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There’s a Chance–Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

You’re probably not going to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In fact, it is almost certain that you won’t win. Think about it. These people have been using all manner of advertisements to sell magazines and, more recently, gather information for big data for years. Do you know anyone who has won even a dollar? Do you know anyone who knows anyone? Right. You’re probably not going to win.

But there is, like Jim Carrey had at the end of Dumb and Dumber, still a chance.

You could win. And he could wind up with Lauren Holly by his side. You’d hate to miss out on winning if you were destined to do so, right? But you’re not going to win.

That seems to be the message that Solomon brings today. He suggests that since we can’t know that we have a better after-death fate than the animals, we should just live for today.

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust. Who knows if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth? I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?

Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

Solomon’s advice in this passage sounds almost identical to what Epicurus taught several hundred years later. Since we can’t tell whether there’s any reward for right living after we die, then we should just focus on today.

Don’t pursue what you can’t see

Is Solomon on the level with these claims? Or is he making provocative statements that we’re supposed to knock down? Let’s do a little thought experiment. My daughter bought some chickens, as I shared recently. These birds are perhaps half grown now. To date, they have not laid any eggs. Soon, Emily will start checking the nest box for eggs, hoping to see some little protein orbs lying there. But why should she check? Since no one can enable her to see what will be in the nest box, why should she look? Isn’t that the sort of logic that Solomon employs?

Let’s consider some of the people who rejected this sort of thinking:

  • Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.–Genesis 15:6
  • By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.–Hebrews 11:7
  • Jesus said [to Thomas], “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” –John 20:29

Getting in Tune

The paradox of Christian life is that we should live joyfully in the present with full confidence that the future, which we cannot see, will be better. Maybe, on second thought, that isn’t really a paradox. Maybe we are to live joyfully today because of our hope, our confidence, in eternity. It’s not a “chance.” It’s a certainty. Without that hope, I’d have a hard time enjoying my activities and accepting them as my reward. With that hope, I can face today and tomorrow.

Frosties or Sugar Puffs?

I only got a couple of minutes into Bandersnatch, the dark Black Mirror-related interactive movie on Netflix, before I had to pause it and sit, paralyzed, staring at the screen.

You see, when the main character–I haven’t gotten far enough in to even learn his name yet–is sitting at the breakfast table and offered a choice of cereal, Frosties or Sugar Puffs, by his father, I’m convinced that everything hangs on that decision. I chose Sugar Puffs. Then, a few seconds later, I had second thoughts. I backed up and chose Frosties. In the aftermath of both, the neighbor’s dog was barking and digging in the garden. Dad was yelling out the door. So far, there’s no difference, but who knows what cosmic chain of events was set in motion by the choice of cereals? That’s why I hit pause.

Decisions are important. They have consequences. One thing leads to another. If I hadn’t made an offhand comment about needing to get a job, maybe my high-school friend Dan wouldn’t have suggested that I work with him at Taco John’s. Then I wouldn’t have met Penny. Then we wouldn’t have gotten married and had four kids.

Ready for the topper? In the minutes since I started writing this entry, I learned that my youngest child’s first kid has made her entry into the world. And if it hadn’t been for saying something about needing a job back in 1980, then maybe she’d be a gerbil instead. (Don’t try to make sense of that. I’ve always thought the whole parallel universe thing was kind of ridiculous.)

Of course we want to think about the consequences of our actions, but much of the time, like in Bandersnatch, we have to simply make a choice without knowing where that choice will lead. As the great theologians of Rush sang, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” That’s deep, eh?

Where would my life be if I had decided to seek a job at Burger King instead of Taco John’s? Or was I always fated to make tacos and marry Penny? I just don’t know.

As I cast my mind over the Bible, I note how many stories seem to revolve around snap decisions, determined choices, that lead to a very good or a very bad outcome. Let’s think of a few in Bandersnatch fashion.

  • Eve: Eat the fruit the serpent is offering / Barbecue the serpent
  • Cain: Clobber your brother / Go fishing with your brother
  • Noah: Build a big boat in the backyard / Use the gopher wood to host a big pig roast for the neighbors.
  • Abraham: Sacrifice Isaac / Go out for falafel with Isaac
  • Joseph: Get revenge on your brothers / Forgive your brothers

You see how this is going, and I’m not even out of Genesis. Of course other choices, in the Bible and in our lives, are not so clearly ones that involve obedience and loyalty. They don’t come with a clearly defined “right choice.” Some of them are as apparently random as working at Taco John’s or what breakfast cereal to eat. Or are they?


It’s Going to Rain

Recently, Penny and I heard a clatter near our new house. Going outside, we found that a twenty-foot downspout had fallen. Today, it’s raining, but so far everything in the new house is waterproof. That’s important, but the absence of leaks was far more important in Noah’s situation.

Just yesterday, I shared some gleanings from Genesis 6:14

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside.

Today, I’d like to look at another word, “pitch.” This English word, referring to a thick petroleum-based substance, shows up in three places in the Bible. In two of them, the Hebrew word is a noun, zepheth. We could perhaps translate it as tar or asphalt. One of those places is Isaiah 34:9, while the other takes us back to the “ark” that baby Moses was placed into.

Noahs_Ark_Italianate_mural_WEB_821x800But the pitch or kaphar in Genesis 6:14 is different. First, it is a verb. The King James says that God instructed Noah to “pitch it within and without.” “Pitch” here is the verb. Since that seems to evoke images of sales or baseball to us, modern translations usually go the route of “cover it with pitch.” The verse in question is the only one of 102 appearances of this Hebrew word in the Old Testament that means “to cover with pitch.”

So how is it used in those 101 cases? In the King James, it is translated as “atonement” 71 times. Other translations include “purge,” “reconcile,” and “forgive.” Although it abounds throughout the law chapters of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we can find a scattering of this word in various other Old Testament books. One example will suffice, from Psalm 79:9:

God of our salvation, help us—
for the glory of your name.
Rescue us and atone for our sins,
for your name’s sake.

Rescue us, God, and cover over our sins with something that the dangers cannot penetrate. Make us waterproof, Lord, or at least sin-proof. Plug our leaks.

Different words could have been used in Genesis 6, and the use of kaphar clearly means literally coating the inside and outside of the boat with some sort of sticky, waterproof stuff. However, the other uses of this word helps to accentuate the salvation story that is prefigured in Genesis.

Noah, apparently a fairly handy guy, could build a big boat, but that boat could never have remained afloat and safe for the occupants through the forty days of rain and the months of floating about if it had not been sealed, covered over, with something beyond gopher wood. Moses brought the wood, and God provided the atonement or covering. In Genesis 22, Isaac carries the wood, but God provides the atonement in the ram for the sacrifice. And in the gospels, a man carries a cross, but God provided the atonement through the sacrifice.

It’s going to rain, but we have hope to remain dry.


What’s an Ark?

About fifty years ago, a certain now-disgraced comic created a routine based on Noah. One of the memorable bits of this script was Noah being utterly flummoxed when instructed to build an ark. “What’s an ark?” he asks.

In Genesis 6:14, Noah is told

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside.

While we have no record of Noah asking what an ark might be, he would be perfectly justified in doing so. First of all, we have no record of boats in the pre-flood years. Did people use boats to go out and fish in those days? Did they run cruise lines? I can’t say for sure, but that’s not really the point. God didn’t say “Make yourself a boat of gopher wood.” He said, “Make yourself an ark.”

So what is an ark? My first inclination would be to look for other arks in the Bible. We all know that the other famous ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is sealed up in a wooden crate and hidden away in some gigantic government warehouse, thanks to Indiana Jones. Is that at all similar to what Noah was to build?

First popping up in Exodus 25, the word used for the ark of the covenant is ‘arown. Actually, I misspoke when I said it first showed up in Exodus 25 as it is rendered “coffin” in Genesis 50:26. This word appears 202 times in the Old Testament, most of them referring to the ark that David danced in front of.

Noahs_Ark_Italianate_mural_WEB_821x800The “ark” Noah was instructed to build was tebah, a word that appears 26 times in the Old Testament. Of those usages, 24 are in Genesis 6-9 and pertain to the thing that Noah built. The only other two appearances are in Exodus 2, describing the basket used to save baby Moses. In fact, there’s not a really great reason why tebah is translated as “ark.” It could be argued that Noah’s version was box-like, but can the same be said of Moses’ ark?

There is a significant difference between tebah and ‘arown. While the ‘arown ark is a box or chest that things are put into, it does not save anybody. Contrary to what the Indiana Jones version suggests, an army carrying the ark can be defeated. That ark is not a vehicle of salvation; it is a symbol of a convenant.

On the other hand, both examples of a tebah ark are vehicles (literally and figuratively) of salvation. Noah’s tebah preserves a righteous remnant of humanity in a time when things had gotten utterly dark. Moses’ tebah preserves a chosen child during a period when Hebrew babies were being exterminated. Absent either of these, the later story of salvation could not have carried on–at least not without huge changes.

What’s an ark? In this case, it is a vessel created by human hands to perform God’s work of salvation.