Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hammering Out Cherubim (Exodus 25:18)

What was on either end of the mercy seat above the Ark of the Covenant? A cherub (Exodus 25:18)

In the midst of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, God lays out specific instructions regarding the tabernacle and its contents (Exodus 25-31). The first item detailed is the Ark of the Covenant, a chest that represents the Old Testament’s most holy article (Exodus 25:10-22).

Stephen J. Binz (b. 1955) acknowledges:

The ark takes first place among the elements of the Dwelling due to its central importance in the whole structure. It is the symbol and vehicle of God’s nearness with Israel, serving as both container for the symbols of the covenant and as throne for Yahweh’s presence. Its size was unimposing; a cubit [Exodus 25:10] represented the distance from one’s elbow to fingertips. The opulence of its gold plating and molding suggests its importance as the most sacred object in the Dwelling. (Binz, God of Freedom and Life: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 99)
The second half of the instructions describe the construction of the “atonement cover” (MSG, NIV, NLT) or “mercy seat” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NSRV, RSV), the box’s top (Exodus 25:17-22). Two golden cherubim (the plural of cherub) are ordered to flank the mercy seat (Exodus 25:18).
You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. (Exodus 25:18 NASB)
It is between these cherubim that God promises to speak to the Israelites (Exodus 25:22).

Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) details:

The dimensions of the atonement cover are exactly those of the lid of the ark (see Exodus 25:10) it was designed to fit over precisely. It was to be made of pure gold, not a slab of wood overlaid with gold as the rest of the major surfaces of the ark were. At its ends were two pure “hammered gold” statues of uncertain height (but probably more than a cubit high at the very most and more likely only a few inches high in light of the overall proportions of the ark) that portrayed cherubim. (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 571)
Cherubim are supernatural beings often equated with angels. Aside from their name, Exodus provides no further description of the creatures.

Peter Enns (b. 1961) denotes:

The sudden reference to these creatures (in the Pentateuch cherubim also occur in Genesis 3:24 and Numbers 7:89) implies that they need no explanation for the Israelite readers. Cherubim appear not only over the cover but throughout the design of the tabernacle, a sign that the tabernacle is a symbolic representation of God’s heavenly dwelling...The presence of the cherubim also emphasizes the holiness of the ark...It is God’s location above the cover and between the cherubim that has led some scholars to regard the cover as God’s throne and the ark itself his footstool. This is not just a scholarly conjecture. A number of passages speak of God being enthroned between the cherubim (I Samuel 4:4; II Samuel 6:2; Psalm 80:1, 99:1). (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 512)
Cherubim become the first angels to appear in the Bible when they guard the abandoned garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). In Exodus, they reprise their role as bodyguards, symbolically guarding the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18).

Mark S. Smith (b. 1955) catalogs:

Cherubim guard the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), and they mark the walls of the Jerusalem temple (I Kings 6:29-32; cf. Ezekiel 41:18-10). In II Samuel 22:11 (Psalm 18:11) the Lord rides his cherub on the wind. Two cherubs make up two sides of a royal throne on a piece of ivory from Megiddo; the comparison suggests that the ark had a propitiatory function as a throne, with the Lord serving as divine king. Adding the sizes of the ark and the propitiatory heights, the seat of the throne stands five feet in height and conjures a picture of a superman-size divine king. (Smith, Exodus (New Collegeville Bible Commentary), 97)
The cherubim are one of the most distinctive aspects of the Ark of the Covenant. Waldemar Janzen (b. 1932) lauds:
Its outstanding features are its two cherubim of mounted on each end of the cover and facing each other (Exodus 25:19-20). Neither their features nor their function are described, beyond the reference to faces and wings...Artists have depicted in diverse ways not only their appearance but also their position on the mercy seat and the way their wings touch each other. (Janzen, Exodus (Believers Church Bible Commentary), 340)
John I. Durham (b. 1933) describes:
These cherubs were to be made with their wings spread and stretched out over the Ark-Cover, their bodies turned toward each other, their faces bowed towards the Ark-Cover. The cherubs have usually been connected with Yahweh’s throne, both as guardians and bearers. (Durham, Exodus (Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 3), 359)
Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) sees a strong parallel between the Ark’s winged cherubim and the Egyptian throne room:
The relief at Abu Simbel...shows Ramses’ cartouche, the Egyptian symbol of the presence of the god that Ramses was regarded to be, flanked on either side by a representation of the falcon god, Horus. The wings of Horus cover pharaoh’s garden throne in a symbol of divine protection. The relief is starkly similar to the description of the wings of the two cherubim that cover and protect Yahweh’s golden throne in the Tabernacle. (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 96)
J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) adds:
The cherubim resemble figures in Assyrian and Canaanite art that can flank a throne. In the tabernacle, they serve as the throne or throne-flank above which the LORD is invisibly seated. Their symbolism receives added dimension from the reference to cherubim in Genesis 3:24. There, the cherubim guard a sacred garden with its tree of life, intended for human habitation but now guarded from further profanation by those who have violated the life-serving law of that garden. (Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Companion), 195)
The ornamentation would have been quite expensive. Gayle A. McCoy estimates:
Made of hammered pure gold, these cherubim, according to Exodus 25:18...were “graven in gold.”...The Bible does not give us an exact size of the cherubim, but we can estimate the approximate size because the cherubim were large enough that their wings touched over the mercy seat (Exodus 25:20). The cherubim could have been cast or molded on an armature making the figures hollow. As we see in...Exodus 25:12, casting was a known Egyptian skill at this time. If sculpture-forming by use of an armature was knot known at that time, the molding could have been on average about half-inch thick...On the other hand, if they were solid gold figures, they would weigh much, much more than hollow figures. Let us assume that they used hollow figures and covered them with approximately 904 lbs. of gold. “Graven,” meaning to carve (Exodus 25:18), is as close as the Bible tells us how the cherubim were formed. Of course, carving is essentially what a sculptor does, whether in wood, stone or clay. (McCoy, God’s Golden Box: The Ark of the Covenant, 83)
Exactly what cherubim look like is subject to debate. H.L. Ellison (1903-1983) recognizes:
The cherubim are variously depicted. Here they are not described, but there are variants between Ezekiel 1:5-12, 41:18-10; Revelation 4:6-7. They are apparently the guardian spirits of this earthly creation: the description is symbolic, and so variation is unimportant. (Ellison, Exodus (Old Testament Daily Study Bible Series), 142)
James K. Bruckner (b. 1957) adds:
The text does not describe the features of the cherubim in further detail, but it is certain they were not the chubby winged boys of European art. Ezekiel pictures them with four faces each (man, lion, ox, eagle; Ezekiel 10:14) and also with two faces (man and lion; Ezekiel 41:18-19). Tradition describes them as having the face of a man and the body of a bill or lion (like a sphinx). Their functions are to guard holy things and attend the Lord. In Genesis 3:24, cherubim guarded the entrance to the garden of Eden, in order to protect the tree of life. The cherubim are the Lord’s chariot in Psalm 18:10, and also in Ezekiel 10. (Bruckner, Exodus (New International Biblical Commentary), 240-241)
Though most likely inaccurate, cherubim have long been associated with childish features. Joel M. Hoffman (b. 1968) traces this fallacy back to the great Jewish rabbi, Rashi (1040-1105):
Rashi [1040-1105] points out that the cherubs have “the image of a child’s face.” His reasoning? The Hebrew word for cherubs is kruvim, a word that happens to sound like the Aramaic word k’ravya. (The similarity is more pronounced in Hebrew than in English transliterations here, because in Hebrew vowels are generally less important than they are in English.) The Aramaic prefix k’ravya means “like child” in Aramaic. Rashi, basing his decision on the mid-first-millennium Babylonian Talmud, concludes that the kruvim must be k’ravya—that is, the cherubs must be “like a child.” (Hoffman, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, 29-30)
There is one constant in the depiction of cherubim. Jennie R. Ebeling (b. 1972) relays:
The only uniformity among the many examples known from ancient Near Eastern art is that cherubim were winged creatures. Statues and reliefs depicting various types of cherubim have been found at many Near Eastern sites, including Aleppo, Carchemish, and Byblos; carved ivory depictions of cherubim have been found at Samaria and Nimrud. Many examples of colossal winged bulls and other beasts are known from Babylonian and Assyrian palaces and temples. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 233)
The reason for the winged creatures’ presence atop the mercy seat is not specified. Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) concludes:
Whatever the original inspiration, the cherubim of the Tabernacle certainly communicate some concepts of God that are fundamental to the religion of Israel. As bearers of the celestial throne, they evoke belief in divine, transcendent sovereignty. Their permanent place above the Ark expresses God’s immanence—His enduring presence in the covenanated community of Israel. Their outstretched wings represent the idea of consummate mobility, that is, of God’s omnipresence. (Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, 161)
What sensation is the imagery of the Ark of the Covenant designed to evoke? What does the architecture of the Ark communicate about God? Why are cherubs perched atop Israel’s holiest artifact? How do you visualize cherubs? Do these cherubim violate the second commandment’s prohibition against graven images?

Some have seen a contradiction between the mandate to adorn the ark with golden cherubim (Exodus 25:18-20) and the disallowance of creating “graven images” issued just five chapters earlier (Exodus 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 4:15- 16). The forbidden graven images are those that would be worshiped as false gods. In contrast, others have used this passage to support the veneration of images, seeing the passage as irrefutable evidence that iconography has an approved place in authorized worship.

Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) deciphers:

In the Old Testament, alongside the prohibition of humanlike images, it was commanded that sculptural gold images of angels be made. What meaning can we attach to this apparent contradiction, which for some proves that human images were prohibited while for others is proves just the opposite? The portrayal of angels — and this is the crux of the matter — contained human images, in virtue of the cohumanity of angels. Of course they differed from human images in some of their particular traits, that expressed their specifically angelic nature (wings, the absence of gender, a youthful appearance), but these traits did not change the human character of the image itself (just as in general the Old Testament angelophanies were in the human image). Thus, even though the religious reproduction of the human image, the icon of humanity, was prohibited directly, it was prescribed indirectly, in the icons of angels. Why? The reason is obvious: in the portrayals of angels the human image was not darkened by sin. (Bulgakov, Icons and the Name of God, 59-60)
Jon E. Roeckelein (b.1937) chronicles:
Curiously, F.L. Cross [1900-1968] and E.A. Livingstone...state that “there is no mention of imagery in the New Testament, as at least from the time of the Maccabees the Palestinian Jews had observed the second commandment religiously” (cf. W.E. Vine [1873-1949] [1981], and a literal distinction between the terms image and imagery; while the term image actually is used in the New Testament [e.g., II Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3], the derivative term imagery as referring to idols, statues, and images–as objects of worship or veneration and as employed in the Old Testament—does not appear in the New Testament.) However, Cross and Livingstone..also state that “[i]t was only when the theological significance of the Incarnation came to be more fully grasped, and what was involved in the fact that God had become visible by making human nature better understood, that, to many, there seemed to be no further obstacle to the use of images and other products of artistic gifts of mankind in the service of the true religion.” (Roeckelein, Imagery in Psychology: A Reference Guide, 135)
How does your church visually promote worship? How important is aesthetics to a place of worship? Why? Do visual representations of spiritual ideas help your faith?

“The image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.” - Ezra Pound (1885-1972), “Affirmations IV: As for Imagisme”. New Age 16.13 (January 28, 1915), pages 349-350

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The (S)Word of God (Hebrews 4:12)

Which book describes the Word of God as a “two-edged sword”? Hebrews (Hebrews 4:12)

A long persuasive segment of Hebrews (Hebrews 3:1-4:11) famously concludes with a poem which powerfully affirms God’s word (Hebrews 4:12-13). Harold W. Attridge (b. 1946) calls the brief hymn “a rhapsody on God’s penetrating word” (Attridge, Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible), 46).”

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NASB)
Though compared to a sword, the destructive power of God’s word is not being emphasized.

God’s word is described as being alive. David L. Allen (b. 1957) documents:

The use of zon (“living”) to qualify “word” implies personality. Nowhere else in Hebrews in this word used to describe non-personal life, but it is used four times of God, twice of Jesus, and five times of human life. (Allen, Hebrews (New American Commentary), 286)
God’s word is also active. Robert J. Morgan (b. 1952) denotes, “The Greek word here is energēs, from which we get our word energy. The Bible is high-voltage. It has the unlimited energy of God behind it and will not return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11). (Morgan, 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know by Heart, 76).”

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

The word is “active” in the sense that it speeds to fulfill the purpose for which it has been uttered: this self-fulfilling character which it possesses is well summed up in Isaiah 55:11 where the God of Israel says of “my word...that goes forth from my mouth”: “it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 112)
Peter T. O’Brien (b. 1935) records:
This dynamic understanding of the word of God is in line with the witness of the Old Testament itself, and was familiar in contemporary Judaism. The word of God was regularly thought of as the effective means of God’s creative and judging activity, and was occasionally personified. The instrument by which the word was delivered, that is, the tongue, was occasionally depicted under the image of a sword. In Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-16 the word of God is personified as a warrior who bears the sharp sword of God’s decrees of judgment on the Egyptians at the exodus. There are verbal links with Philo, who exploits the imagery in his own way by finding, among other things, allegorical references to the Logos as a ‘cutter’. (O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 174)
The word of God is compared to a specific type of sword. There are two primary Greek terms used for sword and this one, machaira, is the smaller variety, more akin to a dagger (pictured).

Paul Ellingworth (b. 1931) distinguishes:

The use of μάραιρα (Hebrews 11:34, 37) raises two questions: (1) the type of weapon referred to, and (2) the associations of the term, particularly in metaphorical expressions such as this. In classical and modern Greek alike, ῥομφαια is a large sword while μάραιρα is a knife or sabre (cf. modern Greek μάραιρα, a stab). The distinction virtually disappears in the LXX (see, e.g., Ezekiel 5:1ff.), where both terms are frequent and most commonly translate hereb (in Genesis 11:6, 10 μάραιρα of a sacrificial knife; cf. Josephus [37-100] Antiquities 6. 190 [9.5]). In I Maccabees 4:6; II Maccabees 5:13, μάραιρα must mean “sword”; in Joshua 5:2 “knife,” as perhaps in Luke 22:38...In the New Testament, μάραιρα, is more common than ῥομφαια but there is considerable overlap of meaning: both terms are associated with divine judgment (μάραιρα, Revelation 13:10; ῥομφαια, Revelation 1:16, 2:12, 16), with judicial violence of persecution (μάραιρα, Mark 14:43, 47ff; Acts 12:2; Romans 8:35; Hebrews 11:34, 37; Revelation 6:4, 13:14; ῥομφαια, Revelation 6:8), and, as in the present verse, with the word of God (μάραιρα, Ephesians 6:17; ῥομφαια Revelation 19:15, 21). Sacrificial associations have been suggested for μάραιρα in Luke 22:38, as certainly in Genesis 22:6, 10, but in the present context the meaning is rather that of God’s power, through his word, to examine, to judge, and if necessary to destroy the guilt. The image of a knife is more appropriate to the idea of probing, which is directly expressed in the text; the traditional translation “sword” expresses the underlying thought of divine judgment. (Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 262)
With this precision in mind, The Message paraphrases,“His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey (Hebrews 4:12 MSG).”

Calvin Miller (b. 1936) recounts:

The Roman infantry used the machaira as its main battle sword. It was not a long, imposing weapon. In fact, it was a very short sword whose double-edged blade extended only about 18 inches. The enemies of Rome must have felt amused when they first saw these world conquerors and empire builders advancing into battle with such miniaturized weapons. But they changed their minds quickly once they saw how effectively the sword served in battle. Rome’s legionaries could chop up all their opponents at close range. The Romans carved an empire out of a barbaric world with an eighteen-inch blade...In a similar way, the sword of God’s Word is our machaira, God’s answer to life’s smothering entanglements. (Miller, Loving God Up Close: Rekindling Your Relationship with the Holy Spirit, 84)
Equating the word of God to a sword is not unique to Hebrews. George H. Guthrie (b. 1959) explains:
Elsewhere in the New Testament, authors associate the sword imagery with the word of God. For example, in Ephesians 6:17 the word of God is referred to as “the sword of the spirit”; in Revelation 1:16, 2:12, 19:15 the “sharp sword” proceeds from the mouth of the Son of Man, a symbol of the dynamic, spoken word of judgment. In Hebrews 4:12-13 the word is a sharp sword of discernment, which penetrates the darkest corners of human existence. (Guthrie, Hebrews (The NIV Application Commentary, 155-156)
James W. Thompson (b. 1942) adds:
The “two-edged sword” is an instrument for battle (cf. Judges 3:16) that was used metaphorically in a variety of contexts (cf. Psalm 149:6; Proverbs 5:4; Revelation 1:16). The sword is a common metaphor for God’s judgment in the Bible and Jewish literature (Deuteronomy 32:41; Psalm 17:13; Isaiah 27:1, 34:5, 66:16; Matthew 10:34; Ephesians 6:17). According to apocalyptic literature, God comes with the sword of judgment (I Enoch 88.2; Revelation 1:16, 2:16, 19:15, 21). (Thompson, Hebrews (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 87)
The most prominent reference aligning word and sword occurs in the description of the “the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-17). Though the same Greek term for sword is used in both passages, the meaning in Hebrews 4:12 is decidedly different.

Woodrow Kroll (b. 1944) explains:

Hebrews 4:12 contains one of the most powerful ideas about the effectiveness of God’s Word in a person’s life. Based on Ephesians 6:17, we often call the Bible “the sword of the Spirit” as part of the spiritual armor with which God equips the believer. As a sword, God’s Word is a weapon in spiritual warfare. But the passage in Hebrews 4 highlights a different purpose of God’s Word...The context shifts from the sword of the Spirit as a weapon in external conflict to a tool God uses in His internal work in our lives. (Kroll, Hebrews: Our Superior Savior (Back to the Bible Study Guides), 30)
The sword cuts deep. Hebrews affirms the word’s ability to penetrate through the surface to the inner, spiritual reality. Marie E. Isaacs deciphers:
In Hebrews 4:12 “spirit and soul,” “joints and marrow,” and “thoughts and intentions” function not as pairs of opposites but as synonyms. In hellenistic Jewish writings, soul (psychē) and spirit (pneuma) could be used interchangeably...Here the three pairs conjure up the idea of what is ostensibly indivisible. God’s word has the ability to bring judgment even to the seemingly impenetrable. (Isaacs, Reading Hebrews and James: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 67)
Gordon R. Lewis (b. 1926) and Bruce A. Demarest (b. 1935) concur:
Hebrews 4:12...makes no metaphysical distinction between soul and spirit. Rather the text reflects a literary technique in which the author used four pairs of quasi-synonyms to stress the all-inclusive power of the Word in a person’s life. (Lewis and Demarest, Integrative Theology, 141)
Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) rhapsodizes:
In time-honored homiletical fashion, the Preacher caps the three points of his sermon-within-a-sermon with a poem, a hymnlike tribute to the power of God’s word (Hebrews 4:12-13). Sharper than any earthly two-edged sword, the speech of God knifes through the curtain between heaven and earth, piercing into the depths of humanity, exposing to view the secret “intentions of the heart.” This sword is so sharp that it can separate even “the soul from the spirit,” dividing between what really matters and what seems to matter. No one can hide from this speech act of God; the word of God unveils every human life, laid bare before the eyes of God. The word of God takes an ordinary day and makes it “today,” takes an ordinary moment and makes it the time of crisis and decision, takes a routine event and makes it the theater of the glory of God, takes an ordinary life and calls it to holiness. (Long, Hebrews (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 61)
Charles R. Swindoll (b. 1934) agrees, processing:
First, it pierces, cutting through the excuses we give, the rationalizations we manufacture and the barriers we raise. Second, the Word of God is able to judge, exposing the truth about our innermost thoughts and motivations and leaving nothing in our lives untouched. Zane Hodges [1932-2008] writes, “The inner life of a Christian is often a strange mixture of motivations both genuinely spiritual and completely human. It takes a supernaturally discerning agent such as the Word of God to sort these out and to expose what is of the flesh.” (Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge Workbook: Finding Joy in a World Gone Mad)
John Piper (b. 1946) concludes:
What is the point in saying that the “word of God” pierces to the “division of soul and spirit”? The point is that it’s the Word of God that reveals to us our true selves. Are we spiritual or are we natural? Are we born of God and spiritually alive, or are we deceiving ourselves and spiritually dead? Are the “thoughts and intentions of our hearts” spiritual thoughts and intentions or only natural thoughts and intentions? Only the “word of God” can “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” as Hebrews 4:12 says. (Piper, Pierced by the Word: Thirty-One Meditations for Your Soul, 23)
How have you experienced the word of God as living and active in your life? Do you view the machaira as an offensive or defensive weapon? What is the world’s sharpest sword? Is there a better analogy for the word of God than a sword ? What is meant by the “word of God”? Is the expression limited to the Bible?

Donald A. Hagner (b. 1936) archives:

Considerable debate has occurred concerning the meaning of the term “the word of God” in Hebrews 4:12. The majority of patristic writers and commentators up to the Reformation period took it as referring to Christ as the Word logos of God. But elsewhere in Hebrews we find no indication that the author held to a logos Christology similar to that of the prologue to the Gospel of John. Furthermore, on this interpretation Jesus would be likened to a sword, which is rather odd...A second popular interpretation equates “word of God” with Scripture, meaning the Old Testament. Inasmuch as God speaks to us in Scripture, this interpretation is not wrong, but it is only a secondary meaning. Our author is thinking primarily of God’s direct speech to the heart, and the present statement was probably inspired by his repeated reference to hearing God’s voice in the preceding verses (Hebrews 3:7, 15, 16, 4:2, 7). The Israelites had no access to Scripture, yet they heard the word of God. (Hagner, Encountering the Book of Hebrews: An Exposition, 76)
Archbishop Dmitri Royster (1923-2011) argues there is little difference between interpreting the word of God as Jesus himself and broader readings:
Some modern interpreters seem to avoid identifying this logos with the Logos or Son of God, preferring to see it as a reference to the whole body of revealed truth, and there are some of the Fathers who understand it as both...In any event, the “Word of God” and His word are intimately united, because when God speaks to man in the New Covenant as He did in the Old, it is by means of His Son, His Word. (Royster, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary, 65)
D. Stephen Long (b. 1960) advises not to place limitations on the “word of God”:
Anyone who would confine its meaning to the original material conditions of its production (the author, the original autograph, the concrete people who first heard and received it), would neglect the ongoing material conditions that make Scripture to be Scripture: those who preserve it, continue to receive it as holy, and seek to hear it, repeating its words in nonidentical situations. This is what matters most. (Long, Hebrews: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 79)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) resolves:
When Hebrews speaks of the “word of God” (logos tou theou) as “living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, cutting to the division between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, able to discern the thoughts and conceptions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), it clearly means more than Scripture. It means God: “there is no creature that is not visible to him. All things like naked and exposed to his eyes” (Hebrews 4:13)...Nevertheless, that “word of God” does speak powerfully through Scripture, through God’s son, and now powerfully through the work of the Holy Spirit among them. (Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 46)
How do you define “the word of God”? Does God speak today? Is God’s communication with contemporary believers less “God’s word” than Scripture?

“We must allow the Word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behavior.” - John R.W. Stott (1921-2011), Authentic Christianity, p. 105

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Baby, It’s Warm Outside (Song of Solomon 2)

In which book do you find this: “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of the singing of birds is come”? Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 2:11, 12)

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is a conversation between two lovers. The woman famously advises, “Do not arouse or awaken love/until it so desires (Song of Solomon 2:7 NASB)”, or in other words, wait until the time is right.

This admonition is immediately followed by the composition’s eighth poem (Song of Solomon 2:8-17). In it, the woman recounts that her lover has said:

For behold, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone. The flowers have already appeared in the land; The time has arrived for pruning the vines, And the voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land. (Song of Solomon 2:11-12 NASB)
The back and forth banter between the lovers is comparable to the pop standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, premiered by Frank Loesser (1910-1969) and Lynn Garland (b.1917) in 1944 and re-popularized by Zooey Deschanel (b. 1980) and Leon Redbone (b. 1949) in the 2003 film Elf. The song features seesawing repartee between a suitor and his sweetheart in which the man repeatedly attempts to convince the woman to stay inside with him because it is cold outside. Song of Solomon also features alternating dialogue with a man attempting to convince a woman that the time is right for love; only his argument is that it is warm outside.

The man’s thesis centers around the time of year as he attempts to draw his lover’s attention to the pronounced change in seasons experienced by Israel. J. Cheryl Exum (b. 1946) writes:

With the particle hinnēh, “Look!,” the man directs the woman’s (and the reader’s) attention to spring’s unfolding. (The immediacy of “look” is even more pronounced in the fragment of this text found at Qumran, which reads hinnēh at the beginning of Song of Solomon 2:12 and Song of Solomon 2:13 as well [4QCant, 11.3. 5]). “Winter” refers to the rainy season, which usually ends around mid-April. The time described seems to be May or June, when figs and vines ripen and migratory birds, like the turtledove, appear. Hebrew zāmîr is associated with two different roots, one meaning “singing” and the other “pruning.” Christian D. Ginsburg [1831-1914] argues that singing is meant, since, like all the other pleasures of spring depicted, it is a gift of nature to be enjoyed, whereas pruning involves engaging in labor. (Exum, Song of Songs (Old Testament Library), 127)
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) concurs:
The man’s invitation in the previous verse (Song of Solomon 2:10) now receives a motive clause. Winter is gone and spring has arrived. Springtime is the universal time for love: warm weather, the fragrance of flowers — a time to go outside, a time for the removal of clothes and intimacy. The couple can leave the urban setting and go out to the countryside, the place of lovemaking and union. While the word for winter (setēw) is rare, the word for rains (gešem) is one of the more common words out of the many for rain in Israel. Since winter (October-April) is the only real time for rain in Palestine, the two words are variants on the same theme. Since the rains end in April, it is likely that the scene evokes a temporal setting in May...It’s springtime, the right time for love. (Longman, Song of Songs (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 121)
Othmar Keel (b. 1937) adds:
The statements...emphasize primarily the propitiousness of the hour. The Hebrew word for “flowers” in Song of Solomon 2:12a...does not refer merely to the splendor of the flowery meadows but to the blossoming of brushes and trees, especially the grapevines (Genesis 40:10; Sirach 50:8)...The vines are pruned or cut between January and March, before the new sap rises and before the time of the other signs enumerated in this verse...The turtledove mentioned in Song of Solomon 2:12 is a migratory bird (cf. Jeremiah 8:7) shows up in Israel about the middle of April (at the end of the rainy season). Its amorous cooing seems to provide the beat for the song of Song of Solomon 2:12b. Song of Solomon 2:12 seeks to motivate the call to go...primarily by calling attention to the favorable time. (Keel, The Song of Songs (Continental Commentary Series), 101)
Tommy Nelson (b. 1950) commends:
What a wonderful picture of courtship! Like springtime, their relationship had blossomed fully...Solomon was calling to the woman to be with him exclusively. He wanted to be alone with her, and in the “secret places” he wanted to communicate with her, get to know her, and deepen a relationship with her. He was committing to discover all he could about her. (Nelson, The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says About Love, Sex, and Intimacy, 67)
Not surprisingly, the man paints a highly idealized picture of springtime, accentuating its many benefits. Dianne Bergant (b. 1936) explains:
All of these images are somehow associated with springtime, the time when nature awakens to new life...Winter, the rainy season, is over and nature is coming alive anew. This is the time of the profusion of vibrant wildflowers that cover the earth like a mutlicolored carpet. It is the time of the sound of the migratory turtledove recently returned from its winter haven. It is the time when the flow of sap through the fig trees begins the ripening of its fruits. It is the time of the regeneration of vines as they bring forth blossoms and give forth fragrance. These are the harbingers of springtime. They are also all fitting images of innocent love. This is the time to “arise” from the old and “come away” to the new. The delicacy of new life and the promise that it extends, the enchantment with which spring invades the senses, both evoke and mirror the splendor of the passion of these lovers. Calling the woman into springtime is really calling her into love. (Bergant, The Song of Songs (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 30)
J. Cheryl Exum (b. 1946) notes that the man skillfully appeals to all of his lover’s senses:
The invitation to share the delights of spring derives its persuasive power from its appeal to the senses: blossoms are seen, the turtledove’s cooing is heard, the budding vines fill the air with fragrance. There is even a hint of taste in the mention of ripening figs and grape vines. The repeated references to “the land,” “our land,” in Song of Solomon 2:12 suggest a widening of perspective, with the entire countryside participating in the total sensory picture. (Exum, Song of Songs (Old Testament Library), 127)
Ariel Bloch (b. 1933) and Chana Bloch (b. 1940) see parallels between the season and the lovers themselves:
The poem is set in early spring, with its intimations of ripening. The rains of the winter season have just ended, the vines are in blossom, the air is alive with scents and birdsong. Since the poem speaks through metaphor, this setting reveals something essential about the lovers, who live in harmony with the natural world. The images of spring reflect their youth, and the innocent freshness of their passion. (Bloch and Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, 3)
Robert W. Jenson (b. 1930) reminds that the man’s feelings may be effecting the man’s perception of his environment:
Why the lover’s long praise of spring’s beauty? It is not itself metaphor, nor does it seem to carry any erotic double meaning; it is straightforward praise of spring’s empirical, if here perhaps somewhat exaggerated, delights. Therewith the poem brings to the surface an underlying motif of the Song’s general construal of reality: whenever in the Song the lovers step outdoors or imagine themselves there, they enter at Eden, a nature furnished only with beautiful, fruitful, and sweet-smelling flora and populated by fauna far from red in tooth in claw, where even rainy weather appears only as something just past that brought the flowers. (Jenson, Song of Songs (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 34)
Like more contemporary love songs, the man has spring when his lover is close. When it is cold outside, he has the month of may (“My Girl”). Birds suddenly appear every time she is near (“Close to You”).

As such, the woman still has concerns. Iain Provan (b. 1957) documents:

The man has suggested to her that her present location is a limiting one defined by fear, and he has spoken of the outside world only in glowing terms, designed to make it attractive to her. Her response is to remind him, however, that the outside world is in fact a dangerous place for herself and the other women (the “us” of Song of Solomon 2:15). Their reluctance to come outside is justified. (Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (The NIV Application Commentary), 288)
What love songs can you think of that evoke springtime imagery? Why is spring associated with love? How important is timing to a relationship? In other ventures? Have you ever interpreted a change in season as a sign to make a change in your life? What is it time for you to do now?

Given the erotic nature of Song of Solomon, many have interpreted the book allegorically though spring still factors into the reading. Marvin R. Wilson (b. 1935) notes:

During the Passover festival the Song of Songs is read. Since this book alludes to the beauty of springtime (Song of Songs 2:11-13), the very season of Passover, the rabbis interpreted it as a picture of God’s love for his people Israel. (Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, 249)
The book’s spring setting reminds that there is always hope for rebirth. John Eldredge (b. 1960) asks:
What if nature is speaking to us? What if sunrise and sunset tell the tale every day, remembering Eden’s glory, prophesying Eden’s return? What if it shall all be restored? (Eldredge, Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers, 108)
Have you ever found hope due to a change in the weather? Is your personal winter ending? Do you believe that it will?

“The deep roots never doubt spring will come.” - Marty Rubin (1929-1994)