A lesson we need to keep on learning and an argument from silence with the power to convict

[Fill in the blank] are people, treat them as such!

It’s a lesson we (human beings, poor broken and ‘fallen’ as we are) need to keep on learning. Three things have reminded me of this recently.

First encouraging students to discover this message in composing essays on Ruth or on Jonah, and leading a group in a local ‘village’1 to study the same beautiful little books.

Second Hannah’s Blog-On Still Believing and a Little Narnia posted a beautiful quote from Dorothy L. Sayers (from her brilliant article “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man-there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them! ”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them, and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.2

[See aside below.]

The other was an equally, but quite differently, brilliant combination of research from several disciplines reported in “How To Get Kids To Pay Attention“. The gist of which is so simple, be like the Maya, and not like ‘Modern” Westerners, and treat children like real people, and they will learn to pay attention, and so learn much better.

So, two recent posts in the electronic world remind that women are people, and that children are people, and two little stories from the ancient world remind that foreigners are people. Revolutionary!

[Aside: Dorothy Sayers’ argument is a really neat example of the untruth of the claim that arguments from silence always lack force. That Jesus’ words and actions, remembered by four different (often quite different) streams of tradition3 and recorded in dozens of pages each, NEVER not once patronise a woman because of her gender – however we read them not matter how we twist them! It is an argument from silence with the power to convict.]

  1. In NZ a ‘village’ is a retirement settlement, usually a mix of houses and apartments with a medical ward for those needing more assistance. []
  2.  Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women, ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood (SUNY Press, 1983), 13. []
  3. Plus, if Mark Goodacre and others are quite mistaken, a fifth Q. []

King David as a terrible warning

Poster for the film 'David and Bathsheba'.

The old film, David and Bathsheba, may have been nominated for Oscars, but there is no indication in the Bible text that the start of this story was a ‘love affair’, watch how David and Bathsheba interact and draw your own conclusions.

I’ve recently been watching students discuss the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah in 2 Sam 11-12. I have also been watching the Christian media in the USA discuss Bill Hybels and how the Willow Creek organisation has responded to accusations against him.

In some ways the two stories seem not at all alike. It sounds as if Hybels is not accused of adultery, still less of the level of abuse of power that the quasi-rape of Bathsheba revealed in the king after God’s own heart. Hybels has not organised a death to cover up his sin.

There is, however, a similarity at the heart of the two stories. In Samuel, Saul, for all his failings, remained a king in name, but with few of the trappings of kingship as the ancient Near East understood them, while David accumulates the toys that went with royal status: palace and palace guard, courtiers and advisors, and even leisure-time…

This is what leads him into temptation and disastrous  failure (notice what he is doing at the start of 1 Sam 11). I could not, therefore, help noticing this sentence in the report about Hybels:

That meant a number of one-on-one meetings: often at his beach home in Michigan, on his yacht, on his jet, or at restaurants near Hybels’s summer home.

We can argue forcefully that some of these things are potentially quite harmless, restaurant meals for example. Some of us may have a family bach or even ‘beach home’. Yet the sum total speaks of the sort of privilege our culture sees as the ‘right’ of k̶i̶n̶g̶s powerful leaders.

Once were couples

Marriage Week (7th-14th Feb) seems an appropriate time to post about marriage and committment

Over two generations (mine and my parents), marriage has been redefined. We have done this through changes in divorce law, but even more through changes in attitude. Now marriage is merely a means to fulfillment, it is no longer understood as primarily a lifelong commitment. Yet marriage means commitment, if not marriage has little meaning at all!

Repost for Marriage Week 2017

The world has changed… My parents’ generation made legal divorce a less painful process. My generation has run behind them, and overtaken them – the statistics are terrible. Marriages don’t last (at least not in the affluent egotistical West).Our kids’ friends from school always included more from “broken” or “blended” homes, than those with parents still till-death-do-us-parting. Churches too, seldom slow to learn bad ways from the world around, are full of separated and divorced halves of what once were couples. And one has to admit, the people concerned are often the better for it.

Daya Willis had an op ed piece in the Herald back in 2004, which summed the social context up nicely:

Clearly, the baby boomers cocked up the whole marriage thing. They got hitched too young, felt unfulfilled en masse, split up and occasionally repeated the process.

Later she continued:

My beloved and I will get married when we’re good and ready – and only because we can see the value in celebrating our commitment to each other with all the people who matter to us.
What’s more we’ve already taken the ultimate leap of faith – we had a baby together. Having both emerged (slightly dented) from broken homes, it’s our sworn mission to maintain a happy whole family for the sake of our son.

From other things she wrote it’s clear she saw this as something totally different from the dreams and ideals of the generation before. Perhaps it is. Though, it shares with the boomers’ the belief that a couple “should stick together for the sake of the kids”. And like theirs it is also, in its own way, totally different from the Christian view of marriage.

When a couple promise each other (however they word it) to love, and cherish, and share their lives, till death alone parts them – it’s not “for the children”, it’s for each other. It’s all about the big C, the word neither the boomers nor their successors like to say: commitment.Marriage means committment yet, paradoxically, in the Bible Ruth and Naomi are the prime examples of the virtue of commitment.

Oddly (in a time of “Civil Unions” and “marriage equality”) it is the story of two women that best illustrates what it means. Ruth and Naomi:

Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home.
Where you go, I go;
and where you live, I’ll live.
Your people are my people,
your God is my god;
where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried,
so help me GOD–not even death itself is going to come between us! (Ruth 1:16-17)

Isn’t that what Gen 1 and 2 tell us the Creator planned for marriage – partnership with no holds barred. Marriage means commitment. I hope and pray, that when Thomas and Melissa watch Barbara and me locked in fiery argument, they see the for-richer-for-poorer-in-sickness-and-in-health commitment that undergirds our lives and even feeds the flames!

Marriage isn’t about “a perfect match”, it’s about commitment – promises that you’ll keep, and those that you can rely on.


PS: For an excellent theological and pastoral treatment of divorce and remarriage in a 21st C New Zealand church context see “Divorce and Remarriage” by Graeme Carle.

Article on David’s story in Samuel-Kings (for comment)

I am working on some ideas I delivered orally a few years back and at that stage did not finish polishing with a view to publication. Basically the idea is that if we read David’s story as told in Samuel-Kings1 through the optic of his relationship to death, unsurprisingly the episode in 2 Samuel 10-12 where he arranges Uriah’s killing to cover up his taking of Bathsheba is seen clearly as the turning point, such a reading also makes sense of David’s puzzling response to the illness and death of his first child with Bathsheba.

Here is the link.

I really would be grateful for comments and suggestions as returning (like a dog to vomit) to earlier work and now trying to polish it is not easy!

  1. Recognising that Samuel-Kings does not tell a “Story of David”, it does tell David’s story. []

Prophets and prediction: when conservatism and Bible clash

In this post I will examine and criticise a passage from Alec Motyer’s writing on the Old Testament prophets.  I do this not because I think Motyer is a poor scholar, but because I find his presentation an interesting example of how even the most conservative scholars risk allowing their existing ideas1  to take precedence over the evidence of the biblical text.

The section I am interested in comes from his article: Alec Motyer,  ‘Prophet,’in  Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997). It is thus intended not as deep scholarship but an introduction for beginners. In the section headed “The Function of the Prophet”, Motyer writes:

It is sometimes said that prophets are not foretellers but forthtellers. As far as the OT is concerned, however, the prophets are forthtellers (declaring the truth about God) by being foretellers (predicting what God will do). Prediction is neither an occasional nor a marginal activity in the OT; it is the way the prophet went about his work, under the inspiration of God. Not only the actual evidence of the books of the prophets, wherein the gaze is uniformly forward, supports this contention but also a key passage like Deuteronomy 18:9–15, which explains the function of the prophet in Israel: the surrounding nations are revealed as probing into the future by means of a variety of fortune-telling techniques (vv 10, 11); these things are forbidden to Israel on the ground of being abominable to the Lord (v 12); Israel’s distinctiveness is maintained in that the nations probe the future by diviners, whereas the Lord gives Israel a prophet (vv 13–15). Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27) is surprised when foreknowledge is denied him; Amos teaches that foreknowledge is the privilege of the prophets in their fellowship with God (Am 3:7). But prediction in Israel was totally unlike prognostication among the nations, for in no way was it motivated by a mere curiosity about the future.

This begins sensibly enough, as a warning that the neat slogan which explains that the biblical prophets are not foretellers but forthtellers is simplistic. Of course, in this Motyer is quite correct. The prophets often do look to the future. They consistently warn of danger threatening people who consistently transgress God’s standards. They also often point to glorious future hope. My beef with Motyer is that he calls this future focus “prediction“. The term is useful to Motyer (I think) because it links his point with traditional language about prophecy. This is a comfortable point for a conservative scholar to make – his article will be less threatening to its likely readers, sounding more like the many sermons and TV religious gurus they have heard speak about biblical prophecy.

But is he right? Do the prophets predict? Or do they rather warn and encourage? Prediction, insofar as it is different from mere warning, implies saying in advance that a certain event will happen. Is this what the prophets in the Bible do? It often seems so, the messages God gave them often involve future events. Thus when God commissions Jonah the second time he instructs: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) This Jonah does. (Jonah 3:3) The message he proclaims is:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) But, if this message is intended by God as a prediction, then God is mistaken, for Nineveh is not overthrown in forty days. It is turned upside down, almost immediately, by Jonah’s message, in repentance. But ironically, this repentance leads to God sparing Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).

This is quite clear. Either God’s message is a prediction – in which case it is false, or it is a warning – in which case it succeeds.

Motyer does not cite Jonah, rather he focuses on Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27) and Amos (3:7). The first (like my example) is a narrative, Elisha, in the verse Motyer cites, states that God has hidden and not revealed to him [the child’s death]. Do Elisha’s words suggest that he understands his role as predicting such events? Or could it be rather that having given the miraculous child as a reward Elisha feels God “ought” to have warned him of the coming disaster? In Amos 3:7 the prophet declares: “Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” Verse seven however is not the point of the passage, that comes in verse  eight: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” Amos’ point is not that Prophets are predictors, but that prophets must declare the message God gives them, even when the warning is of destruction. As we saw in the example from Jonah, what God “plans” is not always what God does!

  1. This originally read “their preconceived ideologies” this was falsely polemic and not what I intended, thanks to Jerry Shepherd’s comment below I have edited it. []

Travel plans

I realise I have not posted here about our travel plans for later this year. We will be visiting and teaching in (at least)1 two places:

  • View across the hills near Baguio - envy us!

    View across the hills near Baguio – envy us!

    Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, Baguio Philippines. Where Barbara and I will each teach a course (OT Intro for me and Pastoral Counseling for her). I visited APTS as Menzies lecturer last year and am really looking forward to returning to a lovely place and people. Since Barbara will be going too, this time we hope to see a bit more of the northern part of the Philippines as well.

  • Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Sri Lanka produces much of the best high grown tea in the world.

    Colombo Theological Seminary, Sri Lanka. Where again both of us will teach, in my case on 1 Samuel as an introduction to reading biblical narrative texts. We’ve both visited CTS before and had a lovely holiday seeing more of the country last time. Christians in Sri Lanka (though still smarting from loss of status following the colonial period) have a special place as a religious minority that includes both ethnic groups in a strife torn land.

We will leave towards the end of July and return in late September. We have a nice family (with experience on a lifestyle block in the UK) from Bethlehem College to look after the house and animals while we are away.

  1. Teaching in Thailand is also possible. []

PS on “covering your feet”

The men illustrating the Ha’aretz report (above) were NOT “covering their feet”. 

In conversation on Bob’s blog, related to my post below about foot as a possible euphemism for male genitals in the Bible, he points out that there are cases where the phrase “cover his feet” is clearly euphemistic for “going to the bathroom” – to use a more contemporary American euphemism. I entirely agree. It is. Clearly when Saul in 1 Samuel 24:3 goes into the cave to “cover his feet” להסך את־רגליו he is as the Living Bible said going “to the bathroom” (cf. Judges 3:24).

I am left with two problems, do two case make sufficient precedent for seeing euphemisms everywhere, and more importantly, how does this euphemism: “cover … feet” = “go to the bathroom” work? The way it seems to me to make sense is that when one needed to relieve oneself in the fields or on a journey one squatted, thus “covering one’s feet” with ones robe, and hiding the action from passers by. Thus it seems to me the clear euphemism is “cover the feet” = “relieve oneself” and not “foot” = “male organ”.

Ahab, Megiddo and Jezreel

For my latest video in the Land of the Bible series we visit the Jezreel Valley. The focus of the video is on Megiddo (as the site that has more Iron Age remains for the visitor to see).

Tel Megiddo with its massive gate complex, large palace and associated military complex as well as the extensive storage buildings is a fine picture of a major military and administrative centre. The size of king Jeroboam’s grain silo also suggests the hard taxation required to pay for and operate such a centre. Megiddo is located to control the exit southward from the Jezreel Valley.

Jezreel has less to impress visitors today, but was also a significant base defending the entrance to the rich Jezreel Valley from the east. Jezreel has beautiful views, fertile surrounds and plentiful water, no wonder Ahab chose it as his alternate capital.

The biblical accounts of his reign do not focus so much on the magnificent “public works”, or the power of his army, but rather on the injustice and oppression that were associated with the rise of such magnificent kingship, and even more on the religious underpinnings of such kingship in the myths of the gods, in particular Ba’al the “lord” (ba’al) by right of conquest of the pantheon.

As you read 1 Kings 18 and 21 keep in mind these impressive and beautiful cities.

Mourning Ba’al and 1 Kings 18

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

Syrian Goddess figure (possibly Anat from Walters Art Museum , via Wikimedia Commons

A post at Carpe Scriptura 1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls”  highlights a problem for online biblical studies, there are no easily available translations of the Ugaritic narrative texts. The texts themselves can be downloaded in PDF Ugaritic Data Bank. The Text1 is available on Academia.edu, but as far as I can see no English translations are.(If you know of a source please let me know!)

So as background to my podcast comments on Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Ba’al in Humour in the Bible 11: 1 Kings: In an idol moment I offer this extract from Smith’s translation of the section KTU 1.5 l.8 to KTU 1.6 l.10a 2

Messengers announce the death of Ba’al

“We [c]ame upon Baal fallen to earth;
Dead is Mightiest Baal,
Perished the Prince. Lord of the Earth.”
Then Beneficent El the Benign
Descends from his seat. sits on the footstool,
[And] from the footstool. sits on the earth.
He pours dirt on his head for mourning,
Dust on his crown for lamenting;
For clothing he puts on sack-cloth.
With a stone he scrapes his skin,
Double-slits with a blade.
He cuts cheeks and chin,
Furrows the length of his am
He plows his chest like a garden,
Like a valley he furrows the back.
He raises his voice and cries;
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Dagan! What of the multitudes?
After Baal I will descend to Hell.”
Then Anat goes about hunting,
In every mountain in the heart of the earth,
In every hill [in the he]art of the fields.
She comes to the pleas[ant land of] the outback.
To the beautiful field of [the Realm] of Death;
She com[es] upon Baal
[For clothing] she puts on sack[cloth,]

The text continues on Sixth Tablet after the superscription in Column 1

With a stone she scrapes her skin.
Double-[sl]its [with a blade]
She cuts cheeks and chin,
[Furrows] the length of her arm.
She plows her chest like a garden.
Like a valley she furrows her back:
“Baal is dead! What of the peoples?
The Son of Daganl What of the multitudes?
After Baal we will descend to Hell.”
To her descends the Divine Lamp, Shapsh,
As she weeps her fill,
Drinks her tears like wine.

  1.  Cunchillos, Jesús-Luis, José-Angel Zamora, and Juan-Pablo Vita. Ugaritic Data Bank The Texts. Madrid: Instituto de Filologia, CSIC, 2003. []
  2. Smith, Mark S., and Simon B. Parker. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. [Atlanta, Ga.]: Scholars Press, 1997, 149-151. []

Otagosh goes soft?

It is pleasant to have some reliable comfortable regular experiences in this troubling world. One of mine in recent years has been the stream of tart yet gentle posts on Otagosh that pillory sloppy thinking on “Biblical” matters.

But today Gavin’s gone soft. He links to a Yahoo! News report titled ‘Finds in Israel add weight to theory God “had wife”.’

Now, it’s true, the find does add to the, already significant, weight of archaeological evidence suggesting that Ancient Judeans commonly worshiped a goddess alongside Yahweh (presumably therefore thought of as a god).

Shock, horror! The Bible tells me so, just read II Kings (or to save time do a search for ‘Asherah’). What please about this discovery is new? Where is the academic novelty that excites? Only for “Biblical” Fundamentalists (of the sort Otagosh usually reliably skewers) and trendy “critics”, neither of which class of idiot seem to actually bother to read the Bible, find this sort of “Biblical” discovery strange or really new.