I went to the Methodist church this morning. A member of the congregation spoke to us. The pastor has been teaching a preaching class, in which people can join and preach a sample sermon, and the others in the group critique it. (I’m intimidated just thinking about that!) The lady who preached to us this morning talked about the story of Hannah in I Samuel 1.
In I Samuel 1, Hannah goes to the sanctuary with her husband Elkanah and others in Elkanah’s family. The lady who preached to us was talking briefly about the sacrifices. She said that Israelites would offer a sacrifice that would reconcile them to God and cleanse them of their sins, giving them a fresh start for the year. She also said that the worshipers would partake of the sacrifice, as if they were eating at God’s table. She may have been conflating the sin offering with the peace offering of Leviticus, but who knows? Maybe those delineations among the sacrifices did not exist throughout the history of Israelite religion, but only emerged at a certain point. But I digress.
The reason that this point in the sermon stood out to me is that, before coming to church, I was reading and thinking about a document in my Charlesworth Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. This document is called the “History of the Rechabites,” and it dates to the first to fourth centuries C.E., which may mean that part of it was written, and people added on to it over time. The document has Jewish and Christian sections.
I have not read the entirety of the document, but, in what I have read so far, there is a hermit named Zosimus, who has been dwelling in the desert for forty years and who has refrained from eating bread, drinking wine, and social contact. Zosimus is curious about something: where are the Rechabite sons of Jonadab who were translated in the time of Jeremiah? Where did God take them and cause them to dwell? On account of his self-humiliation in the desert, God has sent an angel to show him.
A little background information is in order. The Rechabites appear in Jeremiah 35. They are people who have covenanted to dwell in tents and to drink no wine, on account of a command from their ancestor Jonadab. God contrasts the Rechabites, who are faithful to their ancestor’s commands, with the Judahites, who are unfaithful to God and God’s ways. God promises that Jonadab will always have a descendant before God to serve God. In the History of the Rechabites, however, the Rechabites are translated to heaven, or to some place like heaven. There is another difference between Jeremiah 35 and the History of the Rechabites. In Jeremiah 35, the Rechabites seem to be partaking of a tradition; in the History of the Rechabites, though, they are fasting and praying specifically for the sinful people of Israel, in hope that God will turn from God’s wrath.
In the History of the Rechabites, Zosimus is taken to heaven (or some place like that), and an apparently naked man believes that Zosimus must be a man of God to be there; some wonder why Zosimus is there at all, since their expectation is that people are translated into heaven at the end times, not before, generally-speaking. While Zosimus probably is a righteous man, he is not perfect. An angel warns him not to think too highly of himself on account of his ascetism. The naked man tells Zosimus that Zosimus comes from the world of vanity, and that his garment is corrupted, whereas those where Zosimus currently is possess uncorrupted garments. Zosimus encounters the Rechabites about whom he was curious, and they wonder why exactly he is there. Zosimus gets tired of their questions day and night and wants to rest, so he asks an attendant to tell them that he (Zosimus) is not there. The attendant is shocked that Zosimus would ask him to lie and bring lies into that holy place, and elders and youths are about to expel Zosimus, but Zosimus entreats them “earnestly and abundantly”, and “with difficulty” they forgive him (J.H. Charlesworth’s translation).
What does this have to do with the sermon that I heard this morning? Well, I was thinking about the exclusivism that the History of the Rechabites seems to manifest, at least in my reading of it so far. God is willing to satisfy Zosimus’ curiosity and to make him privy to what God has done, but that is because Zosimus is a man of God; that may make him privileged in a way that is not the case with many others. “Heaven” appears to be a place that is pure, one that the beings there want to protect from sin and contamination, even though, at the same time, Zosimus is acknowledged to be a man with faults, from a world with faults.
One would think that heaven would be more welcoming than that, the way that many churches see themselves as welcoming, or even try to be so. But there are many evangelicals or conservative Christians who would say that heaven cannot be contaminated by sin. Why? If we are taught as Christians to bear with people’s faults here and now and to love people unconditionally, why would it be so horrible for people to be that way in heaven? And yet, such a view does have some rhyme or reason that makes sense to me. In a sense, love does run more smoothly when it is reciprocal, when everyone is loving and serving, and there is no one who is taking advantage of other people’s love to exploit or to dominate others. Having a selfish person in heaven could spoil the atmosphere.
But back to the sermon. God, according to the lady preaching, forgave sin through the animal sacrifice. And yet, God was not entirely exclusive, for God wanted for the Israelites to eat at his table, to partake of the sacrifice. In a sense, God was accessible to all. The problem of sin still needed to be addressed, though. I am somewhat landing at the evangelical message that God cannot tolerate sin, and thus needed Jesus to reconcile us to him by dealing with sin on the cross.
Anyway, I’m kind of writing myself into a pit, so I’ll stop here.
(UPDATE: The place to which God takes the Rechabites is a faraway island.)