It must be such fun to be a literalist with an interest in End Times. The whole Bible becomes a playground, the smallest detail can be twisted into place. For such literalists Scripture becomes a sort of intellectual Lego set from which all sorts of fun and frightening robots can be made.
But, next time someone seeks to scare you with the imminent end of the world, if you read this post to the end, and totally free with no donation required, you too can have the answer. [No, you pagan, it is not ’42’.]
Reading a student essay on one of the less interesting (at least as this student presents it) books of the Bible, I found the key. No, not in the student’s work, that would be plagiarism, but in the simple literal meaning of Scripture. The text at issue is Deuteronomy 7:9, there we read:
Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…
The world will end in somewhere between 25,000 and 46,000 years from now (approximately and allowing nothing for errors). I need no longer fear each creative but, oh so, literal reading of Revelation, or even from the mysterious apocryphal book of Revelations.
Why am I so sure? Well if a generation is between 30 and 40 years and Moses, the speaker of the words, lived about 4,000 years ago or perhaps quite a bit less, we have a yonk or three before this earth-bound promise ends. Namely, between 30 and 40 thousand years from Moses, or at least 25,000 years from now, though thankfully not more than 46,000, which would be far too long to wait.
Since I am not now, nor have I ever been, a literalist,instead I will continue to pray along with John ‘Come lord Jesus!’ and given the sad state of the world the sooner the better.
PS naturally there is plenty of room for minority opinions not only about the length of a generation but also about the timing and influence of ‘the millennium’.
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the stories often cited for this harsh judgemental picture of God, that is assumed to be the norm in the Old (defunct/out of date) Testament is his refusal to allow poor faithful old Moses into the promised land.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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other unnoticed women from the early chapters of Genesis include the “daughters of humanity/daughters of the man” in Gen 6:2. This little passage is mysterious and difficult. It is packed with problems..
Starting at the beginning we have to ask who the key characters are:
The women are identified as בְּנֹות הָאָדָם but are they Adam’s daughters, daughters of “the human” or daughters of humanity? The use of the definite article suggests not “Adam’s daughters” since names don’t usually take the article.1 Actually since no particular “human” is in view at this point most likely this problem is simple they are daughters of humanity (human girls).
But the men are identified as בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים are they sons of the gods or sons of God? Bizarrely, the English translations avoid the obvious answer, and usually render the phrase as “sons of God”. This takes no account of the article. As far as I can see if we are to take this seriously we have a choice of “sons of the God” or “sons of the gods”. Again “the God” is not in focus here, so “sons of the gods” seems the obvious translation. The only problem is (perhaps) theological, since the author(s) of Genesis do not believe in the gods. But this puts theological interpretation in the driving seat.
This gives (an approximate and over literal) rendering as:
“1 When humanity began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them,
2 the sons of the gods saw that they were desirable2 ; and they took women3 for themselves of all that they chose.
3 Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in humanity forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were in the land4 in those days– and also afterward– when the sons of God went in to5 the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, men of renown.
5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the land, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually… (Gen 6:1-5)
Read like this, it seems to me, many of the difficulties disappear. (The Nephilim are a narrator’s aside and we can, for my purpose here ignore them.) Two main questions remain:
Who are the “sons of the gods”? Are they (minor) gods themselves, powerful (royal) people, or Greek-style demigods?
Why do these liaisons, and or the children they produce, so displeasing to YHWH?6
Cutting a long story short, and to the chase, the most likely understanding seems to me that the “sons of the gods” are royal persons (often claiming quasi-divine status and privilege in the ancient world). The combination of mention of them “taking for themselves women”, who they “go into” and have children, with the mention that they take “from all which they chose” with the suggestion that this is related to the “great evils” that stimulate the divine wrath (v.6) suggests either rape, coerced sex with the abuse of power (think of David and Bathsheba) or possibly some sort of “first night” custom.
Already, this early in the Genesis story, women are sex objects, and at best the mothers of heroes. Human division has produced classes and ideologies that confer “divine” rights on some and remove the rights of others.
But see Gen 2 where sometimes הָאָדָם is rendered “Adam”. [↩]
The word is the one used for anything “good”, it does not necessarily imply merely beautiful, for which there is a more specialised term. [↩]
Not “married” as NIV since there is nothing here about cultural or familial ceremonies, likewise not “wives” for the same reason. [↩]
The more usual “on the earth” seems unnecessary, this is a narrator’s note breaking the frame, and mentioning that this was during, but not the end of the period when the Nephilim lived in “the land”. [↩]
This is clearly a euphemism for having sex with, a common use of this construction. [↩]
For it seems to me unavoidable that this passage in some way leads to the next, as my inclusion of v.6 above strongly suggests. Only a narrowly source-critical reading allowed people to completely separate this story from the flood that follows. [↩]
Between teaching an intensive class to students from a dozen ethnicities and nearly as many countries, and exploring the beautiful scenery in the Cordilleras of North Luzon (photos attached to make you envious) I have been too busy to post properly here (even the women of the Bible series has faltered). So instead perhaps you know someone who is still asking the old chestnut about where Mrs Cain came from?
If you do, if you know someone who is troubled by other “Bible difficulties” please point them to my short article written for the NZ Baptist:
Among the women in Scripture we glide over and miss thinking about, what about poor Mrs Noah? Eve gets discussed ad nauseam often asking whether her share of the blame for the first sin is bigger than her mate’s, Cain’s wife gets asked about all the time… But Mrs Noah, another anonymous woman, only named and known for her relationship to her husband. Not even as mother of her sons, who are regularly named as HIS.
Back in Gen 3, when Eve ate the apple (or whatever the anonymous fruit really was) we quickly get told that Adam is right there beside her (Gen 3:6), but when something good happens, and God warns Noah to build the Ark (Gen 6:8-21) we aren’t told if God included Mrs Noah in the instructions. In fact although her boys are mentioned already in v.10, she herself (who bore them and nourished them) is not mentioned till v.18.
Preachers love to embellish the story of the flood. They often imagine Noah’s heroic, or ironic, conversations with the skeptics as he built an enormous gigantic boat miles and miles inland in a desert where “sea” was a word the neighbours hardly understood. Do they ever imagine the work required, most of it probably done by Mrs Noah, with Mrs Shem, Mrs Ham and Mrs Japhet helping out (and they are as unnamed as their mother-in-law) to collect and preserve food for all those people and animals for the half-year long voyage of the NS1 Ark.
Noah and the boys could never have done it without their “other halfs”, yet these hard-working and courageous women don’t get named, in fact their description “your/their woman/women” is in Hebrew just the same as that of the animals “mates”.2
I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.
I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.
The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.
Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.
Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1
I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.
In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times) in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.
Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.
I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!
[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]
There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. [↩]
The series of which this “volume” is a part has an ambitious but mixed goal:
The series is designed to be a research tool. Each guide presents a wide range of interpretive issues raised by Bible scholars. These resources meet the needs of those studying the Bible in academic settings, but the broad scope of coverage also makes them useful for preaching preparation. 1
In fact, limitations of referencing (almost?) only works available in the Logos system limits it’s usefulness for scholarship, and so the work is in some ways better suited to the practical needs of a pastor or other seriously minded Bible reader.
Integration of the text with the Logos library system is of course a great strength of such this type of electronic publication, but there are times when the implementation of this integration serves Logos’ commercial ends better than it serves the user. For example when I read: “Mathews uses the analogy of a stained glass window to describe the literary complexity of Gen 1–11…” The name “Matthews” is, as one would expect in an electronic text, a hyperlink. If the user already owns the cited work by Mathews in Logos format, then I assume2 they are taken to the reference. If one does not own the work in Logos format one is offered the chance to buy it. However, if one does not already own the Logos edition, the link to the Logos sales site does inform the user what work is being referred to, enabling a search on a local library catalogue, Worldcat or Google Books.
There is however a welcome but odd inconsistency, when the references are to further reading suggestions offered as bullet points rather than inline citations, they do give at least the title of the work, without need to access the Logos.com website.3
Hypertext links also provide convenient popup explanations of technical terms, enhancing further the educative possibilities of the text, and making it accessible to a wider range of “lay” readers. They also enable jump navigation within the text, and this is enhanced by a preview popup showing the beginning of the text of the section to which the link leads.
The work offers a neat clear and concise overview of (almost always, but not exclusively, Evangelical) scholarship on the issues and passages treated. This is a superb resource to begin studying a passage or topic, Mangum et al. Offer clear concise summaries of important issues that will be really useful to any pastor or amateur biblical scholar. They are also potentially really useful to students and their teachers, though this usefulness would be enhanced by referencing that included some mention of work not published in Logos format..
Within the limits of works published in Logos format (I have yet to find any reference to other work) these summaries and the suggested readings are very useful. The restriction of the references to the Logosworld generates the restriction noted above to predominantly only Evangelical scholarship, and very predominantly American scholars4 This parochialism is sad!
A byproduct of this limitation is scholarship that is also very predominantly male and white. Since women and non-Caucasian scholars are more likely to have significant work in journals and less likely to have breached the portals of book length works with publishers who make their list available in Logos format.
On the other hand, the fact that such a useful compendium can be offered despite this restriction of horizon to Logosworld is a tribute to the extent (if not always variety) of that world today. Logos is not yet a universal biblical studies library, but it is far closer than one might have expected only a few years ago.
A student today will need to seriously consider whether to accept the limitations of horizon imposed by the choice of Logos as their exclusive supplier, wholeheartedly making Logos their library system, or on the other hand if financial constraints or a desire to be open to a wider world of scholarship will severely limit the usefulness of a work such as this. I wonder how long it is before Logos offers a subscription service modeled on Amazon’s “Prime”?5
Without such a service, or without the financial resources to pay to own an extensive private Logos library, users are given a glimpse of the world of American Evangelical scholarship, but taking a closer look is made difficult by the exclusively in house referencing.
In short this work highlights the huge usefulness and potential of the Logos system (for those rich enough, and selfish enough, to be willing to spend enough on a library devoted to their private use). It also highlights the exclusive nature of this system by making the use of external resources (in an institutional or public library, or on Google books, for example) more difficult even than it would be in an obsolescent print codex.
Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (, Lexham Bible GuideBellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). [↩]
I have yet to find a reference to a work that I spotted as being included in my Gold collection, or among the other works and texts I have bought. So I could not check this assumption. [↩]
In the circles I move in it often seems to be assumed that Gay Christians (at least the ones who do not agree to “settle” for celebacy, nor “recognise” that God “must” be calling them to celebacy – and who consequently support gay marriage) “must” be soft on Scripture.
I have recently been following Allan Hooker’s blog while I never agree with everything anyone says (not even myself) I find much that he writes makes sense, and he seems to care deeply about reading Scripture in faith and not merely “against the grain”. In this he reminds me of some of the Feminist biblical scholars who influenced my Bible reading most a few decades ago.
Whatever your attitude to the questions around Scripture and sexuality I recommend his blog. (His most recent post, as I write this, is on Genesis 11 )
Public Health Warning: Those who prefer to let their knees jerk instead of their minds better avoid it, because it includes phrases like “Queerly Divine”… [↩]