Friday, September 30, 2011

Amos: Midlife Calling (Amos 1:1)

Where was Amos the prophet’s home? Tekoa (Amos 1:1)

Many consider Amos to be the first Israelite prophet to have had his work transcribed, though Hosea, Isaiah and Micah contend for this claim. Amos’ visions and prophecies are canonized in the Bible as one of the twelve Minor Prophets.

In the book’s opening verse, Amos is identified his occupation and his location - Amos “was among the sheepherders from Tekoa” (Amos 1:1 NASB). Tekoa was a city twelve miles from Jerusalem in the southern kingdom, situated high upon a hill (2800 feet above sea level). It had been fortified by Rehoboam to maintain order at the time Israel was divided (II Chronicles 11:6, 12). Sir George Adam Smith (1856-1942) surmised “In the time of Amos Tekoa was a place without sanctity and almost without tradition. The name suggests that the site may at first have been that of a camp (Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, 74).”

Though Tekoa is situated in the southern kingdom, Amos’ mission was to the northern kingdom. There is a minority view which claims that another Tekoa existed in the northern kingdom and this is the locale from which the prophet originated. Stanley Ned Rosenbaum (b. 1939) summarizes, “The Book of Amos neither says nor implies that Judean Tekoa was Amos’s birthplace, only that he was (or his words were) known there.” (Rosenabuam, Amos of Israel: A New Interpretation, 32). No such northern Tekoa has yet been discovered by archaeologists.

A facet of Amos’ background that is not debated is that the prophet received no formal religious training. In addition to Amos’ opening verse identifying him as “one of the shepherds of Tekoa” (Amos 1:1 NASB), Amos described himself:

“I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet; for I am a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs. But the LORD took me from following the flock and the LORD said to me, ‘Go prophesy to My people Israel.’” (Amos 7:14-15 NASB)
The word used in Amos 1:1 which the NASB renders “shepherd” is noqed. James Luther Mays (b. 1921) explains that “Nōqēd probably means ‘breeder and tender of small cattle (sheep and goats).” Though the word is used only one other time in the Bible, to describe Mesha king of Moab (II Kings 3:4), Mayes determines that “The use of nōqēd in the Old Testament and a Ugarit does suggest that Amos was no ordinary shepherd, but a breeder of sheep who would have belonged to the notable men of his community (Mays, Amos: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 19).”

John W. Miller (b. 1926) concurs:

Far then from being a poor herdsman of sheep, Amos may have been one of the more substantial men of his region, and especially so in that he appears to have had a second source of income. The sycamore groves referred to would likely have been some distance from where Amos lived, for to grow properly they required the warmed climate of the Jordan valley where he would have taken his flocks for pasturing when the hills of Tekoa were barren. (Miller, Meet the Prophets: A Beginner’s Guide to the Books of the Biblical Prophets , 45)
Amos’ biographical claims were made in response to his motives being criticized. Amos had no reason to desire an occupation as a prophet as he already had a successful career.

If God called you from your occupation, would you go? Have you ever known anyone who left a profitable job in the private sector feeling called to ministry? Amos was a man without credentials. He had not attended one of the schools of prophets that existed in his day and as such had no professional pedigree. In modern southern parlance, he was a jack legged preacher.

If you served on a pastor’s search committee, would you consider hiring an untrained candidate? Would you be able to hear the voice of God from an uneducated preacher? Do you know any good untrained ministers? Is there any situation where an untrained pastor is preferable? What is the most unlikely source from which you have heard the voice of God?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Slacker’s Thorny Path (Proverbs 15:19)

Complete: “The way of the sluggard is overgrown with ______.” Thorns (Proverbs 15:19)

As part of the longest collection of aphorisms in the book (Proverbs 15:18-16:8), Proverbs claims that the way of the “lazy” (CEV, NASB, NKJV, NLT, NRSV), “sluggard” (ASV, ESV, MSG, NIV, RSV), “slacker” (HCSB) or “slothful” (KJV) is overgrown with weeds:
The way of the lazy is as a hedge of thorns,
But the path of the upright is a highway. (Proverbs 15:19 NASB)
At a time when a donkey was the standard mode of transportation, a thick growth of thorns made travel difficult if not impossible. Proverbs 15:19 uses this imagery of a blocked path to contrast the progress in life made by the lazy and the righteous. While everyone faces difficulty (Matthew 5:45), the slothful face obstacles habitually.

Associating laziness with poverty and diligence with wealth is a recurring theme in Proverbs (Proverbs 6:6-11, 10:4-5, 12:24, 27, 13:4, 15:19). Claus Westermann (1909-2002) conjectured that the first half of the Proverb is older concluding that “the second half of the a subsequent addition for the sake of parallelism.” (Westermann, Roots of Wisdom: The Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples, 19).

Newer or not, the second half of the proverb is more unique as it adds a moral component to the Proverb. Timothy J. Sandoval (b. 1966) analyzes “Proverbs 15:19 is significant as well, for this proverb contrasts the lazy person not with the diligent person but with upright persons...a term that belongs fundamentally to moral discourse (Sandoval, The Discourse of Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs, 139).” The implication is that being lazy is immoral.

How would you put this proverb into modern language? Do you identify more with the sluggard or the upright? Is being lazy immoral? Why is the slothful person’s path habitually laden with thorns? Does God place added obstacles in the path of the lazy or is there something inherent in the slothful that summons obstacles?

Many have surmised that the lazy person’s path is blocked because she wishes it to be. Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitsky (b. 1954) write, “The slothful person is unable to act, no matter how much thinking takes place. Wherever such a person looks, problems are seen (Kravitz and Olitsky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 150).” John Phillips (b. 1927) concurs, “He (the lazy person) is continually running into trouble, much of his own making. He never gets anywhere, mostly because he doesn’t want to get anywhere (Phillips, Exploring Proverbs: An Expository Commentary, Volume 1, 439).” This interpretation claims that the lazy person’s life trajectory is constantly impeded because she seek obstacles as an excuse not to work. Do you agree with this theory?

The crux of the passage is to be diligent. Still we must avoid the converse and assume that those who have not succeeded are lazy and undeserving of help. George Grant (b. 1954) claims that Proverbs makes a distinction between two types of poor people, the oppressed and sluggards: “Sluggards waste opportunities (Proverbs 6:9-10), bring poverty upon themselves (Proverbs 10:4), are victims of self-inflicted bondage (Proverbs 12:24), and are unable to accomplish anything in life (Proverbs 15:19). (Grant, In the Shadow of Plenty, 47)” Grant concludes that “true charity” in helping the sluggard “involves admonition and reproof” (Grant, 48).

Just who is qualified to determine who is oppressed and who is merely a “sluggard”? When Christ charges us to help those in need, should we consider such distinctions? How do we ensure that we do not blame victims?

“Then plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.” - Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), “The Way to Wealth” (1758)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Laodicea: Hot or Cold? (Revelation 3:15)

Which church was neither hot nor cold? Laodicea (Revelation 3:15)

Revelation is written to seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 1:4). The church at Laodicea is the last of the churches to be addressed and is judged for its poor witness and spiritual condition and called to repentance (Revelation 3:14-22). Laodicea is famously criticized for being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold:

‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.’ (Revelation 3:15-16 NASB)
The Laodicean church was spiritually complacent as they were economically prosperous. The Laodiceans used their advantageous position on a trade route to promote their profitable garment industry. The Laodiceans were known for producing a black wool with a soft silky texture found only in the Lycus Valley. As such, it is significant that Christ implored the Laodiceans to purchase white garments of purity, as opposed to the black for which they were known (Revelation 3:18). The strong language of vomiting them out is used to arouse them from their spiritual slumber (Revelation 3:16).

The use of “lukewarm” has been traditionally interpreted as a critique of the Ladocieans’ lack of spiritual fervor.

What do you think is meant by “lukewarm” in this context? Does the passage support extremism in either direction over moderation? Is sinfulness preferable to apathy?

The traditional interpretation is problematic as God finds being both hot and cold preferable to being lukewarm (Revelation 3:15-16). This reading presents Christ as commending disloyalty.

Scholars have long conjectured that the metaphor of tepid water was drawn from the city’s own water supply. The Laodiceans’ lukewarm water stood in stark contrast to their nearby neighbors. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs and Colossae, where the Laodiceans’ sister church was located (Colossians 2:1, 4:13, 15, 16), featured pure water. Gregory K. Beale (b. 1949) explains, “There is evidence that Laodicea had access only to warm water, which was not very palatable and caused nausea (Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 303)”. To correct this problem, the Laodiceans constructed an aqueduct to a hot springs five miles to the south. The water would have become tepid by the time it reached the city. Like their drinking water, Christ wished to spit it out (Revelation 3:16). Taking this interpretation, hot and cold water would be equally beneficial, as opposed to hot equating with good and cold corresponding to bad. Lukewarm water, in contrast, was useless.

Where would you rate your spiritual condition in relation to being lukewarm?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Amen at the End (Revelation 22:21)

What is the last word in the Bible? Amen.

The Book of Revelation and the Bible as a whole ends with a blessing:

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (Revelation 22:21 NASB)
The Bible fittingly ends as most modern prayers do, with the word “Amen”.

Amen is a Hebrew word that has been transliterated into most languages through the centuries. It is a cognate in English, Greek and Latin. Amen has been adopted directly into most languages sounding nearly the same in Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, etc. Consequently, it has been called the best known word in human speech. It is one of the few Hebrew words which has been imported unchanged into modern liturgy. In fact, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all use the word in worship.

Amen is used so commonly that its meaning is often falsely assumed. As it is used to conclude prayers, many simply suppose that it means “The End”. Others use it to affirm consent, much the way +1 does on Google, the Like button does on Facebook or “true dat” does in the Urban Dictionary.

Both are actually appropriate uses. Amen means “ verily, truly, so be it ”. It appears 30 times in the Old Testament, first in Numbers 5:22. The root of the word comes from the Hebrew ‘aman, which means to support or confirm. The same root produces ‘emuwnah (“faithfulness”). The ancient Greeks coopted the word to mean “truth”, “surely”, “absolutely”.

What does Amen mean to you? Do you say ah-men or ay-men?

The only time the NASB (and most modern translations) record Jesus as saying Amen occurs at the conclusion of Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:13). The word, however, is very important to the gospel of John. John features 25 sayings of Jesus which are emphasized by the expression “verily, verily” (John 1:51, 3:3, 5, 11, 5:19, 24, 25, 6:26, 32, 47, 53, 8:34, 51, 58, 10:1, 7, 12:24, 13:16, 20, 21, 38, 14:12, 16:20, 23, 21:18). The Greek actually reads “amen, amen”.

When and why do you say “amen”? Does it comply with term’s original meaning?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Nicknaming the Disciples (Mark 3:17)

Who were the sons of thunder? James and John (Mark 3:17).

In Mark’s list of Jesus’ twelve disciples, it is noted that Jesus conferred the name “Boanerges” upon the sons of Zebedee, James and John (Mark 3:17). The moniker is Aramaic, the language Jesus actually spoke, as opposed to the Greek in which the New Testament is written. Mark gives us more glimpses into Jesus’s Aramaic than anyone (Mark 3:17, 5:41, 7:34, 11:9, 14:36, 15:34). Mark translates the name for the reader, “Sons of Thunder”. Boanerges is referenced only here in Mark and never used again in the New Testament.

The epithet’s meaning is ambiguous and its etymology uncertain. Mark gives no explanation as his interest is in the renaming not its meaning. Traditionally the surname has been associated with the brothers’ temperaments, excitable and impetuous, characteristics befitting former sailors. This is consistent with their fiery outbursts later in the gospels (Mark 9:38-41, 10:35-45; Luke 9:49-50, 52-56), especially their offer to call down fire from heaven on a city of inhospitable Samaritans (Luke 9:52-54). It has been speculated that this vehemence translated into zeal and power in their preaching.

James Rendel Harris (1852-1941) analyzed the concept of “Thunder Twins” in his book Boanerges (1913) and demonstrated that the idea existed in diverse cultures throughout the world including Greece, Scandinavia and Peru. Most scholars have focused on a connection to Greek mythology’s Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux), known collectively as Diskouroi or Dioscuri - “sons of Zeus” . As is common in Thunder Twin myths, the brothers had differing paternity as Tyndareus had sired Castor while Zeus produced Polydeuces. Consequently, Castor was mortal and Polydeuces immortal. Castor died in battle and Polydeuces was so attached to his brother that he lost the will to live when his brother died. Polydeuces negotiated with Zeus a chance for a single immortality with his brother. The inseparable brothers’ appearance, in the form of St Elmo’s fire, on the rigging of ships was believed to forewarn escape from a storm.

Ronald Brownrigg (1919-2011) contended that Boanerges was “a title exactly equivalent” to Diskouroi (R. Alan Culpepper [b. 1946], John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend, 40). In addition to the collective nickname, Dennis R. McDonald (b. 1938) identifies several parallels between the two sets of brothers (McDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 29). James was the first disciple martyred (Acts 12:2) and like Castor died a violent death. Like the immortal Polydeuces, John was the last disciple to die and many expected him to live until the Parousia and as such, avoid death (John 21:22). Like James and John, the slain brother, Castor, is named first even though he is the lesser known of the brothers. Like Polydeuces, the sons of Zebedee attempted to negotiate a special place in the afterlife as they asked Jesus to sit at his right and left (Mark 10:35-37). McDonald interprets their having no preference as to which brother is given the more preferential seat as a sign of their brotherly love. Unlike Zeus, Jesus denied the brothers’ request (Mark 10:38-40).

Mark was purportedly written to Rome where Castor and Polydeuces were held in high regard. Some have seen a further connection as Boanerges references the brothers’ relationship to their father and they were the only disciples said to have left their father to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:22; Mark 1:20). Some have seen this as an indicator that they also left Zeus to follow Jesus.

Others have seen Jesus’ naming his disciples as replicating what God did with the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham and Jacob (Genesis 17:5, 15, 32:28, 35:10). Ched Myers (b. 1955) associates the appellation with the apocalyptic idea of being given a new name (Revelation 3:12, 22:4). Hans Bietenhard (1916-2008) relates the name to the potential unbreakable fellowship or mighty witness of the two brothers (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 5:253-61).

What do you think the name Boanerges means? Has anyone ever given you a nickname? What nickname would you most covet? Why did Jesus rename these disciples? Why do people bestow nicknames?

Nicknames are informal names of address usually awarded, not chosen by the recipient. John D. DeLamater (b. 1941) and Daniel J. Myers (b. 1966) explain:

Forms of address clearly communicate relative status in relationships. Inferiors use formal address...for their superiors...whereas superiors address inferiors with familiar forms (first name or nickname. (DeLamater and Myers, Social Psychology, 185)
Sociologist James K. Skipper Jr. (1934-1993) concludes that the use of nicknames implied feelings of intimacy with the person named (Skipper, “The Sociological Significance of Nicknames: the Case of Baseball Players”, Journal of Sport Behavior (JSB), 7(1), 28-38).

We nickname people because we want to make them ours or want it known that they are one of ours.

In Mark’s list of disciples, James and John are listed second and third after Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter (Mark 3:16). One might think Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, would naturally follow Peter in the list of disciples, but he is usurped by the sons of Zebedee. These three and only these three receive nicknames from Jesus. They formed Jesus’ inner circle and received further intimacy with Jesus than their fellow disciples They were the only witnesses present at the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1, Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28), and Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).

If you have been given a nickname, how did it make you feel? Do you feel Boanerges was a term of endearment? Who is in your inner circle? Do you refer to each other differently than do outsiders?