Thursday, December 30, 2004

Protective Hedges 

God gave circumcision to Abraham in Genesis 17. In Genesis 18 the destroying angel met him. Sodom was destroyed and Lot was exodus-ed (just look at all the exodus imagery) immediately afterwards. Later, Abraham circumcises Isaac. God calls Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son (cf. Hebrews 11:17). He is stopped by the destroying angel/Angel of the Lord. In a sense, Abraham received Isaac back from the dead (Hebrews 11:19). [It is important to observe that resurrection and Exodus belong together (compare Isaiah 63:11-12 and Hebrews 13:20, for example).] In these two cases we see circumcision followed by judgment and salvation involving the Angel of the Lord. There is a discordant version of this theme in Genesis 34, where Simeon and Levi take on the role of the destroying angel and destroy people who have just been circumcised. [In passing, the role of the Angel of the Lord in the Pentateuchal narrative does not seem to receive enough attention.] In Exodus 4, Moses and his family return from Moses’ encounter with God and God meets them (presumably as the Angel of the Lord) and tries to kill Gershom (Ex. 4:24 — I have been persuaded by James Jordan that it is Gershom that God is trying to kill and not Moses). Zipporah circumcises Gershom and averts destruction, using Gershom’s foreskin to smear blood on his legs (most translations interpret her action as throwing the foreskin at the feet of Moses, which Jordan convincingly argues is wrong). This is an introduction of the theme of the blood on the doorposts, as the legs are compared to pillars in biblical symbolism (Song 5:15). It serves to connect circumcision to Passover. God gives the Passover to the children of Israel. The Passover is very much tied to the rite of circumcision; the blood of Passover can be paralleled with the blood of circumcision and it is paralleled in a number of Rabbinical texts. The destroying Angel comes. The Angel destroys the Egyptian firstborn and Israel is exodus-ed. In Joshua 5:1-12 God gets Joshua to circumcise the children of Israel and they celebrate the Passover. Immediately following this, the Commander of the Army of the Lord appears to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15). In the following chapter Jericho is destroyed (there is also a recapitulation of the Passover theme in the story of Rahab). In some sense the conquest of the Land comes after the Exodus, in other senses it is a replaying of the Exodus. Intertwined with all of these narratives is the role of the firstborn. Israel is under a death threat that is particularly directed against the firstborn son. We see this in the story of Abraham and Isaac, in the story of Gershom and Zipporah and in the story of the Exodus. After the Exodus, the Levites take the place of the firstborn in Israel. They are given a dedicated status and serve as holy warriors. They protect Israel from the presence of the Angel of the Lord in various ways. They make atonement by dealing with the blood-guiltiness of the people in judgment and sacrifice. They stand guard at the temple with weapons, like the angels at the entrance to Eden. They are the ones who slay their brethren for the Lord (Exodus 32) in an attempt to avert judgment. Phineas takes the role of avenging angel in Numbers 25 and is rewarded with an everlasting priesthood, because he has ‘made atonement for the children of Israel’ (v.13). The Levites are a protective hedge around Israel (Numbers 1:53; 8:19). It is their task to ensure that Israel is kept safe from the threat of plague and death that hovers over her (Numbers 18:5). Their presence within the congregation preserves the congregation from God’s judgment (e.g. Numbers 16:41-50). The Levites play the role of avengers of blood by putting to death the guilty parties on the occasions of national apostasy. By so doing they preserve the land from the pollution of blood. After the Levites take the dedicated status of the firstborn the key places of refuge become the cities of refuge (all Levite cities) rather than the houses of the firstborn. Deliverance from the cities of refuge awaited the death of the High Priest, who was the firstborn par excellence. We see that Aaron the High Priest had to die before Israel could enter into the Promised Land. At times of war the Angel of the Lord comes into the camp and each fighting Israelite shares for a while the dedicated status of the ‘standing army’ of holy warriors — the Levites (see, for example, Deuteronomy 23:9-14 and 2 Samuel 11:6-13). At such times every man who was mustered was required to provide a ransom for his life (Exodus 30:12). In Genesis 22 Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah when he is stopped by the Angel of the Lord. In 2 Samuel 24 David musters the troops in a sinful manner and the Angel of the Lord comes into the camp and brings plague. The plague is stopped on Mount Moriah (the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite) and the Angel of the Lord’s hand is restrained over Jerusalem. The temple is later built on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Chronicles 3:1). The temple becomes the greatest of the ‘protective hedges’ around Israel. The need for the ‘protective hedges’ that surrounded Israel was due to God’s presence and activity in her midst in the Angel who bore the divine name (Exodus 23:21). The Angel (the Angel of God’s Presence — Isaiah 63:9) was the Angel of vengeance and it was only within His special presence that circumcision and other such things became particularly important. This is why circumcision had to take place before entering the Land, for example. However, as James Jordan has pointed out, there was nothing necessarily wrong with not practicing circumcision while outside of the Land. Circumcision, the structures of the Law and the Temple order were designed to, among other things, preserve Israel from the wrath of the Angel of the Lord in her dedicated status as God’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22). I believe that the portions of the OT narrative that I have outlined above lend weight to the idea that these things were regarded as ‘protective hedges’ around Israel, preserving Israel from the wrath of the Angel of the Lord. The presence of the Angel of the Lord was usually only especially known within the camp of Israel and so circumcision was not really necessary outside of Israel. However, when the Angel of God’s Presence came upon a nation, the nation could only be saved by taking refuge with the firstborn of God. Circumcision and celebration of the Passover were not necessary in order to be a genuine God-fearer. However, circumcision was necessary if one was to share Israel’s dedicated status with the Angel of God’s Presence in her midst. Israel’s status as God’s firstborn son meant that Israel faced a death threat and could only be preserved by means of ‘protective hedges’ and by Levites and others taking the place of the firstborn sons. When Christ comes, He takes on the dedicated status as the great Holy Warrior. He refuses to drink wine prior to His crucifixion (the Nazirite vow is associated with the status of holy warriors) and the price of a slave is paid into the temple treasury for Him. He takes the place of Israel as the firstborn and dies under the death threat. I think that the darkness at the crucifixion should alert us to this. [There might also be some significance, in terms of doorpost imagery, to the tearing of the temple curtain. Perhaps someone else would like to give some thoughts on this.] When Christ speaks of giving His life ‘as a ransom for many’ we should think of the manner in which the lives of the Levites were dedicated to God in exchange for the lives of the firstborn of Israel. Christ gives His life for Israel. The burden of circumcision falls to Him. The Law was incapable of bringing about the promised inheritance. However, it was necessary in order to provide a structure of refuge for Israel in its dedicated status as God’s firstborn son. Were it not for the ‘protective hedges’ of the Law the Holy War against Sin could not have taken place without destroying God’s people in the process. The efficacy of the Law, however, is not intrinsic and is only truly understood when Christ’s blood has been set forth. Now that the Firstborn has died and risen again, ‘protective hedges’ are not needed in the same way. Christ takes on Israel’s dedicated status and dies as the firstborn son. Christ is the sin-offering that leads to Israel’s freedom from the structures of refuge that the Law provides. When Christ comes the old covenant ‘protective hedges’ can be taken down and the people of God can enter into liberty. This is only because the vengeance has been dealt with and the people of God have been exodus-ed from the whole blood-guilty realm of Sin that provoked the Angel’s wrath. The Land has now been cleansed and the Jews can return from the system of refuge that the Law provided now that the death of the High Priest is proclaimed in the eating of bread and drinking of wine. To return to the Law is to become locked up again, to return to a now-powerless refuge in the realm of Sin and Death. We are the Church of the firstborn (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 12:23). Jesus Christ is the firstborn Son in our midst and we are sons in Him. He now serves both as the true Heir and we are secure in Him against all the coming wrath, because the coming wrath has already fallen on Him. I wonder whether more stress on this theme of the Law as a structure of refuge and a ‘protective hedge’ might serve to add balance to the focus on the ‘works of the Law’ as ‘boundary markers’. To seek to be justified by the works of the Law may have involved, for some, the belief that taking refuge within the protective hedges of the Law and temple system was in some sense necessary if one was to escape eschatological wrath. The scope of the eschatological wrath would force people into one camp or the other (following the analogy of the first Exodus or the case of Rahab) — either one must be circumcised and join the people within the refuge structure of the Law, or one must suffer wrath outside. However, following the death of Christ, Christians can safely take up their stand outside of the camp. The Judaizers failed to appreciate that the old structures of refuge were to be torn down after the death and resurrection of Christ and that the inheritance could be freely entered into. Instead they brought people into bondage to a system that no longer provided real refuge against coming judgment, but was itself marked out for destruction in AD70. Israel was guilty and the death sentence passed by the Law itself was soon going to fall. Of course, this is an extremely sketchy picture, but I think that there is something to it. I would appreciate hearing other people’s comments.

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