Thursday, October 18, 2007

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Joshua 4)

Well, I was going to combine chapters four and five, since chapter four only has one note on it, but then I realized that to do it justice, I ought to devote a whole post to that single note. It's one of the odd things about the Bible and people who believe in it to those who are on the outside of that group, a group referred to by some as "God-fearing people".

I thought I had actually already addressed the issue, and actually, it seems I did, back in Exodus right after the presentation of the Ten Commandments. It was there that Moses said that odd phrase (which the SAB did not give a comment concerning, but I did):
Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
It's this strange admonition on the part of Moses--that seems almost internally contradictory--that really in some ways summarizes the idea of having "fear of the LORD". The whole idea of needing to be afraid of God is that it is a fear that should inspire you to make right moral choices.

Here at the end of Joshua 4, this moment at which God brings up the topic is right after He has performed a fantastic miracle for the people of Israel as a final warning both for the Israelites and the people of Canaan with whom the Israelites will soon be coming into contact. In my opinion, this is just the period on the end of a warning that God has been speaking to the people of the Middle East for about forty years. The warning is essentially: God's judgment is heading this way, don't you dare fail to take it seriously.

This all goes way back to even before the Exodus, actually. Back when God first promised the land to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 15, He told Abraham that there was an appointed time for the Hebrew people to return from Egypt "...for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." The people of Canaan were given over 500 years to shape up or ship out, so to speak, and they refused to change their ways because they didn't "fear the LORD". But I'm veering into a subject for a few posts from now, let me get back on track...

"Should we fear God?" the SAB asks, calling it contradiction. I say there is no contradiction. The answer is a resounding "Yes!" None of the verses given in the "No" column of that page explicitly says that we should not fear God. I suppose the intention is to suggest that the concept is implied in 1 John 4:18, and maybe a case could be made for it, but I tend to think that the real issue is that John does not make clear the object of fear in that verse. (I could be wrong; Greek is a subtle, nuanced language, and I've been wrong about such things before.) I think it is as Moses said, that having fear of the LORD casts out fear of anything else.

Still, the non-believer often looks on the idea of "fear of God" as a distasteful thing. In a sense, I agree; at least with the concept as they no doubt are understanding it. There's an ugly side of religion, even (and perhaps especially) Christianity, wherein people are motivated to belief in God chiefly due to the fact that they've been convinced that not believing in Him will lead to a hearty smiting, if you will. "Why do you follow Jesus?" we ask an imaginary believer, who responds, "Well, I don't want to end up swimming in a lake of fire with little red demons poking me in the ass with pitchforks!" That kind of belief, while it might indeed save a person, is not pretty. It is my belief that the best kind of faith is a faith built on a foundation of love. Perhaps the best illustration I can think of is that for me, to not be a Christian would be something like spitting in the face of my mother. While even she, in her own imperfect way, gave so much of her life for me and my sister, God in His absolutely perfect way, gave His entire life for me. The only fear in that love is the fear that I would take lightly the gift of His blood shed on the cross. For most Jews, the feeling is essentially the same, without the cross part.

Yet there is fear, as I have said, the Bible admonishes repeatedly that we should fear God, that fearing God is good for us, that it leads to wisdom, righteousness and salvation. What of that? As I said in my post about Moses, at least one modern version of the Bible renders a translation of "reverential fear". This is the real key to understanding the concept, whether the translation is technically correct or not. It is part and parcel of proper fear of God that, unlike something such as fear of spiders that makes one recoil and pull away, this fear is such that makes one draw closer. True, genuine and fully understanding fear of God realizes who and what God is, knows that running away is not an option, sees that God is a being of love and compassion (even at the root of fearsome things that He does such as send His people to wipe out a handful of nations from the land of Canaan), and grows closer to God in reverence, awe and respect.

In C. S. Lewis' novel The Horse and His Boy, part of the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a scene where a talking horse named Hwin meets God, who in that fictional world is personified by a great and ferocious Lion named Aslan. At first, she is scared, but then, while her fear does not go away, it changes subtly and she approaches Him to say,
"Please, you're so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I'd sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else."
As is so often that case, I think Lewis encapsulates it well. The fear of God is indeed fear, but in a way that is not at all ugly.

My own father, interestingly enough, only spanked me once in my entire childhood, and it actually made me respect him all the more. The pain was nothing; I don't even remember it. What I do remember was his look of disappointment because I had done something that was wrong and I knew it. I feared my father, but not because he was going to hurt me. He never spanked me before, nor after, and when he did it, it took me by surprise. I was afraid of him; afraid of being a disappointment. And this fear was not because I thought he would reject me if I disappointed him, but actually because I knew he would not. That's the kind of fear that one needs with God.

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