Archives for November 2012

Dominion in Genesis, Part 8/8: The Three Freedoms

We learned in part 7 that, while the Egyptians lost their land and became servants of the pharaoh, the children of Israel became free and prosperous. In this post, we’ll study what the Bible teaches about freedom.

When Jacob and his descendants moved from Canaan to Egypt, they were in an ideal situation, apart from what we know to have been an imminent risk of enslavement. The Egyptians wanted to honor Joseph’s family, so they had given land to the Hebrews. Since the Egyptians despised shepherds, there was little danger of intermarriage, as there had been in Canaan.

Even though this time of freedom and prosperity was short-lived, it is significant that Genesis ends on this positive note. As was stated at the end of part 2, Genesis presents an overview of the Bible in microcosm. Genesis ends with victory because the kingdom of Jesus Christ will endure forever (Ps. 45:6, Dan. 2:44). There will be no more death, sorrow, crying, or pain (Rev. 21:4). Joseph died and was buried, with his body later being transported to the “heavenly” land of promise. On the other hand, Jesus died to rise from the dead and ascend to heaven, where He now reigns.

Turning to Exodus 1, we find that after Joseph died, a new pharaoh enslaved the Hebrew people. Since the Bible doesn’t say this was a punishment for sin, we shouldn’t assume this to be the case, though there’s no doubt that they were sinners. If God always enacted retribution on people in this life instead of patiently working to bring salvation, most of us would surely be dead already.

image

Slaves pulling a statue on a cart, Ebers George (Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re going through trials in your life, and we all do, God intends for them to be a blessing to you. Like Adam and Eve after the Fall, we weren’t meant to live lives of leisure, without any work or suffering. God uses trials for many reasons: to humble us, get our attention, help us sympathize with others, and lead us to find our purpose and fulfillment in Him. The Bible promises, however, that God won’t send trials beyond what we can endure (1 Cor. 10:13).

God allowed the Hebrews to be enslaved for several reasons. He wanted them to remember this chapter in their history so they wouldn’t become prideful (Dt. 5:15, 15:15, 16:12, 24:18), and so they would be kind to foreigners in their midst (Lev. 19:34). Ordinarily, however, God wants His children to enjoy freedom (Jn. 8:32, 2 Cor. 3:17, Gal. 5:1, 13).

 

Biblical Freedom

Virtually everyone claims not only to highly value freedom, but also to know precisely what it is. It’s not uncommon to hear that the Bible supports slavery, and thus has little to say about political freedom, which is a modern concept, or so we’re told.

It’s true that the Bible doesn’t give us delineated rights such as the ones we find in the Bill of Rights. In fact, nobody can deny that it gives us a lot of commands. To most people, that doesn’t look at all like freedom. Far from supporting popular ideas about freedom, the Bible is directly opposed to false freedom that ultimately leads to bondage. There’s probably a fake version of every good thing, and there’s definitely such a thing as false freedom

I believe the Bible hints at three kinds of freedom. They correspond to the trinity of man, consisting of body (physical), soul (moral), and spirit (1 Th. 5:23). Let’s consider what both our popular culture and the Bible say about each.

 

1. Physical freedom

If we are honest, none of us recognizes an absolute right to physical freedom. We all believe some actions should rightly be prohibited as criminal activity. In addition, most of us take it for granted that able-bodied people ought to work for a living instead of permanently relying on government assistance.

As was explained in part 7, the Bible allows for servitude, but not for harsh slavery of the type that the ancient Egyptians imposed on the Hebrews. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be shocked to find that some people were other people’s bosses in the Bible. Almost inevitably, servants (or “slaves” if you prefer) were repaying a debt or receiving payment in some form.

Physical bondage remains a problem today for homeless people, and for anyone who must cut expenses and work more than one full-time job simply to pay the bills. In addition, considering the repressive laws that are routinely debated and passed by the U.S. Congress (not to mention the parliaments and assemblies of other nations), nobody can rule out the threat of tyranny. A third form of physical bondage is the threat of legalism in many churches, under which Christians mistakenly view God as a tyrant.

The symbolism behind Israel’s sojourn in Egypt strongly attests to the value that God places on physical freedom. When Israel first settled in the land of Goshen, it was a type of heaven (cf. Gen. 13:10). After the Hebrews became enslaved, it became symbolic of hell. Since work was a curse (Gen. 3:17-19), slave labor from morning to night may be described as hellish. Slaves in the American South knew this reality; they also knew from the Book of Exodus that God wanted to set them free.

This and many other freedoms spring from the great truth of Genesis 1:27 that we have a Creator Who put His image in each of us. Understandably, much has been written about this verse. Along with many other people, I see it as being foundational to human freedom. That said, we can’t afford to neglect other important theological truths. For example, if we also respect God as our Father and Provider, we’ll try to guide people to where they can receive His provision instead of becoming dependent on others. If we respect God as the perfect Judge of all men, we’ll value law and order while realizing that we have neither the obligation, nor the ability to right every wrong.

All of this can amount to mere preaching if unbelievers fail to see the mercy and grace of God in the lives of Christians. In that case, Jesus could little more than a historical figure to them. However, God gave the Church to the world as a witness, not the Bible alone. This brings us to the topic of moral freedom.

 

2. Moral freedom

As explained above, physical freedom is limited by the moral requirement to not break laws and, for most of us, to work for a living. As we further explore the moral limits to freedom, we find major differences between biblical freedom and popular ideas about freedom.

The Bible doesn’t describe physical freedom as an end in itself. In fact, even the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt was symbolic of a more important type of freedom. The New Testament speaks primarily about freedom to abstain from sin and serve others (Gal. 5:1, 13). The end goal of Christian freedom is to glorify God. We can do so by loving and serving God and our neighbors, as Jesus commanded (Mt. 22:36-40). We should live responsibly as God’s holy people, not use our freedom as an opportunity to sin.

America’s founding fathers understood that freedom was dependent on other human virtues. They didn’t trust in their wisdom, in the Constitution, or in any human authority to guarantee freedom. Instead, they knew that freedom could only spring from the hearts of the citizens themselves. As George Washington put it, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”

image

The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

Unfortunately, such words tend to fall on deaf ears in our society today. Many people seem to think that freedom is unrelated to either personal or community responsibility. The furthest thing from their minds would likely be the idea that freedom could have something to do with breaking free from barriers of self-centeredness that hinder their ability to serve others. No, they think freedom is about shattering constraints and taboos of the past to seek happiness through self-fulfillment which, as we are told, is not to be confused with selfishness.

The focus today is on individual rights, entitlements and temporary pleasures that often come at the expense of community interests and the future. One example would be the presumed “right” to see sex and violence on nationally broadcast television without having to stay up late. Another would be the “right” to pursue sexual relationships with no restraints, regardless of consequences such as an increased numbers of abortions, out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, and divorces; along with the accompanying breakdown of civil society.

As you may have noticed, biblical freedom and secular freedom have directly opposite effects in the world. Whereas biblical freedom blesses the world by promoting responsible, constructive activity; secular freedom promotes selfish behavior that imposes heavy costs on innocent victims, especially children and parents who only want the best for them.

People who demand freedom or “rights” that impose enormous costs and limitations on society are not giving us true freedom. Every society has an obligation to protect its most vulnerable members, even when it means refusing to cater to the demands of the loudest, most powerful, and most self-righteous.

We must know the character of God in order to accurately reflect His image. This is the role of the Church. God invites people to do what is right and good, but sometimes He intervenes to prevent injustice, as He did through Moses in the Book of Exodus. The state’s role is to legislate on the basis of sound moral principles in order to to establish justice.

 

3. Spiritual Freedom

People may take our physical freedom and corrupt our moral environment, but nobody can steal another person’s spiritual freedom. If Christians are faithful, even in adverse circumstances, we can overcome evil. Even if we fall into sin, God is faithful to forgive us because He keeps His promises. For this reason, Satan plots not only to lead Christians into sin but also, if possible, to kill us bodily.

Moral and spiritual freedom are closely related. The Bible tells us we were born in a state of spiritual bondage, as slaves to sin (Ps. 51:5, Rom. 6:20). Through the spiritual rebirth or “born again” experience, God has removed the power of sin from the lives of believers. He then set us on a process of moral development known as “sanctification.”

Sometimes, when God called the children of Israel to moral maturity, He gave them a real-life example. Joseph set the example for his brethren by his patient endurance and faithfulness in the midst of severe trials. Before he died, Joseph reminded his brothers of God’s promise that He would visit them and lead them to the promised land (Gen. 50:24-25). The Egyptians forgot about Joseph. However, the real tragedy was that the Hebrews forgot not only Joseph’s example, but also God’s promises.

Nothing can stand in the way of Christians who pray, believe in God’s promises, and do His will. Even though precious few Hebrews did this, God was faithful to keep His promise. Thus, He raised up Moses to deliver them.

The easiest people to enslave or oppress include not only people who are homeless, welfare-dependent, or morally decadent, but also those who are spiritually dead. Such people may appear to live decent lives as employees, consumers, and even as Christians. However, though they may not realize it, they’re mostly going through the motions. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible for any tyrant to enslave people who are independent by virtue of being spiritually free, morally upright, and physically self-sufficient.

People who are easily manipulated and controlled are often referred to as “sheeple.” Authorities and spokespeople in the government and media can essentially tell them what to think. Sheeple are capable of thinking for themselves, but find it much easier to listen to recognized “leaders.” Although they seek to avoid personal responsibility in this way, God will hold them accountable.

We reverse the divine order when we neglect our spiritual needs and duties to focus on soulish and physical needs. Jesus made it clear that each of us serves either God or mammon (Mt. 6:24). In a real or perceived crisis, mammon-worshippers will always put more faith in human authorities (e.g., the government) who they feel comfortable with, than in our mysterious God, Whom they neither know, nor trust.

Spiritually dead people are faithless, fearful, and mindless. Their only hope of gaining wisdom and understanding is to humble themselves and seek the Lord.

Any would-be tyrant needs only to scare these dull conformists with a false flag terrorist attack, just as Hitler used the Reichstag fire to justify his seizure of power. Zombie-like people readily surrender essential freedoms because they never knew inner freedom to begin with. They’re often quick to support war because they’ve never known peace within themselves. Their hearts and minds are already in bondage because long ago, they refused to think and feel for themselves.

These have been some harsh words, but that’s what it takes for some people to realize the seriousness of their situation. I hope this hasn’t described you. Since you’ve read to this point, and perhaps read the previous posts in this series, it tells me you’re seeking truth, and aren’t in complete darkness.

Spiritual freedom is the most important of all our freedoms, but it only comes from God. Whatever your present condition, I suggest you pray that God would open the eyes of your understanding and grant you greater spiritual freedom. You can’t go wrong by praying in this way.

 

The Path to Freedom

Freedom was a Christian value long before modernists claimed the concept as their own. The natural, or non-Christian order of things is to emphasize physical freedom, including the freedom to engage in nearly any selfish pursuit. By this perverse reasoning, Adam and Eve gained freedom by breaking God’s rules and going their own way.

The secular world gives us only a few rules. First, we shouldn’t break laws lest we get into trouble. Of course, we can want to commit crimes, as long as we don’t actually do them. Second, anyone is free to victimize the entire society, but not any one person, unless that person happens to be a child in the womb. It’s also permissible to victimize any adult who “consents.”

Based on the popular understanding of freedom, most of us are quite free. Most of us have ready access to food, automobiles, public transportation, smart phones, the Internet, computers, and a multitude of consumer products.

The popular view is that technology brings freedom. Advertisements promote this idea, and there’s some truth to it. However, technology can just as easily facilitate the loss of freedom. As we surf the Internet, we’re under ubiquitous surveillance as businesses monitor our every move. Countries such as China bring to light the disturbing truth that Internet freedom is entirely dependent on the good (or bad) will of the state.

Even though the Internet offers a treasure trove of useful information, most people prefer to read the latest sports, jokes, and entertainment news, or to check on the status of friends and strangers. The news we get, whether it’s on television or the Internet, often contains more opinion and misinformation than fact. If we’re not told outright what to think, we’re typically given only one or two opinions. One of the two opinions will be conservative, the other liberal, and both frequently out of touch. In addition, nearly everything we see is tainted by advertising and the need for ratings.

This need for “eyeballs” brings it all back to us, the audience. This, in turn, brings us back to the founding fathers’ expectation that freedom would depend on the people’s virtue. It also brings us back to the Bible which, as explained above, associates freedom with abstinence from sin and morally upright behavior.

Imagine Jesus, Who warned that we can’t serve both God and mammon, saying something like this:

Even though you chose to serve mammon instead of Me, it turns out you got control of the beast and created a veritable paradise for yourselves. Uh… Well done, bad and unfaithful servants!

You might want to file that in the “Never Gonna Happen” folder.

It should be clear by now that Satan lures people with false promises of freedom that lead to bondage. This includes spiritual bondage, moral failure and addictions, welfare dependence and, ultimately, slavery or death at the hands of tyrants.

Ironically, the path to true freedom, as presented in the Bible, begins with respect for God’s authority and obedience to His laws. If we start there, we can expect God to give us honest and informed authorities who, despite inevitable flaws, will at least make a sincere effort to look out for our best interests. As we see in the example of men like Joseph and David, God also desires, and is able to raise up truly outstanding leaders. God wants to reveal His goodness by blessing both Christians and unbelievers alike (Mt. 5:45, Rom. 2:4).

How can we best reach people who aren’t spiritually free, yet don’t even know it? They may be interested only in light news and entertainment that doesn’t disturb their shallow sense of tranquility. Please share any thoughts you may have on that or anything else in this post.

Dominion in Genesis, Part 7/8: Did Israel Prosper at Egypt’s Expense?

I began this series with the idea that even most Christians have been overly judgmental toward Bible heroes. It’s always easier to judge people than to spend whatever time it may take to understand them. While there’s no need to whitewash anyone’s character, we  can often defend the Scriptures and glorify God by explaining their actions within the cultural and historic context.

I’ve been guilty of wrongfully judging Bible characters on countless occasions. For example, even though I’ve always appreciated Joseph’s virtues, and how he saved many people from starvation, I had some doubts about how he dealt with the Egyptians in Genesis 47…

  • Joseph sold grain at what must have been very high prices to starving people.
  • He mercilessly took all their property and land for the pharaoh, as we read here: “So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them… As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other” (Gen: 47:20-21).
  • It appears that Joseph didn’t enact religious reforms. Instead, the pharaoh showed favoritism to Egypt’s priests by letting them keep their land.
  • In an apparent double standard, the Hebrews received free land, but the Egyptians (excluding their priests) lost all their property and became the pharaoh’s slaves. Apart from Joseph, the Hebrews had done nothing to deserve this generous gift.
    As so often happens when reading the Old Testament, I couldn’t help but wonder about God’s role and purposes in all of this. Perhaps you share some similar concerns.

I’m pleased to say that, as a result of having studied these issues in more detail, I can fully respond to them in this post. After reading this, I hope you’ll realize how easy, yet how very wrong it is to judge a biblical figure, not to mention the Lord Himself, based on circumstantial evidence that, as cultural outsiders, we often misinterpret.

 

Was Joseph a
…Slave Driver?

The Bible makes much of the fact that the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. However, prior to that, Joseph had enslaved the Egyptians. At least, some Bible translations describe the Egyptians as having become “slaves” (Gen. 47:19, 25 NASB, NRSV). Most of the others use the word “servants.”

Americans tend to associate the word “slave” with black slavery in the South. This was a system in which slaves were treated as mere property or “chattel.” However, the context shows that the Egyptians didn’t become chattel slaves. Joseph and the pharaoh may not have conceived of forcing anyone into chattel slavery, even though the people had offered themselves along with the land. Instead, they established a sharecropping system. That is, they let the people farm the land in exchange for a percentage of the produce—20 percent annually. This is much less than the property and income taxes that we pay today. In addition to paying for palaces and temples, taxes or equivalent labor went toward the military, roads, and irrigation canals.

 

…Communist?

I used to wonder whether Joseph was some kind of early communist. Communism was a 19th century invention, so I know that makes this question somewhat rhetorical. Even so, since the pharaoh came to own nearly everything and everyone, the situation reminded me of communism.

If we bring modern economic theories into this, Joseph was arguably more of a capitalist than a communist. Capitalism is very much about recognizing opportunities and risking capital by investing it in projects that can bring a substantial return in the future. Joseph and the pharaoh both took a risk by taxing the people to store enormous quantities of grain. It would be easy for us to say they had no doubts, and therefore didn’t take any risk. The point is that both men could likely have been dethroned if there had been no famine.

Any Egyptian farmer could have chosen to set aside some of the enormous crop yields from the seven years of plenty, simply by burying it under the sand. However, it seems that almost nobody had believed in Joseph’s prophecy.

Today, most of us find it unthinkable that any government should be allowed to own everything. However, in ancient times, a benevolent tyranny could be a good form of government. A well-managed government could promote the public welfare by using tax money to provide security, and to fund beneficial, large-scale projects. This could include warfare, and the collection of tribute from other nations. Joseph’s story gives us an example of how the pharaoh prospered, not through war, but by providing food for people throughout the region.

We would be equally mistaken if we were to associate this situation with totalitarianism. A totalitarian state requires modern technology, especially surveillance technology. In ancient times, nobody would have dreamed of controlling every facet of a society.

Obviously, this story had nothing to do with either communism or totalitarianism. If anything, it should serve as a warning that there’s more than one route to tyranny. Again, however , I don’t think this was a tyrannical regime, though the situation could conceivably have gone in that direction.

Incidentally, modern-day capitalists have no reason to be dissatisfied with the biblical narrative. God allowed the pharaoh to acquire all the land, but favored private land ownership for His children. Centuries later, in accordance with the Law of Moses, the Israelites parceled out the land of Canaan by families instead of letting a central government own it. In fact, Israel had no central government during the time of the judges.

 

…Profiteer?

image

Joseph Selling Wheat to the People by Bartholomeus Breenbergh, 1598-1657 (Wikimedia Commons)

Obviously, grain prices must have risen to very high levels since Joseph was able to buy all the livestock, the land, and even the people themselves. Again, the people weren’t treated as mere property, even though in a legal sense, they had been purchased.

A price rise would have been unavoidable. After all, free market principles dictate that the price of any scarce item in high demand must rise in order to avoid shortages. Moreover, these weren’t merely the latest high tech gadgets, but food that those people needed to survive. Since Joseph didn’t let people starve, he must have distributed the grain not only to wealthy people (who would likely have bought it all if given the chance), but also on the basis of need.

We can learn more about Joseph’s character by examining the Bible text, which we Christians should accept at face value. There, we find that the Egyptians themselves came up with the idea of selling their land for food and becoming the pharaoh’s servants:

Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.” (Gen. 47:19 ESV)

After Joseph had done this, the Egyptians said to him, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” (47:25 ESV)

Joseph continued to enjoy a good reputation among the Egyptians. They didn’t enslave the Hebrew people until after they had forgotten Joseph (Ex. 1:8-11).

 

Did God Apply a Double Standard?

This question comes up because, whereas the Egyptians lost their land under Joseph and the pharaoh, the Hebrews happily gained land for the taking in Egypt. This story has been taken out of context to misrepresent Joseph as a schemer. Hatemongers have even tried to justify negative stereotypes about Jews by describing this as a typical Jewish takeover of a government. Critics have further denounced the Israelites’ (and the Old Testament God’s) lack of respect for Canaanite lives and property rights when they invaded Canaan.

The primary answer to this question is that the God Who permitted and/or commanded these things has the right to deal with people as He chooses. If only we could always satisfied with this answer, right? But it’s also good to ask questions and seek answers…

Briefly stated, the Canaanites’ problem was sin. God respected their property rights so much that He waited several centuries before calling His people to invade Canaan. Their sins had to reach what God had described as their “full measure” (Gen. 15:16).

As for the Egyptians, again, though we’re appalled at the idea of a government owning all the land, this ended up costing the Egyptians a tax of only 20 percent of their produce. No doubt, most farmers today would readily accept a similar offer from a landowner. I’d jump at the opportunity, if only to avoid other taxes!

After each Israelite family received land in Canaan, they were expected to pay tithes and offerings according to the Law. It’s been estimated that this came to about 23 percent of total household income. Thus, in modern economic terms, the “capitalist” Israelites may have paid a greater portion of their income than the “communist” Egyptians!

The Egyptians became the pharaoh’s servants, but they obviously had some freedom or they couldn’t have enslaved the Hebrews. Later, the Israelites were also allowed to make servants or become servants of their own people (Ex. 21). Even Jacob had served his uncle Laban for twenty years. For that matter, anyone who works for an employer today is comparable to a servant.

The Egyptians’ tax would have gone mainly to the ruling class, the priests, and the military. The pharaoh arguably deserved considerable wealth since he had risked his job and reputation, if not his own grain, to save his people.

Whereas the bulk of Egypt’s wealth went to the pharaoh, much of Israel’s wealth went to God through the offerings. Israel’s tithes also supported the priests, the poor, and the family itself—for a vacation (Deut. 14:24-27). The tithes and offerings weren’t compulsory, or at least not in the same manner as the Egyptians’ tax collection.

These different ways in which the Egyptians and Israelites collected and spent their extra income were a reflection of their differing belief systems and values. Of the two, God supported the system that He instituted from Mount Sinai.

Without question, the overall “balance sheet” comes out in favor of the Hebrews. Joseph saved the Egyptians and the neighboring people from starvation. The Egyptians returned this favor by enslaving the Hebrews for centuries, until God forcibly freed them.

 

Was the Pharaoh an Idolater?

Pharaoh_in_a_Chariot-JeanFrancoisChampollion

Pharaoh in a Chariot by Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832)

Even though Joseph’s friend the pharaoh chose to exempt the Egyptian priests’ land from being confiscated in exchange for grain, it doesn’t necessarily mean he worshipped the Egyptian gods. It may be that he didn’t want to get into a power struggle with the priests and their followers, which he could easily have lost.

What’s most important is that this pharaoh honored Joseph and Jacob, and that he gave land to the Hebrews. He believed in Joseph’s interpretation of his dreams, which Joseph told him had come from God. This is more evidence of faith than what most Christians can show today.

 

The Art of Compromise

If any of us still have a problem with Joseph, perhaps it’s because we see him and the pharaoh as having been overly tolerant or compliant. They let the Egyptians have the economic system they volunteered for. As bad as that looks, they didn’t violate anyone’s human rights by treating them as property. They didn’t force Joseph’s religion on anyone, but permitted religious freedom for both the Egyptians and the Hebrews. Clearly, any Egyptians who might have feared a theocracy of Yahweh would have been mistaken.

Incidentally, this wasn’t an isolated circumstance in which God respected human free will. We can find a more explicit example of divine tolerance in Moses’ allowance of divorce (Mt. 19:8, cf. Mal. 2:16).

Those were times of ignorance, but God expects more from people today, based on the knowledge we have (Acts 17:30-31). Even so, I think Joseph’s example of tolerant rule in a mostly secular state has relevance for Christians today.

We’ve just learned about some important differences between the ancient Hebrew and Egyptian economies and governments. In part 8, we’ll find out what are, or at least should be some important differences between Christians and non-Christians today. Before moving on, please post any questions or comments below.