Friday, November 16, 2012

Childhood Bible Studies

A few years ago, on a winter day, my daughter and I thought we saw blue lights in the leafless willow tree behind our house.  I thought of Annie Dillard's image in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek of the tree with lights in it. We realized that our Christmas tree, which stood in a direct line from the dining room, reflected in the window, so that the tree lights seemed to hang, in a ghostly way, around the willow branches.

Down beside that tree, Canada geese waddled in a nearly perfect line across the ice-covered lake.(1) A few weeks later, I watched a blue heron chase off a pair of gulls. When Christmas day arrived, we saw a red-tailed hawk in the backyard maple tree. Shortly it flew low toward another tree. We assumed it, too, was waiting for lunch.

Christmas wasn’t “white” that year—the yearly expectation, thanks to Irving Berlin’s song—but we had snow, bitter cold, and wind. Emily’s childhood interest in sledding had long since waned, sadly for me. Our house sat on the side of a hill, and the slope beside the garage was perfect for sledding, as Emily and I did several times in previous years. We never quite got the momentum to get all the way to the trees beside the lake behind our property, but maybe within fifteen feet.

Sledding makes me think of my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, which has wonderful hills for sledding. Another hometown holiday memory is the sight of Christmas decorations downtown. Vandalia’s business district is no longer as busy as it once was, but when I was little, a person could do significant shopping there. I loved to see the silver, red, and green holiday decorations hung upon the downtown street lights, and the feeling of snow and cold on my face as we walked among the stores: Don’s Camera Shop, Merriman’s Flowers, Cain’s Drug Store, Greer’s Hardware, Fidelity Clothiers, G. C. Murphy, Craycroft’s, and others. At the time, I’m sure, I was impatient to go home rather than to shop, but one’s memory selects and interprets happy images from childhood.  That old song “Silver Bells” inevitably reminds me of Vandalia—hardly the “city” of the lyrics, but it seemed so to me, though. My daughter’s childhood has been more urban.

As I read my old Bible, I encounter the verses that I associate with childhood. These verses and passages form a kind of personal “canon” that reflect my early explorations of faith. A Bible reader can look back and recall times and occasions associated with different passages. The book’s words, promises, warnings, and stories can provide a structure for your life.

A show of hands: who has unused or seldom used Bibles tucked around the house?  That’s not necessarily a bad thing: my family and I have several. My wife’s childhood Bible, from Lutheran catechism, sits upon the shelves; these days she prefers the newer Serendipity Bible. Our daughter’s Beginner’s Bible, with well known Bible stories rendered in appealing cartoon form, also sits on the shelves, a nice reminder of her childhood. Now she has an edition formatted for teens. We also have the childhood Bible of Beth’s first husband, who died young from leukemia; a leather-bound Vulgate New Testament that I picked up at a sale and used for a time; an old Bible that belonged to my dad’s stepfather, and a loose-leaf NIV that I studied during the 1980s.

Perhaps you’re like me; you associate stages and times of your life with particular Bibles. Whatever happened to the Bible you received when you entered high school? Or the one Aunt Rose of Sharon gave you? Bibles, like everything else, have a way of being misplaced, disappearing. Others sit unused on shelves, and a few are still cherished. You hate to relinquish Bibles with personal associations.

My old Bible Harper RSV is third in a line of “favorite” Bibles. The second is a paperback Good News for Modern Man, which I got in Sunday school when I was 13, and the first is an old KJV which also sits, a keepsake, upon my shelves.  One day, when I was in second or third grade, my father and I were shopping in our hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, when he declared, “Paul, it’s time you had your own Bible!”

That was an unexpected announcement because Dad wasn’t yet a churchgoer. On family vacations, Mom and I visited churches while he sat in the car, reading Westerns. Yet he dearly loved George Beverly Shea, the singer on Billy Graham’s crusades. Unless he was prompted by my mother, purchasing me a bible must’ve been his way of finding a role in my religious development.  Amid Vandalia’s several clothing stores, groceries, restaurants, and other businesses that once lined the “main drag” Gallatin Street and its adjoining streets, one of our favorite stores was the G. C. Murphy, near Fourth and Gallatin.2  The store sold all manners of items from fabric and notions to LP records, candy, games, school supplies, kitchen utensils, books, and Bibles. My mother had worked at “the dime store,” as we called it, until she became pregnant with me. That was the store where Dad purchased for me that King James Version.  

I was proud of it and carried it to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. Innocently I wrote Dad’s and my names on the title page, “Presented to… From …” and marked my parents’ and grandparents’ names in the center page for family information. Once or twice I tried to read the book, and I underlined a few verses. But the language was too archaic and lofty for a young person, and the two-column formatting was tough-going. Each sentence was its own little paragraph. Who ever sees books printed like that?  You’d chuck even your favorite novel across the room.

Thus, one of my earliest impressions of the Bible was ambivalent. The Bible is wonderful to own and critically important—as everyone I knew said—so important, in fact, your eternal destiny depended upon its contents. And yet the book’s contents seemed highly resistant to being read as you could another, compelling book.

At some level that concerned me; the Bible just wasn’t as easy to understand as pious folks implied.  But I just did what everyone else did, which was to assimilate some basic Bible knowledge from church, to which my mom made me go.  For most of my childhood and youth, Mom and I went to church together.

I turn in my old Bible to the earliest verse I remember learning, Acts 10:38: … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

For years it was the only one I knew from memory (other than the gloriously brief John 11:35).  I had to memorize that verse in a childhood Sunday school class, when we were studying the ministry of Peter; the teachers had written the verse on a chalkboard. (This verse represents a “primitive Christology,” that is, the divinity of Jesus isn’t stressed but rather his prophetic activity. I knew nothing about all that, however, until I got to seminary.) The citation had a nice “beat” to it: Dah, Dah, dah-dah Dah. 

Mom and I attended a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation in Vandalia. My grandma, Grace Crawford, had a friend, Chester Griffith of Brownstown, Illinois, who had achieved 50 years of perfect Sunday school attendance. I thought that was cool and so for ten years I only missed Sunday school because of illness. The teachers at my hometown church were very good. I also attended VBS in the summer months.

As I think about the rooms of our small town church, I think of all the “basic” Bible characters that I learned. Noah, for instance, was not simply as a story about a big boat and animals.  God is holy, and his patience is long but not unlimited. Noah, though, was faithful, and he and his family were chosen by God to save.  There was a not-so-subtle moral lesson: we, too, can be faithful people whom God may choose for some great thing.

I learned about Jacob and Esau, and that dreamy, melancholy song “Jacob’s Ladder.” As I recall, our teachers used little, cartoon-like figures attached to a flannel board, so I’ve an indelible image of the two brothers looking like a small man and a big hairy man. David and Goliath were depicted similarly, even more like Popeye and Bluto than Isaac’s twin boys. David seemed smarter than Popeye, however, because he counted on God’s initiative without first becoming victimized by the giant opponent. Popeye always had to be defeated before he realized he needed his spinach…

“Tell me the stories of Jesus,” goes that old hymn, and another one, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his mercy, of Jesus and his love.” In Sunday school and VBS, I learned stories like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—stories of God’s love, and the love we’re bidden to show others. I wasn’t sure how, exactly, to show such love; how, for instance, do you “turn the other cheek” without getting a sissy reputation on the playground?

We children learned about the many faux pas of the eternally appealing disciple, Peter, who messed up, misunderstood, tried again, stumbled, but Jesus loved him all the more. Paul had the zeal and tenacity, but we don’t hear so much about Paul’s process of learning, starting again, regretting his mistakes, and so on. I don’t think Paul emerged with his faith full-grown; after all, he says that he, too, had to learn, take time, and grow (Gal. 1:17, Phil. 3:12-16). As an unlikely apostle, Paul had to defend and validate his ministry, and thus, even when he admits his struggles, he sounds self-important.  Because we have stories of his efforts, Peter seemed more approachable. Plus, Peter was a working man, like the fathers of us small-town kids. If a man close to Jesus couldn’t “get it together” and was loved anyway, we all have hope!

Some of our Sunday school material was in comic-book format. We learned about Adam and Eve, whom to this day I picture as pale, cartoon-y figures standing in a wooded area where bushes and branches conceal the couple’s private areas.  I also remember the artist’s version of the story of Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21), and Naboth’s look of horror and confusion as people seized him to be executed.  I learned the story of Stephen the same way: his figure kneeling in prayer for forgiveness as men raise large stones.

In one curricular series, two young men were Christians struggling to maintain their faith in the face of Roman persecution. I forget the name of characters and the series, but I remember that one of the men was forced by the villainous Romans to test his faith by holding onto a red-hot iron sphere with only leaves to protect his hands. If his hands were not burned, his faith would be deemed true and he’d be spared. Don’t try this at home, kids. The young man was rescued by his friends before the test, which made me a little disappointed; I wanted to know what would happen. I had a feeling that his hands would’ve been burned—and yet that wouldn’t have disapproved his faith.  But that’s a difficult issue to teach little kids—God is still faithful, even though we don’t always see “results.” Still, I felt let down.    

Bible stories are toned down a bit for children’s Sunday school; the rapes, killings, mutilations, and other more fierce passages of the Bible come a little later in one’s religious education. I learned about Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, but not his furious depictions of a Lord nearly insane with jealous vengeance against his people (chapters 16 and 23).(3) But I did learn about the plagues on Egypt----I mean, really, you can’t have serious Bible study without the plagues!----and I learned the story of Jezebel, whose death appealed to my boyish appreciation for the gruesome. “Oh, cool, wild dogs!”

I learned about Moses, Solomon, and other characters: the venerable approach to Bible study through the examples of faithful but fallible Bible people.(4)  Fortunately I don’t recall much Sunday school memorization. I had to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm (my mother helped me a little, though her coaching make the assignment more nerve-raking), and we children learned the biblical books in order, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me …You shall not make for yourself an idol…

Truthfully, I would’ve had negative memories of Sunday school if there had been more memorization, but that’s my personal preference.
Churches often measure their success and effectiveness in quantitative terms: “oh, we had 100 in our Vacation Bible School this year; we’re praying for 15,000 next year!” We must be careful not to forget that the Holy Spirit is the real grower and nurturer of faith and the Spirit is not so easy to measure quantitatively. The denominational statisticians of the time never learned that those classes laid for me a lifelong religious foundation.

Recently, in my present Sunday school class, an interesting point was raised about Stephen. Did Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:59) lead to the conversion of the persecutor Saul?  The text doesn’t say explicitly.  But it’s interesting to speculate.  How did the prayers of my church school teachers make a long-range difference for me? Perhaps you and I have faith in God today—even if it’s just a small bit of faith—because some adult prayed for us during our childhoods.

I know for sure that the Spirit was able to use my church teachers, and that simple little verse from Acts.


1.  Speaking of geese, I like this quote from Martin Luther: “Troubled consciences are like geese. When hawks pursue them, they try to escape by flying, though they could do it better by running. On the other hand, when the wolves threaten them, they try to escape by running, though they could do it safely by flying. So when their consciences are oppressed, men run first here, then there; they try first this, then that work … the one true and sure way of healing the conscience is what David [in Psalm 51:8] calls “sprinkling,” by which the Word [that is, the free justification of sinners through God’s grace alone, not our good deeds] is heard and received.” Luther’s Works, Selected Psalms 1 (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Volume 12, page 368.

2  A history of this chain store is For the Love of Murphy’s: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer by Jason Togyer (University Park: Penn State Press, 2008). Vandalia’s was store #449.

3  My classmate Julie Galambush has written an excellent study of these disturbing scriptures: Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992).

4  Graeme Goldsworthy points out a common defect in preaching: moralizing about Bible events and using Bible characters, including Jesus, as “pious examples to imitate” (page 3). For instance, he heard a speaker preach that Elijah teaches us to “walk close to the Lord.” But, Goldsworthy notes, Elijah’s closeness to God entailed the slaughter of the Baal prophets! Even “the imitation of Jesus” is not the focus of the New Testament, for the most important thing about Jesus is not his moral teachings (important as those are) but Jesus’ saving work on our behalf in his death, resurrection, and ascension.  See Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pages 3-4 and passim. I’m not implying any judgment about my Sunday school teachers, since at this point I can only remember my general impressions and memories rather than their specific content.  But it’s very much worth remembering the fact that we all do tend to view Bible characters in terms of moral lessons and godly examples, without putting them in the context of God’s overall saving history and the Bible’s focus upon Christ’s redeeming work.
Another interesting work (which I studied elsewhere on this blog) focuses upon the moral teachings of particular Old Testament stories: Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically by Gordon J. Wenham (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Interconnections in Isaiah

Although it’s still November, I’ve started to listen to favorite Christmas music---not carols yet, but Handel’s “Messiah”, Vaughan Williams’ “Hodie” (and his other Christmas music), Bach’s oratorio, a CD with hymns by Mendelssohn and Byrd, and others. The carols will begin this coming week!

"Messiah" inspired me to delve into sources about the book of Isaiah, and to study the book during the upcoming Advent season. Some of Handel’s wonderful music are settings of Isaiah texts. (This article provides all the biblical references in “Messiah,” and you can see that Isaiah is used most often among Bible books: Of course, several Advent lectionary texts are Isaiah passages, too. I forget which of my three seasonal study books for Abingdon Press contained a meditation on one of Isaiah’s servant songs.

So.... a few notes about the book of Isaiah, which will help me study the book this month and next.

I found a website that indicates that Isaiah is the second longest biblical book in terms of chapters (after the Psalms, if consider each psalm a “chapter”), the fourth longest in terms of verses (after Psalms, Genesis, and Jeremiah), and the fifth longest in terms of words (after Psalms, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Genesis). I’m not taking the time to verify this information, LOL. The point is, Isaiah is a long book! Like other prophetic books, it can be difficult reading. The New Testament letters can be difficult because you don’t always know what circumstances the author is addressing. That problem is heightened with the prophetic writings. A good commentary is essential.

Also---honestly---you don’t always know whether a prophetic writing is relevant to you today. For instance, when the prophet is addressing a situation like national military alliances being negotiated 2700 years ago, what if anything are we to draw from that? Have I understood a word of judgment (or promise) properly, considering the overall context of judgment and promise of the whole book? Again, that’s where a good commentary can help you clarify and understand the text and its potential meaning for our own time.

Isaiah himself lived in the 700s. He was called in the year of the death of King Uzziah (Isaiah 6), or about the year 740 BCE. According to one source, the Mishna and Justin Martyr give us the traditions that Isaiah was killed during Manasseh’s reign (which began about 699 BCE), perhaps by being sawed in half. Hebrews 11:37 may or may not be an allusion to his death. If Isaiah died during Manasseh’s reign, he thus survives Senacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE.  

The author of that same online source ( states, “For versatility of expression and brilliancy of imagery Isaiah had no superior, not even a rival. His style marks the climax of Hebrew literary article Both his periods and Genius and descriptions are most finished and sublime. “He is a perfect artist in words. Beauty and strength are characteristic of his entire book. Epigrams and metaphors, particularly of flood, storm and sound (1:13; 5:18, 22; 8:08; 10:22; 28:17, 20; 30:28, 30), interrogation and dialogue (6:8; 10:8, 9), antithesis and alliteration (1:18; 3:24; 17:10, 12), hyperbole and parable (2:7; 5:1-7; 28:23-29), even paranomasia, or play upon words (5:7; 7:9), characterize Isaiah's book as the great masterpiece of Hebrew literature. He is also famous for his richness of vocabulary and synonyms.... Jerome likened him to Demosthenes; and a poet: he frequently elaborates his messages in rhythmic or poetic style (12:1-6; 25:1-5; 26:1-12; 38:10-20; 42:1-4; 49:1-9; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12; 60-62; 66:5-24); and in several instances slips into elegiac rhythm, e.g. in 37:22-29 there is a fine taunting poem on Sennacherib, and in 14:4-23 another on the king of Babylon. As Driver observes, ‘Isaiah's poetical genius is superb.’”

The distinguished biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs was my Old Testament prof during the fall semester 1979, just when his book Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture appeared (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979). I had him autograph my copy. This week I pulled the book from my shelves to recall his canonical approach to Isaiah.

I also took down my Harper’s Bible Commentary (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), and studied it for a while. The author Gerald T. Sheppard notes something well known: that 1-39 and 40-66 are noticeably different sections. During the 8th century when Isaiah prophesied, Assyria and not Babylon was the major threat, but those later chapters of the book deals with the situation of those who have been in exile following the 6th century Babylonian conquest---exiles for whom “new things” can be announced (40:21, 41:4, 27, 42:9) (Sheppard, p. 543). In other words, 40-66 are not only stylistically different from 1-39 but also concerns a situation 150 years after the historical Isaiah died. Childs notes that the theory of dual authorship of Isaiah dates to the work, of Doederlein and Eichhorn in the later 1700s. By the 1900s, there was wide unanimity in the acceptance of a break between chapters 39 and 40 (Childs, pp. 317-318).

Sheppard, however, writes that after many years of scholarly study of the two sections, biblical scholars have more recently been interested in how the sections make a whole (for instance, the way Isaiah 13 and 21 connect to the Babylon judgments later in the book), and the fact that 40-66 does not seem to have ever existed independently of 1-39 (p. 543). Also, chapter 66 return to themes of chapter 1, God’s word to his people and to Jerusalem (Sheppard, p. 544). 

Childs writes that Duhm’s 1892 commentary showed that Isaiah 1-39 was itself not a historical or literary unity. For instance, it is divided into sections like 1-12, 13-23, 24-27, and so on, with some writings as late as the Maccabean period (p. 318). Childs summarizes the work of Mowinckel, Scott, and others who detailed the different sections of 1-39 and postulated the origin and layering of traditions, including “an Isaianic core” of material, with nevertheless both pre- and post-exilic material (Childs, p. 319).

So it is not a straightforward issue of 1-39 originating from Isaiah's time and 40-66 originating 150 years later in the exilic and post-exilic years. The whole book contains writings from different periods and has been skillfully edited.

Duhm was the scholar who isolated the oracles 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12, the “servant songs,” and it was who referred to chapters 55-66 as “Trito-Isaiah,” because the focus of those chapters was the post-exilic community in Jerusalem, with references to sabbath and sacrifice. Childs notes that many scholars agreed, though not whether 55-66 is a unified or edited composition (Childs, pp. 322-323).

Childs view is that although chapters 40-66 seem to be addressed to the exiles in or returning from Babylon (and those were from an unnamed prophet 150 years after the historical Isaiah), “the present canonical shape of the book of Isaiah has furnished these chapters with a very different setting. Chapters 40ff. are now understood as a prophetic word of promise offered to Isaiah by the eighth-century prophet, Isaiah of Jerusalem” (Childs, p. 325). Thus, the “the canonical editors of this tradition employed the material in such a way as to eliminate almost entirely those concrete features and to subordinate the original message to a new role within the canon” (Childs, p. 325).

For instance, chapters 40-66 have no special attribution to another prophet, nor historical situations (other than references in Cyrus in 44:28-45:1) compared to the specific circumstances to which Amos addressed his message. Even the famous opening of chapter 40 can be read, within this new context, as a general promise and not specifically to the returning exiles (Childs, p. 325). Consequently, the promises of forgiveness and redemption have a new theological context for Israel following the oracles of judgment that we find in the earlier chapters (Childs, p. 327, 330). The “former things” of Second Isaiah now refer to the earlier prophecies of judgment in First Isaiah, thus confirming the truth of the latter (p. 329-330: for instance, notes Childs, we can connect 1:7ff and 62:4, 11:6, 9 with 65:25, 13:17 with 41:25, and so on. The plan announced in 28:24ff becomes clear in Second Isaiah).

Further, Childs notes that the editing of Isaiah 1-39 provides theologian meanings through the skillful connection of oracles. For instance, the oracles against the nations (chapters 13-23), which date from different time periods, are interpreted by the oracles of a redeemed community in 24-27, where the nations are said to be able to worship together at Jerusalem. Further, the oracles of 34-35 portray a future redemption from the judgments proclaimed earlier----and the idiom of 34-35 connects forward to that of Second Isaiah (Childs, p. 332).

Sheppard shows how the work of 2-39 has been edited so that promise oracles frame judgment oracles, like the promise oracles 2:2-24 and 4:2-6. The parable of chapter 5 precedes a section of oracles related to the Syro-Ephraimite war (7:1-9), but these oracles have been fitted and edited within a longer set of oracles (6:1-9:7). Following these we have a new set of “promise oracles to Judah and judgments against  Assyria” in 10:5-11:16, and then a transitional “song” in Isaiah 12 which includes a motif of “comfort” that, of course, we see again in Isaiah 40. That song is a transition into the oracles of judgment against the nations in chapters 13-23.  In turn, those oracles are followed by “a group of promissory eschatological oracles” in chapters 24-27, which “take up a number of themes and motifs from the first part of the book and project them into a vision of future restoration,” i.e., connecting to 40-66. Isaiah 28-32 in turn contain more judgment oracles against Zion and Judah, and then more promise oracles in 33-35. Chapters 34 and 35 in particular anticipate material in 40-66 (Sheppard, p. 545). In turn, the narrative material of 36-39 refers to the Assyria siege of Jerusalem, in 701 BCE several years after the earlier war. This historical material connects with the narrative of 2 Kings 18 and 2 Chronicles 32, and here, the material appears “remarkably suitable to the larger purpose of the book of Isaiah, with its concern for the restoration of Jerusalem. They explore the way in which human responses move God to leave a blessing when one might expect only a curse” (Sheppard, p. 569).

The “suffering servant” songs of Second Isaiah raise other exegetical issues, because (Childs argues) the figure does not seem to be connected (by the canonical editors) to the royal figure of 9:1ff and 11:1ff, nor to any particular historical individual. He argues that the text is even silent on whether the figure represents Israel as a whole; the canonical editors have allowed the questions and tensions to remain and perhaps “to receive its meaning from the future” (Childs, pp. 335-336).

Interestingly to me, the great messianic text Isaiah 7:14 falls within the oracles that concern the unrest in Judah in 735-733 BC and the Syro-Ephraimite War. “Occasionally, ordinary public activities of prophets could carry extraordinary significance... Just as Hosea’s marriage constituted a symbolic act of prophecy, so Isaiah’s children by their very names, carried a message throughout their lives” (Sheppard, p. 555). The child Emmanuel, about whom no other historical information is given, is the sign Isaiah gives when King Ahaz says he does not want a sign at all. Within that section, the Northern Kingdom will fall and later disaster will also eventually happen to the Southern Kingdom, but the name of the child, “God with us,” provides ongoing hope (Sheppard, p. 555).

Sheppard writes about how this messianic texts also tie together the times of Isaiah with the post-exilic faithful. “The unusual name ... now harbors in it prophetic implications for the destruction of Judah as well as Syria and Ephraim (8:6-8) and, finally, for the nations in the future that will so threaten Judah (8:9-10). The ‘child sign’ seems to continue in 9:1-7, where the birth of a child (9:6) portends a comparable claim of God’s presence with Israel (9:4) in the period after the Exile, when ‘the people walked in darkness’ (9:2). Even if the original tradition of 9:1-7 was once an independent, nonmessianic ‘royal psalm,’ its present context in the book invites a messianic interpretation. So too Isa. 7:14 has similarly engendered messianic expectations among both Jews and Christians, expectations based on the warrants of the text’s ‘scriptural’ context in 7:1-9:7” (Sheppard, p. 556).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Story as Torah": Genesis, Judges, God's Peace

I like to find books about the Bible and take notes of interesting insights. A few years ago I attended a religious studies meeting of some sort and purchased Gordon J. Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000). As the title suggests, Old Testament stories do function as “torah” (instruction) about ethics and ethical choices, as do of course the legal codes of the Pentateuch. He highlights Genesis and Judges as narratives that give positive and negative insights into human choices and behavior.  

He makes many fascinating points.  Just a few:

1. Wenham identifies virtues illustrated in the Genesis stories, such as piety (prayerfulness and dependence upon God), strength but without meanness and aggression, generosity, loyalty, truthfulness. A righteous person does express a range of emotions but also is ready to forgive. Also, the righteous person isn’t necessarily ascetic (p. 100).

2. Another aspect of the Genesis account: Wenham notes that, “[i]n modern popular thought piety is often associated with gentleness, if not weakness or even effeminacy,” but the stories of Jacob wrestling with the angel, as well as Abram’s routing of the four northern kings (Gen. 14) link the relationship with God to a certain amount of strength and fortitude, and a lack of timidity. Nevertheless, the narratives condemn wanton violence, such as Jacob’s condemnation of Levi and Simeon (Gen. 49:6), as well as the violent nature of Lamech in Gen. 4:23-27. (pp. 90-91)

3. A unifying theme of these virtues in the biblical stories is blessing. Wenham notes that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy describe the blessings of righteousness such as good crops, many children, peace, and well being (Lev. 26, Deut. 28:1-4, and also Ps. 15, 24, 42, 122, 127, 128, Job 31, Prov. 31). The concept of peace in Genesis has to do with “the blessings of the nations through Abraham’s offspring,” while Deuteronomy describes peace as the defeat of Israel’s enemies (p. 102).

4. Still another unifying theme in biblical narratives----an integrating ethnical principle---is “the imitation of God.” Discussing again the virtues communicated implicitly in the stories of the biblical people, Wenham notes, “[t]hese virtues...cannot be defined by law: rather the stories offer paradigms of behaviour that apply in various situations. They certainly imply that usually the patriarchs acted much better than merely abiding by the letter of the law” (p. 104).

What are divine qualities which we should imitate? Wenham quotes several writers to show that God’s actions and God’s very life are models for human conduct, in creation, in justice, and mercy. Citing passages like Deut. 10:17-19, 14:28-29, Job 29:12-17 and Ps. 72 that call upon monarchs and common people alike to care and seek justice for the poor, Wenham writes, “Fidelity, love, generosity, and forgiveness and displayed in God’s dealings with mankind, and men should treat their fellow human beings in similar fashion” (p. 105).

Of course, the law Leviticus 19:18 stipulates love of neighbor and forgiveness of others, which is reflected in God’s own actions toward human beings. A narrative that illustrates this virtue is Gen. 32, where Esau displays God-like forgiveness and generosity in forgiving Jacob. Another example is Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers (p. 106).

5. If written during the years of the Israelite kingdom, Genesis provides a model of Israel’s life in Canaan. “Genesis is not simply a justification for Israel’s occupation of Canaan, it embodies a practical appeal as well. It urges brothers to make peace with each other and to forgive past wrongs. It insists that Israelites should live peaceably with their relatives, with fellow countrymen of different ethnic origins, and implies that as a nation it should not be afraid to make agreements with surrounding nations when they seek peace.” (p. 39) Thus Wenham finds evidence of the origin of the Genesis account during the united monarchy (p. 42).

7. In some of my earlier posts when I thought about the books of my professor, Brevard Childs, and I found interesting the speculation that passages in 1 and 2 Samuel showed evident of “pro-monarchical” and “anti-monarchical” sources. Wenham sees evidence of “anti-Saul” and “pro-David” writings.  For instance, chapters 19-21 are sharply critical of the Benjaminites, in particular the towns of Gibeah and Jabesh-Gilead.  But according to 1 Sam. 11:4, 31:11-13, these are Saul’s hometown and burial place, respectively. He notes that other places in Judges could be “anti-Saul polemic,” and the more praising depiction of the tribe of Judah as well as the story of Othniel seem more pro-David (p. 70).  And the horrifying brutality and with which Judges ends can be read as an illustration of why Israel needs a new kind of leadership and a new way of life in Canaan (p. 69).

8. The author considers how the Old Testament stories ethics continue into the New Testament (p. 134).  He spends some time discussing the ideas of cleanness and uncleanness in the Torah laws, and the distinctions made.  For instance, you’re not supposed to eat a camel, because it is unclean to eat, but you can touch a camel, whereas you shouldn’t touch a corpse. When we get to the New Testament, Jesus shifts the emphasis of uncleanness to the heart (Mark 7:15, 20-23), as well as the epistles (Eph. 5:3, etc.), and Jesus‘ interactions with lepers, corpses, and other sources of uncleanness are actions that reflect his words. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is the next step in the abolition of food laws for Gentile Christians (p. 143).

These, plus Jesus‘ attitudes toward marriage and divorce, illustrate how Jesus goes back before the legal codes to the creation stories of Genesis, and in turn “The kingdom of God inaugurates a new era in which God’s intentions for his creation will be realized” (p 145).

The author argues “that where the New Testament is apparently abrogating Old Testament laws on impurity and marriage, it is more accurately read as affirming the creator’s ideals or his creation” (p. 147). The same can be said for Jesus‘ (and the early Christians‘) attitudes toward violence. In fact, he says, Deuteronomy---”the most militant book of the law”----contains such a vision of God’s desire for peace and wholeness, rooted in God’s original actions and will in creation (Deut. 33:28-29).

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Hidden with Christ in God," Col. 3:1-4

Here's something I wrote last spring for a manuscript which I'm circulating among potential publishers. My mother's death in September makes me appreciate again the truths that I tried to affirm and describe:

Following the monthly communion service at our church, I turned to a passage that, although not specifically Eucharistic, connects to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (Col. 3:1-4)

I've cited this favorite passage elsewhere, especially verse 3, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

"Hidden with Christ in God" makes me think of being kept in a protective and secure place, out of reach of danger. Obviously, we still face difficult and dangerous, painful situations. But if we have a relationship with Christ----even a small, tenuous faith, a dimly burning wick (Isa. 42:3)----then Christ keeps us out of reach of the full powers of death and evil.

How have we “died” if we’re still alive?  Our physical lives will last a while but are temporary, ephemeral.  But meanwhile, we participate in the reality of Christ's death and resurrection---a realm of reality, so to speak, which is forceful and real for us today, even though the historical events happened long ago----so that now, our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God.  Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ.”  Baptism is a sign of this safekeeping, our “burial” with Christ, so that as Christ is buried we are buried with him, and as he has risen from death so too will we be raised to eternal life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Roman 6:3-11).

You have to draw a parallel between being covered in a certain amount of water, and being covered with dirt.  There are different modes of being baptized, and there are different ways by which our dead bodies are respectfully disposed of.  But the main idea is that we are "covered" (hidden) by the power found in Christ's death and then our true lives are lasting and eternal and live with God's life (that is, we are united with him in his resurrection).

We also participate in Christ’s death in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  In the language Jesus used in John chapter 6----off-putting language because it sounds so cannibalistic, and contrary to Jewish respect for life by, for instance, never ingesting animals’ blood----the life force of Jesus’ own blood and physical body become powerful forces for our own lives, both the lives we live now and the eternal, infinite life that is Christ’s own life, given to us.  But in a related way to the sacrament of baptism, that life force is given to us as we share in Christ’s death---in this case, his blood and body surrendered for our benefit by his execution.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Each time we share the bread and wine, we’re “preaching.”  We’re witnessing to the fact that our lives---and anybody’s----are hidden away and safeguarded by God.  Our very lives are tucked away and protected, so to speak, because we’re already sharing in the divine life of Christ.  Nothing we do in this life can separate us from God’s great love, because we have already died and been buried, so to speak.  If we’re already dead and interred in Christ’s own death, then of course we have a new identity for the remainder of our physical existence, characterized and empowered by God’s tremendous and infinite love.

We Gentile Christians don’t think too much about the Jewish purity laws, other than Deuteronomy 21:23, which Paul quotes in Gal. 3:13-14 to show how Christ took the curse of the law for us.  But any dead body, not just an executed person, conveys uncleanness if touched, and God’s Torah provided means by which persons could be purified from that uncleanness (Lev. 21:1-4, Num. 5:1-4, 19:1-21, 31:17-24). God incarnate in Christ died a human death: God took on that impurity, that uncleanness!  This, too, is a way that Christ embraced fully the tragedy of human nature---our mortality, the horror of death---so that Christ’s life sustains and redeems us, now and forever.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Prophets (Isaiah through Malachi)

For surveys of other sections of the biblical books, please see my site The Love of Bible Study, chapter 7.

The prophets form the last long section of the Christian Old Testament.  Hopefully this informal overview inspires curiosity to understand aspects of the "sweep" of the Bible. As I indicate at the end, prophetic texts undergird the New Testament.  

In the Tanakh, the prophetic books below (except for Lamentations and Daniel) are grouped with the historical books (Joshua through Kings) because the prophets figure strongly during the historical period covered by those books. These are not the only prophets in Israel’s history: for instance, Moses himself, Miriam, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and several others.

A Bible explorer interested in the historical background of the Bible can, with the aid of a Bible chronology and commentaries, see how many of the prophetic oracles and material fits with certain periods in the histories of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  The story “arcs” of the Bible extend from the books of Samuel and Kings, over to the materials in the various prophets.  But a Bible explorer can also trace the “arcs” of prophecy from their 8th through 5th century origins to the 1st century AD, when the New Testament writers found fulfillments of prophecy in Jesus.

Surveying my notes in my old Bible, plus the annotations published there, I can develop a very basic resume of the prophets, which a Bible explorer can supplement.

Isaiah: The first 39 chapters contain words of judgment about the Northern Kingdom, as well as other nations, and also words of promise. Chapters 40 and following seem to be another prophet, or possibly two (“2 Isaiah” and “3 Isaiah”), writing during 500s BC, as the Israelites are restored by God, acting through the Persians. Here we find wonderful poetry of assurance concerning God’s redemption.

Jeremiah: The prophet preaches judgment upon the Southern Kingdom, and also promises of a renewed covenant in the future. We find tremendous pathos in Jeremiah, as also reflected in the following book, Lamentations.

Lamentations is a short, poetic book, written in sorrowful response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians.

Ezekiel: A prophet (also a priest) of the time before and during the exile. Ezekiel has weird visions and prophet actions bordering on, and sometimes crossing over to, the perverse. But the book also has a loftiness in the prophet’s moral concern for problems such as human accountability.

Daniel: The book focuses on events in Daniel’s life and also apocalyptic visions of God’s kingdom, the “Son of Man,” and the last days, though many of the visions deal with the time of Antiochus IV, the evil Greek ruler who persecuted Jews. This book is included in the last section of the Jewish canon rather than among the prophets.

Hosea: A Northern Kingdom prophet of the 700s, Hosea used his own family crises to describe the unfaithfulness of Israel and, in addition to words of judgment, the heartache and tenderness of God.

Joel: Joel has aspects of both prophecy and apocalyptic, because he speaks of the Lord’s judgment against sin (in whatever time period he’s writing) as well as the last days. We get the wonderful prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit here (2:28-29).

Amos: A Southern prophet who spoke to the sins of the North; he speaks judgment against the kingdom of Israel: their apostasy, wealth, and oppression of the poor. His classic call for justice and righteousness is well known (5:21-24).

Obadiah: A short little book, by a prophet completely unknown besides this writing. The Edomites were descendants of Esau who were enemies of Judah, and Obadiah’s prophecies are directed at them.

Jonah: Unlike other prophetic books, this one is a story, almost like a parable. The fish is not the point of the story, but rather Jonah’s reluctant prophecy which was, surprisingly, highly successful, as well as God’s promise of patience.

Micah: A contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea, and a prophet during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. His two themes are doom and promise, and his statement about Bethlehem (5:2), his lovely depiction of God’s kingdom where swords will become plows (4:1-4), and his requirements of anyone who loves the Lord (6:8) are also well known

Nahum: A counterpart to Jonah, in a way; Nahum pronounces doom upon Nineveh.

Habakkuk: An interesting book in that the prophet “dialogues” with God about the classic question: why do wrongdoers prevail? God may use an evil nation like the Chaldeans to accomplish his purposes, but they, too, will suffer the consequences. Hab. 2:4 is a classic text; Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 as a beginning of his argument about the primacy of faith.

Zephaniah: The last minor prophet prior to the exile, Zephaniah preaches judgment and wrath, but also hope for the future.

Haggai: His topic is the rebuilding of the Temple following the end of the exile. Not a lofty writer, he straightforwardly urges the Temple’s completion. Interestingly, he praises the promised king by name, Zerubbabel, who eventually disappears from the record.

Zechariah: He also discusses the rebuilding of the Temple, but he writes with visions, symbols, and images of the coming messianic age.

Malachi: The last Old Testament prophet, from the 400s, who (with his interesting question-answer format) also posed Habakkuk’s question, why do the wicked prosper and the good suffer? Malachi’s innovation: his announcement that a messenger will herald the last days.

One of the basic literary units of the prophets is the proclamation: God announces judgment or salvation. These proclamations are addressed to God’s people but sometimes also to neighboring nations. The proclamations in turn made use of different kinds of discourse: indictment and verdict, hymns and songs, collections of sayings, and others. Later prophets also use longer kinds of writing like sermons and narratives. The prophets also record visions and descriptions of their own call.(1)

The prophets can be difficult reading. The grouping of material within some of the prophetic books is perplexing. The material is also frequently painful and depressing. The prophets express God’s anger at the Israelites, who have broken the covenant; in chapter after chapter, we find descriptions of wrongs, promises and descriptions of dreadful punishment, but also tender words and promises for the future. Our Sunday school class tackled Hosea’s thirteen chapters and were glad to move on to something cheerier (Lenten lectionary scriptures!). The prophets also use metaphors, allusions, and shifts of narration, which makes good commentaries essential for the modern Bible explorer.

Because the prophets preached during the time of the historical books that I discussed above, we find familiar themes in the prophets: the covenant and the land, the threatened loss of the land, the failures of the monarchy, the role of the Temple (and, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, its loss), and others. The prophets connect back to God’s promises to Abraham and also Moses and the exodus, and also to the promise of David and of Jerusalem as they (the prophets) preached about God’s kingship and covenant.(2)

In these posts I’ve tried to trace interconnections among sections of the Bible.  In the previous section I touched upon the contrasts between the law and wisdom literature, and between prophecy and wisdom literature.  What about the contrast and connection between law and prophecy?

Themes of covenant, land, faithfulness, and others thematically connect Torah and prophets (see my discussion of both Torah and the OT historical books).  We also find connections—notably in 2 Isaiah—between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s identity as Creator (Gen. 1-2, of course).  But other aspects of the relationship of the prophets and the law are complex and are debated by scholars. Some prophetic passages seem very “anti-law” (Ez. 20:25, Jer. 7:21-26, and Jer. 8:8).  The prophets, however, do not deny the law but sharply warn that religious ritual must go hand in hand with justice, mercy, righteousness, and the repudiation of idols. Even passages that seem “anti-law” do not abrogate the law and the covenant but call for a deeper faithfulness. Within Judaism, the view has prevailed that “the primary role of the prophet was to serve as a vital link in the transmission of the law from Moses down to the present.”(3) For instance, Deuteronomy defines the role of prophets (13:1-5, 18:15-22) and upholds Moses himself as the greatest of the prophets (34:10); many scholars consider the “Deuteronomic Code” (Deut. 12-26) as a product of the 600s BC and deeply influenced by Jeremiah’s preaching.(4)  For Jews, the prophetic criticism of faithlessness remains a call for contemporary faithfulness.

For Christians as for Jews, the prophets’ stress upon justice and suitable worship are as timely a Word of God today as in the ancient world.  But for Christians, the prophetic scriptures are also crucial for understanding who Jesus is and how his coming fits within and fulfills God’s plans of salvation.  The issue of the covenant becomes a key for Paul as he preaches about Jesus and the law; Paul understands faithlessness as a more basic flaw in both human nature and the law, and thus we need Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). A passage such as Jer. 7:21-26 points to the need for new beginnings (Jer. 3:31-34).

We find many, many other connections of the prophets and the New Testament.  As Brevard Childs writes, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant),”(7) and these “chords” permeate the New Testament.  We also find many specific connections of prophecy and typology; a Bible explorer can spend months and years tracing and delving into the prophetic roots of Christian faith.  Here are just a few.(5)

* John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5, Mal. 4:5-6, Mk. 9:1, Lk. 1:17)

* Jesus’ birth (Isa. 7:14, 9:6-7, 11:1-5, Mic. 5:2, Mt. 2:6, Lk. 1:30-33)

* Jesus’ authority and teaching (Is. 6:9-12, 9:1-2, Mt. 4:14-16, 13:14-15)

* Jesus the shepherd (Ez. 34:11-16, John 10:7-11)

* Jesus’ ministry (Isa. 32:3-4, 35:5-6, 33:22, 42:1-4, 61:1-2, Mt. 9:32-35, 12:17-21, Lk. 4:17-21)

* Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Zech. 9:9, Mt. 21:4-5)

* Jesus’ sufferings, betrayal, and death (Isa. 52:13-53:12, Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, 13:7, in addition to Ps. 22, 69, and others)

* Jesus’ resurrection (Ez. 37:1-14, Jonah 1:17, Mt. 12:40, and among the psalms Ps. 16:10 and Ps. 110:1)

* The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34, Mt. 26:26-29, Rom. 11:26-36, Heb. 8:8-12)

* The Temple in relationship to Jesus (Isa. 56:7, Jer. 7;1, Mk. 11:15-18, John 2:13-23, Acts 7:47-51)

* “The righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:17)

* The Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:16-21)

* The redemption of all nations (Isa. 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:10)

* Related to the redemption of the nations: the metaphor of marriage between God and his people (e.g., Hos. 1-3, Rom. 9:25-26, 1 Pet. 2:10, Eph. 5:25, 32, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9)(6)

* The end times (Daniel 7:1-12:13, much of the book of Zechariah, Ez. 38-39). In fact, no other New Testament book quotes or alludes to the Old Testament as often as Revelation: nearly 200 references in all, especially Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, but also Exodus, the Psalms, and other books.

* The prophet’s concerns for the poor and for justice continue in the New Testament. The Greek word dikaiosun√™, corresponding to tzedakah, means “righteousness” and “justice.” God takes the side of the poor, downtrodden, and powerless. Luke’s gospel, and passages like Matthew 25:31-46, very much echo God’s care for the needy. You could also think this way: As God demands justice for the poor, outcast, and powerless of society, God also takes the side of the spiritually powerless, bringing them into the circle of salvation and righteousness.

* Although I’ve known Christians (including me) who were quick to stress that Jesus is “more than a prophet,” he was frequently understood to be a prophet (Mt. 21:11, Mark 6:15, 8:28, Luke 7:16, 24:19, John 4:19, 6:14, et al.) and possessed the Spirit in a way that people considered prophetic (Mt. 12:28, Mark 3:28-29, Luke 4:18-20, et al).


1. Harper’s Bible Commentary, James L. Mays general editor (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), pages 534-539.

2. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 177

3.  Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.

4.  Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.

5. Among others, one handy list of biblical messianic prophecies is found at

6. Goldsworthy, pages 172-173.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ezra and Nehemiah

In an earlier post (April 2012) I shared some notes about the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom, Judah, and the beginning of the exile (2 Kings 25:8-21 and 2 Chronicles 26:11-21).  The fifty-year exile of the people, followed by the return of many to the land in 536 BC, may not be the crucial part of the Bible to which you turn, but the period became a formative time for the entire Bible, not only within the Bible’s overall narrative but also the textual formation of the Bible itself.  The post-exilic time thus became foundational for Judaism, as Jewish religious observance and the institution of the synagogue came to fruition during this era and following.  That time also became foundational for Christianity, as Jesus and his disciples emerged from that post-exilic Jewish tradition and as his followers perceived in him the fulfillment of God's exilic and post-exilic prophecies and promises.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover the key post-exilic period, from the Persian ruler Cyrus’ decree in 536, allowing the people to return to the land, until about 432 BC.  The Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures) ends with Ezra and Nehemiah and the two Chronicles books, thus opening up the biblical story to the future of Jewish life and worship.  The Christian Old Testament books are grouped differently, with the last prophet, Malachi, pointing toward the era of Jesus. The last Old Testament prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—come from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Several years ago I was asked to write an article called, "Ezra and Nehemiah: Bringing a People Home," for the Adult Bible Studies June-August 2003 teachers' guide (The United Methodist Publishing House). I'm not reproducing that copyrighted article here. But looking over the article now, I enjoy remembering the discoveries I made as I researched these two (for me) seldom read books. Here are some things I learned from typical commentaries.

* Ezra and Nehemiah connect the people back to the law of the Torah. Genealogists, take note! Ezra’s 14-great-grandfather was Aaron himself (Ezra 7:5), while his 3-great-grandfather was Zadok, chief priest during David’s lifetime (2 Samuel 8:17; Ezra 7:2). Ezra was also the priest and scribe who, in an important sense, gave the law to the people of Israel by renewing its observance. His public recitation of the law, described in Neh. 8:1-12, connects the people back to the repetition of the law by Moses in Deuteronomy and the reading of the law by Joshua.

* Both Ezra and Nehemiah are depicted as exemplary leaders (1). Ezra maintained accountability for himself and others (8:16-18, 25-34). Nehemiah, meanwhile, was a model for constant prayer, beseeching God several times during the story.  One author writes, “This man is possibly one of the most prayerful persons in the Bible outside of Christ. He realized there were times for long, sustained prayer and times for hard work and quick, whispered prayer.”(2)

* You probably know that the Bible contains many historical gaps as the chapters move along.  For instance, when we're reading along in Numbers and arrive at chapter 20, we may not realize (without a commentary) that the story has leapt ahead 38 years. Ezra and Nehemiah have gaps, too. Ezra 1-6 describes the generation from 536 BC until the Temple’s completion in 516 BC, and next is Ezra’s arrival in about 458 BC (Ezra 7-10).  Next is the events of about 445 BC (Nehemiah 1-12), and then Nehemiah 13 considers the events of 432 BC.(3)

Certain things about the books are odd, though.  For instance, although Ezra and Nehemiah worked at the same time (e.g., Neh. 8:9), they never mention each other. Also, Nehemiah led the small population to the ruined city (Neh. 7:4) but Ezra came to a larger community (Ezra 9:4).(4) Thus, some scholars speculate that Ezra came later; instead of the seventh year of Cyrus’ reign (Ezra 7:7), he actually came in the 37th year, 428 BC, and that a scribe miscopied the year.  If this is true, then Nehemiah became the many reforms of the period and then Ezra.

In this scenario, Nehemiah began religious and legal reforms, and Ezra arrived and continued those reforms (e.g., demanding that the men divorce their Gentile wives).(5)

* Ezra’s story (7:1-8:36, Neh. 7:73b-8:18, Ezra 9:1-10:44, Neh. 9:1-10:40) (6) and Nehemiah’s story (Neh. 1:1-7:73a, 11:1-13:31)  are woven with historical sources of different kinds: census records, inventories, divine decrees, contracts, memos, decrees, the memoir of Ezra (Ezra 7:27-9:15), a third person narrative of Ezra (7), and a memoir of Nehemiah (1:1-7:73a, 11:1-2, 12:27-43, and 13:4-31).  One scholar calls Nehemiah’s memoirs “one of the most accurate historical sources in the Old Testament, the only undisputed source for Jewish history between 520-175 B.C.”(8)
* Ezra doesn’t appear in his own book until chapter 7. First, we get the story of Zerubbabel, who is so praised as Israel’s hope in the corresponding prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, and the priest Jeshua lead the Jews as they return from exile—42,360 returnees, according to the book, plus servants, singers, and livestock (Ezra 2:64). Soon Jeshua and Zerubbabel built an altar to God and, by the second year, commenced construction of the Temple (Ezra 2:68-3:13).

The Temple was eventually completed and dedicated in 515 BC (Ezra 5-6). But with a final reference (Ezra 5:2), Zerubbabel disappears from the story. What happened to him?  Why does the narrative drop him, especially Zechariah and especially Haggai praise his authority and hint that he is a great new Davidic king? Although hopes for a Davidic monarchy in Judah continued, those hopes seemed suspended for the time being.

* The books give us information about the Samaritan-Judean rivalry.  Of course, we know about the Samaritans because one met Jesus at Jacob's well (John 4) and another was, well, good (Luke 10:29-37). The Samaritans were descendants of northern kingdom Israelites who, conquered by the Assyrians in the 700s  BC, had intermarried with Gentiles in the aftermath of that conquest. Samaritans had the law of Moses but no prophetic tradition. Samaritans offered to help the Temple rebuilding effort, but their help was rejected (Ezra 4). (9)

* Our two leaders were great reformers.  Religious and social reforms included the easing of debts incurred by farmers, the return of seized properties to owners (Neh. 5), the establishment of festivals like Passover (Ezra 6:16-22), Sukkot (Neh. 8:13-18), and the Sabbath itself (Neh. 10:31, 13:15-22), and also the support of the priesthood and the temple (Neh. 10:32-39, Neh. 13:10-14).

* Controversially, Ezra and Nehemiah also moved the people toward separation from the Gentile world, for instance in demanding divorce of intermarriages (Ezra 9:2-25, 10:9-44, Neh. 13:23-29). At one point, the story has a bleak, comic edge:

Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them (Ezra 10:9-15).

“Please, Ezra, can we go inside and dry off first and make some contacts before we divorce our foreign women and avert God‘s wrath?”

As Bernhard Anderson points out, the book of Ruth, a lovely of Jewish and Gentile intermarriage, was written during the Persian era, possibly to counterbalance the exclusivity of Ezra and Nehemiah.

But looking at the situation from their standpoint (and not from the standpoint, for instance, of Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees), the Jews of the post-exilic era were determining the best way to live to secure God’s mercies, considering God’s judgment upon them for their pre-exilic sins, including alliances with foreign nations. Historically, the Greek (Hellenistic), Roman, and later Christian influences further threatened Judaism, so the Jews’ uncompromising stance for religious values and observance helped them survive over the centuries.(10)

* And another thing I learned from my research, is that Ezra and Nehmiah indeed emphasize not barriers per se but God’s promises and God’s mercy. God’s help allowed his people to return to the land, recalling the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua centuries earlier.(11) Consequently, the two books do emphasize joy and blessing. When the people wept at the reading of the law, their leaders responded, Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (Neh. 8:10).

(And with those words, I'll have that darn praise-song stuck in my head all day, LOL. Here's an adorable YouTube video of the song, from someone's church:


1. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books,
1996), p. 235.
2.  Ibid, p. 555.
3. Ralph W. Klein, “The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah," The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), p. 665.
4. Ibid. p. 562.
5. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice
Hall, 1975), p. 490.
6. Raymond A. Bowman, “The Book of Ezra and The Book of Nehemiah," The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 560
7. Ibid., p. 556.    
8. Ibid. p. 555.
9. Anderson, p. 480.
10. Ibid., pp. 492-93.
11. Klein, p. 664.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Torah Law Codes

The laws of the Torah are beloved for Jews and difficult territory for Christians.  Some Christians won’t touch the statutes with the proverbial long pole—unless (to sound very cynical) some of the laws are suitable to prove a point, and suddenly the laws become God’s eternal word to point out other people's sins.

I’ve an interesting book by a Presbyterian minister, William J. Doorly (1931-2011), called The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (Paulist Press, 2002).  I took some notes from the book concerning the layers of traditions in the Torah, and scholars’ theories about the laws’ historical origins.

Doorly describes the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile:

The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23)
The Deuteronomic Law Code (Deuteronomy 12-26)
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26)
The Priestly Code (spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers)

Doorly calls attention to the reform of Judahite religion during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC), when the book of the law was discovered in the temple and then the keeping of the law was enjoined (2 Kings 22-23). Josiah’s tragic death, soon followed by the fall of Jerusalem, cut short the reforms, but the work of preserving and editing the laws continued during the exile (586-536 BC).  Scholars believe that the law discovered in the temple comprised at least part of the Deuteronomic Law Code.  At about this same time, what scholars call the Deuteronomic History (comprising much of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) was written, connecting Josiah and Joshua as heroes of the law, and depicting the Lord as uncompromisingly focused upon the people’s keeping of laws (pp. 1-4).

Doorly notes that the Levitical priests, connected historically to the Shechem/Shiloh area in the northern kingdom of Israel (which fell to the Assyrians in 722-721 BC), are associated with “the Deuteronomic circle,” but meanwhile the Aaronic (or Zadokite) priests associated with the temple also compiled laws (p. 4-5). During and after the exile, laws were preserved by both groups and eventually edited into what we now know as the Torah or Penteteuch. (I took some notes on the Aaronic and Levitical priests for my May 18, 2012 post about the biblical monarchy and priesthood.)

The Book of the Covenant contains cultic laws about altars and images, 22 secuar laws about restitution, bodily injury, and property, 20 cultic and social laws (including God’s demand for justice) and finally 6 more cultic laws, including three festivals (p. 12). While not the oldest laws, they may be associated with the reform work of Hezekiah and then were preserved by the Aaronic priests during the exile from the Jahwist and Elohist sources (J and E) (pp. 7-9).

The Deuteronomic Code, much longer than the Book of the Covenant, includes laws about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on (pp. 29-30). While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (pp. 32-33).

The Holiness Code contain laws about the slaughter of animals, sexual tabboos, priests, several annual festivals, sabbatical years and jubilee years, and others.  Doorly believes that this code was a pre-exilic stroll intended for education of Judahites, separate from the Priestly Code (p. 49).

The Priestly Code is found in Ex. 12-13, 25-30, Lev. 1-7, 10-15, 27, Num 5-6, 9-10, 18, 27-30, and 35-36. This code includes laws about Passover (Ex. 12-13), the tabernacle (Ex. 25-30), offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27), uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36) (p. 65).  This code was probably laws intended for the Jerusalem temple priests (p. 49). While some scholars believe the Aaronic priests preserved these laws  in order to assert their superiority to the Levitical priests, Doorly points out that both the Aaronic and Levitical schools sought to preserve laws in light of their creative rewriting of Israel’s history, with the Levites beginning with the events of Deuteronomy, and the Aaronids beginning with the time of the Exodus (pp. 72-73).

In chapter 6 of this interesting book, Doorly also provides the 613 laws, thus enumerated in the rabbinical tradition and the work of HaLevi and Maimonides. A book from which I took notes for an earlier post---Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997)---also lists the laws but also goes into some detail how the applicable laws (many of the laws can no longer be observed) are interpreted and observed by Jews today.

As I said before, the laws of the Torah are beloved for Jews. In an essay in Torah: A Modern Commentary, Bernard J. Bamberger writes, “The Torah was always the possession of all Israel. It was addressed to the entire people, who were to learn its contents and teach them diligently to their children. A number of biblical passages, in particular Psalms 19 and 119, testify to the love which the Torah evoked and its widespread concern of the people with its teachings” (p. xxix). He goes on to say that Ezra publicly read the Torah in Jerusalem around the year 444 BCE, and a few days later the people agreed to obey its teachings, thus reaffirming the Sinai covenant in that post-exilic time (p. xxix).

We Christians should remember a few things about the Torah. The first is that much of material was not originally meant to be applicable for us Gentiles (Acts 15, Gal. 3:3-5). These 613 laws were first given for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people. The distinction you often hear—the moral laws are applicable for Christians but the ceremonial laws are not—is not a biblical distinction at all, because in the Torah, all of life—worship, legal translations, daily behavior, diet, and so on—are of whole cloth, as it were. In his love, God has given the Hebrews a precious expression of his will. God shares this religious heritage with us Gentiles because of his love (Rom. 11:17-24).

Contrary to a common Christian idea, Judaism has not historically viewed the law as a means of self-justification and self-salvation; the law has been God’s wonderful gift to follow. Paul, however, was adamant that the laws were unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity; even more than the moral law, he stressed the law of the guidance of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Now, we see the law through Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and took the consequences of our law breaking onto himself (2 Cor. 5:21). But Paul upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), to show how Christ’s perfect (law-keeping) life is now a gift of life to us. (10) Arguing thus, Paul stayed within the Torah and went back before Moses to Abraham to show how God’s favor touches people through their faith apart from the law (Romans 4). (Jesus did a similar thing, going prior to Moses to God’s first intentions: Matt. 10:2-9).

The question remains for Christians: how does the law still apply? A classic Christian solution is to view the law in three ways: as a restraint to the wicked (the political use), as the law that brings us to Christ’s salvation (Gal. 3:24, the theological use), and then the “third use of the law,” which is to give content to the love of Christ which we display as we’re transformed by the Spirit (Gal. 6:2).

The concerns for justice and a righteous society are also important aspects of the Torah. My NRSV Harper Study Bible (p. 274) gives a list of “major social concerns of the covenant.” I don't want to copy the whole list because it 's copyrighted, so I encourage anyone interested in the social aspects of the Torah to find this Bible and study the passages cited there. Some of them include:

* Personhood: everyone should be secure: e.g. Ex. 21:16, 26-31, etc.
* No woman should be taken advantage of: Ex. 21:7-11, 20, etc.
* Everyone’s property rights should be secure (Ex. 21:33-36, etc.)
* Everyone should enjoy the fruit of their labors (Lev. 19:13, etc.)
* Everyone is to share produce of the ground (Ex. 23:10-11, etc.)
* Everyone should rest on the Sabbath, including servants and resident aliens and animals (Ex. 20:8-11, etc.)
* Everyone deserves a fair trial (Ex. 23:6, 8, etc.)
* No one should be exploited or oppressed, including the impoverished and disabled (Ex. 22:21-27, etc.).
* Animals well being should be protected (Ex. 23:5, 11, etc.).

How we interpret the laws and their spirit (originating in ancient agricultural and monarchical society) in our contemporary, technological and liberal capitalist societies is the ongoing challenge of biblical interpretation for both Jews and Christians.

In addition to the importance of the text itself, the Torah (both the laws and the narratives) is foundational for the New Testament in several ways so obvious that we take them for granted. One is the righteousness of Christ and his law-keeping life, which I discussed above.

Another way the Torah is foundational for Christians is the idea of the covenant, for now God has extended his covenant to include non-Jews (Rom. 3:29-30).

Still another is the idea of blood for atonement forgiveness of sins (Rom. 3:25). Christ’s blood was shed and now there is no longer need for sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-14).

Still other connections:
* The Creation and New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:1)
* Adam and the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21)
* The faith of Abraham, in some important ways the key to the whole Bible (Gen. 12:1-3, Rom. 4, Heb. 11:8-22)
* The manna in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread (Ex. 16:1-21, John 6:25-40).
* The covenant, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the Eucharist (Ex. 24:6-9Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5)
* The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)
* The condemnation in Deuteronomy of a condemned criminal “hanging on a tree” (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31, Gal. 3:13)
* The salvation of Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)
* The role of Moses (Heb. 3:1-6, 11:23-28)
* The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)
* The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
* The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)
* The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24:3-8 and the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25.
* The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).

Moses stands as the great Old Testament lawgiver and the greatest prophet. He tends to be downplayed in the New Testament because of the concern of the writers to preach the primacy of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6); in Christ God has revealed the purpose and goal of salvation and has revealed a new attitude toward the law. But what a tremendous figure of intercessory love and compassion! He takes the side of the people, stands up for them, refuses to let God wipe them out. Any pastor who identifies with Moses as an example of flock-leading must be willing to accept intercessory suffering and to identify fully with the people. Moses is a true shepherd.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Don't Name Your Kid Muppim

An article in Yahoo News ( indicated that currently popular baby names include Cullen and Isabella, inspired by the “Twilight” series. Jacob is still a popular name, as is Emma. Emily has been a popular name, and also Matthew. Around the year 2060, the nursing homes of America will have lots of old folks named Jacob, Emily, and Matthew.

The popularity of certain names change, of course. Mildred, my mother’s name, and her brother Harold, are no longer typical, nor the pretty names of her cousins Hazel and Lydia. And yet Emma (my great-grandmother's name, in fact) was common in the 1800s, as was Emily (the name of my wife's great-grandmother).

If you’re a visitor to old graveyards, you’ll often see interesting names. “Tabitha” (Acts 9:36-42) has the obvious Bewitched connotations, but I’ve a nineteenth-century cousin by that name, buried in our family cemetery in Illinois. You don’t see many kids named Moses (although you do see "Moshe," the Hebrew equivalent, within the Jewish community).  In my family cemetery, though, a blacksmith named Moses Cluxton, Sr., is interred a few yards away from Tabitha, and nearby is an ancestor of mine, named Comfort. That’s a now archaic girl’s name that surely derives from a biblical notion of comfort. Also buried there is the grave of another 1800s cousin, named Cyrene, which though biblical is a place rather than a person (Luke 23:2, Acts, 2:10, and elsewhere).

On the other hand, I know a place that was named for a biblical person: Loami, Illinois, near Springfield, named for the prophet Hosea’s son (“Not my people,” Hos. 1:8-9). A branch of my family, the Colburns, settled that town in the early 1800s.

I’ve found numerous interesting names from the Bible. Although biblical names like Jacob, Sarah, and Matthew are popular these days, other biblical names that you might (or might not) consider for your children include: Dodo (Judges. 10:1), Phallu (Gen. 46:9), Put (Gen. 10:6), Phuvah (1 Chr. 7:1), Muppim, Huppim, and Ard (Gen. 46:21), Anub (1 Chr. 4:8), Koz (1 Cor. 4:3), Ziph (1 Cor. 2:42), Hazo (Gen. 22:22), and Hazelelponi (1 Chr. 4:3). I used to know a girl named Hazelelponi (not really).

The Bible features a few longer names, too: Sennacherib, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and others which don’t appear in baby name books. (There is the actor and rapper Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, however.) Two other unusual names are the artisans Oholiab and Bezalel in Exodus 31.

I was a long-time user of Aunt Jemima® products when I learned that the first Jemima was a daughter of Job—his second set of children (Job 42:13).

I knew about Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, but I’d not realized his name was not only fishy (his own regretful estimation) but biblical: the original Salmon was Ruth’s father in law (Ruth 4:20-21).

If you don’t have children but may in the future, perhaps these thoughts will give you some ideas for names. But if you call your kid Phallu or Dodo or Muppin, don’t tell them you got the idea from me!


Some more biblical names, as well as some people who's names aren't stated..... You may be familiar with the stories of Moses’ childhood. Well, then, did you realize that twelve woman appear in the first two chapters of the book of Exodus? I didn’t, and neither did blogger Rabbi Avinoam Sharon at first. Rabbi Sharon writes that, with a moment or two of thought, he can name all twelve of Jacob’s sons from memory (which is better than I can do!). But he had never noticed these several women at the beginning of Exodus.

I looked at the chapters and thought: What twelve women? But they’re all there: Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), Pharoah’s daughter (Ex. 2:3), Miriam (unnamed in Ex. 2:4, 7-8 and named in Ex. 15:20), Jochebed (unnamed in Ex. 2:1-2 and named in Ex. 6:20), Zippora (Ex. 2:21), and her father Reuel’s other six daughters (Ex. 2:15).

Rabbi Sharon’s point is that, just as we may not notice people in a text when we read too quickly, we tend not to notice each other because we’re too busy with other things. Moses, on the other hand, noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slave, and also the injustice of the shepherds at the well (Ex. 1:1-12, 17). (The link to Rabbi Sharon’s blog for January 2, 2005, although long since broken, was found at and accessed by me in 2008.)

I’m still thinking about that. A few years ago I noticed a certain obituary in my local paper. I lived in a community of about 200,000, small enough to run into people you know, but too large to “know everyone,” as is true in smaller towns. The obituary was a man who worked at a grocery store where I shop occasionally; I’d noticed him collecting shopping carts. He wasn’t very old when he died: mid-fifties. I never spoke to him besides a hello.

I thought about how many people I pass each day who are just “hello” people: always there, sometimes acknowledged, and nameless. I’m certainly a nameless, “hello” person, too, for instance to the folks who work at my local grocery.

John 9 has a story about the man born blind. It’s a familiar story. Jesus heals him, and the rest of the chapter is exchange between the man and the religious leaders who can’t believe he was healed. Their stubborn incredulity is a kind of syllogism: Jesus is a sinner (because he heals on the Sabbath), but God would not empower a miracle through a sinful man, and so Jesus could not have performed the miracle. The religious leaders are stuck in a way that many of us are stuck from time to time: something happens contrary to our expectations and preconceived notions, and we can’t see it or make the mental jump to acceptance.

Have you ever noticed the crowd’s reaction to the healed man? “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know. (A similar story can be found in Acts 3. The man born lame seeks financial help, but apparently he is accustomed to no one making eye contact with him, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)

An indispensable outcome of Bible study is the compassion and kindness that makes us notice one another and care about each other’s pain.  Ideally, Bible study will make us more concerned about the poor and needy and will lead us toward ways to help them. Bible reading is interesting and uplifting but if it doesn’t help us grow in love, I think we’re merely spinning our wheels spiritually. It can be a difficult journey, but we need to be able not to avoid certain kinds of people but to look at them, make human contact with them, set aside our personal pressing concerns for a moment, and inquire about their needs.


I’ve a genealogical chart, purchased on eBay® a few years ago, that is filled with biblical names. The chart is “The Adam and Eve Family Tree” published by Good Things Company (Norman, OK, 1975), published “to improve the reading and understanding of the Bible for the glory of God.” The chart color-codes all the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is the last name under the tribe of Judah, and Paul is mentioned with the tribe of Benjamin. Incredibly, the names are quite readable and are expertly arranged so that everyone fits onto a 24×36 chart.

I love looking at this chart and figuring out who’s who. Under the genealogy of Esau, there are listed several “dukes”: Duke Nahath, Duke Zerah, Duke Shammah, Duke Mizzah, and others. “Dukes”? That’s the KJV rendering; the RSV translates the title “chief” and the NRSV as “clans” (Gen. 36:15-19).

I call these kinds of people “walk ons.” They’re the Bible people who are only mentioned once or twice, with or without an accompanying story. Hundreds of names fill the book’s pages.

Not all the Bible’s walk ons are obscure. A while back, our pastor preached on Exodus 1:8-2:10; every time he mentioned the midwife Puah (Ex. 1:15) I thought he was saying hoo-wah! But those midwives (the other was Shiphrah) have a notable part in the biblical drama. We all know the story, even if we don’t recall their names.

The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) figures in only a few verses but he certainly becomes an example of how the Holy Spirit networks people; Philip came along right when the Ethiopian needed him—and they were near water for baptism!

Melchizedek’s original story is limited to three verses (Gen. 14:18-20), but what an amazing walk on! The author of Hebrews uses the king-priest Melchizedek (and the absence of a genealogy for him in a genealogy-filled book) to develop a theology of the eternal priesthood of Christ (Heb. 7:1-17).

The Queen of Sheba, too, has a surprisingly small role (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12), considering that she’s also mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 12:42, Luke 11:31), the Qur’an (27:23-44), and is the subject of artwork, music by Handel and Gounod, and many cultural references. The unnamed monarch captured the popular imagination over the centuries.

You might be surprised how little a role Adam and Eve play as named characters in the Bible, although their influence is everywhere present.  As one of my professors put it, the disruption between God and humans permeates the Old Testament even though the Genesis 3 story is not an explicit theme therein.  Unless I’ve missed some references, I don’t think Eve is mentioned again by name in the Old Testament after Genesis 4:1; she appears in the New Testament in 2 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Tim. 2:13. Adam does figure in the Pseudepigrapha and other non-canonical writings.

Can you consider the four horsemen of the Apocalypse a “walk on”?  LOL

Thursday, July 5, 2012

God and Disasters

The theologian Karl Barth said that we should read the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and although he said that long before television and internet, the basic idea still applies.(1) I wrote this post a few weeks after the tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, as I thought about the earthquake and, more broadly, God’s place within natural processes. This summer, with its unusually hot temperatures and wildfires in some parts of the country, made me think again about this difficult topic.

During that first week following the tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend from college years introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes. For most of these she gave the citations but there are the entire verses.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, 36then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of us agreed that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who can create but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I soon was called upon to write a Sunday school lesson on the tsunami, as part of my freelance curriculum work ( I won’t repeat that research here, of course, but I did find a site of “biblical earthquakes” ( which included Ex. 19:18, 1 Kings 19:11, Zech. 14:5, Matt. 27:54 and 28:24, Acts 16:26, and the prophesied Rev. 6:12. I kicked myself for not thinking of that 1 Kings 19 passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. how do you explain God’s presence in Elijah’s situation?  Or do you just say it was a mystery?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes.” The sermon is worth reading: To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5….

[The Lord,] who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.

….as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.

Wesley’s sermon makes us think, of course. Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God. Today, we know more about the natural causes of earthquakes, and how very frequently they happen throughout the world. We only think about them when they’re destructively intense on the Richter scale, but mild earthquakes are extremely common. Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, surely the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken repentance in someone because of a crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin.

Of course, this is a difficult philosophical and theological issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. (“We all got it comin’, kid,” as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven.) Put several million people on an island or a coastal region, in an area prone to floods or quakes, and some day you’ll have a major problem. Allow people to travel in 5000-pound metal vehicles that go fast, and you’re not guaranteed complete safety. I’m not being flippant, but it’s human nature to wonder where God is amid tragedy forgetting that all of us are mortal and live among many potential dangers. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we don’t see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances. For some people, certain circumstances are evidence of God’s absence, or a lack of divine power.

The Bible calls death a “curse” and an “enemy,” against which Christ has already dealt a mortal blow: 1 Cor. 15:26. The word “curse” chafes when we think of innocent people who suffer and die but it refers to the imperfect, mortal, and in the human realm sinful quality of the world. Someone like Pat Robertson is rightly criticized for simplistically blaming victims (in the recent Haiti quake) as targets for God’s punishment. But although the Bible may draw those kinds of connections we should be very, very careful lest we draw a simplistic (and likely arrogant) conclusion about God’s purpose behind a tragedy. Femember that Job’s friends were full of theologically correct answers and insights about God’s will and works, but at the end of the book (42:7) God is angry at them!

Another problem with thinking about these issues, is that we’re prone to raise issues when a disaster strikes but we forget the everyday disasters. For another research project ( I found a 28-page “Global Health Overview” at Drawing and paraphrasing data from just the first major section, we learn that:

* A billion people have no access to health care systems.
* 33.4 million people live with HIV (2008 figures), while 2 million died that year from AIDS and another 2.7 million were newly infected with HIV.
* There are 9.4 million new cases of TB every year, and 1.3 million die each year.
* Malaria accounts for 243 million illnesses every year, and 863,000 million deaths.
* Measles accounted for 164,000 deaths, mostly among small children, in 2008, while half of the 1.6 million people who die annually of pneumococcal diseases are children.
* Not quite a third of all deaths worldwide are caused by cardiovascular diseases.
* Over 8 million young children die yearly from preventable diseases and malnutrition yearly.
* In 2002, the total number of people who died from infection diseases (about 11 million) greatly outnumbered the total who died in other catastrophes that year.

Unfortunately, disease is related to poverty. According to that same report (the section “Health, poverty and inequality”), preventable diseases like malaria are attributed to economic disadvantages and also perpetuate poverty. A little further, the report quotes a World Health Organization report from 2008 notes that “The poorest of the poor, around the world, have the worst health….In rich countries, low socioeconomic position means poor education, lack of amenities, unemployment and joy insecurity, poor working conditions, and unsafe neighbourhoods [sic], with their consequent impact on family life. These all apply to the socially disadvantaged in low-income countries in addition to the considerable burden of material deprivation and vulnerability to natural disasters.” But, further into the report (the section “Increasing commodification and commercialization of healthcare”), we learn that the increasing perception and reality of health care as a “market commodity” rather than “a common good” is increasing the inadequacy of affordable and available health care in different parts of the world (including, one can add, the United States).

I admit that this discussion has become very depressing, and that I’ve no answers to these problems. My point is that we often don’t think of the world’s suffering until disasters strike, but suffering happens in the world every day on a staggering level, many due to injustices and social evils that perpetuate among societies and nations. We need to remember that there are social and economic forces that (while benefiting people like you and me) contribute to people’s suffering and, in turn, their susceptibility to natural disasters. We (including myself) don’t always think of that when we wonder about God’s role in tragic circumstances.

Two more Bible passages. I’ve always found this one comforting, because Jesus refuses to interpret two senseless tragedies as judgments against people.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Even when we focus upon our relationship with God, our lives won’t be all good. But in a crucial way, all will be well because we are in that relationship (which God has initiated).

As I thought about this whole topic of God’s presence in a disaster, I realized ….Duh!…. that there is a passage which not only explicitly indicates where God is in terrible circumstances, but also states where we should be if we want to be where God is! We all know it….

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:31-46).


1. The source of this saying is discussed at the Center for Barth Studies website,