Friday, September 23, 2011

Something For Nothing (I Chronicles 21:15)

Where did David see an angel with an unsheathed sword? By the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (I Chronicles 21:15)

Shortly after a pestilence in Jerusalem resulted in the deaths of 70,000 Israelites (I Chronicles 21:15), David saw an angel suspended over the city with its sword drawn ready to strike (I Chronicles 21:15-16). David successfully interceded for the people and God, through the priest Gad, instructed David to purchase the land beneath the angel to build an altar (I Chronicles 21:17-18). The land was the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, known in II Samuel as Araunah (II Samuel 24:16; I Chronicles 21:15).

The Jebusites were to Jerusalem what Native Americans are to the United States - they were the previous occupants prior to David taking the city (II Samuel 5:6-9). Evidently, David respected their property rights as he did not displace them, or as in the case of Ornan, exercise eminent domain when he wanted their property.

When Ornan realized the king desired his holdings, Ornan offered not only his land but also the implements needed for the offering (I Chronicles 21:23). David insisted he purchase the land stating, “I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the LORD, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing (I Chronicles 21:24 NASB).”

According to Samuel, David paid 50 silver shekels (II Samuel 24:24) while Chronicles names the selling price as 600 gold shekels (I Chronicles 21:25). The discrepancy has been explained by claiming that Samuel names the price for only the threshing floor while Chronicles adds the entire property and/or the materials for the sacrifice. Some Rabbinical sources reconcile the discrepancy by suggesting that David collected 50 silver shekels from all 12 tribes (600 total) and that the amount equated with 50 gold shekels (The Talmud on Zevahim 116b).

From either account, it is clear that David paid Ornan more than fair market value as he procured the land as God had instructed (I Chronicles 21:25). This land purchase would prove highly significant as Ornan’s threshing floor would be the future site of the temple (II Chronicles 3:1). As such, the land for the temple had been secured without bloodshed and the location had been selected by God.

What are some of the most important land acquisitions in history? Have you ever purchased a lot to build a house? Can the story of Ornan be used as a Biblical case study regarding eminent domain?

David’s eagerness to pay for the land and not simply take it demonstrates that he understood sacrifice. The king was correct to pay for Ornan’s land and not impose his will on his subject. Still, David’s claim accentuates how difficult it is to accept something one feels they have not deserved. As Americans say, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

This is worth remembering as Christianity is predicated upon accepting grace. As David illustrates, it is our inclination to want to feel as though we have earned what we have. The grace of Christ is not something that can be merited. Consequently, grace is often difficult to accept.

Have you accepted grace? Why? Why not?

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;” - Ephesians 2:8, NASB

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quality if not Quantity (Psalm 117)

How long is the shortest Psalm? Two verses (Psalm 117)

Psalm 117 is a psalm of praise. It is the 595th of the Bible’s 1089 chapters, making it the center chapter in all of Scripture. At just two verses in length, it is both the shortest Psalm and shortest chapter in the Bible. The Hebrew text contains only fifteen words.

Praise the LORD, all nations;
Laud Him, all peoples!
For His lovingkindness is great toward us,
And the truth of the LORD is everlasting.
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 117 NASB)
Some have posed that it is a fragment of what was once a longer song. Artur Weiser (1893-1978) concludes, “It is hardly possible that this shortest of all the psalms was originally an independent composition (Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 721).”

Psalm 117 is the fifth of six psalms categorized as an Egyptian Hallel (113-118). These six consecutive Psalms are said as a unit on joyous occasions. It has been assumed that these were the songs Jesus sung on the Mount of Olives before he was crucified (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26).

Despite its brevity, the song fulfills all of the requirements of a classic hymn. James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939) and John W. Rogerson (b. 1935) praise:

Although Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm in the psalter, it is nevertheless a classic example of a hymn in that it contains the basic elements, namely, invocations to praise and reasons why the LORD should be praised. (Dunn and Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 421)
Why do you think such a short hymn was canonized? What is the simplest song that holds meaning to you? Has anyone ever made a brief comment to you that was very meaningful?

Psalm 117 contains the unusual aspect of charging all nations to praise the Jewish God. Given the fact that its themes correspond to “Deutero-Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), it has been suggested that the Psalm was penned while in exile, as its singers were in the midst of a catastrophic defeat. This is significant as Patrick D. Miller (b. 1935) explains, “The psalm testifies that what prevails over ‘us’ is not the enemy but the steadfast love of God (Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, 72).”

Do you feel God’s love even in the midst of your trials?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Paul on Paper (Romans-Titus)

Who wrote more books of the New Testament than anyone else? Apostle Paul

Paul is credited with writing 13 of the New Testament’s 27 books (48.15%). The books attributed to Paul are Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians. Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus and Philemon. As such, Paul is responsible for 32,407 of the New Testament’s 138,020 words (23.48%). (It is worth noting that Luke/Acts accounts for 37,392 words, more than all of Paul’s writings combined.)

These numbers do not include the book of Hebrews, though the King James Version heads the book “The Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews.” Stanley B. Morrow (b. 1931) critiques succinctly “The rather inaccurate: it is not an ‘epistle,’ nor is it by Paul, nor is it ‘to the Hebrews.’ (Marrow, Paul: His Letters and His Theology, 1986, 50.)”

Though his letters have been influential for centuries, Paul may have not seen his writing as one of the primary aspects of his ministry. In the biographical account of Paul recorded in Acts, not once is he ever seen writing.

The Corinthians evidently recognized a difference between Paul’s writing and his preaching. Paul writes, “Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! (II Corinthians 10:1 NASB)” Paul’s tone indicates that he feels the Corinthians would rather read him than hear him.

Have you ever performed a secondary task which turned out to be more important than what you saw as your primary function? Do you think Paul thought his writing would be his legacy? Have you ever met anyone who projected far better on paper than in person? Do you “sound” differently when you write than when you speak?

Given his impact on the New Testament canon and his influence on the early Christian movement, critics have speculated that modern Christians follow Paul more than Jesus. New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann (b. 1946) even wrote a book titled Paul: The Founder of Christianity (2002).

Who shaped the trajectory of Christianity more, Jesus or Paul? Whose model does your church more closely follow, Jesus’ or Paul’s?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Apollos: Talk Like An Egyptian (Acts 18:24)

Who is specifically mentioned as coming from the city of Alexandria? Apollos (Acts 18:24)

Apollos was a leader in the early Christian movement who is referenced ten times in the New Testament, twice in the book of Acts and eight times in the letters of Paul (Acts 18:24, 19:1; I Corinthians 1:12, 3:4, 5, 6, 22, 4:6, 16:12; Titus 3:13). He influenced the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:12) and served with Paul in Ephesus (Acts 18:24; I Corinthians 16:12).

The most descriptive picture of Apollos comes from his introduction in the book of Acts:

Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26 NASB)
Apollos makes an abrupt entrance and immediately enters into doctrinal disputes at the synagogue. From his designation as an “eloquent man”(aner logios) to being described as “mighty” (dunatos), Acts leave know doubt that Apollos’ strength was his rhetorical skills.

Despite being remembered most as a great orator, not one of Apollos’ words remains in Scripture. He may have been remembered more for how well he spoke than for what he actually said. Maya Angelou (b. 1928) said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Who is the best preacher you have heard (other than me, of course)? What made them great? How did they make you feel?

Apollos is the only Biblical character said to be from Alexandria, Egypt (Acts 18:24). This detail has led many to speculate that he was the anonymous author of Hebrews. The Epistle to the Hebrews is better described as a long exhortation or even a sermon (Hebrews 13:22). The first to posit the theory that Apollos was the preacher who delivered it was the great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546 ,Sermons 6.167). As this selection fits with many aspects of modern scholarship that developed centuries later, Luther’s hypothesis has been deemed a lucky guess.

Though there is not a lot of data regarding Apollos, it is suggestive and fits all of the assumptions that scholars have deduced about Hebrews’ author. It has been assumed that the author was highly educated, probably formally trained in rhetoric, as the Greek is the most sophisticated in vocabulary and style of any book in the New Testament. It has also been assumed that the writer was a powerful preacher whose style could be differentiated from Paul’s (I Corinthians 1:12). As Hebrews sets to establish Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises, especially Psalm 110, it has been concluded that the author was also well versed in the Scriptures. Apollos fits all of these assumptions (Acts 18:24-26).

For the many who support Apollos as the book’s author, his connection to Alexandria is the telltale fact. It has been surmised that the Hebrews penman did not speak or write in Aramaic or Hebrew due to the extensive use of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. The Septuagint was composed in Alexandria.

More strikingly, many have seen Alexandrian theology as having shaped Hebrews. Alexandria, with its exhaustive library, was one of the academic capitols of the ancient world. It was known as a center for Platonic philosophical studies. Many have found that the theology of Hebrews mirrors its Alexandrian predecessor, Philo Judaeus (20-50), and successor, Clement (150-250). Even the literary style of Hebrews is comparable to Philo. Harold W. Attridge (b. 1946) concludes: “...there are undeniable parallels that suggest that Philo and our author (of Hebrews) are indebted to similar traditions of Greek-speaking and -thinking Judaism (Attridge, Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible), 29).”

Given the evidence, many scholars have jumped on Luther’s bandwagon and supported his brilliant guess. Even so, the conclusion is not unanimous. While Hebrews contains strong similarities with Alexandrian thought, some scholarship has seen the divergences to be equally great (David L. Allen (b. 1957), Lukan Authorship of Hebrews, 44). In his foundational study, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (1970), Ronald Williamson even argues against the influence of Platonism. The biggest complaint, however, against Apollos penning the work is that no early tradition argued for it, not even the Alexandrian school (Pantaenus [d. 200], Clement [150-215], Origen [184-253], Dionysius [d. 265], Athanasius [296-373]).

We will never know for certain who wrote Hebrews. Later Alexandrian scholar Origen (184-253) famously wrote “But as to who actually wrote the epistle, God knows the truth of the matter (Eusebius [263-339], Historia Ecclesiastica, 6.25.11-14).”

Despite the argument being inconclusive, it is telling that one of the primary supporting factors for Apollos having written Hebrews is the place of his birth. It is assumed that our own place of origin impacts our theology.

How does the area you in which you were raised affect your religious beliefs? Were you born elsewhere, how difficult would it be for you to believe as you do? Are you sensitive to this factor when presenting your views to others with different backgrounds?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ichabod: Named in Despair (I Samuel 4:21)

Who named her child Ichabod? Phinehas’ wife (Personally, I would have also accepted Mrs. Crane.)

The name Ichabod resulted from a tragic chain of events that began on a battlefield pitting the Israelites against the Philistines. 30,000 Israelites, including the high priest of forty years, Eli, and his sons, Phinehas and Hophni were lost (I Samuel 4:10-11). Even more damningly, the Ark of the Covenant fell into enemy hands (I Samuel 4:11). The shock from so much loss induced premature labor in Phinehas’ unnamed pregnant wife (I Samuel 4:19). This resulted in her death but not before she gave birth to a son (I Samuel 4:20-22). The Bible allows the reader into the privacy of the birth chamber as she bestows her son with the memorable name, “Ichabod” (I Samuel 4:21).

And she called the boy Ichabod, saying, “ The glory has departed from Israel,” because the ark of God was taken and because of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God was taken.” (I Samuel 4:21-22 NASB)
The name was no less peculiar to the original Hebrew audience than to contemporary readers. No one else in the Bible bears the ignominious name. Ichabod means “no glory” or “inglorious”. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (b. 1945) has argued that the name means “Where is (the) glory?” or “Alas (for the) glory!” (McCarter, I Samuel: The Anchor Bible, Vol. 8, 116). Ichabod certainly had an inglorious beginning as in his first day of life, he lost his parents, grandfather, and even the Ark of the Covenant, the representation of the glory of God.

Though many give their children Biblical names, few ever christen their child Ichabod. As there is a certain poetry to his birth narrative, the name Ichabod did find its way into significant 19th century literature. T.H. Huxley (1825-1890, “A Liberal Education”) and Anthony Trolloppe (1815-1882, Barchester Towers, p. 452) used the name as an exclamation and Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) referenced Ichabod in her novel, Villete (p. 284). The poem “Ichabod” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) expressing the author’s lament over abolitionist Daniel Webster (1782-1852)’s support of the Missouri compromise, is a staple of American Literature. Ironically, the name’s most famous use, in Washington Irving (1783-1859)’s short story The Legend of Sleep Hollow, does not draw upon the Biblical text but rather an acquaintance of Irving, U.S. army captain Ichabod Bennet Crane (1787-1857).

Does your name have meaning? What is the worst name you have ever heard? If you have children, why did you name your kids as you did? Where is the glory? Have you ever felt such utter despair as did Phinehas’ wife?

Phinehas’ wife understood profoundly the consequences of her situation. There is a double saying at the end of her story as Phinehas’s wife says not once, but twice that “the glory has departed from Israel” (I Samuel 4:21-22 NASB). Despite her great personal loss, Phinehas’ wife emphasized that the real tragedy her child’s name commemorated was the big picture - the lost Ark. There could be no greater tragedy than the departing of God’s presence.

Even the joy of a child did not ease her despair. She thought her son had no future. Like many modern couples, she doubted that she wanted to bring a child into the world in the state it was in, especially into a nation that was seemingly powerless.

In naming Ichabod, he was marked for life, a walking reminder of a catastrophic day. A woman naming her son after dreadful circumstances is not unique in the Old Testament. As Rachel died during childbirth, she attempted to name her son, Ben-oni (“son of my sorrow”) but the child’s father, Jacob, overruled her and renamed the son as he is remembered - Benjamin (Genesis 35:18). Jabez, whom Bruce Wilkinson (b. 1947) immortalized in his book The Prayer of Jabez, was named “sorrow” by his mother “because I bore him with pain” (I Chronicles 4:9-10). The miserable circumstances of Ichabod’s birth were more widespread than these other cases as everything in Israel had seemingly crumbled. Ichabod would forever be tied to the past with a name synonymous with shame.

We know little of Ichahod’s life or whether his name was a detriment to him. No action of Ichabod is recorded in Scripture and his name appears only twice (I Samuel 4:21, 14:3). It has been suggested that he gained prominence as Ahitud is later described as being Ichabod’s brother (I Samuel 14:3). Recognizing someone by a sibling (as opposed to a parent) is rare. What is clear is that Ichabod lived.

Phinehas’ wife saw her situation as hopeless. Life as she knew it was indeed over. But life was not over. Though his family died, Ichabod lived. Ichabod is a picture of life out of death. His name should be a reminder that what we see as hopeless is never so, as long as we have a God who can bring forth life from death.

Have you ever felt that God departed from you? What reminds you of bad times? What thoughts get you through those bad times? How do you avoid despair?

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” - Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)