Alfie Evans was a British citizen who died last Saturday, April 28, at just under two years of age, after an extended period of treatment for a neurological condition afflicting his brain. What do the events of his brief life tell us about the world we live in and how Christians should engage it?
The Nash Papyrus, dated to the 2nd century BC, includes an early version of the Ten Words. (Wikimedia Commons considers this photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional work of art to be in the public domain in the United States.)
(Adapted from a homily presented in AGST chapel, 29 January 2018.)
And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:
“ ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
“ ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“ ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
“ ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
“ ‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
“ ‘You shall not murder.
“ ‘And you shall not commit adultery.
“ ‘And you shall not steal.
“ ‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“ ‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me.
— Deutoronomy 5:1–22 ESV
In our chapel services this semester, we are invited to stand with the children of Israel and hear afresh the Ten Words that God spoke to his people from the mountain. The first time these Ten Commandments are enumerated in Scripture, in Exodus, chapter 20, it’s quite a production. The people of God stand before a great mountain, covered in thick cloud, out of which issue bolts of lightning and peals of thunder, and on which the LORD descends in smoke and fire. These sorts of things tend to concentrate the attention. And out of the fire the LORD speaks these Ten Words in the hearing of all Israel. It’s a lesson, I think we’d agree, you’re not likely to forget.
For almost a quarter-century now, I have attended the Annual Meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, thanks to the commitment of AGST’s administration that our faculty remain current with biblical and theological scholarship and to the generosity of our supporters. This year, a couple of friends and I looked back over the meetings we’d attended and sought to recall the sessions and papers that stuck out in our memory. It was easy to recall humorous moments, including a few disasters we had witnessed; from one of these, I learned that it’s the path of prudence to write something out on a topic before standing up to address a group of experts on it. It was easy to recall papers that advanced implausible interpretations, and hearing these is not without value; they often drive the listener back to the biblical text to pinpoint the problem with the proposed interpretation, and a clearer understanding of a passage of Scripture is the result. But sadly, it was much more difficult to recall papers that presented fresh, sound interpretations that we’ve fruitfully incorporated into our study and teaching of the Bible. (I was able to think of three, maybe more if I undertook a review of the meeting programs.)
The Gospel according to Matthew, where we’ll be spending our time in chapel devotionals this semester, begins with an indication that the story of Jesus is the story of one who stands in a heritage of faith and divine promise extending back to David and beyond him to Abraham (Matthew 1:1).
Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. (Psalm 42:7 ESV)
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4 ESV)
This dispatch is offered as a meditation on the two psalm verses quoted above (honest!). A bit like Pascal, though, I didn’t have time to write a short blog post, so I had to write this long one instead.
The headlines that have greeted us as August has yielded to September — hurricanes battering the US coast, wildfires in the western interior, earthquake in Mexico — have been grim. Arrested by such news, with hundreds of lives lost, the thoughts of Christian observers may tend to follow a predictable pattern. Our first response, I suspect, is dismay for those killed and concern for those still in the path of danger.