Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflecting on a Starry Night (Psalm 8)

>Complete: “When I look at the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, _________________________________________” What is man that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:3, 4a)

Psalm 8 is a psalm of David which glorifies God the Creator. It is the first hymn of praise in the psalter. It is also the only psalm that is constructed entirely as a direct address to God.’

In Psalm 8, the writer engages in star gazing. Like most humans have been at one time or another, the psalmist is overwhelmed by the grandeur of creation.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4 NASB)
Viewing the magnificence of the creation led the psalmist to consider its Creator. Artur Weiser (1893-1978) comments, “Behind the glorious splendour of the brilliant sky his mind’s eye envisages him who has created that splendour. It is for him, for the Divine Creator, that his song is intended; his first and last thought is directed to the glory of God and to the praise of God (Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 140).”

Next to a seemingly endless creation, any single human, even a king, feels insignificant. The psalmist asks how a God so big can care about something so small. The assumption underlying the psalmist’s question is that God, the creator of the universe, does indeed care for him. Nancy L. deClaissé–Walford (b. 1954) comments, “Psalm 8 certainly contrasts the sovereignty of God with the earthiness of humanity, but the two are inextricably connected (deClaissé–Walford, Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel, 69).”

When has admiring God’s creation led your thoughts to the Creator? Why does the God of the universe care for you? Do you think the celestial beings serve only as a backdrop to life on earth to remind us of our finitude or are there other reasons for it?

The Psalmist did not have all of the scientific data we do today to realize the scope of what he saw. He did not realize the sun was merely the closest of over one billion stars and 109 times bigger than Earth. He did not realize that the moon was a satellite of the earth, ¼ of its size. He did not realize that earth was merely the third of nine planets in our solar system. Yet, even without these facts, he realized he was small. Very small. And that God was very big, at the very least bigger than creation.

Though modern humans know more about outer space than the Psalmist, he knew enough to realize that the God of the universe cared for him. Do you?

When have you felt insignificant? Do you remember that the creator of the universe cares for you (Psalm 8:4, I Peter 5:7)?

“Saint Augustine [354-430] said that Jesus loved each person he ever met as if there were no else in all the world to love, and he loved all as he loved each. I have never known which aspect of Jesus is more incredible, his capacity for individual affection or the amazing inclusiveness of his love.” - John R. Claypool (1930-2005), The First to Follow: The Apostles of Jesus, 1

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Fish Story (John 21:11)

How many fish did the disciples catch when Jesus told them to put their nets in again? 153 (John 21:11)

After his resurrection, Jesus manifested while seven of his disciples were fishing on the Sea of Tiberius a.k.a. Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-3). It had already been a long day and the experienced fisherman had come up empty (John 21:3). Jesus, whose identity was concealed from the disciples, instructed his charges to cast their nets on the right side of their boat (John 21:6). The disciples complied and the action resulted in the recognition of Jesus (John 21:7) and a massive haul of 153 fish (John 21:11).

Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. (John 21:11, NASB)
The odd detail of 153 fish is so precise that it has long fascinated commentators. It is the only time the number appears in the Bible. Many have followed the logic of C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) who wrote that “the number is significant or it would not have been recorded; it is improbable that it represents the fortuitous but precise recollection of an eye witness (Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 581).”

For many, the detail is simply too specific to be insignificant. Some suggest that it indicates that the author was present for the catch. Others have gone to great lengths to find meaning in the number itself. Here are a few examples:

  • While commenting on Ezekiel 47, Jerome (347-420) claimed that the Greeks had identified exactly 153 species of fish in the sea (Commentary Ezekiel, PL 25:474C). This would make the fish the symbolic equivalent of the holistic and diverse nature of the salvation Jesus offered (Revelation 5:9). Not only has modern science obviously debunked the claim itself but it appears the remark was never valid. Jerome cites the naturalist writer Oppian but there is no evidence that Oppian ever made the assertion. In contrast, Pliny (23-79) stated that there were 74 varieties of fish (Gary M. Burge [b. 1952], John: The NIV Application Commentary, 585). At the very least, the belief that there were 153 species of fish was never widespread.
  • In the 19th century, Lt. Col. R. Roberts calculated exactly 153 individuals who were specifically blessed by Jesus in the four canonical gospels (E. W. Bullinger [1837-1913], Number in Scripture, 276.)
  • The mathematician Archimedes (287-212 BCE), in his treatise On the Measurement of the Cycle, used the whole number ratio 153:265 to accurately approximate the irrational ratio square root of 3, “the measure of the fish”. As such, 153 was known from the time of Archimedes as “the measure of the fish” or the vesica.
  • Many have looked to the number’s unique properties and its connection to the number 17 for inspiration. Gregory the Great (540-604) found meaning in the fact that 153 was the result of 17 multiplied by 3 and again by 3 (17x32). Augustine of Hippo (354-430) adds that 153 is the triangular of 17 (Tractate Evangelium Joannes122.8). This means that it is the sum of the integers from 1 to 17 inclusive. This number can be expressed as a triangle. 153 also has the rare property that it is the sum of the cubes of its own digits (i.e. 153 = 1x1x1 + 5x5x5 + 3x3x3). It cannot be denied that 153 is a unique number but how does it relate to the text?
  • Others have found meaning in gematria, a system by which numerical value is assigned to a word or phrase. Amazingly, the words “fish” and “Simon” (a fisher of men) equate to 153 in Greek. In Hebrew, “church of love” also adds to 153. In 1958, John Adney (J.A.) Emerton (b. 1928) suggested that the gematria correlated to Ezekiel 47 which predicts that it “will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from Engedi to Eneglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many (Ezekiel 47:10 NASB).” Engedi has a numeric value of 17 and Eneglaim 153 (Emerton, Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958) 86-89).
  • A more advanced (or convoluted depending upon your perspective) version of combining math and the Bible was developed in 1975 called theomatics which was based upon gematria and isopsephia. Theomatically, fish related items have a numeric value based on the number 153. For example, “fishes” (153 x 8), “the net” (153 x 8), “multitude of fishes” (153 x 8 x 2), and “fishers of men” (153 x 14) all have numeric values divisible by 153.
The discussion of the significance of 153 is interesting if not always plausible. While some theories are certainly fishier than others, one thing is for certain: The disciples caught a miraculous number of fish.

Who took the time to count the fish? Do you think the specific number 153 has meaning? Why? Why not?

The story of the miraculous catch in John (John 21:1-11) is often juxtaposed with a similar fish story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry presented in Luke’s gospel (Luke 5:1-11). In Luke, the disciples’ net breaks and the fish are lost (Luke 5:6). In John, after studying at the feet of the master, they are able to bring in and count the fish (John 21:11) - those perplexing 153 fish.

If there is meaning to the number, it cannot be said with any certainty. D. A. Carson (b. 1946) summarizes that “if the Evangelist has some symbolism in mind connected with the number 153, he has hidden it well (Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 673).”

Perhaps the simplest explanation is the best - the disciples caught 153 fish and were so impressed that they counted the haul. Leon Morris (1914-2006) reminds, “Fishermen..have always loved to preserve the details of unusual catches (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 764).”

Have you ever been fishing? If you caught 100+ fish in one day, would you count them? What is your best fish story?

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” - Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Deborah: Right Man for The Job (Judges 4)

Who was the only woman to judge Israel? Deborah.

After the conquest of Israel, charismatic leaders or “judges” periodically surfaced to lead Israel. Deborah is the book’s third major judge, emerging at a time when Israel was experiencing a spiritual and moral decline (Judges 4:1-5:31). She is also described as a prophetess (Judges 4:4) who held court beneath a palm tree (Judges 4:5).

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment. (Judges 4:4-5 NASB)
Deborah’s tenure was a success that resulted in forty years of peace (Judges 5:31). The apex of her rule was convincing Barak to lead a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera (Judges 4:6-24). This contingent had wreaked havoc on Israel for twenty years (Judges 4:2-3).

Susan Niditch (b. 1950) explains, “Deborah is a prophet, that is, one capable of mediating between God and human beings, and is perceived of having gifts of divination and charisma. She is a conduit to God, a vessel for divine communications of various kinds. It is this inspired oracular gift that allows her to “judge” leading on and off the battlefield (Niditch, Judges: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 65).”

The only other background detail that the text provides is that Deborah was the “wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4 NASB). In Hebrew, this can also be read “woman of fire” or “woman of torches”.

Douglas A. Knight (b. 1943) and Amy-Jill Levine (b. 1956) expound:

The Hebrew for “wife of Lappidoth,” eshet lapidot, can also be translated “woman of flames.” The words for “wife of” and “woman of” are the same, and there is no Mr. Lappidoth featured in the text. Nor is there any fellow named Lappidoth found elsewhere in the Bible. (Knight and Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us, 60)
This interpretation also provides a word play as Deborah is the torch that sets general Barak (whose name means “lightning”) on fire. J. Clinton McCann (b. 1951) states succinctly, “Deborah as ‘Torch Lady’ would be quite appropriate (McCann, Judges (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 52).”

Have you ever seen anyone who arose at the right time to lead a previously divided people? Do you think that Deborah’s gender played a role in Barak’s hesitation to follow her advice? How significant is her gender to her story?

Deborah was the only woman to serve in the capacity as “judge”, which at the time equated to the highest public office in the land. Her gender is stressed throughout.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) explains:

Both the story and the song emphasize the fact that Deborah is a woman. The story tells us that she was a prophetess-woman, adding the word “woman,” ’iššah, when the female noun “prophetess,” nebî’ah, already conveys that information. She is called “Lapidot”-woman or Lapidot’s woman, again repeating the word “woman,” ’ēšet...And the song stresses that Deborah was a “mother in Israel.” The femaleness is neither hidden nor incidental: it is an integral part of the story. The motherhood of this “mother in Israel” goes beyond biology. It describes her role as counselor during the days before the war, and it indicates her role in preserving the heritage of Israel, in her case by advising in battle. (Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories, 49-50)
As Frymer-Kensky alludes, Deborah describes herself as “mother to Israel” (Judges 5:7 NASB). Deborah not only does not conceal her femininity, but stresses it. For her, it is an asset, not a detriment to her ability to lead.

Are there times when a woman is not only adequate to lead but better suited? During what circumstances? Could you vote for a woman president? If a woman was equipped and appointed to lead Israel, God’s people, can a woman lead a church, also God’s people?