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Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

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)

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Richard Bauckham’s book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, is, in my opinion, the best book written on Revelation (at least for a non-commentary).  Among many strong points, he demonstrates the intentional contrast between the city of Babylon (which is Rome for John’s readers), portrayed as the harlot (chapters 17-18) and the New Jerusalem, seen in chapters 21-22.  I’ve mentioned previously how I’m trying to understand better how Revelation works as a narrative, and the use of contrast is a fairly common literary device in narratives.  I present Bauckham’s breakdown of this contrast (from pages 131-132).

  1. The chaste bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:2, 9) vs. the harlot with whom the kings of the earth fornicate (17:2)
  2. Her splendour is the glory of God (21:11-21) vs. Babylon’s splendour from exploiting her empire (17:4; 18:12-13, 16)
  3. The nations walk by her light, which is the glory of God (21:24) vs. Babylon’s corruption and deception of the nations (17:2, 18:3, 23; 19:2)
  4. The kings of the earth bring their glory into her (i.e., their worship and submission to God: 21:24) vs. Babylon rules over the kings of the earth (17:18)
  5. They bring the glory and honour of the nations into her (i.e., glory to God: 21:26) vs. Babylon’s luxurious wealth extorted from all the world (18:12-17)
  6. Uncleannes, abomination, and falsehood are excluded (21:27) vs. Babylon’s abominations, impurities, deceptions (18:12-17)
  7. The water of life and the tree of life for the healing of the nations (21:6; 22:1-2) vs. Babylon’s wine which makes the nations drunk (14:8; 17:2; 18:3)
  8. Life and healing (22:1-2) vs. the blood of slaughter (17:6; 18:24)
  9. God’s people are called to enter the New Jerusalem (22:14) vs. God’s people are called to come out of Babylon (18:4)

I find this list not only to be a convincing demonstration of the intentional juxtaposition of the two cities, I also find it convicting.  How often do we settle for accepting life in Babylon when we were made for the New Jerusalem?

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Revelation can be a difficult book to understand.  The are any number of reasons for this, many of which are obvious (you know, stuff like demonic frogs and giant hailstones falling from the sky).  One of the reasons for this difficulty, in my opinion, is that we tend not to read Revelation as a narrative.  I realize that it doesn’t work exactly like most narratives, such as the ones we find in the OT or even in the NT, like Acts.  After all, settings shift without much notice; characters come and go rather quickly, often without identifying themselves; and so on.

Yet, if we allow some features of a narrative to be present, we’ll notice how seemingly disconnected visions can work together.  I want to look at two questions that are posed in Revelation by unbelievers to demonstrate what I’m getting at.

  • As God is pouring out His judgment in 6:12-17 (the 6th seal), the people of the earth “called to the mountains and the rock, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?'”
  • In chapter 13, the beast is revealed and worshipped.  The people of the earth who follow the beast ask, “Who is like the beast?  Who can make war against it?” (v4- I take the second question as working in tandem with the first.)

These questions were intended to be rhetorical questions by those who ask them, the answer being “no one.”  No one, in their mind, can withstand the judgment of God; and no one can wage war against the mighty beast.

But in the narrative of Revelation, John takes these rhetorical questions and turns them around.  After the sixth seal is opened and the people of the earth ask who can withstand God’s wrath, John has another vision.  After hearing the number of those sealed, he sees a vision of a great multitude (I take these to be referring to one group, but that’s for another discussion) “standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (7:9).  Who can withstand God’s judgment?  Those who remain faithful to the Lamb and refuse to compromise even if it means their death. 

In the same way, the answer to the “rhetorical” question of 13:4 (who can make war against the beast?) is given in chapter 14 in another vision of the 144,000.  I’m following Richard Bauckham (and others) here in seeing the number “144,000” as a wartime census (which helps explain why they are men and not women), although my interpretation doesn’t depend on this point.  These righteous and holy people are the ones who can wage war against the beast; not in the manner that the beast would fight, but in the path of the Lamb himself.  And the Lamb is also the heavenly warrior who ultimately defeats the beast in Revelation 19:11-21.  The point is that there are, in fact, some who can successfully wage war against the mighty beast.  The beast’s power, vicious though it was, was only temporary and ultimately futile.  The irony is that those who suffered at the hands of the beast were actually winning the battle.

There is a purpose in having these rhetorical questions turn out to be not-so-rhetorical in the narrative.  These questions demonstrate the blindness of unbelief.  Those who do not submit themselves to the One who sits on the throne or to the Lamb honestly think they understand “the way things work.”  They think of God’s judgment as comprehensively unavoidable.  It seems capricious and arbitrary to those who do not have eyes to see.  But those who remain faithful will know that God’s judgment is anything but arbitrary.  It is just.  Even worse, their blindness prevents them from seeing the proper response- repentance (see also Revelation 9:20-21).  They seek help from inanimate objects rather than the Creator who is sovereign over all things, who is able and willing to extend mercy.

In the same way, those who followed the beast honestly thought that the beast was unconquerable.  Awed by the brute force of the beast and the signs of the second beast (the “shock and awe” approach, if you will), they were deceived into thinking that they were witnessing the single most powerful entity in existence.  They were blind, however, to the true reality: that those who resist the beast and remain faithful to the Lamb will overcome the beast. 

So in John’s narrative, these rhetorical questions prove a point: that those who do not have eyes to see will be blind to true reality.  When we recognize these questions for what they are- false assumptions of a blind people- we are convicted and encouraged not to capitulate to such a worldview.  We are reminded to seek God, the One who sits on the throne, the One who is the merciful and sovereign King of Creation.

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