). (Elsewhere, the idiom can apply to daily sacrifices in Lev 23:37, 2 Chron 8:13 and Ezra 3:4 daily worship regulations in 1 Chron 16:37, 2 Chron 8:14 and Neh 11:23; and daily provision in Dan 1:5.) The slave-drivers exploit God’s people for labor; God, who delivered his people from slavery, gave them food for which they did not need to labor. The contrast highlights the folly of the Israelites in the wilderness complaining about God’s provision (and in Num 11:5-6 even preferring their food in Egypt!)

When the Israelite slaves cannot meet their quota, the Egyptian slavedrivers beat the Israelite overseers whom they appointed to oversee the other Israelite workers. The beaten overseers protest to Pharaoh, calling themselves Pharaoh’s “servants” (5:15-16). Such a self-designation is a mandatory sign of respect given their situation with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh uses the cognate verb to order them to go “work,” or act as servants, in 5:18. Nevertheless, one should note that God is calling his people to come aside and “serve” or “worship” him (the cognate verb in 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 26). When danger arises and the people forget God’s power, they remain ready to serve Pharaoh’s purposes (14:12).

The God who freed his people from tyranny and fed them in the wilderness is the one master who will look out for us better than we can look out for ourselves. Everybody serves someone or something. The question that leaves us is: whom shall we serve?

Is NEWSWEEK right that the largest churches are anti-LGBT and white-pastored?

Citing a report from ChurchClarity.org, NEWSWEEK proclaims that (anti-LGBT), “None of America’s 100 largest churches are LGBT-affirming and almost all of them are led by white men,” noting that, according to the site, “93 percent of the churches are led by a white pastor,” with only 7 percent “led by a person of color.”

Technically NEWSWEEK does not endorse Church Clarity’s claims, but its failure to report contrary perspectives or significant qualifications renders NEWSWEEK at least partly liable journalistically for promoting the information. Yet there are at least two problems with this way of framing the statistics, the second of which I find more conspicuous than the first.

What counts as “anti-LGBT”?

What does the article mean by “anti-LGBT”? Are these churches that campaign for the arrest of those who practice LGBT behavior? (I doubt that any churches on the list would fit that definition.) Churches that campaign against the legality of gay marriage? I am guessing that this would be a minority of these churches. Churches that teach their members not to practice same-sex intercourse? This would undoubtedly be a majority of those churches that ever comment on it publicly, though I know from experience that some large churches rarely comment on the subject. (Some churches may be megachurches partly because they dodge some publicly divisive issues when possible.)

ChurchClarity.org notes that, “0% of Outreach’s 100 Largest churches have affirming LGBTQ+ policies.” The NEWSWEEK article clarifies this figure as meaning that all the churches are “anti-LGBT.” Although more than half the churches’ websites did not publicly and clearly specify their “LGBTQ policies,” they are included as “all anti-LGBT,” because they were not explicitly supportive on their websites of marrying or ordaining LGBTQ persons.

Why imply a connection to racism?

ChurchClarity.org includes statistics regarding the color of the senior pastor, but it is the title of the NEWSWEEK article that trumpets together the churches being “anti-LGBT” and led by white men. The article does not state a connection between being “anti-LGBT” and being racially insensitive, but if no such connection is implied, it seems a red herring to combine them as issues in the title.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that racism is not a common problem among white people in the U.S. My wife and kids are black. I am ordained in an African-American denomination; for most of my many years in Philadelphia, I was an associate minister at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, an African-American megachurch there that already had some 13,000 members. I have been around enough to know very well that racism is common in the U.S.

But the statistics cited about the racial profiles of the pastors are simply misleading.

The list of the largest 100 churches used is based on figures in Outreach Magazine. But this list explicitly and transparently refers to “participating churches.” Enon, my church mentioned above, is not in any count of the 100 largest churches. But the list also excludes another church with which I am familiar: West Angeles Church of God in Christ, with roughly 25,000 members (and 13,000 in attendance), which could put it in the top 40.

I therefore looked for a more complete list. This one (though from 2015) is from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Using this more complete list, I count at least 21 of the 100 largest churches in the U.S. having African-American pastors, and at least three having Latino pastors. (A number of the other urban congregations are at least partly multicultural.) In other words, not 7 percent, but roughly one-quarter, of the largest churches in the U.S. have pastors who are not white Anglos.

Perhaps the article focuses on the different list because it is complaining only about evangelical pastors (NEWSWEEK notes that the site addresses “over 1.1. million evangelicals in America”). But if so, the complaint encounters another problem (cf. evangelical meaning). Some surveys count evangelicals in terms of white evangelical subculture, in which, not surprisingly, the vast majority (even more than 93 percent) of “white evangelicals” are white. If, by contrast, one counts “evangelical” in terms of its theological distinctives, one is back to the vast majority of churches, including most of the 21 with African-American pastors, being evangelical. After all, lots of churches become megachurches because they believe in evangelism (surprise of all surprises).

The U.S., including much of its church, is full of racial insensitivity, but I find it ironic that a NEWSWEEK article would imply such an association in its title. For much of the 1990s I was a faithful NEWSWEEK subscriber. I still respect a number of the authors who wrote for Newsweek at that time (e.g., Fareed Zakaria, Sharon Begley, Jon Meacham and others). The reason I eventually let my subscription lapse was the incongruity of Newsweek’s coverage of the personal lives of Hollywood celebrities while generally neglecting events such as the Congolese civil war. That war finally merited half a page after an estimated two million persons had died—something that would have earned front-page status globally had even 1 percent that many people died in Europe or North America. (NEWSWEEK was not alone among U.S.-based publications by any means. My news preference now is the BBC.)

Perhaps these observations can remind us what professors normally tell their students anyway: always read critically.

When Most Prophets are Wrong—1 Kings 22

When God gives a promise, we are right to believe it with all our hearts. Some biblical promises, though, are about collective judgment or impending hardship. These promises, too, we must take to heart so we may prepare for them (Gen 41:30, 36; 2 Kgs 8:1). This perspective may not appeal to a generation accustomed to having speakers cater to our wants as consumers. We need, however, to break that consumer habit when it comes to God, who is not an employee of a service industry.

Sometimes we idealize the past, say, the time of Elijah. Sometimes we idealize the future, expecting everything to get better just around the corner. Things do sometimes get better, especially when people turn to the Lord, but we need to be discerning about glowing promises concerning the future.

It is possible to live in a generation where a consensus of people speaking for God declares that everything is well, that we are now on the right track, and that everything is about to get better. There are some circles in my country today where that seems to be the dominant message. One would expect God’s spokespeople to communicate what God is saying, not just what people want to hear. One would also expect them to hear from God directly and not to just follow the trend of other prophets they respect.

Unfortunately, leaders themselves are vulnerable to being misled. If we do not immerse ourselves in God’s voice in Scripture, we can sometimes miss the voice that is genuinely God’s when His Spirit speaks to us. That happened in Jeremiah’s day: the consensus of prophets was that everything would be well with God’s people; God would defend them from their enemies, who were far worse than they (Jer 6:14; 8:11). Among the prophets, Jeremiah stood virtually alone, for years, in warning the nation of coming judgment. Jeremiah was an outlier; who would believe his ornery preaching against the consensus of prophets that God would defend His special people? The consensus of prophets, however, was illusory; too many were stealing God’s words from one another (Jer 23:30).

We encounter the same sort of setting in 1 Kgs 22, back in the time of Elijah the prophet. There all the king’s court prophets unanimously promise that King Ahab will win back the city he is trying to capture (22:6). Yet the God-fearing King of Judah, King Jehoshaphat, is uncomfortable with their unanimous message. That he wants to inquire from a prophet of the LORD (22:7) suggests that he recognizes that the prophets on Ahab’s payroll are not speaking for God alone. King Ahab seems to view prophets the same way that some people view “positive confession”: speak what is positive in the Lord’s name and so help bring it to pass. Without a genuine message from God’s Spirit, however, that is a sure formula for false prophecy (cf. Lam 3:37).

Ahab’s false prophets use symbolic gestures just like true ones do (1 Kgs 22:11). They claim to speak in the LORD’s name, just like true ones doe (22:11-12). Formal features do not distinguish the false prophecies from true ones; only truth can do that. But Jehoshaphat insists on hearing an independent witness, so Ahab reluctantly summons the prophet Micaiah, who consistently confronts Ahab with unpleasant messages (22:7-9). Why should Ahab believe this isolated, grumpy prophet who prophesies coming judgment on Ahab, when despite Micaiah’s past prophecies Ahab remains alive? Micaiah will just put a damper on confidence for the battle!

Ahab’s messenger thus warns Micaiah what the consensus of prophets is, and invites him to speak accordingly (22:13). It is easy to hear what we want to hear, whether under political pressure or favor or personal desire. Micaiah at first seems to echo the other prophets (22:15), yet in such a way that it seems clear that he does not believe it (22:16). Micaiah is committed to speak what he hears from God (22:14). Thus Micaiah prophesies that the king will die (22:17), and that God himself, as a means of judgment, ordained a false message for Ahab’s prophets in order to lure him to destruction (22:19-23). Not every feeling of inspiration that anyone has is from God’s Spirit.

As far as Ahab is concerned, this is just characteristic, contrarian Micaiah, trying to oppose him (22:18). Moreover, Zedekiah, one of the other leading prophets, strikes Micaiah, challenging him. Why should anyone suppose that Zedekiah, a renowned royal prophet, heard wrongly whereas isolated Micaiah heard correctly (22:24)? Micaiah informs him that he will know when the Lord’s true word comes to pass, and Zedekiah has to hide in a time of judgment (22:25). The king takes precautions to forestall any bad luck from Micaiah’s prophecy (22:26-27), as if Micaiah rather than the LORD is the source (22:28). (Against what others sometimes suppose, those who prophesy judgment may not personally want it to happen; Jer 28:6; Luke 19:41-44.) Yet Micaiah’s word comes to pass (1 Kgs 22:34-37), as does an earlier prophecy of Elijah that had been deferred for a time on account of Ahab’s remorse (22:38; cf. 21:19, 27-29).

Not all dreams are from the Lord (Jer 23:27, 32); some messages come only from people’s own minds (23:26, 36). It is often easier to get popular by telling people what they want to hear (2 Tim 4:3) and then attributing the corporate emotional thrill to God’s anointing. Yet cheap thrills from rhetoric alone are not the same as the stirring power of the true word of the Lord in one’s heart (Jer 5:14), and imitations of prophetic form are not the same as the true word of the Lord (Jer 23:28).

The biblical solution is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, to discard Micaiah or Jeremiah along with the prophets who curry favor. The biblical solution is to use discernment (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-22). Even Israel’s false prophets could have become true prophets had they truly feared and heeded God first (Jer 23:21-22).

Consensus of people genuinely seeking God is important (Acts 15:28; 1 Cor 14:29), but when a generation becomes too corrupted by its own desires we must heed instead the transgenerational succession of the true prophetic word (Jer 28:8). If prophets have been announcing judgment for a land and no major transformation has occurred, then the burden of proof is on prophets who prophesy peace (28:9).

It is too easy to go along with what others tell us, rather than stand for what God alone is saying. One true prophet who believed another prophet’s “white lie” ended up paying for this error with his life (1 Kgs 13:11-25). Let us immerse ourselves in what we all can agree is God’s Word—Scripture—so we will rightly discern God’s voice when He speaks to us in other ways. Otherwise, we may follow an entire generation toward destruction, silencing the erratic yet genuine voices that warn of less pleasant realities.