What I’m Reading: The Powers That Be

I picked up this book because another author referenced a concept I wanted to learn more
about.  The concept was what author Walter Wink labelled as the Ancient Domination System.  The Ancient Domination System describes the institutions and economies that most ancient cultures employed: power was held in the hands of a few at the expense of the masses.  Many today mistakenly believe that this domination system is essentially the same thing modern Western economies employ.  Lumping today’s Western economies together with that of ancient Rome or even ancient Israel can lead to many a flawed conclusion regarding what the Bible teaches about economics, though there are some similarities and overarching principles.  But I digress.

As I read the first couple of chapters, I was intrigued by Wink’s description of these domination systems.  These systems rely primarily on coercion to keep people under their power.  Yet, these systems were not inherently evil.  Being part of God’s creation, the powers and the institutions that support them were originally created as good, but they are also fallen, and stand in need of being reclaimed and redeemed. It is these institutions that the Bible identifies as principalities and powers.  Part of what we are called to do is to identify the fallenness of these power structures and redeem them as part of God’s kingdom, as opposed to casting the people within these power structures as our enemy or dismissing these institutions as inherently evil.

As much as I was enjoying the author’s description of the fallenness and redemption of power structures and institutions, I was equally disappointed in the author’s underlying theology upholding his main premise.  The author is a strong advocate of non-violent resistance, which is fine.  However, in my estimation, he makes the mistake of interpreting the whole of scripture to support his agenda, rather than submitting his agenda to the whole of scripture.  Because of this, the author makes Jesus’ primary aim to spread the gospel of non-violence.  The Old Testament, and even the writings of the apostles John and Paul are often contrasted to the teachings of Jesus.  His interpretation of some of the teachings of Jesus, such as turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, are interpretations that I have not encountered elsewhere.

Overall, I have enjoyed some of the ideas Wink talks about in the book.  I even enjoy reading different perspectives that challenge my own thinking.  I can affirm much of what the author is trying to convey.  But I am also reminded of the danger of using God and the Bible to affirm my beliefs, rather than using God and the Bible to shape them.

The Fourth Commandment, Pt. 1

I’m continuing excerpts from my writing project, Ten Essential Words.  This one is from chapter five.


We first see God commanding rest in Exodus chapter sixteen.  The Israelites had just been delivered from the Egyptian army and were now wandering the Desert of Sin, doing what they did best at the time: complaining. They grumbled about having no water, so God made the bitter waters of Marah sweet.  They complained about having no food, so God provided for them manna.  Like a cranky child needing a nap, nothing God did for them was good enough, “If only we had died by Yahweh’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted.”  And like an exasperated parent, God placates the Israelites with quail, “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am Yahweh your God.’”  But in doing so, God gave them some very specific instructions: they were never to gather any more than they needed for that particular day.  However, on the sixth day, they were to gather enough for two days.  The reason?

Bear in mind that Yahweh has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.”  So the people rested on the seventh day. (Exodus 16:29-30)

This is the first mention of a Sabbath day.  The people were to spend every day gathering manna in the morning and quail in the evening, but on the seventh day, they were to rest from gathering altogether.

Notice that God was trying to instill a rhythm to their work as well.  No matter how much they gathered they were not to keep any for the next day.  Of course, the people would immediately test this: “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell.”  On the sixth day, they were to store enough for the Sabbath day.  And on the Sabbath day, they were not to gather at all.  You can almost see God beginning to combat such human propensities as greed (only take as much as you need), self-sufficiency (do not store it up for the next day), and workaholism (rest from gathering on the seventh day).  You can almost see the Israelites tempted to deviate from God’s plan in predictable ways.  Some quickly envision cornering the market on quail and making a killing on their quail-less neighbor.  Others immediately get out their calculators and begin laying out their financial plan: how much manna do I need to gather and store up in order to retire at the age of forty?  Still others relish the competition to gather – and they will gather with the best of them.  Day and night, they will be gathering manna and quail, measuring productivity and efficiency, and one day they will be recognized as the best!  But to each of these God says “Rest.  Pace yourself.  Depend on me.”