Sub-atomic particles in biblical literary composition

One “good question” I’ve explored in recent years, working with Bible publishers and translators, is this: How can we illustrate the structure and composition of the biblical writings by the way we lay out the text on the page? My most recent layout experiment has been with the episode in the book of Samuel-Kings that tells how Adonijah tried to claim the throne when his father David was dying.

As a rule, such episodes are the basic building blocks of that book—its “atoms,” if you will. This particular episode is one of several that make up the succession narrative that describes how Solomon followed David on the throne of ancient Israel.  (Readers find out shortly afterwards how Solomon dealt definitively with the threat of Adonijah.) This narrative, in turn, is part of the long history of the Israelite monarchy in Samuel-Kings. But we can sometimes get a glimpse of literary “sub-atomic particles,” that is, even smaller pre-existing literary units that have been drawn into the composition to provide the structure and framework of an individual episode. I believe that’s the case here.

David swore an oath to Bathsheba that her son Solomon would succeed him. As was common in this culture, David made this a solemn pronouncement by speaking it in poetry.  (I discuss that practice in this post.) David’s original poetic couplet is quoted five times over the course of this episode, guiding the narrative flow as the words move from the mouth of one character to another. The oath is quoted:

- By Nathan to Bathsheba;
– By Bathsheba to David;
– By Nathan to David (with a delightful ironic twist);
– By David to Bathsheba, reasserted in slightly lengthened form;
– By David to his officials, as a fresh assertion in renewed language, embedded in a series of instructions that will actually make Solomon king.

When we see the episode through this lens, we recognize that the concern is not just “Who will be king?” but “Will the king’s word be upheld?”  This thematic perspective connects the episode to one of the largest concerns running all through the Bible, the memory of God’s sovereign words and the hope of their ultimate fulfillment.

To highlight the function of this oath within the narrative, in the layout below I’ve set it off as poetry in each case. Have a read through and see what you think. Particularly if you’ve read this episode before, does seeing the oath set off as poetry help you “catch the flow” any better?

(This is how the episode comes out in the WordPress template.  A typesetter might decide to use different line spacing for a printed version, but I personally think this works well for online reading. Also, I’ve used the ESV translation because it presents the oath as a direct quotation in the first four cases. The Hebrew original could also be rendered as an indirect quotation in certain of these cases, as in other translations.)

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Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, “Why have you done thus and so?” He was also a very handsome man, and he was born next after Absalom. He conferred with Joab the son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest. And they followed Adonijah and helped him. But Zadok the priest and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and Nathan the prophet and Shimei and Rei and David’s mighty men were not with Adonijah.

Adonijah sacrificed sheep, oxen, and fattened cattle by the Serpent’s Stone, which is beside En-rogel, and he invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah, but he did not invite Nathan the prophet or Benaiah or the mighty men or Solomon his brother.

Then Nathan said to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon, “Have you not heard that Adonijah the son of Haggith has become king and David our lord does not know it? Now therefore come, let me give you advice, that you may save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in at once to King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying,

“Solomon your son shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne”?

Why then is Adonijah king?’ Then while you are still speaking with the king, I also will come in after you and confirm your words.”

So Bathsheba went to the king in his chamber (now the king was very old, and Abishag the Shunammite was attending to the king). Bathsheba bowed and paid homage to the king, and the king said, “What do you desire?” She said to him, “My lord, you swore to your servant by the Lord your God, saying,

‘Solomon your son shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne’?

And now, behold, Adonijah is king, although you, my lord the king, do not know it. He has sacrificed oxen, fattened cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the sons of the king, Abiathar the priest, and Joab the commander of the army, but Solomon your servant he has not invited. And now, my lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are on you, to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. Otherwise it will come to pass, when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers, that I and my son Solomon will be counted offenders.”

While she was still speaking with the king, Nathan the prophet came in. And they told the king, “Here is Nathan the prophet.” And when he came in before the king, he bowed before the king, with his face to the ground. And Nathan said, “My lord the king, have you said,

‘Adonijah shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne’?

For he has gone down this day and has sacrificed oxen, fattened cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the king’s sons, the commanders of the army, and Abiathar the priest. And behold, they are eating and drinking before him, and saying, ‘Long live King Adonijah!’ But me, your servant, and Zadok the priest, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and your servant Solomon he has not invited. Has this thing been brought about by my lord the king and you have not told your servants who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?”

Then King David answered, “Call Bathsheba to me.” So she came into the king’s presence and stood before the king. And the king swore, saying, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my soul out of every adversity, as I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, saying,

‘Solomon your son shall reign after me,
He shall sit on my throne in my place,’

even so will I do this day.” Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the ground and paid homage to the king and said, “May my lord King David live forever!”

King David said, “Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada.” So they came before the king. And the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel. Then blow the trumpet and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ You shall then come up after him,

And he shall come and sit on my throne,
For he shall be king in my place.

And I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah.” And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada answered the king, “Amen! May the Lord, the God of my lord the king, say so. As the Lord has been with my lord the king, even so may he be with Solomon, and make his throne greater than the throne of my lord King David.”

So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.

Adonijah and all the guests who were with him heard it as they finished feasting. And when Joab heard the sound of the trumpet, he said, “What does this uproar in the city mean?” While he was still speaking, behold, Jonathan the son of Abiathar the priest came. And Adonijah said, “Come in, for you are a worthy man and bring good news.” Jonathan answered Adonijah, “No, for our lord King David has made Solomon king, and the king has sent with him Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites. And they had him ride on the king’s mule. And Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet have anointed him king at Gihon, and they have gone up from there rejoicing, so that the city is in an uproar. This is the noise that you have heard. Solomon sits on the royal throne. Moreover, the king’s servants came to congratulate our lord King David, saying, ‘May your God make the name of Solomon more famous than yours, and make his throne greater than your throne.’ And the king bowed himself on the bed. And the king also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day, my own eyes seeing it.’”

Then all the guests of Adonijah trembled and rose, and each went his own way. And Adonijah feared Solomon. So he arose and went and took hold of the horns of the altar. Then it was told Solomon, “Behold, Adonijah fears King Solomon, for behold, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not put his servant to death with the sword.’” And Solomon said, “If he will show himself a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the earth, but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” So King Solomon sent, and they brought him down from the altar. And he came and paid homage to King Solomon, and Solomon said to him, “Go to your house.”

Raphael, The Anointing of King Solomon

How can an evil being like Satan be allowed in God’s holy presence, in the book of Job?

Q.  In the opening part of the book of Job, how can a totally evil being like Satan be allowed to enter directly into the presence of God?  I’ve always been told that God is so holy that He can’t tolerate any evil in his presence.

To state the matter simply, the character in the book of Job commonly called Satan in English translations isn’t exactly the same as the devil or Satan described in the New Testament.

As I explain in my Job study guide, in this opening narrative, “Satan” is not actually a name. The Hebrew word satan literally means “adversary,” and in the book of Job it’s always preceded by the word “the,” so this is actually a title: “The Adversary.”  (Many Bibles, the ESV and NRSV for example, have footnotes explaining that the Hebrew actually reads “the Accuser or the Adversary”; others like the NIV explain the meaning of the term: “Hebrew satan means adversary.”)

The word satan is used many times in the Old Testament to describe a determined and persistent opponent, as in the account of Solomon’s reign in Samuel-Kings: “Rezon son of Eliada . . . was Israel’s adversary as long as Solomon lived.” As a noun, the root satan is used in a specialized way to describe the accuser in a legal proceeding; as a verb, it describes the act of accusing, as in Psalm 38: “My enemies . . . lodge accusations against me.” Here in the book of Job, the Adversary is both a determined opponent of God and an accuser of anyone who seeks to follow God faithfully.

While this character is similar to the devil or Satan described in the New Testament, the portrait isn’t drawn as fully in the book of Job. The book doesn’t account for where he came from or how he became opposed to God.  It does portray him as a crafty and malicious player within the complex moral web of the universe, but not necessarily as a consummately evil being who could never be allowed into the presence of a holy God.

A Medieval illustration of Satan scourging Job, with Job’s wife urging him to “Bless [i.e. curse] God and die”–just the outcome the Adversary is hoping for. But the depiction of the Adversary as just like the devil is anachronistic, not quite true to his identity in the book of Job.

Did Nebuchadnezzar say that the spirit of the “holy gods” or “holy God” was in Daniel?

Q.  In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar says several times that the “spirit of the holy gods” is in Daniel.  In my Bible there’s a footnote that says this could also be translated as the “Spirit of the holy God.”  Which is right?

It might appear that the translation should be determined by whether the word for “God” (or “god”) is singular or plural in the original.  But things are actually a bit more complicated than that.  This account is written in Aramaic, and in that language, as in Hebrew, there’s a “plural of excellence.”  If something is the supreme example of its own class, it’s put in the plural, even though it’s just one thing, not more than one.  The name for the supreme God in the Old Testament is therefore plural: Elohim in Hebrew, Elohin in Aramaic.  But the same word can also be used to refer to multiple “gods.”  So in what sense is Nebuchadnezzar using the term when he refers to Daniel in this account?

The vast majority of English Bibles translate it as “gods.” For example, almost all of the approximately forty English versions (not counting multiple editions of the same translation) that can be surveyed on BibleGateway render the expression this way. This likely reflects the reasonable assumption that Nebuchadnezzar is a pagan and a polytheist and so would naturally talk like this.

Only four of those versions—the NKJV, Amplified Bible, Jubilee Bible, and Modern English Version—instead have Nebuchadnezzar say that the “Spirit of the holy God” is in Daniel.  However, the ESV, RSV, NASB, and Good News Bible all provide this as an alternative translation in a footnote.  And I think that the possibility should at least be acknowledged to that extent.

Nebuchadnezzar’s account is actually a letter “to the nations and peoples of every language,” in which he acknowledges repeatedly that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  Since Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that Daniel speaks on behalf of the “Most High,” he may well be addressing him as someone in whom is the “Spirit of the holy God,” meaning the Supreme God.

It might be countered that “the holy gods” was a characteristic Babylonian way to refer to the entire pantheon of gods that were recognized in that culture.  If the phrase is found with that meaning in ancient Babylonian literature or inscriptions (I’m not aware whether it is), then that would strengthen the case for the most common translation.  But we can note that the phrase does not appear in the book of Daniel where it otherwise might if it actually were a formula for the pantheon.  For example, Nebuchadnezzar challenges Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego by asking, “What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”  He doesn’t say, “Which of the holy gods will be able to rescue you?”  So once again, even if “the holy gods” is chosen as the translation, I think it’s wise to provide “the holy God” as an alternative.

Do the “records of Samuel, Nathan, and Gad” still exist?

Q. I was reading in Chronicles today and it references “the records of Samuel the seer,” “the records of Nathan the prophet,” and “the records of Gad the seer.”  Are these books in evidence in the historical record anywhere? And what is a “seer,” from a biblical perspective?

There are no surviving copies of the actual books listed there in Chronicles.  Nor do we have copies of other books mentioned as sources in the Bible, for example, “the book of Jashar” that is referenced in Joshua and Samuel-Kings.  It’s clear, however, that these books once were available to the believing community and that they were among the sources that went into writing the long history of the monarchy in Samuel-Kings as well as the parallel history you’re reading now in Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah.

While we don’t have these books, the references to them within the Bible do show that the biblical authors used available written sources as they composed their own works.  (To give another example, Luke explains in the dedication to his gospel that he has examined the “accounts” that others have undertaken to “draw up” about the life of Jesus and the early growth of the community of his followers.)

In other words, the biblical books didn’t just drop fully formed out of heaven.  They are in many cases the product of the same kind of research that goes into scholarly historical works today.  The statement you’re asking about, in fact, is the ancient equivalent of a footnote, acknowledging the sources that were used for a certain part of the history and referring readers to them for further information.

As for the meaning of the term “seer,” it is an older term that, as the narrative in Samuel-Kings explains, means the same thing as “prophet”: “Formerly in Israel, if someone went to inquire of God, they would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.”  So the titles in Chronicles actually mean, for example, ”the records of Samuel the prophet,” etc. The use of the archaic term “seer,” which has to be explained to later readers, suggests that the source books themselves are significantly older than the final products–more evidence that biblical books like these are the result of careful historical research.  Here we see the human side of the Bible’s composition.

Why did Paul silence a spirit in Philippi that was speaking the truth about him?

Q.  When Paul was in Philippi, he commanded a fortune-telling spirit in the name of Jesus Christ to leave a woman who had been following his team for many days shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”  This raises a lot of questions.  Couldn’t it have been considered that the spirit was doing good, in that the woman was announcing the way to ‘the Way’? If Paul were going to silence the spirit, why didn’t he do this sooner? On the other hand, why didn’t Paul just let the woman be, if he’d already put up with her for so long?
 
Seems to be a good lesson here, insofar as “testing the spirits” is concerned.  Can you think of other examples, perhaps where people might even claim that they “have a word from the Lord,” but those people should instead be silenced—some immediately, and others maybe after many days?  Seems like a tall order for leaders of the church today—or any time for that matter—to be able to discern.

I think Paul finally silenced the spirit when he realized that all the attention was going to “that crazy woman shouting”—even though she was shouting a valuable truth—rather than to the message he and his colleagues were preaching.  I think Paul waited as long as he did because he recognized precisely what you asked about—that the spirit might be considered to be making a positive contribution.  But eventually, I believe, he recognized that it was doing more harm than good, distracting rather than attracting.  I think that in all of this Paul showed both patience and discernment of exemplary quality.

As for today, you’re right, it calls for very fine discernment to know when a factually truthful message is being delivered in such a way that it’s doing more harm than good.  We need to consider not just the content but the effect of words and their tone, expression, and spirit.

Here’s one example—I once attended a public prayer meeting where a participant went on and on, praying for valuable things, but essentially hogging all the time and not giving anyone else a chance to contribute.  Finally one of the leaders respectfully asked him to stop and give others an opportunity to pray as well.  The man realized his fault and immediately said “Bless you, brother” to the leader, very humbly, and went silent.  That felt like good discernment all around.

Things get more complicated when it comes to matters like doctrinal disputes, social hot-button issues, and matters of practice on which the Christian community is divided.  One person might feel compelled to speak (to “bear witness to the truth”), while others might feel they were doing more harm than good by the way they were speaking.  A tall order for discernment, indeed, but a challenge that church leaders must try to meet, with fear and trembling, and with close reliance on the Holy Spirit.

Can more books be added to the Bible?

This question was asked as a follow-up to my recent post, “Since all religions consider their sacred books inspired, how is the Bible unique?

Q.  If what you say is true, then why doesn’t the Christian community periodically open debate/discussion on what additional Christian literature could be included in the present library (canon)?  That is, additional (not to be read “supplemental”) literature that, as time rolls on, more and more contemporarily brings greater global value to the witness of that outworking of the divine-human relationship?

Even though I said in my last post that “God inspired the Bible while human authors were in the process of writing to address concerns that had arisen within the believing community,” and even though to this day the ongoing life of that community raises new concerns well worth addressing authoritatively, I would nevertheless argue that the canon of Christian Scripture should be considered closed.  And I would argue this on the very same basis that I answered the original question about the uniqueness of the Bible.

Specifically, while I also said in that post that the human authors of the Bible “used their God-given abilities to a significant degree to shape not just the form but arguably even the content of the sacred books,” I also noted that “it can be recognized in retrospect that the impulse for them to do this actually came from God.”  And this happened in such a way that, paradoxically, we can also say that much of the initiative behind the creation of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures was divine, even though the initiative behind the composition of the actual books themselves was ostensibly human.

Here’s what I mean.  The biblical books, in terms of when and why they were written (as opposed to simply what parts of the story they tell), are actually clustered around significant redemptive-historical events:  the exodus of ancient Israel from Egypt; the establishment of the Davidic monarchy; the exile and return; and—consummately—the coming of Jesus Christ to “fulfill” all that came before and bring the unfolding story of redemption to its climax.  When we see the Bible in this light, we recognize that God’s contribution to the creation of the Scriptures was to initiate these events; the human contribution was to reflect on them under divine tutelage and express how the community should conduct and reorient its ongoing life in response to them.

Moreover, also when seen in this light, the biblical books, taken together, tell a story that has already reached its conclusion, that is, its dramatic resolution, even though it has not reached its actual ending.  To borrow some images from the biblical story itself, the rightful king has now taken his throne; what remains is for his whole realm to acknowledge his authority.  Alternatively, we might say that the marriage has already taken place; now the bride and groom must work out how to “live happily ever after,” which (as in a real marriage) will require significant character transformation, at least on the part of Christ’s bride the church—that is the part of the story we are in now.

And the ultimate ending, the return of Christ as acknowledged ruler of his entire realm, is already anticipated and depicted within the biblical story.  So our part today is not to add more books to the Bible, as if its story needed more filling out.  Rather, our part is to live out the section of the story between its dramatic conclusion and its actual ending—the section between the “already” and the “not yet.”  This will necessarily involve more working out, including in writing, of concerns that arise within the believing community.  But as valuable and worthwhile as many of these writings will be, they do not need to be added to the Bible.  Its story is complete.

Since all religions consider their sacred books inspired, how is the Bible unique?

A manuscript of the Rig Veda, one of the sacred books that Hindus consider inspired. Christians believe that the Bible is inspired, but is it uniquely so?

Q.  Thank you for your efforts in answering innumerable questions that come across from the believers.  Praise be to God.  Now here is my question. We Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired, revealed word of God. But other religions also say that their scriptures are God-revealed.  For example, Hindus believe that the Vedas/Upanishads are shruti, which means “heard.” They claim they are God-given.  Then which religion’s scriptures really are God-breathed?

It is true that all the major religions claim that their sacred books are divinely inspired.  But there is a significant difference in the way they describe and depict the inspiration process.  This at least allows a person to make a clear choice between varying accounts of the nature of divine action to produce sacred books.

I have not studied Hinduism in great detail, and I don’t feel qualified to discuss it in depth, but at least as I understand it, Hindus believe that the books they consider to be shruti are translations into humanly comprehensible form of the “cosmic sound of truth” as it was “heard” long ago by inspired poets.  In other words, there was first a distinct and discrete divine revelation, and this has now been captured and recorded in these sacred books.

Similarly Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad received divine revelations in Arabic via the angel Gabriel through visions, voices, dreams, etc., and that he then “recited” to others what he heard.  These revelations were later written down in the Qu’ran (which means “recitation”).  Once again the divine revelation is something objectively separate from the sacred book, which essentially records it.  That is, the divine action and the human agency are discrete.

To give one more example, Mormons hold that the Book of Mormon was originally inscribed on golden tablets in a language unattested anywhere else on earth, and that the angel Moroni showed Joseph Smith where the book was buried and taught him how to translate its contents into English.  In this case as well the human role is essentially to transmit the prior, discrete divine revelation; the human agent had no real creative role in shaping the form or content of the sacred book.

By contrast, Christians believe that God inspired the Bible while human authors were in the process of writing to address concerns that had arisen within the believing community.  (This is true even in cases where the written work records a discrete divine revelation, such as the words God spoke to ancient Israel at Mount Sinai:  that theophany is worked into an extended historical narrative whose real aim is to trace the unfolding covenant relationship that readers are being invited to become part of.)  The process of literary composition, in the case of the biblical authors, is really no different from this process as it ordinarily occurs.  This means that the human authors used their God-given abilities to a significant degree to shape not just the form but arguably even the content of the sacred books.  One might say, in fact, that a certain part of the divine revelation we have now in the Judeo-Christian scriptures would be missing if one of these authors had not set out to address a given concern.

Nevertheless (Christians believe), it can be recognized in retrospect that the impulse for them to do this actually came from God, so that there is a synergy between the human enterprise of literary composition and the divine enterprise of inspiration.  Still, the way Christians see their sacred books requires a much more significant and creative human participation in their creation than is the case in other religions.  Perhaps among them Hinduism allows for the greatest creative contribution, on the part of the ancient poets who composed hymns, chants, ritual formulas, etc., based on what they “heard.” But at least as I see it, there is still a contrast between the Hindu belief in a pre-existing “cosmic sound” that was captured in these compositions and the Christian understanding that the Bible was created “along the way,” in a divine-human synergistic process, as the community that was in covenant relationship with God worked out its life, beliefs, and practices.

In other words, I see a distinction between a belief in a divine revelation that exists prior to and independently of a religion’s sacred books, and which is effectively transmitted through them, and a divine revelation that comes into being only as the sacred books themselves take shape within the historical life of the believing community.

This distinction corresponds to and reflects, I believe, an essential distinction between Christianity and other religions.  Christianity is foundationally a creation-affirming, history-affirming faith that leaves a large place for human agency in the outworking of the divine-human relationship.  So while it remains true that all major religions claim that their sacred books are divinely inspired, I would say that Christianity makes this claim in a way that stakes out a unique place for it among world religions.

What’s it like to read through a biblical book out loud in a group?

 

Q.  I’m trying to get my small group to study the gospel of John using your guide, but they’re hesitant to begin with a read-through out loud of half the gospel (the “book of signs”), with a read-through of the other half coming up several weeks later.  They think these sessions will be long and tedious.  What can I tell them to encourage them otherwise?

Maybe the best thing I can do for you is to quote from the place in my book After Chapters and Verses where I discuss reading through biblical books, or large sections of them, out loud in groups. This part of the book relates several positive experiences that groups I’ve been in, or have heard about, have had with such read-throughs:

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A campus staff worker in California was going to be leading a semester-long study from the first part of Mark. She recounted what happened when she asked the group to read this whole portion aloud at their first meeting:  “I could tell that the students were not excited about it when we started, and doubtful of how helpful it would be.  But reading it out loud together was engaging.  As we read, people could jot notes and thoughts on their manuscripts.  We took 30 minutes to read the section, much faster than anyone imagined.  Then I gave them time to look for big themes.  They did a great job seeing big themes and putting things together.  I was impressed, and they enjoyed it.  That set us up well for our semester of studying the book.  They knew what was coming in the book and were able to read in depth more in context.”

I had a similar experience in a Bible study I participated in.  This group began its consideration of Romans by reading the entire epistle out loud.  We took turns reading sections of the epistle.  This took just about an hour, so it fit very well within the usual hour-and-a-half time we devote to reading and discussion.  People were surprised that it didn’t take any longer.  After we finished reading the epistle, the leader asked what our impressions were.  Many members spoke about key themes in the epistle:  the resurrection life; the relationship of Jew and Gentile; law and Spirit.  An international student who was reading the Bible for the first time asked, “What is ’righteousness’?”  She very perceptively zeroed in on this term, which is truly a key one in Romans, as essential to understanding everything she’d just heard.  And this was in a first-time encounter, in a second language!

The leader himself admitted that in the past he’d always stopped reading Romans “after the first 3 chapters.” He would get to the declaration that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” get himself saved (as he put it), and not read the rest of the book.  Now he saw that this opening part of the epistle flows into an extended discussion of how we can be not just “saved,” but transformed by the Spirit.  In fact, he noted, all of creation eventually gets in on God’s salvation.  When he saw how everything in the epistle flowed together, his understanding of salvation was greatly expanded.  At the end of the evening one of the participants said, “This was the best Bible study I’ve ever been in.”  So a valuable new practice we can adopt in our group Bible studies is to read entire books, or major sections of longer books, aloud together before studying their parts in detail.

This is very close, in fact, to how the New Testament letters were received by the churches they were originally sent to.  They were read aloud in their entirety to gatherings of those communities.  The Bible itself records other times when the people of Israel assembled for an extended reading or proclamation of God’s word.  The book of Deuteronomy, for example, tells us that its contents were originally delivered orally by Moses to a great assembly of the Israelites “in the wilderness east of the Jordan.”  And after the return from exile, Ezra read “the Book of the Law of Moses” to a special assembly in Jerusalem “aloud from daybreak till noon.”  So the extended public reading of Scripture is part of the heritage of our historic community of faith.

Readers of The Books of The Bible have called this to mind as they’ve seen the literary forms of the biblical writings recaptured in that edition.  One pastor told me he could “picture what it would have been like in Colossae when the letter from Paul first arrived and everyone was very excited and gathered around to hear the letter read.  How cool would that have been?”  Another reader told me that while he could “remember being astonished the first time I learned that the early church read whole epistles at church services,” he now thought it would be very appropriate to use the Scriptures in a format like The Books of The Bible for “corporate reading at a small group or congregational level.”  Yet another reader noted, “The Bible is an oral document to be read in community and not just to be studied individually. Paul’s letters often were addressed to churches (literally, gatherings) and were read aloud to those congregations. I think this Bible would lend itself to that activity.  This is something to which maybe we need to pay more attention.” 

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Beyond these thoughts from After Chapters and Verses, let me share that since writing that book, I’ve been in several more small groups that have read through biblical books out loud together before studying their parts in detail, and in every case the read-through was a real highlight for all the participants.  In fact, in one group where we were using one of my guides that covers multiple books, I suggested that perhaps we wouldn’t need to read through one of them out loud, and they wouldn’t hear of it!  They told me how much they’d been looking forward to it.

So in my experience, and from everything I’ve heard from others, reading through a biblical book, or a large portion of one, out loud in a group is not a long, tedious exercise.  The time goes faster than anyone expects, and the experience is a fresh and invigorating way to set up the study of the book in its individual parts.  I trust that your group will discover the same thing!

Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus? (Part 2)

Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices.  Now in this post I will consider the cases of Isaac and Jesus, which might appear to be exceptions.

To start with Isaac, when we consider in its entirety and in its cultural context the story of God telling Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but then stopping him at the last minute, we realize that this story was actually included in the developing Hebrew Scriptures to discourage later generations of Israelites from offering human sacrifices.  As I say in another post, in response to a slightly different question, “It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.”

In other words, this episode from the life of Abraham was recorded and retold in the Scriptures  precisely so that later generations of Israelites would follow the example in the story and offer the animals God had designated as acceptable sacrifices, instead of their own children.  The need for this example is understandable.  The surrounding cultures were offering human sacrifices, and the Israelites might otherwise have felt that they were not as devoted to their own God, or that their God was not as deserving of costly devotion as other gods, if they did not do the same.

Turning to the case of Jesus, even though his death is often spoken of as a “sacrifice,” it’s important to understand that it was not a “human sacrifice” in the sense of the sacrifice of a human being to God.  Rather, it was God, in human form, sacrificing himself for our sakes.  Jesus described his own death in this way: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

The death of Jesus is so rich in meaning that in the Bible and Christian theology it is described and explained in many different ways.  Each way brings out a different facet of its significance.  One common understanding is that our sins and wrongs against God and other people were so serious and destructive that they were deserving of death.  But Jesus willingly accepted the death penalty in our place, satisfying the justice of God.  This is the sense in which he “sacrificed” himself for us.

But there are many other understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ death as well.  Perhaps the one that comes closest to what ancient cultures were trying to accomplish through human sacrifice is the idea of “propitiation.”  This term refers to the act of doing something generous for, or offering something valuable to, another person in order to change their disposition from hostile to gracious.  (The term comes from the Latin word propitius, meaning “gracious,” “favorable,” or “well-disposed.”)  The idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a precious gift to God that won His favor.

Accordingly John writes in his first epistle that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Later in this same epistle John elaborates to say, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”   In other words, God himself provided the gift that won back His own favor for us!

We should note, moreover, that what made Jesus’ sacrifice such a precious gift was not that it embodied the value of a human life, not even that of the long-awaited Messiah, as opposed to some less valuable offering.  Rather, it was the spirit of obedience, humility, generosity, and especially love in which Jesus offered himself that made his sacrificial death so pleasing to God.

And so we can see that the cases of Isaac and Jesus are not exceptions to the Bible’s consistent teaching that God does not want human sacrifices.  When we do consider them, however, these cases reveal more about what God has done for us in Christ.  Christian interpreters, in fact, have long seen a foreshadowing of Jesus’ incarnation and self-sacrifice in Abraham’s statement to Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.”  As Micah said, in the words I noted last time, God does not want me to “offer my firstborn for my transgression,” or “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.”  God himself, in Christ, has graciously made all the provision any of us needs to be forgiven and restored.

Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (detail)

Actually, the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices.  I’ll demonstrate that in this post, and then in my next post I will consider the two cases you mention and explain why they are not exceptions.

The pagan nations surrounding ancient Israel did make human sacrifices to their gods, but the law of Moses insisted that this was not the way that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Creator of the world, wanted to be worshipped.  One law, in Leviticus, prohibits making any child a burnt offering to the Canaanite god Molech:  “You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh.”  A more general law in Deuteronomy says, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.”

As I explain in this post, Jephthah, one of the judges, sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a vow because he was ignorant of the further law that said a human being who would otherwise be the subject of such a vow had to be “redeemed” (bought back), not sacrificed.  This story is included in the book of Judges to show what tragic and evil things happen when “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.”

The other historical narratives in the Bible uphold this standard from the law of Moses and use it to evaluate the later Israelite kings.  It is said about King Ahaz, for example, “He did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He . . . even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.”  About King Manasseh it is said similarly, “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. . . . He sacrificed his own son in the fire . . . He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”

Such human sacrifices were a chief reason why the kingdom of Israel was taken into exile, again according to the historical biblical narratives:  “All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God . . . They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them . . . They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They . . . sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”

The prophetic tradition within the Bible similarly says that God does not want human sacrifices.  The prophet Micah, for example, reflecting on what he would have to offer to make up for his sins and be restored to God’s favor, considers greater and greater sacrifices, all the way up to the sacrifice of his own firstborn child, but then realizes that what God really wants is for him to live a life of humility and compassion:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

So the biblical teaching against human sacrifice is clear and consistent.  Why, then, did God say to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you”?  And why is the death of Jesus so often described as a “sacrifice”?  I’ll explore both of these questions in my next post.

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