Why did Jesus tell the women of Jerusalem, “Weep for yourselves, not for me,” when he was going to the cross?

Q. This morning I was reading Luke and was confused about Jesus’ response to the women who were following him, wailing and lamenting, as he walked towards his crucifixion. His remarks seem hard to understand at first glance and harsh. The women seem to be doing a very human and appropriate thing, that is, mourning the mistreatment of the Son of God. I see myself doing exactly the same thing. Yet he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” That’s confusing enough, but then he goes on to say, “Blessed are the childless women.”  His words seem very out of context with the events that are taking place.

I believe that even here, on his way to the cross, Jesus is looking ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 at the end of the first Jewish-Roman War, and he is expressing his pity and compassion for the victims of that impending conflict.

This is actually the third place in the gospel of Luke where Jesus does this.  The first time is when he approaches Jerusalem on this final visit and sees the city in the distance. He weeps over it and says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

In other words, by rejecting the understanding of the kingdom of God that Jesus brought, and by following other leaders into a political and military revolt, the Jewish people would put themselves on a collision course with Rome that within a generation would have this tragic result.

Then, when Jesus and his disciples are touring the temple, he predicts that it will be destroyed, so that “not one stone will be left on another.”  When his disciples ask when this will happen, he describes the destruction of the city in more detail. (This is in the so-called Olivet Discourse, a long speech that also looks farther ahead, at its end, to Jesus’ Second Coming ).  Once again Jesus expresses his compassion for the innocent people who will suffer: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land.”  This is a second reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman war, in which Jesus recognizes the suffering it will bring to innocent people.

The statement Jesus makes to the women of the Jerusalem as he is walking towards his crucifixion is a third such reference.  The suffering will be so terrible, we discover, that people will consider women fortunate who have not had children who will have to go through it.

And so it’s not that reflecting on Jesus’ sufferings and expressing sorrow over them is a bad thing to do. It was appropriate for those women, and it is still appropriate for us today.  But Jesus knew that terrible sufferings also awaited them, so he both warned them and expressed compassion for their impending fate.

Showing concern for others’ sufferings, even as he was about to be crucified, demonstrates our Savior’s heart of selfless compassion for others.  And so I believe he is honored in this Lenten season not only when we meditate on his sufferings, even weeping over them as these women did (and as countless believers have done in the centuries since), but also when we show the same compassion for the suffering of the innocent that he did.

A modern icon of the “Eight Station of the Cross,” where Jesus speaks to the weeping women.

Can Satan hear our thoughts?

Q. Someone once told me that God hears our silent prayers, but that Satan can not, and that if we want to address Satan, we must speak the words to him out loud.  From what you know, is that a fair assessment?

My first thought in response to your question is, “Why would anyone want to address Satan?”  I know that in some circles there is a practice of “claiming authority” over Satan, commanding him to depart, etc., but I’d be very careful of that kind of thing.

I don’t recall any place in the Bible where a human being directly addresses Satan.  (Jesus said to Peter, who didn’t want him to go to the cross, “Get behind me, Satan,” but that was actually a reference to Peter’s motives—“You do not have in mind the concerns of God”—not a direct address to Satan.)

Jude warns us that even the archangels do not address the devil on their own:  “Even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil . . . did not dare to condemn him for slander himself but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”  So I would not address Satan at all, either in spoken words or in silent thoughts.

A wise man, an authority on spiritual warfare, once told me that instead, “The best way to chase away the darkness is to turn on the lights.”  As he saw it, when our individual lives and community gatherings are full of love, joy, holiness, and praise, the forces of darkness simply don’t hang around.

But perhaps another concern here is whether Satan can listen in on our thoughts in order to get information he can use to tempt and entrap us.  Here’s what we need to realize:  Satan is a finite being.

We often speak of him as if he had infinite attributes like God—omniscience (knowing everything), omnipresence (being everywhere at the same time), etc.  When people all over the world address Satan as if he were present with them, that suggests omnipresence.  When lots of people say “the devil made me do it” they’re suggesting that he has comprehensive knowledge to use in temptation. But he doesn’t.  Satan’s knowledge and presence are limited because he is a finite created being.

So where is the devil, if he’s not omnipresent?  At one point the Bible depicts him standing before God and accusing us.  (The word for “devil” in Greek is diabolos or “accuser.”)  At another point the Bible says he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  But no matter where he is at any given moment, he is finite, and so not able to be everywhere and know everything.

What we are probably encountering instead when we feel as if “the devil is tempting us” is the continuum that the Bible refers to as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”  Wrong thoughts, attitudes, and actions are fueled by “the world” (the planet-wide conspiracy to value things other than as God values them), “the flesh,” (everything in us that resists the cross, that is, living a sacrificial life for God), and “the devil” (which to my mind includes all evil supernatural beings, in league with one another and their leader against God).

I don’t think we should spend a lot of time trying to tease out which part of the world-flesh-devil continuum we’re up against at any given point.  Instead, we should “turn on the lights” by using our wills to choose positive thoughts, attitudes, and actions.  As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”


Does Paul’s argument that we are “in Adam” prove that Adam was a real historical individual?

Q. Tim Keller makes the argument that when Paul says we are “in Christ” or “in Adam,” he is talking about being in federation or covenant with them, meaning that their actions are essentially attributed to us. He then asks how we could be in federation with someone who never existed, and he concludes that Adam and Eve must have been real historical figures.  What do you think of this?

Let me say first that I have tremendous respect for Tim Keller as biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor, so I hope that nothing I write here will be taken to disparage in any way his excellent ministry.

Personally, however, I do not believe it is necessary to conclude from Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians (“as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive”) and Romans (“as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”) that the human race must have begun with a single, directly created individual named Adam.  And I believe I can say this on biblical grounds.

It could well be argued that in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul is indeed envisioning Adam as a specific historical individual.  I believe that to understand the Bible’s meaning, we must carefully consider the immediate context first, and the larger canonical context only second.  But once we do place Paul’s comments about Adam and Christ within the framework of the entire Scriptures, I think we can justifiably understand the phrase “in Adam” to mean “member of the human race,” rather than limiting it to “descendant of this named individual.”

This is because the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives.  Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement:  “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”  But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God.  Note how ‘adam in this case takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female:

“When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.”

Elsewhere in the book of Genesis, the term ‘adam refers to the growing human race.  The statement translated in the NIV as “when human beings began to increase in number on the earth” is more literally in Hebrew “when the ‘adam began to be numerous upon the face of the ground.”

So in light of the use of the term in the book of Genesis, I understand ‘adam to mean essentially the human race, at whatever stage of its expansion may be in view.  By putting Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians and Romans in conversation with the Genesis narratives, I understand his phrase “in Adam” to mean being a member of the human race.

I feel that I can do this fairly because I don’t think Paul’s argument depends on Adam being an individual who performed certain actions that are then attributed to us.  At least as I understand the way covenants work in the Bible, if A has a covenant with B, and C is “in” B (in covenant terms), then all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that B has with respect to A also extend to C.  But it is not considered that C has personally done for A everything that B has.

For example, David took care of Mephibosheth because he was the son of Jonathan, with whom David had a covenant of friendship, protection, and provision that extended to all of their descendants.  But it was not considered that Mephibosheth had personally performed all of the acts of friendship and kindness for David that Jonathan himself had.  Mephibosheth was rather the extended beneficiary of David’s response to those actions.

In the same way, as members of the human race, we are alienated from God because of the disobedience of our race.  Mercifully, I am reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, if I join through faith in his covenant relationship with the Father.  But even then it is not considered that I have personally lived a sinless life and died on a cross for the sins of the world.  Jesus alone did those things.  Rather, I am included in the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that come with my covenant identification with Jesus, which include both forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God, and a duty to offer the same kind of loving obedience that Jesus did.

So, in short, I do not believe that Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans require Adam to have been a historical individual.  We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.  As I’ve tried to explain here, I think the language of the Bible can accommodate this.

If the Bible isn’t scientifically accurate, how can it be theologically accurate?

Q. I am very comfortable with the notion that the Bible isn’t a science textbook and that it reflects an observational perspective in the incidental “scientific” comments of its authors. It seems most plausible to me that God would and did accommodate his message based on where humanity was at. My question is this: since it’s clear that the biblical authors had at least some false beliefs about the world in general, “scientifically” or otherwise, on what basis can we say that the theology they communicated was 100% accurate? The fact that a lot of theological truth is not stated overtly in the Bible and that it took quite a while to arrive at fully worked out doctrines of the Trinity and so on seems only to compound the difficulty.

This specific question of yours is actually taken up at the end of the book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.  Here’s what we have to say about it:

At its core the Bible is a story of relationships.  It is a story of relationships of faith and trust that people enter into with God and with one another (“covenants”).  And the world of relationships is one that we have access to freely, even if our knowledge of the natural world is limited to what we can discover through naïve observation.  The capacity for faith, through which we enter into relationship with God, is not one that human civilization has slowly cultivated and perfected over time.  Faith is something every human has always been capable of, just as every human, in every age, has had the potential to love.  We would not assert that the love described in the Bible was somehow defective compared with our own because it took place in a primitive culture, and we should not make the same assertion about the faith described in the Bible, either.

In other words:

While the human authors of the Bible would have had limitations when it came to their knowledge of the natural world, they would not necessarily have had similar limitations when it came to knowing God, relationally and experientially.

I hope this brief summary is helpful; as I said, it comes at the conclusion of the book (and specifically at the conclusion of the conclusion), so I encourage you to look at the whole book and see where these reflections fit in to the overall argument.

Why did Jesus say, “Mary has chosen what is better”? Wasn’t Martha’s hospitality a spiritual gift?

Q. I’ve always wondered why Jesus said that Mary sitting at his feet listening to him was “better” than Martha working to fix a meal for him and his disciples. Wasn’t that an important and needed form of service? Isn’t hospitality supposed to be a spiritual gift?

My understanding is that this was an informal occasion–travelers entertained spontaneously in a home along their route–for which a basic meal would have been sufficient. It was not a wedding or similar occasion that called for elaborate preparations. The “main event” was simply having Jesus in the house and having the opportunity to converse with him, and that was where the emphasis should have been placed.

But Martha apparently wanted to go “above and beyond” what the situation required and put on a really fancy meal. In fact, she wanted to do far more than she could do alone, and so she asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her. I think Jesus was saying, “It’s one thing if you want to go ‘above and beyond,’ that’s your choice, but you can’t also choose it for someone else who wants to give her attention to what should be the ‘main event’ here.”  In other words, when simple will suffice, if you want to do more, that’s on you, not anybody else.

This is not to say that the ministry of hospitality was not important to Jesus or to the new community he was founding.  In Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in the gospels, there’s great appreciation for those who receive traveling messengers of the kingdom of God into their homes, as Martha was doing here.  We find the same emphasis in the epistles. In his third letter, for example, John praises Gaius for receiving traveling messengers from his community, saying, “We ought to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.”

And Martha eventually did get to host a more elaborate banquet for Jesus and his disciples. She did this to celebrate the resurrection of her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. (Now that called for a full celebration!) So Martha’s gift and ministry of hospitality did find a place for its appropriate expression within the life of the community of Jesus’ followers.  I hope that those today with the same gift and ministry will find and be given similar opportunities, but also that we will all recognize when an occasion calls for something simpler and a different focus.

Allesandro Allori, “Christ with Mary and Martha.” The Latin inscription in the background reads, “She has chosen the better part.”

Why did the disciples head off across the lake without Jesus?

Q.  I’m reading in John. Before Jesus walks on water, why do the disciples leave without him? Why would they do that if they were following him? Do you think he told them, “If I’m not down from the mountain by tonight, go on ahead to Capernaum without me?”

John’s gospel says simply, “When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.”  This does make us wonder what kind of arrangements Jesus had made with his disciples beforehand.

But Mark and Matthew shed more light on this question in their accounts of this day in the life of Jesus, which included the feeding of the 5,000 and then Jesus walking on the water to join the disciples in the boat. Mark explains that “it was late in the day” even before the large crowd was fed, so that once everyone had eaten, “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” (They were on the “far shore of the Sea of Galilee” according to John, so Bethsaida and Capernaum were in the same general direction from there; either city could be used to describe the boat’s general heading.) Matthew says something very similar to Mark about why Jesus stayed behind.  So it appears that there was some urgency to get the group to its next destination, enough so that Jesus sent the disciples on ahead while he wrapped things up on the “far shore” and then spent some time in prayer, before taking his extraordinary route to rejoin the disciples!

That is likely the reason for the separate departures.  But perhaps more significant for our understanding of this day in the life of Jesus is the theological motif that John brings out as he tells the story. As I explain in my study guide to John, in that gospel, “the festivals and locations that Jesus visits allow his identity to be disclosed against the symbolic background of Jewish religious life and history.”  In this particular case:

The fourth section of the Book of Signs describes a journey that Jesus takes across the Sea of Galilee and back.  The action occurs at the time of Passover.  But in this section Jesus’ identity is still not explored against the background of that festival.  (This will happen in the Book of Glory.) 

Instead, the focus is on the event that Passover commemorates:  the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses.  Jesus’ identity is explored in this section against the background of that event.  While Jesus is on the far shore of the lake, he miraculously feeds a large crowd.  When the crowd returns to the opposite shore, they compare this feeding with the manna, the “bread from heaven,” that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness.  And to get back across the lake himself, Jesus miraculously walks on the water.  This recalls the way God made a path through the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape from the Egyptians. The two “signs” that Jesus does at the beginning of this section thus associate him with the exodus.

So we might say that the reason for the disciples leaving ahead of Jesus was the demands of the group’s ministry schedule and responsibilities.  But in the larger plan of God, the purpose for them leaving earlier, occasioning Jesus’ walk on the water, was to reveal more of his identity and glory, as happens throughout the gospel of John.

Lambert Lombard, “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” The feeding of the 5,000 was an act of compassion that also delayed the travel plans of Jesus and his disciples, causing separate departures for the opposite shore of the lake and an opportunity for Jesus’ identity to be revealed even further against the background of the exodus.


Does God determine the exact time of our death?

Q.  I have a question that is difficult for me to understand and I hope you can shed some light on it.  I trust in God’s incredible power and sovereignty, but wrestle with how our free will interacts with that.  Specifically, I recently heard someone say that God is sovereign and controls our time of death.  But I wonder about cases where a person takes their own life.  I struggle with how much God would be responsible for that. Additionally, how much can we control about our health to extend our life time?  It is well known that if I smoke and am overweight, my life will likely will be shortened.  So it seems  that we can make bad choices or good choices that will increase or decrease the odds for our longevity. So has God determined, in advance, the number of days we have on earth?

As I have explained in posts such as this one, I believe that the sovereignty of God means not that God directly determines every individual event of our lives, but rather that God works effectively with the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish His own purposes.

One illustration of this that I find in Scripture is when Joseph says to his brothers, referring to how they sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”  In other words, God turned His good intentions towards what would otherwise be a human act of cruelty and betrayal and worked in that situation to bring about a good outcome that also advanced His larger purposes.

Accordingly, we may think of events as falling along a spectrum, with events that are largely determined by human free moral choices at one end, and events that are largely determined by God working with such choices at the other end.  Most events will be somewhere in between, so that it is difficult to discern to what extent they are determined by human choice and to what extent by divine sovereign working.  This is why we speak of the interaction between the two as a mystery of our faith.

When it comes to the time of a person’s death, I think we would say that when someone takes their own life, this is an event essentially determined by human choice.  I believe that God would want something different and better for that person and their loved ones.  (Ironically, however, the person may actually think they are making a good choice, because depression and other conditions can make a person believe, sincerely but tragically, that their family and friends would be better off without them.  So we need to have great sympathy and understanding in these situations.)

Let’s consider another kind of case.  In one of the churches I served as pastor, there was a woman who had fought a long and courageous battle with cancer.  It had gone into remission several times, but now it was back again and there was nothing more the doctors could do.  This woman was looking at many months of painful suffering before she could, as she put it, “move to my new home.”  But one night she died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  I have always seen this as an act of divine sovereignty and indeed divine mercy, God bringing her home much sooner than would have been humanly expected.

But as I said before, most events fall somewhere in between.  If we don’t take good care of our health, we may die sooner than we otherwise might have, and as a result we may accomplish less for God in this world than we otherwise might have, although many other factors, including God’s sovereign working, would be at play to determine exactly how long we did live.  So I think we need to do everything that depends on us, as free moral agents, to make ourselves available to God for His purposes, for as long as we might live, through the choices we make.  Everything beyond that depends on God’s sovereignty, in ways we won’t always understand.

But I would certainly not consider God responsible for a person’s choice to take their own life, as if “their time had come” in God’s eyes and this was the means God used. Many of us have lost a loved one to suicide and it is always a tragedy over which God grieves very tenderly with us, never something that God plans or causes to happen.


What is the definition of “soul”?

Q. Someone recently asked me to define “soul.” I gave an answer but I’d also like to hear what you have to say.

I would say that a person’s “soul” is the totality of everything in them that is not their physical body–that is, their mind, will, emotions, etc., working together as a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

There’s almost a definition of the “soul” (Hebrew nefesh) along these lines in the poetic parallelism at the start of Psalm 103:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, praise His holy name.”  The NIV translates this second phrase “all my inmost being,” and I think that’s a good way to think about the soul.

The “soul” in biblical terms is equivalent to what we often call the “self” today.  We find the psalmists especially addressing their “souls” in what we recognize as “self-talk.”  For example, in the chorus that occurs three times in Psalm 42-43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? . . . Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.”

There’s some debate in Christian theology about whether the soul is mortal, and so dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or whether the soul is immortal, living on after death.  I discuss that question in this post.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may we all be inspired by the example of the psalmists and in the most difficult times talk to our souls (ourselves) to encourage them to hope in God, looking forward to the time when we will see His work on our behalf and praise Him for it.

Was the Israelite kingdom divided between David and Ish-bosheth, or was it only divided later?

Q.  After Saul dies, the narrative in Samuel-Kings says that “the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the tribe of Judah,” but that “Ish-Bosheth son of Saul . . . became king over Israel.”  I always thought that the official ‘division’ of the kingdom happened later, when Rehoboam rejected the elders’ counsel and Jeroboam led the northern tribes in revolt.  Can you reconcile these two accounts for me?

The rivalry between David and Ish-Bosheth was not a division of the ancient Israelite kingdom into two parts, it was a civil war to see which of these men would become king over all twelve tribes.

Samuel-Kings uses its characteristic “regnal notice” to describe how Ish-Bosheth succeeded his father Saul as king: “Ish-Bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned two years.”  A similar notice does not appear for David until after the contest is settled and all of Israel accepts him as its king, even though the notice does acknowledge David’s time as king only of Judah: “David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.”  So in effect Ish-bosheth became king after Saul, but David eventually displaced him.

There’s actually a record in the book of Chronicles of the large numbers of warriors–hundreds of thousands–from all the other tribes who “came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the Lord had said“–in other words, to help him win the war against Ish-bosheth.  Among them are 200 chieftains from Issachar who, we are told, “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”  This might be said of all these warriors and their leaders from every tribe: They knew that David was God’s choice to succeed Saul and they gave him their allegiance and support even as he was in the process of defeating his rival.

The situation was different between Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  Because of Solomon’s disobedience (worshiping other gods!), the Lord told him that he would lose the kingdom, except that one tribe would be left to his family dynasty for David’s sake.  Solomon’s son Rehoboam adopted foolish, oppressive policies and wouldn’t listen to sound advice, and in response a leader name Jeroboam (one of Solomon’s former high officials) led a revolt that permanently drew the northern ten tribes into a kingdom of their own.  The original kingdom was never reunited and both parts, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, were eventually conquered and exiled by the great empires of the ancient world.

Hope this is helpful!

Does the reading of “sky” for “heavens” in the Genesis creation account rule out the creation of invisible, spiritual things?


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This question was asked as a follow-up to my post entitled “In the beginning, God created the sky and the land.

Q. I had never before noticed the relationships between the three pairs of days. Laying out the text in such a manner as to highlight these relationships is helpful. Thanks.

I wonder, though, whether the Hebrew word which I will transliterate as shemayim, traditionally translated in this passage as “heavens” and here translated “sky” (in contrast to “land”), must mean only “sky” in this passage. After all, the word translated “Spirit” also can mean mere “wind.”

What if we read the word translated “sky” to include both English meanings contained by the one Hebrew word? Could the meaning include not only the concepts that contrast with “land”(that is, sky), but also the concepts which contrast with that realm in which we humans are grounded and can touch (that is, heaven)?

My denomination’s catechism cites the Genesis creation account to support the assertion from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”, and goes on to explain the meaning of “heaven” to include the unseen, which it identifies as the spiritual part of God’s creation.

I do note, however, that on Day 4 the sky is populated with items that are not spiritual (sun, moon, stars). Not, say, angels.

Limiting this scripture to refer merely to “sky” seems to diminish its meaning from that claimed by the catechism’s commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. Any thoughts on how I might reconcile this reading of the beginning of Genesis and my understanding of the historic catholic creeds of the church?

Thank you very much for this thoughtful question.  First, let me say that I do not feel that my reading and translation of the Genesis creation account limit its meaning to God creating the sky and nothing beyond it, whether physical (outer space) or spiritual (angels and the heavenly realm itself).

Rather, I would say that I see the Genesis author proclaiming God as the Maker of the entire created universe and depicting that creation as it was then perceived and understood.  We can join in this very same proclamation even though we would depict the creation much more extensively, beyond what appears to an earth-bound observer.

This is true not just of the visible, physical part of creation, but also of the invisible, spiritual part, because the Hebrew biblical writers tended to see the shemayim that God created as the location where God then established His throne.  Psalm 11 says, for example, that “the Lord‘s throne is in heaven” (shemayim).  Psalm 103 says similarly, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens” (once again shemayim). These are just two of many examples that could be given.

However, this is not to say that the Hebrew word shemayim had two different meanings, “the sky” (in which we would now include “outer space”) and “heaven” (the abode of God and the angels).  Rather, the biblical writers were envisioning one physical place in which both the sun, moon, and stars, and the throne of God, were all located.

While it is true, as you noted, that some Hebrew words can mean more than one thing–ruach, to cite your example, means both Spirit and wind, as well as breath–that is not the case with shemayim.  It does not mean two different things, but one single thing, the physical realm above the earth.

But this is not an insurmountable problem.  I would simply make the same move as in the case of “outer space” and say that we now understand today that what the earth-bound observer who is speaking in the Genesis creation account understood as a single entity is actually a more complex entity.  Shemayim, we now realize, encompasses both sky and space, and since it is the site of God’s throne, it also encompasses “heaven.”  In this way we can see the Genesis creation account proclaiming God as the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, once we translate the ancient understanding of the created universe into our own contemporary understanding.

(And I don’t doubt that centuries from now, our own limited understanding of the universe will have to be updated by later generations of believers!)

This photograph accompanied the text “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” on a recent Christian Post devotional. The photo, in my view, illustrates better what the Genesis author was envisioning than the “outer space” photos that often accompany that text.


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