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Posts Tagged ‘midrash’

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.

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