Ethnic reconciliation in Ephesians 2:11-22

This is a message I preached at an evangelical Presbyterian church in Indiana. This link worked when I tried it and hopefully still works when you try it!

http://www.covenantepc.org/resources/sermons/racial-reconciliation-1045am-service/

P.S., where I tried to access it from just now, the video would not load. The audio, however, DOES load.

Standing for Justice—Exodus 2:11-14

Nobody’s perfect, but sometimes one side really is right and another is wrong. The civil rights reformers were not perfect (see the marvelous movie Selma: https://www.amazon.com/Selma-David-Oyelowo/dp/B00NMF8SEK), but they were right that racial oppression was wrong. In that setting, whites who wanted to stand for justice needed to join the “black side.” The British, French and Americans were far from perfect, but Hitler’s genocidal activity was pure evil (see https://www.visionvideo.com/dvd/21624D/hitler-the-rise-of-evil). Fighting for justice in such circumstances could be standing for the “Jewish side.” When North Korea tortures and imprisons detractors, or ISIS or other religious vigilantes in Central or South Asia kill Christians or other religious minorities, these acts are evil. In our narrative, God was clearly on the side of the slaves. They were far from perfect, but they were unjustly oppressed—and they were God’s people.

Probably no one would have taken note when Moses went to visit his fellow Israelites; probably no one would by spying on this person of status despite his ethnic affiliation. Moses witnesses his people’s difficult “burdens” (Exod 2:11), a term describing their work as an enslaved people (in the OT found only in Exodus; see also 1:11; 5:4-5), burdens from which the Lord their God would ultimately deliver them (6:6-7).

But seeing an Egyptian “striking” a Hebrew, he “struck” the Egyptian (the same Hebrew term, often applied to killing). Moses intended the lethal outcome of his blow; he first made sure that no one was looking before he killed the Egyptian (Exod 2:12). The law of Moses later required the penalty of death for deliberately striking someone lethally (21:12), but Moses may have been saving the life of the Israelite being beaten. Certainly later Jewish interpreters and biblical voices understood Moses as acting for justice (cf. Acts 7:24-25). Moses identified with his enslaved people more than with his own privilege (cf. Heb 11:24-26).

Moses hid the corpse in the sand (Exod 2:12). (A contrast with Moses’s mother positively hiding him is possible but unlikely, since the narrator employs a different Hebrew term.) Moses did not expect to get caught, and trusted that his fellow Israelites would appreciate his action and not circulate it. But even if the Hebrew he rescued appreciated the action and was the only witness, questions about his own escape from beating might well lead to him recounting the story, and word about the action of this privileged Hebrew would quickly spread (see 2:14).

Although Moses’s action may prefigure his future role as deliverer, the difference between his failure as a small-scale deliverer here and his future success as an agent of God’s deliverance is clear. It’s not enough even to be right about our calling or destiny: we need to depend on the Lord to get us there. It’s important to stand for justice, but it’s ultimately the Lord who grants success. It is difficult to even quantify the vast chasm between Moses’s act of avenging and hopefully rescuing one Hebrew and the plagues that would later force Pharaoh to release Israel. It is the difference between the arm of flesh and the arm of the Lord.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Where was God when tragedy happened?—Exodus 1:22

Sometimes in the midst of history, injustice seems to prevail. In light of a longer view, and especially an eternal view, however, justice will win out. This becomes evident over the span of a generation in the ensuing context of our present passage.

Before Pharaoh decided to oppress Israelites, they multiplied and became very strong (Exod 1:7). This was why the king decided to enslave them to begin with (1:8-11). But as he afflicted them, they multiplied still more (1:12)! So the king’s next strategy was to kill newborn Israelite males secretly, leaving any possible blame in the event of discovery on the Hebrew midwives (1:15-16). Yet this strategem, too, failed (1:17-19), and the refrain continues: the people multiplied and became very strong (1:20).

Finally Pharaoh now decides to take action more directly. The Hebrew midwives had not killed Israelite babies at birth, so Pharaoh ordered his own people to kill newborn Israelite males (1:22). (Aaron was three years older than Moses, and would not be among the children affected by the king’s decree; see 7:7.)

Ironically and unknown to Pharaoh, however, his own daughter would undermine his decree out of compassion for a Hebrew baby (2:6-10)—Israel’s future deliverer. God does not always prevent tragedy—but he does ensure his plan for the future of his people and for ultimate justice.

Indeed, Exodus resounds with the recognition that God, while not always stopping human wickedness, does not look the other way: Consider how God would return against the next generation of Egyptians what Pharaoh had done. Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the first plague would turn the Nile to blood (7:20). Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the last plague would strike Egypt’s firstborn children (12:29). Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); God would drown Egypt’s army in a sea of reeds (14:28). Though long delayed, justice would come. As we often say in the African-American church, “God doesn’t always come when you want Him to, but He’s always right on time.”

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Is lying ever right?—Exodus 1:19-21

In the 2013 film, Return to the Hiding Place (https://www.christianbook.com/return-to-the-hiding-place/pd/241338?event=ESRCG), Eusi, a Jewish cantor staying with the Ten Booms, argues that saving a life is far more important than telling the truth. An ethical debate ensues; one of Corrie’s sisters insists that lying is always wrong. The issue is, of course, a very live one for Eusi: he is a secret refugee in the Ten Booms’ home, and telling truth to the Nazis would mean his death and that of other Jewish fugitives.

Is lying ever right? Very rarely, but in the present passage the Hebrew midwives lied to protect their lives, and God blessed their ruse designed to protect the Hebrew babies (as discussed in the previous lesson). As the previous study noted, God blessed the midwives for protecting the Hebrew babies, defying Pharaoh’s order. That God blesses midwives despite their lie might seem strange to some modern readers, but that may say more about how we have read some biblical principles too narrowly and ignored examples of extreme situations in some biblical narratives.

That people of truth should not lie is an important biblical principle (Prov 6:17, 19; 8:7; 10:18; 12:17, 19, 22; 14:5, 25; 17:7; 19:5, 9; 21:28; 24:28; 25:18; 26:19, 28; 30:8). Lies for personal gain (19:22; 20:17; 21:6) or what we would wrongly think is for God’s glory are always wrong (cf. Rom 3:7-8).

But lying to protect spies during some war circumstances was right. God had commanded warfare against Canaan (on which see http://www.craigkeener.com/slaughtering-the-canaanites-part-i-limiting-factors/; http://www.craigkeener.com/slaughtering-the-canaanites-part-ii-switching-sides/; http://www.craigkeener.com/slaughtering-the-canaanites-part-iii-gods-ideal/), and Rahab was right to side with God’s people against her own and to give refuge to Israelite spies (Josh 2:4-5). After Absalom’s treacherous and deceptive revolt against King David, David’s allies were right to lie as spies or to hide and protect spies (2 Sam 16:16-19; 17:7-13, 20)

One also cannot blame Michal for lying even to her own father to save David’s life (1 Sam 19:14; 20:28-29) or her own (19:17). Saul was perpetrating great evil, and giving David more time to make good his escape was the right thing to do. That Michal showed loyalty to her husband over her own father could make some sense (cf. Gen 2:24), but what makes it definitively right here, whether Michal already understood this or not, is that David rather than Saul was God’s current chosen instrument. In his plan to take life unjustly, Saul forfeited his right to the truth. In a similar way, Bonhoeffer was right to insist that lying to the Nazi regime was acting truthfully before God, because the Nazis forfeited their right to the truth.

God sometimes handed people over to deadly deception because they did not merit truth (1 Kgs 22:22-23; 2 Thess 2:10-12). But did God himself ever endorse human deception? He barely ever does so, but there are exceptions. In some cases God allowed partial truth that could be construed as deceptive regarding real intentions. God gives Samuel a cover for his actions (1 Sam 16:2-3) that do not reflect his real mission; if Saul knew that Samuel were really going to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Saul would try to kill Samuel (for meddling in politics!) Although Jesus does not lie in John 7:6-10, his carefully chosen words may mislead his brothers: he goes to a festival secretly after telling his brothers that he could not go with them.

But a more explicit case is 2 Kings 8:10: Elisha instructs Hazael to inform Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, that he would recover—when in fact Elisha knew that he would surely die, and tells Hazael as much. Prophets usually had to tell the truth even at the risk of their own lives, but sometimes wicked tyrants so forfeit their right to truth that subverting them is an act of truth and justice. In the biblical world, it could seen as playing the game of cunning and winning. I could not play that game even in dangerous circumstances, lacking the requisite skills. But where it is a matter of life and death, God can sometimes grant people cleverness and the upper hand.

That observation brings us back to Exodus, which took place in a culture that valued such cunning. Pharaoh thought he was dealing cleverly with the Hebrews to keep them from multiplying (Exod 1:10). Instead, he is outwitted by the Hebrew midwives, at least in the first round (1:19). They could not prevent Pharaoh’s subsequent actions against other newborns, but they could protect at least the infants they were responsible for.

By the end of the chapter, Pharaoh seems to have the upper hand. But later in the narrative, when (a different) Pharaoh is willing to let the Israelites go worship in the wilderness, he wants to hold their animals hostage to guarantee their return. He is being clever. Moses, who knows that they will not return, insists that they must take their animals for sacrifice, and they won’t know until they reach their destination which animals they will need. Pharaoh knows that Moses is playing with him, and Moses knows that Pharaoh knows this; but it is a game of wit and power, and it becomes increasingly clear, as God continues to act, that Moses has the upper hand, and Pharaoh’s pretense of power is collapsing before YHWH.

Is lying ever right? Almost all the positive biblical examples reflect cases of protecting life, the deceiver’s or someone else’s. Most are also lies to those who have acted against the truth in such a way as to forfeit their right to truth. Scripture seems clear that if lying protects innocent fugitives from aggressors, it is the far more ethical course to lie than to betray those fugitives merely to recount the full truth to their enemies.

The Hebrew term for truth, emeth, involves especially integrity, genuineness, and faithfulness; faithfulness protects lives, not betrays them. These examples do not justify falsehood and dishonesty in our basic, everyday dealings with others; the normal biblical principle, reiterated in Proverbs, is valuing truth. But in some circumstances, truth and integrity require subverting a regime of falsehood. In Return to the Hiding Place, Eusi, joined by Corrie Ten Boom, was right.

Joseph secures the people’s land—Genesis 47:18-26

This passage tells us a lot about Joseph. Joseph worked on behalf of both Pharaoh, his boss, and the people, selling them grain when they needed it and faithfully delivering all the profits to Pharaoh. He also exempted the Egyptian priests, following Pharaoh’s expectations. Joseph offers a positive model here. First, he is a worker with integrity, on whom his boss could depend. Second and third, he also is able to help the people in the time of need—and able to do so because he walked with God and understood what God was communicating in Pharaoh’s dreams. Fourth, God cares about feeding hungry people, and Joseph’s role as a public manager was no less important or God-led than more direct preaching ministries would be. And fifth, we see that Joseph also could work respectfully with those who held views different from himself.

Some of these points have come up before, so I will look at just a couple points here. First, what should we make of Joseph allowing the people and their land to belong to Pharaoh? Second, in multicultural and multifaith societies, we can learn from the honorable way that Joseph treats Egypt’s priests.

When Joseph bought the people’s land for Pharaoh (at their desperate request, 47:19), in practice he allowed the people to keep four-fifths of the produce, taking only one fifth for Pharaoh (47:24). Although a tenth was probably more common in that milieu (cf. 14:20; 28:22; 1 Sam 8:15, 17), Joseph had already been exacting a fifth in the time of prosperity, when it was little compared to the abundance (41:34); much of this grain might likewise be invested in their future. (Even today, most Western nations do not consider excessive a 20 percent taxation rate.)

In their own words, Joseph was to buy them and their land so that they and their land would not die (Gen 47:19); they are grateful for their lives being rescued (47:25). The taxation on their yield would not yet take effect anyway, however, since there would be no yield in the short run; Joseph instead gathered the people to the centers where food could be distributed efficiently during the remainder of the famine (47:21).

Today we might view Joseph’s accumulation of wealth for and loyalty to Pharaoh as harmful for later generations of Egyptians, but Joseph had access only to his own generation. He would not have known the long-range behavior of later Pharaohs, and we cannot control what subsequent generations do to our legacy. (Our forebears in many denominations and many nations would be horrified to see what has become of their legacy!) In fact, scholars often argue that Joseph entered Egypt during the Hyksos dynasty; a change in peoples ruling Egypt would obliterate the memory of how Joseph saved the people. Whether Joseph arrived in the Hyksos era or not, Scripture is clear that a ruler arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8). Of course, in light of Christ we would hope for better things than subjecting a nation to Pharaoh; but overall, Joseph’s contribution was probably the most positive one possible in his situation. Had he not preserved the people, there would not have been descendants to oppress.

Joseph’s respectful relationship with the priests (47:22), the daughter of one of whom he had married (41:45; 46:20), offers a noteworthy model for God’s people working in a pluralistic society that welcomes us but includes a range of religious views. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16, 21; 3:1), in that case with perhaps even more concrete religious results! What God did for Israel ultimately convinced Moses’s already-wise father-in-law that YHWH was the greatest of gods (Exod 18:8-11). (Melchizedek, too, honored the highest God; Gen 14:18.)

Such examples are not limited to the Pentateuch. Daniel, trained in all the learning of the Chaldeans (Dan 1:4) served in a pagan court alongside pagan diviners (2:27-28; 4:7-8). Paul had friends (possibly sponsors) who were Asiarchs (Acts 19:31), members of the same class that produced priests of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. Scripture is clear that believers must not compromise with idolatry (1 Cor 10:7, 14-21; Rev 2:14, 20), even under duress (Dan 3:18; cf. 1:8; 6:10). But this does not mean that we should not associate with nonbelievers who practice it (1 Cor 5:9-10). As he illustrated perhaps most eloquently in the story of the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus calls us to love all our neighbors, not just those who agree with us.

Part of our witness as Christians is not just what we say (important as that is), but how we perform our work and serve the people around us.

My Friend the Refugee

Others are better qualified than I to comment on security matters, and this is an older post, but now seems a valuable time to recount the story of two refugees’ experiences. Neither of these two constituted a security threat: they are the stories of my wife and my son.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-s-keener/my-friend-the-refugee_b_3512851.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-s-keener/immigrant-boy_b_9619396.html

Racial and ethnic reconciliation

Craig was invited to speak on this at Asbury Seminary Chapel some time ago. This seems a good time (right after Martin Luther King Jr. Day) to post it (29 minutes and 59 seconds) (It’s not my picture on the front but it’s me inside during the sermon).

http://asburyseminary.edu/students/chapel/archive/?service=20160921&campus=ky

Scripture challenges racism

Craig was invited to preach and address race issues in a forum with Christena Cleveland of Duke, and also in chapel this past week. This is his 30-minute chapel message, from Ephesians 2:11-22.
https://player.vimeo.com/video/183846324?autoplay=1

(For those who wonder: Yes, I know some people don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians. I think he did. Even if you disagree, you can still get good ideas from the sermon. 🙂 )