Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Genesis 18, It ain't easy being God

Quite often, when we read something about God in the Bible, we find the presentation to be difficult to reconcile with our view of God in our own minds. One such reading is the account of God's visit to Abraham in Genesis 18.

In the account, Yahweh personally visits Abraham. The visit happens in the event of three men who came upon Abraham's camp. God can either be understood as appearing in the form of three men or he is one of the three. A straight read of the text gives a very strong case for Yahweh being one of the tree men. Verse 22 pretty much makes this arrangement clear:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before Yahweh. (Genesis 18:22, WEB)
An alternative reading is:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while the LORD remained standing before Abraham (NRSV footnote)
Indeed, this alternative reading is supported by the New Living Translation and it makes pretty good sense in light of Gideon's experience in Judges 6:11-24 which seems to tread the "Angel of Yahweh" and "Yahweh" as two different persons. Read that text and try to figure out what is going on. Who is whom?

In Genesis 18, Abraham discusses with Yahweh about the outcome of the divine investigation of Sodom. Yahweh agrees to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there are fifty righteous. Through several suggestions by Abraham, Yahweh eventually reduces the required number to ten righteous.

If Yahweh already knew how the investigation would conclude, this whole conversation in Genesis 18:23-32 has no integrity at all. For the conversation to actually have integrity, it cannot be that either party knew how the investigation would conclude. If Yahweh really is, as the text reports, weighing his options, then we must consider something possibly surprising about his experience. God often has to make tricky decisions. He has to decide between several difficult courses of action, neither of which is very good.

This description of God is entirely consistent with the way the whole Bible presents God but it clashes with the usual traditional view of God.

While God hears our prayers—even silent prayers—he does not go around reading people's minds. He knows people's thoughts by testing and by investigating (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3). That means God is not so much a judge of thoughts as he is a fruit inspector. In order to be certain we will act righteously when we are tested, we must grow righteousness in our hearts.

It is interesting that Yahweh's visit to Sodom was motivated by crying. God hears crying and we should add our voices when we hear about it. For a dedicated treatment of God's response to crying, see this article.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Selections from the First Nations Version of the Bible

I have been watching with interest the development of a new translation of the Bible. It is called First Nations Version. It is an English translation of the Bible but with a cultural emphasis on sensitivities of Native Americans. Progress is kind of slow and the end-goal is a translation of the New Testament. Progress is a bit slow but I sure approve of their efforts! I wish them the best. I recently laid my hands on a copy of this Bible. So far, they have translated the four Gospels, Acts and Ephesians. That's about all you need for a young church's spiritual nourishment (for a while). Reading from this translation is quite moving—almost shocking—emotionally for me. I am interested in how it reads for a Native American. Is it a welcome effort or is it offensive? I intend to find out.

This translation is the work of Native American Bible Scholars. There is an effort in every verse to render it is clearly as possible for a Native American reader. Everyone's name is given descriptively rather than technically. Jesus (meaning "savior") is written as "Creator Sets Free (Jesus)." Peter ("rock") is written as "Stands On The Rock (Peter)." For a taste, here is a short quote from Matthew:
Matthew 1:1-3
Here is the record of the ancestry of Creator Sets Free (Jesus)—the Chosen One—a descendant of Much Loved One (David) and of Father Of Many Nations (Abraham).
From Father Of Many Nations (Abraham) to Much Loved One (David), his ancestors were:
2 Father Of Many Nations (Abraham), He Made Us Laugh (Isaac), Heel Grabber (Jacob), Give Him Honor (Judah) and his brothers, 3 He Breaks Through (Perez) and his brother First Light (Zerah) whose mother was Fruit of Palm Tree (Tamar),
Circle of Teepees (Hezron), He is Lifted Up (Ram),...
This method has made one of the most boring chapters in the Bible into a good read!

The translation sometimes supplements the text with italicized notes that are intended to add clarity to a passage that is confusing if taken too literally. Here is an example:
Ephesians 6:16-17
Then you must raise high the shield of trusting in Creator; this will put out the flaming arrows of the evil one. Don't forget to 17 put on the headdress of Creator's power to rescue and set free, and use the long knife of the Spirit—which is the word of Creator coming from your mouth.
Ah. So the sword of the Spirit is not supposed to be used to hurt people but to hurt spiritual forces of evil. That helps.

So, I think that I would like to look up and quote a few choice passages to see what I think and what you think. Any typographical errors are my own.
Acts 16:30-31
He then took them outside and said, "What must I do to be set free and made whole?"
"Put your trust in Creator Sets Free (Jesus), our Honored Chief," they said to him. "He will make you whole and set you and all your family free to follow him."
Acts 22:16
What are you waiting for? Rise up and participate in the purification ceremony, washing you clean from your broken ways, as you call out to him, trusting in all that his name represents.
John 14:6
"I am the Great Spirit's pathway, the truth about who he really is, and the life of beauty and harmony he offers to all. There is no other guide who can take you to the Father.
Acts 2:32-47
"Creator Sets Free (Jesus) is this Chosen One who has been raised to life from death! We have seen him with our own eyes. He has now returned to his place of honor in the world above to sit at the right hand of Great Spirit. The Father above has gifted him with the Holy Spirit that he promised to send. This Spirit has now been poured out upon us like the rain from above. This is the meaning of what you see and hear happening to us.
"Much Loved One (David) did not go up into the world above, so when he says, 'The Great Chief said to my Great Chief, "Sit down beside me at my right hand, my place of greatest honor, until I bring your enemies under my loving power,"' he was not talking about himself. He was talking about the Chosen one.
"So let all the tribes of Wrestles with Creator (Israel) have no doubt about what the Great Spirit has done. He has made Creator Sets Free (Jesus), the one you put to death on the cross, to be both Chief of all the tribes and the Chosen One, the one he promised to send long ago."

The Crowd Responds
37 When they heard this, the words pierced their hearts like a long knife. With troubled hearts they lifted their voices to Stands On The Rock (Peter) and all the message bearers.
"Fellow Tribal Members," they said, "tell us what we must do."
Acts 2:38 Change your thinking," Stands On The Rock (Peter) instructed them, "and participate in the purification ceremony that is done in the name of Creator Sets Free (Jesus), the Chosen One, representing him and initiating you into his right ways. You will then be healed from your bad hearts, released from your broken ways and gifted with the Holy Spirit who will give you the strength to walk the Good Road with him. He has promised this to all generations of the tribes of Wrestles With Creator (Israel), and to all the Nations who live far away. For the Great Spirit, our Creator, is calling out to all who will, to share in this life of beauty and harmony."
Stands On The Rock (Peter) said many more things to the ones who were listening. With strong words he kept telling them, "This is how you will be set free and rescued from the bent and twisted ways of this generation."
The ones who believed the words of Stands On The Rock (Peter) became a part of Creator's new Sacred Family and participated in the purification ceremony. About three thousand people were added on that day!
A New Family is Formed
42 This newly formed family continued daily to learn from the twelve message bearers. They lived together in harmony, ate ceremonial meals and prayed with one another. Great respect and awe came down upon all, and the message bearers performed many powerful signs. As the new followers lived together in peace, their harmony grew stronger and they shared all things. Many of them had a give-away to provide for all who were in need.
Acts 2:46 Each day they gathered at the Sacred Lodge. With good and pure hearts they feasted together in their homes and shared the ceremonial meal of bread and wine given to them by Creator Sets Free (Jesus). Acts 2:47 They gave honor and thanks to the Great Spirit and were respected by the people. Each day Creator sent more people, who were being set free, to join with them.
Sometimes the italics is a bit overly interpretive in my humble opinion. What do you think:
Matthew 28:19-20
"So now I am sending you into all nations to teach them how to walk the road with me. You will represent me as you perform the purification ceremony with them, initiating them into the life of beauty and harmony represented in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You will then teach them all the ways that I have instructed you to walk in."
Creator Sets Free (Jesus) then looked into their faces with love and great affection. He lifted his hands toward them and spoke these final blessing words over them.
"Never forget," he said as he began to rise up into the world above. "I will always be with you, your invisible guide, walking beside you, until the new world has fully come."

Monday, March 12, 2018

Jeremiah 17:9-10. The heart is devious above all else; and is perverse—

Jeremiah 17:9-10
9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?
10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

This passage is often conscripted (often without verse 10, see into the service of proving that everyone is totally depraved.

The actual meaning of this verse can be understood by looking at a little context.

Jeremiah 17:1 says that the people have become so comfortable in their sin that their hearts have hardened to it. The writing on their figurative hearts is etched with a hard stylus. It cannot be erased and written over with right teaching. As we read on (Jeremiah 17:2-3) we learn how this heart hardening happened. The people had become accustomed to worshiping idols. They even taught their children how to practice this worship when they should have been teaching them about covenant with God (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).

The problem was in where they placed their trust (Jeremiah 17:5). Instead of trusting God (Jeremiah 17:7) they have trusted themselves‒their own strength and wisdom.

Contained in this context is invitation to reorient their misplaced trust back to God. The ones who trust God thrive (Jeremiah 17:7-8) while those who trust in themselves harden themselves like a shrub in the desert that has become adapted to lack of nourishment (Jeremiah 17:6).

Jeremiah 17:9 is directed at a particular segment of Judah that was unfaithful to God and had become comfortable with it. The point is that people can easily justify in their hearts that it is okay to do evil if it is for a good cause.

The poet goes on to explain the means by which God knows people's hearts. He knows by testing (see Deuteronomy 8:2; 13:3). What is on a person's heart is evidenced by what he/she does. He does not search the heart by reading people's minds. He observes their actions. He is not a thought cop but he is a fruit inspector; and what they are doing produces nothing useful, as a partridge that broods her eggs but nothing hatches (Jeremiah 17:11, NABre, or they accumulate from other people's hard work like a partridge collecting chicks from other birds).

Jeremiah 17:9 does not mean that everybody is totally depraved. The writer means to express that he is astounded people can engage in error to the extent that they become comfortable with it. They convince themselves that what they are doing is right. What an astonishing thing that some people's hearts have grown that hard.

They were not born that way. They became that way by misplacing  their trust.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

John 19:37 = Zechariah 12:10. They will look on the one whom they have pierced.

Here is an interesting verse.
John 19:37 (NRSV)
And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
The cited is Zechariah 12:10.
And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
John, interestingly, did not explicitly say that the soldier's piercing Jesus' side fulfilled a scripture; however, as much can be inferred from context. The previous verse says that the incident fulfills Psalm 34:20.
John 19:36
These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.”
Thus, we can comfortably conclude that John means to say that the Roman soldier's action fulfilled scripture. When a New Testament writer says some event "fulfilled scripture" we should not assume that the quoted scripture had a New Testament context in view. For a detailed explanation of the meaning of "fulfilled scripture" see this link.

John 19:37 deserves individual attention because it is often highlighted as a specific case example of how an Old Testament prophet predicted some detail of the Lord's Passion.

On the subject of prophetic prediction, the original Zechariah context is sufficiently vague as to permit a careless interpreter to apply it any way he wishes with no regard for it's context.

It is clear in John that the writer intends the passage to be read in his particular context. How should we understand its context in Zechariah?

Zechariah 12 warns of a building threat of war but also predicts that Yahweh will defend Israel. After the promise of protection there comes a word of comfort in verse 10. The text does not report who was pierced but it implies that it was someone from the house of David. Further, the common translation "when they look on the one whom they have pierced" is a traditional rendering influenced by translation tradition. The phrase is difficult to translate. There are textual variants within the Hebrew tradition that, it turns out, are easy to explain. One of the two most likely meanings is,
...they will look to me, the one they have pierced (NET).
Because this translation introduces a difficulty in meaning, that Yahweh has been mortally wounded, some scribes "corrected" the text to make better theological sense while further confusing the reader. It is for that reason that I believe a translation indicating Yahweh as the one who is pierced is the best translation.

Before we move on, I will tip my hat to a suggested alternative by Pamela J. Scalise.
An alternate translation of the MT is preferable here: “they will look to me concerning the one they have pierced.” Looking to the Lord indicates commitment and awareness of God’s power (see Ps. 34:5; Isa. 22:11), and their mourning demonstrates remorse for the killing. (UBC)
Schalise agrees that someone is pierced (presumably from the house of David). Then the house of David (Zechariah 12:12-13) and all Jerusalem grieve to Yahweh about it.

This understanding is supported by Rodney A. Whitacre (John, IVPNT).
Here God seems to be identified with the leader of his people, a shepherd who is raised up by God (Zechariah 11:16) and yet will be struck by the sword (Zechariah 13:7).
Gerald Sigal believes it is accurate to understand the one pierced to be Yahweh himself through the suffering of Israel.
In the context of Zechariah 12 we are told that God will defend His people and destroy their enemies. On that day, “they [the nation of Israel, i.e., the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, mentioned at the beginning of verse 10] shall look to Me [God] whom they [the nations, spoken of in verse 9, that shall come up against Jerusalem] have pierced; then they [Israel] shall mourn for him [the slain of Israel as personified by the leader of the people, the warrior Messiah who will die in battle at this time].” The only admissible interpretation is... that the Gentile nations shall look to God, whom they have attacked by the persecution, death, and general suffering they inflicted on the nation of Israel (“him“), whose dead will be mourned by the surviving Jewish people. (Does John 19:37 misquote Zechariah 12:10?
It really is unclear who did the piercing but the victim is either a Davidic leader or God himself through the suffering of Israel.

John is thus making a fairly apt correlation between Jesus' suffering and this verse in Zechariah. In that first century event, the one pierced was both the Son of David and The Father himself.

Permit me to float a trial balloon. Haggai and Zechariah hot-dog Zerubbabel the governor (and descendant of David) as a potential messianic figure. Zerubbabel abruptly drops off the radar with Zechariah 4:10. He is no longer mentioned and the prophets of the time start looking elsewhere for hope. It seems that nobody knows what happened to Zerubbabel but the likelihood is high that the Persian government or some other smaller national neighbor heard about Haggai's and Zechariah's messianic expectations and they had Zerubbabel put to death. In that case, the one pierced may be understood to be Zerubbabel and that, after Yahweh does what he is going to do as described in chapter 12, the house of David and the rest of Jerusalem will finally be able to complete their mourning for Zerubbabel. I think that understanding is consistent.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Mathew 26:54. What, exactly, needed to be fulfilled?

I recently stumbled upon an interesting passage from the Second Temple period. This passage strikes me as helpful in understanding how Jewish people in the first century read scripture.

1 Maccabees 3:48
And they opened the book of the law to inquire into those matters about which the Gentiles consulted the likenesses of their gods. (NRSV)
The Common English Bible reads this way:
In addition, they opened up the Law scroll to find answers to the kinds of questions Gentiles would ask of their idols.
In other words, these soldiers, before going into battle, read from the Law to see if there was something in there they could apply to themselves. Can they find something that might be fulfilled in the coming battle?

The Gospels are sprinkled with many "fulfillment" passages. Consider this one.

Matthew 26:54
But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
Claims like this sometimes defy modern exegetical sensibilities. Here is the verse with some relevant context.

Matthew 26:51-56
51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
What does Matthew mean by quoting Jesus this way? Based upon our modern notions of "prophecy" we expect to find some very specific Old Testament prophecies describing soon-to-happen events in Matthew's Gospel; but if we look very closely, we fail to discover any such prophecies, especially any that detail events that include the arrest, trial, suffering, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

What scriptures did Matthew's Jesus have in mind that describe things that "must happen?"

Whatever events or scriptures Jesus had in mind by this statement, the actions of the people in this scene will affect whether or not current events will play out to fulfill (in the Matthean sense) the scriptures he had in mind.

Consider the way Second Temple Jews applied Scripture in light of 1 Maccabees 3:48. They were comfortable to contemporize the readings as if they were about themselves rather than about (or, in addition to) their original contexts. They were comfortable finding in the classical (Old Testament) literature similarities to current or recent events and name those events fulfillments of scripture.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Genesis 17: Don't even think about neglecting covenant

Central passage:
Gen 17:9-14 (NRSV)
9 God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Covenant is in fact something Abraham must keep―beginning with the sign of circumcision. It is not ethnocentric. It is family-centric. Slaves obey it too which gives slaves full human dignity. To add a point on it, slaves are included in the Abrahamic covenant with the divine. We shall see that the definition of "family" eventually expands to include anybody who enters into the Abrahamic covenant (Isaiah 56:3-8; Galatians 3:23-29; Ephesians 3:1-6; Romans 8:29). The sign of circumcision is retired (Jeremiah 3:15-16; 4:4; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Romans 2:28-29; Colossians 2:11-14).

The point is not that there will be consequences out of a violated covenant; although there are certainly consequences. Particularly, the benefits of covenant will no longer be active and there will be danger of experiencing the fate of the Canaanites (Genesis 15:16). The land holding will not be perpetual (Genesis 17:8).

The point here is that the people who enter into the covenant must not even think of neglecting this covenant.
posted from Bloggeroid

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Acts 4:28 commentary: What was predestined to take place?

Acts 4:28 is one of those pro-Calvinism proof texts. It is invoked to show that God predestined all the terrible things that happened to Jesus in The Passion events.

Act 4:27-28 (NRSV)
27 For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
It sure smells like this passage means to say the terrible things that happened to Jesus were predestined. If a person wants to quote this passage to show that The Passion was predestined, there are several problems with the argument.
(1) It is risky exegesis to draw critical doctrine out of something the Bible quotes someone as saying if the person is not speaking by divine inspiration. The exegetical method is more common than we might think. Consider John 9:31. A man was born blind and Jesus healed his sight. Jesus did not introduce himself; but the man was able to conclude that Jesus was a righteous man. He said that God does not listen to sinners. It is terrible exegesis to conclude that God does not hear the prayers of sinners based upon what this man said. He was not speaking from divine inspiration (Acts 10:31. See also 1 Kings 8:41-45). On a similar note, Peter's personal judgment in Acts 1:21-22 is frequently quoted as proof of the qualifications of an apostle. Peter was not speaking from divine inspiration. He decided on his own to set a precedent that there should be twelve apostles. He offered his short list of qualifications was a suggested rubric for selecting replacement apostles. Bad exegesis, although Paul seems to agree with qualification #2, that an apostle must have seen the risen Lord (1 Corinthians 9:1).
(2) It is not clear how this passage should be punctuated. Greek scholar Adam Clark believes verse 28 should be read as parenthetical (see below).
Adam Clarke:
There is a parenthesis in this verse that is not sufficiently noticed: it should be read in connection with Ac 4:28, thus: For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, (for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done,) both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and people of Israel, were gathered together.
It is evident that what God's hand and counsel determined before to be done was not that which Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, (Romans,) and the people of Israel had done and were doing; for, then, their rage and vain counsel would be such as God himself had determined should take place, which is both impious and absurd; but these gathered together to hinder what God had before determined that his Christ or Anointed should perform; and thus the passage is undoubtedly to be understood.
Clark suggests that verse 28 ought to be read parenthetically; but watch what happens when we remove the verse numbers and two commas.
For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.*
I believe this reading is how these two verses should be understood. We might even understand that Herod, et. al., actually worked to subvert Jesus' work that God had predestined. In other words, Jesus had more work to do and Herod, et. al., resisted that work.

In conclusion, this passage proves nothing regarding the existence of a divinely predetermined program for Herod's, Pilate's, the Romans' and the Jews' bad behavior.

* In fairness, the word order in Greek does not permit adding or dropping of punctuation in the way I have done with this NRSV quote (and is also possible with CSB, NET and Wycliffe). The word order in Greek is more closely followed in the ESV which reads a follows:
27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
Adam Clarke's view that 28 likely refers to Jesus' work rather than the actions of Herod, et. al., ought to be taken seriously. Even in ESV, it is not clear whose actions are in view in verse 28.

For more commentaries on confusing verses that are often invoked as proof texts, see