An Eye For An Eye

I once wrote that the only instance we have in the torah — the teaching — of someone being put to death for violating any commandments was in Numbers 15.

Well, I was wrong.

There are two instances of people being put to death for violating commandments. And both are instructive.

The first is in Leviticus 24, and it includes the extended version of the teaching on injuries and recompense, “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” (Leviticus 24:19–20, also Exodus 21:22–25 and Deuteronomy 19:21) But the story this teaching is wrapped up in — and it’s odd in Leviticus being part of an actual story — has nothing to do with murder, manslaughter, or the killing of animals.

10 Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, 11 and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.

13 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. …

23 So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Leviticus 24:10–16, 23 ESV)

Note the detail here. We know who this is, we know his lineage, even as we do not know his name. But he is a person here, a real person. We do not know exactly how he has done what he has done — blaspheming, cursing “the Name” — but clearly he has done it.

And he is held, because it is not entirely clear what is to be done, until the the “will of the Lord” should be made known.

The second example comes from Numbers 15, and is shorter.

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32–36 ESV)

Again, a sabbath breaker is found in the wilderness, and he is detained because no one is entirely sure what to do with the collector of sticks. (It is also unclear whether or not he is an Israelite, though I usually assume he isn’t, though that’s just an assumption and we all need to remember that. It would be an equal assumption to say he was an Israelite.)

In both instances, there is uncertainty. Even though the teaching has been given about cursing the name of the Lord and seeing the Sabbath holy, there is uncertainty. The Lord has to speak in these matters.

And he does. In Leviticus, God teaches about the value of human life and the proper response to those who take life. About what is owed to God and to whoever is wronged by an act of violence which injures or kills. Which, it has to be admitted, has squat to do with blaspheming the name.

This is an interesting place for that teaching.

There is no teaching in the Numbers passage. This is a one-off, like the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, an important ruling that does not seem intended to set precedent.

But there is something interesting in common with these two passages.

“All the congregation shall stone him” Leviticus reads. “All the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones” reads Numbers.

This stoning, this putting to death, is a communal activity. This isn’t merely delegated to paid agents to do, a bureaucratic or even mechanical process left up to law and administration. There can be no self-righteous accusers of sabbath breaking or blasphemy (or murder, for that matter) who do not share in the righteous shedding of blood here. This is a communal, collective act in which all must participate.

All must gather a stone. And hurl it.

Jesus understood this when, in John’s gospel, he saves the woman caught in the act of adultery by telling the Pharisees, “Let him who is without sin among be the first to throw a stone at her.” He understood the communal and participatory nature of this punishment. The Lord is speaking again here, in John 8. Jesus does judge — he knows she is a sinner, what she has done, and what the teaching demands. But he does not condemn her. He send her on her way, and commands her to “sin no more.”

The stones stay where they belong — on the ground.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus works on the Sabbath. He gathers food, heals, casts out demons. And he blasphemes fairly regularly, at least in the eyes of the Pharisees who administered the law.

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18 ESV)

Blasphemy is the primary charge leveled by the Pharisees against Jesus in Mark and Matthew. Jesus pays for the price for that blasphemy, like the son of Shelomith did (though claiming to be the Son of God was probably not his sin).

The point here is that Jesus specifically breaks commandments for which we have very specific death penalties in scripture. He works on the sabbath. He is accused of blaspheming. As a man, he is subject to the law. He is killed. We kill him.

But he is also God speaking in our midst. He is the giver of the law. His “go and sin no more” follows “I do not condemn you.” He judges, but he forgives. His work on the Sabbath involves not just gathering food or healing, but proclaiming himself Lord of the Sabbath (blasphemy!) and announcing that good deeds are an acceptable Sabbath practice.

Certainty and confidence with mercy. A bold sinning that reminds those around him that to pronounce condemnation also requires taking up a stone and throwing it.

To the Church at Smyrna

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:8–11 ESV)

Do not be afraid.

Wherever that is said in scripture — usually directly by God, or an angel, or from God through an anointed leader like Moses — you have the gospel, the Good News of God for the people of God. For humanity. For the world.

Outwardly, Jesus is not calling upon this community to repent of anything. But he is telling them, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Jesus already knows what this church deals with — struggle, suffering, oppression, affliction, evil, poverty, destitution, and the slander of those who claim to be God’s people but clearly are not — and he is calling them to remain faithful in the face of what appears to be much worse to come.

Be faithful unto death, Jesus says, because what matters is not death itself, the death we see, the death we think is the final end, but “the second death.” This is the first mention of “the second death” in Revelation, something spoken of nowhere else in scripture. This “second death” has no power over the martyred dead, those who die bearing witness to Christ and will rise to rule with him (20:6), and “the second death” is the consigning of Death and Hades — the place of the dead, which Jesus holds the keys to (1:18) — themselves to “the lake of fire,” which is the fate of all those who are not found in the “Book of Life” (20:6). The “lake of fire” and “the second death” will also become home to

… the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.(Revelation 21:8 ESV)

But we who are faithful unto death, who bear tribulation as Christ bore the sin of the world on the Cross, who conquered death by dying, we will receive a crown of life.

Be faithful, Jesus says. And do not be afraid.

Good Friday 2016

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. (Luke 23:44–49 ESV)

Pilate, beholding a living breathing Christ, found no guilt him. The thief, sharing The Skull with Jesus and dying on a another cross beside him, knew Jesus had done nothing wrong.

But it is in Jesus’ death that the centurion fully beheld the nature of the man dying — “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Ὄντως ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος ἦν)

And he praises God.

A believer. A gentile believer, present, there, at the foot of the cross, witnessing the whole sorry spectacle.

What kind of death is it that a man can die and demonstrate his innocence? I don’t know. The centurion was likely well-acquainted with death, having doled out a lot of it himself in his life. He’d seen men (and women) die in all sorts of circumstances. They were familiar, the ways of death, how men died, and something about this death — this execution — was different. Different enough to bear witness to the innocence of the one dying.

Different enough to cause a man to believe. To praise God.

Jesus was different. Because he was truly innocent. Innocent in ways we are not.

We are the thieves hanging beside Christ, getting our due reward. We either know that, and beg forgiveness, or we rage against the apparent impotence of God. “Save yourself! SAVE US!!”

I both like this understanding and I hate it. Christians, especially since the Enlightenment, struggle mightily with the morality and meaning of suffering. Especially innocent suffering, the suffering of children, suffering undeserved. Often, we require our victims, in order to be proper victims, to be pure and blameless, to lead simple lives untainted by sin, to have contributed nothing to their own situation. And somehow, if they have, if they are sinners, well, they have brought their suffering down upon themselves.

This isn’t idle speculation. I deal with young people every day who try to make sense of the evil, the brutality, the violence they have lived (and sadly, are living) through, and sense in their bodies and their souls they somehow came to deserve it because … because why? And where was God in the dark and terrifying places where they were all alone with the people who abused them? What does it mean to suffer, and suffer virtuously, and be innocent and undeserving of one’s suffering?

As Christians, we confess our sinfulness. Our lack of innocence. We confess it. We believe it. We know it to be true.

Because Christ was innocent in ways we are not. Ways even children are not. Without sin in ways we cannot be. He responded to our fear, rejection, and violence with love, not despair or anger. His wounds bear witness to his love for us, and not our hatred toward him.

Jesus died the death of an innocent man — a death we can be part of, a death he willingly shares with us. A death we cannot die on our own.

A Very Common Name, Apparently

I was listening to The Path podcast last night — on orthodox podcast of Bible readings and commentary from the ancient church fathers I listen to every night — when I noticed something.

The other night, it dealt with that bit a scripture right after Cain kills his brother Abel, fears for his safety, and then withdraws himself from the presence of God and wanders off into the Eretz Nod, land of wandering (אֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד), to become a permanent exile. This despite having the assurance of God that he will not be harmed. Continue reading