Thursday, May 29, 2014

Whatever Happened To...


I have not abandoned the project but have had to put it on hiatus for a while.

It seems that I have taken on a new challenge. Beginning next week I will be teaching a course in World Religions at a nearby Community College.

Since teaching about World Religions requires that I know something about World Religions, I've been studying my tail off for the last couple of weeks.

I hope to get to Micah eventually.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Obadaiah 1:1-Jonah 4:11


Obadiah is the shortest book of the Hebrew Bible, a mere 21 verses in length. It consists entirely of an oracle against the nation of Edom. The prophet also refers to that nation as Esau, after its ancestor, and Teman, after one of its important cities. See verses 8 and 9 for all three of these titles. Esau, you will remember was the brother of Jacob. The Israelites considered the Edomites kindred though not always friendly. In this book, Edom is condemned because, when Israel was taken into exile, the Edomites did nothing to help and, in fact, gloated over Israel's fate.

Every Sunday School student knows that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Actually it was a "big fish" but why quibble? The book presents a parable about a reluctant prophet. The story is a fantastical, comic masterpiece. When YHWH tells Jonah to preach in the Assyrian capital, Ninevah, he instead books passage on board a ship headed to Spain. When YHWH sends a sea storm that threatens to wreck the ship, the pagan sailors reluctantly, at Jonah's insistence, toss the prophet overboard. The storm stops. The sailors all worship YHWH. Already, Jonah is making converts.

Jonah is swallowed by the big firsh and spends three days in its belly. He fills his time praying a psalm that, on the surface, sounds perfectly pious. A close reading reveals that Jonah mistakenly believes that YHWH is confined to the temple back in Jerusalem. We can't be sure how God reacted but, when Jonah finishes his prayer, the fish pukes.

Jonah finds himself on the shore near Ninevah. The city is described in exaggerated terms. Jonah, seeing no way out, goes partway into the city and preaches the most lackluster prophetic sermon ever.

"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown."
      (Jonah 3:4, NIV)

Then he leaves the city and sits down to watch the fireworks. Once again, Jonah's worst efforts meet with unparalleled success. By royal decree the entire city puts on sackcloth and ashes. Even the cattle! YHWH relents and everyone lives happily ever after.

Except Jonah.

Jonah wanted Ninevah to be destroyed. He also knew all along that YHWH is:

a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
      (Jonah 4:2, NIV)

We've heard that description several times before.

There is an episode involving a plant that springs up overnight and gives Jonah shade. Then, YHWH sends a worm to destroy the plant which only makes Jonah angrier. YHWH drives his point home:

But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?"
      (Jonah 4:10-11, NIV)

The book of Jonah probably comes from the same time as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the time when Jerusalem was being rebuilt. It serves as a counter-voice to the concern for ethnic purity evinced in those other works.

Arguments that Jonah is a reliable account of historical facts couldn't be further from the point of the book. The prophet is not Jonah, son of Ammittai, but the anonymous author of this wonderful little book.

The illustration of Jonah is by Chinese artist He Qi. See more of his wonderful artworks here.

Next: Micah

Monday, May 12, 2014

Amos 6:1-9:15


The sixth chapter of Amos begins with an oracle condemning Israel's elite for their self-satisfied, self-indulgent, complacency. While they laze about entertaining themselves and eating the ancient equivalent of bon-bons, they are unconcerned about the "ruin of Joseph" (v. 6). They are, in fact, no better than various pagan neighbor cities that have already been destroyed (v. 2).

Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
   and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.
      (Amos 6:7)

It was, in fact, the wealthy, ruling class who were taken into exile first as a matter of policy.

Verses 9-10 are odd. A note in the Harper Collins Study Bible summarizes them nicely:

A narrative sketches a mysterious and ominous little scene of survivors hiding among the ruins and the bodies of the slain.

In verse 12 Amos uses some proverbial statements to make the point out that the injustice found in Israel is not natural:

Do horses run on rocks?
   Does one plow the sea with oxen?
But you have turned justice into poison
   and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood...

Chapter 7 records the first three in a series of visions. When he sees YHWH preparing judgment first by locusts and then by fire, Amos intercedes and YHWH relents. The third vision is of a plumb line, or something. The Hebrew word is known only from this context. Whatever it is, Israel doesn't measure up and Amos doesn't intervene.

These prophecies are not, as one might imagine, welcome in Israel. This is perhaps especially the case since Amos was a hick from Judah. Verses 10-17 tell how the prophet was confronted by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. This showdown is reminiscent of the confrontations we read of between Jeremiah and the professional prophets of Judah. In essence Amaziah says "Go home! Don't prophesy here." Amos responds that he is not a professional prophet. He gets the last word in with a nasty bit of judgment against Amaziah and his kin:

Therefore thus says the Lord:
'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
   and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
   and your land shall be parceled out by line;
   you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
   and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'
      (Amos 7:17)

The visions resume in chapter 8. Here Amos sees a "summer basket" or "basket of summer fruit." According to the Jewish Study Bible there is a pun in the Hebrew. That basket, kayitz, signifies the end, ketz. The NIV tries to retain the pun making the vision a basket of "ripe fruit" and declaring that the "time is ripe" for Israel's judgment. Nicely done, NIV.

The remainder of the chapter is taken up with graphic details of the pending judgment.

Chapter 9 begins with the last of Amos' visions. This time YHWH is standing beside "the altar." Whether this is the alter at Bethel is not specified. YHWH declares to the Israelites that they cannot hide from his judgment.

All the sinners among my people
will die by the sword,
all those who say,
'Disaster will not overtake or meet us. '
      (Amos 9:10)

Verses 11-15 are a promise that, at some future day, Israel will be restored and everything will be hunky-dory, if not better. The Harper Collins Study Bible suggests, plausibly, that these verses, which assume that Israel has been destroyed and its people exiled, probably were written by a later hand.

Biblical quotations are from the New International Version. The image of Juan de Berogna's painting of Amos came from this website.

Next: Obadiah-Jonah

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Amos 1:1-5:27


Dating from the first half of the 8th century BCE, the book of Amos may be the earliest of prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible. Amos was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. He came from Tekoa, about 10 miles north of Jerusalem, in the southern kingdom, Judah. But he preached in the northern kingdom Israel. According to the introduction to Amos in the Harper Collins Study Bible:

The message of Amos is direct and uncompromising. Over and over he announces to the people of Israel that, because of their social injustice and religious arrogance, the Lord will punish them by means of a total military disaster.
Amos opens with a series of oracles against Israel's neighbors. Damascus, Gaza, Tyre. Edom, Ammon, and Moab are each in turn condemned for their warlike ways (1:3-2:3). One can almost imagine the prophet's audience in full sympathy with this message. "Yeah, you tell those dirty Syrians! Stick it to those lousy Philistines!" When the prophet turns his attention to Judah (2:4-5), preaching against their idolatry, he might be getting a little close to home. But then when he starts in on Israel itself (2:6 ff) his audience must have been shocked. Amos lights into the northerners for their injustice, idolatry, and immorality.

Chapter 3 opens with a series of questions, the implied answers to which establish a pattern of cause and effect. The punchline to these questions is that when disaster befalls Israel's capital, Samaria, it will be because YHWH caused it.

Beginning at 3:9, YHWH calls the Philistines and Egyptians to serve as witnesses to his punishment of Israel. Verse 12 intimates that very little will be left when YHWH gets done with Israel:

This is what the Lord says:
"As a shepherd rescues from the lion's mouth
   only two leg bones or a piece of an ear,
so will the Israelites living in Samaria be rescued,
   with only the head of a bed
   and a piece of fabric from a couch."
      (Amos 3:12, NIV)

Chapter 4:1-3 addresses the women of Israel, rudely, as "cows of Bashan." Verses 4-5 tell the Israelites to go to their shrines at Bethel and Gilgal, but not for worship:

"Go to Bethel and sin;
   go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
   your tithes every three years.
Burn leavened bread as a thank offering
   and brag about your freewill offerings —
   boast about them, you Israelites,
   for this is what you love to do,"
      declares the Sovereign Lord.
         (Amos 4:4-5, NIV)

The rest of the chapter describes how YHWH has chastened Israel with droughts, plagues, and destruction, but Israel paid no heed.

Chapter 5 begins with a call for Israel to turn to YHWH, not by worshiping at the unauthorized shrines at Gilgal and Bethel, but by practicing social justice.From verse 18 on the prophet warns that the expected "Day of the Lord" will not bring the vindication for which the people hope, but judgment and exile.

Next: Amos 6-9

Friday, May 2, 2014

Joel 1:1-3:21


Nothing is known about the prophet Joel, son of Pethuel, other than what can be surmised from the book that bears his name. Possible dates for his writing range from the 9th to the 2nd centuries BCE. The scholarly consensus, based on internal evidence from the book, places Joel in the 5th century. At this time the people of Judah had returned from exile, were living under Persian rule, and had reestablished the Jerusalem temple.

The occasion for the book seems to be a devastating locust plague. The imagery of the locusts is conflated, however, with images of invading armies. Joel calls for YHWH's people to lament and repent.

Rend your heart
   and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
   for he is gracious and compassionate,
   slow to anger and abounding in love,
   and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
   and leave behind a blessing —
   grain offerings and drink offerings
   for the Lord your God.
      (Joel 2:13-14, NIV)

These verses are part of a common reading for Ash Wednesday.

In response to Israel's repentance, YHWH restores his people's prosperity.

The remainder of the book is occupied with "the Day of the Lord." For Judah this will be a time of blessing.

And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
   your old men will dream dreams,
   your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
      (Joel 2:28, NIV)

The Apostle Peter quotes this passage in his Pentecost speech in Acts 2. He proclaims that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that day fulfills Joel's words.

Other nations will not fare so well as Judah on the Day of the Lord.

Proclaim this among the nations:
   Prepare for war!
   Rouse the warriors!
   Let all the fighting men draw near and attack.
Beat your plowshares into swords
   and your pruning hooks into spears.
Let the weakling say,
   "I am strong!"
Come quickly, all you nations from every side,
   and assemble there.
      (Joel 3:9-11)

Don't miss the way that verse 10 reverses the words of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Joel, apparently, was well-versed in Hebrew Scripture.

Next: Amos 1-5

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Hosea 8:1-14:9


In Hosea 8 a bird appears over the house of the Lord. The NIV calls it an "eagle." The NRSV says it's a "vulture." Unless I'm mistaken, the Hebrew supports either translation. Whatever the bird is, it represents Assyria. Because Israel has appointed kings without YHWH's approval (v. 4) and put a golden calf up at the sanctuary in Bethel (v. 5) YHWH will abandon them to conquest by the Assyrians.

The Harper Collins Study Bible calls 8:7 ff. a "futility curse." Israel's disregard of YHWH's law will result in all of their efforts at prosperity being ineffectual. Verse 13 threatens a reversal of the exodus as Israel returns to Egypt.

Chapter 9 compares Israel's idolatry to prostitution. Threshing was apparently a festive time and the presence of prostitutes at the threshing floor may have been common. Israel has sold its favors to Baal, has ignored and abused the prophets (vv. 7-8), and have lapsed into corruption such as was seen at Gibeah (v. 9). Remember Gibeah? That's where the Levite's concubine was raped to death (Judges 19-21) leading to all out civil war among the Isrealite tribes. Back in the day, YHWH delighted in Israel, but ever since they arrived at Baal Peor (Numbers 25) they've been going for other gods. Now...

My God will reject them
   because they have not obeyed him;
   they will be wanderers among the nations.
      (Hosea 9:17, NIV)

In chapter 10, using more agricultural imagery, YHWH says that Israel's prosperity led to its neglect of God. Destruction is coming. In Luke 23:30, Jesus quotes the last part of verse 8:

Then they will say to the mountains, "Cover us!"
   and to the hills, "Fall on us!"
      (Hosea 10:8, NIV)
While the early chapters of Hosea focused on the image of YHWH as husband and Israel as wife, these later chapters tend to use the language of parent and child. In chapter 11, YHWH, filled with parental affection, softens toward wayward Israel. God will not destroy them like Admah and Zeboyim. These two cities, you may recall, were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah back in Genesis 14. The last verse of this chapter seems to belong more properly to chapter 12.

Chapter 12 uses the story of Jacob as an example for Israel. Verse 6 states the heart of this oracle's message:

But you must return to your God;
   maintain love and justice,
   and wait for your God always.
      (Hosea 12:6, NIV)

In chapter 13 YHWH returns to his angry mood. He really meant it when he said "No other gods."

You are destroyed, Israel,
because you are against me, against your helper.
      (Hosea 13:9, NIV)

At 1 Corinthians 15:55, the Apostle Paul quotes, or at least alludes to, verse 14:

I will deliver this people
from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
   Where, O death, are your plagues?
   Where, O grave, is your destruction?
      (Hosea 13:14, NIV)

The Harper Collins Study Bible points out that this verse is ambiguous in the Hebrew.

The Hebrew may entail a divine summons to effect punishment: "O Death, bring on your plagues. O Grave, bring on your destruction." Alternatively, the sense may be one of hope.

Paul's use of the verse certainly emphasizes the hopeful alternative. For comparison, here is the NRSV translation of the same verse which favors the negative reading:

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
   O Death, where are your plagues?
   O Sheol, where is your destruction?
      (Hosea 13:14, NRSV)

Frankly the note of hope reflected in the NIV translation seems out of place in this overwhelmingly negative chapter. Which is not to say that there is no hope to be found in the last chapters of Hosea. In fact the whole of the last chapter is a call for Israel to return to YHWH and carries a promise that they will be restored.

I'm reminded of Scrooge's speech to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!

Next: Joel 1-3

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hosea 1:1-7:16


The Blue Letter Bible canonical reading plan rushes us through the book of Hosea in 2 days. The prophet Hosea was active in the northern kingdom, Israel, in the mid-8th century BCE reign of King Jeroboam. He also refers to the nation as "Ephraim" (for its largest tribe) and "Samaria" (for its capital city). Hosea is critical of Israel's corruption, idolatry, and foreign alliances. There are hints in the text that Hosea may have been a Levitical priest.

The Hebrew Bible's worldview is primarily Judahite. Though Hosea was a northerner his oracles, with their criticisms of Israel's worship sites and practices, and their support of the davidic dynasty, fits well in the Hebrew canon.

In the first chapter we learn that Hosea's marriage was bad by any standard, ancient or modern. At God's command, he has married Gomer,  a "wife of whoredom" (NRSV). She was not necessarily a prostitute, however, and the NIV's less literal translation, "adulterous woman," may better reflect the meaning of that phrase. Gomer is unfaithful. In the world of the Old Testament this reflected shamefully on Hosea who failed to control his own household. The assumptions of a patriarchal culture underpin the whole of this book.

If Hosea has chosen his spouse badly, he also picks lousy names for his children although, technically, he can blame God for this, too. His first son is named Jezreel after the place where Jeroboam's grandfather Jehu slaughtered the Judahite king Ahab along with his family and friends (2 Kings 9-10). Even though Ahab was Judah's worst, evilest, most idolatrous king, YHWH is going to repay the house of Jehu for the slaughter.

Hosea's daughter is named "Unloved" (Lo Ruhamah) and his second son is called "Not mine"  (Lo-Ammi). Okay, technically Lo-Ammi means "Not my people." It's still a lousy name to hang on a kid.

Of course, Hosea's pathetic marriage and his children's crummy names are a metaphor for God's relationship to Israel. Israel has been adulterous, that is, idolatrous, worshiping other gods and making alliances with foreign kings. In chapter 2 Gomer and Israel are so conflated that it is sometimes hard to dope out just whom is being addressed. In verse 3 the idolatrous/adulterous wife is threatened with public shaming. In verses 14-23 the cuckolded husband seeks to win her back. In verse 16 the wife is told that she will no longer call her husband my "master." In Hebrew that would be my "Baal," a title by which wives did address their husbands and Israel did refer to YHWH. Baal, however, was also the name of a Canaanite storm deity.

In chapter 3 Hosea goes to bring his wife back. There is some question as to whether or not this means Gomer or a new wife. The problem is that Hosea pays for this wife. A bride price for a new bride would have been customary but who would Hosea have paid to bring Gomer back? Had she gotten herself into financial straits? Sold herself as a slave? It's not entirely clear. Still, as a metaphor for YHWH's love redeeming faithless Israel, it makes most sense for the bride to be Gomer.

Chapter 4 is a courtroom scene in which YHWH brings charges against Israel. The priests who serve at Israel's shrines in Gilgal and Bethel are particularly targeted. They have indulged in syncretism and idolatry. Their misconduct has even led to the employment shrine prostitutes (v. 14). Hosea calls Bethel, which means "house of God," Beth Aven, meaning house of iniquity, or delusion, or destruction, or something like that.

In chapter 5 Hosea addresses all of Israel but the royal house comes in for particular attention for its alliances with Assyria. Verse 14 says that Judah, too, will be judged. This seems almost to be an afterthought. I find myself wondering if it was added by a later hand.

Chapter 6 opens with a speech by some human agent (Hosea himself?) who urges Israel to repent (vv. 1-3). Next YHWH speaks words of condemnation directly to Israel. Once again Judah is mentions as an apparent afterthought (v. 11a). Verse 11b seems to properly belong with chapter 7.

The oracle in chapter 7 seems to say that everyone, great and small, is implicit in Israel's wrongdoing. Corruption is rampant. The nation is by turns loyal to Egypt and Assyria but not YHWH. The image in verse 8 of a "flat cake" not turned over seems to mean something like "Israel is half-baked."

Next: Hosea 8-14

Friday, April 25, 2014

Daniel 10:1-12:13


Chapter 10 serves as an introduction to the final vision of the book of Daniel. On the banks of the Tigris, after 3 weeks of fasting and mourning, in the third year of Cyrus of Persia (some 70 years after the Daniel was taken into exile), Daniel sees a vision of a man dressed in linen. His companions don't see the vision but run away in fright nevertheless. The "man" is clearly a heavenly messenger. He's been delayed, he says, because of a squabble with the "prince of Persia," another heavenly figure. Michael, the prince of Israel, came to the "man's" aid.

Chapter 11 relates the narrative of "future" events which the linen-clad man gives to Daniel. "Future" in this case represents narrative time.What we have is a highly detailed accounting of events from the time of Persian rule, through Alexander the Great's conquest, the break-up of his empire, the jockeying for power that occurred between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, down to the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. At which point the narrative becomes rather vague. This leads critical scholars to conclude that the book of Daniel was written at the time of Antiochus IV.

Daniel 11:31 mentions the "abomination of desolation" (a phrase translated in various ways) which probably refers to Antiochus's desecration of the Jerusalem Temple.

Chapter 12:1-5 are the only unambiguous reference to resurrection in the Hebrew Bible. It is worth noting that only "some" are raised, not all. Among those raised, some are rewarded, others punished. The book ends with a contradictory set of numbers in verses 11 and 12. Verse 13 promises Daniel that he will be among the resurrected.

Next: Hosea 1-7

Monday, April 21, 2014

Daniel 7:1-9:27


If you wait breathlessly for each new installment of "The Year of Blogging Biblically" (and if you do you are probably the only one) please accept my apology for the long delay between the last post and this one. Things tend to get busy as Easter approaches for those in my vocation. Now that the celebration of the day of resurrection is past I should be able to devote myself to this series more wholeheartedly.

The last six chapters of Daniel consist of a series of apocalyptic visions. These chapters are weird. But that's redundant. Apocalyptic literature is, by definition, weird.

Apocalypses are characterized by highly symbolic visions concerning the end of time. They are typified by dualistic thinking: good and evil are at war; events in the heavens mirror events on earth. The visions are often, as in the case of Daniel, narrated by a famous hero from the past.  Often there is a heavenly being who serves as interpreter and guide. In the visions of Daniel that role is played by Gabriel.

The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to give courage and hope to oppressed or persecuted believers. No matter how bad things seem, God is in charge. God will prevail.

But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.
       (Daniel 7:18 NIV)

One of my Old Testament profs called Apocalyptic "religion for the short run."

There are apocalyptic passages in other books (e.g. Ezekiel, the Gospels) but Daniel 7-12 is the Old Testament apocalypse. Revelation is the New Testament apocalypse.

In a previous post I noted that interpreters handle the four kingdom scheme of Daniel's visions differently. Some interpret the 4 kingdoms as Babylonian, Persian, Median, and Greek (technically Macedonian, I guess). Others interpret the kingdoms as Babylonian, Perso-Median, Greek, and Roman. The CEB Study Bible notes helpfully split the difference. The original intent was to to make the Alexander's Greek empire the last kingdom. Later, when Daniel started to be considered Scripture, the Roman empire was dominant over Judea and the 4 kingdoms were interpreted to end with the Romans.

Because apocalyptic symbolism is intentionally vague such reinterpretations are common. There is, however, a very real danger in this kind of reinterpretation. In the 19th century William Miller interpreted Daniel to mean that Jesus would return in 1843. More recently commentators have claimed that the locusts in the 9th chapter of Revelation represent helicopters. It is wise, I think, to consider what an apocalyptic text meant in its own time before trying to apply it to one's contemporary situation.

And please keep in mind that Judea, under the Greeks and Romans might legitimately plead persecution. Ditto first century Christians in Asia Minor. Applying apocalyptic writings from their times to modern American Christians is a horrible misuse.

Daniel 7 narrates a vision of 4 beasts representing 4 kingdoms. The boastful little horn (v. 8) is Antiochus IV Epiphanes who famously desecrated the temple. They are presented to the "Ancient of Days" (God) and found wanting. Finally one like a "Son of Man" is brought forward.

Daniel 8 is a vision of a ram and a goat. The rams two horns, representing the Persians and the Medes, lends itself to the 4 kingdom scheme ending with the Romans.

In chapter 9, Daniel offers a prayer that reinterprets Jeremiah's prophecy of a 70 year exile (c.f. Jeremiah 25). In Daniel the 70 years become 70 "weeks" of years (70 x 7 = 490). The number is probably not meant literally but stands for a long, long time. The "anointed one" in this chapter, like the Son of Man  in chapter 7, probably originally meant either Zerubabel or the high priest Joshua. 

Next: Daniel 10-12

Friday, April 18, 2014

Atonement and the Cross


In the early part of the 16th century, William Tyndale was translating the Bible into English (an act of civil disobedience for which he would pay with his life). He needed a word for the process by which human beings are reconciled to God, a noun to name means by which humans and God become at one. Since the English language didn't have such a word, Tyndale coined one: atonement, literally "at-one-ment."

Christians, probably all Christians, believe that the cross of Christ in some way effects our atonement. Probably the most common explanation for this, at least among American Christians, is the idea of penal substitution. This is the atonement theory that many of us carry around in our heads. In rough form it goes like this:

     God is holy and just.
     Human beings are sinners.
     God's justice demands that sin be punished.
     Human beings are, therefore, condemned to hell.
     But Jesus came and was crucified.
     On the cross he took the punishment we all deserve.
     Now, humans can go to heaven
       provided they have faith in Jesus.

This atonement theory has a few things going for it. It's simple. It's clear. It's easy to explain. It tells a compelling story. Some people even find it comforting. It can soothe the fears of people who have guilty consciences. I think it plays well among prison populations.

But there are also problems with this penal substitution theory.  For one, it portrays God as a kind of monster. God is all about punishment. God created people but now just wants to send them to hell. This sort of image of God led the young Martin Luther to not only fear God, but, by his own admission, to hate God, until he discovered God's grace.

The God portrayed in penal substitionary atonement is not "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." This atonement theory reduces God's justice to retribution and makes God's holiness something mechanical.

Another problem is that it makes atonement all about heaven and hell. It's focus is exclusively on the next life. It doesn't say much about this life.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Dorothy Sayres parodied penal substitutionary atonement like this:

God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don't follow Christ or who have never heard of Him.

Fortunately, there are other ways to understand the cross and its role in atonement. I prefer an atonement theory that doesn't make the cross about what God did to Jesus but about what we did to God.

I begin with the Christian proclamation that Jesus is God incarnate. In the person of Jesus Christ, God entered this world and reached out to his human creation in love. God did not come into the world with power or wealth or glory, but as a helpless infant, the swaddled son of a refugee family moved hither and yon by an uncaring Empire. Born with only a stable for shelter, Jesus never had much in the way of possessions. "Nowhere to lay his head" as the Gospel says.

As an adult Jesus was an itinerant. He healed the sick, thereby showing God's good will to the world. He gathered followers around himself and taught them to trust God and take care of one another, a message with profoundly political implications. His talk of the kingdom of God, a radical alternative to the power of the empire, God him crucified.

Jesus died as he was born, another helpless victim of an uncaring empire. Crucifixion was a form of punishment reserved for the lowest classes: slaves, non-citizens, rebels, the worst criminals.

On the cross, Jesus embraced our full humanity. On the cross, God was at one with the humblest, the lowest, and the least--with all of us.

Told this way, the cross is not the story of an angry God punishing an innocent victim. It's the story of a loving God taking on everything that makes us human.

I also think that this story of the cross has implications for how we live in this world. It exposes the cruel nature of Empire, the futility of might. It frees us from the thrall of power and wealth and glory to trust God and take care of one another.

This atonement theory is not immune to criticism but it provides an alternative to balance the uglier aspects of the theory of penal substitution.  No single way to understand the cross will ever be complete.

Martin Luther taught that on the cross, God put all of our sin on Jesus. (I take "sin" here to mean all of our human failings, frailties, weakness, and imperfection). And, on the cross God put all of Jesus' divine nature on us. By the cross, God made us holy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Esther and Her Elusive God


The book of Esther is a biblical curiosity. It tells a great story. It is the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim. But it does not make overt mention of God. Neither does it contain any explicit reference to religious practices with the possible exception of fasting.

Until recently I would not have qualified that last sentence with the word "possible."

The Septuagint version of Esther, considered canonical by Orthodox Christians, treated as Deutero-canonical by Roman Catholics, and relegated to the Apocrypha by Protestants, contains significant expansions on the Hebrew text. This ancient Greek version of Esther is replete with mentions of God and instances of prayer. The Septuagint translators apparently felt the understandable need to dress Esther up in more pious garb. Modern retellings of Esther's story in film and novelized form, also tend to explicit religious elements (and downplay the sexy parts).

I'm not sure where I saw it, but when I came across notice of a new book titled Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, by John Anthony Dunne, I was immediately intrigued. I called my local independent bookseller and ordered a copy.

The book is short, just 156 pages, 20 of which are devoted to end matter. The text comprises 5 chapters and an appendix. Though scholarly, it is written in an accessible style. I found it a quick and rewarding read.

The first part of the book (A Secular Story) is made up of three chapters:

   1. Esther & The Compromise
   2. Esther & The Covenant
   3. Esther & The Cover-Up

In this section of the book Dunne argues, persuasively, that Esther and her uncle Mordecai are not the faithful Jews that ancient versions such as the Septuagint, and more recent retellings of Esther's story in film and print, make them out to be. Ethnically Jewish, these characters are thoroughly assimilated to Babylonian culture and indifferent to Jewish religion. In fact, the gentile women in the book, queen Vashti and Zeresh, the wife of Haman, come off as more valorous and more devout than Esther herself.

Dunne's close reading of the text allows him to make this interpretive move. Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman is not based on religious scruples but on an ancient tribal feud. Esther's call for the Jews to fast on her behalf is a sign of mourning for her almost certain death and not an attempt to enlist the help of the Jewish God. Without rehashing Dunne's arguments, I will simply say that I find them convincing.

Perhaps the most contentious point of Dunne's interpretation is his argument that Esther 4:14a would, contrary to every English version I consulted, be better translated as a question. In the New International Version this verse reads:
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.
Dunne thinks "the text should be rendered as a rhetorical question expecting a negative answer, 'if you remain silent at this time, will relief and deliverance come from another source?'" (p. 46). In other words, the speaker, Mordecai, does not expect help from God.

The Second part of Esther and Her Elusive God, (Canonical and Theological Reflections on A Secular Story) is made up of two chapters:

   4. Esther & The Canon
   5. Esther & The Church

Here, Dunne focuses on Esther's place in the canon of Scripture and how its canonical placement affects interpretation. I find myself in agreement with his contention that Esther, by long usage, deserves to stand in biblical canon. On page 129, Dunne neatly sumamrizes his work:
The perspective of this book taken as a whole is that Esther is a story about how God was faithful to an unfaithful people. This is how a secular story functions as Scripture. Thus, when the church seeks to appropriate Esther for teaching and preaching, the urge to amplify the story of Esther by making the characters religious paragons, as seen in the ancient translations and modern popular versions, should be resisted. The Bible is full of stories with heroes and protagonists that the church should not seek to emulate, and Esther is no exception. Though as we have seen, the secularity of the characters should be distinguished from the perspective of the author, who has chosen to recall Israel's deliverance in a highly ironic and self-critical manner.

I did find a few small points of disagreement with Dunne. He nearly lost me when he cited a sermon series by Mark Driscoll (pp. 41-42). I am no fan of Driscoll but I have to admit that his work has status as a popular level interpretation of Esther. Dunne won me back, however, when I realized that he was critical of Driscoll's interpretation.

I also disagree with Dunne when he states that the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Ephesians. This point is secondary to Dunne's argument about Esther and in no way undermines his work.

Overall I give Dunne high marks for an engaging and intelligent reading of Esther. He has confirmed some of my own thinking of this strange, delightful book. He has also given me pause to reconsider some of my previous interpretation.

When I mentioned to some of my colleagues in ministry that I was reading this book, some of them responded with questions like "So what?" and "When's the last time you preached on Esther?" Granted, Esther does not come up often (if at all) in the lectionary. I have preached on the book in the past and may do so again. I have also had the opportunity to teach Esther in the context of Bible studies. That said, I tend not to be mercenary in my reading, especially in the field of Scriptural interpretation.

So, I recommend this book, highly, to anyone who might preach or teach about Esther but also to anyone who, like myself, is just plain interested in good biblical scholarship.

Dunne, John Anthony, Esther and her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2014.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Daniel 4:1-6:28


Chapters 4-6 tell more stories of wise, faithful Daniel in the Babylonian royal court.

Chapter 4 begins, unexpectedly, as a first person account by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar addresses all the people of the world in a circular letter informing them of the greatness of the Hebrew God. The king tells ho the "magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners" of Babylon were unable to interpret a troubling dream that he had. Not surprisingly, Daniel got the job done. The dream, which featured a mighty tree that was cut down and a mysterious announcement by a heavenly being called a "watcher," meant that Nebuchadnezzar would lose his sanity and live like an animal for "seven times." Daniel encourages the king to repent and stop oppressing the poor. At verse 16 the narrative shifts to a third person account. One year later Nebuchadnezzar, full of pride at his power and possessions, is suddenly struck with madness and lives as an animal. At verse 31 the first person narrative resumes. Nebucahdnezzar tells how he recovered his senses and praises God.

A note in the New Interpreters Study Bible reads:

The story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness is originally derived from a tradition about Nabonidus (556–539 bce), the last king of the Neo- Babylonian Empire. This story may reflect, in a very distorted fashion, Nabonidus's self- imposed exile at Teima in the Arabian desert.

I mention this because chapter 5 is set in the court of Belshazzar. In the text Belshazzar is described as the son of Nebuchadnezzar when, in fact, he was the son of Nabonidus. He ruled as viceroy in Babylon briefly when his father was at Teima. Belshazzar has a banquet and serves his guests with the vessels taken from the Jerusalem temple. A hand appears and writes the mysterious word "MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN" on the wall. Once again the sages of Babylon are of no use but Daniel is able to interpret the message. I'll let Johnny Cash sing about it because, hey, he's Johnny Cash.

Belshazzar dies. Darius the Mede takes the throne.

Outside of the book of Daniel there is no independent source for a historical person called Darius the Mede. Various names have been put forward. None is entirely convincing. The critical consensus seems to be that Darius the Mede was inserted here to fit the books scheme of history. In chapter 2 we read about Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue, the parts of which represented a succession of kingdoms: the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks. Darius was inserted here because the author had a need...a need for Medes.

I'm sorry for that pun. I truly am.

At any rate, the historical discrepancies in the book of Daniel do not bother me because, as you should know by now, I don't take Daniel as a factual account of historical events.

In chapter 6 we have what is probably the most famous story from the book of Daniel. Darius makes our boy an adminstrator over some regional satraps. Not surprisingly, Daniel distinguishes himself above the other administrators and is due to become top man in the kingdom. Knowing that Daniel is a faithful Jew, the other administrators and the satraps conspire to destroy him by means of his faith. They convince Darius that it would be a good idea if he passed an edict making it a capital offense to pray to anyone other than Darius himself for a period of 30 days. Those who disobey are to be thrown to the lions. Daniel, naturally, prays to his God. In an echo of the story of Esther, the king's edict cannot be countermanded. So, against Darius's wishes, Daniel is tossed into a pit full of hungry lions. God preserves Daniel through the night. Darius happily frees him in the morning. Daniel's enemies, along with there wives and children, are thrown to lions instead. Those lions, no doubt hungrier than ever since they were denied a meal the night before, make short work of them.

We're told that Daniel prospered under Darius and Cyrus the Persian. It was Cyrus, of course, who allowed the deportees to return to Judea.

The moral to the stories in chapters 1-6: Be faithful and God will watch out for you.

The image of Robert Weaver's painting of Daniel in the Lions' Den came from this website. Next: Daniel 7-9

Monday, April 7, 2014

Daniel 1:1-3:30


The book of Daniel calls the king of Babylon by his Babylonian name: Nebuchanezzar. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible this same king is called "Nebuchadrezzar."

The situation of the book of Daniel is established in Chapter 1. In the third year of Jehoiakim's reign (601 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and taken captives some of the Temple treasures to Babylon. This doesn't quite jive with the account in 2 Kings 23-24 in which the first of the Temple treasures and deportees are taken in 597, during Jehoiachin's reign. Not taking Daniel as a literal recounting of historical events, I don't let this bother me.

Among the people exiled at this time are four young men with good Hebrew names: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The -el and -iah suffixes in their names give them away. They are references to the Hebrew God (Elohim), the Lord (YHWH). They are impressed into service as courtiers to Nebuchadnezzar who renames them in honor of his own gods, Bel, Marduk, and Nabu. They are, in order, Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel and company keep kosher. Insisting upon eating only vegetables, they nevertheless flourish physically. God is with them. They are wiser than the sages of Babylon.

Daniel 2 is set in the second year of king Nebuchanezzar's reign, that is, 603 BCE. This is two years before Daniel is supposed to have been taken to Babylon. Again, not taking Daniel as as a literal recounting of historical events, I don't let this bother me.

In this chapter Nebuchadnezzar has a dream. He makes the absurdly impossible request that his wise men not only interpret the dream, but also tell him what it was. When the "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers" (NIV) demur, the king threatens to have them all killed. Daniel comes to the rescue. God enables him to describe the king's dream. The dream involves a statue made, from the top down, of materials that decrease in value. The head is gold. By the time we reach the feet, they are made of iron mixed with clay. The various parts represent a succession of kingdoms. Babylon is the head. The NIV Study Bible (which I referenced in my previous post) says that the feet are "unmistakably Rome."

Color me skeptical.

It seems much more likely that the feet represent the empire of Alexander of Macedon which, after Alexander's death, was divided between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies who held control over Judea at different times. This interpretation, which dates back to at least the fourth century CE, is favored by the Harper Collins Study Bible, the Jewish Study Bible, and others.

Because he interprets Nebuchadnezzar's dream, Daniel is elevated to a high position. He brings his buddies, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego along. If you miss the echoes of the story of faithful Joseph interpreting dreams in the court of Pharaoh (Genesis 41), you haven't been paying attention.

In chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar builds an impossibly tall statue. Literally, it is impossible to build a statue 60 cubits high and only 6 cubits wide. It simply wouldn't stand. Do I have to say it? Not taking Daniel as a literal recounting of historical events, I don't let this bother me.

Nebuchadnezzar orders that all of the "satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the other provincial officials come to the statue's dedication. When they hear the sound of "the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music" (NIV)  the people of every nation and language are to prostrate themselves in worship before the statue. The lists of officials and musical instruments are repeated several times through this chapter, I believe for comic effect. The New Living Translation, a highly readable version of the Bible undercuts the effect by listing all of the instruments once and then simply referring to "the musical instruments." Pity, that.

The penalty for failure to worship is death by immolation in a "blazing furnace." Shadrach, Meshach, and Abnego, pious Jews that they are, refuse to worship an image. Daniel is mysteriously absent from this chapter. Nebuchadnezzar has the furnace super-heated, 7 times hotter than usual. This is, I believe, more comic exaggeration. The Jewish men are tossed into the furnace, the heat of which kills their captors. The young men, however, are seen wandering around, alive and unharmed, in the flames. There is a fourth, divine, figure with them. Nebuchadnezzar calls for the Jewish men to come out of the furnace and worships the Hebrew God.

These stories are fun. They are funny. They were told, I think, to entertain and to encourage Jews living in the diaspora to be faithful, to keep kosher, and to avoid syncretism.

The image of the catacomb painting of Shadrach and pals came from wiki. I can't read this story without thinking of my seminary roommate, a preacher's kid, who said his father would signal bedtime by referring to "Shadrach, Meshach and To-Bed-We-Go!" 

Next Daniel 4-6

Friday, April 4, 2014

Standing on the Cusp of Daniel

The book of Daniel contains a collection of stories (chapters 1-6) about the wise, faithful, and virtuous young Jewish man, and his companions, living in exile, serving as courtiers to a succession of Babylonian kings. The second half of the book is a series of apocalyptic visions. The book was written in two languages; Daniel 2:4b-7:28 in Aramaic, rest in Hebrew.

There are two basic approaches to the book of Daniel. The first is more biblicistic and credulous. This approach treats the stories as factual historical accounts and the visions as predictions of future events. Future, that is, from the author's perspective. The book, according to this perspective, was written or compiled shortly after the events that it narrates, around 530 BCE. The introduction to Daniel in the NIV Study Bible (p. 1319) is a good example of this school:

The widely held view that the book of Daniel is largely fictional rests mainly on the modern philosophical assumption that long-range predictive prophecy is impossible. Therefore all fulfilled predictions in Daniel, it is claimed, had to have been composed no earlier than the Maccabean period (second century B.C.) after the fulfillments had taken place.
The NIV Study Bible identifies the 4 kingdoms referenced in chapters 2 and 7 as Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman. It states flatly that the symbolism of the 4th empire is "unmistakably Rome." It also argues that the language in which Daniel is written is characteristic of the 6th century BCE.

The second approach is more historical-critical and skeptical. This approach sees the stories of chapters 1-6 as folk tales and treats the visions of chapters 7-12 as recitations of history. The Jewish Study Bible (pp. 1641-2) is representative:

Because of the detailed nature of apocalyptic timetables, the dating of at least the last chs of Daniel can be established precisely. Scholars consider the predictions in this book, as in other apocalypses, to be prophecies after the fact, purportedly written down centuries earlier and kept secret in order to give credence to other predictions about the end of history. The recounting of history, then, though symbolic, can be matched quite easily with the history of the ancient Near East in the Greek period. The predictions are detailed and accurate until the end of the Maccabean revolt in 164. At that point, however, they veer dramatically from what we know of the actions of the Seleucid king...and scholars assume that the author lived and wrote at the precise time when the predictions become inaccurate.

In this view the 4 kingdoms are Babylon, Medea, Persia, and the Seleucids.

Personally I find the arguments for later composition convincing. I don't believe that the truth of Daniel depends upon its facticity.

Interestingly Christians were debating over essentially these same views as early as the 4th century CE.

The stories of chapters 1-6 dealing, as they do, with Jews living in the court of foreign royalty, are related thematically to the Joseph saga in Genesis 37-50 and the book of Esther. The visions are the clearest example of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Bible. Like other apocalypses, Daniel was written pseudonymously in the name of a revered historic person.

Christian Bibles place Daniel after Ezekiel as the fourth "Major Prophet." Jewish Bibles put the book of Daniel among the "Writings."

The Septuagint version of Daniel includes some significant additions: The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna. These can be found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. If they are included in Protestant Bibles at all it is under the heading of Apocrypha. The stories of  Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon, may be the oldest known examples of detective fiction.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ezekiel 46:1-48:35


Today we put a wrap on Ezekiel.

In chapter 45 we read about the king's ("prince's") participation in the Passover rituals in Ezekiel's ideal vision of a restored Jerusalem. Ezekiel 46:1-15 describes the other annual festivals, as well as the Sabbaths and New Moons. Much attention is given to how and where people enter and exit the Temple.

I wonder if Ezekiel's preference for the term "prince" when referring to kings reflects a theological bias. YHWH is king. Everyone else, no matter how powerful, is subordinate.

Verses 16-18 are concerned with how and to whom the princes may give inheritance. By no means should the king take away an inheritance from the poeple.

In chapter 47 water flows from the restored Temple nourishing the land and making even the Dead Sea fresh. The River of Life in Revelation 16 owes much to this image. I don't know if the connection to Psalm 46:4 is deliberate:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
   the holy habitation of the Most High.

Verses 13-23 describe the boundaries of the restored Israel. A note in the Jewish Study Bible says:

The boundaries of the land are an idealized portrayal of the greatest extent of the Davidic kingdom and Jeroboam II.

In chapter 48 the land is apportioned equally to the 12 tribes of Israel. A portion is set aside for the Levites. The prince also receives a portion which brackets the Levitical portion.

Ezekiel describes the restored Jerusalem as having 12 gates. In Revelation, John of Patmos sees the heavenly New Jerusalem having 12 similar gates, each made of pearl.

Ezekiel ends with a note that the restored Jerusalem will be called "YHWH is there."

Next: Daniel 1-3

Monday, March 31, 2014

Ezekiel 43:1-45:25


Ezekiel's visions of Israel's restoration function, I believe, to draw YHWH's people into a better future. Whether the details of the vision were ever expected to be literally fulfilled, I don't know. I doubt it, but I don't know. What I think is that the visions were meant to guide God's people in their attitudes and actions when they return from exile. The visions are intended to provide hope and impetus for restoration.

In Ezekiel 4-443, the prophet's vision continues as he sees YHWH's glory return to the new, idealized temple. Once the glory has come in, the door is closed behind it.

A problem with the former temple was that the kings (Ezekiel calls them "princes") were too close. Their residences and tombs need to be farther away so that they do not contaminate the Temple's holiness.

I have long thought that Solomon's temple effectively created a religio-political complex of power in which the priests were effectively placed under the king's power. Ezekiel's vision-Temple dismantles the complex. It may even reverse the power structure to favor the (Zadolite) priests. Despite Ezekiel's vision, monarchy was never really re-established in Judea.

Chapter 45 describes the land to be apportioned to the Levites and the king in the restored Israel. Verses 9-17 instruct the king to rule justly. Verses 18-25 describe the celebration of the Passover with emphasis on the king's part.

The image of Ezekiel was borrowed from wiki. Next: Ezekiel 46-48

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ezekiel 40:1-42:20


Remembering that Ezekiel was a priest helps to explain his concern for the Temple. In chapter 10 he described a vision of YHWH's glory leaving the temple. The Lord was offended or driven out by the people's idolatry and injustice. In chapter 33 he received word of Jerusalem's fall and, we may assume, the Temple's destruction. In today's reading the prophet sees a vision of a rebuilt Temple, larger and grander than Solomon's, to which YHWH's glory will return in chapter 43.

Though Ezekiel's temple, its dimensions and decor, are described in detail I don't think the Second Temple (Zerubabel's Temple) was built according to his plan. Herod's expansion of the Second Temple may have approximated the grandeur Ezekiel envisioned.

In chapter 40 Ezekiel sees a "man" with an appearance like bronze. He uses measuring stick to determine the dimensions of the Temple. Verses 45-46 show Ezekiel's support for the Zadokite priests who were the primary priests of the Second Temple for about 350 years.

He said to me, “The room facing south is for the priests who guard the temple, and the room facing north is for the priests who guard the altar. These are the sons of Zadok, who are the only Levites who may draw near to the Lord to minister before him.” 

The tour of Ezekiel's visionary Temple, its outbuildings and environs, with descriptions of its decor, continues through chapter 42.

Next: Ezekiel 43-45

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rules v. Empathy

On March 24, Dr. James McGrath published the picture above as part of a post on his estimable Exploring Our Matrix blog. Click through if you would like to read his thoughts on the subject of Morality and Religion.

By coincidence, on the same day, I received a comment on a four year old post on this blog. The writer, taking exception to what I wrote, accused the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of redefining sin by moving away from the catholic consensus about homosexuality. I replied to his accusations there.

What occurs to me from all of this is that there are two ways of deriving ethics, one intrinsic, the other extrinsic.

Extrinsic morality is dictated from outside the self. Whether it is from tradition, consensus, Scripture, or some other source, extrinsic morality makes right behavior a matter of following a set of rules. Don't smoke. Don't steal. Don't kill. Don't cross on the red and you're OK.

There is a danger in extrinsic morality. Extrinsic morals can be derived from an immoral source. I've mentioned before that the Nazi regime was not immoral. It was hyper-moral. It had a clear vision of the good and sought to enact that vision. Genocide, slavery, injustice, and acts of terrorism can be justified by extrinsically derived morality.

This is not to say that all rules are bad. Far from it. It does, however, give us leave to question rules.

What I call intrinsically derived morality is called "empathy" in the picture above. In the Bible, I believe, it is called "love." Arguably it is the basis for Jesus' ethics. "Love your neighbor as yourself." "Love your enemies." "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Arguably it is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Romans 13:10 when he said that "Love is the fulfillment of the Law."

Perhaps empathy, love, is the intrinsic standard by which all extrinsic rules ought to be measured.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-39:29


I cannot read Ezekiel 37:1-14 without hearing the song Dem Bones playing on my mental jukebox. This is Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones which, at his prophecy, take on flesh and come to life. The vision is a simple analogy: the Israelites in exile are metaphorically dead, cut off, dried up. They will be restored. Later Jewish and Christian interpreters saw the resurrection of the dead in this vision but that is almost certainly not what Ezekiel intended. A point to note: Ezekiel  is told to prophesy to "the breath" (NIV, NRSV) or "the wind" (KJV). The Hebrew word ruach bears both meanings and can also be translated "spirit."

Ezekiel 37:15-28 describes a prophetic action/parable. Ezekiel is commanded to take two sticks, mark them with the names of the two nations "Ephraim" (i.e. the northern kingdom, Israel) and "Judah" and hold them together in his hand as one stick. The message, the two kingdoms will be restored and will be ruled by a single king from the line of David. Though at least some of the exiles did return to Jerusalem and Judah the Davidic kingship was never reestablished.

Chapters 38 and 39 contain oracles against "Gog of Magog." Gog, here, is a future general of the armies of Meshek and Tubal in Asia Minor. The book of Revelation (ch. 20) refers to Gog and Magog as if they are two nations. In Ezekiel God will be dragged by YHWH into war (v. 4). He will lead a coalition of nations in what seems to be an end time war against Israel. This war will take place after Israel is reestablished.YHWH will fight on behalf of his people and Gog will be destroyed by earthquakes, the sword, plagues, a rain of sulfur, etc. Chapter 38:11-16 describe the burial of Gog's armies. In verses 17-20 carrion fowl are invited to feast on the carcasses of the enemy dead. The book of Revelation (ch. 19) also picks up this image. (John of Patmos was deeply steeped in the Hebrew prophetic tradition).

Verses 25-29 once again promise that Israel will be restored; its people will return from exile.

Gustave Dore's illustration of Ezekiel's vision looks like a scene from a horror movie. Next: Ezekiel 40-42

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ezekiel 34:1-36:38


With news of Jerusalem's fall, a note of hope is introduced into Ezekiel's preaching.

In chapter 38 Judah's kings are called "shepherds," a common metaphor in the ancient near east. That King David is depicted as a literal shepherd during his youth adds a layer of depth to its use in the Bible. As shepherds the kings have failed in their responsibilities to care for their flock. The poor and weak have been ignored or exploited. The kings have ruled for their own enrichment. Compounding injustice with inequity, the rich "fat sheep" have abused the poor. Now YHWH himself will shepherd his people. He will give them "David," which I take to mean a king like David and from David's line, for their ruler.

Ezekiel 35:1-36:15 deal with mountains. Chapter 35 proclaims judgment against Mt. Seir (probably representing Edom) for its ancient enmity against the two nations, Israel and Judah. YHWH is going to make Mt. Seir desolate.

In stark contrast Chapter 36 begins with an oracle of hope for the moutains of Israel. Currently desolate, they will be restored and repopulated.

Verses 16-38 use the image of menstruation to describe Israel's uncleanness. We've seen repeatedly that the Hebrew Scriptures are squeamish about bodily discharges. Basically, YHWH declares that he was embarrassed by  Israel. In an honor/shame culture that is more significant than it might sound. So, Israel was punished with exile. But, the people will be purified and return to their land. The purification is described as sprinkling with water (v. 25) which, I think, does not quite correspond to the ritual bath required to "cleanse" a woman from her menstrual period. Twice, and significantly, YHWH tells the people that their return is "not for your sake" but for YHWH's (vv. 22 and 32). In other words, Israel's restoration will redound to YHWH's honor.

The image of Elizabeth Jane Gardner's painting of David the Shepherd came from wiki. Next: Ezekiel 37-39

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ezekiel 31:1-33:33


Some of Ezekiel's oracles are very precisely dated. The message adressed to the king of Egypt and his hordes in chapter 31 was proclaimed on June 21, 587 BCE. It is a simple allegory. Assyria was a mighty tree. It became proud. YHWH cast it aside and it was cut down by foreign nations. Egypt is next.

Ezekiel 32:1-16 is less precisely dated. It comes from March 585 BCE. In this one the Pharaoh, who was described as a dragon in chapter 29, is now a sea monster. The monster is defeated by YHWH in a story that parallels ancient near eastern creation myths. Babylon is YHWH's chosen weapon for Egypt's defeat. The women of the nations lament for Pharaoh and his hordes.

Verses 17-32 come from the same year but here not even the month is specified. It is a lament for Egypt. Egypt is going down to the pit with the uncircumcised: Assyria, Elam, Meshek, Tubal, Edom, the princes of the north, and the Sidonians.

Chapter 33 rings a change in the book of Ezekiel. Back in chapter 3 the prophet was appointed to be YHWH's watchman. Here that call is renewed. As before Ezekiel is responsible to proclaim YHWH's message but not for its results. Now, in answer to the charge "YHWH is not just" (cf. Chapter 18) he proclaims that repentance will bring forgiveness.

On January 19. 585 BCE Ezekiel receives news that "Jerusalem has fallen." His mouth, as promised, is opened. He declares taht the city and its environs will become desolate. Ezekiel's fellow deportees don't pay him much heed. They dismiss him as a singer of songs but, YHWH says, when the things he proclaims come to pass, "they will know that a prophet has been among them."

Next: Ezekiel 34-36

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ezekiel 28:1-30:26


Ezekiel's oracles against Tyre continue in chapter 28. In verses 1-19 he specifically targets the king of Tyre. As is typical of Ezekiel, the king is referred to as "prince."

The New International Version translates verse 3 as a pair of questions addressed to the king:

Are you wiser than Daniel?
Is no secret hidden from you?

The New Revised Standard Version translates the same verse as a pair of statements:

You are indeed wiser than Daniel;
no secret is hidden from you...

The consensus opinion expressed in the notes of my various study Bibles is that Ezekiel actually did think that the king of Tyre was wise. Even wiser than Daniel who, as we saw in chapter 14 was probably  a legendary Canaanite ruler, Danel,and not the biblical Daniel.

Wise or not, the Tyrian ruler's pride becomes his downfall and he will die at the hands of foreigners.

Verses 11-19 are a lament over the king of Tyre. Once rich, beautiful, and powerful, he will be reduced to ashes (v. 18).

Verses 20-23 are a short oracle against Sidon. Verses 24-26 express the purpose of all these nations' downfalls. On their return to the land of promise

The house of Israel shall no longer find a pricking brier or a piercing thorn among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. And they shall know that I am the Lord God.
      (Ezekiel 28:24 NIV)

Chapter 29 begins a series of oracles against Egypt. A note in the New Interpreters Study Bible is helpful:

Egypt had been either a threat or a temptation to Israel for centuries. Isaiah had warned about reliance on Egypt for military help (30:1- 2; 31:1). Although Pharaoh Hophra intervened while Nebuchadnezzar was besieging Jerusalem (Jer 37:5- 8), Jeremiah warned against the dangers of fleeing to Egypt (Jer 42:1- 22) and predicted that Hophra would be captured by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 44:30).

Ezekiel declares that Egypt, which has been a weak prop ("staff of reed" v. 6) to Judah, will be destroyed. As Tyre's downfall was described in imagery of the sea, so Egypt's fate is described in terms appropriate to a desert nation. Egypt's people will be exiled for 40 years. After that time they will return, but the restored nation will be weak.

In verses 17-21 YHWH gives Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as compensation for an unprofitable campaign against Tyre. A note from the Harper Collins Study Bible says:

Since Nebuchadnezzar had worked for God and without sufficient reward, he will be permitted to attack Egypt instead. Such an attack was launched in 568 bce, again without conclusive results.

This means that neither Ezekiel's oracles against Tyre, nor his oracles against Egypt were fulfilled precisely. This isn't a major concern for me but if it bothers you a note in the New Interpreters Study Bible may help:

Although some think that the failure of the oracle against Tyre may pose a problem for the credibility of the prophet or the divine word, prophetic certainty need not be the issue here. Prophetic announcements regarding the exercise of human power are always contingent. Moreover, the L ord 's radical freedom from human institutions and structures also requires that the divine word cannot be imprisoned in its own fulfillment. The Lord is free to modify an announcement when the situation changes, especially when that word concerns the agent of divine justice, Nebuchadnezzar (v. 20).

In chapter 30 the prophet is commanded to lament over the defeat of Egypt and its allies, Cush (i.e. Ethiopia), Put (Lybia), Lud (Lydia), Arabia, and Cub. No one is exactly sure what "Cub" is supposed to represent. The NIV, following the Septuagint, translates it as "Lybia" (and just transliterates "Put"). Verses 13-19 include some specific Egyptian places by name. The whole of the land is to be conquered.

In verses 20-26 Ezekiel says that Nebuchadnezzar has broken the Pharaoh's arm. The Babylonian king will be back, he says, to break the other one.

We're not quite done with Egypt.

Next: Ezekiel 31-33

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ezekiel 25:1-27:36


Ezekiel now turns his attention to Judah's neighboring nations. In chapter 25 verses 1-7, he prophesies against Ammon. In Jeremiah 40 we read that the Ammonites were responsible for the assassination of the Babylonian appointed governor Gedaliah. Ezekiel says that they rejoiced over the fall of Jerusalem. They will, the prophet says, be laid waste by "people from the east," probably nomadic raiders.

Next Moab falls under Ezekiel's gaze (vv. 8-11). The Moabites assisted the Babylonians against Judah. They will share Ammon's fate.

Next we are told that Edom will be destroyed by YHWH and "my people Israel" (vv. 12-14).

The chapter ends with an oracle against Philistia. Israel's ancient enemies will also fall.

Ezekiel 26:1-28:16 contain a series of oracles against Tyre. The Tyrians gloated over Jerusalem's destruction and saw in it an economic opportunity. The will be laid waste by the Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar ( whose name the NIV helpfully "corrects" to Nebuchadnezzar). He is described as the "king of kings" (Ezekiel 26:7). Tyre's destruction is described in terms of warfare and, appropriately for a merchant seaport, ocean storms.

Chapter 27 is a mocking "lament" for Tyre. The glories of Tyre's ships, armies, wealth, and trading prowess are described. Tyre's trade partners will mourn its demise.

All who live in the coastlands
    are appalled at you;
their kings shudder with horror
    and their faces are distorted with fear.
The merchants among the nations scoff at you;

    you have come to a horrible end
    and will be no more.
      (Ezekiel 27:35-36 NIV)

That's all for today. We'll get back to Tyre next time.

Next: Ezekiel 28-30

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ezekiel 23:1-24:27


Yesterday a friend and colleague in ministry phoned to tell me a story. She had not prepared well for her 6th grade Confirmation class. So, when the curriculum materials said to look up Exodus 4:24-26 she had the kids open their Bibles not knowing what was there.

In case you don't remember it, Exodus 4:24-26 is that odd little fragment of a story in which YHWH tries to kill Moses but Zipporah, Moses' wife, circumcises their son and touches the foreskin to Moses' "feet" and YHWH backs off. Zipporah calls Moses her "bridegroom of blood."

I asked my friend if her students wanted her to explain circumcision. Did they know about foreskins? She said their main question was "What's a bridegroom?"

I suppose their are any number of lessons to draw from that anecdote. One of them would concern the importance of preparation. Another would be that not everything in the Bible is suited for children.

It might have been worse. They could have been reading Ezekiel 23. In this chapter the prophet employs a parable that is graphic, pornographic, and a bit heavy-handed. He tells the story of two sisters, prostitutes, named Oholah ("Her Tent") and Oholibah ("My Tent Is In Her"). The allegory is explicit: Oholah is Samaria, the fallen capitol city of the northern kingdom; Oholibah is Jerusalem.

Oholah sold her favors to the Assyrians. YHWH gave her up. Her lovers raped and abused her:
They stripped her naked, took away her sons and daughters and killed her with the sword. She became a byword among women, and punishment was inflicted on her.
     (Ezekiel 23:10 NIV) 

Oholibah didn't learn from her big sister's example. She prostituted herself to Assyrians, Babylonians (called "Chaldeans" here), and enormously well-endowed Egyptians. She will fare worse than her sister:

They will come against you with weapons, chariots and wagons and with a throng of people; they will take up positions against you on every side with large and small shields and with helmets. I will turn you over to them for punishment, and they will punish you according to their standards. I will direct my jealous anger against you, and they will deal with you in fury. They will cut off your noses and your ears, and those of you who are left will fall by the sword. They will take away your sons and daughters, and those of you who are left will be consumed by fire. They will also strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry. So I will put a stop to the lewdness and prostitution you began in Egypt. You will not look on these things with longing or remember Egypt anymore.
      (Ezekiel 23:24-27 NIV)

The first oracle of chapter 26, a prophetic act/parable is precisely dated to the 10th day of Tevet in 588 BCE (January 15). This was the day Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. The city is compared to a stew pot full of cooking meat. The pot is corroded and corrupt. It will be purified by fire.

The second part of this chapter (verses 15-27) tells how Ezekiel's beloved wife dies. At YHWH's command the prophet does not engage in any of the traditional signs of mourning. This is how the people are to behave when their beloved temple is destroyed.

When he hears of the temple's destruction, Ezekiel's "mouth will be opened." He will no longer be constrained to speak only words of doom.

Illustrating this post is Two Prostitutes, a digital painting by Cellar-FCP which I found here. I think it is an impressive piece of work and give all props to the artist. I have borrowed the image without permission and will remove it at the artist's request.  Next: Ezekiel 25-27

Ezekiel 21:1-22:31


In Ezekiel 21:1-17, the prophet is told to prophesy against the Temple and the land of Israel. YHWH is going to "cut off" both the wicked and the righteous (v. 3). This oracle is poetic in form and, according to the New Interpreters Study Bible there are "difficulties in the Hebrew text." Those difficulties must account for the differences in translation between the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version. Here, for example, is verse 10 in both versions:

[A sword is] sharpened for the slaughter,
    polished to flash like lightning!
Shall we rejoice in the scepter of my royal son? The sword despises every such stick.

[A sword] is sharpened for slaughter,
   honed to flash like lightning!
How can we make merry?
   You have despised the rod
   and all discipline.

Again, here is verse 13:

Testing will surely come. And what if even the scepter, which the sword despises, does not continue? declares the Sovereign Lord.

For consider: What! If you despise the rod, will it not happen? says the Lord God.  

In verses 18-24 the sword, which represents Babylon, comes to a fork in the road. Directed by divination, the sword bypasses Ammon and comes to destroy Judah and Jerusalem. Ammon will get its comeuppance later (vv. 28-29).

Verses 25-27 are directly addressed to a ruler, probably Zedekiah. His crown will be taken from him and reserved for a good king. Though Ezekiel probably expected it, kingship was never re-established in Jerusalem. For later readers verse 27 takes on a messianic tone.

In verses 30-32 the sword is returned to its sheath. Having served as YHWH's instrument of judgment, the sword itself will be judged.

Chapter 22 consists of three oracles against Jerusalem. That city has been full of idolatry, violence, and violation of the Torah (vv. 1-16). It has become dross, the impurities that are refined out of silver, and will be dealt with accordingly (vv.  17-22). The city's leaders have been complicit and bear responsibility:

So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.      (Ezekiel 22:31, NIV)

The photo of the Exterminating Angel came from this website. I don't know enough Spanish to recommend or pan it. Next: Ezekiel 23-24

The Next Thing I Say Will Be True. The Last Thing I Said Was A Lie.


Evening was falling. There was a chill in the air. I was handing out candles to a group of university students. They had gathered to commemorate their fellow students who had been killed by a deranged gunman. Their loss, their fear, and their hope were palpable. I offered a candle to a young man standing at the edge of the crowd. He looked at my collar and said, "Pastor, I can't believe in God any more."

"I'm sorry," I said.

I should have said more. I should have said, "You can still light a candle" or "Please stay and talk with me after the service." I should have said something. But I was gobsmacked, at a loss for words.

The young man turned and walked away into the cold night.

The doctrine of inerrancy has long been my personal bugbear. An honest reading of the Scriptures undermines the idea that the Bible is without error or contradiction. Inerrancy, meant to provide a firm foundation for  faith, becomes a stumbling block to faith. Maintaining a doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible's contradictions and outright errors of fact requires a huge amount of intellectual juggling and tap dancing. There are better, more honest, ways to read the Bible.

I've been thinking about inerrancy recently, at least partly because I've read a fascinating three-part series on Peter Enns's blog by Randy Hardman. In these blog posts Hardman describes his exodus out of inerrancy and Christian apologetics.

It seems to me that no one arrives at a doctrine of inerrancy by first reading the Bible. The teaching that the Bible contains no contradictions or errors of fact is based, rather, on certain philosophical presuppositions which then color one's reading of Scripture. I know the proof-texts cited to support the notion of inerrancy but, in my estimation, those texts only constitute proof if inerrancy is first assumed. The argument is circular.

The first assumption underlying the teaching of inerrancy is that the Bible is, in some way, directly inspired by God. The crassest form of this assumption is that God dictated the Bible to God's secretaries. A subtler and probably more common form of this idea has God telling the biblical writers what to write but allowing them to use their own words. The Christian Scriptures then become The Holy Bible, by God, as told to the Prophets, Evangelists, and Apostles. God is the Author; Moses et al are the (holy) Ghost Writers.

A second assumption is that God does not deceive.

Using these assumptions as premises the argument for inerrancy goes like this:

  • The Bible is the directly inspired word of God.
  • God does not lie.
  • Therefore, the Bible is true in all of its particulars. It contains no errors or contradictions, and is factual in its accounts of history.
 There are some presuppositions about the nature of truth involved in the conclusion to this tautology but it is outside of my scope to examine them here.

In my Year of Blogging Biblically series I am currently in the midst of the book of Ezekiel and have only recently finished Jeremiah. Both of those prophets say that God does, in fact, deceive. Jeremiah complains that the Lord has deceived him personally:

Why is my pain unceasing,
   my wound incurable,
   refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
   like waters that fail.
      (Jeremiah 15:18)

In Ezekiel the Lord, speaking through the prophet, admits to deceiving the idolators of Judah:

 Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live.
      (Ezekiel 20:25)

In short, God acted decptively. I recall also the Lord's actions in 1 Kings 22:22 (and its parallel in 2 Chronicles 18:21). In this incident, if the Lord is not directly deceptive then, at the least, the Lord is a participant in a conspiracy to deceive.

Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” “How?” the Lord asked him. He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” Then the Lord said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.” So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.’ 

I suppose that one could justify the Lord's actions here and explain away God's duplicity. Doing so would, however, involve the kind of mental gymnastics that make the doctrine of inerrancy untenable.

So here is the problem for inerrantists. The Bible is supposed to be inerrant because God does not deceive, but the Bible depicts God as acting deceptively.

I am not saying that I believe God is a deceiver. I think that the Chronicler and the author of Kings believed God to be capable of deception. I think that Jeremiah and Ezekiel believed God to be capable of deception. Frankly, if I were sitting in Babylon, exiled from my home, if I had seen my city besieged, witnessed the horrors of warfare, famine, and disease, if I had seen mothers reduced to eating their own children, if I had lost my university friends to a deranged gunman, I too might believe that God could be a deceiver, untrustworthy, or even non-existence.

What is fascinating to me is the fact that Jeremiah and Ezekiel continued to trust in their Lord. They could have turned and walked away.

Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.