Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pitching the Ark (Genesis 6:14)

How was Noah’s ark made watertight? With pitch, inside and out (Genesis 6:14)

One of the best known Bible stories is that of Noah’s ark (Genesis 6:1-8:19). After informing Noah of the coming apocalypse (Genesis 6:13), God provided him with specific instructions regarding how to construct the ark (Genesis 6:14-16). God actually told Noah about the ark before revealing details that seem more pertinent - that a flood was coming (Genesis 6:17) and that he and his family would be spared, the remnant responsible for repopulating the earth (Genesis 6:18). (No pressure in that assignment...). One of the first instructions Noah received was to coat the massive box he was to build with pitch, inside and out (Genesis 6:14).

“Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch.” (Genesis 6:14 NASB)
Most modern translations render the Hebrew word kaphar as “pitch” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), though some paraphrases interpret “tar” (CEV, NLT). Pitch is a black glutinous substance that belongs to the same family as asphalt and bitumen. In fact, the Latin Vulgate translates the word bitumine and the Greek Septuagint uses asphaltos, both obvious cognates.

The source of this pitch has sparked debate. Today, pitch is most commonly the residue produced when coal tar is heated or distilled. Proponents of a young earth assert that the pitch was not derived from oil or coal but rather from gum based resins extracted from pine trees. For centuries pitch was manufactured by distilling or heating wood and Noah had access to a lot of lumber in constructing the massive floating box. (It is from this method of making pitch that North Carolina gets its nickname, the “Tar Heel State”.) Opponents counter that bitumen and other petroleum-based byproducts were plentiful in Noah’s region and that bitumen would have been far easier to procure as it has been found in pools and could have been quickly consolidated into a bucket, not to mention easier to apply. Regardless of its source, the pitch was presumably employed for waterproofing purposes. John H. Walton (b. 1952) explains, “Coating something with pitch was a standard procedure in the ancient world for assuring that the structure would be waterproof (Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, 312).” As such, pitch was a safety measure as God desired to spare the new generation.

The same method was used to protect another prominent Old Testament figure. R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) reminds, “The Hebrew word for ‘ark’ was used in Genesis to refer to Noah’s ship. The only other place that Hebrew word appears in the Old Testament is in Exodus 2:3, 5 when it is translated ‘basket’ — the basket into which Moses’ mother placed him to drift down the Nile. Just as the great pitch-covered ark/basket preserved Noah and his family from a watery death, so the tiny pitch-covered ark/basket preserved Moses (cf. Genesis 6:14 and Exodus 2:3) (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Preaching the Word), 133).”

The pitch coating was just one of eight details the text provides in recounting the remarkably precise design of the ark (Genesis 6:14-16). Claus Westermann (1909-2000) notes, “The eight pieces of information, one of incomprehensible, are not sufficient to permit a detailed reconstruction, which is often attempted; not even the number of rooms is given. However, we have a general idea of the ark: a huge, rectangular box with a roof divided into rooms. Genesis 6:14-16...[is] not based on any systematic plan of construction as has been proposed...any such would be unusable...The details of the commission to build the ark develop out of the unique function it is meant to fulfil; they are to be understood only in this context. Each particular detail serves to emphasize the uniqueness of the construction (Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary, 418).”

Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) explains, “Behind the strange precision in the directions for building the ark, and later in the actual Flood account, behind the precise dates and measurements, there is both certainty of the absolute concreteness and reality of God’s activity and an effort to depict God’s activity, his commands, and movements with as much theological objectivity as possible (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 127).”

Why do you think God told Noah of the ark before mentioning the flood? Why was the double coating of pitch, both inside and out, advised? Have you ever covered anything in pitch? What safety measures have you taken to waterproof your home?

Many have seen the pitch used in the ark as symbolic of a greater protection. Genesis 6:14 marks the first time the word kaphar is used in Scripture. Its simplest meaning is “to cover”. It is used 102 times in the Old Testament yet this passage represents the only time the King James Version (KJV) translates it “pitch”. In 73 of its 102 uses, the KJV renders the word“atonement”.

John MacArthur (b. 1939) expounds:

“That word (kapher) in Hebrew is exactly the same word translated ‘atonement.’ It can be either...In the ark of safety, the pitch kept the waters of judgment out. And the pitch in the life of believers is the blood of Christ, which secures us from any judgment. The pitch in the ark was what kept the water out, and the blood of Christ seals the believer from the flood of God’s judgment.” (MacArthur, The Keys to Spiritual Growth: Unlocking the Riches of God, 58)
Our eternal atonement was provided by the blood of Jesus which provided a covering for sin. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8 NASB).

Have you accepted God’s loving atonement?

“The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.” - Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

There is No “I” in Heaven (II Corinthians 12:2)

Into what heaven was the man who Paul knew caught up? The third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2)

One of the many obstacles Paul faced in Corinth was responding to braggart preachers who arrived after he had departed (II Corinthians 11:16-18). In confronting these critics, Paul (almost playfully) boasts of his own accomplishments in Christ. After outlining his sufferings (II Corinthians 11:23-33), the apostle shifts to the third person for his most dramatic boast (II Corinthians 12:1-9). He famously writes of an ecstatic experience:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. (II Corinthians 12:2 NASB)
In stating that the incident occurred fourteen years ago, Paul is registering a definitive memorable experience, a happening that occurred nearly a decade before he entered Corinth. Paul may be sharing this episode for the first time as there appears to have been a gag order placed upon such visits (II Corinthians 12:4). The time marker serves as a reminder that this event was unique and not an everyday occurrence even for a spiritual guru like Paul.

Though Paul regularly experienced visions, many involving Jesus (Acts 9:3-6, 9:12, 16:9, 18:9, 22:17), the apostle does not classify this incident as a vision. In fact, he does not classify it at all. Paul asserts that God only knows how it happened conceding only that he was “caught up” (Ezekiel 8:1-3; Wisdom of Solomon 4:10-11; I Enoch 39:3, 52:1). Paul evidently asked the natural question that Talking Heads sang about in “Once in a Lifetime” - “you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

In refusing to speculate as to whether he was abducted or underwent an out of body experience, Paul resisted the urge to categorize his experience. Some have suggested this ambiguity is a rebuttal of the Greek notion that one’s soul could ascend to God. This discussion fits with the Corinthians’ interest in the body/spirit dichotomy (I Corinthians 15:35-44; II Corinthians 5:6-8).

Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) comments:

Not knowing whether he was in the body or out of it (II Corinthians 12:2-3) might be rhetorical aporia (feigned uncertainty), but Paul has already contrasted being at home in the body with the afterlife of being away from the body and at home with the lord (II Corinthians 5:6-8). Although in some Jewish texts only the souls were caught up to see heaven (I Enoch 71:1-6), sometimes the experience sounds as if it involves the entire body (Ezekiel 2:2, 3:14, 24, 8:3, 11:1, 24; Wisdom of Solomon 4:11; I Enoch 39:3).” (Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 238).”
The modern reader must resolve that if the details were important, Paul would have shared them.

Paul further complicates the incident by mentioning “paradise” in the same breath as “third heaven” (II Corinthians 12:4). Paradise is a loan word from Persia and appears only three times in the New Testament (Luke 23:43; II Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7). In the intertestamental literature it had come to mean the realm entered upon death or the dimension where God dwells. As Paul incorporates two distinct terms, some have suggested a two step progression in which the third heaven was merely a step on the stairway to paradise.

This view is unlikely. Jewish literature often equates the third heaven with paradise (II Enoch 8:1; Apocalypse of Moses 37:5, 40:1). The fact that Paul uses the same verb for “caught up” (harpazo) in describing both places also underscores a singular experience (II Corinthians 12:1, 4). Most tellingly, as Paul is discussing the pinnacle of ecstatic phenomenons, there would be no need to reference the third heaven if it were not a watershed event. The very nature of the text screams for a single event.

The passage is also problematic to modern readers as Paul assumes a subtext that is no longer common - the third heaven itself (II Corinthians 12:2). This marks the only time the third heaven appears in Scripture and there was no consensus in Jewish literature as to how meany “heavens” existed.

Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) explains:

“Because the Persian loan word ‘paradise’ meant ‘garden,’ it applied well to the garden in Eden (Genesis 2:8-3:24 LXX; Josephus [37-100]Antiquities 137). Jewish people spoke of paradise as in heaven (T. Ab. 20:14; 3 Baruch 4:6) and expected a new paradise or Eden in the future (4 Ezra 7:36, 8:52; 2 Baruch 51:11). Jewish texts placed paradise, the new Eden, on earth in the coming age, but heaven in at the present. Jewish texts ranged from 3 to 365 in the number of heavens they imagined; the most common numbers were three (Testament of Levi 2-3) and seven. Texts often placed paradise in one of these (in the third in 2 Enoch 8:1; Apocalypse of Moses 37:5, 40:1); the lowest of ‘heavens’ was the lower atmosphere. Paul presumably envisions paradise as in the third of three heavens .” (Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 239)
Thomas D. Stegman (b. 1963) concurs:
“Paul declares that he was transported to the third heaven, a place he then identifies as Paradise. He thus intimates that he was temporarily taken up by God to the highest place in heaven, where the divine glory dwells. Given that Paul referred to ‘visions and revelations’ of the Lord Jesus, does he suggest here that he was set in the presence of the glorified Christ? Perhaps, although he does not register what he saw. Instead, he reports that he heard ineffable things, which no one may utter. These ‘unutterable utterances’–surmised by some commentators to be angelic praises or revelations of divine mysteries–were beyond what human language could convey. What is more, even if he were able, the Apostle states, he is not permitted to do so.” (Stegman, Second Corinthians (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 268)
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) describes this cosmology succinctly, “The third heaven probably means ‘right up to the highest heaven,’ the heaven of the Lord’s abode as distinct from the starry heavens (the second heaven) and the earth’s atmosphere (the first heaven [compare I Kings 8:27]) (Gundry, Commentary on Second Corinthians).”

Paul is discussing a single event, rare even for him, that represented the apex of spiritual encounters. The number and terminology are insignificant as whether one names that abode as the third heaven, paradise or something else, Paul was transported into the very presence of God.

Do you have any spiritual experiences too sacred to discuss? Did this episode in Paul’s life occur before, during or after his profound experience on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9)? How did Paul get to the third heaven? What was the apostle doing when he was transported? How would you explain this incident?

In its simplest form, this passage answers Paul’s bragging detractors and the message is clear - you can’t top this. Paul’s visit to the third heaven means that if the criteria is ecstatic, supernatural experience, Paul wins. Hands down.

Throughout his diatribe, Paul is aware of the foolishness of his own boasting, the same complaint he has against his detractors (II Corinthians 11:16-18, 21, 23, 12:1). He readily admits, “I am speaking as a fool (II Corinthians 11:21 NASB).” Even amidst his own “boasting”, Paul does all he can to deprecate himself. He also uses the passive voice of “caught up” to describe the happening (II Corinthians 12:1, 4), meaning it was done to him not by him. He did nothing.

Thomas D. Stegman (b. 1963) expounds:

“There is a certain playfulness with which Paul recounts his journey to the third heaven: he is not certain how he was taken up, he does not report what he saw, and he cannot repeat what he heard. He thereby suggests that, while this mysterious experience was important to him personally, it did not provide him with information he could use in his ministry. It is certainly not reason to boast about himself. Rather, he implies a critique of the intruding missionaries: ‘If their experience was the same as Paul’s, it contributed nothing to their ministry. If it was something about which they talk, it was less ineffable than his.’” (Stegman, Second Corinthians (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 268)
In speaking of visions, Paul also reverts to the third person, refusing the word “I”. (The modern equivalent might be someone who instead of admittedly speaking on their own behalf instead says, “I have this friend....”) For Paul, there is no “I” in heaven as the apostle realizes he did nothing to generate or merit the experience.

Paul recognizes that it is the height of folly to brag of revelations from God. Only an idiot boasts of something so clearly the work of Another.

What was the purpose of Paul’s visit to the third heaven? In what ways, if any, did it benefit him? Do people still visit the third heaven? What is your most dramatic spiritual/supernatural experience? When have you taken credit for God’s handiwork?

“The less you speak of your greatness, the more shall I think of it.” - attributed to William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Jahaziel: You can do it! (II Chronicles 20:17)

Who told Jehoshaphat that his army did not need to fight “in this battle”? Jahaziel (II Chronicles 20:17)

During the reign of Jeshoshaphat, an alliance of Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites camped at Engedi and prepared to invade Judah (II Chronicles 20:1-2). Ironically, these same nations had received clemency during the conquest of the Promised Land (Judges 11:15).

Jehoshaphat was left with few options. His army was outmanned against “a great multitude”(II Chronicles 20:2 NASB) and he was also out of time as his enemies had utilized the element of surprise. Engedi was a small site on the western coast of the Dead Sea located within 25 miles of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:62; I Samuel 23:29, 24:1; II Chronicles 20:1; Song of Solomon 1:14; Ezekiel 47:10). It was not a standard attack route as Jerusalem was only accessible using narrow paths up steep cliffs. In taking this unconventional passage, the opposing armies were too close for comfort and the king faced a desperate situation.

In the face of overwhelming odds, Jehoshaphat responded as a model Davidic king should. Recognizing that he was out of options, he proclaimed a national fast (II Chronicles 20:3) and the king prayed on behalf of his subjects (II Chronicles 20:5-12). The people assembled, but instead of preparing for battle, they prayed and fasted (II Chronicles 20:4, 13). It was the only thing left to do.

God responded to Jehoshaphat’s humble prayer with an encouraging prophetic word (II Chronicles 20:14-17). The word of the Lord enveloped Jahaziel and prompted his lone voice to ring out from the multitude (II Chronicles 20:14). Jahaziel functions like the encouraging “Townie” (Rob Schneider, b. 1963) in The Waterboy (1998) who often shouted, “You can do it!” from the crowd.

Then in the midst of the assembly the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, the Levite of the sons of Asaph; and he said, “Listen, all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the valley in front of the wilderness of Jeruel. You need not fight in this battle; station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out to face them, for the LORD is with you.” (II Chronicles 20:14-17 NASB)
This dramatic speech marks Jahaziel’s only appearance in the Bible. Jahaziel was a worship leader, not a prophet (II Chronicles 20:14). Yet in this instance, Jahaziel prophesied as evidenced by the fact that he is introduced by the prophetic-type description “the Spirit of the LORD came upon” (II Chronicles 20:14 NASB) and he adopts the prophetic messenger formula “thus says the LORD to you” (II Chronicles 20:15 NASB). This wording may also indicate spontaneity.

Jahaziel is provided an irregularly long genealogy that emphasizes his pedigree (II Chronicles 20:14). A lineage of five generations links him with Asaph, a worship leader at the time of David (I Chronicles 15:16-17) who is credited with penning twelve psalms (Psalms 50, 73-83). For some interpreters, Jahaziel’s ancestry seems too good to be true.

Sara Japhet (b. 1934) explains:

“The figure of Jahaziel has many artificial features: his name, ‘the one who sees God’, his affiliation with the singers, who are conceived in Chronicles as prophets (I Chronicles 25:1, 2, 3, 5), and his direct descent from Asaph, the assumed head-singer of David’s time, all point to the ‘literary’ nature of this figure.” (Japhet, I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 793)
In Jahaziel’s case, a voice quite literally emerged from the choir to speak for the Lord.

When have you been caught dead to rights with prayer left as your only resort? When in your desperation has God supplied a voice of encouragement? Why is such a long lineage ascribed to Jahaziel? Why did God choose to speak in these circumstances through a worship leader as opposed to a military tactician?

H.G.M. Williamson (b. 1947) notes that Jahaziel’s prophecy is modeled as a “salvation oracle” (Williamson, 1 and 2 Chronicles (New Century Bible Commentary, 297-299). His speech is carefully constructed and closely follows the prescribed speech for a priest before battle (Deuteronomy 20:2-4). The prophecy also met Judah’s needs as it responded to each point in Jehoshaphat’s prayer (II Chronicles 12:5-12) by providing reassurance (II Chronicles 20:15, 17), reasons for confidence - namely that the battle is God’s (II Chronicles 20:15, 17) and precise instructions on how to proceed (II Chronicles 20:16, 17).

Among Jahaziel’s words of encouragement is the assertion that the Israelites will win the battle without engaging in combat (II Chronicles 20:17). For them, this fight was to be a spectator sport as their directions amounted to “Don’t do something, just stand there!” This “strategy” reinforced the king’s reliance on God as the battle became God’s (not Jehoshaphat’s) and God promised to defeat the invaders.

Jahaziel’s oracle also subtly alludes to another time when God famously defended Israelites as the speech has many uncanny parallels to Moses’ charge prior to the Exodus (Exodus 14:13-14). Most notably, Israel won an improbably victory while being onlookers - “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13 NASB).

Judah was to simply assume a defensive position at the Ascent of Ziz and encounter the enemy at the end of the wadi, by the wilderness of Jeruel (II Chronicles 20:16). There, God would fight for them. It is as if God was providing ringside seats for a battle they had bet their lives upon. In this case, doing nothing required a great act of faith.

Gary N. Knoppers (b. 1956) explains:

In other words, the people are to leave the relative safety of Jerusalem, journey into open terrain, and encounter the enemy at a specific location. They are to put themselves in harm’s way, but they are told explicitly not to fight. (Richard S. Hess [b. 1954] and Gordon J. Wenham [b. 1943], “Jerusalem at War in Chronicles”, Zion: City of our God, 70-71).

William Johnstone (b. 1936) expounds:

“The instruction by Jahaziel was not quietism (any more than Jehoshaphat’s prayer was fatalism). It is pure sacramentalism: Israel’s role is totally participatory—it goes fully armed into battle (II Chronicles 20:21); but the battle is the LORD’s. Israel, as the LORD’s host under the LORD’s anointed, is caught up unreservedly and with no volition on its own part into the action of God against the invading hordes of nations. With total openness to God and entire dependence upon him, it is borne irresistibly to victory (compare such sacred battles as Joshua 6 and I Samuel 7).” (Johnstone, 2 Chronicles 10-36: Guilt and Atonement (1 and 2 Chronicles: Volume 2), 101)
As is often the case, when a courageous person stands alone, Jehaziel was soon joined (II Chronicles 20:18). Morale was boosted, the people obeyed God’s edict (II Chronicles 20:20-22) and God fulfilled his promise as the unholy alliance disbanded and the enemy armies killed one another (II Chronicles 20:23-25). Judah did not fight, but instead worshiped.

It is fitting that a worship leader was the one whose voice rang out as the event marked a worship service, not a battle. Tragedy was transformed into worship. Steven Shawn Tuell (b. 1956) quips, “The advance of Jeshoshaphat’s host is more a liturgical procession than a military maneuver (Tuell, First and Second Chronicles (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 183).”

Simon J. de Vries (b. 1921) concurs writing that God “moves them to a good place of observation; this is like a liturgist moving the worshipers in a procession...This is a model of true worship: to express pure devotion while driving away every demon that assails the faithful (de Vries, 1 and 2 Chronicles (Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Volume XI), 328.”

Roy D. Bell notices that “worship and praise became central to the whole encounter. II Chronicles 20:10 tells us that Jehoshaphat bowed his face to the ground and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down and worshiped before the Lord. The Levites stood and praised the Lord with a loud voice...sometimes our praise is so quiet...that if God were not a supernatural being, He would not be able to hear it. The absence of worship, adoration and praise impoverishes our lives and even our churchgoing (Bell, Biblical Models of Handling Conflict, 61-62.)”

Has God ever reminded you of past successes to comfort you during a present trial? When have you accomplished something just by showing up? Have any of your tragedies been transformed into worship? Is your worship audible?

“Without worship, we go about miserable.” - A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Spirit, not Spirits [I Samuel 1:14]

Who accused Hannah of being drunk? Eli (I Samuel 1:14)

Hannah was a woman who, for her time, faced impossible circumstances. She was barren while her husband’s other wife, Peninah, was not (I Samuel 1:2). Peninah tormented Hannah by flaunting her fecundity (I Samuel 1:6). Hannah was a single-minded woman. Unfortunately, she wanted the one thing she did not have and seemingly could not have - a son (I Samuel 1:10-11). Strikingly, Hannah’s problems did not distance her from God but rather drew her closer, a fact that speak volumes of her. On a pilgrimage to the religious epicenter, Shiloh (Israel had not yet centralized in Jerusalem), Hannah prayed and wept bitterly (I Samuel 1:10).

Hannah poured her heart out in one of the few women’s prayers recorded in the Old Testament (I Samuel 1:10-11). She offered a simple, transactional prayer. It was also an unverbalized prayer as her lips moved but nothing came out (I Samuel 1:12-13). Hannah prayed silently because “she was speaking in her heart (I Samuel 1:13 NASB),” or read literally “to her heart”.

Miki Raver (b. 1945) notes the irregularity of this moment:

“In Hannah’s days, the sanctuary was primarily used for blood sacrifice. Hannah offered her rage as her burnt offering, her tears as her sacrificial lamb, her bitterness as her guilt offering. Hannah’s prayer marked the first time that heartfelt spontaneous prayer...replaced animal sacrifice as the central act of Jewish worship.” (Raver, Listen to Her Voice: Women of the Hebrew Bible , 110)
Unfortunately, Eli, the priest at Shiloh, failed to distinguish between wordless prayer and drunken mumbling and read her symptoms as inebriation (I Samuel 1:14).
Then Eli said to her, “How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you.” (I Samuel 1:14 NASB)
Joseph B. Meszler (b. 1972) explains, “Hannah was so lost in the expression of her heart that an outside observer mistook the situation and thought she was drunk (Meszler, Facing Illness, Finding God: How Judaism Can Help You and Caregivers Cope When Body or Spirit Fails, 125).” Ironically, the offer that Hannah makes to God is that she will dedicate her son as a Nazirite (I Samuel 1:11), a religious vow that abided by several prohibitions including abstaining from alcohol (Numbers 6:1-12). Not only was Hannah sober, she was vowing that her unborn son would never drink.

Eli accused Hannah of pouring out the wine while in reality, she was pouring out her soul. The priest who should have been sympathetic to her needs adds insult to injury. Unfortunately, this was not the last time this would happen in the course of human history.

The priest accuses her of being drunk in the ancient equivalent of church. Sadly, in those troubled times, drunkenness may have been more common than sincere prayer. Drinking was customary at sacrificial meals (I Samuel 1:9, 18) and Eli may have had more experience with drunkards than praying people. Eli may even be projecting. John Woodhouse (b. 1949) concludes, “In the light of what we will learn in chapter 2, it is likely that Eli’s misunderstanding was based on too many experiences of improper conduct at the Shiloh temple (see I Samuel 2:12-17) (Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader (Preaching the Word), 32).”

One aim of this story is to illuminate Eli’s inadequacy. In fact, it will be the child that Hannah prays for, Samuel, that will replace Eli as Israel’s spiritual leader. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) characterizes Eli as “a man who watched lips instead of perceiving hearts, who judged profound spirituality to be profligate indulgence in spirits, who heard nothing when the Lord spoke (I Samuel 3:4, 6), and who criticized his sons for abusing the sacrificial system yet grew fat from their take (I Samuel 2:22-24, 4:18). Fittingly, in the end his powerful career was surpassed by those who were ‘nothing’–a socially powerless rural woman and a child (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7), 69).”

To Eli’s credit, he quickly realized his misjudgment of Hannah and blessed her (I Samuel 1:17-18). Her prayer was answered (I Samuel 1:19-20) and as promised, she dedicated her first son, Samuel, to God (I Samuel 1:19-28). God also answered her prayer more abundantly than she could have imagined (Ephesians 3:20) as she later birthed five more children (I Samuel 2:21).

Do your problems lead you closer or farther from God? What problems do you need to take to God? Had Hannah been drunk, would it have made her prayer any less valid? What does it say of Eli that he instinctively assumed the worst? Why does Eli make his assumption?

On the surface, the two states - prayer and drunkenness- seem to be as divergent as possible. Yet they are confused more than once in Scripture. At Pentecost, the same accusation will be made as the onlookers mistake deep communion with God for drunkenness (Acts 2:13). Both of these incidents occurred at critical junctures as Samuel ushered in the era of kings and Pentecost welcomed the coming of the Holy Spirit. Both were christened with worship mistaken for intoxication.

Jim Cymbala (b.1943) feels Eli’s misclaculation is exemplary of a broader spiritual pattern: “Fortunately, Hannah didn’t react with anger or lose the spirit of prayer. Her experience at this moment points to an important lesson about prayer: If you pray, you will certainly become a target of Satan, who will immediately attack you with spiritual opposition and discouragement (Cymbala, Breakthrough Prayer , 149).”

Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert (1780-1860) also relates Eli’s confusion to a what he sees as a widespread trend - the phenomenon of people mistaking the sacred for the profane, and the profane for the sacred (Schubert, Ansichten von der Nachtseite der Naturwissenschaft), 93). People often fail to distinguish what is and is not of God. Even clergy.

Part of Eli’s problem is that Hannah’s prayer was groundbreaking in many ways. Jeffrey M. Cohen (b. 1940) explains:

“It was assumed at the time that one really required a prophet or priest to act as intermediary for private petitions (see I Samuel 12:19, 23)...It was probably not just the rarity of an individual offering up a private prayer, but also its protracted nature (I Samuel 12:12) that aroused his suspicion...Lengthy private prayers to Eli...He preferred formal sacrifice–yet another reason for his harsh treatment of Hannah.” (Cohen, Blessed Are You: A Comprehensive Guide to Jewish Prayer, 18-19)
Hannah was ahead of her time as her model of prayer would become the norm. Steven Steinbock (b. 1958) writes, “This example of heartfelt prayer has had such an effect on subsequent generations of Jews that it has become the accepted model of traditional davening. This is why, particularly during the Amidah, it is traditional to mouth the blessings silently (Steinbock, The Gift of Wisdom: The Books of Prophets and Writings, 26).” Hannah poured out her heart and her prayer was answered. In the process, this humble woman changed the way prayer was done.

Have you ever mistaken someone’s act of piety for evil? Is the line between sacred and profane as pronounced as most want to believe? Compare and contrast the symptoms of prayer and drunkenness. Have you ever worshiped so fervently that you were accused of drunkenness? If not, should you?

“Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” - Dom John Chapman (1865-1933)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Way with Words (Proverbs 25:11)

Complete: “A word fitly spoken _____________________________________________.” Is like apples of gold in a setting of silver (Proverbs 25:11)

Our culture has many expressions downplaying the significance of words. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. A picture is worth a thousand words. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. In contrast, Proverbs rightly speaks highly of the value of words. The right word from the right person at the right time is life giving and priceless.

Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances. (Proverbs 25:11 NASB)
Apples of gold in settings of silver is an esoteric reference. That’s a good thing, right?

Proverbs periodically utilizes flowers and fruit in analogies related to words (Proverbs 12:14, 13:2, 25:11). Scholars debate which fruit is being discussed in Proverbs 25:11 as some think that the word rendered “apples” (Hebrew: tappuwach) is better understood as grapes or apricots (Proverbs 25:11; Song of Solomon 2:3, 5, 7:8, 8:5; Joel 1:12). Even so, almost all modern translations opt for apples (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV).

The CEV and the Message avoid the fruit discussion entirely by omitting the clause. This is edifying on some levels as the passage speaks not of fruit but rather jewelry. Bruce K. Waltke (b.1930) explains, “Apples of gold (see Proverbs 11:22) was preferred to ‘golden apples’ to connote the probability of their metal, not their color, as the parallel in Proverbs 25:12a shows.” (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 320).”

Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) reports, “Though jewelry shaped as apples or not extant, pomegranates are a common artistic motif, and a necklace with golden pomegranates was found in Late Bronze Cyprus (Bühlmann 1976:49) (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible), 782).”

The description of the trinket accentuates not just the centerpiece but its framing. In the first episode of the final season of “The Cosby Show”, Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe, b. 1973) stuns her parents by abruptly blurting out “I’m engaged!” (Episode: “With This Ring”, 9/19/1991) She then introduces her parents to her fiancé, Dabnis Brickey (William Thomas Jr., b. 1947). As they converse, Vanessa’s parents learn that their daughter has been engaged for six months to a maintenance man at her college who is “knocking on thirty” and who has previously lived with more than one woman. Her father, Cliff (Bill Cosby, b. 1937), explains that he does not like Dabnis but it is not necessarily Dabnis’ fault. He likens their meeting to Dabnis’ favorite meal, a porterhouse steak with no white lines served with crispy potatoes and sauteed mushrooms...served on a used garbage can lid. He exclaims, “It’s in the presentation. That’s the way she brought you here–on a garbage can lid!”

Context is important. Waltke interprets, “A proper decision is likened to golden apples, and the appropriate circumstance to a silver structure (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 320).”

On December 30, 1860, as the United States approached civil war, prominent Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) implored the president elect Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) to make a public statement. Stephens alluded to Proverbs 25:11 when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken by you now would be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’” Lincoln reflected on Stephens’ biblical reference and found the principle “liberty to all” to be words fitly spoken. He responded:

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken. (Lincoln, “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union”, January 1861)
What other words have been fitly spoken? When has someone given you just the right words at just the right time? How would you phrase this proverb in modern terms?

Ironically, the proverb itself is a word fitly spoken situated within a broader canvas, a book of fitly worded aphorisms. The verse has value when standing alone but also has more layers when viewed within its context. Its surface message is simple - words are valuable. Fox paraphrases, “Eloquent words—even when they are reprimands—are like well-crafted jewelry in well-matched settings (Fox, 782).”

The verse’s meaning within the context of Proverbs has been seen by some as the key to reading the book and perhaps the Bible as a whole. From this perspective, Proverbs informs the reader as to how it is to be read – like an expert jeweler fitting a precious stone to a suitable setting.

Knut Martin Heim is one scholar who sees the verse as the key to the book of Proverbs. He even titled his book on the subject Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16.

Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) summarizes Heim’s position:

“He believes that scholars make a huge mistake by looking for thematic or logical development within these short units. He says that once a unit is determined it is equally possible to read it from beginning to end, the end to the beginning or from the middle outwards. Nonetheless, the units do provide a context in which the proverbs should be read. The analogy that he provides in terms of the association of proverbs within a unit is from the title of the book which is taken from Proverbs 25:11.” (“Reading Wisdom Canonically”, Canon And Biblical Interpretation (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, V. 7), 355)
Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) paint this reading with broader strokes:
“The author presents a piece of jewelry, made up of a gold core covered with a silver filigree overlay, as the analog of a parable. The ‘silver apple’ is seen at a distance; coming closer the inner ‘golden apple’ is visible. A parable also has an outer and an inner aspect. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides makes use of this verse to signal to his intended reader that he wrote the Guide in such a way that its hidden secrets can glimpsed through the filigree of its words.” (Kravitz and Olitzky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 248)
How important is context when interpreting Scripture? Do you think that a text can have more than one correct interpretation? Why?

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” - Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Saul, Paul and Rebranding (Acts 13:9)

What was Paul’s former name? Saul of Tarsus

When Paul is introduced in the Bible, he is called Saul (Acts 7:58). Six chapters later, while serving with Barnabas in Cyprus, the text nonchalantly mentions that Paul and Saul are synonymous (Acts 13:9).
But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, (Acts 13:9 NASB)
No explanation is given for the alias and no one bestows the Hellenistic name on Saul yet for the remainder of Acts, the narrator speaks only of Paul. The only one who calls Paul “Saul” thereafter is Paul himself and only in repetitions of his testimony (Acts 22:7, 13, 26:14). For all intents and purposes, Saul is no more. Along with the new moniker, henceforth Paul’s name is listed first in each missionary tandem in which he appears, stylistically emblematic of leadership.

Saul’s namesake was Israel’s first king (I Samuel 9:17). Though Acts never mentions the fact, the future apostle (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5) and the former king both descended from the tribe of Benjamin (I Samuel 9:1-2, 21, 10:21, I Chronicles 12:1, 29; Acts 13:29). The connection between name and tribe has led some to speculate that the apostle was a distant heir of the king. Richard H. Bell (b. 1954) writes that “perhaps Paul’s family had a family tree which traced their origin through Ulam [I Chronicles 8:39-40] and Saul...Paul/Saul was therefore named after his most illustrious ancestor (Bell, The Irrevocable Call of God: An Inquiry into Paul’s Theology of Israel, 13).”

Counterintuitively, the name change does not coincide with Paul’s dramatic conversion (Acts 9:1-19). It does, however, serve a conscious literary purpose. Stanley B. Marrow (b. 1931) comments that “with the commencement of the apostle’s first missionary journey and at an important turning point in his career, the change of name from the very Semitic ‘Saul’ to the Greco-Roman ‘Paul’ should signal a far more significant change for the history of the world (Marrow, Paul: His Letters and His Theology: An Introduction to Paul’s Epistles, 7).” The name Paul was better suited to the missionary’s new Gentile context (I Corinthians 9:20-22).

Philip R. Davies (b. 1945) also sees a further poetic rationale:
“This replay of the persecution of a ‘son of David’ by a Saul might be thought fanciful; yet such a realisation surely did not escape the Benjamite Saul of Tarsus, nor the author of Acts—both of whom exhibit a fondness for scriptural analogies and precedents—nor indeed other reasonably knowledgeable Jews of that time.” (Rezetko, Lim & Aucker, Reflection And Refraction: Studies in Biblical Historiography in Honor of A. Graeme Auld, 96)
Saul, a name reminiscent of royalty, becomes Paul, meaning “small” or “humble”. The name Paul fits with the missionary’s own belief that “I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (I Corinthians 15:9 NASB).”

Is there significance to the timing of the metamorphosis from Saul to Paul in Acts? Have you ever known anyone who changed their name? If you changed your name what would it be? Why? Why do you think Paul changed his name?

Some have conjectured that the apostle opted for a new Hellenistic name in part because his old Hebrew name had developed a derogatory meaning in Greek. Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and John J. Pilch (b. 1936) explain, “The connotation of the Greek adjective saulos (“loose, wanton”), which described the peculiar walking style of courtesans and effeminate males, might have prompted Luke (and Paul) to prefer to use “Paul.” (Malina and Pilch, Social-science Commentary on the Book of Acts, 90).” This would be the equivalent of modern women who had the proper name “Gay” changing it when the term became associated with homosexuality.

Many other reasons have also been given for the transition. Ben Witherinton III (b. 1951) posits the following theories:
This story may suggest that Paul took the name in order to aid in the process of converting another Paul who was a Gentile and a proconsul on Cyprus, Sergius Paulus...Possibly Παυλος should be seen as a nickname, meaning “the small one.”...Wilson, Paul, p. 30, conjectures that Paul’s Roman name was Gaius Julius Caesar on the basis of his family being one of those enfranchised in Tarsus by Julius Caesar or Augustus. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 310)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) adds, “Lucian of Samosota tells us of men who changed their names to signify a higher social status (The Cock 14; Timon 22) (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina),223).” C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) contributed that “Saul” was the name in the Antiochan source while “Paul” was better known to most (Barrett, Acts1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 609).

Most scholarship (included the luminaries listed above) concurs that despite common belief to the contrary, the shift to Paul was no change at all. Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-28) and the most probable suggestion for his names is that Paulos was one of the three proper names a Roman citizen would have. Malina and Pilch remind, “This verse does not support the common belief that Paul underwent a name change from Saul to Paul. It was common for members of the house of Israel to have two names: a Hebrew one for insiders, a Greek or Latin name for outsiders (Malina and Pilch, 90).” Barrett summarizes, “Paul is an alternative name, not a newly given one (Barrett, Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary, 195).”

Paul is mentioned by his Jewish name 22 times, all in Acts. As such, Paul never refers to the name Saul in any of his letters. To read Paul’s letters, it is as if Saul never existed.

Do your friends or family call you something different than outsiders? Are you known by different names in different contexts? Do you think Paul’s name served to distance the character from his previous deeds as Saul? Have you known of any person or business who rebranded to evade a bad reputation? What do you call yourself? How, if at all, has your name shaped you?

“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” - sociologist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Joseph’s Other Coat (Genesis 39:12)

Where did Joseph leave his cloak? Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:12)

Joseph had a tough time keeping his clothes on. Joseph’s famous garment, his “coat of many colors” (Genesis 37:3), was used as false evidence of his presumed death (Genesis 37:31-33). In reality he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:27-28) and found his way into Potiphar’s house (Genesis 37:36). Joseph thrived in this new environment and he was left in charge of everything, presumably even Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:4-5). As Robert Alter (b. 1935) quips, “Joseph may suffer from one endowment too many (Alter, The Art of the Biblical Narrative, 135).”

Potiphar’s name is mentioned only twice in the Bible (Genesis 37:36, 39:1) which is fitting as it is his wife who dominates the story. The unnamed woman unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Joseph on a daily basis (Genesis 39:7). (Potiphar’s was the ancient version of a “cougar”.) When her efforts failed, the scorned woman masterfully accused him of attempted rape, got the servants on her side, and kept his coat as evidence (Genesis 39:12-18).

She caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” And he left his garment in her hand and fled, and went outside. (Genesis 39:12 NASB)
The word for cloak used here is beged, the most common term for garment in the Old Testament. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) comments:
It appears that it could refer both to an outer garment (II Kings 7:15) and an inner garment (Ezekiel 26:16). According to the end of Genesis 39:12 Joseph left all his beged with Potiphar’s wife, which means he left behind either his outer garment or one of his undergarments...By using beged at this point, the narrator may be implying something about Joseph’s own emotional involvement in the story. He is on the verge of acting faithlessly to his master. Also, it is interesting to note that the homonymous Hebrew verb bagad is sometimes used for marital unfaithfulness (Jeremiah 3:7-8, 20; Malachi 2:14). (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 465)
Potiphar’s wife played the game well. She enlisted the servants as witnesses and even by the standards of the Law, a woman caught in rape was off the hook if she sought help (Deuteronomy 22:23-28). Despite his innocense (at least in action if not thought), Joseph was left imprisoned (Genesis 39:20) and Potiphar’s wife was left with the coat. Alter documents, “The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 87:10 makes the brilliant if somewhat fanciful observation...that she spent the time kissing and caressing it (Alter, 138).”

What historical cases exist of people being convicted on the basis of false evidence? What do you do when you are wrongfully accused? Do you think that it is merely coincidence that discarded garments played a role in both of Joseph’s early trials? Do you think Joseph was entirely innocent in this episode?

Through God’s providence, things worked out well for Joseph (Genesis 39:21, 23, 50:20), Still, in this incident, no good deed goes unpunished and Joseph actually suffers for doing the right thing by resisting his employer’s wife’s advances. In contrast, the Bible records no negative consequences for Potiphar’s wife. Her story ends and she is written out of the text.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) included Potiphar’s wife in the eighth circle of hell in his famed The Divine Comedy (Inferno Canto XXX:91-129). Though she does not speak, Dante is told that, along with another perjurer, Sinon of Troy, she is condemned to suffer a burning fever for all eternity.

Is justice served in the account of Potiphar’s wife? Is there always an earthly consequence for sin? How should the Christian respond to the injustice in the world?

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” - Elie Wiesel (b. 1928)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

God’s Architecture (Revelation 21:18)

Of what material is the wall constructed in the Holy City? Jasper (Revelation 21:18)

Near the conclusion of Revelation, John records a vision of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-27). He paints a picture of an opulent metropolis. Among the vivid details he provides is a city wall made of jasper.

The material of the wall was jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. (Revelation 21:18 NASB)
Jasper is a compact translucent variety of quartz of the type called chalcedony. The name means “spotted (or speckled) stone”. Though commonly associated with shades of red, jasper is an opaque rock that can reflect virtually any color depending upon the mineral content of its original source. The ancient term “jasper” was not as precise as modern nomenclature. George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982) explains, “The word for ‘jasper’ in antiquity was not limited to the type of stone we call jasper, but could designate any transparent precious stone (Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 281).”

There is some debate as to the extent that jasper was used in the composition of the Holy City’s wall. Leon Morris (1914-2006) analyzed a Greek word (used only in Revelation 21:18) and concluded that “the word endōmēsis is unusual, but apparently means that of which the wall was built. In that case, it did not simply have jasper built into it but was built of jasper (Morris, Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 244).”

Robert H. Mounce (b. 1921) counters, writing that “because in the following verse the first of the city’s twelve foundations is made of jasper (Revelation 22:19), it would be well to understand this reference as indicating some sort of inlay of precious stone rather than solid jasper as a building material...In either case it is the splendor and worth of the wall that is so graphically reported (Mounce, The Book of Revelation (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) , 393).”

The building materials of the Holy city are like no human city. Human walls are not built with jasper. In addition to not being cost effective, the mineral breaks with a smooth surface, and as such is used for ornamentation or as a gemstone. Jasper is not used as a primary building material but rather to augment for aesthetic reasons. The wall is indicative of the Holy City’s other worldly quality.

Have you ever seen or heard of any edifice made of jasper? If you could construct your home from any material, what would it be? Why was the Holy City’s wall made of jasper?

This is not the first time that jasper is mentioned in Revelation. More than half of the Bible’s seven jasper references are in it’s final book (Exodus 28:20, 39:19; Ezekiel 28:13; Revelation 4:3, 21:11, 18, 19). The Holy City’s wall harkens back to the heavenly throne room where the One upon the throne appears like jasper (Revelation 4:3) and “before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal” (Revelation 4:6 NASB). As such, jasper is representative of God’s glory and the city exudes the glory of its maker and ruler.

The Holy City’s wall is of God and reveals God. Brian K. Blount (b. 1956) summarizes, “The same glory is symbolically embedded in the city’s very architectural essence (Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 390).”

As Satan has been vanquished (Revelation 20:10) and city walls were designed to protect, why does the Holy City need a wall? Why is jasper associated with God? Have you ever met anyone whose house suited them? In what ways does your home project your essence?

“Architecture is basically a container of something. I hope they will enjoy not so much the teacup, but the tea.” - renowned architect Yoshio Taniguchi (b. 1937)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Timothy’s Mama’s Family (II Timothy 1:5)

What was Timothy’s grandmother’s name? Lois.

At the outset of II Timothy, Paul gives thanks for his protégé and the letter’s recipient, Timothy (I Timothy 1:3-5). In fortifying Timothy, Paul is reminded him of Timothy’s spiritual heritage (II Timothy 1:5, 3:14-15). Timothy’s faithful mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, are set apart for praise (II Timothy 1:5).

For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. (II Timothy 1:5 NASB)
This verse marks the only time the word “grandmother” appears in the Bible. It is also the only time the names Lois and Eunice emerge in Scripture. Even so, many have found inspiration from their lives. Their names have appeared as commensurate characters in literature. For instance, Lois and Eunice are protagonists in Francine Rivers (b. 1947)’s And The Shofar Blew (2003) and side characters in Kirby Larson (b. 1954)’s The Friendship Doll (2011).

Timothy’s mother is also referenced when he is introduced in the book of Acts (Acts 16:1). Though not named in the passage, she is described as a Jewess and believer though she may have been a lax Jew as she married a Greek (Acts 16:1) and Timothy was uncircumcised (Acts 16:3). As such, her spiritual heritage may have been as much Christian as Jewish.

Paul attributes Timothy’s faith in part to his raising. This is not uncommon. Thomas C. Oden (b. 1931) comments, “Faith can be passed on through families. Religious instruction in the family unit is crucial to the transmission of the Christian tradition (Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 30).”

Centuries of believers have learned tenets of the faith from their families faith. In Timothy’s case, Paul points specifically his grandmother, Lois.

Donald Guthrie (1915-1992) explains:

The use of the word first (prōton) in this context has been supposed to indicate that Lois was a devout Jewess and was the first to inculcate religious faith in Timothy; in other words from his earliest days he had been surrounded by religious faith. Yet if Christian faith is intended, prōton, may mean that Lois was the first to become Christian, followed by Eunice and her son. (Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 137).

What are the biggest lessons your mother and grandmother have taught you? What women have influenced your spiritual journey? Which of your family members has impacted your faith the most?

Paul traces Timothy’s lineage through his maternal line. Conspicuous by his absence is Timothy’s father. He is not referenced in Paul’s letters and when he is mentioned in Acts he is described as a Greek (Acts 16:1). The way the text juxtaposes him with Timothy’s mother implies that he was a nonbeliever. Paul does not allude to him either because he was dead at the time of writing or more likely because he added little to Timothy’s spiritual life.

Paul, himself, stepped, into the vacuum. Raymond F. Collins (b. 1935) writes:

“Paul was Timothy’s father insofar as he had passed the faith along to the absence of any mention of Timothy’s biological father, Paul and Eunice are Timothy’s parents in faith. They shared not only their Jewish ancestry (II Timothy 1:2; Acts 16:2) but also a common Christian faith (see Titus 1:4). (Collins, I &II Timothy and Titus: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 193)

Thankfully, Timothy took after his mother. Edith Deen (1905-1994) praises, “The sublime faith of the mother and grandmother seems to have prepared the son for that greatest of all compliments, which Paul later bestowed when he called him ‘my dearly beloved son (II Timothy 1:2). (Deen, All The Women of the Bible, 238).”

How do you trace your spiritual heritage? How much of your faith is your own and how much is your culture’s or parents’? Whose faith are you enriching? Who are your spiritual sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters?

“Everyone needs to have access both to grandparents and grandchildren in order to be a full human being.” - Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Manna: Day Old Disaster (Exodus 16)

Name the day old bread that was no bargain. Manna (Exodus 16:19-20)

During their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites faced difficulties in meeting basic human needs and typically responded by groaning against their leadership. One such need was that of food and in the face of the limited supplies they cited longing for the wonderful cuisine they ate while enslaved in Egypt (Exodus 16:1-3). God met their need for sustenance through a mysterious substance known as manna (Exodus 16:4).

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. (Exodus 16:4 NASB)
In the Old Testament worldview, dew descended from heaven (Deuteronomy 33:28; Haggai 1:10). As such, manna emerged “from heaven” with the morning dew (Exodus 16:13-14).

Manna was a mystery food, its name literally means “What is it?”. Its modern equivalent might be “whatchamacallit”. As is common when describing divine things, the Biblical writers were left to analogies to describe manna as there was no exact correlate. Manna is characterized as “a fine flake-like thing, fine as the frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:14 NASB) and “like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey” (Exodus 16:31 NASB). Manna was a wonder bread with frosted flakes.

Honey was one of the resources that made the promised land so appealing (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3) and manna can be seen as a foretaste of the Promised Land. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) explains that “describing the manna as ‘like wafers made with honey’ was tantamount to saying that it ‘was the most delicious food imaginable’ (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 384).” The bread from heaven was given to replace the distorted nostalgic view the Israelites had of their Egyptian nourishment (Exodus 16:3).

Some have seen a natural explanation for manna in that sap from a tamarisk tree native to the region that interacts with a lice plant creates a similar product. Though scientific explanations have been supplied, manna possessed the supernatural qualities of always producing the exact amount needed (Exodus 16:17-18) and having twice that amount only on the day before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5, 22). Its name also signifies that the substance was previously unknown.

The gift of manna did come with some responsibility - God capped the manna intake. God was explicit that the Israelites gather only enough for one day with the exception of the day prior to the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5, 16-19). The prohibition was clearly stated and easy to comply with yet it was given in one verse and violated the next (Exodus 16:19-20). The unnamed violators quickly learned the hard way that manna did not have a long shelf life - “it bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:20 NASB).

What modern products have minuscule shelf lives? Was the prohibition against hoarding manna due to the perishable nature of the item or was the food’s character created for the prohibition? Why did God limit the amount of manna one could collect? Why did the people violate this law? Are the answers to the last two questions different?

Some have speculated that one of the reasons for the mandate was to spare the people from the food’s quick degeneration. In this way, it fits with similar food consumption laws (Exodus 12:10, 29:34; Deuteronomy 16:34). As God selected the food, it could have just as easily been a nonperishable item. The fact that manna miraculously endured two days when necessary (Exodus 16:5) indicates that quick decay was not one of manna’s intrinsic properties.

Others have suggested that manna taught the Israelites not to waste or hoard and to be content with subsistence. Others have reminded that the way that God supplied manna required the Israelites to work six days a week and in doing so, no one could eat without working (II Thessalonians 3:10).

Before bestowing manna, God acknowledged that the food would provide a test for the Israelites (Exodus 16:4). In providing manna on a daily basis the Israelites had to trust God for their daily bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3). Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) comments, “Israel was taught that this bread came ‘morning by morning’, in God’s time, according to his plan. It could not be stored ‘just in case...’ If one came too late, it had vanished with the heat of the rising sun (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 289).”

As such, for the Israelites, food and faith were intimately related.

Do you trust God to provide your daily bread? Do you recognize that when you eat, God has provided the meal no less directly than for the Israelites in the wilderness?

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” - Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Jesus Slept (Mark 4:38)

What end of the boat did Jesus sleep in? Stern (Mark 4:38)

The three Synoptic gospels all relay the famous story of Jesus calming the storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). Each gospel presents Jesus sleeping when a treacherous storm hits the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24; Mark 4:38; Luke 8:23).

Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38 NASB)
Jesus’ humanity is on full display when the scene begins as God does not sleep (Psalm 121:3-4). It is significant that Jesus’ humanity is so prevalent when the scene begins because when it ends with him effortlessly calming the storm, his divinity takes center stage (Matthew 8:27; Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25).

As is characteristic of Mark’s gospel, the evangelist provides details that the other accounts omit. In this story, Mark adds that Jesus rested his head on a pillow and that he was positioned in the vessel’s stern (Mark 4:38). C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) remarks, “It suggests the vivid remembrance of an eye-witness (Cranfield, The Gospel According To Saint Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, 173).”

The incident is a rarity as this event marks the only instance where Jesus is said to have slept. Mark 4:38 also marks the only time the word for “cushion” (proskephalaion) appears in the New Testament. The definite article used to describe it indicates that Jesus used the only cushion on board.

Mark also documents Jesus’ location on the boat - he is in the stern, prumna (Mark 4:38; Acts 27:29, 41). In nautical jargon this means he was in the back. Robert E. Picirilli (b. 1932) explains that the stern “in a fishing boat of this type was probably a slightly elevated deck in the rear (Picirilli, The Gospel of Mark (Randall House Bible Commentary), 137).”

Many have seen a strong connection between Jesus’ calming of the storm and the Jonah story, so much so that some have argued that it is a retelling. The detail of Jesus sleeping in the stern has played a role in the discussion. Rudolf Pesch (1936-2011) argued that a Galileean fishing boat would not have a stern and as such the ship in Jonah influenced the gospels. While Robert H. Gundry (b 1932) acknowledged a similar pattern in the two incidents of wind-water-boat (Jonah 1:10, 16; Mark 4:38), he refuted the notion of an exact replica based upon Jesus’ location - “Jesus goes to sleep up in the stern, not down in the hold as Jonah did (Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross: Chapters 1-8, Volume 1, p. 246).

Can you relate to this incident? When have you been exhausted and napped? What do Mark’s added details add to the story?

While Matthew notes simply that “Jesus was sleeping” (Matthew 8:24 NASB) and Luke says that Jesus “fell asleep” (Luke 8:23 NASB), Mark shows that Jesus was intentional about sleeping. He finds an isolated spot and gets comfortable with a pillow. He did not merely doze off like a grandfather at a family gathering.

The Mayo Clinic lists getting comfortable as one of their Sleep Tips: 7 Steps to Better Sleep. They advise:

Create a room that’s ideal for sleeping. Often, this means cool, dark and quiet. Consider using room-darkening shades, earplugs, a fan or other devices to create an environment that suits your needs.

Your mattress and pillow can contribute to better sleep, too. Since the features of good bedding are subjective, choose what feels most comfortable to you. If you share your bed, make sure there’s enough room for two. If you have children or pets, set limits on how often they sleep with you — or insist on separate sleeping quarters.

The details that Mark includes demonstrate that Jesus made time to rest. Do you?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gideon: When Less is More (Judges 7)

Who cut down his army and won a great victory? Gideon (Judges 7:2-8)

During the period of the judges in the 12th century BCE, Midianite raiders attacked Israel from the eastern desert (Judges 6:4). Their advances were made during summer (Judges 6:3), near harvest time, and impoverished Israel (Judges 6:6).

With the nation in peril, Gideon reluctantly agreed to God’s request to lead the Israelites against Midian (Judges 6:11-39). Gideon called in reserve units and Israel rallied around their new commander until God informed Gideon that he had a problem - he had two many soldiers (Judges 7:1). God opted for a less is more strategy.

The army was drastically reduced through two tests (Judges 7:3-7). The first test, comparable to modern psychiatric screening and in accordance with mandates in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 20:1-8), slashed Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 10,000 (Judges 7:3). The second test, a drinking manners test which differentiated between “lappers” and “kneelers”, whittled Gideon’s army down to its final tally of 300 soldiers (Judges 7:5-7). In contrast, the Midianites were as numerous as locusts (Judges 6:5, 7:12).

Fewer numbers being beneficial is counterintuitive. Military historian Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) notes that Gideon intentionally minimized his numbers from the outset. Though the Midianites had camped in Endor, land endowed to the tribe of Issachar, Gideon did not enlist Issachar. Gabriel rationalizes, “Gideon made no attempt to bring Issachar under arms. To do so would have immediately alerted the enemy. Gideon seems to have chosen to forego the additional manpower to preserve the element of surprise in mobilizing his army (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 171).”

Gabriel contends that the small army was simply strategy - “Given Gideon’s plan...the force was too large (Gabriel, 172)”. This is seen particularly in the second test that dwindled his numbers. Though its rationale is not stated many have viewed it not as arbitrary but rather as a means of choosing quality over quantity. Gabriel explains, “Gideon devised an ingenious method of selecting his best warriors for the attack...he watched the hot and thirsty soldiers drink their fill. He then chose his best soldiers...Gideon chose only the men “that lapped putting their hand to their mouth,” that is, the men who drank silently and remained vigilant with their weapons at the ready (Gabriel, 172).” As such, at the rest stop, 9700 were discharged leaving only an elite force of seasoned warriors prepared for battle.

Whatever Gideon’s reasons for preferring the smaller unit, he used his 300 wisely. He divided his soldiers into three companies (Judges 7:16), attacked at midnight which concealed the small size of his force (Judges 7:19), confused and scattered the enemy into attacking one another (Judges 7:19-20) and forced them to retreat into a convoy of waiting Israelites (Judges 7:23). Gideon ultimately executed two Midianites kings (Judges 7:24-25).

How would you have reduced Gideon’s army? When is a smaller force advantageous? Why do you think God reduced the size of Gideon’s army?

While Gideon’s smaller army was effective, a strategic explanation does not fit the theme of the text. Five separate references are made to God’s promise to save Israel through Gideon (Judges 6:36, 7:2, 7, 9, 14-15). Joseph R. Jeter (b. 1943) contends, “The story of Gideon’s victory over the Midianites is less about the battle than it is about who is to get credit for the victory (Jeter, Preaching Judges, 78-79).” God’s reduction of the army’s numbers leaves no doubts as to who won the battle. This is evident from the text’s outset:

The LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’” (Judges 7:2 NASB)
Susan Niditch (b. 1950) explains, “The outcome of the battle depends not on Israelite expertise, but upon the prowess and goodwill of the divine warrior, protector of Israel. The fewer the number of human soldiers, the greater the victory of God (Niditch, Judges: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 97).” As such, the story of Gideon is really a story about the sovereignty of God.

Are there any areas of your life where it would serve you well to incorporate a less is more approach? Where do you need to become less so that God can become greater (John 3:30)? Has God’s power ever been perfected in your weakness (II Corinthians 12:9)?

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was give life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for—but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.
- The Prayer of an Unknown Confederate Soldier

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Israel’s Ouija Board? (Leviticus 8:8)

Who wore the Urim and Thummin? The high priest (Leviticus 8:8)

Among the description of the high priest’s vestments are esoteric items called the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:27; Deuteronomy 33:8; I Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65). Stored in the high priest’s breastplate, these two items, presumably stones, were a means of revelation in ancient Israel that could be labeled divination or more specifically, cleromancy.

You shall put in the breastpiece of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD; and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually. (Exodus 28:30 NASB)
In all major translations, even paraphrases like The Message, Urim and Thummim are left untranslated. They were unique items with no exact modern equivalent. Little is said of the Urim and Thummim and no description is provided. This indicates that either its properties were assumed or unknown even by the Biblical writers. Peter Enns (b. 1961) surmises that “the Urim and Thummim must have predated Moses. The people must have known what they were and how they were to be used, since they simply appear...without any explanation (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 531).”

Though their etymology is uncertain, based upon their consonantal roots, Urim and Thummim have traditionally been understood as lights and perfections. In cases of guilt or innocence, Urim would represent guilt and Thummim innocense. Though they represent two separate words, they have a singular distinct meaning as one’s meaning is attached to the other, like a yin-yang. A yin can only be a yin if there is an equivalent yang.

It has been speculated that the Urim and Thummim were a divinely authorized game of chance which utilized a binary system. The phenomena would equate to a divinely endorsed coin flip. It would also function much like a Magic 8 Ball with the priest formulating questions whose answers would be limited to a scripted number of responses. An incident in which Jonathan is exposed for violating his father’s foolish oath is seen as a case study of the Urim and Thummim (I Samuel 14:40-42). Though the Urim and Thummim are not mentioned by name in the text, a binary system using stones was implemented to reduce suspects.

An alternate theory from Talmudic rabbis and corroborated by Josephus (37-100) follows the belief that Urim meant lights. This theory espouses that rays of light reflected off jewels on the breastplate, each corresponding to different letters. The sequence would spell out an answer like a modern-day Ouija board.

Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) summarizes, “We have no indication from biblical material that allows us to sort among these options and understand what the Urim and Thummim looked like and how they were employed physically. What we do know is that God sometimes chose to reveal his will in this manner rather than speaking directly to the people (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 612).”

How do you determine God’s will when you do not know it? What is the modern equivalent of the Urim and Thummim? Have you ever used a game of chance to make a decision? What are the limitations of such a system?

Any binary system limits God’s options to those inputted by a human. A human’s options could all be inappropriate - “Should I murder person A or person B?” The system is only as good as the person inputting questions which may be why only the high priest was equipped with the objects.

Despite being an officially licensed product for determining God’s will, the Urim and Thummim are seldom mentioned in the Bible. Though they are referenced seven times (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:27; Deuteronomy 33:8; I Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65), there is no explicit Biblical instance where the Urim and Thummim were used to determine God’s will. They are like the bat repellant in Batman’s utility belt - it is at his disposal but it is almost never used. It appears functionally, the Urim and Thummim were ornamental in nature.

Why do you think the Urim and Thummim were used so infrequently? Were they perceived as a last alternative resort, an act of desperation?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Foolish Heart (Psalm 14:1)

What did the fool say in his heart? There is no God (Psalm 14:1)

Psalm 14 is an individual song of lament. It is repeated almost verbatim in Psalm 53 (Psalm 53:1-6) and Paul quotes the Psalm prominently in Romans (Romans 3:13-18). The song encourages the righteous in the face of prevalent wickedness. It famously begins by empathizing with God over humanity’s corruption:

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. (Psalm 14:1 NASB)
The two words “there is” are supplied by translators and are not in the Hebrew text. The verse literally reads “The fool has said in his heart, ‘No God.’”

The psalmist asserts that the atheist is a fool, (Hebrew: nabal). James Luther Mays (b. 1921) explains, “In the society that this psalm describes...nabal does not mean things like dumb, inept, silly, clown, buffoon. Rather the term designates a person who decides and acts on the basis of the wrong assumption (Mays, Psalms (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) , 81).” Psalms is part of the wisdom literature and to a book espousing wisdom there is little worse one could be than a “fool”.

In contrast, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). Wisdom begins and ends with a belief in God. The Bible does not set out to prove God’s existence, it operates under the assumption of it. When the Bible begins, God exists (Genesis 1:1).

Despite being deemed foolish by the Bible, atheism occurs. A 2009 study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that 1.6% of Americans self identify as atheist. Many atheists are far from whom the world would deem foolish. In the last century, A.J. Ayer (1910–1989), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Albert Camus (1913–1960), Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Ayn Rand (1905–1982), Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) are just a few of the renowned philosophers who were also avowed atheists. By the Bible’s standards, these people were fools.

In your opinion, what is the most foolish thing a person can believe? Why? Is God’s existence self evident? If so, why are there so many atheists?

While the psalmist would no doubt object to the intellectual atheist, that is not what is referenced in this hymn. The song references those who make a claim in their hearts, not with their minds or lips. It is about those who profess to be believers, but whose actions (an extension of true belief) show otherwise. The song refers not to the intellectual atheist who denies the existence of God, but to the practical atheist who lives as if there were no God. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) writes, “In its main theme the psalm is a statement about ‘practical atheism.’ It reflects on one whose conduct is disordered and without focus, because it is not referred to God (Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, 44).”

“Fool” describes everyone who has no place for God. It is not that the fool does not believe in God but rather that for the fool, God is unnecessary. John H. Eaton (b. 1927) expounds, “The ‘fool’ is everywhere – prominent persons, of hard and ruthless disposition, who act continually as though they were their own sufficient god; that they ‘say in their heart...’ means that in practice this is how they behave, irrespective of what they profess (Eaton, Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation, 93).”

The Psalmist is not lamenting the intellectual atheist but the practical one. The song mourns not for the intellectuals but for the common people. People like us.

Do you profess a belief in God? Do your attitudes reflect that belief? Is God the reference point in your life? Which is preferable, being an avowed atheist or a professing believer who behaves as if God did not exist?

“The Bible says radical things about the stream of consciousness that talks inside us: ‘Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the days’ (Genesis 6:5); ‘All his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 10:4). This does not only refer to vile lifestyles. It includes the everyday ways our minds operate without reference to God. Functional atheism is our most natural state of mind.” - David Powlison (b. 1950), Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community, 17-18

Monday, November 28, 2011

Aaron’s Magic Rod (Numbers 17:8)

Whose shepherd’s rod grew buds? Aaron’s

After disciplining Korah for leading a rebellion challenging Israel’s leadership (Numbers 16:1-50), God reiterated his decision for the Levites to inherit the priesthood by holding an open casting call (Numbers 17:1-5). Each of Israel’s twelve tribes submitted a personalized rod to be housed over night in the tent of meeting. The location is significant because it was “where I [God] meet with you” (Numbers 17:4 NASB). God would be making the decision as to who would lead the people and the tribe whose rod bloomed would guide the priesthood (Numbers 17:2-5).

In Israel, the rod was much more than a walking stick. It was a symbol of power and authority (Psalm 2:9, 89:32; Isaiah 10:24, 11:4; Ezekiel 20:37). Leaders would even take oaths by means of their staffs. In fact, in Hebrew the word for “staff” (matteh) is the same as “tribe” as a tribe’s chief would lead via the staff.

At God’s invitation, Aaron donated his rod to the cause and it was selected (Numbers 17:3, 8).

Now on the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. (Numbers 17:8 NASB)
Specifically, the rod bloomed with buds, blossoms and almonds (Numbers 17:8). Timothy R. Ashley (b. 1947) comments that “the text describes the stages of growth of the plant. It is not clear whether it means all these stages were present simultaneously on the rod or only that the rod went through these stages, but the former is not impossible (Ashley, The Book of Numbers (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 335).”

Regardless of how the buds developed, they were a miracle. Life sprung forth out of death. In the Iliad, an enraged Achilles swears an oath against Agamemnon exclaiming:

“But I will speak out to you, and will swear thereto a mighty oath: by this staff, that shall never more put forth leaves or shoots since first it left its stump among the mountains, nor shall it again grow green, for the bronze has stripped it on all sides of leaves and bark, and now the sons of the Achaeans carry it in their hands when they act as judges, those who guard the ordinances that come from Zeus; and this shall be for you a mighty oath (Homer [800-701 BCE] & A.T. Murray [1866-1940], Iliad, Book I, 233.)”
Achilles makes an oath with a rod claiming that he will go back on his word when the staff blossoms, which to him was an impossibility. It was an ancient equivalent of “when pigs fly”. Yet in the case of Aaron’s rod, pigs did fly.

After the rod blossomed, Moses had each tribe’s representative withdraw their rod, save for Aaron’s whose was put back in the place of testimony (Numbers 17:9-11). As the heads of each tribe retrieved their own staffs, they were witness to the affirmation of Aaron’s leadership. God had intentionally drawn Aaron’s straw. The blooming staff was a tangible sign of Aaron’s selection and was preserved as such. Hebrews states that the budding rod was even one of the contents of the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrews 9:4). The preserved rod was to serve as a preventive measure against further rebellion.

When has your authority been validated? Have you ever felt chosen by God? Why was a blossoming rod an appropriate sign in this situation? What sign would you have given to select the priesthood? Did Moses reimburse Aaron for the rod? Did the rod choose the owner or the owner the rod (a very bad Harry Potter reference)?

Throughout the ordeal, Aaron never defended his own honor and left the response to God.

Aaron’s rod had previously demonstrated miraculous powers by transforming into a serpent and swallowing all of Pharaoh’s magicians’s rods who coincidentally had also transformed into serpents (Exodus 7:8-12). Interestingly, both times Aaron’s rod performed supernatural feats, he was not holding it. Perhaps he had to let go of it for it to do its job.

In what areas of your life do you need to “let go and let God”?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niehbuhr (1892-1971), “The Serenity Prayer”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Let Justice Roll Down (Amos 5:24)

Complete: “Let justice roll down like waters, and ________________________________________.” Righteousness like an everflowing stream [or mighty stream] (Amos 5:24)

Amos prophesied in the eighth century before Christ during the reign of Jeroboam II (II Kings 13:13, 14:16, 23, 27, 28, 29, 15:1, 8; 1 Chronicles 5:17; Hosea 1:1; Amos 1:1, 7:9, 10). One of Amos’ major themes is social justice. Even though he categorizes Israel as being unjust, he readily admits that the people have maintained an outward appearance of worship.

Amos argues against such ritualistic religion. In discussing the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-27), Amos informs his audience that God will not accept worship from a community that does not value justice and righteousness (Amos 5:21-23). After stating what God does not want but is receiving, Amos erupts with what God does want but is not receiving:

“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24 NASB)
Amos 5:24 has become a well know exhortation. Thomas J. Finley (b. 1945) lauds, “In one masterful stroke Amos summarizes the heart of what God requires (Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah - An Exegetical Commentary, 222).”

Amos, a shepherd in his former life (Amos 1:1, 7:14), drew upon imagery he knew well - the importance of water. The prophet often draws upon the calamity of drought to illustrate his points (Amos1:2, 4:7-8, 7:4). While desert streams would often dry up Amos, like Psalms and Ezekiel (Psalms 74:15; Ezekiel 47:1-12), pictures an ever flowing stream.

Amos’s famous claim that God rejects hollow worship is a bold reiteration of Amos 5:14-15 and echoes Isaiah 1:10-17. James Luther Mays (b. 1921) summarizes: “The hatred of Yahweh against the worship of his people–that is the shock of this word. Righteousness in the courts and markets instead of liturgies and offerings in the shrines–that is the Revelation in this word (Mays, Amos: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 106).”

Simply put, God does not want worship from an unjust people. Thomas Edward McComiskey (1928-1996) reminds that God “wants worship in spirit and in truth. True worshipers of the Lord, who do worship in spirit and in truth, will bear the fruit of the Spirit in their private lives and in their public conduct. In their society, justice will flow like healing waters (Ezekiel 47:1-12) and righteousness like a perennial wadi (McComiskey, The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, 432).”

Do you behave differently in church than you do in society? What is the relationship between righteousness and justice? How do your religious beliefs directly help the most poor and needy in your community?

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), a Baptist preacher by trade, alluded to this passage in his legendary “I Have A Dream Speech”. On August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King called for racial equality and an end to discrimination. In the speech’s tenth stanza, King exclaimed, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Did Dr. King use Amos 5:24 properly? What groups now are as deprived of justice as African-Americans were in 1963? How is your religion helping to eliminate that injustice?