My family loves Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), a triple-win, big-family congeniality and clean humour, all served-up Steve Martin’s wit. One scene stands out, where he, the stressed-out and guilty father, has to perform an impromptu funeral for his oft-forgotten son’s favourite pet.
“Beans was a good frog. He was, uh, not like a lot of the bad frogs…you hear about today, all hopped up. He was loveable. He was almost human. He was like, uh, one of the family. Except that, of course, he was green and he ate flies. But he was a hopper. He hipped and he hopped. He loved hip-hop.”
Nebuchadnezzar was no Beans. In the Bible’s story, this Babylonian king had one of the most remarkable personal turn-arounds in the whole Old Testament. But he was not one of God’s people; he was their chief captor. If someone asked you to give him a eulogy, what would you say?
“Nebuchadnezzar started off as a bad king, he became a good king. He wasn’t like those other kings you hear about who never humbled themselves. At times he killed and burned. At other times he bowed and he kneeled. For his arrogance, become like an animal and ate grass. But by the end, he lifted his eyes to heaven.”
Eulogies suppress the horrific and highlight the best. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, now ancient history, there is not much to be gained by praising him, nor burying him. But, can we ask a dangerous question?
A young teacher sits in a classroom and enthusiastically tells the kids how bad mining is for our world. The students all agree and post about it on Facebook. That teacher sits on a chair with metal legs, and a seat made of plastic, derived from petrochemicals. On her desk rests a reusable coffee cup, filled with locally brewed coffee, ground and extracted in a machine made of plastic and metal. The students recline at wooden tables, cut, manufactured, painted and transported using, you guested it, tools, treatments and fuel made of substances that have in some way been dug up. The computers and phones they all use, the building they sit in, and the fixed-gear bike the teacher rides home, speak a contradictory message to the well-worn pantomime that mimics education.
Everything that makes the civilised world work is in some way dependent on mining. Go to a hospital and receive treatment for cancer, a broken leg or dehydration and, all you see and experience, is made possible directly and indirectly from the wealth of the Earth’s riches. Eat food, live in a house, use refrigeration, go to a supermarket, flush a toilet, rely on clean sanitation and you should be saying thank you to the miners (and builders and engineers) who made it possible. Healthy drinking water is dependent on electricity, which regardless of whether it comes from coal, gas and nuclear comes from the ground. Even solar, wind and hydro-electric power stations are constructed from materials. Productive farming methods, from ploughs to combine harvesters, that give us freedom as a society for people to sit around and complain about mining, only exist thanks to what mining has given us.
Kangaroo carcasses, spread on the side of the dirt road, and next to each lifeless heap, deep scratch marks. Recently returned from his outback trip, a friend painted this sensory picture of deadly thirst. Had we been there, we might have seen majestic animals wildly digging up the red dirt, desperately trying to find water.
This year, country New South Wales has endured one of the worst droughts on record. Cattle have been hand fed by desperate and despairing farmers. Sheep have been put down by the RSPCA. In alarming rates, farmers have sadly taken their own lives.
In spite of all this, here in Sydney, I can still water my lawn, take a daily shower, wash my dishes, and drink as much clean water as I desire. In big cities, we don’t know how good we have it. Hike, work on the land, or survive a natural disaster, and you always think about the supply levels of the most precious liquid on earth.
The Israelites were meant to be the hammers of God’s judgment on the abhorrent and violent behaviours of the existing nations of the promised land (Gen. 15:13-16; Lev. 18:24,27; Deut. 18:10-12). The passage before us does not focus on retribution, let alone theodicy, but on the Lord’s prophylactic against ongoing corrupting influences on his treasured people.
There must be no skerrick in the land of its previous inhabitants, neither familial nor political alliances with them, and no evidence of their pagan culture, human sacrifices or shrine prostitution. Israel’s single-minded devotion mattered. The faith of unborn generations hung on their obedience.
While it might please some readers that the Israelites did not keep this command seriously, that belies something flaky in our Christian constitutions. We think the worst thing that can happen to someone is for them to die. But there are many worse things, including turning one’s backs on God. The rest of the history of Israel lives out the heart-wish of many modern readers as Israel’s limp devotion to the Lord expressed itself in leaping between two opinions, syncretistically following others gods and forsaking their very own fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:4-13).
Moses’ feet had stood firm before the Lord, un-sandled and safe, his wobbly legs kept upright as he approached the throne of Egypt, his stomach un-retched at the stench and repulsive sight of boils, hail-damage, and widespread slaughter. His back was strong in leading the people, lifting the staff over the Red Sea; and unlike the hordes of Hebrews, he didn’t turn his neck back to the oh-so-delicious onions of Goshen. He kept it towards Mount Sinai, the downpayment, and the promised land to come.
But early on the journey, it was Moses’ head that was almost completely undone, and that by the constant demands and needs of his people. Moses was in danger of ending his ministry with a whimper. And so am I. And so are all of us if we do not listen to the man who should be the ‘patron saint’ of all fathers-in-law, Jethro.
After bringing Moses’ wife and sons from stage left-behind, hearing all that had happened, ‘Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel’ (Ex. 18:9). But Jethro can’t believe what Moses is doing now, how he is ruling and adjudicating all their problems, ‘from morning till evening’ (Ex. 18:13). He wants to protect Moses from himself.
Back in the 90s, I recall a heightened interest in making sure that all church activities were corporate, and explicitly so. The Apostles’ Creed in some churches was modified from “I believe” to “we believe” and songs were judged poorly if they were not plural. That shibboleth only applied unevenly to new songs, since almost all of the safe favourite hymns were in the first person singular—Amazing Grace, I will sing the wondrous story, When I survey, Be thou my vision, Abide with me, And can it be?, How great thou art, It is well, Jesus paid it all. Even with these notable exceptions, “I, Me” and My” were out. “We, Us and Our” were ascendant. But over the last 20 years reality hit, and no one seems to care now. The Old Testament trajectory right from the beginning, and especially in the Psalms, conforms to this reality. The “I” is an essential part of corporate praise.
The battle-lines have been dug in the conflict about christians and alcohol, with entrenched positions generating pamphlets, sermons and even denominations. But those trenches are now largely empty. Most of the fighting has already taken place; and the fortifications are largely abandoned with only a small cadre of hold-outs remaining, fighting for abstinence. And while I am not one of those who argues practically for this position, I do see their wisdom. The cost of new generations moving on from this discussion, is that unexamined worldliness seems to be winning. In interest of deeper healing, let’s reopen the wound.
My contribution to this discussion will not be so much a word study on alcohol, but will be about the words “hero” and “valiant”, and its focus will be unashamedly on men, with secondary application for women. The Bible does not overlook women. Christian older women are taught “to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine”. (Tit. 2:3) But men are lined up in the target sights in Isaiah 5. What is on view is an intoxicated masculinity. In its place we need one that is sober, strong and just.