Judgemental God 2: perspicuity (clear and obvious)

The goal of Christian biblical hermeneutics

The goal of hermeneutics is understanding communications.
The purpose of Christian biblical hermeneutics is understanding God’s message(s) in the Christian Scriptures. That is Christians understand the Bible to in some way deliver divine messages. Other people, or Christians when they are reading for other purposes (e.g. with an interest in history) may rightly understand the Bible in other ways, but a Christian interpreting the Bible as Scripture is seeking a message from God.

The nature of the Bible

The Bible is a collection of works of human communication. These works are of varied genres, come from a wide range of locations, and from a broad span of time. The Bible does not claim1 to have been composed or dictated by God or another supernatural being. It does claim to be inspired by God, and so to contain divine messages. The orthodox understanding (at least among Protestants) however, is that these messages are not encoded, but are plainly to be seen.2

This seems to imply that the many and various (and therefore not at all clear, except to the recipients) messages that the Holy Spirit inspires people to hear as they read Scripture are not ‘the message of the Bible. It seems evident to me3 that God does use the Bible as the stimulus for personal messages, rather as the pun on the Hebrew word for ‘almond tree’ was used to inspire Jeremiah with a prophetic message (Jer 1:11-12). My point here is that such personal messages stimulated by Scripture are not messages of Scripture (which would mean they were for all times and all places).

Clarity or perspicuity

If the divine message(s) of Scripture are clear and obvious (perspicuous) then they cannot be thought to reside in the details. For the details of what the Bible says are often far from ‘clear and obvious’. For example, should Christians prefer to worship on Saturdays or on Sundays? Worship on Saturday is enjoined on Israel in the stipulations of the Sinai covenant, worship on Sunday is inferred from several New Testament references but is not unequivocally enjoined. Therefore my conclusion is that neither my (Baptist) practice of gathering with others on Sundays, nor the practice of Adventists (to gather on Saturdays) is either enjoined or forbidden by the Bible’s teaching.

On the other hand, ‘you should not kill’ is one of the Ten Commandments, and this is reinforced by Jesus into a warning against the sort of thoughts (anger and superiority) which might lead to killing (Matt 5:21-22). This goal is reinforced in a number of other places and so seems a clear teaching of Scripture.

But what you are saying is not precise

Some may object that what is suggested above is not precise. How many times does an idea need to be repeated before it becomes ‘clear’? This objection is true, but does not appear fatal. We tolerate a justice system based upon ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. I have served on a jury where the nature of such reasonable doubt was explored (I suspect a significant proportion of all juries spend time on this, since most cases that involve juries deliberating seem to involve some doubt). This system of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is oxymoronically not certain, but it is the most fair and equitable we have been able to devise. Life in a fallen world lacks certainty. Muslims and others who claim that the words, and not merely the message(s), of their Scriptures are divine sidestep this uncertainty, for Christians the Bible’s teaching should claim to be a divine word for all only when it is clear and evident – perspicuous.

  1. Unlike many other religious writings, such as the Holy Qur’an. []
  2. This doctrine is known as the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. []
  3. On the basis of experience as well as observation. []

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.

Upcycled/Recycled Church

Another thing I’ve been pondering/dreaming over since the visit by the Windsor Park people came out of a remark by the finance person, Linda. Mentioned the Cardboard Cathedral and dreamed of the possibility of walls that open out to allow extreme indoor outdoor flow. Our Leadership Team has talked about the site as Te Oro : The Orchard  and everyone who has thought about how we should develop the site has stressed the importance of keeping some of the trees and the orchard feel. So, I began to dream (sadly continued while awake and therefore unable to get back to sleep in the middle of the night).

What about:

  1. a church building made of recycled material (at least as much as is financially and structurally viable but over 50%). After all God is in the business of upcycling tired, broken, worn out lives. Not a Cardboard Cathedral but a Recycled Church. Such an aim/claim would also be newsworthy and could encourage possible grants etc..

  2. suppose the walls somehow opened out like wings (eagles’ wings cf. Is 40:31?) bringing the outside in – the ultimate indoor-outdoor flow.

  3. Ideally we’d site it among the avocado, keeping some around and perhaps using some as an avenue leading to the church.

The church on the hill

The church on the hill

The fluorescent cross on Mt Roskill is like a church on the hill visible for miles…

Back in the day you wanted to be the church on the hill. Visible from all around the neighbourhood, ideally with a big fluorescent cross to make things more obvious – the church was the centre of the community. It was the place people went when disaster struck. There for hatch, match, and finally dispatch services, but also an ever present comfort in time of trouble.

It’s biblical, Jesus talked about a city on a hill, a light that should not be hidden under a bushel.1 So one of the features of the property that God2 has given to us – aside from the miraculous decision to add a big primary school slap next door – is its location. Just at the very top of the hill, on the edge of the ridge above the new Lakes development. Wow! A church there fronting on the new roundabout, with even a modest spire and that fluorescent cross will be visible almost all the way to the Kaimais.

And yet…

Today, in NZ, the church is no longer the centre of the community, people no longer default to churches for hatch, match, or dispatch. When they need a bridge over troubled waters it’s the insurance company they call, not the pastor. Or WINZ, or the doctor… For a church to be accessible today it does not help to be slap on the top of the hill. Fluorescent lights will be ignored.

As one of the Windsor Park people3 at our meeting last night neatly expressed it, the website is today’s hill top. If people want to find us (and Google tells me that in January people did, 800 times) they can easily get directions from GoogleMaps, and quickly decide if they like the look of us by a quick gander at the Church website.

But before they do that we have to earn their interest. We won’t earn it with flashy buildings (the Warehouse and the Casino will always outflash us) but by being a place they come to for other reasons, by being people they have learned to trust.

So, there’s no need for us to build the church slap on the roundabout, not even on the street frontage at all. Rather there in prime position we need something that invites people in, that offers the hope of rest and peace in a busy and dangerous world…

  1. Whatever one of those might have been, we must never hide our lights under them. (Matt 5:14-15) []
  2. Aided by some very generous giving, and a seesawing property market here in the Bay of Plenty, and the wonderful work of Christian Savings – back in the day when they were still just Baptist Savings. []
  3. PS I think it was Murray Thatcher. []

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 Gender of YHWH and a carnival

Portrait of God as a bald-headed old guy with a beard.

Doug Chaplin has done a typically thorough and careful job of the October Biblical Studies Carnival.

Among other interesting material he notes, and often in a few well-chosen words reviews, was a post by Mark Zvi Brettler at TheTorah.com on ‘The Gender of God‘. As you might expect, I would have put things differently, and weighted the arguments differently, but then the post would have been less interesting. (For me at least, as it is careful scholars with whom I disagree a little from whom I often learn the most!) Brettler is far more careful than most writers on this topic to note and respect the distinction between the historico-critical and theological meanings of his texts. Strangely, though he is the Jew I would be the one to put greater weight on reading in the light of the tradition of interpretation which it seems o me he ends up downplaying. (Perhaps because he was conscious of writing as an ‘academic’.)1

  1. It that’s correct, it raises sharply again the question of whether, and why not if the response is negative, confessional theological work is academic. Are Marxist readings of history not academic? And what should a historian who is a convinced Marxist do with his Marxism when writing history? []

Reading on screens vs. paper: at last some sense

There has been far too much nonsense written contrasting reading on various types of screens1 with reading from paper. Some of the nonsense has been ‘research based’, though most of the research has been deeply flawed or trivial. At last there is a study that collates the data. They examined over 800 studies of which only 36 directly compared screen and paper!

See A Textbook Dilemma: Digital or Paper? for a journalistic noddy-guide to the results. Or read on…

As I hear it, key findings from this elephantine literature review, and so even more mammoth research effort include:

  • reading is faster on screen
  • comprehension is deeper on paper
    • subjects’ estimates of how much they absorbed were reversed (they thought they absorbed more from the screen)
  • most studies investigated linear texts, but hypertexts may be better suited to some tasks

Like so much research, none of this (except perhaps the recognition that people cannot effectively self-assess their information absorption) is a surprise. Once again, research underlines what sensible people have been saying ad infinitum. At this stage of technological development screens (of various sorts and this variability still needs to be properly investigated) and paper books have different advantages and different affordances.

Thinking of my current reading tasks:

  • marking student essays: clearly better on screen as reading is faster (this is a particular advantage for me as I am a very slow reader)
  • marking a PhD: paper is clearly better (as here I need better comprehension and retention)2
  • reading journal articles and book chapters in preparing a course: paper is better for better comprehension (except I find the material online, so waiting for paper delivery would be stupid, even if I had a POD machine)
  • reading a SF novel for pleasure: screen is better as I have no need to retain information

Except: for the PhD the case is more mixed as I have a deep and abiding revulsion to sitting chained to a desk (probably stemming from my sad experiences of education in childhood). The paper copy of the almost 500 page thesis weighs in at 1.25 Kg and is A4 by several cms thick, even printed doublesided, physically this is no easy task and hand strain limits the time I can spend reading. I also have to drop the brick and lift my laptop every time I want to make a note (how much easier to swap windows on my laptop).3

  1. Usually conflated as if screens were all one type of reading and it was the electronic imprint that mattered not the size or reflective vs. light emitting character, let alone how many other functions the device permitted… that mattered. []
  2. But see below! []
  3. I realise this last does not apply to most of you who learned to write easily and quickly with a pen or pencil, but my hand writing is extremely slow and very difficult to decipher later, quite aside from the advantage of cutting and pasting into my report. How I look forward the the time when NZ Universities finally enter the digital age! []

Deconstructing Equality

I have pointed before (often) to Vinoth Ramachandra’s thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. If you have failed to subscribe directly to his blog (why?) his latest post is particularly good. As a taster, here is one early paragraph:

I believe that the near-hysterical denunciation of the white far-right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, with numerous calls on Twitter and elsewhere for their sacking from their jobs and expulsion from universities, is evidence of a lack of understanding about human rights.