Friday, March 2, 2012

Paul: Snake Bitten (Acts 28:6)

Why did the Maltese people think Paul was a god? He was bitten by a viper and felt no harm from it (Acts 28:6)

The final chapter of Acts begins with Paul and his shipmates shipwrecked on Melita, modern Malta (Acts 28:1). The castaways find themselves surrounded by (literally) barbarians (non-Greek speakers) who are unusually hospitable (Acts 28:2). While helpfully gathering kindling for a fire the apostle is bitten by a viper (Acts 28:3).

F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) speculates:

He had probably mistaken it for a small twig as it lay on the ground stiff with cold, but the heat quickly brought it back to life. A parallel has been quoted from T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia): “When the fire grew hot a long back snake wound slowly out into our group; we must have gathered it, torpid, with the twigs.” (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 497)
The natives immediately assume that Paul must be a murderer facing divine retribution (Acts 28:4). To their surprise, the apostle nonchalantly shakes the snake off (Acts 28:5). When they realize that the serpent’s attack will have no ill effects on the stranded man, they jump to the conclusion that he is not a killer but in fact a god (Acts 28:6).
But they were expecting that he was about to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god. (Acts 28:6 NASB)
The aggressive serpent is most commonly translated “viper” which is true to the Greek, echidna (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV). The only other New Testament occurrences of this word are found in insults levied by Jesus and John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:33; Luke 3:7). Though the term literally means “viper”, it is also translated more generically as “snake” (CEV), “poisonous snake” (NLT) and “venomous snake” (MSG). The diversity in translation is due to historical, not linguistic, concerns.

Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) explains:

Luke uses the word εχιδνα for this creature, which suggests some sort of poisonous viper. It has been complained that Malta does not have any poisonous snakes, and it has also been noted that poisonous snakes such as vipers strike and withdraw rather than fastening themselves on their victims...It should be noted, however, that nineteen hundred years of civilization and the gradual extinction of various species of creatures on that island caused by human expansion can easily account for the absence of poisonous snakes on Malta today. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 777)
Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and John J. Pilch (b. 1936) add:
If this was a poisonous snake, scholars propose that the island is Cephallenia, which has poisonous snakes and heavier rainfall than Malta. On the other hand, Luke may have embellished the event to further highlight Paul as a holy man. Recall Jesus’ bestowal of power on his disciples to “tread upon serpents and scorpions...nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10:19; compare Mark 16:18). (Malina and Pilch, Malina and Pilch, Social-science Commentary on the Book of Acts, 175)
J. Bradley Chance (b. 1954) defends:
It is not wise to pass historical judgment based on the use of the verb “fasten”, as opposed to “strike.” The narrator’s fondness for verisimilitude is well demonstrated. Even if spinning a tale out of thin air, he would likely not employ details that would only raise the eyebrows of his ancient readers. (Chance, Acts (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 514)
The snake’s species is not as important as the threat it poses to Paul. Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) observes:
Luke calls the viper a “wild beast” [Acts 28:4] to point up its danger to Paul’s life. The viper was venomous. “Hanging from his hand” adds to “fastened onto his hand” an emphasis on the viper’s not letting go. It’s determined to kill Paul with a prolonged injection of poison—hence the barbarians’ “Surely.” [Acts 28:4] (Gundry, Commentary on Acts)
Paul faces mortal danger yet again while en route to Rome. The natives know the tendencies of their own snakes and the serpent’s attack does not produce the expected result. This is Malta’s introduction to Paul and their perception of the apostle changes from bad human (murderer) to deity in a matter of minutes.

Have you ever been bitten by a snake? When have you completely misjudged someone’s character? As there were 276 castaways (Acts 27:37) plus unnumbered natives, why did the serpent bite Paul? Is escaping a snakebite unscathed a sign of spiritual prowess (Mark 16:18)? What would it take to convince you that someone was God incarnate? Which of the Maltese theories on Paul, murderer or deity, is closer to the truth?

The people of Malta have two rapid fire responses to the snakebite. Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) analyzes:

The reaction that Paul was probably a murderer (Acts 28:4) is typical of superstitious people who see others going through misfortune—they assume that they are paying for their wrong deeds. When nothing happened to Paul, their suggestion led them to change their verdict, saying that he was a god (Acts 28:6) (Fernando, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary, 565)
In his study on the serpent in scripture, James H. Charlesworth ( b. 1940) notes that the two conclusions they draw are normative types: “the serpent may first symbolize the Death-Giver...and then reveal Divinity (Charlesworth, The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized, 356-257).”

Specifically, viewing a snake bite as evidence of divine justice was common in the ancient world, similar to the concept of karma. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) concludes:

Two things emerge from Acts 28:3-4. First, there is an explicit statement by the characters of the Mediterranean assumption that the animal kingdom, often a serpent, functioned as a vehicle of divine justice. Second, the serpent bite is explicitly understood as a corollary to involvement in storm and shipwreck. Both are believed by the natives to function in the same way, as divine judgment. (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 216)
William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945) expounds:
The Greeks viewed justice as a virgin daughter of Zeus who kept watch for any injustice done on earth and reported it to her father, who then dispensed retributive justice to make it right, including destroying ships at sea (Hesiod [750-650 BCE], Works and Days 239, 256; Plutarch [46-120] Moralia 161F). The Phoenicians also had a god (or at least demigod) called Justice. (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 380)
Misinterpreting a divine sign is a common occurrence in Acts (Acts 2:12-13, 3:12, 8:18-21, 14:11-18, 19:13-16). Apparently the language barrier prevents Paul from disclaiming deity as he and Barnabas had done previously in Lystra (Acts 14:8-18).

The author and the reader are presumed to have a different perspective than the locals. Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) writes:

Their first, ignorant reactions to Paul are expressed in Acts 28:4 and Acts 28:6. These verses deliberately present the perspective of the natives—what they saw, what they expected, what they said in response—and are not to be taken as indications of the views of the implied author. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, 340)
Though they are wrong about some things, the people of Malta are quite right about others. The natives are correct in assuming that they are witnessing something supernatural. In truth, Paul was (indirectly) a murderer (Acts 7:58, 22:4, 26:9-11; I Corinthians 15:9) and an emissary of God (Romans 1:1, 11:13; I Corinthians 1:1, 4:9, 9:1-2, 15:9; II Corinthians 1:1, 11:5, 12:11; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; I Timothy 1:1, 2:7; II Timothy 1:1, 1:11; Titus 1:1). He was of God, not God.

How should the reader interpret Paul’s being unharmed by the viper? When have you attached spiritual significance to a natural event? Do you do this often?

“Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.” - Edward de Bono (b. 1933), Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas, p. 58

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hushai: First Friend (I Chronicles 27:33)

In David’s time, what was Hushai the Archite called? The king’s friend (I Chronicles 27:33)

I Chronicles 27 catalogs the leading Israelites of David’s era (I Chronicles 27:1-34). The chapter inventories military officers (I Chronicles 27:1-14), tribal leaders (I Chronicles 27:16-24) and the king’s court (I Chronicles 27:25-34). The final list offers a retrospective glimpse into David’s royal cabinet (I Chronicles 27:25-34).

The names at the end of the index are familiar to readers of II Samuel ( I Chronicles 27:33-34). Two officials who figured prominently in Absalom’s revolt are listed side by side in David’s court (II Samuel 15:1-18:15). Athithophel, the royal counselor who sided with David’s son in his failed coup d’état, is listed with Hushai, an advisor who remained loyal to David. Traitorous Athithophel is described as a “counselor” while Hushai is remembered simply as “the king’s friend” (I Chronicles 27:33).
Ahithophel was counselor to the king; and Hushai the Archite was the king’s friend. (I Chronicles 27:33 NASB)
The term “Archite” connects Hushai with a clan that settled near Ataroth, on the border between Ephraim and Benjamin (Joshua 16:2-3). It is presumed that “Hushai” is a diminutive form of Ahishai (also Ahushai).

Hushai’s designation is conspicuous amidst the compendium of official titles. He is labeled by the Hebrew word rea`. The word is common but this marks the only time it is used in I Chronicles. It means “friend, companion, fellow, another person” and as such is translated “friend” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “companion” (KJV, NKJV), “advisor” (CEV) and “confidant” (NIV). There are certainly worse descriptors.

The epithet, however, is not merely descriptive. Sara Japhet (b. 1934) relays, “Athithophel and Hushai are mentioned together, the first as counsellor and the second as ‘friend’. The last term for some time has been interpreted as a title, rather than a simple noun (Japhet, I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 479).”

Simon John De Vries (b. 1921) relays the position as “a kind of chief executive (De Vries, 1 and 2 Chronicles (Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Volume XI), 214).”

Andrew E. Hill (b. 1952) concurs:
Hushai remained loyal to David as a political adviser, and he is here called “the king’s friend” (I Chronicles 27:33; cf. II Samuel 15:37, 16:16). This expression is probably a formal title for a trusted sage; the position has parallels in the Egyptian royal court. (Hill, 1 & 2 Chronicles (The NIV Application Commentary), 321)
It is fitting that Hushai is juxtaposed with Athithophel. The two were on opposite sides of the most significant threat to David’s monarchy, the revolt from the king’s son, Absalom (II Samuel 15:1-18:15). Athithophel joined Absalom but Hushai remained loyal to David. The Archite attempted to join the deposed king in exile but at David’s request, Hushai remained in Jerusalem and offered himself to Abasalom as an advisor (II Samuel 15:32-37). Though both Athtithophel and Hushai appeared to be aiding Absalom’s uprising, Hushai was actually working as a double agent. In addition to relaying information to David, Hushai countered Athtithophel’s counsel with intentionally bad advice (II Samuel 17:5-29). The dueling counselors functioned in much the way a competing angel and devil do in cartoon bubbles. Fortunately for David, Absalom listened to the wrong voice. When Ahithophel proposed an attack, Hushai convinced Abasalom to delay, buying David time to escape (II Samuel 17:1-16, 22).

Steven Shawn Tuell (b. 1956) analyzes:
The revolt fails in large measure because Hushai...pretending to go over to Absalom’s side, counters Athithophel’s wise counsel with bad advice (II Samuel 15:32-37, 17:5-14). Athithophel, seeing his counsel rejected and knowing Absalom’s case is doomed, commits suicide (II Samuel 17:23). (Tuell, First and Second Chronicles (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 106)

Despite being a notorious traitor, Chronicles makes no mention of Athithophel’s disloyalty. Paul K. Hooker (b. 1953) writes:
Because he omits all discussion of the revolt of David’s son Absalom, the Chronicler masks the roles played by these two characters in those events (II Samuel 15:32-37, 17:5-14). In the present list, Athithophel and Hushai are listed alongside one another, as if none of the events of Absalom’s revolt had occurred and both had rendered valuable service to David. (Hooker, First and Second Chronicles (Westminster Bible Companion), 106)
John Mark Hicks (b. 1957) counters:
The Chronicler assumes a knowledge of political intrigues without commenting on them. His only hint is that Athithophel was succeeded by Jehoiada son of Benaiah and by Abiathar. He does not say why Athithophel was replaced, but he assumes his readers know the story. (Hicks, 1 & 2 Chronicles (The College Press NIV Commentary), 237-38)
Were you offered any position in the royal court, what would you choose? What is the worst advice someone has ever given you? When two equally credible advisors offer conflicting guidance, how do you decide which you will follow? Why does the chronicler omit Athithophel’s betrayal? Who has betrayed you? Did his loyalty during David’s time of need merit Hushai the moniker “the king’s friend”?

Hushai is known as “David’s friend” prior to Absalom’s revolt (II Samuel 15:37, 16:17) but his relationship with the king likely deepened during the crisis (II Samuel 15:1-18:15). Although Hushai is never mentioned again in Scripture, one of the Solomon’s prefects, Baana son of Hushai, is likely his son (I Kings 4:16).

Hushai was not only a royal advisor but also a friend of the monarch himself. In addition to their formal Cabinets, many United States presidents have had friends who served as informal advisors. Most famously, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) listened to his crew of cronies and newspaper men so frequently that his opponents dubbed them his “kitchen cabinet”. Their importance was elevated when Jackson dismissed five of his eight Cabinet officials in the middle of his first term.

In contrast, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) filled some of his Cabinet positions with “enemies”. This revolutionary strategy is chronicled in Doris Kearns Goodwin (b. 1943)’s New York Times Best Seller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Who has remained loyal to you through the worst times of your life? Were you a monarch, who would you designate to be your “friend”? Would you prefer to be advised by your friends or a team of rivals? Why?

“The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.” - Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Don’t Grab a Dog By the Ears (Prov. 26:17)

Complete: “He who meddles in a quarrel not his own _____________________________________________.” Is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears (Proverbs 26:17)

Conflict has seemingly always been part of the human experience. Proverbs 26:17-22 marks the chapter’s third series of sayings and speaks to the general topic of strife. In advising readers not to meddle in someone else’s quarrel, the sage returns to the familiar imagery of a dog for the second time in the chapter (Proverbs 26:11, 17). Proverbs equates meddling into another’s affairs to yanking a dog by its ears. This practice ensures pain and injury. And the dog will not like it either. (President Lyndon Johnson [1908-1973] learned after grabbing his beagle “Him” by his ears [pictured with his sister “Her”, in this May 4, 1964 photo op] that animal lovers do not like it either.)

Like one who takes a dog by the ears Is he who passes by and meddles with strife not belonging to him. (Proverbs 26:17 NASB)
Dave L. Bland (b. 1953) paraphrases, “According to Proverbs 26:17, those who get involved in quarrels that are none of their business provoke retaliation and will suffer injury (Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of Solomon (College Press NIV Commentary), 239).”

Alyce M. McKenzie (b. 1955) assumes:

The sages of Israel, observing recurring stories of individuals in verbal combat with one another, devised the proverbs...These proverbs have obviously arisen out of anonymous sages’ observation of narrative patterns in life around them. Far from being static statements of universal truth, proverbs make themselves available as wisdom tools for interpreting present and future stories. (McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit, xv-xvi)
Like many modern aphorisms that incorporate canine imagery, the sage draws upon a dog’s life. Proverbs 26:17 paints a humorous word picture to remind the reader to mind her own business. Unlike many proverbs, the analogy is timeless, holding true as much today as it did at the time it was written.

Naturally, dogs do not like being grabbed by their ears. Tova L. Forti (b. 1921) writes:

The proverb describes an episode of picking a quarrel: the picturesque image of someone who provokes a dog by pulling its ears (LXX: “tail”)—considered to be a very sensitive organ—represents the quarrel-monger. (Forti, Animal Imagery in the Book of Proverbs (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum), 99)
The Hebrew for “dog” (keleb) does not indicate a breed. The more general term is apropos as the unpleasant condition transcends classification. Most translations reflect this by speaking simply of a “dog” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NLT) though some add adjectives to capture the saying’s setting: “mad dog” (CEV, MSG), “passing dog” (NRSV, RSV), and “stray dog” (NIV). Though these descriptors are not found explicitly in the original text, they capture its meaning.

Michael A. Zigarelli (b. 1965) explains:

If we read this verse in cultural context...the admonition is far more compelling. Dogs were not pets in the ancient Near East, but rather wild animals, like jackals. If we were to grab such a beast by the ears, we would be in mortal danger indeed. In this light, the warning takes on a much greater urgency than if we mentally transport Fifi to 900 B.C. Proverbs 26:17 implies that we could in fact be seriously harmed by entering the fray. (Zigarelli, Management by Proverbs: Applying Timeless Wisdom in the Workplace, xxiii)
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) adds:
It is obviously stupid to pull the ears of a dog. To make sense of the proverb, however, the dog must be understood to be mean, so that such behavior would certainly cause it to bite. The comparison suggests that those who butt into a fight that they have no part in are asking for the same consequence. Both parties may well turn against the person who tries to step in to help or take one of the two sides. The comparison is an observation, but it certainly functions as a warning. (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 469)
Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) analyzes:
The least dangerous of the antisocial troublemakers is the busybody, for he hurts only himself...The confrontational and outspoken busybody unnecessarily experiences the negative emotions of becoming furious about someone or something and runs the danger of getting hurt...The likened to a semiwild dog. Because of the Hebrews’ prejudice that dogs were unclean, most dogs in Palestine were semiwild, like the pariah dogs that sill haunt some countries. Its dynamic equivalent would be a jackal. Grabbing it by its sensitive ears connotes the inevitability of getting hurt in the needless dispute. Not even Samson grabbed the foxes by their ears. (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 358)
Duane A. Garrett (b. 1953) summarizes: “Busybodies cannot resist the temptation to inject themselves into private disputes, and they have no excuse for being surprised at the violent outbursts that are sure to follow (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary), 214).”

What modern proverbs have you heard which reference dogs? Have you ever interfered in someone else’s quarrel? How does yanking a dog by the ears correlate to meddling in a dispute? What examples can you think of where the sage’s advice should have been followed? For whose benefit is this proverb written, the busybody or the combatants? Why should one not intervene in a quarrel?

Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) sees the text as referencing a fight amongst strangers:

Butting into others’ quarrels is a good way to get hurt...It is seizing the ears of a passing dog—that is, a strange one—that can get one bitten. (To be sure, there were, so far as we know, no domesticated dogs in ancient Israel, but one who lives near one’s house might be less hostile.) Likewise it is the danger of interfering in strangers’ quarrels (rather than, say, the squabbling of two family members) that is the object of this particular warning. (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible),799)
John W. Nieder (b. 1952) and Thomas M. Thompson (b. 1926) concur, advising:
In many cases confrontation may be called for, but you are not the person who should do the confronting. The most obvious case is where the problem or dispute is simply none of your business...Often it seems noble and virtuous to intervene in someone else’s quarrel. But unless you have specific authority to do so, God’s Word says your involvement is folly. (Nieder and Thompson, Forgive and Love Again: Healing Wounded Relationships, 156)
Why would someone interfere in another’s fracas? When is a quarrel your business? When would you want someone meddling in your affairs? Is it ever blessed to be the peacemaker in someone else’s argument (Matthew 5:9)? Does this advice apply to a nation’s foreign policy?

“Justice means minding one’s own business and not meddling with other men’s concerns.” - Plato (427–347 BCE), Republic 4.433a, translated by Francis MacDonald Cornford (1874-1943)