Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Old Testament’ Category

Moreover, the final compilers of the biblical text ensured that the text was to be understood as a unity.  There are not only major groupings of books, but editorial ‘splices’ that join major groupings of books with each other.  Therefore, both theological and literary points are made simultaneously.  For example, at the beginning of each of the major sections of the Hebrew Bible there is an extraordinary emphasis on the word of God.  The Bible begins with the word of God creating reality, and its first work is to create light, thus establishing the rhythm of the day and night (Gen. 1:3-5).  The text proceeds to describe the first human beings and their residence in the garden of Eden, which is maintained only by organizing their lives around the word of God (Gen. 2:4-25).  Joshua, which commences the second major grouping of biblical books, the Prophets, contains an exhortation requiring the new Israelite leader to meditate day and night on the Torah to ensure the success of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, and so be enabled to enjoy the fruits of the new Eden (Josh. 1:8-9).  Near the beginning of the third and last grouping of books, the Writings, Israelites are urged to meditate on the Torah day and night in order to find success and become like trees planted in a garden alongside streams of gushing water (Ps. 1:2-3).  By these links, this writing is conceptually distinguished from other writings, since it is the Word of God.  But it is also distinguished literarily, since an implicit unity has been marked explicitly: it is also the Word of God.

Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, pages 32-33 (italics original)

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Michael Coogan, an OT lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, has recently written an opinion article ostensibly exposing some “shocking” values espoused by the Bible.  While Coogan makes some valid points in this short essay, for the most part, I found his analysis to be a mixed bag at best.

As for the good, Coogan makes a wonderful suggestion that is essentially a call to good exegesis and hermeneutics:

Individual biblical texts should not be appealed to selectively: Such cherry-picking is all too easy because of the nature of the Bible as a multi-authored book. Rather, as with another formative text, the Constitution, one needs first to understand it historically — what did its words mean when they were written — and then attempt to determine what its underlying values are, not just what it says in a specific passage.

One wonders then, why Coogan is unable to take his own advice earlier in the essay, when he talks about issues like slavery, homosexuality and abortion.  In each of these, he tends to fall under his own judgment by being overly selective or superficial.

Coogan claims early in his essay that “the Bible itself makes clear [that] its authors were human beings.”  Here we have an error of omission, because the Bible also makes clear that its origin is ultimately divine (e.g., 2 Tim 3:16), unless we exclude the countless times (well over 500) formulae such as “the Lord said,” or “the word of the Lord came to…” introduce a text.  Coogan misses the fact that, much like Christ, the Bible understands itself as both human and divine.

Coogan continues his selectivity regarding slavery.  Indeed, supporters of slavery may have used the Bible to support their view, but so did the abolitionists.  What of the slave trade if William Wilberforce were never given a Bible?  What of William Lloyd Garrison’s (thoroughly Christian) first abolitionist address at Park Street Church?  It is so easy to stir up vitriol over human rights issues while forgetting that their origins in Western culture are actually Biblical.  The notion that all people have intrinsic worth and dignity does not have its roots in ancient Hellenism, or even the Enlightenment.  As David Bentley Hart so lucidly illustrates in Atheist Delusions (review here), Christianity is responsible for shaping the West with these ideals.

While we’re on the topic of slavery, if I may digress, we must remember that because of our own history, Biblical slavery is often thought to be equivalent to the African slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.  This post cannot adequately discuss the Biblical view of slavery.  I will remark, however, that Biblical slavery knows countless differences over and against the slavery in our own recent history.  Not all slavery was cruel, forced, unremitting labor, and numerous Biblical injunctions enforced that.  The starting point to the discussion of slavery, then, oughtn’t presuppose an ancient Near-Eastern Simon Legree capriciously and viciously abusing slaves while enjoying God’s approval.  The text of the Bible, and the careful cultural exegesis that should accompany it, simply does not allow it.

With homosexuality, Coogan makes the common mistake of applying the same hermeneutics to laws governing diet and dress, rather than understanding the function and intent of these laws in their particular place in Scripture.  Moreover, his hermeneutics are embarrassing, viz., we don’t like these laws any more, therefore we should reconsider them.  Coogan takes the stance that often under-girds anti-Bible rhetoric:  He stands in judgment over it.  If we are to take the Bible on its own terms, it should judge us.  If not, then it is effectively impotent to tell us anything at all, since we get to determine for ourselves what of it is good or bad.  This is the crucial first step in approaching the book; our interpretive outcome hinges upon it.  If we understand the Bible as an authority above ourselves, then it doesn’t matter if its teaching runs against our own opinions or cultural milieu.  I cannot reject a teaching of the Bible simply because I do not like it, or because it is out of vogue.  If that is my posture, why bother read it?  I’m determining right and wrong for myself, whether the Bible agrees or disagrees is of no consequence.

Coogan ultimately claims that the Bible’s authority rests on its underlying message; “equal, even loving, treatment of all persons, regardless of their age, gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”  In other words, the Bible has authority because its underlying message conforms to modern sensibilities.  Moreover, he completely misses the point, because the underlying message, the meta-narrative of the Bible, is not some trite (however agreeable) ethical mandate.  It is not simply a collection of commands to obey unto salvation.  It is the message of a good, just, loving God, who redeems a sinful, fallen world through the death and resurrection of His Son.  To read the Bible and miss Jesus is to miss the point.

In the end, Coogan rightly accuses too many public figures for being lazy (or unwarranted) in their application of Biblical texts.  His call to uncover the original meaning of a text before applying it to our lives today is right on.  It seems, however, that he has missed his own mark, ultimately missing the point all together.

Read Full Post »

In Ephesians 4:8, Paul quotes Psalm 68:18:

“When he ascended on high,

he led captives in his train

and gave gifts to men.” (NIV)

If you flip to Ps.68:18 in your Bible, however, you’ll find that the text reads:

“When you ascended on high,

you led captives in your train;

you received gifts from men” (NIV)

What do we do about this?  The change of subject (i.e., from “you” to “he”), isn’t entirely alarming, since the NT frequently applies things said of God to Jesus (e.g., Peter’s sermon in Acts 2; never mind that we understand God to be Triune, so putting Jesus and God on the same footing is no offense).  The issue is “received” and “gave.”  Is Paul misquoting the text?  There are no easy answers.  Peter O’Brien, in his excellent commentary on Ephesians, admits as much.  After listing five major interpretations of this verse, he admits, “None of the above-mentioned suggestions fully solves this difficult crux” (Ephesians, PNTC, p.293).

We find no help here from textual criticism; the textual evidence is very strong for Paul’s use of “gave” in Eph.4:8.  We find less help when we refer to the Hebrew Masoretic text or the Septuagint.  Both write “received;” not “gave.”  The problem won’t go away that easily.

Historically, these types of things have shaken me, bringing up questions in the “is the Bible reliable?” vein.  Something helpful to me in such circumstances has been the mental equivalent of taking a deep breath, and reminding myself of what we know about Paul, and NT authors in general:

  1. Paul probably knew the OT (in Hebrew and Greek), better than most of us, let’s not forget that he was a Pharisee (Php.3:5).
  2. Paul probably held the OT in higher regard than most of us (this is the man who wrote 2 Tim.3:16, after all).
  3. Paul was probably writing to people who knew the OT, and had a high regard for it.
  4. Paul is no sloppy writer.  As literature, the structures, words and themes of Paul’s letters show amazing skill, purpose, thoughtfulness and depth.

Given the above, the most reasonable thing to conclude is that Paul’s use of “gave” in his quotation is intentional, serious, and with scriptural basis.  It is no accident, no light treatment of the OT, and no Biblical contradiction.  Also, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is dangerous to impose our contemporary ideas about quoting sources upon Paul, who comes from a vastly different culture than our own, with completely different technology, expectations, and assumptions about the transmission of ideas.  In our eye witness news days, with entire books written on how to properly quote a source, where we even insert special words to remind readers that we’re quoting a source exactly as the author wrote it (e.g., sic), it’s easy to lose sight of this.

So in the first instance, we can relax, and doubly so because I haven’t even mentioned yet that Paul is an apostle writing by the power of the Holy Spirit, a fact itself capable of allaying our fears.  But we still have a problem, namely, what is Paul saying and why?

The explanations I’ve read broadly fall into two categories.  The first suggests that Paul is applying some flavor of Jewish technique for Biblical interpretation, called a midrash.  There were targumim (i.e., midrashic interpretations of the OT) available to Paul at the time that actually use “gave” instead of “received” for the verse in question.

The second has to do with the words themselves.  The word for “receive,” it is argued, can mean “receive in order to give.”  In other words, the gifts are received, but only to be given back.  Expanding on this, some have made connections between Psalm 68 and Numbers 8 and 18.  In these texts, God takes or receives the Levites only to give them back to serve the community (c.f., Num. 8:16 and 8:19).   This explanation fits nicely in the context of Ephesians, because in Eph.4:7-16, Paul is talking about gifts that God has given to the church, specifically people (apostles, prophets, etc.), for the purpose of serving it.

My summaries above all require much defense, and again, as O’Brien notes in his commentary, none are without deficiencies.  The one unifying premise we might note, however, is that to say Paul “quotes” Ps.68:18 may be misleading in itself.  It might be better to say that Paul is interpreting the Psalm for us as much as he is quoting it.  He actually does this quite explicitly in the verses that follow (vv.9-10), when he shows how the Psalm points to the incarnation and ascension of Jesus.  Paul is in “interpretive mode,” as it were.

Finally, we should note that this text poses no great exegetical problem.  Had we no knowledge of Psalm 68, Paul’s point is in this passage is clear:  God (Jesus) has a history of giving gifts to us, in this case the gifts are people who help us grow to the unified maturity that has Christ-likeness as its ultimate goal.  And exhale.

Read Full Post »

Twelve Tribes of IsraelA friend of mine is taking Dr Douglas Stuart’s OT Survey course at Gordon-Conwell right now and is studying for the final (you can actually access these lectures for free here).  One of the questions on the final is regarding the allotments of land for each tribe.  My friend’s question was regarding whether Benjamin is considered a southern or northern tribe (I vote south, since that’s where they ended up in the split- 1 Kings 12:21-24).  But then he brought up the tribe of Simeon, who geographically is in the southern portion of Israel, but seemed to end up siding with the north in the split.

So then, what happened to them?  Clearly they couldn’t takes sides with the north but keep their land in the middle of Judah, the powerful tribe of the south.  I think the answer can be seen in 2 Chronicles 15:9, when it says Asa, King of Judah, “assembled all Judah and Benjamain and the people from Ephraim, Manasseh and Simeon who had settled among them, for large numbers had come over to him from Israel when they saw that the LORD his God was with him” (TNIV).  This implies that the people of Simeon probably relocated to the north when the 12 tribes split into 2 kingdoms.  Some of those people came back when they realized they were on the wrong side.

If we were paying attention back when we were reading Genesis, we may have forseen something like this.  Before Jacob died, he “called for his sons and said: ‘Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come'” (Gen 49:1).  Here are the appropriate verses for our topic (vv5-7):

Simeon and Levi are brothers- their swords are weapons of violence.  Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.  Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel!  I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.

So Jacob predicted these tribes would be dispersed, but this was fulfilled in different ways.  For Levi, his descendents became the priests of Israel.  Levi wasn’t alloted a specific plot of land, but cities throughout the land from which to minister.  Simeon, on the other hand, was alloted a plot of land in the middle of the tribe of Judah.  Some might consider that a fulfillment of Jacob’s words, but I think there’s more to it than that.  The tribe of Simeon, as implied by the 2 Chronicles passage mentioned above, seemed to scatter themselves by leaving their land and joining the northern tribes.

For me, checking into this was a good reminder of the coherence of the Old Testament.  It also reminds me of how Jacob’s prophesies in Genesis 49 sets the stage for some of what happens in the rest of the Old Testament narrative, but that’s another post for another day.

Note: I got the picture from eBibleteacher.com, which offers up images for free.  I checked the site to make sure I could use it, but it was hard to find that kind of info on the site.  At any rate, the site offers free images; I highly recommend checking it out.

Read Full Post »

In his book, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil, James Crenshaw seeks to search the Bible for an adequate response to the problems of evil and “God’s perceived injustice” (p.18).  Here I wish to address the common thread which Crenshaw himself notes as unifying his work: “the abiding tension between justice and mercy” (p.18).  We shall argue that justice and mercy are harmoniously intertwined within God’s character; two parts of a whole which are not in conflict.

Before proceeding, one introductory comment is in order:  Crenshaw’s Biblical search, when subjected to the Biblical canon espoused by orthodox Protestantism, is simultaneously deficient and inflated.  Crenshaw’s search takes place almost entirely within the Old Testament Scriptures; a paucity of references are made to the New Testament (deficiency).  In addition, Crenshaw includes many extracanonical writings (e.g., 4 Ezra, Sirach, 1 & 2 Macabees) under the umbrella of the Bible (inflation).  For the purposes of this post I shall largely ignore this disagreement, save to note here that it cannot be without effect on Crenshaw’s conclusions.  A much more serious aspect of Crenshaw’s view of Scripture, and its consequences, shall be addressed later.

Crenshaw makes his view of justice and mercy clear: the two oppose each other.  The two are “in tension;” they manifest “conflicting demands,” and are even “irreconcilable” (pp.18;91).  Crenshaw opens his book with the dilemma:

Strict justice requires that I get what I deserve, no more and no less.  Mercy allows my just deserts to be set aside, my transgression overlooked or forgiven.  How can the deity perfectly embody both? (p.3).

Crenshaw sees this conflict evident in YHWH’s great self-disclosure:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (Ex.34:6-7).

The problem, according to Crenshaw is that we have compassion “in astonishing juxtaposition” with God’s judgment (p.92).  Even more, how does one square the notion of transgenerational punishment with texts like Ezekiel 18, which seems to invalidate said punishment?

We might first ask where the “conflict” is in this text.  God is one who forgives; God is one who judges.  Are these qualities indeed mutually exclusive in a personality?  Must God be all one or the other?  A straightforward reading would simply indicate that God is revealing balance or fullness to His character: He is a God of forgiveness, but He’s no pushover.  The apparent conflict with Ezekiel 18 is resolved when one considers the different purposes of the two texts.  Where Exodus is a general and explicit revelation of God’s character; Ezekiel is a text written to a specific audience in a very specific situation purposed at stressing individual accountability.

In his fifth chapter, Crenshaw maintains that the Biblical writers struggle to depict a God of an apparent “split personality.”  He draws upon the book of Jonah and Joel in particular to stress his point.  Where Jonah grows angry with God for His compassion, Joel wrestles with the doctrine of God’s compassion while faced with circumstances that instead indicate a wrathful God.  In the end is a God characterized by “Who knows?”  Perhaps God will be merciful; perhaps He will be just.  Implicit here is that He cannot be both.

We must, or course, reject the notion that God maintains a split personality.  Crenshaw does not state so explicitly, but we can only assume that he would not adhere to such doctrine.  The Bible will not allow for such a diagnosis (c.f., Dt. 6:4; Mt. 12:25f), nor will logic: how could a perfect God withstand inner conflict?  So then, how do we answer Crenshaw’s implication that justice and mercy are conflicting aspects of God?  We might consider first his definition of justice, namely that it constitutes getting what one deserves.  We ask, then, what does one deserve?  Taking God to be the supremely holy, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect source of all that is, what is the just desert for any rebellion against Him?  Be it any sin of any magnitude, we cannot but conclude that offending an infinitely good God warrants infinite punishment.

As such, we note great mercy inherent in God’s justice: God’s justice is intrinsically merciful; in fact, He routinely underpunishes.  The two do not oppose each other, but are made manifest in concert with each other.  Even if we take an egregious villain who is bound for eternal punishment in Hell, their existence on earth will be seasoned with God’s mercy.

We could draw upon numerous Biblical examples that show these two characteristics working together in God’s personality, but space permits us to consider only the account of David and Bathsheba as a start (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24).  Crenshaw takes this account to be one of YHWH’s injustice:  David escapes (deserved) punishment while the innocent child of his affair dies, a punishment Crenshaw posits as “the ultimate penalty” (p.137).

In Crenshaw’s view, then, we have of YHWH’s mercy (thus injustice) for David and straight injustice upon his child.  Crenshaw seems to forget Nathan’s prophecy to David, however; YHWH’s punishment for his sin: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you” (2 Sam. 12:11a).  The following chapters in David’s life depict in vivid detail how much he did indeed suffer in the conflicts with his son, Absalom.  However, couched in YHWH’s justice is also mercy:  David is not stricken from the throne as an unjust king (as perhaps he ought to be), but further union with Bathsheba results in the birth of Solomon, who continues the Davidic line.

Furthermore, we might disagree that David’s child has paid the ultimate price by death.  Even if we were to ignore any notion of an afterlife and assume annihilationism, is being taken from a life that will no doubt entail much suffering not an act of mercy?  The point weighs in even heavier if an afterlife is considered (i.e., read the New Testament).  Herein is an additional example of YHWH’s mercy made manifest in justice.

As for the book of Jonah, indeed, God’s mercy is the focal point; but His wrath is not out of view.  With Joel, God’s wrath seems more clearly in view; but His mercy is present as well (Joel 2:13-14).  We have no theological dilemma here, but simply different texts of different purposes emphasizing two threads that intertwine to form God’s dealings with humankind.

Crenshaw’s journey through theodicy in the Bible is a provocative one.  Each of his chapters considers an approach to theodicy, and in the end, each is found unconvincing.  This result is inevitable, given the other common thread running through his book.  Namely, that Crenshaw holds a low view of Scripture.  Rather than taking the texts he searches to be the infallible Word of God, they are “mythical” (p.15) and “imaginative” (p.10); Moreover, Scriptural authors tend towards manipulation of God and reader (p.10).  Crenshaw views Scripture as human authors struggling to depict God; not God revealing Himself through human writers.

To take the Bible on terms other than what it claims for itself is to place oneself above Scripture and thus submit it to one’s own categories, rather than submitting to Scripture’s categories .  Crenshaw’s low view of Scripture is what allows him to posit what he calls a “fundamental tenet of theism, that God cannot be known” (p.181).  Indeed, in his view God was not known by the authors of Scripture, hence inherent in them is much struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable.  Since Scripture is suspect to Crenshaw, his task is juxtaposed:  rather than understanding his view of justice and mercy in light of Scripture, he understands Scripture in light of his view of justice and mercy (where have I heard this before?)

In his conclusions about the book of Job, Crenshaw suggests that “God plays by different rules from those projected on the deity by human rationality” (p.189).  Here we fundamentally agree, and wonder why this statement cannot be applied to his views of justice and mercy.  Perhaps in our economy, one cannot simultaneously exhibit both qualities, but in God’s this is clearly the case.

While I stand in radical disagreement with Crenshaw’s position on Scripture, I agree with his closing remarks: the issue of theodicy cannot be resolved, given an infinite God and finite humanity.  We equally agree that this does not relieve us from the task of eagerly seeking out understanding and knowledge; or engaging with such difficult issues.  It is not a ticket to complacency.

As a final comment, our lack of understanding ought not to be construed as a deficiency in Biblical theology.  It is rather something stated positively:  We cannot fully understand God’s ways (c.f., Is. 55:8-9; Job 42:3).  This is not “dodging the bullet,” as is suggested by some (e.g., C.S.Cowles in Show Them No Mercy, p.146).  Appealing to the mysteries of God which we cannot yet comprehend enjoys a long history.  Better yet, it is indicative of a humble posture before God against which I find no good argument.

Read Full Post »

I recently had the privilege of kicking off a series of three classes on the Pentateuch at our church’s training school. I mentioned early in the class that the Pentateuch, (or OT in general), is often among the most challenging portions of the Bible.  Why?  Firstly, the Pentateuch is the oldest portion of the Bible, written in the neighborhood of 3,500 years ago.  Secondly, the culture in which it was was written, the Ancient Near East, is vastly different from our own Greco-Roman (i.e., Western) roots.  These increased chronological and cultural differences (as compared to one of Paul’s letters, for example) often require extra diligence on the part of the reader.

Praise be, many resources are available to us as a help to flesh out the richness of the Pentateuch, and close some of the gaps we encounter when we read it.  I would recommend the five books below as some possible starting points:

Our resource of the month, IVP’s Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament, is a great starting point, and a helpful, accessible resource for OT study in one volume.

From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch is the best book I’ve read on the Pentateuch.  Ever.  It is more concerned with theology than strict exegesis per se, but I’ve yet to encounter its equal. There is only one caveat: There are 100 pages or so at the front of the text about higher criticism. While this is ‘important’ material, it is much more geared for those in scholarly circles, and far less important than understanding the Pentateuch itself. Those interested in higher criticism should read Garrett’s Rethinking Genesis instead. As such, I’d recommend skipping the first section of Paradise to the Promised Land, unless you really enjoy trudging through the annals of what OT critics have (mostly in error) written about Pentateuchal authorship.

Archaeology and the Old Testament is another good resource for OT backgrounds. While the text sticks closely to its subject, archaeology, it is far from a dry history book. You will not find detailed commentaries on biblical passages here, but you will find a great resource that explains what we’ve learned about the history of the ancient near east through archaeology, and how that relates to different passages in the Bible. Hoerth often points to how certain findings bring to life different OT passages. Aside from being a great resource for understanding the culture of the OT, this text is also helpful in affirming the historical reliability of the Bible. Hoerth is very careful (and right!) to note that as helpful as archaeology is, it can never “prove” the Bible. He does well to describe what archaeology can and cannot do for us as we study Scripture.

Handbook on the Pentateuch is effectively a chapter by chapter commentary on Genesis through Deuteronomy that ties together many of the larger themes running through the Pentateuch. It’s also Danny’s favorite, and that’s worth something :)

 

A final recommendation would be IVP’s New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Here is another great starting place for those looking for an accessible, single volume commentary of the entire Bible.

Read Full Post »