God is shooting at us!

monks' bones
A wall decoration in Rome's "church of the bones"

Exodus 20:1-11

Week 43 (October)

They are not aware of it, but most Italians' theological beliefs are rooted more in an epic poem by Dante Alighieri than they are in the Bible.

In The Inferno, written in the 14th century, Dante tells the story of the Roman poet Virgil leading Dante on a guided tour through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

The epic poem's medieval view of God, man, sin, punishment, and reward is also reflected in many of the paintings and frescoes one sees today in Italian churches.

Many Italians' understanding of God is that of an almighty DON'T. For them, God is an angry Creator who is itching to shoot us down at the slightest misstep. He's somewhat kept in check by the saints and Mary who are interceding for us.

Well, God is "shooting" at us, all right, but not in that sense. Torah, the Hebrew word we translate "law," has its roots in a verb which can mean "to shoot." That verb also means "to teach." Thus, in trying to understand the Torah, we might say that when God is revealing truth or teaching His people, He is shooting ideas from His own mind into ours. In this light, our translation of Torah as "law" is a bit poverty-stricken in meaning, since Torah also denotes teaching and revelation.

At the heart of the Torah -- a name the Jews apply to the books attributed to Moses -- are the Ten Commandments received at Mount Sinai. Using these fundamental principles -- sometimes called the Decalogue ("ten words") -- as a mirror of the mind of God, it is clear that because He is our Creator, God has claims upon every facet of our lives. [ text of Ten Commandments ]

God does not want us to be mere soulless slaves of the law or slaves to a divine despot. Even a superficial reading of the Ten Commandments makes clear that these principles correspond to humanity's central needs. They are not an impossible set of demands. They are not meant for angels or a very few people of superior piety (while the rest of us have to pass through purgatory for our inability to observe them properly).

A sad relic of this mistaken belief exists in Rome, not far from the American embassy. On the level just below the sanctuary of the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione is a little arched corridor. Along this corridor are five small alcoves whose floors are covered with dirt from the Holy Land. The walls and ceilings of the corridor and of the alcoves are completely covered with various Christian symbols including crucifixes, a crown of thorns, the Greek letters of Christ's name, and an angel of death. What is startling about these designs is that they are all formed from human bones.

Attached to the wall is a little placard explaining the "cemetery." Among other details is the fact that 4,000 Capuchin monks are "buried" there, "some of whom," it says, "were holy men."

What a difference from the Jewish understanding of the Torah. Godly Jews saw the Torah as the way of holiness, whose wisdom and guidance were for all people, even the most ordinary.

God is shooting at us. He's shooting His wisdom, a code of ethics, and a revelation of himself. I pray that I'll be a clear enough target for Him to hit squarely!

I wrote these devotional thoughts while serving as a missionary in Italy. They appeared in the October 26, 1980 Standard to correlate with the Enduring Word Bible studies series.

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