Ambiguity, Education, Witnessing

1. Devorah Dimant, “Use and Interpretation of the Mikra in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 397.

Judith 9:2-4[:] “The passage forms the opening part of Judith’s prayer. It summarizes poetically the biblical episode, as part of the argument advanced by the prayer. In this argument Dinah’s rape functions as the historical precedent, and as such forms part of the justification for the request addressed by Judith to God. The prayer retains the biblical emphasis on the violation of an Israelite virgin and her ensuing defilement, but omits the name of Dinah. The crime is ascribed to all the Shechemites (a view taken also by Jub 30 and Test. Levi), instead of Shechem alone. Such a sin is presented as a transgression of divine interdiction, read into the phrase ‘And this shall not be done’ (Gen 34:7). Consequently, the killing of the Shechemites by the sword of the sons of Jacob is seen as a just punishment prescribed by God. Moreover, the vengeance is represented as an act of piety and zeal for God.”

The Hebrew of Genesis 34:27 says something that a lot of English translations obscure. I’ll italicize the part about collective guilt: “The sons of Jacob came on the wounded and they plundered the city, which defiled (plural) their sister.” A professor of mine once said, “This is plural, so it indicates collective guilt. You don’t have to be in the 99th percentile of Hebrew knowledge to see this!” He was obviously frustrated with our lack of Hebrew knowledge!

But I don’t want to focus here on collective guilt, but rather on the various views on Genesis 34. It’s hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. You may know the story: Shechem rapes Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, then speaks tenderly to her. He asks his father to get him Dinah so he can marry her. His father then offers Jacob a huge payment, and Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, decide to deceive the Shechemites. They tell the Shechemites that they need to be circumcised before Shechem can marry Dinah. The Shechemites undergo this painful procedure, confident that Israel’s property will soon be theirs. While the Shechemites are in pain, Simeon and Levi swoop in and kill all the males. The other Israelites then plunder the Shechemites‘ property. Jacob is upset, for he says that Simeon and Levi have made him look bad before the Canaanites. But Simeon and Levi get the last word in the story: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (NRSV).

I didn’t know what to do with this story when I first read it. Who’s right, and who’s wrong? Shechem rapes Dinah, and that’s bad. Yet he loves her and is willing to do anything to have her, and that’s good. Simeon and Levi lie to the Shechemites, which is bad. Yet, they do so to uphold their sister’s honor, and that’s good. Not surprisingly, literary critics of the Bible disagree on the heroes and villains of this story.

In Genesis 49:5-7, there’s an explicit condemnation of what Simeon and Levi did: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. May I never come into their council; may I not be joined to their company–for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.”

In the history of biblical interpretation, I see both sides, with the weight being on the anti-Shechem view. IV Maccabees 2:19-20 cites Simeon and Levi as people who did not manage their anger, with tragic results. This accords with IV Maccabees’ focus on the Stoic desire to suppress the passions. But I gather from James Kugel’s The Bible As It Was that most Jewish interpreters didn’t think much of the Shechemites. They thought Genesis 34 condemned Gentiles and intermarriage with them. Some sought to excuse or downplay Simeon and Levi’s deception, calling them “wise” instead of deceptive. There’s a widespread belief that Simeon and Levi executed God’s justice on Shechem.

Here’s a point that will appear unrelated, but which I’ll die back to Genesis 34 in the course of this post. One thing I love about Roots: The Next Generation is that Alex Haley goes out of his way to understand the different perspectives of his family and friends. Alex’s father, Simon, wanted to go to college, but his dad didn’t understand the value of education. He wanted Simon to be practical and work as a sharecropper. When Simon tells his mom, Queen, that his dad is ignorant, she slaps him, reminding him that some people lose hope when all they know is backbreaking labor.

Simon made a good life for himself through his education, and he told his son, Alex, that education is the key to a black man’s success. But Alex didn’t want to go to school. He hated school! Rather, he wanted to find his own way in the world.

Alex Haley is the one who wrote this story. Although he differed from his father, he understood where he was coming from. His story doesn’t make his father out to be the bad guy.

The same goes for the miniseries’ portrayal of Alex Haley’s relationships. Alex had a marriage which ended in divorce, since his wife didn’t like his focus on his writing career to the neglect of his family (in terms of not spending time with them). Afterwards, Alex had a relationship, which ended because he was obsessed with finding his roots, leading him to neglect his significant other.

Again, Alex is the author of this story. But he doesn’t portray himself as right and the women in his life as wrong. Rather, he acknowledges that they had a legitimate point of view. He thinks that he needed to search for his roots to find out who he was, but he admits that this journey made him somewhat of a jerk to people he cared about.

I had the same sort of thought about Desperate Housewives earlier today. In the last episode, Carlos went to work at a high-paying corporate job, rather than taking the job that he wanted, in which he’d work with the blind. He did so to please his wife, Gabby, who wants fancy things and had to sacrifice to take care of her husband when he was blind (see Time for Carlos to Sacrifice). Carlos looks pretty heroic, huh? One could assume that his desire to work with the blind was an example of self-centered idealism, and that he made the right choice to make more money for his family.

But not so fast! Now he’s away from his family a lot, and their daughters do not obey Gabby. When Gabrielle tells Carlos that he needs to spend time at home disciplining his little girls, Carlos responds that he doesn’t want his rare time with his daughters to be spent growling at them. He also reminds Gabby that she was the one who wanted him to take the high-paying job. “But I just wanted us to have a normal life,” Gabby responds. “Well, I hate my job, and the kids are out of control. We’ve got it!”

Did Carlos make the right choice? He made an understandable choice, but it was one with drawbacks. The same would have been true had he chosen to work with the blind at the community center.

Right. Wrong. It’s not always evident! There are plenty of stories with clear heroes and villains. Ayn Rand’s novels are like that, since they hardly ever portray the collectivists with redeeming human qualities. And the Bible has a lot of stories in which good battles evil. But there are times when the Bible presents moral ambiguity. One example is the story of Dinah in Genesis 34. And another is the chapter I read for my weekly quiet time this last Sabbath: I Samuel 14.

Is Saul good or bad? He inquires of God, only to interrupt the inquiry so he can chase after the Philistines. That’s bad, since it’s rude to God! Yet, he makes an oath that his soldiers will fast until they win, which acknowledges his dependence on God. And God may acknowledge this oath, since he doesn’t answer Saul once Jonathan breaks it. When the soldiers can finally get to eat and start consuming animals with their blood, Saul gets upset, since that violates God’s laws. He’s even willing to execute his son Jonathan to enforce the oath. Is Saul rash, foolish, proud, and heartless? Or is he pious and impartial? He can be interpreted both ways. It’s ambiguous!

What do we do with ambiguity?

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 784.

“The inspiring thought of Clement is that Christianity satisfies all the intellectual and moral aspirations and wants of man.”

Can Christianity satisfy human beings on an intellectual level? I remember reading in Ellen G. White’s Steps to Christ that the Bible can elevate the human intellect. And she has a point. Bible study leads people to contemplate deep questions, such as why we are here and where we are going. Half of the time, it can be quite a mental puzzle to comprehend what the Bible is saying! And there are plenty of fundamentalist-turned-atheists or agnostics who see value in their past years as Bible students, since Bible study taught them how to read and evaluate texts. They could also get lessons in anthropology, psychology, and religion from their reading of the Bible.

In my experience at DePauw University, there was a belief among some that being a Christian was antithetical to learning. When I was being interviewed for the Honor Scholars’ Program, my professor asked me: “You’re a Christian, so you think you already have the answers. Why would you want to study other writings?” An Honor Scholar inquired of me, “Why don’t you just stay home and read your Bible? Why are you here at a university seeking answers?”

On some level, these questions were rather arrogant. For one, education is not just a matter of learning new ideas and changing my mind in response to them. It’s a matter of economic livelihood! People go to college so they can survive and earn money in the real world! And second, it’s not as if these people didn’t have beliefs. They were atheists! They dogmatically proclaimed that there is no God. That’s pretty closed-minded, isn’t it? Why isn’t their belief antithetical to education?

Yet, they had a point. Why learn different ideas, if everything I need is in the Bible? When I asked my dad this question after my rough Honor Scholar interview, he said that we may need guidance from real life on how to flesh out the Bible. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, but how we go about that is a complex question. To answer it, we may need to examine the wisdom of the ages.

I was thinking this morning about how I loved my first year at DePauw. I read all sorts of books and encountered a broad spectrum of viewpoints: Plato, Aristotle, Iris Murdoch, Ayn Rand, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and (in my own time) C.S. Lewis. I should probably read some of their works to rekindle the romantic feeling I had at that time! But my first year at DePauw was not like my life today. I could read those works and still walk away as a solid Christian. Believe it or not, I could find continuities between them and my fundamentalist Christian faith. Plato focused on the spiritual, Ayn Rand discussed self-respect, Buddhism advised against clinging to the unreliable, etc. In Christianity, I found the answer to what these great thinkers were looking for.

Nowadays, while I’m still a Christian, my education has a more destabilizing effect on me. In college, I was essentially an Armstrongite, so I thought that God would offer everyone a chance to embrace him after their resurrections, whether or not they received Christ as their personal Savior before death. In my view, those who still rejected God would be mercifully extinguished in the Lake of Fire. So I could examine ideas in a stress-free environment.

Nowadays, things aren’t so clear-cut. So many religions make exclusive claims, and they threaten people with hell-fire for not embracing them. Christianity does so to non-Christians. Islam does so to Christians who believe in the Trinity. And neither religion necessarily excludes eternal torment in hell. That doctrine comes from somewhere in the sacred text–either directly or through interpretation! I want to say that all religions hold that we should live a good life, so maybe we should focus on that, but then my Christian side slaps me across the face and says, “What are you talking about? Salvation is not by works! People have to believe in Christ, or they go to hell.” Suddenly, Christianity looks narrow-minded and dogmatic, in that it dismisses the wisdom of non-Christian people and belief systems. And I find that other religions are attractive in areas where Christianity is not, even as Christianity appeals to me in parts where they don’t. So I don’t know where to go, or what to think. I’m conflicted!

Before, I could find consistency between Christianity and learning new ideas. Now, I see conflict.

There were a few exceptions, though, and they happened today. I was thinking about the Koran, and my mind turned 10:18, which states that other gods can’t do people harm, or bring them gain. I thought about how people tried to please the gods, since they believed that they (the gods) could hurt them if they were not appeased. My mind then went onto Galatians and Colossians. In Galatians, Christians are doing the law to make God happy, almost like they’re slaves of a harsh task-master. They’re acting as they did when they were pagans, only now they’re worshipping the true God! In Colossians, Christians practice asceticism out of respect for the Gnostic sub-deities. But Paul tells the Galatians that they are free sons of God, not slaves to weak and beggarly elements. In Colossians, “Paul” says the Christians don’t have to please a bunch of sub-deities, since Christ is the fullness of the Godhead.

The Koran also talks a lot about relying on God in battle, not one’s own strength. That’s another message in Galatians! Whom do we exalt: ourselves and our own power, or God? When we try to keep the law in an attempt to earn God’s approval, we act as if God’s indebted to us, and we assume that we can become righteous through our own fleshly activity. We exalt ourselves. But when we receive God’s free forgiveness through Christ, and we bear spiritual fruit through the Holy Spirit, the one who gets the credit and glory is God.

So the Koran actually affirmed my Christian beliefs today.

3. “Man’s Nature and God’s Grace,” A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 87.

“‘They that turn many to righteousness are like the stars forever’ (Dan. XII, 3). As among the stars there is no enmity, so too among the righteous…Who are greater, they who love, or they who cause [others] to love Him? Surely the latter…And as the number of the stars is uncountable, so is the number of the righteous uncountable…(Sifre Deut., ‘Ekeb, 47, 83a (H. oo. 105, 106)”

You know, I’m ordinarily quite hostile to evangelical statements about witnessing. “You have to tell people about Jesus.” “You should make people want what you have.” “You should be attractive to people, since that can win them to Christ.” “You need to be people’s friend before you can tell them about Jesus.” People who say these things make no attempt to understand those who are shy, or socially-awkward–people who have difficulty making friends. Zilch! Zero! Zack! I hope those happy-clappy evangelicals read this and become convicted to the core of their being!

But I don’t feel that sort of hostility when I read Jewish statements about witnessing. I think the reason is that they talk about honoring God with one’s life. There’s a rabbinic story about a rabbi who returned a lost and valuable item to a Gentile, influencing the Gentile to praise the God of Israel. “This Jew could have made money off of this, but he returned it to me!,” he thought. One does not have to engage in manipulative apologetics, or be something one’s not. Rather, one can do everyday acts of kindness: smile to someone, give to the poor, return a lost item, etc. I’ve done some of those things, and I’m not Mr. Popularity! One doesn’t have to be popular in order to witness.

Jews acknowledged the sovereignty of God when they prayed, or kept the Sabbath, or refrained from unclean meats. By doing the Torah, they were confessing to the world their belief in God’s supremacy.

Yet, this rabbinic passage doesn’t talk about God’s supremacy. It mentions influencing others to love God. The rabbis saw God as good, humble, and loving–as tough, yet fair. Who wouldn’t want others to love this sort of God?

But the Daniel passage talks about turning people to righteousness. Some of my relatives are practically universalists, so they don’t see any point in launching a major work to convert people to Armstrongism. In their eyes, most people won’t convert to it anyway! “But you can be a preacher of righteousness,” they say. I’m not sure if I agree with them on universalism, but who doesn’t like righteousness? Wouldn’t it be great for everyone if people simply did the right thing?

The rabbinic passage also states that there are a lot of righteous people out there. I’d like to think that the majority of people are good-at-heart, and, indeed, there is a good side to them. But the Bible asserts that most people are bad. God only saved eight people when he sent the flood. Jesus said that few would follow the righteous path, which is straight and narrow (Matthew 7:14).

On my Christian dating site, a gentleman once said he believed that there will be more saved people than unsaved at the last judgment. (Believe it or not, this guy’s as die-hard conservative as you can get!) I admire his belief in God’s unbounded generosity towards all his creation. But the Bible doesn’t exactly present that picture, at least not as my friend conceives it. Sure, it says that there will be a great multitude in heaven (Revelation 7:9), but, overall, it has a scenario in which the righteous are very few, amidst a world that’s predominantly evil. So I’d like to agree with my friend, but, alas, the Bible points in another direction!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Ambiguity, Education, Witnessing

  1. Doug Ward says:

    The WCG still retains at least one piece of Armstrongism—the belief in postmortem evangelism.

    I can see why. I like this teaching and hope that it’s true. (I just don’t know whether it is.) But God knows, and he knows best.


  2. James Pate says:

    I’ve heard something like that, Doug, but I wasn’t sure. I remember reading the Plain Truth, which looked at the various options for “those who’ve never heard.” I guess WCG sees the issue as Touched by an Angel: an Andrew offers people a chance to repent at or after their deaths.


  3. The Third Witness says:

    I agree with Doug. In practice, I think many Christians believe that God somehow makes provision for those who “have not heard” (or for those whose understanding is different from theirs!), even if they don’t go as far as universal reconciliation or universal salvation. I certainly agree with Mike Feazell that God’s ability to save does not depend on the quality of the evangelistic efforts of any human being(s).

    James, I enjoy reading your blog, and that was quite a wide-ranging post! I haven’t commented here before, but your point about pressure to “witness” in ways that other people think you should really grabbed my attention. (As an aside, HWA used to write that love meant (among other things…) “outgoing concern,” and people may have equated that with having an extrovert personality type; too bad if you were an introvert – and maybe even ambiverts needed to do some overcoming… He later changed the terminology to “outflowing concern,” – which I found clearer – but I think the original impression persists to this day.) I think sometimes Christians confuse witnessing, evangelism, and preaching. The Great Commission was given to the original disciples (and, by extension, to their successors). Sometimes there is a tendency (understandably) for individual Christians to apply it personally to themselves and all other individual Christians. But wait a minute: “Are all teachers?” Paul and James certainly seem to agree that on that one! It seems obvious if it’s put like that.

    St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “Let none of the brothers preach … unless this has been conceded to him by his minister … Nevertheless, let all the brothers preach by their works.” (Rules of the Friars Minor, 17 – Of Preachers). Different context in many respects, of course, but the principle remains instructive. To me, this sounds closer to the kind of witnessing you are talking about.

    If the Great Commission is understood as a command to the church to “make disciples who make disciples,” that still shouldn’t imply that everybody has exactly the same role to play. Otherwise, we risk ending up with a multilevel marketing-style operation where success is measured by how well you replicate the techniques of the person who “introduced” you!

    In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard writes, “There is a special evangelistic work to be done, of course, and there are special callings to it. But if those in the churches really are enjoying fullness of life, evangelism will be unstoppable and largely automatic.”

    In Shakespeare’s words, “To thine own self be true.” That’s what everybody needs to do.



  4. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Third Witness. I have issues with lifestyle evangelism too–even though I see positive things about it. I’ve written some about that in the past, but it’s scattered throughout a bunch of posts. I may write a post on it sometime in the future.


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