Wise advice for Christians reading Scripture

View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

As Peter Enns gets towards the end of the journey in his little book he moves beyond the strict topic to some wonderful advice for Christians reading the Bible, and how we should relate to other Christians who perhaps disagree with our interpretation. It is applicable to the global church, so to my current context about to teach to students from a wealth of different cultures none of them mine, but also to the local churches as NZ Baptists move towards an annual assembly with a contentious issue on the floor. For both I pray:

  • Humility on the part of scholars to be sensitive to how others will hear them and on the part of those
    whose preconceptions are being challenged.
  • Love that assumes the best of brothers and sisters in Christ. not that looks for any difference of
    opinion as an excuse to go on the attack.
  • Patience to know that no person or tradition is beyond correction. and therefore no one should jump
    to conclusions about another’s motives.1
  1. Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, 164 []

Inspiration and Incarnation

Enns

For the Introduction to the Old Testament I am teaching at APTS one of the set books students must read is:

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

I do not intend to do a thorough review of this book here, not least because one of the assessments asks the students to  review it ;) But I do want to venture a few comments, and may add more as I read further.

First some general remarks: The book is clearly and simply written, Enns has taken trouble to make the material accessible to beginners. Yet his topic is useful to students further on in their serious study of Scripture. It shows some signs of haste in production, alongside the times when I am delighted by how well Enns has expressed some idea there are many places where it seems to me his expression has been careless and a more careful editing (by Enns or by his editor(s) could have strengthened his delivery of his message. Overall the “delighted” sections well outnumber and outweigh the “I wish he’d taken more care” ones. This is a book that would have been ideal for a proper electronic edition that enabled readers to question such places and enabled Enns to edit and improve the text!

Among the places where I have been saying “Amen” and singing (in my heart for my voice is not up to the task) praise to God for what he is saying – which seems to me so far (I am at p.102/172) to do for big picture practical biblical hermeneutics what Duval and Hays1 for small scale practical hermeneutics – that is, codify and explain the sort of practice and understanding most/many trained Bible readers have been doing (sometimes unconsciously) for years in useful and clear ways that a beginner can access, or help a more experienced student to develop.

My takeaway gem so far:

[t]here is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things Just shouldn’t happen. And. if they do. they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research. and if you’re patient enough. you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others.however (including myself). such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is.rather. to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament. it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?2

Now there’s an important and potentially most productive question for everyone who desires to take the Bible seriously as Scripture. Especially it is a useful question for those of us in traditions that make the Bible the authority for faith and practice!

  1. J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word : A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI.: Zondervan, 2001 and in a shorter version: J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word : Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI: Zondervan, 2008. []
  2. Enns, 102. []

Bibliophilia: the pastors’ besetting sin?

Too many books?

This networked socially-mediated world is fascinating. Despite all the shallowness (e.g. people “liking” a post that speaks of mass deaths of Rohingya refugees while knowing little of the horrific facts of their tragedy), I also get to see deeper inside friends and colleagues.

Some (of my friends at least) are grammar nazis, determined to keep us all on the linguistic straight and narrow. Many are incensed or delighted (or more often both in opposing turns) at the latest issue. But I discern a worrying trend among pastors and Bible teachers. Bibliophilia gone mad.

Pastors have always been bibliophiles, or at least have been since the adoption of moveable type (in the Guttenberg revolution) reduced the price of books. When I was a trainee pastor (back in the 1970s) we compared libraries, and eagerly debated which were the essential commentaries to buy on this or that Bible book.

The advent of e-texts and computer Bible software has, in some ways, had little overt impact as yet. Many pastors are innately conservative, and prefer the pleasures of a print book to the cheaper but less conspicuous e-texts. Many still brag about the physical endowment of their libraries. Size sometimes is everything!

Yet waiting on the margins is a slowly growing colossus. Top of the range deluxe Bible software (like Logos or Accordance) the array of reference works and secondary literature one can acquire for Logos is mind-blowing. Everything from the Patristic writers in original languages or translation to the latest “Christian classic”, alongside lexicons “for Africa” (as they say).

And there’s the rub, these goodies are NOT for Africa, or any other place that is poor but still perhaps (despite this fact) in need of the gospel and of good preaching. They resource only the rich and comfortable of the world. Still, forget the poor for a moment, there are base packages for everyone, for Baptists they range all the way up to the magnificent “Baptist diamond” package at just US$3,449.95 (don’t be put off by the price, it includes more than 2,500 “resources” and you can pay on the never never, just 24 payments of US$148.75 per month). Perhaps you are not a “platinum pastor”, you can always settle for three steps down and the measly “Silver” (at just US$999.95 it still has 700 resources to enliven and enrich your preaching, and it to can be acquired on tick, 18 payments of US$60.55 per month).

Pity about all the good those dollars could have done to support Christians were life is less good than here! Still they are used to hardship, they’ll cope. There is no choice, my congregation demands top notch preaching, and so I NEED those “resources”…

Well no, you don’t! Unless you are doing academic research for publication in esoteric journals the free Bible software STEP Bible has all the Bible texts and links to original languages (that probably you have not actually learned) that you need. It’s easy to use, and what’s more will not demand that you “upgrade” your hardware every couple of years like the “top notch” software does.

Commentaries? True STEP has no built in scholarly commentaries. But there are plenty available on Google books (as long as you can stand not having the “very best” in every case, but can settle for mere “jolly good scholarship”). Just think the $100 (or more?) you save on this not quite so essential Bible software might train a pastor, provide clean water for a village…

Why not explore STEP, it has more Bible study goodies than Calvin, Augustine, Paul or your favourite theologian or evangelist could begin to dream. Search Google Books for “commentary BIBLE BOOKNAME” with “preview available” under search tools/any books.

Help me please

For work I am doing on the “confessions of Jeremiah” I need two sorts of help. I need help because here in the hills between Rotorua and Tauranga I library resources are limited to a journal database and Google books (plus Archive.org):

  • People with friends: if you have a friend who has worked on the “confessions of Jeremiah” please help me contact them.
  • People with access to Baumgartner’s Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament or Diamond’s The Confessions of Jeremiah in Context. (Both books I owned and gave to a seminary in Myanmar when I retired, and both have limited access on Google.)For Diamond I need to know if his first few footnotes (probably just #1) to the “Introduction” give any indication of the origin of the usage “Confessions of Jeremiah”. (The PhD his book was based on is listed by the British Library but is not accessible.)For Baumgartner the issue is a little more complex does he in Chapter 1 (in the first few or last couple of pages of the chapter) talk about this at all? Or indeed use an expression like “the confessions of Jeremiah”?

I would be really thankful is someone could help me in either or both of these two ways.

Otherwise I am stuck, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when expressions like confessions of Jeremiah were used to refer to the content of (much of) the book (Cheyne 1888), or to a particular mode within the book, but already Buttenweiser (1914) talks of “the so-called confessions” and may have the collection of texts we name thus today in mind, certainly the habitual use of the expression to refer to particular texts seems established at the latest by John Skinner, Prophecy & Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah (Cambridge: University Press, 1922), 114 and ch.xi.

Skinner regards the usage as “common”:

These two passages are interesting in another respect. They are the first of a unique series of devotional poems commonly known as the ‘Confessions of Jeremiah,’ which unfold the secret of his best life, the converse of his soul with God through which the true nature of religion was disclosed to him. (114)

On p.201 Skinner calls the usage “recent”, yet I have so far found no use of the expression with this meaning before Buttenwieser!

I am stuck and stumped, and lack access to a suitable library to get much further alone. Please help!

Is the Bible Anti-sex?

Albert Joseph Moore, The Shunamite relating the Glories of King Solomon to her Maidens, 1894.

Christianity (as an “organised religion”) has often been against sex. Celibacy has been seen (following especially some hints in Paul’s letters) as better than marriage, which has been seen as a way to make sex all right because, and insofar as, it is aimed at producing children. Does this devaluing of sex reflect the full witness of Scripture, or is it yet another issue where by overstressing a few (often difficult to understand, or at best complex) passages the Bible is misrepresented?

Is the Bible as a whole anti-sex? Hardly. One whole book is full of erotic love poems. The Song of Songs may well represent – though only by analogy – the loving relationship of the soul and God, or Christ and the Church. Generations of celibate priests and religious were not wrong to read it this way, but this analogy is built on the frankly expressed love and desire of king and Shulammite.

To illustrate this it is worth quoting a short portion, 5:2-5, from the KJV:

I sleep, but my heart waketh: 
  the voice of my beloved that knocketh, 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: 
  for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
I have put off my coat; 
  how shall I put it on? 
I have washed my feet; 
  how shall I defile them? 
My beloved put in his hand by the hole, 
  and my bowels were moved for him. 
I rose up to open to my beloved; 
  and my hands dropped myrrh, 
  and my fingers sweet smelling myrrh, 
    upon the handles of the lock.

A library containing such a book hardly rejects the creator’s design of humans as sexual creatures.

God and the Joys of Sex

Photo by Kjunstorm from Laguna Niguel, CA, US

A conversation on Facebook recently reminded me of my concern that Christians are not speaking enough about the joys of sex and marriage. We get caught so often, warning people about the dangers, that we get painted into the corner that makes people – even our own children – believe that God is anti-sex. So over the next few days I am going to recycle material I wrote a few years back for the NZBaptist. Let’s start thinking about sex at the very beginning.

God likes sex

That notion (that God is anti-sex) couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex and marriage was God’s good idea. It was one of God’s first good ideas, right at the very beginning…

Since I am love,” God said, “I want creatures who can love me.”
We want creatures who can love each other, just like we do.” Said each of the Trinity to each other, “and love us the same way too.” They added.

That was how sex and marriage got built into creation from the start: difference and reproduction and love. Sex is modeled on the godhead (Gen 1:27):

So God created humans in his own image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.

It’s quite clear the very “image of God” is in our being as male and female.

Or as the Bible’s second chapter puts it: God said, “It’s no good for humans to be alone” (Gen 2:18). And, when God had made woman, the Bible concludes: “that’s why a man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife: and they become one flesh.

So whatever else we say, we should start right at the beginning: Sex is God’s good idea!

Wash your hairy feet! OR Sometimes a foot is just a foot

tutl38[1]
[Back when I was new to Facebook, I did not know how to bring blog posts into this (then) new (to me) medium. So I began posting some posts on Facebook. This was the very first, and I still rather like it :) ]
Sean the Baptist has a post ‘And with two they covered their feet’ in which he repeats the conventional wisdom that “feet” is (sometimes) a euphemism in the Hebrew Bible. Basically the idea is: 

That is that the word for feet רַגְלָיו sometimes refers to what we might politely call ‘other parts of the (male) anatomy’. 

I have never really been convinced by the claim. Sean cites the following passages as the best evidence for this supposed usage (the order is mine, as are the comments in straight type):

Exodus 4.25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
Now why on earth would one suppose that “feet” here is a euphemism – after all no euphemism was used for “foreskin” עָרְלַת seems explicit enough.

Deuteronomy 11.10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.
In Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing? No wonder they brewed so much beer! Or maybe the small earth dams on irrigation ditches are quite easily broken by foot?

Ruth 3.7: When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down.
If this one is a euphemism, does it not remove all the tension from the chapter where the most significant “gap” the hearer must fill is: “Did they or didn’t they?” there is plenty of other innuendo in the chapter to build up the tension, without this (possible, maybe) one.
Isaiah 6.2: Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
Really? Now why should face and feet not simply mean face and feet? Please explain!

Isaiah 7.20: On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.
Hairy feet or hairy [euphemism]? Which is more plausible? Though I suppose if the euphemism is for the whole genital area, this one might make sense.

Judges 3.24: After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself (literally ‘covering his feet’) in the cool chamber.” cf. 1 Sam. 24.3
At first sight, this one is good! In this sample I am almost convinced, there is a good case to answer, though why “covering his feet” should be a euphemism for peeing, and not merely another example of the rather gross schoolboy humour of the passage I am unclear.

2 Samuel 11.8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king.
Could be a euphemism, but then it could be that the sentence is euphemistic even if the “feet” are literal. “Wash your feet” = “make yourself at home”…

So, in the end, what evidence is there for this conventionally supposed common euphemism? Two cases where you might argue with some strength that reading euphemistically is the “best” reading, a couple more where it might just be possible but overall I’d say: No case to answer. In the Bible feet are just that. And Eglon as well as excessively fat, and greedy, also was known to his servants as having a poor aim. As the sign in our downstairs loo read for a while (we had teenage boys in the house) “We aim to please. You aim too, please!”

[Back in those heady days bloggers used to respond to one another, instead of, as we do today, merely writing to ourselves – which is perhaps the second sign of madness.]

Following my post Wash your hairy feet! Sean-the-Baptist updated his post ‘And with two they covered their feet‘ to respond (briefly within the limits of time available) to my critique of the commonplace notion that “feet” in the Hebrew Bible can often serve as a euphemism for “male organ”.

On Deut. 11.10: the point is exactly that the Promised Land will be naturally fertile and thus will not require irrigation by other means (of course the language is symbolic, irrigation is as necessary there as in Egypt in reality). Tim asks ‘in Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing?’ – well no, but neither is there literal milk and honey flowing in Israel-Palestine, and perhaps good deal more irrigation took place by this means than by carrying water on your foot (images of hopping with a bucket attached anyone?)

But why interpret the language as “symbolic” whatever that means here, I had assumed that even read as a euphemism the use was intended literally.

Irrigating with the feet would then refer to the habit of opening and closing irrigation ditches using the feet. While I cannot really see how the euphemistic reading works, in the promised land water falls from the sky, while in Egypt humans had to pee to water the ground – presumably entailing frequent trips to the irrigation ditch to drink…

On Ruth we basically agree – except whether Boaz’ “feet” are literal or euphemistic (I still wonder at the plural euphemism here?).

On Is 6:2 Sean brings up the topic of ANE iconography, as Jim Getz said in a comment on a post: Another “Feet” Euphemism in the Hebrew Bible? on this topic on Shibboleth I think I was convinced by Keel’s identification of the Seraphim here with Egyptian uraus snakes, my copy of Keel is at college, so i can’t check, but I do not remember these snakes as having prominent phalluses which might need covering to preserve Hebrew modesty! On Is 7:20 I am quite willing to agree thsat ritual humiliation is in view, and that a euphemistic reading is possible. But when the “head to foot” shaving seems to cover that pretty comprehensively I do not see the need to invent a new “euphemistic” reading. (And that is really my point, I believe that those who repeat conventional wisdom and claim a common euphemism in Biblical Hebrew “feet” = “phallus” need to provide some evidence to support this view. And where simply reading “feet” as “those two things we walk on that stop our legs fraying at the ends” works fine then they have NOT provided such evidence EVEN IF “phallus” works just as well.

Uraeus. Col. Tutkhamón from http://www.uned.es 

On 2 Sam 11:8, again we agree in our interpretation of the passage, and IF the feet-euphemism were already (on the basis of evidence) established it would make a good reading here. However, it is not it is merely “traditional” in biblical scholarship. AND reading feet literally works fine.

Result, I am still unconvinced that this particular item of “popular wisdom” has a leg to stand upon! Sometimes in the Bible, when you read “feet” they do simply mean “feet”, now on the basis of Ugaritic evidence one might I think (someone could ask Duane about the abnormally interesting uses of “finger” in those texts, and perhaps also look at Hebrew Bible texts like 1 Kings 12:10).

Mark Driscoll at Thrive and a sharp double-edged sword!

Mark_Driscoll,_during_the_ABC_Nightline_Face_Off_debate

Mark Driscoll spoke at a leadership conference recently. He began with the sad story of his family’s experience during and after the events that led to his ministry at Mars Hill ending in shame and the closure of the church. This story is sad and my heart goes out to him and especially his children. No one should be treated that way!

His topic was forgiveness, and he focused on the need for “struck shepherds” to forgive those who have hurt them. So the introduction telling of his family’s experience was strong. The talk is a powerful reminder of the centrality and importance of forgiving to Christian living. It is made more real by Driscoll’s desire to forgive those who hurt his children.

Several people have already commented on the strange fact that Driscoll never asks for forgiveness or acknowledges his fault in all this experience (apart from  a rather trite aside about “struck shepherds” sometimes hitting themselves in the head). That despite his experiences and his desire to forgive Driscoll’s talk is still self-centered is sad, but sadly not untypical of Western Christians in the early 21st century.

What I have not seen commented on is Driscoll’s use of Scripture. The phrase “struck shepherds” runs like a refrain through the talk. The refers to a verse from the Old Testament that Jesus quotes in which he reads “Strike thou the shepherd and the sheep scatter.” The passages are Zechariah 13:7 and Mark 14:27 || Matt 26:31. I am not sure which passage Driscoll read nor which translation, because he seems to misquote. For the original verse in Zechariah all the translations I looked at had something like:

“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
I will turn my hand against the little ones.

While the gospels read something like:

 Mark 14:27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'”

Matthew 26:31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “`I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

Far from offering comfort to a “struck shepherd”, as Driscoll seems to think,  what I notice in both the prophet and in Jesus quoting of the prophet is that the agency of the striking is God.

In these Bible passages the shepherd is struck by God.

And, unless Driscoll thinks he is Jesus struck by God and crucified he presumably ought to identify himself with the struck human shepherd/leader(s) of Zech 13. This is not at all comforting for Driscoll, for this chapter proclaims God’s action against the false leaders who led his people into idolatry!

Beware lest your misuse of Scripture cause the weapon to turn in your hand and bite you. For the words of the Word of God as like a sharp double-edged sword!

Revelation 1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

Demolishing Scripture (while claiming to be “biblical”)

Photo by Bob Hall via Wikipedia

Several recent conversations (online and face to face) in my circles involve applying the Bible to contemporary social issues. The latest is a very long-standing one in Western churches if there are particular roles for men and for women in family and church to which we should conform.

This discussion is usually framed as between Egalitarian and Complementarian approaches. As I have said elsewhere I think this framing is false – almost everyone I talk to is egalitarian (affirming they believe women and men are “equal”) and complementarian (they believe women and men complement each other and that for example in a marriage each partner brings qualities and so the whole is more than the parts). The key difference (I think) revolves round whether this complementarity is through defined gender roles to which we ought all conform regardless of our personal skills or gifts.

Sadly much of the discussion in Christian circles has for decades disolved into either each side bashing the other with “verses” that are believed to support/teach their view, or sometimes into a “literalist” – “liberal” ding dong. My beef with the “literalist” approaches, and with the “liberal” ones is that they each end up discarding a lot of the Bible. They differ in which parts of Scripture can be ignored or removed, and in the excuses they provide to justify their anti-biblical stances.

Some “liberals” discard Scripture honestly. Some openly say that this or that passage1 “is old fashioned”. Others dismiss some Bible teaching as “cultural” and so no longer binding in this enlightened age.

“Literalists” (and often ex-literalists, like many Baptists today) often do it covertly – with their lips they pay tribute to the whole Bible, but a slippery slope starts with the laws in the Pentateuch. No one I know avoids clothes made of mixed fibres. The excuse they offer if challenged is either “it was not confirmed in the NT” or “it’s only a ritual law”. Both of these excuses leave the Old Testament without authority! Only following Old Testament teaching that is confirmed in the New makes the Old Testament superfluous and effectively Apocrypha, valuable as spiritual reading but without authority. This ignores Jesus’ clear teaching that:

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:19)
Even if we could allow such tentative first steps down the slope, dismantling Scripture as Marcion did we have not solved the problem. Jesus also said

Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. (Mark 6:8-9)

But when such “literal” Christians pack, even for a mission trip, there are plenty of spare clothes! The response if they are challenged is “Ah, Jesus was talking to his disciples there, not us.”

Quite right, if you set aside Jesus’ words you are not his disciples!

Rather than either the “liberal” or the “literal” dismantling of Scripture we must (because every part of the Bible is socially and culturally contextual (that is incarnate in ancient places and times) look for the understanding of God and the world (theology) that the passage is teaching or applying. That is what we apply. It’s hard work, it risks us getting it wrong… in short we cease to “master” Scripture, but we (have tried to) allow it to master us.

_________________________________________

For more explanation of that last important section see the last three sessions in my Reading the Bible Faithfully:

9: God remains faithful: the principle of the thing

10: Application: Where the rubber hits the road

11. Reading in the light of Christ

  1. Or indeed the whole of the Bible. []