Friday, September 2, 2011

Lydia: Purple Peddler (Acts 16:14)

What was Lydia’s occupation? Seller of purple goods (Acts 16:14).

On his second missionary journey, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to work there and he and his companions set out immediately (Acts 16:9-10). Ironically (considering his vision), when Paul arrived in Philippi, the Macedonian capitol, he found neither men to preach to nor synagogue to preach in so he began preaching to women by a riverside (Acts 16:12-13). Among the congregation was a woman who responded to the message named Lydia, a resident of Thyatira and “dealer in purple cloth” (Acts 16:14 NASB). She insisted that Paul and his associates stay at her home and they did until they departed the region (Acts 16:15, 40). This peddler of purple is considered the first Christian convert in Europe (Acts 16:14-15).

Lydia was a self sufficient woman. Strikingly, no husband or father is used in identifying her. She was a working woman who evidently possessed an independent spirit as she fearlessly sought a religion outside the established pagan brand of the empire.

She had a unique occupation. She is described as a porphuropolis, the only time this word appears in the New Testament. It is feminine and a compound of porphura (the purple fish, a species of shell fish or mussel ) and poleo (“to barter, to sell”). While most translations add the word “cloth” (CEV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV) or “goods” (ESV, RSV), the ASV, KJV and NKJV stick closely to the Greek and read simply that she was a “seller of purple”.

What is the significance of Lydia selling purple? If you had to put into one word what you sell, what would it be? What color do you most associate with yourself?

Lydia was in a lucrative business. Though dye extraction is no longer a viable commercial venture as modern dyes are synthetic, in Lydia’s time they were natural and purple was especially expensive. Purple was a commodity and status symbol as the costly fabric was reserved for the elite. Only the emperor wore a toga made entirely of purple cloth. The luxury item was also big business.

Purple dye was expensive because of the difficulty in extracting it. Thousands of mollusks were required to dye a single yard. Purple dye was derived from the mucus of the hypobranchial gland of the Murex shellfish. This snail was especially prominent in Lydia’s home town of Thyatira (Acts 16:14; Revelation 1:11, 2:18, 24), a city 250 miles southeast of Philippi in the Roman province of Asia (modern day Akhisar, Turkey). Murex produces a deep blue violet dye that, unlike others, is colorfast and permits the washing of garments.

This celebrated purple dye is cited in texts dating as early as 1600 BCE. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Pliny the Elder (23-79) document that snails were gathered in autumn or winter and kept alive until a huge quantity had been collected as each shell produced only a single drop of dye. The dye was extracted by crushing smaller shells and piercing larger ones. The milky fluid was then put into brine where vinegar was added and was then left in the sun until the color gradually transformed from a yellowish hue to a deep purplish red. It was then boiled down to further concentrate it. It took approximately 12,000 shellfish to extract 1½ grams of pure dye. One gram of purple dye was valued more than ten grams of gold and a pound of wool dyed with a favored purple could be sold for 1,000 denarii, a sum that would take a laborer three years to earn. A whole cloak of such material might cost three times that amount.

Lydia’s involvement in this business explains how she had the resources to host Paul and his companions during their lengthy stay (Acts 16:15, 40). Lydia and Paul met on a riverside at a “place of prayer” which appears to have been a space or enclosure in the open air consecrated for this purpose, not an edifice (Acts 16:13-14). Lydia challenged Paul to have faith in her: “If you consider me a believer in the Lord ...come and stay at my house (Acts 16:15, NASB).” Paul trusted Lydia and her home provided a structure where the Philippian church could meet. Even while Paul was imprisoned, she did not abandon him (Acts 16:22-40).

Why did Lydia open her home to Paul and his companions? How can your home be used to serve Christ?

“I read somewhere, in an article on monastic spirituality, that only people who are basically at home, and at home in themselves, can offer hospitality.” - Kathleen Norris (b. 1947), Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, p. 267

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Spare Rib or Better Half? (Genesis 2:22)

From what did God create woman? Out of the rib of Adam (Genesis 2:22).

The creation of woman is one of the most well known Bible stories. After generating Adam in the Garden of Eden, God observed that “it is not good for the man to be alone” and vowed to produce a suitable partner (Genesis 2:18 NASB). After unsuccessfully finding a companion amongst the animal kingdom, God anaesthetized Adam and fashioned a woman from one of his ribs (Genesis 2:20-22). Adam was ecstatic with the results and erupted with the first recorded poetry (Genesis 2:23). The woman was later named Eve (which means “life”) as “she was the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20 NASB).

A false myth derived from this story that men have one fewer rib than women. In fact, all humans have 24 ribs as anyone who has a body part surgically removed will not pass that trait onto their offspring.

Of all the body parts, why was a rib used in making the woman? Which part of Adam’s anatomy would you have preferred for this function?

The Bible does not say why God selected the rib but it has served for some humorous speculation. Why did God use the rib? Responses have included: Because it was the only thing that was “spare”. God offered Adam a better companion, but it was going to cost him an arm and a leg. At least she was not pulled out of his butt. This text has also been used in the battle of the sexes as women have bragged that they were not made from dirt and bitter men have said that the moral of the story is that women have been stealing from men since the dawn of time.

In more serious conjecturing, some have seen the rib as a pragmatic choice as it is something Adam could live without. Ribs are also the only bones in the body capable of regeneration if removed, so long as the periosteum (the membrane of connective tissue that surrounds the bone) is left intact. In one study, rib material was used in skull reconstruction and all twelve patients demonstrated complete regeneration of the removed rib. Human rib bone marrow mononuclear cells are also useful in genetic testing and (theoretically) genetic engineering.

Some have taken a sentimental view of the rib. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) wrote, “Woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”

Others have seen the rib as tied to Sumerian mythology which tells of a consortium of gods who were transforming the land of Dilmun into a paradise until Enki (the water god) snacked on a forbidden plant. This prompted Ninhursag (the earth goddess) to curse Enki causing eight of his vitals to fail. Eventually, Ninhursag relented but needed to create eight new deities to heal each of Enki’s ailments. On the surface, the myth bares little resemblance to the tale of Adam and Eve aside from paradise being lost from eating forbidden fruit. The connection is in the names. The Hebrew name “Eve” is related to the verb “make live” and in Sumerian, the word for “make live” is ti which is also the Sumerian word for “rib”. Thus, the name of the goddess created to cure Enki’s rib, “Nin-Ti”, is a Sumerian pun, meaning both “The Lady of the Rib” and “The Lady Who Makes Live”.

Some scholars are not convinced that Genesis speaks of a rib. As Biblical Hebrew has no term for penis, it has been speculated that the “rib” which created the woman references the baculum, a bone which stiffens the penis. It would explain why humans are one of only two primates who lack a baculum, relying instead on hydraulics. A baculum, unlike a rib, is associated with reproduction. In this interpretation, when God “closed up the flesh at that place”(Genesis 2:21 NASB) the text is alluding to the raphe, a seam on the penis and scrotum.

Virtually every modern translation states that the first woman was created from man’s “rib” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). It can be argued, however, that “rib” is not the best translation of the Hebrew tsela’. This word is used 41 times in the Old Testament and it is only translated “rib” in relation to the creation story (Genesis 2:21-22). The only other time ribs appear in the Old Testament is in Daniel where the Aramiac ’ala’ is used (Daniel 7:5). Tsela’ is most commonly translated “side”. While the modern English word “rib” denotes a single bone in the upper torso, the Hebrew implies a far broader surgical focus that required greater sacrifice on Adam’s part. This view is seen in the Artscroll Torah, The Stone Edition which reads “...and He took one of his sides and He filled in the flesh in its place.”

Though the tradition of woman coming from man’s rib is longstanding it may not be original. Philo (20 BCE-50 CE) wrote “The letter of this statement is plain enough; for it is expressed according to the symbol of the part, a half of the whole, each party, the man and the woman, being as sections of nature co-equal for the production of that genus which is called man (Philo, The Works Of Philo, p. 796).”

If God took one “side” of Adam to make Eve, it could be said that God split Adam to make Eve, giving new meaning to the expression “my better half”. The words “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh” would also take on new significance (Genesis 2:23). God dividing Adam in half to create a woman for him is a much more powerful symbol than merely taking a small bone out of his side. It creates far more equal imagery. In this scenario, the woman quite literally completes the man.

God did not make woman separate from man by forming her from dust. In creating woman from a part of the man, an immediate connection was also created. She was not another of God’s creatures that just happened to be paired with Adam. She was custom built to act as Adam’s partner. Rabbi Berlin (1816-1893) comments: “Only ‘this time’ is it so, since she is a ‘bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh’; [here, Adam’s love for Eve] is like a person who loves his own hand.”

How one reads this text is critical as it is foundational to the relationship between men and women (I Timothy 2:13-14) and affects one’s interpretation of marriage. Critics see the passage as serving to keep women in a subservient position. Others see the story as a beautiful picture of the marriage partnership (Ephesians 5:28-30).

Woman was created last. Does this make woman the crown of creation or subservient to man? What do you think the story of the creation of woman says about the relationship between men and women? What is the relationship between men and women?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pursuing Perfection (Matthew 5:48)

Complete: “Be ye perfect as your ________________ is perfect.” Father in heaven (Matthew 5:48).

After advising his followers to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love one’s enemies and even pray for them (Matthew 5:38-47), Jesus raised the bar even further. He concluded this section of his acclaimed Sermon on the Mount by disqualifying all human standards of conduct - “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48 KJV).

Almost every major translation renders the Greek teleios as “perfect” (ASV, ESV, HCSN, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) in Matthew 5:48. (The CEV and MSG omit the word.) Teleios can mean: 1. brought to its end, finished; 2. wanting nothing necessary; to completeness; 3. perfect; 4. that which is perfect. It conveys something that has completed its objective and carries with it the idea of being whole. Anything that has fully attained that for which it was designed is said to be “perfect” (teleios).

Jesus added the unnecessary pronoun “you” (humeis) to this statement, making it emphatic (Matthew 5:48). In doing so, Jesus forcefully established the highest standard possible for his followers: perfection. Many have commented that Jesus did not create a new requirement as God’s standard has always been perfect holiness (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, 20:26; I Peter 1:15-16). John MacArthur (b. 1939) writes, “It is folly to think that being imperfect somehow provides us with a legitimate excuse to exempt us from God’s perfect standard (MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience, 126).”

As Jesus himself was sinless (John 8:46; Hebrews 4:15), he is the only human being who has ever been in a position to make this command. Even so, human beings are not perfect. Does Jesus command the impossible? How can one fulfill this wish? What would the perfect version of you look like?

Jesus’ words do not necessarily represent a command. The Greek can be read in the future tense - “You will be perfect”. In Greek, the future tense is the same as the imperative (a command) as in each case, a sigma infix is added to the middle of the verb. (In modern English, it is like adding an S to the middle of a verb and is not much different than what Snoop Dogg [b. 1971] does in adding -izzle to words.) The ASV, NKJV, and NLT render the verse in the future tense -“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48 NKJV).”

This reading also complies with the meaning of teleios, which was also used to refer to the maturity of an adult, which is the end to which a child aims. A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) explains that teleios “comes from telos, end, goal, limit. Here it is the goal set before us, the absolute standard of our Heavenly Father (Robertson, Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. I, 49).”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) devotes a chapter of Mere Christianity to Matthew 5:48 entitled “Counting the Cost” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 201-206). He summarizes the issue:

I find a good many people have been bothered by…our Lord’s words “Be ye perfect.” Some people seem to think this means “Unless you are perfect, I will not help you,”; and as we cannot be perfect, then if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant “The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less; but I will give you nothing less (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 201).”
Humans were created to be perfect. Seeing perfection as our destiny instead of merely a command moves the tone of the text from demanding to encouraging. We are a work in progress and, with God’s assistance, the work we are working towards is perfection.

James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) explains that to achieve this goal of perfection “you must turn away from your own efforts completely and receive instead the perfection which God has already taken steps to provide for you. Nothing that you will ever do will be perfect. Only what God does is perfect. Hence, if you are to reach the perfection which God requires, it must be as the result of His working for you and in you (Boice, Sermon on the Mount, 170-171).

The key is that we move towards and not away from perfection. Lewis encourages, “This is the other and equally important side of it—this Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 202).”

Perfection is the standard. Direction is the test. Are you moving towards perfection?

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” - Anne Lamott (b. 1954), Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p. 28

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Perfect Crime? (Genesis 37:31)

Whose coat was dipped in blood? Joseph’s (Genesis 37:31).

Jacob bestowed a special garment to his son, Joseph, which represented his status as the favorite (Genesis 37:3). The coat served to increase hostility between Jacob and his ten elder stepbrothers who were already peeved that he was a tattletale who bragged of grandiose dreams (Genesis 37:2, 4, 8, 11, 20). Their hatred led the stepbrothers to hatch a plot to eliminate Joseph (Genesis 37:18-36). Their initial plan was for Joseph to be murdered, thrown into a pit and the brothers to claim he had been devoured by a beast (Genesis 37:20). Eldest brother, Reuben, intervened on the seventeen year old’s behalf and convinced his brothers that violence was unnecessary and that abandoning him in a chasm would be sufficient (Genesis 37:21-22). Reuben planned to retrieve Joseph from the shaft but while his brothers ate as if nothing was wrong, Judah saw a band of traveling Ishmaelites and motioned to sell Joseph to them (Genesis 37:25-28). Reuben’s rescue was foiled and Joseph was sold into slavery.

As is so often the case, one sin led to another. A problem remained - what were they going to tell dad? The brothers had eliminated Joseph but needed to invalidate the possibility of his return in their father’s mind. There could be no search parties. The brothers engaged in a sophomoric cover up as they slaughtered a goat and covered Joseph’s unmistakable tunic in the goat’s blood (Genesis 37:31). The Targum of Jonathan and Jarchi conjectures that they selected a goat as its blood was most like human blood. They then presented the cloak to their father and careful not to lie, allowed him to make his own conclusions about the fate of his favored son (Genesis 37:32). They inform their father, “We found this; please examine it to see whether it is your son’s tunic or not (Genesis 37:32 NASB).” Even in asking Jacob to identify the tunic, they distance themselves from the scenario by referring to Joseph as “your son” as opposed to “our brother” (Genesis 37:32). The message accompanying the cloak is blunt. There is no compassion nor any attempt to soften the blow.

It is Jacob’s verdict that Joseph was devoured by a ferocious animal, not the brothers (Genesis 37:33). Jacob collapsed under the weight of his bereavement (Genesis 37:34-35). Had the father controlled his grief he might have found it suspicious that the cloak was stained though not torn, but holding Joseph’s bloody garment in his hands, it never occurred to him that his sons were deceiving him just as he had deceived his father (Genesis 27:1-29). Jacob’s giving of the cloak had caused the brothers pain and their giving it to Jacob caused him more. This cruelty demonstrates that the brothers’ contempt was not directed only towards the favored son but also towards the father who favored him.

Did the brothers need to strip Joseph of the tunic? What other “proof” could they have collected? Do you think the destruction of the coat was convenient or did they take pleasure in it? Is it any wonder that Jacob preferred Joseph?

The special coat given by Jacob to his beloved son, Joseph, became the object of the brothers’ hatred, the symbol of their animosity. It was not by chance that their plot included the permanent staining and intentional soiling it of the tunic. It must have been cathartic for the brothers to destroy the garment.

Although Joseph’s coat is mentioned only in Genesis 37, it has become his personal icon (Genesis 37:3, 23, 31, 32, 33). It represents him and in this story quite literally, the clothes made the man. As the cloak caused him so much pain, some scholars have made an acronym of the Hebrew adjective pasim used to describe the coat with the letters corresponding to those who bought him as a slave: Potiphar (Genesis 37:36, 39:1-23), traders (Sokharim, Genesis 37:28), Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:25-28), Midianites (Genesis 37:28, 36).

The Hebrew used to describe the coat is k’tonet pasim. Though the story will forever be branded by the King James Version’s “coat of many colours” (ASV, KJV), the garment has been translated as a “long robe with sleeves” (RSV, NRSV), “robe of many colors” (ESV, HCSB), “tunic of many colors” (NKJV), “varicolored tunic” (NASB), “elaborately embroidered coat” (MSG), “ornate robe” (NIV), “beautiful robe” (NLT), and “fancy coat” (CEV). The only other time this exact Hebrew wording is used describes the garb of a royal princess also in the context of strife amongst siblings (II Samuel 13:18). The first time the word k’tonet (“tunic”) is used is at the dawn of history to describe the clothes God made Adam and Eve following their eating of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:21). There is a tradition that these garments were one and the same, handed down from Adam eventually to Esau, where they were used by Jacob to procure the blessing from his father. The specific history and features of the garment are not as significant as the favoritism is represented.

Claus Westermann (1909-2000) wrote, “Every act of murder seeks to eliminate not only a human being, but also some sort of impediment in the murderer’s path, and most murder motives tend to be based on jealousy or covetousness.” (Westermann, Joseph: studies of the Joseph stories in Genesis, 13). In discarding Joseph, the brothers eliminated a rival to their father’s love and also destroyed the symbol of his priority.

Amazingly, they appear to have gotten away with the crime! Nowhere in Genesis is it claimed that Jacob ever found out what actually happened and they never suffered any tangible consequences for selling their brother into slavery. Though the brothers assume Jacob knew (Genesis 50:17), Jacob makes no mention of this transgression in his final blessings of his sons (Genesis 49:1-27). Had he known, Jacob would no doubt have mentioned the fact in these last words. Even so, it must have been difficult to have such a skeleton in the family closet. As seen by the brothers’ fear after their father’s death, the action (and fear of reprisal) was always with them (Genesis 50:15-20).

Which of the brothers’ actions was crueler - selling Joseph or deceiving Jacob? What is the biggest skeleton in your family’s closet? How does it affect you? God is not even hinted at in Genesis 37. Where was God when these events transpired?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Asa & Mary Baker Eddy (I Kings 15:24)

Who was Jehoshaphat’s father? King Asa.

Jehoshaphat’s father, Asa, was king of Judah (I Kings 15:8-24; II Chronicles 14:1-16:14). The civil war that divided Israel into Judah (south) and Israel (north) was the result of the unreasonableness of Asa’s grandfather, Rehoboam (I Kings 12:1-20). As such, Asa was the third king of Judah.

Asa is one of the few kings of the divided monarchy that receives a favorable review in the Biblical text (I Kings 15:11, 14; II Chronicles 14:2). He reigned for 41 years (II Chronicles 16:13). Spiritually, he reinforced strict national observance of Judaism (II Chronicles 14:3-5; 15:8-15) and even removed his own mother (possibly grandmother), Maacah, for heathenism (I Kings 15:13; II Chronicles 15:16). Politically, Asa stopped a large scale invasion by the Egyptian-backed chieftain Zerah the Ethiopian (II Chronicles 14:9-15) and outbid Baasha, king of Israel, to secure a treaty with Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, to thwart Baasha’s advance on his capitol (I Kings 15:16-22; II Chronicles 16:1-6).

Were someone to summarize your life as the book of Kings did Asa’s, what accomplishments would be listed? What failures? If your mother were sinning (hypothetically, I do not mean to talk about anybody’s mama) would you correct her?

Though Kings chronicles only one criticism of Asa, Chronicles relays three. Each book notes that the high places were not removed during Asa’s administration but both quickly add comments lauding the king’s heart (I Kings 15:14; II Chronicles 15:17). Chronicles adds two opprobriums, both questioning Asa’s total reliance upon God late in his life. The seer Hanani accused the ruler of being overly dependent on his alliance with Aram and Asa imprisoned the prophet in response (II Chronicles 16:7-10). Finally, though both Kings and Chronicles record an anticlimactic foot ailment incurred during his last days (I Kings 15:23; II Chronicles 16:12), Chronicles adds the censure, “His disease was severe, yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but the physicians (II Chronicles 16:12 NASB)”. Ironically, Asa’s name means “healer” or “physician” in Hebrew.

Some religious groups, most famously Christian Science, have used this latter disparagement as a proof text to reject worldly medicine even during a severe illness. Despite being married to a man named Asa, the case of the Biblical Asa is not found in founder Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)’s opus Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. He was, however, written about in the publication she founded, The Christian Science Journal. In 1910, Silas Cobb wrote, “there is no record that God or Jesus Christ made use of any material remedy to cure disease; but it is recorded that king Asa ‘slept with his fathers,’ after trying drugs to heal him; which would seem to indicate that it was wrong (The Christian Science Journal,Vol. 28, No. 3, June, 1910).”

Asa is criticized for not seeking the Lord first, not for consulting physicians. It is not an either/or proposition. A physician can be the hands of God in a given situation. Both the Old and New Testaments record servants of God recommending medication. Isaiah the prophet used a “cake of figs” to heal a boil (II Kings 20:7 NASB) and Paul prescribed Timothy “a little wine” to treat a stomach ailment (I Timothy. 5:23 NASB).

Do you believe that God still cures illnesses? Why did Asa, who was devoted to God, not seek divine assistance in this instance? When you get ill, do you pray? What if you deem the illness to be insignificant? Why was this anticlimactic detail included in Asa’s life summary?

Perhaps it was recorded to remind that Asa could not jump like his son Jehoshaphat...