At church this morning, the topic of the sermon was growth.  The text was Genesis 32:22-32, in which Jacob wrestles with a supernatural being and receives a blessing.  The pastor said that we, too, receive a blessing as we grow through struggle, but many of us prefer to stay in the same place because it’s familiar and comfortable to us.

I’ve long been leery of the words “grow” or “growth” for personal development.  As I’ve said before on this blog, whenever people tell me that I’ve “grown”, they usually mean that I’m living more according to their standards.  Moreover, I’m sick and tired of people grading my growth.  Why can’t they just accept me, rather than judging me?  In more than one setting, I’ve heard people say, “Well, if you don’t get outside of yourself and move out of your comfort zone, how will you grow?”  But, if I’m comfortable where I am, why would I want to grow?  Why do I need to grow?  People then say, “If you don’t grow, you die.”  What the heck does that mean?  I can biologically continue to exist, even if I’m not changing a bunch of stuff!

The pastor made some of these points that get on my nerves, but he also said something that highlighted why growth is important: he said that old ways of thinking may not work for us, especially in times of crisis.  And the pastor also gave examples of a lack of growth: being resentful rather than choosing to grow from a bad situation.

I once heard a saying that “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”  So, if I find that what I’m doing is a continuous dead end, then it’s good for me to learn other ways of doing things and of looking at situations, and to have people encouraging me along my path.  Does that mean that life will be rosy?  Far from it.  But it may be better.  And I may be better.  Plus, as the pastor said, a significant part of growth is learning how to cope in times of crisis.

I got to see some of this illustrated in the church service itself.  There was one lady who has been looking for a job for months, and we have been praying for her to find work.  Well, she finally got a job!  She has had to cope through uncertain times, but it is good that she had people rooting for her and praying for her.

Regarding resentment, what can I say?  I have it.  Christians have told me that resentment hinders my growth.  I’m not so sure, because it does enable me to sympathize with others who have been wronged and have resentments, rather than judging them because they’re not happy happy, or because they are unable to perform a self-labotomy and deny themselves the natural feelings of anger when they have been wronged.  I wonder what the opposite of resentment is.  Is it feeling nothing?  Is it compassion and love even for the person who wronged us?  I would like to have the latter.  But, like Captain Kirk on Star Trek V, I still need my pain!  It is what drives me to pray to God, to seek inspiration, and to have compassion for others.  At the same time, I have to admit that hating others does not feel right, for, in my case, that does come from self-centeredness and flawed expectations I have of how the world should treat me.  It also does not put me in the mood to treat others with love and respect.

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 3:55 pm  Comments (2)  

Childs on the Covenant Code and Exodus 24

For my write-up today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, I will be a little more general than I usually am in my write-ups, since I am a little tired right now.  (Although this post will appear on a morning, I’m actually writing it at night.)  I have two items:

1.  Childs talks about the Covenant Code and compares the laws there with other ancient Near Eastern laws.  For him, there are cases in which the Covenant Code resembles other ancient Near Eastern laws, but there are other cases in which the Covenant Code is a vast improvement, as when it values the life even of a thief who breaks into a house during the day-time.  In some cases, Childs deems certain laws in the Covenant Code to be primitive, and he rejects attempts by ancient interpreters to rescue them.  For example, my impression is that Childs does not like the law saying that a slave-master can beat his slave and is let off the hook if the slave gets up after a day-or-so, since the slave is the master’s property.  The law also affirms that the slave-master is to be punished if the slave does not get up, and ancient interpreters have held that the master gets the death penalty.  But Childs does not buy that, and he laments that the punishment of the slave-master is in the arbitrary hands of the judge.

(UPDATE: See Paul D.’s comments and my responses here.  Another way to understand Exodus 21:21 is to say that, if the slave survives for a day or two and then dies, then the slave will not be avenged.  Some commentaries appear to go with that view, whereas others support the view that the slave in v 21 is surviving the beating.  I just checked how Childs translated the passage: “But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged since he is the other’s property.”)

Overall, however, Childs does not agree with the idea that the progressive New Testament is replacing the primitive Old Testament, for he defends “eye-for-an-eye” as a step up from what other countries in the ancient Near East had (i.e., a rich person could simply pay up after causing damage to someone’s person), and he states that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount applies to individuals, not the social order.  But, given that there are some things in the Covenant Code that Childs does not like, what’s his view on progressive revelation, the notion that people evolved in their moral sensitivity and their understanding of God?  The answer is that he does not believe in it, for he sees little indication in the Bible of what can be called progress.  Rather, for Childs, different communities can have different standards, and Christians should not casually dismiss the Mosaic law or Jewish interpretations of it as “legalistic”.  Unfortunately, I did not see Childs really interact with the question of what we should do with the troublesome aspects of the Bible, if we want to regard it as sacred Scripture, as Childs indeed does.

2.  Childs documents that Exodus 24 has given exegetes problems—in ancient and modern times.  As usual, Childs disagrees with conservative attempts to explain those problems away through harmonization or midrash, as well as the liberal tendency to shatter the text into a multitude of pieces, while making no attempt to put the pieces together to see what the text is saying.  In the case of Exodus 24, Childs thinks that the chapter performs an important role: it presents the God who terrified Israel in Exodus 19 as now entering into intimacy with Israel, as elders eat in God’s very presence.

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 2:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Psalm 35

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 35 and its interpreters.  Here are three items:

1.  Psalm 35:15 says (in my translation), “And in my stumbling they rejoiced, and they gathered together; nuchim gathered together against me, and I did not know; they tore, and they did not cease.”

The Hebrew word nuchim means “broken” or “stricken”.  The use of this word in Psalm 35:15 is odd, for the passage appears to be saying that the Psalmist’s persecutors are broken or stricken.  Why would the text say that, when its whole point seems to be that the Psalmist is the victim, not his persecutors?

Other versions have something different.  The Septuagint says that “mastiges were gathered together against me”, and the meaning of mastiges is “whips”, “scourges”, or “afflictions”.  The Vulgate has the same idea.  In these versions, Psalm 35:15 means that the Psalmist’s persecutors rejoiced at his stumbling and brought him afflictions, not that they themselves were afflicted.

W.O.E. Oesterley’s approach is to emend the text.  Instead of nuchim, Oesterley says we should read ke-nochrim, which means “like strangers”.  The text would then read, “And when I stumbled they rejoiced and gathered together, like strangers whom I know not”.  Oesterley’s idea may be that the Psalmist felt a certain kinship with his persecutors, for Psalm 35:13-14 says that he mourned for them when they were sick, as one mourns for a friend, brother, or mother.  But, notwithstanding the close relationship, the Psalmist’s persecutors in v 15 were acting like strangers to him, as they rejoiced at his stumbling and gathered against him.  The Psalmist felt betrayed.  Peter Craigie similarly goes the emendation route, but he emends nuchim to a Hebrew word that means “oppressors”.

Other interpreters—such as Rashi, Charles Spurgeon, John Gill, and Keil-Delitzsch—have tried to derive some meaning from the Masoretic Text as it stands, with the word nuchim.  Such interpretations include: nuchim was a word of mockery that David was using for his persecutors; the Psalmist was saying that his persecutors deserved to be beaten; David’s persecutors mock the limping Psalmist, even though they themselves are lame or have been smitten by God; nuchim is related to the Arabic word nawicka, which means “injured in mind”, meaning that David was saying that his persecutors were crazy; and David used nuchim because he regarded his persecutors as the dregs of society, as Job was snobbish in Job 30.

I personally am not committed to any version, emendation, or interpretation, but I want to propose an idea.  In vv 13-14, the Psalmist says that he fasted and prayed when his enemies were sick, but that his prayer returned to him, which may mean that his prayer was unanswered.  Could v 15 be continuing that idea by saying that the Psalmist’s enemies are nuchim because they are still sick, and yet they continue to mock and conspire against the Psalmist?  Even God afflicting them does not hold them back from their wickedness.

V 16 is another puzzling verse.  It says (in my wooden literal translation), “With the profane of the mockings of cake, grinding against me his teeth.”  Oesterley emends la-age maog (“mockings of cake”) to la-agu la-ag “they mocked a mocking”, which doesn’t sound far-fetched.  But I encountered many interpreters who try to do something with the Masoretic Text as it stands.  The most common interpretation that I found was that there are jesters at a banquet, who make fun of people or things to receive food (a cake).  These profane jesters are mocking the Psalmist at banquets.  Some apply this to David’s flight from King Saul: While David was on the run, jesters at Saul’s royal banquets were making fun of him.

2.  This brings me to the reference-points of Psalm 35.  Many have related this Psalm to David, but there are other interpretations, as well.  The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia says that David is prophesying the feelings and experiences of Jeremiah, who, like the voice in Psalm 35, was repaid evil for good (Jeremiah 18:20), was slandered (Jeremiah 37:11-14), and wished for disaster to befall his persecutors (Jeremiah 23:12).  Others have applied Psalm 35 to Jesus Christ, for Psalm 35:19—they “hate me without a cause” (KJV)—is related to Jesus in John 15:25.

In the orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, I read the view of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that Psalm 35 is about Israel in exile: Even though the Jews’ presence in other nations has influenced God to bless those nations, Israel’s captors continue to oppress them.  The ingratitude of the Psalmist’s oppressors in Psalm 35:13-14 is read in light of Israel’s Diaspora experience.  Similarly, Sigmund Mowinckel presents a national interpretation of Psalm 35: When v 20 states that the villains are treacherous against the quiet of the land, that means that Israel’s neighbors and oppressors scheme against her.  And others hold that the quiet of the land are pious Jews within Israel, who are afflicted by other Jews.

Peter Craigie interprets Psalm 35 in light of an international treaty, which other kings are breaking.  Vv 13-14 uses family language when it says that the Psalmist fasted on behalf of his persecutors as one would for a brother, or a mother, and international treaties contain familial language.  J. Gerald Janzen, however, states that the Psalmist feels a special kinship with those who are now persecuting him, as if his oppressors are fellow Israelites, towards whom the Psalmist has been loyal in the past.

Something that has puzzled some scholars is that part of Psalm 35 uses military language, whereas other parts use court-room language.  But the Psalmist could have drawn on different metaphors to express his experiences at the hands of persecutors.  The Psalmist needs defense from his enemies, as well as wants God to punish them.  And the Psalmist also desires vindication on account of those who have slandered him.

3.  Psalm 35:10 mentions the bones speaking to God, and E.W. Bullinger launches a discussion about bones in the Psalms.  Bullinger then says, “His heart broken (69.20); so our hearts (34.18); but not ourselves (John 10:27-29).”  John 10:27-29 is about how God preserves believers, even after death.  But I wonder if Psalm 35 is consistent with a belief in an afterlife, for, in v 17, the Psalmist asks God to preserve his soul or life, yechidati, which probably means “my only one”.  The King James Version translates that word as “my darling”, perhaps because the uniqueness of the Psalmist’s soul or life makes it special to him.  But Theodore of Mopsuestia says that the Psalmist is asking God to preserve the only life he has.

Perhaps the Psalmist did value this life because he thought that it was the only life he had, for the experience of the dead in Sheol did not count as a full “life”.  I think that I can learn from the value that the Psalmist placed on his life, even if I believe in an afterlife.

Published in: on July 30, 2011 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Childs on Sinai and the Decalogue

In my reading today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, the topics were Sinai and the Decalogue.

Something that I appreciated as I read Childs’ comments on the Sinai story in Exodus 19-20 was how difficult the identification of sources actually can be.  Childs acknowledges that there are tensions within the story: Moses goes up and down the mountain, sometimes for no apparent purpose; the people are presented as fearfully standing at a distance from the mountain, and yet there are warnings against them coming too close; there is unclarity about whether God dwells on the mountain or only descends there periodically; and the theophany is portrayed as occurring with smoke and fire, on the one hand, and clouds and thunder, on the other.  But identifying sources such as J and E is not easy, and grouping together stories by the divine name that they use does not work, in this case.  There are doublets that use the same divine name.  E supposedly believes that God dwells on the mountain, yet a source that presents God calling to Moses from the mountain (which, for Childs, entails God dwelling there) uses the divine name Yahweh, which J prefers.  J is stereotyped as portraying God’s theophany with smoke, whereas E’s theophany has a rain cloud, yet passages that have a cloud refer to God as Yahweh, and a passage often ascribed to E has a theophany of thunder, lightning, trumpets, and smoke.  Moreover, what has been labeled as “J” does not even appear smooth, for J “assumes a burning mountain because of Yahweh’s prior descent”, right before it “reports the descent for the first time” (page 349).  Childs says that different traditions were combined at the oral stage, before there were written sources.  But Childs does not dispense with J and E.  He believes that underneath the E source is a presentation of Moses as covenant mediator, whereas underneath the J source is a focus on Moses’ office as the one who heard from God and communicated God’s will, an office that continued with the Tent of Meeting (which was later absorbed into Jerusalem theology).  According to Childs, the revelatory office became subordinated to the covenant mediation in the Sinai story.

Childs is a fan of the final form of the text.  After describing scholarly debates on the date of the Decalogue, he takes a swipe at scholars when he says that “to the extent to which the scholar now finds himself increasingly estranged from the very substance which he studies, one wonders how far the lack of content which he discovers stems from a condition in the text or in himself” (page 437).  And Childs sometimes takes what may be considered a harmonizing approach to the text, or at least an approach that seeks to make sense of the text in its final form.  For example, what baffles many scholars about Exodus 19:20-25 is that God tells Moses to warn the people not to push their way to see the LORD, and to instruct the priests to consecrate themselves, and Moses reminds God that the people already cannot ascend Sinai because God warned them previously, and limits have been placed around the mountain.  Childs asserts that God does not think that the previous preparation of the Israelites was adequate, and so he sees a need to warn them again to keep their distance.  Childs appears to defend the logic of this passage within the story.  At the same time, Childs acknowledges that the presence of priests in this passage is anachronistic, since Aaron has not been consecrated yet, and Childs rejects the ancient view that these were firstborn Israelites who were priests.  Moreover, when Exodus 19:9b has a strange statement that Moses reported to God what the people had said—when v 8b already said that Moses did that, and v 9a said nothing about the people’s response—Childs dismisses midrashic methods that try to make sense of that.  Rather, he just says that v 9b is a “misplaced gloss from 8b” (page 375).

From the story of Sinai, Childs draws lessons about the holiness of God and the fact that God’s covenant is not a covenant of grace devoid of content.  Childs reminds me of people I know who say that there are responsibilities in a relationship with God, and that God called us specifically so that we can bear spiritual fruit—to be conformed to his character.  There is a part of me that sympathizes with this sentiment, for, years ago, whenever I heard people plead with others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, the question in my mind was, “Okay, I did that, so what’s next?”  Actually, that’s just the beginning!  At the same time, I want God to love me simply because he loves me, not because he has the ulterior motive of making me a certain way.  I sometimes get the impression that some don’t consider God’s love to be enough in the divine-human relationship, that God’s justification of us out of love would be pointless if we did not embrace a certain lifestyle.

Regarding the Decalogue, I found Childs’ discussion of the Decalogue in Christian exegesis to be particularly interesting, for I have wondered what the Christian stance to the Torah should be: Should Christians believe that the Torah was given exclusively to Israel within that particular covenant, or that it reveals God’s will for all of humanity, and is thus applicable to Christians?  Childs states that the Didache quotes the Decalogue, but he refers to church fathers (i.e., Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian) who said that Christians did not have to obey the Jewish law, except for those parts that were consistent with God’s law for all human beings.  And Martin Luther essentially had the same approach.

Finally (in terms of this post), Childs discusses on page 438 a complex issue: How can Scripture be particular to its own time, and yet bear meaning for subsequent generations, meaning which is particular for their time?  Childs does not believe that Scripture equals the interpretation of it, but he also does not think that the text can mean anything and everything.  To be honest, I do not know how he tries to resolve this problem.

Published in: on July 30, 2011 at 3:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Childs’ Heart Is in the Right Place, but I Still Have Issues

In my reading today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, I read forty pages, plus I reread Childs’ “Preface” and “Introduction”.

Childs expresses many of the problems I have with the historical-critical method (and I include under this category source criticism and traditio-criticism).  He says that many scholars spend so much time talking about their ideas regarding the pre-history of the biblical text—the sources and the development of traditions—that they neglect the text in its final form, which was the canon for the synagogue and the church.  Moreover, on page 338, Child states that “American scholarship has tended to impose Ancient Near Eastern patterns upon the biblical traditions with a heavy hand which has only succeeded in smothering the text, or it has fallen back into rationalistic harmonizations and reductionist theories of ‘what really happened’” (page 338).  Childs states that looking at the pre-history of the text is valuable if it clarifies the text’s meaning.  At the same time, however, he talks a lot about debates regarding the text’s pre-history, and I’m often left scratching my head as I wonder how exactly that information sheds light on what the text is saying.  As a matter of fact, Childs in his introduction says that lay-people can skip his sections on form and traditio-criticism “without seriously jeopardizing the comprehension of the exegetical section” (page xvi).  Technically-speaking, the development of a tradition should be relevant to what a tradition means.  But Childs realizes that many people ask “So what?” when they encounter certain scholarly sketches of the text’s pre-history and sources.  Those sketches leave many of us still hungry!

And yet, although Childs does have sections on the text’s prehistory, my problem is that he does not engage issues involving history as much as I’d like.  Yesterday, I raised the question of whether or not Childs believes that there is a historical kernal behind the events that the Hebrew Bible narrates, and if he addresses the question of whether or not the historicity of biblical events is important for faith.  So far in my reading, he has not addressed that question in a direct manner.  Like Martin Noth, Childs does believe that there may be a “historical memory from the wilderness period” in Exodus 17′s story about Israel’s battle with Amalek, for the story mentions an altar, “which would suggest an early localization of the tradition” (page 313).  But, overall, at least in my reading so far, Childs does not wrestle with the historicity of biblical events.

On page 326, Childs states regarding the story of Jethro in Exodus 18 that “the lines of development begin to emerge clearly in the course of Israel’s own reflections on her tradition in the light of the ongoing history of the nation.”  This may actually be a significant statement, one that reveals Childs’ viewpoint regarding history.  Childs believes that traditions developed as Israelites reflected.  That shows that the traditions before us in the Hebrew Bible do not necessarily reflect what really occurred in history, for the traditions indicate development.  This development occurred “in light of the ongoing history of the nation”, Childs says.  And yet, rarely in this commentary have I seen Childs specify how traditions developed in response to historical events.  History does not play a significant role in this commentary, at least in what I have read up to this point.  Probably the closest Childs comes to relating tradition to history is when he says that Exodus 12′s description of the Passover ritual emerged in Israel’s post-exilic period, when the Passover was considered significant, and that it highlighted an “already and not yet” (my words) dimension of redemption.  But, often, Childs does not touch on ancient Israelite history.  In a sense, this is understandable, for I have read many scholars who dogmatically relate biblical texts to specific historical contexts, when it seems to me that the texts could relate to a variety of contexts.  It is possible for scholars to become so obsessed with identifying the Sitz im Leben of the text, that they neglect to focus on the meaning of the text itself.  At the same time, when I read about how a tradition developed, I’d like to encounter ideas about why it developed as it did: what were the theological ideas or the historical contexts that led to the tradition’s development?  I feel at times that historical-critics do not comment enough on the significance of their insights.  (Of the people I’ve read, however, John Van Seters actually does this, for he relates biblical texts to history and the theology of the authors.) 

In many cases, Childs’ approach to the text is rather synchronic.  I talked yesterday about how he is uncomfortable with the historical-critical idea that P came along and added a supernatural element to the parting of the Red Sea, whereas J was fine with saying that God used natural causes (a wind).  For Childs, the editor of the text did not aim for one tradition to supersede another, for he presents both of them simultaneously.  I came across the same sort of approach in my reading today.  On pages 331-332, Childs discusses how many religious commentators had problems with Moses receiving advice from Jethro.  Why, after all, would Moses need advice from a foreign priest, when he had access to the very voice of God?  Childs says that “the remarkable thing is that the Old Testament itself does not seem to sense any problem on this issue.”  Childs then looks at Christian exegetes who used Exodus 18 to say that Christians can learn even from pagans (an “All truth is God’s truth” sort of idea), and Childs concludes in his theological reflection that we can learn from both divine revelation and also “the wisdom of human experience” (page 335).  My problem with Childs’ approach here is that part of the Hebrew Bible may have a problem with Moses receiving advice from Jethro, for Deuteronomy 1 does not mention Jethro when it discusses the origin of the Israelite court system.  Childs seems to downplay biblical diversity, as well as a possible attempt by Deuteronomy to supersede what is in Exodus. 

Perhaps something valuable that Childs contributes—in terms of his methodology—is that we can read two different traditions together: that Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1 both teach us something valuable.  Both traditions were preserved, after all!  As I read many biblical scholars, I wonder what exactly I am supposed to do with biblical diversity, from a theological standpoint, and Childs (to his credit) does try to tackle this question.  But there are times when Childs seems to downplay biblical diversity.  For example, Jethro in Exodus 18 says that YHWH is above all gods, which drew the ire of John Calvin, who concluded that Jethro did not make the full leap into monotheism!  But Childs says that this is too literal, and that “there is no vestige of polytheism left” in Jethro’s words (page 328).  In my opinion, this shows that it’s easy to simultaneously accept certain tensions within Scripture—learning from God, and learning from a wise person—but not others.  After all, either there is only one God, or there are many gods!  What can we do when the Hebrew Bible presents both views?  Can we hold to a contradiction in our faith?

I noted above that Childs criticizes scholars who smother the text by referring to ancient Near Eastern parallels.  But there is one occasion in which Childs uses an ancient Near Eastern parallel to illuminate the text, and also to correct religious interpretations.  Why did Moses in Exodus 17 lift us his hands, resulting in the victory of the Israelites over Amalek?  Religious commentators have said that Moses was praying, or was encouraging the troops.  But Childs simply states that “In Exodus 17 the hands are the instruments of mediating power, as is common throughout the ancient Near East” (page 315).  But overall, in my reading thus far, Childs does not make use of ancient Near Eastern parallels.  Could that be because we live in a different world, and ancient Near Eastern mindsets are not our own?  We, after all, do not believe that hands channel power (or maybe there are people who do, such as practitioners of alternative healing practices).  Childs wants his commentary to be relevant for his age, so he excludes certain things that he does not deem relevant.       

Published in: on July 29, 2011 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Childs on the Red Sea, Manna, and Natural Causes

For my write-up today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, I will talk some about his treatment of two topics: the Red Sea event in Exodus 14, and the manna.  In Childs’ discussion of these topics, he mentions the debate between naturalism (which tries to discern a natural cause behind events in the Bible) and supernaturalism (which accepts miracles in the Bible as miracles, flowing from God’s direct intervention).

Regarding the Red Sea event in the Book of Exodus, Childs on pages 220-221 defines the portrayal of this event in J and P.  (P, according to Childs, draws some from E.)  In J, the Egyptians are coming after Israel, and a cloud turns into darkness and conceals the Israelites.  A strong east wind “lays the bed of the sea bare”, and the panicking Egyptians flee towards it.  The water “flows back into its own bed”, and the Egyptians are drowned.  According to Childs, J does not present the Israelites crossing the sea, or even moving during this incident, for that matter.  P(E), by contrast, has the story that many of us know from such movies as The Ten Commandments: God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, the Egyptians pursue the Israelites, Moses (at God’s command) raises his staff over the water, the water parts into two walls, the Israelites cross, and the waters close over the Egyptians.  Many have maintained that J presents a natural cause for the Red Sea event—a wind—whereas P’s account portrays the event as miraculous and supernatural in origin.

Regarding the story of the manna in Exodus 16, what often gets discussed is the existence in North Arabian deserts (and elsewhere) of naturally-formed manna-like food.  Childs describes it on pages 282-283:

“There forms from the sap of the tamarisk tree a species of yellowish-white flake or ball, which results from the activity of a type of plant lice…The insect punctures the fruit of the tree and excretes a substance from this juice.  During the warmth of the day it melts, but it congeals when cold.  It has a sweet taste.  The pellets or cakes are gathered by the natives in the early morning and, when cooked, provide a sort of bread.  The food decays quickly and attracts ants.  The annual crop in the Sinai peninsula is exceedingly small and in some years fails completely.  The similarity in the description of the biblical manna and the natural desert substance certainly suggests some historical connection.”

Childs refers to different approaches to this information.  Some dismiss the miracle of manna by saying that there was a natural cause for it.  Some affirm that God can work through natural means.  Others are threatened by this information and seek to demonstrate that the manna indeed was a miracle—that it is different from the natural desert substance.  (One thing I’d like to note: Childs says that the annual crop of this substance is low in the Sinai peninsula, so wouldn’t it have been unusual—if not miraculous—for the Israelites to be sustained by the substance for over forty years?)

And Childs shows that this sort of debate is not modern.  Ben Sira 38:5 may be saying that the natural properties of the tree made the bitter water sweet in Exodus 15:22-27, for Ben Sira in the context of that passage is talking about medicines and God’s use of physicians.  In Ben Sira 38, Ben Sira seems to prefer the notion that God uses natural causes.  Josephus seeks to rationalize the story of the manna to make it appear genuine and credible to his readers (Antiquities 3.26ff.).  For the Red Sea event, however, Josephus rationalizes in some areas, but not in others.  Josephus presents Moses striking the sea with his staff, and he doesn’t even mention the east wind.  At the same time, Josephus asserts that “Moses chose his route by means of a clever calculation” (Childs’ words on page 230).  Josephus also mentions a time when Alexander the Great “was offered a passage through the sea”, and he “allows that it could have been ‘by the will of God or maybe by accident’” (Childs’ words on page 230).  There were also medieval discussions on whether the manna was natural or miraculous in origin.

On the Red Sea event, Childs disagrees with the historical-critical approach of simply attributing a naturalistic belief-system to J, and a supernaturalistic belief-system to P, as P came after J.  Rather, Childs refers to the biblical writer or redactor, who brought both of these traditions together to stand side-by-side, with neither superseding the other.  The story of the Red Sea event is about God upholding his divine plan against human opposition to it, and, in accomplishing this, God uses both natural causes and also Moses, who executes God’s wonderful feats.  Childs looks at the final form of the text.

On the manna, Childs affirms that what is important is that Israel knew the power of God by receiving the manna.  Childs says this in the midst of a discussion on pages 300-303 about how to view Scripture: he rejects the harmonization approach of apologists, but also the notion that Scripture merely flows from human imagination.  His emphasis is on Scripture being God’s human vehicle for a community of faith.  Yet, Childs also says that it is for the world.

I do not know if Childs believes that the story of the manna is historical.  He appears to accept source critical interpretations of Exodus 16, which hold that it represents a different tradition from Numbers 11.  (Numbers 11 presents the quail coming when the Israelites are tired of manna, whereas Exodus 16 says that God brought both quail and manna at the outset.)  The way that Childs often handles Scriptural diversity is by saying that we are seeing different witnesses.  But is there a historical event behind the witnesses?  Or are we just dealing with stories that communicate theological points about God?

Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Childs Spells Out His Methodology Some More

In my reading today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, Childs spells out some of the aspects of canonical criticism that I was discussing yesterday: his view that scholars should look at the final form of the biblical text, rather than just concentrating on the text’s different authors and redactional stages.

Granted, Childs is not a fundamentalist, for he emphatically disagrees with scholars who act as if tensions within the Book of Exodus do not exist, out of apologetic motives.  Much of what I read today was Childs’ interaction with historical-criticism, source criticism, and traditi0-criticism, as Childs agreed with some models, critiqued others, and offered his own model in some cases.  As an example of Childs’ belief in different sources, Childs acknowledges differences between J and P.  J presents Pharaoh’s recalcitrance as being in response to the plagues and their removal, whereas P asserts that Pharaoh’s recalcitrance resulted in the multiplication of plagues.  (On a side note, Childs focuses on this point in his discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, which, in my opinion, failed to address the problematic nature of God hardening a person.)  On page 193, Childs notes how J and P also contradict each other on the Israelites’ departure from Egypt:

“According to J the Israelites left at night, whereas P has them depart in the morning.  In J the people are unprepared and hastily packed up their unleavened bread.  In P careful preparation has been made for the feast throughout the night.  The hasty departure is only acted out.  Unleavened bread is not an accidental discovery, but part of the prepared ceremony.  In J the death of the first-born culminated the long struggle with Pharaoh and resulted in his abject defeat and capitulation.  In P the judgment is directed rather to the gods of Egypt (12.2) and Pharaoh plays no significant role.”

Childs acknowledges the existence of tensions within the text, but how does he handle those tensions as one who treats the Bible as canon—as a sacred text?  On pages 150-151, Childs refers to Moshe Greenberg’s approach of identifying major themes in a passage, and of seeing how the themes fit into “the movement of the book as a whole.”  A theme that Greenberg identifies is “the revelation by God [through the plagues] of his nature to Pharaoh, to the Egyptians, and to all men.”  (And something that Childs talked about more than once in my reading today was how the plagues story acknowledged the God-fearers among the Egyptians.)  According to Childs, by looking at how different sources interact with a broad theme, we can avoid getting lost in “unduly fragmented” exegesis, and we can also highlight different dimensions of the text and “sketch the full range of God’s method of showing his power.”  In essence, Childs appears to be saying that we should keep our focus on broad themes, while allowing the diversity of the text to illustrate them, rather than concentrating predominantly on fracturing the text into different sources and layers.

I can envision this sort of approach becoming boring because it may highlight the same themes over and over: God’s sovereignty, God’s love, God’s justice, etc.  And yet, perhaps this approach can be interesting because it can reveal different, nuanced ways of illustrating these themes.  Moreover, while historical-criticism can be fascinating because it presents the Bible as a prism rather than a monochromatic document, I often find myself asking “So what?” in response to many of its claims.  I wish that, rather than just looking at differences within the Bible, biblical scholars would also comment on the significance of those differences—within religious ideologies.  Childs does that on one occasion in my reading today, when he talks about P’s ideology behind including the genealogy of Moses and Aaron: P’s belief in history as “the ongoing life of the established institutions and offices of the covenant people” (page 116).

Another question that I have as I read Childs is the significance of some of the information that he provides.  For instance, he refers to Jewish and Christian exegetes (Augustine, Rashi, etc.) who try to answer how the Egyptian magicians found water to turn into blood, when Moses had already turned all of the water into blood.  This is of interest to me because I like to see how the ancients addressed difficulties within the Bible, from their own religious standpoints.  But I wonder why Childs includes that information.  As far as I know, Childs himself does not embrace an approach of harmonizing the Scriptures, so why does he refer to incidents in which ancient exegetes did so?  Is it for encyclopedic purposes, or to give us an accurate picture of ancient exegesis?  There are times when the ancient exegesis that Childs cites appears to clarify the text or to explain the story, but then there are times when I wonder how certain information fits into Childs’ model of canonical criticism.

Moreover, Childs himself at times seems to act as if ancient exegetes (like historical-critics) focus on minutiae while missing the key theme of the text.  For example, while ancient exegetes sought to justify the Israelites’ spoiling of the Egyptians (one reason being, for some exegetes, that people like Marcion criticized the Old Testament on the basis of things such as this), Childs notes that the Old Testament attempts to make no such justification.  Childs states that, “Seen in the light of the whole Old Testament, the despoiling of the Egyptians is another sign of Israel’s election which constituted the faith of Israel (Gen. 15.14)” (page 177).  Childs may appeal to ancient exegetes because they, too, have a sensitivity to the broader context of biblical passages—within the canon of the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian canon of the Old Testament plus the New Testament.  But he may also think that there are times when ancient exegetes neglect broader themes in their focus on technicalities.

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 10:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Beginning Childs’ Commentary on Exodus

I started Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus.  Childs looks at the Book of Exodus from a historical-critical perspective, as he acknowledges such things as various sources and redaction.  But Childs also considers the interpretation and use of the Book of Exodus in the history of biblical interpretation: in the New Testament, Hellenistic Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, Medieval Judaism, the church fathers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, liberal Protestants, etc.  Moreover, Childs offers theological reflections on passages in Exodus.

I will need to reread Childs’ introduction to this book, but I will save that for later.  At this point, I will say some things that I have heard about Childs’ canonical-critical approach.  My understanding is that Childs does not just consider the historical-critical or traditio-critical meaning behind the texts, for he also considers the text as a whole.  Childs is also interested in the use of the Bible for the Christian church, to teach theology, and yet he draws from Jewish interpretations because they, too, look at the biblical text holistically as well as have some theological or homiletical interest in the Hebrew Bible.  This is how I understand Childs’ canonical-criticism at the present time, and I am open to correction.  But, if you do correct me, I will direct people to your comments rather than rewrite this post, or sections of it.

Is this the approach that I see in Childs’ commentary on Exodus?  Does Childs treat the Book as a whole—in a synchronic manner?  He does at times acknowledge the existence of the J and the E sources, or he suggests that an older tradition has accumulated additions.  But there are also times when he says that debates on source division do not matter for a particular passage because they are unrelated to the passage’s meaning.  He appears to be rather skeptical of scholarly tendencies to see a lot of hands in Exodus 3.  On page 98, when discussing the story of Moses’ near-death experience with an angel, he states that there is a scholarly tendency to focus too much on the passage’s possible original meaning (i.e., to account for a ritual), and not enough on the redactor’s use of the passage within the story (i.e., to highlight the importance of circumcision).

At some times, Childs is not exactly clear—or at least I am confused.  For example, he states that Exodus 3 is about the revelation of the name of YHWH, which differs from the J source’s claim that the God of Israel was always known as YHWH, even during the time of the patriarchs, and before then.  But Childs also appears to assert that Moses was confirming his own prophetic status by showing the Israelites that he knew the name of YHWH, as well as communicating to them what the name meant (that God will be present, in accordance with ehyeh asher ehyeh), rather than telling them new information.  The former notion presumes different sources, one that suggests that YHWH’s name was known before the time of Moses, and some that imply the opposite.  The latter idea, however, seems to be more of a harmonistic approach (though Childs, even then, attributes Exodus 3 to E), for it downplays the idea that YHWH’s name was unknown prior to Moses.

What is Childs’ stance on the historicity of the Book of Exodus?  I have not read everything that he has written on the subject, but he is not afraid of saying that a passage is unhistorical.  For example, “Moses” in Egyptian means “son”, but the author of the Exodus story about the Egyptian princess drawing baby Moses out of the water apparently does not know that, for he relates “Moses” to the Hebrew word for “draw out”, plus he presents the princess knowing Hebrew!  Childs does not seem to believe that the story of Moses in the basket has much to do with the Assyrian story of baby Sargon in the basket, for the Sargon story lacks the motif of genocide.  Yet, Childs does not run away from acknowledging foreign parallels to the Moses story, for he mentions the Egyptian story of Sinuhe in reference to Moses’ flight, showing that he deems Sinuhe to be relevant.  Childs on page 15 criticizes those who bring up Egyptian history in discussing the Book of Exodus.  Moreover, Childs also treats the text literarily.  He says that Moses’ sister in the story of baby Moses is a literary device that furthers the plot, and that there are two midwives in Exodus 1 for poetic purposes.  (On a side note, Childs presents reasons that the midwives in the story were Egyptian, not Hebrew, for, if they were Hebrew, Pharaoh would not have been surprised that the Hebrew boys were surviving under their supervision—since Hebrew midwives would naturally spare their own.)  Childs notices literary patterns, such as the two Israelites’ ungrateful rejection of Moses’ help, as contrasted with Jethro’s gratitude to Moses for assisting his daughters.  So far in my reading, Childs’ treatment of the Book of Exodus has not included viewing it as a historically-accurate source.

Childs’ approach to the Book of Exodus is Christian, yet he uses Jewish sources, which are from a different worldview—one that takes the text in a different direction from where Christianity takes it.  How does Childs do this?  First of all, Childs appeals to Jewish (and Christian) sources to answer questions about the text.  Were the midwives right or wrong to lie to Pharaoh?  (The Christian sources tend to vote “wrong”.)  Was Moses right or wrong to kill the Egyptian?  (Many early interpreters answered “right”, whereas later liberal Protestants answered “wrong”.)  Why did Moses not tell Jethro the truth about why he was returning to Egypt?  (Answers that have been proposed include that Moses was modest, or shy about religious matters.)  These questions cover neutral territory in terms of Judaism and Christianity, for they focus primarily on the plot of the story. (Yet, Stephen Fraade has argued that there can be ideological implications even in how one interprets plot, explaining the differences between Christian and Jewish interpretations of Genesis 4:26, which features people making some sort of use of the name of the LORD in the time of Enosh.)

Second,on page 25, Childs states that the Exodus was only a prelude to “eschatological redemption”, which Israel awaited.  This occurred, at least in part, when the Messiah (Jesus) identified himself with the history of Israel by descending into Egypt and coming out a true son.  Childs here does not dismiss what Israel understood as her history, and the concept of eschatological redemption is shared by many Jews and Christians.  But Childs maintains that Christ fulfills that concept.  His understanding of the eschatological redemption is probably different from that of many Jews, but that may not come into play in his interpretation of the Book of Exodus, which largely is not about eschatology (though Childs does acknowledge favorably when Christian interpreters have made eschatological use of Exodus).  To see how Childs would interpret eschatological passages in comparison or contrast with Jewish interpretations, a look at his commentary on Isaiah may be profitable!

Third, Childs admits that the New Testament interpretation of the Book of Exodus is not always the same as what the Book of Exodus itself is saying, for the New Testament draws from Hellenistic Jewish and other interpretations.  (For instance, Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus resembles the early chapters of Exodus, except, unlike Matthew’s story, the Book of Exodus does not present the king fearing a specific individual who would arise and undermine his reign.  Josephus, Philo, targumim, and Greek mythology, however, do have those kinds of stories.)  In one case, when the Book of Exodus differs from the New Testament’s interpretation of it, Childs treats both of them as valid witnesses.  Hebrews 11 interprets the story of Moses in terms of eschatological hope, whereas the Exodus story itself lacks this element, focusing instead on the here-and-now.  Childs says that Christians experience a clear call to discipleship, yet they navigate their way through sinful emotions and historical accidents.  After all, Moses’ “selfless act is soon beclouded by violence and nothing of lasting effect is accomplished for Israel’s plight” (page 43).

But, while Childs accepts the testimony of both testaments, he still highlights the importance of Jesus Christ.  Only in Jesus Christ, he proclaims, do the tensions between eschatological hope and living in the here-and-now come together.  As Childs considers the sermon of Stephen in Acts 7, he seems to agree with Stephen’s drawing of a parallel between the two Israelites’ failure to recognize Moses as their helper, and the failure of much of Israel to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Childs’ use of the Book of Exodus is Christian, and it’s for the church, yet he utilizes historical-critical and Jewish interpretations for that goal.

These are my impressions so far of Childs’ approach, based on my reading of the first 102 pages.

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 1:49 am  Comments (2)  

Completing Nelson’s Commentary on Joshua

I finished Richard Nelson’s commentary on the Book of Joshua.

1.  Nelson talks about the distribution of the Promised Land among the tribes in the Book of Joshua, and he dates parts of that story to different times.  One historical context that he posits is the “expansionistic reign of Josiah” (page 186).  For Nelson, that the Book of Joshua had a southern provenance at some point in its history is evident in its starting with Judah when discussing the division of the Cisjordan (after it talks about Caleb’s inheritance).  Moreover, in Joshua 18:21-25, Northern Israelite cities (i.e., Bethel) are assigned to Benjamin, which was part of the Southern Kingdom.  Nelson states that this reflects a time when “Judah controlled northeast Benjamin and southern Ephraim (Bethel, Ophrah), and such a time is probably the reign of Josiah, “whose reform touched not only Bethel, but included Geba” (page 214).

But Nelson argues that the Levitical cities in Joshua 21:1-42 must reflect a late date, for that section reflects the post-exilic practice of elevating the sons of Aaron above the other Levites (whereas the Deuteronomistic History did not distinguish among the Levites).  Moreover, Nelson states that “there is no period after Solomon in which a single political structure would have actually controlled all the territory described here”, but, because archaeology tells us “that many of these towns were not settled at the time of the United Monarchy”, we cannot date the list to that time (pages 237-238).  Nelson considers the list to be late and utopian, like Ezekiel 48′s distribution of the land.

2.  In Joshua 22, there is the story of the Israelite tribes in Gilead building a replica of the altar, which drew the anger of the Israelites in the CisJordan.  But an understanding was reached between them, and Gilead was affirmed to be part of Israel.  According to Nelson, xenophobia against the Transjordan probably emerged as a result of the Assyrians “adding further alien elements to the Ammonites and Moabites already present”, as part of their “ethnic exchange policy” (page 250).  Nelson states that Ezekiel 47:13-48:29 reflects the view that the Transjordan is not a part of Israel, for Ezekiel 47:18 distinguishes Gilead from Israel.  Consequently, Nelson contends that Joshua 22 concerns questions that confronted Israel after its restoration: “Could Yahwists who lived outside the holy land participate in temple sacrifice or were they unclean (v. 17)?  Were the offerings they brought products of an unclean land (v. 19)?”  Joshua 22, like Psalm 60:7 and 108:8, affirms an inclusive view regarding Gilead.

3.  There are passages in Joshua in which Israel is said to have conquered all of the land, whereas other parts suggest that there is more land for Israel to take.  Deuteronomistic language actually appears in both kinds of passages, and so Nelson proposes that the Deuteronomist had a complex ideology on Conquest, which he inherited from Deuteronomy:

“According to Deut. 7:1-5, for example, the nations are to be wiped out, yet at the same time are to be carefully avoided.  Deut. 11:22-25 asserts that the complete achievement of the conquest would depend on obedience as well as on divine promise.”  (page 259)

When obedience is placed into the equation, success becomes tentative!

For Nelson, the Deuteronomist presented the Conquest as total in order to glorify YHWH and to argue that the land indeed belongs to Israel, but he shifts gears to prepare the way for the Book of Judges, where the Israelites are religiously influenced by the Canaanites—resulting in Israel’s ups and downs in the course of the book.  We see this sort of thing elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: “In the book of Kings as well, the historian admits the continued presence of alien elements (1 Kings 9:20-21), yet faithfully asserts that Yahweh dispossessed them (1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 15:3)” (page 260).

4.  On page 269, Nelson is discussing the pledge of allegiance that the Israelites make to YHWH in Joshua 24.  (Nelson says later, on page 277, that there is nothing in Joshua 24 about God’s obligations to Israel, for God has already fulfilled his side of the bargain through his past actions on her behalf.)  This occurs at Shechem, and Nelson notes that Shechem is often associated with loyalty to YHWH.  In Genesis 35:2-4, for example, Shechem is where Jacob buries the idols that his family has forsaken.  I wonder if Genesis 34 (the story of Dinah) could be relevant to this, since that is about the possibility of Israelite intermarriage with the Shechemites—which did not occur.  Intermarriage can lead to idolatry, but Simeon and Levi kept that from happening when they slaughtered the Shechemites and took possession of the area themselves.

I thought that this book was all right, but I particularly enjoyed the introduction, for that was where Nelson argued that the Conquest was not historically accurate, and yet the Book of Joshua played a significant role in the theology and identity of Israel.  Usually, when people make those sorts of claims, they sound rather hairy, for I wonder how stories that did not happen could provide inspiration for anyone.  But the Israelites believed that they did happen, according to Nelson.  And the stories inspired Israel to praise YHWH and to reassure themselves when they were unsure that the land was in their grasp—and even after they had lost the land.

Published in: on July 25, 2011 at 3:08 am  Leave a Comment  

Building on the Rock

At church this morning, the sermon was on Matthew 7:24-29, in which Jesus contrasts those who hear his words and do them, with those who do not.  The former are like those who build their house on a rock, with the result that their house withstands storms and floods, and the latter are like those who build their house on sand, with the result that their house is destroyed in storms and floods.  The pastor said that many back then chose to build their houses in the cool valleys—on sand—because building them on the rocky hills was laborious.  Ordinarily, those with houses in the valleys had no problems, but their houses were destroyed when there was a flood once every generation.

The pastor talked about how building houses according to standards results in a good house, and that we have to live in the house that we build.  The pastor also said that, when we obey the words of Jesus, we are solidifying ourselves for trials that will come.  And the pastor remarked that the Sermon on the Mount contains good material on which we can live our lives, for it touches on our lives, as it discusses such topics as revenge, worry, and forgiveness.  The pastor had “saving money” in that list, but the only thing in that sermon that appears to be related to that is when Jesus told people not to lay up treasures on earth.

I’m curious as to how following the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount can enable one to withstand storms successfully.  I wonder if my faith has helped me to do that, especially when I get overly bent out of shape when the Little House episode I want to watch is not playing on YouTube!  I’d have a hard time in situations where the future is uncertain.  I think, though, that being in relationships with people who have experienced trials and survived them is helpful.  In saying this, I’m not nodding to evangelicalism’s emphasis on communitarianism, for the vibe I get from evangelicalism is that God doesn’t like me if I don’t have a bunch of friends.  Rather, I’m saying that relationships are helpful.  Something else that’s helpful is gaining wisdom.  The Bible can be a source for that, but some may find other sources to be more helpful—such as devotionals, or twelfth-step literature, or self-help books, or Dr. Phil, or Oprah.

Is the Sermon on the Mount good material on which I can build my life?  I think that it can be.  Feelings or passions such as hatred, lust, and worry can lead a person into bad places.  But, if the Sermon on the Mount leads me to beat myself up over not being perfect—and to worry about my eternal destiny—then it’s not good material on which I can build a house.  After all, I have to live in the house that I build.

Published in: on July 24, 2011 at 3:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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