In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Bible is a difficult book: complex, confounding, challenging. Anyone who tells you differently has never read it, never understood it, or never taken it seriously. It will bring you to your knees in repentance, and it will raise you to your feet in outrage. There are passages that I wish had never made it past the editor, and there are passages to which I can only respond with great difficulty, “Thanks be to God.” And yet, these very passages are the ones that I need to cast down the idols I have created, to destroy the false images of God I have cobbled together from my favorite highlighted and underlined verses. These difficult texts reveal some aspect of the nature of God or some depth of human sin that I would miss without them. They are needful even if unwelcome.
The morning reading from 1 Kings is a case in point:
15 And this is the account of the forced labor that King Solomon drafted to build the house of the LORD…
20 All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel — 21 their descendants who were left after them in the land, whom the people of Israel were unable to devote to destruction — these Solomon drafted to be slaves, and so they are to this day (1 Kings 9:15a, 20-21, ESV throughout).
Solomon’s Temple, the House of the Lord, the meeting place of heaven and earth where God’s presence dwelt among his people, was built with slave labor: with slave labor. Do you find that disturbing? I do. And, the story grows even darker if you follow it back in time some two centuries. These enslaved peoples — the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites — were the remnant, were all who were left, of the seven Canaanite tribes devoted for absolute destruction during Joshua’s conquest of Canaan: genocide for the fathers, slavery for their children. Do you find that disturbing? I do.
Go further back still into the age of pre-history and you will find the origin of this antipathy toward the Canaanites.
Genesis 9:18–25 (ESV): The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.
20 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
And there it is: Noah’s son Ham dishonored his father and the fate of seven nations was sealed: genocide and slavery. Do you find that disturbing? I do.
If you don’t find this story disturbing, then nothing that follows is likely to make sense to you. If you do find the story disturbing, what follows may still not make sense to you, but I think it is a biblical answer — at least a partial answer — to a few of the difficult questions this story raises.
Let’s start here: genocide and slavery are the results of human sin, always and everywhere they appear. There was no place for them in God’s good creation and there will be no place for them in God’s renewed creation. There is no place for them now in the Kingdom of God. That God commanded the destruction of the Canaanites is a confusing example of God drawing straight with the crooked lines of human sin, of God using fallen men and women in their fallen ways to nonetheless accomplish his good and perfect will of the restoration of all things. I do not know how this will happen. But, as Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.
I might nuance some fine points of Dostoevsky’s theology, but the heart of his statement is correct: God will redeem this story of the Canaanites, will put to rights both the genocide and the slavery, not by condoning them or by dismissing them but by repudiating them, judging them, and redeeming them. I believe this, in part, because this redemption has already begun.
The morning reading from Hebrews points the way forward. The earthly tent of meeting — whether it was the Tabernacle wrought through the inspired craftsmanship of Bezalel and Aholiab or Solomon’s Temple exacted from the labor of post-genocidal slaves — the earthly tent of meeting spoke of the presence of God among his people, yes, but it shouted of the separation of God from his people.
6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section [the Holy Place], performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second [the Most Holy Place] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (Heb 9:6-8).
The way into the presence of God is not open as long as the former Tabernacle, the former Temple is still standing. These served only as a reminder of the sin of Israel. No house built with slave labor is a fit meeting place for God and man. And that means that no house built with human hands is a fit meeting place for God and man because all those who build it are slaves to sin. Every human place of worship was built by slaves to sin as a reminder of sin. But:
Hebrews 9:11–14 (ESV): But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) Christ entered once for all into the holy places. The more perfect tent, the more perfect dwelling place of God with man, was Christ himself whose person was not made with hands, whose divine nature was not created. And here images rush together and intersect to create a matrix of symbolic meaning beyond full human comprehension. I’ve argued that no temple built by slave labor could be a fitting meeting place for God and man. And yet, in the divine irony of God, his Son comes as that perfect meeting place — God with us — but, get this, he comes in the form of a slave, humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (cf Phil 2:7 ff). A divine slave comes to destroy the Temple built by slave labor so that we might have access to God the Father through him, freed from our slavery to sin. This is judgment against genocide and slavery and the sin that gave rise to them. This is the inauguration of Dostoevsky’s vision of the healing of all human suffering and the eternal harmony to be revealed in Christ at the world’s finale.
I want to speak beautifully, compellingly of this, but my words are too small. I just know that there’s something here — someone here — and that that Someone is Christ, to whom be the glory and honor now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.