An Imperfect Nuclear Deal with Iran: What Else?

Kerry & Zarif at the tableYou only have to glance at news headlines in recent days to see that the nuclear deal with Iran raised as many tough questions as it solved. Jubilant Iranians in Tehran danced in the streets after the April 2 announcement while Iranian hardliners criticized the deal. In America, Republican presidential hopefuls were everywhere in the media voicing their opposition while President Obama explained his support of the deal to Thomas Friedman at the White House. In Israel, some editorials cautiously favored the deal while Benjamin Netanyahu stated plainly that the deal threatened Israel’s survival. The mix of opinions and emotions ranged far and wide and the wrangling won’t go away anytime soon.

Now that a solid interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been reached between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), the parties will bump along toward the June 30 signing deadline. As they do, during the next twelve weeks you’re going to hear high-level critics and defenders of the deal abuzz in the media, locked in a fiercely pitched verbal battle arguing their cases and trying to increase public and political support for their side.

Behind all the pushing and shoving, of course, is the question of whether this is a good deal? We all want to know the answer to this. And the only way to know – let’s be honest – is to understand the nuts and bolts of the agreement. But let’s face it, most of us don’t have the specialized technical and scientific nuclear training required for that kind of knowing. Even if we did, it will only be after the signing, perhaps well into the future, before we will know whether this was a good deal. The unpredictability of domestic and international politics, if not the intentions of a signatory, can scuttle even a good deal after it has been implemented. And there are other possibilities. The signing deadline might be pushed into the future or it may never take place.

Meantime, before June 30, as the final very technical details are being resolved (that is the goal), you will be hearing from supporters and naysayers about issues such as the upsides and downsides of the inspections, the break-out time line, the sunset clause, sanctions relief, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and an array of other strengths and deficiencies of the agreement. We will also be hearing that the deal doesn’t do a thing stop Iran from bankrolling terrorism or from quashing human rights. But diplomats, negotiators, and deal signers know that you’ve got to start somewhere.

Iranian workers at nucelar plantWho, then, are we to believe? What are we to think about this? It seems so murky. And what about trusting Iran? But the deal is not based on trust, President Obama said, but on an “unprecedented verification” inspections regime. Everyone will have to make up their own mind about the agreement. My advice during the coming weeks would be to listen chiefly and carefully to the hopeful but cautious supporters of the agreement who also admit to and discuss its weaknesses. Ignore the critics who have nothing good to say about the agreement.

No deal is going to cover all the bases, never mind being perfect. And if in the end, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say, does not accept it, the deal will not be signed by Iran. Despite all the uncertainties that remain, what we’re getting is far batter that what anyone anticipated when the current round of serious, high-level talks commenced in February 2013. (Diplomacy is often protracted, intense, and boring, with deals emerging after all-nighters and a lot of coffee. Iran and the P5+1 have been in various levels of talks about Iran’s nuclear program since June 2006.)

What we’re getting is basically an arms control agreement. Iran has agreed to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. If the agreement is in good measure successful, it will be historic, not only because it would help usher Iran back into the community of nations or because it would be a giant step toward ending the thirty-five-year-old cold war between the United States and Iran.

If successful, the framework of the pact could also be used to break the pattern of nuclear proliferation that has been taking place since World War Two (think India, Pakistan, North Korea). Thinking paradigmatically, the agreement with Iran could be a template for preventing nuclear proliferation. And that would be historic.

There are only two options to this deal. One option is increased and stricter sanctions, which would destabilize the region even more. The other is bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would certainly be the prelude to another U.S. war in the region. So there is the stark reality: the deal, stricter sanctions, or war. Given the likely ramifications of the latter two options, this agreement is a significant accomplishment and probably the best alternative.

Iran and P5+1 nego table (uncredited photo)There are good and sufficient reasons, therefore, for welcoming this arms control agreement, despite its imperfection. Differences remain on both sides and must be resolved for the June 30 signing, and both sides want to see the deal improved in their favor before its signing. So much wrangling will take place around the table also. Who knows what the outcome of this final stage of negotiations will be? Only novelists know the future.

It is not the done thing in foreign policy circles to ask for prayers. The secularism of the circle rules that out. But if you are a praying person, you might want to pray that the agreement will be successful. It seems like a reasonable deal. The space that the diplomats have worked tirelessly to create for the world on this crucial issue is so much better than an Iran with nukes.

Outcomes cannot be guaranteed and troubling concerns will remain unanswered on June 30. But wisdom has a vital interest in seeing international relations established on mutual ground for mutual good amid their diversity. Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Here is the full text of the April 2 agreement.

Here is President Obama’s very forthright discussion with Thomas Friedman about the June 30 agreement.

Here is a series of in-depth posts – they start here – about what turns out to be the surprising history of U.S. – Iran relations since 1979.

Top photo courtesy of Press TV. Center photo courtesy of IIPA via Ghetty. Lower photo courtesy ICHR Iran.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

Shalom, the Grace of God, and You

giftI have posted a number of times on this blog about the vision of shalom as “well-being,” or “flourishing,” and the vital role that the wisdom of God plays in our activities to make that vision real in this world, in small or large ways. See this post, for instance. Having looked at this a great deal, I am coming to the conclusion that there is an ontological inseparableness between God’s wisdom and his shalom, and that a lack of grasping this results in strivings after well-being that resemble worldly patterns more consistently than they do God-envisioned ones. Here I want to consider an equally inseparable relationship, that of shalom to the biblical theme of grace as “well-being.”

In the early 1980s, I was playing around with some ideas about the grace of God that ended up in a little book on the subject, first published in 1993. The book was not so much a theological treatment but an attempt to look at grace as a practical dynamic for living a faithful Christian life, day after day: the life of grace. The very personal question I had been struggling with was: after “saving grace” gets us up and running in the Life of God, what then? How could that Life be lived in full bloom day after day? I had been taught that the Christian’s life was a life of grace, but what did that mean, what would it look like, whether in church on Sunday but especially from Monday through Saturday? I wasn’t finding much help with that.

Mind you, this was back in the days before everybody and his brother was writing books on grace. There was Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which is worth reading for sure, but during the 1980s and 1990s, the big emphases in contemporary Christian teaching and publishing lay elsewhere, such as with books on family, the end times, worldview, and Moral Majority politics. Whatever books one could find on grace were, like Bunyan’s, focused on theological aspects of “saving grace,” such as its relation to sin, and to Christ’s work of redemption, and to the individual’s response. If you should happen to hear a sermon on grace, it was typically enclosed with the frame of “unmerited favor” or “free gift” and centered on getting sinners saved. But such language wasn’t answering the question I was asking.

I’m not in the least disparaging theological understandings of grace. I have benefitted greatly from them. But for me it left “grace” too abstract, which the cross of Christ is anything but. “Unmerited favor” seemed a bit of a lazy answer, and the tautological “free gift” merely drew a joke about “What gift isn’t free?” In short, my own deep itches about the grace of God for daily life remained unscratched.

human eyeThey began to get scratched when I plunged into the biblical text myself, along with assistance from some good study aids and the especially blessed help of my tutor those years, the British theologian John Peck, who also teaches Hebrew and Greek. So I plunged in at the beginning of the Bible, with the first two statements where “grace” is overtly disclosed. (The following two texts are from the King James Version because the more contemporary ones – unfortunately, in my view – typically translate the Hebrew chên as “favor” instead of as “grace.”)

“Noah found grace [chên] in the eyes of the Lord.” And Lot “found grace [chên]” in the sight of the Lord (Genesis 6:8 & 19:19).

These two short statements about the grace (chên) of God can seem oddly out-of-place because the narratives in which they appear emphasize the judgment of God and the widespread destruction that resulted. But God’s grace can be found hidden amid distress and suffering.

“Grace” in Genesis, and in every other Old Testament (OT) narrative where God is the initiator of grace (chên), carries two main thoughts. One is that of “God coming down, which is a bit of an awkward-sounding way to put it today. But think of it anthropomorphically. Many times, the OT speaks of God “coming down” into human history to have a look around, so to speak, as if he were spying out the land before deciding on just what sort of intervention he should take.

One time, for instance, God came down to bring judgment during the building of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5-8):

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will he impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not be able to understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”

Another time, God came down upon Mount Sinai to bring the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 19:10-11):

The Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Make them wash their clothes and he ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”

In another incident, God comes down to wage war (Isaiah 31:4):

The Lord Almighty will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and on its heights.

A central theme of these OT narratives (many others too) is that God actively engages in human history. In the above texts, God came down in three different ways: to bring the Law, to execute judgment, or to wage war. Now this idea of “God coming down” to engage with human life is also inherent in the chên narratives of Noah and Lot. This brings us to our second main thought about chên, which is “well-being.” So chên, then, is not about God coming down to wage war, or to execute judgment, or to bring law. Instead, God is “coming down to move people to places of well-being.”

“God coming down to move people to places of well-being” became the working definition for “grace” developed in my little book on grace for everyday Christians living. I see it as the hidden narrative in the lives of Noah and Lot and their families during eras when, and for reasons not entirely clear, human “wickedness” had increased so greatly that “every inclination of the thoughts of [everyone’s] heart was only evil all the time,” and the earth was “corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Genesis 6:5, 11). That’s Noah’s day. In Lot’s, the “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah was “so grievous,” the even God seemed surprised by it: “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20).

But even in these darkest of times, with injustice and violence having become organizing principles of society, God came down to Noah and Lot to move them to places of well-being. God’s grace for Noah and his family was a large wooden boat to ride out the storm. For Lot and his family it was the helping hands of angels to lead them out of the city. They did not earn this, they could not have provided it for themselves, and apparently they did not even ask for it. It was initiated by another party, God, to those who were in mortal distress.

SunsetIt is just here that we can find the nexus of God’s grace and his shalom, for both are gifts, both seek to rescue and restore, both seek to provide degrees of well-being that previously did not exist for the objects of the intervention. A dramatic OT example is the Exodus narrative, when the people of Israel “groaned” under punishing abuse and “cried out” for help. God “heard” their cry, “saw their misery,” and told Moses, “I’ve come down to rescue them” (Exodus chapters 2-3). It was the grace of God moving people out of their misery and into what for them would be a place of shalom.

Everything I have just spoken of is grace straight from God to human beings. Now here’s the rub. Having modeled for us Person-to-person grace giving, so to speak, God then puts the onus on us. We mere mortals are called to move one another to places of well-being, or shalom. This, too, is the witness of the OT. I call it “person-to-person” grace giving. Many OT Narratives bear this out, such as the grace Potiphar gives to Joseph (Genesis 39:40), or that Jonathan gives to David (1 Samuel 20:3), or that Boaz gives to Ruth (Ruth 2;13), and that even the pagan king Ahasuerus gives to Esther (Esther 2:17). There are many such stories. I recommend reflecting on them.

These many and diverse person-to-person chên narratives of the OT describe beneficent actions of human beings freely given. They contribute to the well-being of the recipient, an active generosity, particularly toward those in need. And certainly with the coming of the various and diverse gifts of the Spirit to the body of Christ, person-to-person grace giving, with Christ as our example, is not meant to mean sporadic actions but an ongoing shape of our lives.

So the question for us becomes: “Who has found grace, and therefore some degree of shalom, in our eyes lately?”

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

For interested readers, the theme of person-to-person grace giving is the subject of my little book Explaining the Grace of God. (I was never a fan of that title, which was chosen by the publisher.) If you can’t find a reasonably priced copy on the Web, let me know. I may have a spare copy.)

Top image by Sarah McKagen, middle image by Cesar Cabrera (permissions via Creative Commons)

CANNONBALL RACES

bowlsDuring one of my countless conversations with John Peck about “wisdom,” he told me a funny story about the leisurely British game of “bowls.” Since most Americans will find that game unfamiliar, I should first describe it so that John’s story, below, will make sense.

Bowls is usually played outdoors on a long rectangular patch of short-cut lawn called a green. A player – a bowler – starts the game by standing at one end of the green and rolling a small but fairly heavy and solid white ball, the jack, down the green to the other end. The jack is not rolled again during that game. A lot of sportsmanship ensues as bowlers take turns rolling their much larger and heavier black balls down the green to see who can get closest to the jack.

Sounds easy enough, but the larger balls are biased (with interior weights) and so do not travel in a straight line – they follow various degrees of arcs when bowled toward the jack, not unlike American fingertip bowling balls en route to the pocket. Once all the balls are bowled, the direction of play is reversed. To get points, bowlers must to get as close to the jack as possible by the end of the game, and to do that they employ various strategies, such as trying to knock an opponent’s ball out of the way.

Okay. Got it? Here’s John with the story:

Once as our family was driving through a park, one of the younger kids amused us by looking out of the back of the car and shouting, “Look, Dad, cannonball races!” Everyone looked around and saw a green with a leisurely game of bowls in play.

As my young son did, we all interpret any new phenomenon in terms of what we already know. So let’s pull the car into a parking space, watch the game closely, and imagine a discussion between me and my son.

I remark on the skill of a player who has rolled his ball just short of his opponent’s ball and so got nearer the jack. My son is puzzled by my statement, but that doesn’t stop him! He naturally responds, “What sort of a race is it where people only try to get even and not ahead?”

So I explain the concept of “getting close rather than getting ahead.” Rather dubiously he accepts the notion but suggests that the players start aiming better. “After all, Dad, the cannonballs are going all over the place. One almost went round in a semi-circle.”

So I try again. But by the time I get through explaining the concept that these balls have a bias in them, he’s now impatient with me and explodes, “Well, no self-respecting gunner would use ammunition that wouldn’t go straight!”

So I reply (fully assured and ever the expert!) that the bias is deliberately put into the balls during their manufacture. At this point my son gives up and mutters, “I can understand them using unbalanced ammunition if they have no choice, but actually making cannonballs like that…. They must be mad!”

You can find this story in our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World (Chapter 7), and John’s point was to call my attention to the importance of the relationship of wisdom to theories.

People, however, can be terrified by the word “theory,” or they can’t be bothered with it because it doesn’t seem practical. It’s about ivory tower intellectuals, who never have to deal with Pampers, flat tires, or flu shots. But even diapers, radials, and injections have theories behind them. In other words, theories can be quite practical indeed. And if you bring a faulty theory to an experience or an issue, something is going to go wrong. Here’s how John put it in the book:

You could hardly blame my young son. I failed to address his basic assumption that these were cannonballs, and that this mistake resulted in a different theory about the game of bowls and its rules. Because I had a different theory about the game and failed to acknowledge that, he could not understand the game or my explanations of it.

What is more, in his attempt to make sense of what he was seeing in this new experience, his faulty theory meant that he asked the wrong questions. My answers, therefore, even though they were from the correct theory, were not helping him in the least, for they were not answering the questions that formed in his mind using the faulty theory.

It is, of course, a parable. In Uncommon Sense, John and I went on to discuss this at some length, such as to show how dad’s neglect of, or possibly ignorance of, the son’s faulty theory made communication and progress on the issue impossible. Of course, the problem in that situation was a trivial one and easily resolved in terms of the father and son’s common culture.

blastertheoryYet the form of the problem is similar for all of us with respect to bigger and crucial issues, such as come up in science, education, religion, politics, and elsewhere. In such areas, a new problem will not be easily defined or practically resolved when people bring different theories to it. And when contradictory theories are brought to it, you have a huge mess.

The form of the problem also exists in varying degrees between an ethnic minority and the dominant culture, or liberal and conservative Christians, or labor and management, or left wing and right wing politicians, or American Christians and Muslims in the Middle East – the list goes on.

As a culture increasingly fragments, as its structural problems present themselves more  intractably and its conflicts become more wide-ranging and more common, if they are not corrected, a culture ends like the Tower of Babel, if not in a civil war. And the principle holds true also for the international scene.

What we need, then, is a wisdom – a way of seeing life and living in it – a way of making sense of the creation and living in it effectively – that makes sound theories possible for coping with and communicating about life’s problems. What we are talking about is having theories that correspond, as much as it is humanly possible, to rightly understanding and stewarding the many and varied aspects of God’s world.

Lacking that, life goes terribly wrong. Therefore, seek wisdom. In the next post I want to share some clues from the Bible about that kind of seeking.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Peter Labourne & Neural respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

WHAT IS WISDOM? part 2 of 2

creation artWhat is wisdom? Is it reserved for old age? Is it about pithy sayings, such as proverbs? Or perhaps it is that touch of cunning which gives certain people a clever understanding of situations that others would not have in a million years – Solomon’s ruling about a prostitute’s baby comes to mind (1 Kings 3). Certainly, the Bible’s view of “wisdom” would include such ideas. And as we saw in the previous post, wisdom, like love, faith, and truth, has been one of the great objects of human search throughout history.

So wisdom seems to be something other than merely the one or two ideas that we typically like to nail it down as. Which brings us back to this. In the posts that began this blog – a blog dedicated to wisdom – I offered examples of a key fact: The more territory you explore in the biblical wisdom literature, the more you see that what you thought you knew about wisdom expanding considerably.

In other words, wisdom is not so easily defined as we may think. Instead, wisdom is rather like a person. I mean, you can, for instance, define a human being as one thing, say chemically; but if that’s it, most people know that’s a pretty unsatisfactory answer. It leaves many questions unanswered.

Look at it this way, a person cannot be reduced to one or two roles. An adult can be a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a grandmother, a wife, an attorney, a musician, and so on. In other words, there is more to any one person than meets the eye. You’ve just got to look for it. The agency of wisdom is like that. To try to pin it down to any one or two things is reductionistic. The question “What is wisdom?”, then, like “What is truth?” or “What is love?”, is one of those big questions that defies an easy way of nailing down.

The seeking of wisdom is a lifelong process. You get it as you go along and you keep getting more of it as you keep seeking it. Because there is an increasing knowledge of wisdom as we go along, we must be cautious about trying to nail down to reductionistic definitions. I want us to keep that in mind, here, because now I’m going to break the rule and  offer a definition!

“Wisdom is a way of seeing life and living in it according to how you see it.” Or you could put it this way: “Wisdom is a way of making sense of the creation in order to life in it effectively (and it will affect what you think is effective living too).”

This helpful understanding of wisdom comes from British theologian and philosopher John Peck, a leading specialist in the wisdom literature, and you can find more about it in chapter five of our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.

I’m sharing this exception to the rule for at least two reasons. One, it seems to me that it is big enough to avoid being reductionsitic. Two, I’ve found it a handy tool for discerning different kinds of wisdom, which is a prominent theme in the New Testament – the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. In fact, I am so keen on this understanding of wisdom that when I teach about wisdom, I encourage people to take time to memorize it because I have seen the good fruit it can produce over time.

This Christian understanding of wisdom comes from a prominent way in which the Bible sees wisdom: as the way the world works. For example: “In wisdom,” says the Psalmist when speaking about the works of creation, “you [God] made them all” (Psalm 104:24). From the prophet Jeremiah: “God … founded the world by his wisdom” (10:12; 51:15). And in the wisdom literature itself: “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations” (Proverbs 3:19).

building blocks (Artful Magpie)In other words, the whole universe functions by the wisdom of God. We see this emphasized in a peculiar passage in Proverbs 8:22-36, where “wisdom” is personified as if it where the very secret of the universe, as the craftsman at God’s side during the process of creation. (I wrote more about this here.) Therefore, says wisdom, “listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise.”

This text in Proverbs seems to be indicating, in part, that when God created the universe – with all its multifarious facets, with all the complex intricacies of its workings and its human beings – first of all there was a concept, or vision, that dominated and controlled, or made effective, that creative process. (This may be somewhat analogous to the vision that an artist has first, before putting paint to canvass.)

And the result is that the creation “stands up” as it were. It doesn’t exist like a cat and a dog fighting, which you can barely keep apart. It doesn’t exist like nitroglycerin, which, if you gave it a jar, might suddenly blow up, and you would never know when. Rather, the creation has stability, and this stability is orderly. There are rules on which it works. There’s a reliability and consistency to it, so that the same rules govern this earth which govern the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

That was in God’s mind as His wisdom, and it played a vital role in God bringing the world into being. “This means that when you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character” (Uncommon Sense). Yes. It’s a gorgeous mystery. And the more we get into it, the wiser we become.

The problem is that there are other wisdoms, other ways, ways that are not God’s way of seeing the world and living in it. In the next post I want to share a funny story about the difference.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Helene Villenueve & Artful Magpie respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

A Meditation on the Legacy of Wisdom

flower blooming in water

                                       A Meditation on the Legacy of Wisdom

                                “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply
                                        our hearts to wisdom.”  Psalm 90:12

Like all legacies, the legacy of wisdom is bequeathed by narrative. According to the Bible, there are ultimately two narratives of wisdom. One, and it came first, is traced to the wisdom of God that conceived of and gave birth to a world originally a place of peaceable, flourishing creational and human diversity (Ps. 104:24; Prov. 8:22-31).

The other, the Bible calls the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1-2). It is traced to the narrative of self-centered human wisdom (Gen. 3:6; James 3:14-18). Handed down to us from our original forebearers, it subjected creation to futility and decay (Rom. 8:20-21) and then spilled its own blood. Then, incredibly, it went as far as it is humanly possible to go. It spilled the blood of Jesus Christ, the agent of God’s wisdom.

Today we despair at the sight of our sophisticated, Olympian practice of worldly wisdom. Increasingly the brokenness and violence of its grossly distorted heroism bedims signs of the persistent narrative of God’s peaceable wisdom astir in our midst.

Yet look! There it is. Here it is. Over there, too. Christ active in the world with his gospel-shaped wisdom repairing human brokenness. The Savior alive among us with his redeeming, renewing, and restoring grace. And those participating in it – if only in some poor way and often against great odds – look closely at them. In them you will see narratives true to the legacy of God’s peaceable wisdom.

Prayer: O Lord, help us in our weakness. Strengthen me with grace to choose your peaceable wisdom for the decisions I will make today, that I may transmit a legacy to others that pleases you in the end.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by -Reji (permission via Creative Commons)

THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT: PEACE AND JUSTICE part 3 of 3

Continued from the previous post.

blue water ccence4) Yahweh affirms Jethro’s judicial wisdom. Whatever his reason, Moses, in his long speech to the Israelites, does not attribute Jethro as a key source of wisdom for establishing the desert society’s judicial system. But Yahweh does. How so?

Let’s begin with this. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is is an outlier. He is not even part of the non-Israelites who joined with the Israelites on the march out of Egypt to escape pharaoh’s oppression. He is a Midianite priest who, having heard about the great exodus from Egypt, has traveled from Midian to see his son-in-law. Nevertheless, wisdom for the judicial body that Moses establishes comes from this Midianite priest. This is doubly noteworthy because Moses has been commissioned by Yahweh, whom we would think has a pretty clear gripe against “pagans” like the Midianites. After all, the Midianties were one of the peoples that were to be exterminated in the “Promised Land.”

Yahweh, however, makes not a peep of protest about the “pagan” source of wisdom that, as indicated in Exodus 18, inspires the judicial system for the desert society.

What are we to make of this? Partly, it seems to have something to do with the “internationality” of wisdom. This does not mean that there was one common wisdom tradition throughout the ancient empires. It means that, ultimately, there is one source for wisdom, God, and that it is a wisdom that is available for all humankind, available to anyone and everyone. Of course this does not mean that everyone will avail themselves of it; after all, the wisdom literature speaks very candidly about “fools.” Also, the biblical narrative from cover to cover, beginning with the Eden incident, indicates that God’s wisdom can be and often is distorted by people. Nevertheless, the book of Proverbs, the apostle James, and even Jesus himself, explains that God’s wisdom is available to all. (Three consecutive posts, beginning with this one, explore these biblical themes.)

With that as a biblical backdrop, I believe that, concerning the creation of the courts, Jethro the Midianite priest had God’s wisdom for Moses the Israelite leader. This conclusion seems to be pretty clearly supported by the ideas mentioned in the previous paragraph, and by the Exodus 18 narrative (the primary text we are focusing on in these three posts), and by other biblical passages.

We also have Jethro’s attitude. Unlike Balaam, who tries to get Israel cursed into oblivion, Jethro is not mischievously hoping to get his son-in-law in Dutch with Yahweh. Nor is Jethro haughty or dictatorial. He is a humble man who fears God.

Look, he says to Moses, don’t take my words for it; let’s submit my proposal for the judicial body to God to see if its any good. If God will bless it, make it happen. That will be good for you and for all these people. You will be under less of a strain and they will have their cases settled quickly. Instead of queuing up at your tent in the hot sun, they “will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:23). Now the Hebrew word translated as “satisfied,” here in the NIV translation, is the word is shalom, whose core meanings are about the kind of peace that produces community-wide well-being, wholeness, and flourishing. (See this post and also this one for a discussion of the close relationship of wisdom and shalom.)

red leaves old doorConsider also the principle of impartial justice, which was a vital part of Jethro’s wisdom to Moses. It is being instituted at the heart of the new society of Israel, here in the desert, before the giving of the Law. Further, impartial justice was then, later, taken up, as it were, and made an imperative in the social legislation of the nation of Israel after the giving of the Ten Commandments. To cite just one example, the judicial nature of a law given in Leviticus 19:33-34 is stated in a way that makes it doubly-edged, in that it is both negative and positive: A foreigner must not be oppressed or disrespected; the person must be treated as an Israelite. “Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” This law extends to non-Israelites the reach of a law stated in verse 18, which commands fellow Israelites to love one another.

We are also given to understand that the principle of impartial justice and its close relationship to wisdom makes its way solidly into Israel’s wisdom tradition. The prologue in the book of Proverbs includes the attainment of wisdom as a necessary attribute for judging “what is right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1:1-3). Further, wisdom sought in the context of “the fear of the Lord” is said to bring insight to “understand what is right and just and fair – every good path” (Proverb 2:1-9). Lady Wisdom also takes up the theme: “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just” (Proverbs 8:15). And near the end Proverbs, in a section introduced as “These also are the sayings of the wise,” the principle is briefly stated in the negative: “To show partiality in judging is not good” (Proverbs 24:23; see also 28:21).

And there is this. William McKane discovered that impartiality in justice was required in the political wisdom of Egyptian state officials, who were not to wield their considerable power nakedly or arbitrarily. McKane determined that in Egyptian wisdom instruction, power “was regulated by the religious concept of Maat,” which put clear ethical constraints on the officials. For instance, an Egyptian official “cannot exercise power in the context of the Egyptian state unless he respects at all times the demands of equity, and endeavors scrupulously to act fairly without respect of persons… [Thus] a passion for [impartial] justice was an important ingredient of power and … whoever did not have this capacity for probity and fair dealing in public affairs was disqualified from holding office by a self-regulating process of selection” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 63).

Conclusion. Moses obtains Yahweh’s blessing to follow Jethro’s detailed counsel for instituting a system of courts for the new desert society. Perhaps this judicial system was not unlike today’s structure of family courts, civil courts, criminal courts, and appeals courts, with Moses as the supreme court. But whatever that court system was like, the principle of impartial justice for everyone was normative, and the agency of wisdom played a central role in that normativity. This was then taken up into Israel’s legislation as a nation and in its wisdom tradition as well. The principle of impartial justice existed in Egypt, and it must have been part of Jethro’s Midianite wisdom and society.

Human nature being what it is, however, this is not to suggest that every case on the docket was judged equitably in ancient Israel. I am merely calling attention to the norm of impartial justice and its close relation to wisdom, which, incidentally, Jesus took to soaring heights in his wisdom-based Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).

(For modern day possibilities if this principle is applied in practice, see Symphonic Justice.)

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by nateb2 & Big Grey Mare, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT: PEACE AND JUSTICE part 2 of 3

desert waterIt is important to understand the implications of what is taking place here in the desert of Sinai, in the Moses/Jethro narrative. The excitement and solidarity that deliverance from Egypt created has worn off. The huge desert multitude now seems to be verging on anarchy, and Moses, the sole governing authority, is unable to stem the negative downward spiral. So a judicial system is now being established to bring order to the new society. Significantly, this system is being created before the giving of the Law and on the advice of a religious figure who is not an Israelite.

With the giving of the Law at Sinai later on, the new society will, in a sense, have its formal constitution. Meantime, here in the desert, the immediate need is to establish a system of social order. To move the mixed multitude in that direction, the principle of impartial justice is being instituted by Moses on the strength of Jethro’s detailed advice. But Jethro, Moses father-in-law, is not an Israelite.

What’s the deal with that? Why is Moses taking his cues, and such significant ones at that, from Jethro? Jethro is from the tribe of Midian, the fourth son of Abraham and his concubine Keturah. And like all of Abraham’s children by his concubines, Midian was sent by Abraham into the Arabian desert, where his family became ancestors of Arab tribes (Genesis 25:6). So the text confronts us with some interesting implications.

For the rest of this post and in the next one, I want us to get under the skin of this narrative to consider why Moses listened to Jethro and what Jethro’s ideas mean. Along the way we may discover some insight into the relationship of peace and justice to the role of wisdom. We will look briefly at four areas.

1) The new society is diverse, pluralist. This is not to say that it is an ancient variation of America’s melting-pot experiment. Not even close. But a typically, if not a conveniently, ignored fact is that the exodus community was a mixed multitude. Sure, the Israelites hugely outnumbered any other people group in this desert society – so much so that the wandering community became known regionally as “the Israelites.” But non-Israelites – usually referred to as aliens or foreigners in the larger biblical narrative – had joined the freedom march. Most likely, they included estranged and oppressed clans of various sizes who, having fled Egypt with the Israelites, were scattered here and there throughout the new desert society, and, like the Israelites, trying to get on with life as best they could.

2) Jethro’s wise judicial advice. We saw in the previous post that with the arrival of Jethro order begins to get restored to the new society. Here’s why.

Jethro advises Moses to establish a society-wide system of courts whereby disputants can appear before judges, appointed by Moses, and have their cases adjudicated fairly and impartially, and the most difficult cases will be brought to Moses. Importantly, Jethro explains that the rulings must be fair and impartial not only between Israelites but between an Israelite and a non-Israelite. This latter piece of wisdom was absolutely necessary amid the diversity if cooperative and peaceable relations were to prevail for the common good. Jethro further recommends the job qualifications of the judges: they must fear God and have a known history of refusing dishonest gain.

Moses bulrush3) The role of wisdom in the judicial system. The role that wisdom played in principle of impartial justice and in the establishing of the system of courts is not obvious in the Exodus 18 narrative, but it is made obvious by Moses decades later. At the beginning of a long speech that opens the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reflects to the Israelites their history as they stand poised to finally enter the land of Canaan. Moses is reminding the mixed multitude that its judicial system, including its principle of impartial justice, has served them well, and in doing so he reveals the place of wisdom in its creation.

“At that time I said to you …. Choose some wise … men … and I will set them over you…. So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you.” These wise men, he continues, he commissioned as their “judges.” They would “hear the disputes … and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging …, for judgement belongs to God. Bring me any case that is too hard for you, and I will hear it” (Deuteronomy 1:9-17). (The “wise men” being mentioned by Moses are known as “hakamim” in the Hebrew. Elsewhere in the Bible they are sometimes just referred to as “the wise.” The word comes from hokma, the primary word for “wisdom” in the Hebrew Bible. For a brief introduction to who they are and to the essential governmental roles they played in Israel’s history, see this post and this one.)

Here, Moses, among other things, is identifying the agency of wisdom as instrumental in the impartial justice that was adjudicated by Israel’s judges not only in disputes between Israelites but between an Israelite and a non-Israelite.

Continued in the next post . . . . . .

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Mike.D.Green & byronV2, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT: PEACE AND JUSTICE part 1 of 3

The desert, at least to Westerners, may seem an unlikely place for wisdom. Yet the often ignored, and somewhat humorous, biblical story that I call “Moses and the Father-in-Law” suggests otherwise. There, in the burning sun of the Sinai Peninsula, we find a mutuality between justice and wisdom that plays a crucial role in negotiations to end adversarial relations with an equitable peace.

Arabian desertOur text is Exodus chapter eighteen. Moses and the huge multitude he led out of Egypt are now camped somewhere in the Sinai Dessert of the Arabian Peninsula (possibly within sight of Mount Sinai/Horeb). It is before the giving of the Law, and the new society is becoming lawless. You’ve got to imagine the scene. Here are 1,000,000+ former slaves and their families stuck in the burning sun amidst a rising congestion of social disputes and wrongs among themselves that require immediate attention. But there are no governing structures or courts for the disputants to go to for resolving the strife. Well, there is Moses. But that is the problem. Whatever his rationale was for it, he decided to try to adjudicate all the disputes alone, by himself. This is not only overwhelming Moses, it is adding to the problems.

Although Israelites, by far, comprised the largest people group, it was nevertheless a mixed multitude that had hit the road with Moses out of Egypt. So I’m imagining an endless supply of disgruntled and angry Israelites, Egyptians, and aggrieved others queuing in the hot sun day after day at Moses’ tent, awaiting their turn for him to settle their feuds. But the heavy case load is killing Moses. It seems evident from the text that Moses is burnt out. He has lead a long and exhausting campaign against pharaoh and then marched a million ornery adult Israelite slaves, plus other oppressed and disaffected peoples, out of Egypt and across the Red Sea into the desert. Has this guy even had a day off since his life-changing Burning Bush incident?

The excitement and solidarity of deliverance has worn off. The huge throng has looked around and realized just how on its own it is. They see limited resources, a vast desert, and no governing structure. Accusations are flying, personal wrongs are increasing, tempers are flaring. The situation is in the early stages of neighbor-against-neighbor disintegration. People are either taking matters into their own hands or queuing in the sun awaiting their turn in the court of Moses to have their disputes settled

It seems likely, also, that both a complainant and a defendant would be queuing up in pretty close proximity to one another, to ensure that each gets his say before Moses when the time comes. After all, Moses is a busy guy. He might dismiss your case if you are not there to tell your side of the story. So I am imaging that that proximity of adversaries to one other increased the friction for further quarrels between them to erupt, adding to the social breakdown. And the only way hope of stopping the downward spiral is Moses. But the poor guy he is burnt out.

Then the father-in-law shows up! But this father-in-law’s arrival, as it turns out, seems  providential. Jethro is a Midianite priest and a wise man. It does not take him long to suss what is going on and express his disbelief at it.

Moses, what in the world do you think you’re doing? You can’t handle this heavy case load by yourself. It’s too much of a strain. You’re burnt out and losing control. Look around you, man. Have you been outside lately? Have you seen how long this queue is? People are taking the law into their own hands. You need to establish a system of social justice, to find some qualified help to lighten your load. Here’s what you need to do.

“Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you…. Select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you…. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus18:19-23).

How Moses acts on his father-in-law’s advice to establish this justice system we will consider in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by cliff.hellis (permission via Creative Commons)