Friday, August 17, 2012

Philip Teleports? (Acts 8:39-40)

How did Philip get from the desert to Azotus? The Spirit of the Lord caught him up (Acts 8:39)

At the conclusion of the famous encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Acts adds a summary statement (Acts 8:39-40). It is noted that after Philip accomplishes his mission, he is “snatched” and lands in the seacoast town of Azotus (Acts 8:39 NASB). The text reads almost if the missionary is teleported.

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:39-40 NASB)
There is an intentional contrast between the two characters as the eunuch leaves by his own volition whereas Philip is led by the Spirit. The natural and supernatural are placed next to one another and in doing so the Spirit moves them in opposite directions. Just as there had been direct divine involvement in their meeting (Acts 8:26, 29), so there too in their separation (Acts 8:39-40).

Nothing is said of Philip’s ministry in Azotus. Acts begins the next chapter with Saul/Paul and the book and follows him, not Philip (Acts 9:1). The significance is not Philip’s ministry in Azotus as this is the only New Testament reference to the former Philistine stronghold. The importance is in getting Philip to Azotus.

Philip is subject to a sudden disappearance. The language is indicative of a supernatural exit. The Greek harpazo implies a sudden forceful action with no resistance. This verb suggests that Philip is taken by force and is rendered variously “caught” (ASV, KJV, NKJV, RSV), “snatched” (NASB, NLT, NRSV), “took” (CEV, MSG, NIV) and “carried” (ESV, HCSB). He next finds himself in Azotus (Acts 8:40). The passive “was found” (heurethē) is properly translated as reflective. Though some have interpreted that Philip merely had a strong inner compulsion to go to Azotus, the text implies a supernatural exit.

This form of transport is unique as it the only such occurrence in the New Testament though the use of the verb is not without precedent. Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) analyzes:

The Spirit takes Philip away. The verb here for being caught up ἁρπάζω (harpazō), appears twice in Acts (in Acts 23:10 Paul is taken away from a scene to protect him) and twelve other times in the New Testament (Matthew 11:12, 12:29, 13:19; John 6:15, 10:11-13, 27-29 [2x]; II Corinthians 12:2-4 [2x; Paul caught up into the third heaven]; I Thessalonians 4:15-17 [saints being caught up in the air]; Jude 1:22-23; Revelation 12:5). His instant removal makes clearer still that God is at work. It recalls Jesus’ removal in Luke 24:31. Like Elisha, Philip is directed in ministry (I Kings 18:12, 46; II Kings 2:16 [a similar taking up]; similarly 11:24). (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 345-46)
The Western text has a longer reading which adds that an angel did the snatching. I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) notes:
This is an abrupt ending to the story, and it is eased by a longer form of the text which reads: ‘And when they came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell upon the eunuch, but the angel of the Lord caught up Philip...’ Since in the Greek sentence the word for ‘Holy’ comes after ‘Spirit’, it can easily be seen that the whole of the italicized phrase might have dropped out of the text by accident. If so, the longer form of the text could have been the original wording, in which case the story would have related explicitly how the gift of the Spirit followed upon the eunuch’s baptism. Although the MS evidence for the longer text is weak, it could be original. The phrase ‘Spirit of the Lord’, however is found in Acts 5:9 and Luke 4:18, and the picture of the Spirit (rather than an angel) transporting a person is found in I Kings 18:12; II Kings 2:16; Ezekiel 3:14; et al. In any case, the fact that the eunuch went on his homeward journey rejoicing allows us to infer that he has received the Spirit. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 165-66)
This addition might remove inconsistency from the text but makes no difference in understanding what happened to Philip.

Though unique in the New Testament, teleportation is not unprecedented in antiquity. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) documents:

This type of supernatural transference of a person from one place to another is mentioned elsewhere in antiquity (I Kings 18:12; II Kings 2:16; Bel and the Dragon 36; Fragment Targum on Pentateuch, Genesis 28:10: “as soon as our father Jacob lifted up his feet from Beersheeba to go to Haran, the earth shrank before him and he found himself in Haran”; Philostratus, Life of Apollomius of Tyana 8.10; Gospel of the Hebrews [so Origen, On Jeremiah 15:4, and Jerome, On Micah 7:6)]). (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 80)
Like Elijah, Philip is moved by God to his next point of ministry (I Kings 18:12, 46; II Kings 2:16). God transplants Philip back to where he was headed before getting his orders to meet the eunuch as Philip was in the north, called south and transported back north. Azotus is 20 miles up the coast, the next major town north of Gaza (Acts 8:26). Philip is working his way up the coast. In being snatched, Philip makes up for lost time. When he is next seen twenty years later “the evangelist” has continued this trajectory, residing in Caesarea (Acts 21:8).

What literary figures have the ability to teleport? What instances can you think of where someone has disappeared without a trace? Do you believe Acts describes a miracle or simply a strong inner compulsion? Does God still relocate people in miraculous ways? Why is Philip snatched, for his own benefit or the eunuch’s?

Time does not seem to be a pressing issue in Azotus so it can be inferred that it is not out of practicality that Philip is snatched. There are, however, several advantages to this methodology:

  • This exit prevents the eunuch from developing any personal attachment to Philip.
  • It is a sign that confirms that the eunuch has indeed encountered the supernatural.
  • It assures that Philip does not reinterpret his mission and rechart his course. His mission is the same both before and after the encounter; the eunuch is merely a diversion. Philip is not called to open the door to the Gentiles. That will be Paul’s assignment.
  • Most importantly, the emphasis is on Spirit as the one doing the work, an important theme in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is far more active than Philip in the account. The episode begins as it ends, with divinely encountered outreach and power. The Spirit leads him to the encounter and takes him away.
Richard Bauckham (b. 1946) comments:
The story of Philip’s transportation, which is unique for Luke and indeed unique in the New Testament, points to the stormy return of the prophetic Spirit and the way in which there were ecstatic experiences of it in the primitive community and among the hellenists, for whom the miraculous ‘divine guidance’ of the mission was also connected with the eschatological gift of the Spirit (cf. Acts 13:2ff; Galatians 2:1; Acts 16:6, 19:19, etc.). We might ask whether the original pre-Lukan story of the transportation of Philip to Azotus might not be meant to express a divine legitimation of the preaching of the missionaries from the ‘hellenist’ circle in a semi-Gentile city...Luke has allowed the theme of the transportation to stand as an archaic relic—which no longer accorded with his time—but left out the story which went with it. (Bauckham, The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting, 53)
F. Scott Spencer (b.1956) summarizes:
Philip’s boundary-breaking mission in Acts 8 is appropriately capped off by his sudden, miraculous removal from the scene, after baptizing the eunuch, and relocation at Azotus, from where he continues his evangelistic tour up the coast to Caesarea. The Spirit blows where it wills, sweeping the gospel across standard zones of times, space, and society. (Spencer, Acts, 94)
Do you think the Ethiopian missed Philip after he left abruptly? Have you ever arrived at a place without knowing how you got there? Have you ever felt compelled to go somewhere? Is the Holy Spirit guiding your path?

“I like teleporting better - less windy.” - Ando Masahashi (James Kyson, b. 1975) after running with Daphne Millbrook (Brea Grant, b. 1981), on “Heroes” (2006-2010), “Our Father”, December 8, 2008

Monday, August 13, 2012

Abraham: New Wife, New Life (Genesis 25:1)

Abraham married again after Sarah died. What was his second wife’s name? Keturah (Genesis 25:1)

Little is known of Abraham’s last 38 years, from the time his wife Sarah dies when he is 137 (Genesis 23:1) until his own death at the age of 175 (Genesis 25:7). Almost as an appendix, Abraham is said to have married a woman named Keturah (Genesis 25:1).

Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore to him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. (Genesis 25:1-2 NASB)
Bewilderingly, there is no connection between this passage and the material that precedes or follows it.

Keturah is a mysterious figure. Little detail is given her. The text does not state her age, place of origin, whether she was a slave like Hagar (Genesis 16:1) or her fate. The only detail provided is her name. “Keturah” comes from qetoret (“incense”) which has led some to suggest that her descendants were engaged in the incense trade. This industry is associated with the Arabian Peninsula (especially the territory east of the Gulf of Aqaba) in the Old Testament (I Kings 10:2; Isaiah 60:6). This theory fits the geography of the passage as several of her sons’ names, but not all of them, are associated with this region.

Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) comments:

Because of her name, it is reasonable to assume that the key factor behind the organization of the Keturah tribes was the spice trade—the production, shipment, and distribution of this precious commodity. It so happens that both biblical and Assyrian sources mention many of the names here listed [Genesis 25:2-4] as those of peoples and localities involved in the particular branch of international commerce. They controlled the trade routes that led from the Arabian Peninsula to the lands of the Fertile Crescent. This accounts for the picture of such widespread geographical diffusion of the Ketureans from southern Arabia to the Middle Euphrates region and northern Syria. (Sarna, Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary), 172)

Adding to the passage’s puzzle is the absence of a time stamp. Many have speculated that Abraham’s relationship with Keturah is concurrent with his marriage to Sarah given Abraham’s age, inferring that Abraham’s arrangement with Hagar is not an isolated incident (Genesis 16:1-4). Some rabbis have even posited that Keturah is merely another name for Hagar.

Robert Alter (b. 1935) acknowledges:

The actual place of this whole genealogical notice in the chronology of Abraham’s life might be somewhere after the burial of Sarah at the end of chapter 23, or perhaps even considerably earlier. The genealogy is inserted here as a formal marker of the end of the Abraham story. Perhaps a certain tension was felt between the repeated promise that Abraham would father a vast nation and the fact that he had begotten only two sons. The tension would have bee mitigated by inserting this document at the end of his story with the catalog of his sons by Keturah. (Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, 124)
There is also ambiguity as to whether Keturah is another wife or merely a concubine. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) examines:
This is the only passage in Genesis that mentions Keturah. Here she is called Abraham’s wife, but in I Chronicles 1:32 she is identified as “Abraham’s concubine.” The coidentification is comparable with Bilhah, who is called both Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22) and Jacob’s wife (Genesis 30:4). By contrast, Zilpah is identified as Jacob’s wife (Genesis 30:9) but never as his concubine. If “by concubines” in Genesis 25:6 is a reference to Hagar and Keturah...then again both Hagar (Genesis 16:3) and Keturah (Genesis 25:1) are called “wife” in one place but “concubine” in another (Genesis 25:6)...The emphasis on Keturah’s status as wife would suggest that Abraham married her after the death of Sarah. If the emphasis is on her status as concubine then one would think that Abraham married her while Sarah was still living, as he did with Hagar. In that case one wold have to understand married in this verse as a pluperfect — “had married.” (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 165)

The placement of the wedding notice and the passage’s verbs give the impression that Keturah enters the scene after Sarah’s death (Genesis 23:1-2). Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) writes:

The remark about Abraham’s marriage to Keturah and the genealogy connected with it do not easily follow the previous narrative context by our standards. To be sure, one cannot understand the verses otherwise than that this marriage followed the one with Sarah. But then we are disturbed by the thought that forty years previously, Abraham no longer thought it possible to beget a son. (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 262)
It appears Abraham got a new lease on life after Sarah’s death. Amazingly, though forty years earlier he thought himself too old for children (Genesis 17:17), Abraham has half a dozen children with Keturah (Genesis 25:2), the most familiar of which is Midian. In fact, the passage documents six sons, seven grandsons and three great grandsons from their union (Genesis 25:2-4). Keturah may have birthed daughters as well.

Though Abraham honors and provides for these sons they do not participate in the Promise (Genesis 25:5-6). Keturah’s sons are as detached from Abraham as the passage in which they appear. Abraham bequeaths everything he owns to Isaac, his sole beneficiary (Genesis 25:5). Keturah’s sons are a collateral line who are safely exiled to the east (Genesis 25:1-6). This leaves Keturah a secondary wife with lower status than Sarah.

James McKeown delineates:

The narrative implies no criticism of Abraham, and his large family is evidence of the fulfillment of the earlier promises that he would have numerous progeny (Genesis 15:5). Nothing disparaging is said about Keturah, the concubines, or their offspring, but there is a clear demarcation between them and Isaac. Isaac is given a position of unmistakable prominence as the son of Abraham in a special and unique sense, and through him Abraham’s most significant line of descent is traced — the line of promise and blessing. (McKeown, Genesis (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary), 124)
Abraham dies with his affairs in order. Abraham protects the Promise, which will come through Isaac. In making this distinction, the passage brings to close central the theme of Abraham’s heir.

Does it matter when Keturah marries Abraham? How are we to view Keturah? How would Keturah fit into Paul’s analogy differentiating Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31)? Do Abraham’s sons with Keturah diminish the miracle of Isaac in any way? What does one do when their spouse dies? Have you ever known anyone who happily remarried after a spouse died? Did it detract from their previous marriage?

The succinct route which led Abraham to children with Keturah is remarkable when compared to the torturous path that led to Isaac. Burton L. Visotzky (b. 1951) remarks startlingly:

It’s reported so matter-of-factly. Abraham takes this woman, Keturah, who the rabbis immediately identify with Hagar, as if Sarah being dead, Abraham goes back to Hagar. But assuming it’s a third wife, it would be as if after all the family dysfunction for all those years, Abraham, now in old age, finally settles down and has a normal family. At this point, God’s out of the picture. Abraham doesn’t have a relationship with God anymore. But he has a normal life. (Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation, 217)
Is life easier for Abraham when God is no longer featured prominently in his story? How would your life be different without God? How would it be easier? How would it be more difficult?

“Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.” - Jim Rohn (1930-2009)