Isaiah’s signature?

This broken 2,700-year-old clay seal, discovered in an ancient Jerusalem rubbish pit, may include the name of the biblical prophet Isaiah. PHOTOGRAPH BY OURIA TADMOR/ EILAT MAZAR
(text and image from the National Geographic article discussed below)

Biblical Archaeology Review has published an article (in a special issue honouring retired founder Hershel Shanks) that asks: Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature? The title requires a quick simple answer: No!

What the team led by author of the article (controversial biblical archaeologist Eilat Mazar) found was not a signature but a bulla, the impression made in clay by a seal. That is something which might serve much as a signature serves today to authenticate documents (though may also have served another purpose).

A more precise, and more difficult question would have been: Is this an impression of the Prophet Isaiah’s seal? The presence of the name Isaiah is close to certain, despite the last letter being damaged, however as Christopher Rollston points out (cited by the National Geographic in a more balanced and scholarly treatment of the find) the letters found might represent the names of almost twenty other biblical characters. Who knows how many possible owners of the seal lived in Jerusalem in Hezekiah’s time.

The other word on the impression might solve this problem, the letters nby could well be the start of the word nby’ (the little ‘ represents a letter that in Hebrew looks like an X) which means prophet.  There are two related problems with this: firstly if the seal was intended to read ‘Isaiah the prophet’ we’d usually expect the ‘the’ to be written hnby’ there is no trace of a ‘the’ on the impression, also nby might more often be expected to be Isaiah’s father’s name. But the biblical prophet’s father was ‘mos nothing like nby.

So, could this be an impression of Isaiah the prophet’s seal? Yes. Is it? We do not know. Further evidence may throw more light, but for now a very exciting, but unproven possibility.

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I have chosen not to mention the Times of Israel‘s article as it begins with breathless and thoughtless reporting of Mazar’s every wild claim, before turning to more measured comment.

Judgemental Old Testament God: 1. Nasty God to punish poor Moses like that

I have been reminded recently how often Christians and non/ex/anti-Christians alike speak of the God of the Old Testament as if this was somehow a different person from the God of the New Testament. One of the stories often cited for this harsh judgemental picture of God, that is assumed to be the norm in the Old (defunct/out of date) Testament is his refusal to allow poor faithful old Moses into the promised land.

People often cite Num 20, where they say God lashes out at Moses for a trivial sin, or worse punishes Moses for Israel’s sin. But is that what happens?

Moses is perhaps the greatest hero in the Old Testament. Through him, God freed the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. God chose him to mediate the covenant between the Lord and Israel. Yet in Numbers 20:12 he and Aaron are told they will not bring the Israelites into the promised land. What’s going on? Is God being arbitrary, withdrawing favour as ancient gods used to do?

At first sight situating the passage seems to exacerbate the problem. The passage runs from Num 12:1 or 2 (v.1 is a summary bringing the story up to date while v.2 sets the scene for this passage). Once again, the people complain, comparing the plenty of Egyptian life with the hardship of the desert (vv.2-5). Once again, Moses and his brother Aaron seek God, and again God announces a miracle (v.8). In v.9 Moses begins to do as God has commanded. So far so good. The people are gathered (v.10), Moses strikes the rock, and water is delivered from the stone (v.11).

Yet God’s response is to declare:

Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Num 20:12)

If we look closer, things are not as simple as my summary painted them. When Moses and Aaron have gathered the assembly of Israel in front of the rock, they say:

Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? (Num 20:10)

There is no mention here of the almighty God who performs the miracles for Israel, like the plagues and sea crossing that freed them from slavery, just “shall we bring water”. Moses and Aaron fail to proclaim the Lord as the source of these signs and wonders, they encourage the Israelites to focus on them.

Setting the story in the wider context of the flow of Scripture, we see it’s full significance. It occurs in the five book unit that Jews call Torah, or “instruction”, the heart of their Bible. We, Christians, call it Pentateuch (five books) and it is the introduction to our Bible. Genesis forms an introduction to this introduction, and in the other books Moses is the central human character. Deuteronomy, which closes the collection, contains Moses final speeches and his death. Back in Genesis 15, and again and again through the patriarchal stories, God repeated a promise of descendants, land and his own presence and help. By the time of the making of the covenant at Sinai two of the three promises have been abundantly filled. The narrative through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers concerns the slow journey to “the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” as the close of Numbers puts it (Num 36:13). So, the whole book of Deuteronomy takes place on the threshold of the promised land.

So, our story (Num 20:1-13) is pivotal, explaining why Moses does not enter the promised land. It therefore explains why the Pentateuch (the “books of Moses”) ends with God’s promises incompletely fulfilled. All of this highlights the importance of Moses and Aaron’s “error”, failing to give God the honour that is due is a most serious offense.

When Christian leaders take pride in what they have accomplished, when Christians fail to acknowledge the giver of all the blessings that surround us, we also fail to trust the LORD, and neglect to show his holiness before others (cf. Num 20:12). That is not a little oversight but a most serious business!
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The bulk of this post originally appeared in the NZ Baptist, but the article has been removed there so I am reposting the content here.

Creation in just six days: Asimov explains

Moderating “Unit Quality Assurance Forms” is normally a fairly dull but useful way to earn (part of) a living. Today however I was presented with a gem of a short story by Isaac Asimov1 It dates back to the distant days when I was doctoral student. It explains why Moses described creation in just six days. The story had me roaring with laughter in just a minute or two.

Sadly looking Google seeking more info to led me to James McGrath;s blog, which in turn led me to another blog where some spoilsport claimed in the comments that the story was not Asimov’s “How it happened” but pseudigraphal. Research on Google Books led to no firm conclusion, indeed it seemed to confirm the doubters.
However, Archive.org saved the day, offering a copy of Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine v01n02 (1979 Spring) there on pages 64 and 65 the gem appears.

Asimov’s “How it happened”

  1. A favorite author since I was a teenager. []

The Marcion Option

Still reconnoitering the book I was struck by this in the intro to chapter 3 (93-4), I find it difficult to see how he can defend the claim whilst reading passages like Mat 5:17ff. or Luke 16:14ff.:

[T]he NT as a whole understands Jesus to be the supreme revelation of God that culminates and supersedes all others.

The word “supersedes” seems to me Marcionite, and in direct contradiction to what Boyd has argued elsewhere. I’ll have to see what he really means when I look closer. (On similar grounds to claims that when Paul appears to deny women’s teaching ministry in church settings he cannot mean this as it contradicts his practice elsewhere, I will need to look for other ways to understand what Boyd is saying…

Marcion redivivus?

I begin to understand why Boyd has been accused of Marcionism when I read at the start of chapter 8:

The problem of relating the Old and New Testaments is as old as the church itself, and the incongruity of the OT’s violent divine portraits with the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing agape-love of God revealed in the crucified Christ represents the apex of this challenge.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017, 335.
Though his subsequent remarks make clear how far such is from his intention. Such thoughts, as I continue my initial reconnaissance of the books, are beginning both to shape some questions for my review to try to answer, and yet at the same time make me impatient to see (in book two I assume) more details of his approach to a solution.

The experience of reviewing ‘The Crucifixion of the Warrior God’


Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017.

This is not a book review. I will be writing a review of The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but this is not it. This post will reflect on the experience of reviewing this work, it is a sort of meta-review. Any that follow it may continue this reflection, or may address my responses to aspects of Boyd’s argument that interest me. I do not expect either of these things will appear in the review when I write it.

The book is enormous, two volumes nearly 1500 pages, seven sections six of which are themselves the size of small books. The work also addresses what is evidently one of the key “conundrums” for early 21st century Christians. Reconciling the texts of terror that appear to depict God as delighting in or commanding indiscriminate violence with the way of love revealed supremely in Christ. Extreme ‘solutions’ are sometimes proposed (at least on Facebook, but sometimes in more rarefied academic circles). Some suggest removing chunks of the Bible (most simply, but in the end not effectively, the Marcionite one Testament Bible).1 Others harmonise Scripture with their theology by the claim that, since God is God, whatever God commands is right and just.2

The book has powerful claims made for it before we reach the contents list. A large number of prominent biblical scholars and theologians (mainly from the Evangelical end of the scholarly spectrum) endorse Boyd’s work as ground-breaking, insightful and revolutionary.

My review will probably need to offer less than one word per page, so I will not be able to give much of an overview. Better scholars than me have evaluated it as important even seminal, so my review will not be evaluative. I think what I can realistically, and I hope helpfully, aim for is to assists people to decide if this is a book they should invest the time to address.3

  1. Not effective since the NT also contains its own texts of terror. []
  2. Whether this is true or not, it is not helpful. Since it risks replacing a God who is wrong with one who is a monster. []
  3. It only costs US$60, so the per page or per inch of shelf-space cost is very low! But at 1445 pages 1250 if you leave off the appendices, and perhaps only some 700 if you overlook the footnotes ;) it demands a considerable investment of time.  []

Learn Hebrew or Greek at home

The indefatigable Jim West is offering private tuition in Hebrew and/or Greek to anyone who is interested in learning to read the Bible (and probably lots of hard work – learning languages is fun, useful and inspiring, but always hard work.

Jim is thoroughly non-accredited and does not offer any diploma or certificate so only those who want to learn need apply!

Marshall, Vanhoozer, and the Canaanite genocide

Genocide memorial by Scott Chacon

Near the heart of Marshall’s plea, for a principled way to “go beyond the Bible” biblically, is the issue of genocide. The apparent approval (or even command) from Yahweh of genocide seems incompatible with divinity. Like Marshall, many/most/all(?) who think about this issue from a time after the attempted genocides of the 20th Century, feel genocide would make the godhead a demon. The Turkish massacres of Armenians, German attempts to eradicate “the Jewish problem”, Idi Amin’s cleansing of Uganda of Asians, the frighteningly human brutality in Rwanda, the mass graves of the Balkans, the killing fields of Cambodia and other sometimes less reported horrors have sensitised us to these stories in ways which our ancestors in the Faith did not find so troublesome.

This is a key point that Vanhoozer attacks in his response to Marshall. This issue was the third Marshall raised in making his plea:

…where teaching is given, particularly in the Old Testament, that seems more like “cruder notions” to be abandoned than “the foundation for later revelation.” The divine approval (expressed or tacit) of genocide in certain situations is an obvious and disturbing example.1

Vanhoozer’s critique is sharp and pointed:

Marshall wants Christians to get beyond genocide. So do I. But I’m not prepared to say that God’s judgement of the world, or of nations, is “intrinsically wrong” if it involves killing people. Marshall is doing more than “reconsidering”, it seems to me, when he says that we “can no longer think of God in that way”. Unless we are prepared to jettison significant portions of the Old Testament (or to revise their meaning in the light of contemporary sensitivities), this way of going beyond Scripture has more of Marcion than of Marshall about it. For it really is not about numbers. If Marshall is to be consistent, he should say that God does not have the right to take a single life. After all that is unacceptable human behaviour, and we cannot justify God “by saying that he is free to act differently from believers”. On the contrary, I think we must say that God is indeed free to act differently from believers. The Creator is bound not by the laws that he has imposed upon creation, but by his own nature… Finally, if we are shocked by images of judgement, what are we to make of the Cross?2

It seems to me that Vanhoozer’s neat sidestep here (which also seems typical of “divine command” theorists) will not work. The issue is not whether God should be held to the same standards we would use for believers, though that issue may be less cut and dried than it might seem. Rather the issue is genocide. By its nature genocide attempts (even when unsuccessful and bungled) indiscriminate killing. Or rather, it discriminates, but only on grounds of race, ethnicity, or geographical proximity, and not on any moral criterion.

The question Vanhoozer ought to be addressing is not: may God commit acts that are rightly forbidden to creatures, but rather is indiscriminate killing an attribute of Godhead. In particular (since this discussion is among Christian believers) is indiscriminate killing an attribute consistent with the godhead revealed in Christ crucified.

  1.  I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 30. []
  2.  Ibid, 85. []