Holy Forbiddenness

I am working my way through Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs. It is absolutely fantastic. I will review it in due time, but I wanted to make another note on it here. I will simply quote Leithart, “[E]very Israelite was distinguished from non-Israelites by the tassel at the corner of his garment (Num. 15:37-41). Hebrew tassels had a blue cord in them, and since ancient dyes worked only on wool, the blue thread was a woolen addition to what would have been a linen garment. Normally, such mixtures were forbidden because of their holiness (Lev. 19;19), so the mixed cloth worked into the common dress of Israel communicated Israel’s holy status (Milgrom 1991: 548-549).”

Here we learn that something forbidden becomes the sign of holiness. The people are set apart in a way that is forbidden by God’s law. I have been thinking a lot about how the law functioned in Israel. Walton has some insight here in his Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. I might do a longer post on the topic, but basically law-codes back then did not function how they do today. The law-code was more about wisdom than about proscribing judicial rulings and the like. Possibly this is another insight into that matrix.

Here I think of two more incidents that have puzzled me. First, Saul makes an oath that whoever eats after a certain battle will be put to death. But when Jonathan eats, the people of Israel protect Jonathan so that he is not put to death. Second, when Absalom killed Amnon, David takes no action against Absalom. Both of these are texts that occur in narratives and Hebrew authors seldom communicate their assessment of the actions taken, but they are still part of the relevant puzzle pieces.

Nonetheless, a forbidden action making a holy people should not be overlooked. We see it in the tassels. It is even more clear in that Jesus is made a curse for Israelites (?). Should this be suggestive in our own wisdom-guided ethical practices?


Political Baptism

The first chapter of Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs begins with the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Here is John the Baptist announcing good news by…baptizing. How is a man baptizing in the wilderness gospel?

Picking up themes from Isaiah like in Isaiah 41, baptism is picking up on God’s promise to open river in the wilderness to those whose tongues are parched with thirst. As Leithart summarizes, “When John’s water falls on the scorched clay of Israel, it can only be a matter of time before she again crosses the sea, before Eden is restored.” This is a Jewish gospel that reverberates with political overtones.

Leithart’s summary of his thesis in the original preface captures the point nicely, “Baptism, in short, announces the formation of a polis that offers priesthood to the plebs.” Baptism is the sign of the new community who attends to God’s household. When a person is baptized into death and raised to walk in newness of life, the person is walking through the Red Sea. But it is a walking with, for God goes before us, yet his footprints are not seen (Psalm 77:19).

Baptism Now Saves You

At the beginning of Peter Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs, he highlights 1 Peter 3:21 (ESV), “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” As Leithart notes, Peter (the apostle) qualified in his statement in various ways, but theologians and exegetes have sometimes anxiously added further qualifications.

The text stands as a litmus test of sorts for Leithart’s theology of baptism. If we push aside all of the further qualifications of our own, can we really affirm “baptism now saves you.” If you went to many Protestant churches and quoted 1 Peter 3:21 without them knowing, would they affirm your statement or push back against it? Whatever baptism is, it is certainly not salvific. “One can either qualify the statement out of existence, or repeat Peter’s statement in a whisper, or let the text challenge assumptions and provoke revisions.”

Leithart’s goal is clear: “to provide a baptismal theology that would make it seem perfectly natural to speak, in an offhand way, about the salvific power of baptism.” Does our baptismal theology make that natural? If not, what ever do we do with 1 Peter 3:21?

In Memoriam

I never knew John Webster. In fact, I don’t think I had read any of his work before he died.

Lately I have been thinking more about death, what the point of it all is, what this one life is for, and so on. I’m only 25, but I think about how I would do it differently, if I could. I love my life so much, but there are certainly plenty of areas where I would advise my younger self to act differently.

John Webster was highly regarded as a theologian. Maybe that means basically nothing to anyone outside of theology, but my sense from reading about John (if I’m allowed to use his first name) is that that fact wouldn’t have mattered much to him. He knew what his calling was and he was content to be faithful to God and His church in pursuit of that call.

He was a theologian of great ability. His reputation spanned the theological world. His program was path-defining for so many others. His writing was studied meticulously by other experts.

In a 2008 interview, Webster was asked, “If you were just starting out in theology today, what topics and issues would you want to tackle?” It’s a good question. It helps one see what is foundational to the interviewee, what is interesting now, and so on. John sort of dodges the question in an interesting way.

What I didn’t get round to doing when I set out: lots of exegesis, lots of historical theology, mastering the big texts of the traditions of the church. Then I’d be better able to figure out what to do with whatever showed up than I am as I stumble around now trying to work out what I should be about.

There are layers to this answer that are worth thinking through. I love the succinct summary, the latter of which I’m trying to embody, “lots of exegesis, lots of historical theology, mastering the big texts of the traditions of the church.”

May we all recognize God’s gifts in Scripture and the church. Everything else is dross.

A Confession

I find myself skipping over or skimming scriptural citations while reading biblical studies/theology books. I’m not sure precisely why this is. Maybe I think I know the passage well and so do not need to read it (the former typically being true while the latter is false). Maybe I don’t want to contaminate my reading of the verse with the comments by the author of the book I’m reading. Maybe I’m more interested in what the author has to say not their citations and so I skip the citations.

No matter the reason, this is a bad practice on my part. I’m aware of it so I work against it, but it’s still natural. It probably says something deeper about me too, but that will have to await another post.