The End of the World: important announcement

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’.

Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

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.]

  1. 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. []

Unicorns, in the biblical sense

Unicorns Illustration from: S. Bochart: ''Hierozoicon, sive Bipertitum opus de animalibus Sacrae Scripturae .. "

David Lamb, of God Behaving Badly has a post on biblical unicorns. He wrote about these unicorns in the Bible:

A student in my psalms class (Phil) pointed out to me recently that unicorns appear in the Bible.

I said, “What?”  He said, “Yep”.  I said, “Where?”  He said in Psalm 22 and other places.  “You’re kidding.”  “Nope, but only in the King James Version.”

I opened up BibleWorks 7.0, and discovered 9 references, including these two:

“His horns are like the horns of unicorns” (Deut. 33:17).
“And the unicorns shall come down with them” (Isa 34:7).

Fine and dandy, at least in the KJV does indeed mention “unicorns”. BUT are all the nervous fundies and exultant atheists right to get excited?

Well, no, as Dt 33:17 makes clear:

His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.

RTFT (read the flipping text!) these unicorns have “horns” plural, now if we only had the KJV one might argue that this just means there are several unicorns, except in the Hebrew the word is a not plural it reads: vecarne re’em “horns of a XXX” a single XXX has “horns” therefore the unicorn in the KJV has more than one horn. I can think of loads of non mythical animals that have more than one horn, and I do not need even to join Jerome in wondering if this is a rhinoceros!

Unless I get really carried away, and look at the Greek, instead of the Hebrew, there I find mention of a μονοκέρωτος or “one horn” which suggests that at least the Greek translators were thinking of a rhino…

Humour in every book in the (Hebrew) Bible

An ironically blond European Moses discovered (Paul Delaroche 1797–1859 Moïse exposé sur le Nil)

I have completed the first (of the three) sections of my response to David’s Funny Stuff in the Bible challenge:

I must confess I was hoping for more help with Leviticus, I am saddened by my listeners’ lack of appreciation of humour, you must be a sombre bunch. Indeed, for Deuteronomy my help camed from a Rabbi, much better at recognising and appreciating humour than most Evangelicals, sadly.

I was fully expecting to fail on Leviticus, however, that hurdle overcome, I am sure the rest will come tumbling out – I’m relying on Miriam to suggest some lighthearted laughs from Lamentations ;)

How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part One)

I can’t get away from those pesky Canaanites recently, their latest intrusion into my quiet existence came when someone asked my colleague who is responsible for the training of pastoral leaders what Carey was doing to prepare pastors to help their congregations deal with such “difficult” questions about the Bible. It’s a good question. Not least  because the hot anti-Christian blogs and hotter atheist bestsellers have spotted it’s potential.

God told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, the argument goes, so God is not loving and forgiving but a genocidal maniac  like Slobodan Milošević only worse because God should have known better. Deuteronomy 7:2 is a prime example, and it hardly matters which translation you read, they are all as bad as each other:

The fall of Jericho by Jean Fouquet (1420–1480) from Wikipedia


and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

NIV 1984

and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy


When th/e LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy.


and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

And it’s not just the modern ones: KJV

And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, [and] utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them:

The Young’s Literal is the only one to suggest that “exterminate them” might not be quite what God was saying:

and Jehovah thy God hath given them before thee, and thou hast smitten them — thou dost utterly devote them — thou dost not make with them a covenant, nor dost thou favour them.

So, how is the average pew sitter to cope?

1. Cotext

First: Never, ever take a few words or a verse all on their own look at the text around! In this case already in the verse we can see something strange is happening… God apparently says “Exterminate the Canaanites [the verse before helpfully specifies several different nations that are to be specifically included] and while you are at it, make sure you do NOT make treaties with them. Either one part or both parts of this verse are not intended to be taken literally.

The immediate cotext1 in this case (though often you have to look wider at the passage, chapter, or sometimes whole book) gives us clues. (At least) one of the two things God says in this verse is not to be taken literally.It is difficult to see how “do not make a treaty with them” could be understood any other way, so perhaps it’s “Exterminate them!” that is non-literal. In fact such expressions are common among sports fans, and even in talking about the more aggressive board games, in our world should alert us to the possibility that this language is not literal.

In a comment on a previous post of mine on this topic Thom pointed out that simply spotting that these texts are not literal does not let God “off the hook”. We are still talking about war, if not genocide. I have not forgotten this comment, I will return to it, but in a later post. In the next post I want to turn to the even bigger question of how we “read” God’s speech in the Bible…

  1. This is a specialised term for the text around the text, what people often mean when they say “context”, but by context I’ll mean all the other “stuff” around a text, what linguists call “pragmatics”. []

Theological education: some autobiographical reflections: Childhood

Apparently this is what Guardian Angels look like. (Photo by anslatadams)

It’s a wonder my faith survived (at least until now) the processes and adventures of my theological education.  Perhaps it is a tribute to sovereign and prevenient grace.

I was brought up in a Christian family. At first we were Brethren, then when the local hall closed (lease expired and a carpet seller wanted to move in) my parents having no car, we became Baptist. The church was middle of the roadish for Baptists in the UK at the time. So I remembered later (when I came to read John Robinson’s Honest to God for myself, and thought “how sensible, but surely everyone understands that God – being the creator of everything – can hardly live somewhere in the sky”) a blistering sermon one evening against Robinson and any notion of being “honest to God” about our faith.

However, the big crunch issue for me was Science. From almost as soon as I could read serious books (age 7 or 8 I guess) I was a huge fan of Science. Evolution and its more up to date, and excitingly still being discovered, cousin stellar evolution and the possible Big Bang enthralled me. These ideas made so much good sense, and they were based on evidence and open to discussion.

[Big bangs especially enthralled me, and each Guy Fawkes’ Day my friends and I tried for bigger and bigger ones, using cigar tubes and the gunpowder from fireworks. But that’s another story.]

At church, it seemed to me, I was expected to believe that God made the universe in one week (working on Saturday because making a universe with untold millions of stellar systems was a big job even for God). God even apparently planted fossils and other artworks so as to mislead us into believing that the whole process had taken him many many millions of years. I never understood why God did not want us to know what a big job it had really been, so my first niggles of doubt were born.

It was Religious Education (the only compulsory subject in the UK education system at the time) that planted the deepest questions though. We had an ardent but not very pastoral Anglican priest. He taught us all about some strange characters called J, E D and P  who apparently did Moses out of a job by writing the Pentateuch (but not being God, it took the four of them much more than a week). It was dull stuff, and I did not hear much of it. But one day somehow it got interesting. He spoke warmly about how God gave each of us our very own “Guardian Angel” when we were baptised. That stirred me up, I knew many of my friends were already baptised, and were even soon to be “confirmed”, but I was a Baptist, and not yet legally or in the eyes of the church an adult and so not baptised, yet. (Actually I was still not biologically an adult, but that is another story.)

So I asked the obvious question. “What happens to people who have not been baptised as Anglicans, but who go to other churches?” The reply shocked me. “I suppose God makes some sort of provision for people like that!”  Not that I really expected or wanted my own Guardian Angel, such imaginary creatures hardly fitted into my chrome-plated scientific worldview. But to be called, scornfully “people like that” and in front of a entire class of my peers!

That was it, I was at war with the Anglican Church, and all other forms of superstitious nonsense from that very day.

Genocide in Dt 7:2?

Yesterday I was reading bits of theses I am supervising (catching up after an Easter holiday), both were complex material, one because she is writing about Bakhtin (stimulating and likeable but not easy), the other because he’s dealing with two of the more difficult passages, basically dealing with the question of God’s commands to Israel in to commit the Canaanites etc. to the ban.

A basic question in dealing with this is: What do the passages actually say? For Dt 7:2 the English versions are pretty unanimous and clear (this is therefore just a small sample):

New Revised Standard
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
New International Version
and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
English Standard Version
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

It is not just the translations that follow the AV slavishly either, the CEV and New Living are as bad or worse.

So, to adopt (though hopefully with other motives) the snake’s question (Gen 3:1): Is this really what God says?
וּנְתָנָם  יְהוָה  אֱלֹהֶיךָ  לְפָנֶיךָ  וְהִכִּיתָם
הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם
לֹא־תִכְרֹת  לָהֶם  בְּרִית  וְלֹא  תְחָנֵּם׃

The key phrases are in the second and third lines (above, this phrasing is based on the Masoretic accentuation).

הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם is something like “you will certainly ban them” using a superlative construction that repeats the verb. The only major question about its meaning is what exactly the verb חרם means. Whatever it is they are most definitely to do it to the seven nations mentioned in the previous verse.

The last line is easier, they are not to make a covenant with them, nor show them “mercy”. Mercy here represents חנן “grace, mercy favour”.

The first clue that the English translations are wrong, if they mean – as I understand them to – that the Israelites are to wipe these seven nations out, is that they are commanded to make no covenant with them. One cannot make covenants with the dead. Secondly they are to show them no favour, this is not the same as showing no mercy!

Thus the traditional reading depends entirely on understanding of the ban חרם if this means “kill” then the rest of the interpretation is possible, but if it means something else then the rest is misleading (to put it mildly).

The Greek already had this understanding rendering הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם  as ἀφανισμῷ ἀφανιεῖς αὐτούς.

So, does this ban mean “kill” or even “kill as a sacrifice to a god”. Not exactly, it seems rather to mean “exclude from human use, devote to a god exclusively (sometimes by sacrificing or killing).

So, does Dt 7:2 mean: “Exterminate them!” ? Sadly I think the answer is “yes and no”. As a command from God it clearly does not, one cannot make a covenant with someone one has killed! The command is rather to have nothing whatever to do with them. However, as an instruction in time of war to the Israelite forces in Joshua’s day, it does mean “Take no prisoners.”

I think a better translation would render the verse something like:

“and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them,
then you must completely cut yourselves off from them,
you shall make no covenant with them and nor offer them grace.”