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)