Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wealth and Poverty and the Uniqueness of the Mosaic Law

Comparison of the Mosaic Law in the Hebrew Bible to other ancient Near Eastern law codes demonstrates many parallels and similarities. In his book Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns comments: “But when you look at the specific laws, the degree of similarity is obvious. . . . biblical laws and ancient Near Eastern law codes cover very similar situations in similar wording: false accusations, stealing, stolen property, kidnapping, treatment of slaves, livestock, land, loans, marriage and divorce, children, and so on. It is no exaggeration to say that anyone familiar with ancient Near Eastern law codes, reading biblical law for the first time, although likely taking note of elements peculiar to the Israelites, would no doubt recognize it as ‘another ancient Near Eastern law code.’” The case law concerning a goring ox in Exodus 21:28 bears a striking similarity to the provision found in the Laws of Eshnunna (53): “If an ox gores another ox and thus causes its death, the two ox-owners shall divide the value of the living ox and the carcass of the dead ox.”

Despite these similarities, David L. Baker’s recent work Tight Fists or Open Hands: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law, also documents how the Mosaic Law is distinctively different from these other law codes in its views on wealth, property, and treatment of the poor. Regarding social and economic issues, Baker writes that the differences between the Mosaic Law and these other law codes “far outnumber the similarities.” Baker’s topic is quite relevant at a time when Christians are both reawakening to their social responsibilities and being told to flee from churches that promote social justice. Much of this confusion can be directly attributed to the church’s failure to develop a coherent theology of wealth and to absorb the ethic of the Old Testament law. In the concluding chapter of his book, Baker highlights these ten unique features and concerns of the Mosaic Law.

1.The penalties for infringing property rights in the Bible are much more humane than elsewhere, and never involve mutilation, beating, or death. The same rules apply to all as well, and punishment does not depend on the status of the thief or the victim.

See Exod 22:1-4; 23:9; Lev 19:15; 24:22

Compare with other ancient Near Eastern law codes that often punish various forms of theft or dishonest practices with death or mutilation of some form:

Middle Assyrian Law (§ A3) If a man is either ill or dead, and his wife should steal something from his house and give it either to a man, or to a woman, or to anyone else, they shall kill the man’s wife as well as the receivers

Middle Assyrian Law (§ A4) If … a slave … should receive something from a man’s wife, they shall cut off the slave’s … nose and ears; they shall restore the stolen goods, the man shall cut off his wife’s ears… (the punishment for a man who steal is much more lenient and generally consists of a beating and restitution).

Code of Hammurabi (§ 25) If a fire breaks out in a man’s house, and a man who came to help put it out covets the household furnishings belonging to the householder, and takes household furnishings belonging to the householder, that man shall be cast into that very fire.

Code of Hammurabi (§ 108) If a tapster should refuse to accept grain for the price of beer but accepts [only] silver measured by the large weight, thereby reducing the value of beer in relation to the value of grain, they shall charge and convict that tapster and they shall cast her into the water.

2.With regard to laws on owner liability for animals and buildings, Mesopotamian laws deal with the economic aspect and provide compensation for the victim’s family, while biblical law is concerned primarily with bloodguilt because of the inestimable value of human life.

See Exod 21:28-29

3.According to OT law, ancestral land is God’s gift to his chosen people and allocated equitably to each of them. Old Babylonian and Middle Assyrian law assert that the land belongs to the king.

See Leviticus 25:23-24

4.In the OT law, chattel slavery is limited to non-Israelites, and the laws provide significant protection for slaves. Fugitive slaves are to be given asylum, and slaves are entitled to holidays. In other ANE law codes, slaves are subject to property law, which focuses on the rights of the slave owners over their property.

See Exod 21:20-21, 26-27; Lev 25:44-46; Deut 23:15-16

5.There are several distinctive features of OT law concerning semi-slaves. Temporary slaves are given the option of becoming permanent members of the household at the end of their service. Bonded labor for a limited term was another way of paying off debts and was actually a realistic possibility because of the OT policy of interest-free loans. High interest rates in other cultures meant that the worker was only covering interest payments and would likely remain in lifelong bondage. Biblical law also provides a measure of protection to concubines that entitles them to some of the rights of a wife or daughter, and this kindness toward concubines contrasts with their utilitarian treatment in Mesopotamia.

See Exod 21:2-6; Deut 15:13-18; Exod 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14

6.The protection of vulnerable people is considered the divine will and a royal responsibility throughout the ANE. However, OT law is more concerned ensure that widows and orphans are not abused or exploited in law courts or financial dealings. They also benefit from the laws on gleaning, triennial tithes, and celebrations that promote generosity toward the needy. OT law also reflects a concern for ethnic minorities within the covenant community not found in other ANE law collections.

See Exod 22:22-24; Deut 24:17-18

7.Biblical law has distinctive emphases in relation to just lawsuits. The principle of impartiality may have been assumed elsewhere, but it is only explicitly stated in the OT.

See Exod 20:16; 22:21; 23:8-9; Lev 19:15, 33-34; 24:22; Deut 16:18-20; 17:16; 19:15; 24:17-18; 27:19

8.The idea that agricultural produce is God’s gift to his people, to be shared with all is another OT distinctive. This is reflected in specific ways in the laws of the sabbatical year, the triennial tithe, and ‘scrumping.’ The biblical laws on gleaning and scrumping have no parallel elsewhere. In other parts of the ANE, fallowing takes place for agricultural reasons, and tithes are paid to the temple or place, but neither of these practices is designed as social welfare.

See Exod 23:10-11; Lev 25:1-7, 18-25; 19:9-10; Deut 14:28-29; 24:19-22; 26:12-13

9.There is a significant contrast between the laws of the ANE and the OT on the subject of loans. Mesopotamian law is concerned with standardizing rates of interest, whereas Israelite law forbids interest on loans to fellow-members of the covenant community, especially the poor. While all the laws assume the principle of security for loans, the OT is more concerned with the needs of the poor who borrow than the rights of the rich who lend. A pledge is allowed as long as it does not cause hardship to the borrower, but since the poor are unlikely to have very little that they do not need, the law virtually eliminates security in practice. The OT laws do not even contemplate the possibility of the surrender of a family member or ancestral land as a pledge, practices which are common in other ANE laws.

See Exod 22:25; Lev 25:35-38; Deut 15:7-8; 23:19-20

10.The OT laws on terms and conditions for employment are unparalleled in the other law collection. The concept of Sabbath is unique in the ANE, especially in its emphasis that regular rest and recreation is a fundamental right for all—including slaves, resident aliens, and even livestock. The same emphasis is also reflected with several other biblical festivals. No other ANE law specifically legislates for holidays. The laws on wages in other ANE law codes are designed primarily to protect the rights of employers; biblical laws are more concerned with the right of employees to prompt payment for their work.

See Exod 20:8-11; 23:12; Lev 19:19; Deut 5:12-15; Deut 12:12, 18; 16:14; 24:14-15

Recognizing these distinctive features enhances our appreciation and respect for the Mosaic Law as sacred Scripture. It also serves as a reminder that Christian pastors have a responsibility to give a greater place to the teaching of the Mosaic Law in our pulpits. Remembering that the God of the Old Testament commanded his people “to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in the land” (Deut 15:11) will do much to correct our blindness toward our social responsibilities and to motivate us to practice the pure religion of looking after those in need (James 1:27).

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Cleansing of Isaiah and the Purging of Israel (Isaiah 6 and the Theology of Isaiah)

In preparation for a seminar I’ll be teaching on the theology of the Old Testament prophets, I’ve spent some time over the past few weeks reflecting on the message of the book of Isaiah. I’ve been reminded of the centrality of the story of Isaiah’s call in Isaiah 6 and how the prophet’s initial encounter with God impacted all of his ministry and message. Isaiah 6 is more than just Isaiah’s call as a prophet; in many ways, this passage presents the drama of the book of Isaiah in condensed form. God cleanses Isaiah to proclaim his message to Israel so that Israel might be cleansed to proclaim God’s glory to the nations. John Oswalt explains: “If the people of ‘unclean lips’ (6:5) can have the same experience that he, the “man of unclean lips” had, then the dilemma Isaiah sees in Israel, and which he expresses in chapters 1-5, can be solved. That dilemma is: How can the present corrupt, rebellious Israel (expressed in Judah), defying God’s instruction, ever become the promised, clean obedient Israel from whom all the nations will learn instruction.” (Isaiah, NIVAC, 125)

Yahweh is Holy and Israel is Not

Isaiah sees a vision of Yahweh as the thrice-holy God, and this image leaves a deep impression on his entire ministry. The title “Holy One of Israel” becomes one of the prophet’s favorite designations for God (this title appears 26 times in Isaiah and only 5 times in the rest of the OT). Yahweh is holy, but the problem is that Israel, his people are not. In the presence of this holy God, Isaiah becomes aware of his own sinfulness—he is a man of unclean lips. Being in the presence of a holy God as a sinful human is a dangerous thing, and Isaiah sees himself under a sentence of death (“Woe is me”). Rather than God’s presence providing comfort, the smoke and thunder bring terror—on an everyday visit to the Jerusalem Temple, the God of Sinai revealed himself in a powerful and frightening theophany. Even the “seraphim” (lit. “burning ones”) who serve in Yahweh’s presence inspire terror (the word is used elsewhere in the OT to refer to poisonous snakes; see Num 21:6; Deut 8:15; Isa 14:29; 30:6).

Israel is also a sinful people, and their empty worship makes it dangerous for them to enter into Yahweh’s presence (Isa 1:15-18). Yahweh hates their empty prayers and rituals. They are rebellious children who have spurned the Holy One of Israel (Isa 1:2-4). They are a worthless vineyard that has failed to produce the fruit that Yahweh has desired and demanded from them (Isa 5:1-7). Like Isaiah, they are particularly corrupted in their speech, “a people of unclean lips.” Rather than proclaiming God’s holiness, they declare their own sinfulness:

For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence. For the look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves. (Isa 3:8-9)

With their words, they defy God to punish them for their sinful behavior:

Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, who say: "Let him be quick, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!" Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isa 5:18-20)

The Cleansing of Isaiah and the Purging of Israel

Isaiah’s unclean lips render him unfit to speak as Yahweh’s messenger, and so a seraph must come with a burning coal to purge and cauterize his lips so that he can respond to Yahweh’s call (Isa 6:6-8). It is only after his cleansing that Isaiah can say, “Here am I! Send me.” Israel was commissioned as a nation to be God’s servant (Isa 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4; 48:20), but its sins also prevented the nation from fulfilling its mission of declaring and reflecting God’s glory to the nations—Israel became a deaf and blind servant (Isa 42:18-22). Because of their sin, Israel cannot be God’s witnesses or declare his praise (cf. Isa 43:10, 21-22) and like Isaiah stands in need of cleansing so that it can fulfill its role as God’s servant. Isaiah immediately recognized his sinfulness while in the presence of Yahweh and instantly received cleansing and purging from Yahweh. Israel’s cleansing will not come so easily because the nation is blind and deaf toward the prophet’s calls to repentance and warnings of judgment (Isa 6:9-10). Yahweh can only cleanse his people through a severe judgment that purges away their dross and corruption (Isa 1:25-31). Israel’s obstinance is such that its judgment requires that its cities be left waste and without inhabitant (Isa 6:11-13).

The purging of Israel in the book of Isaiah is reflected through the transformation of Zion, with the city representing the nation as a whole. Barry Webb has stated that Zion’s transformation “is the key to both the formal and thematic structure of the book of Isaiah.” The Zion of Isaiah’s day had become a city of bloodshed, but Yahweh’s judgment would one day transform the city into a shining beacon of righteousness (Isa 1:21-26). The city that was left like “a hut in a melon field” (Isa 1:8) would one day be exalted as the highest mountain on earth (Isa 2:1-4). Because of God’s grace, the unfaithful harlot (Isa 1:21) would become a pure and holy bride (Isa 62:4). Yahweh would take back Daughter Zion, the wife he sent away with a certificate of divorce, and the barren city would be so filled with inhabitants that her walls could not contain them (Isa 49:14-18; 50:1; 54:1-8; 62:5; 66:6-11).

In the first stage of judgment, God sent the Assyrians as the rod of his anger (Isa 10:5), and Israel as a people was left bloodied and bruised with most of its cities burned with fire (Isa 1:5-8). Israel was left with only a few survivors (Isa 1:9), and even the tenth that remained would be subjected to a further burning (Isa 6:13). When King Hezekiah turned to the Lord for deliverance, Yahweh delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians (Isa 36-37), but the purging was incomplete. Once the crisis was past, Judah returned to its sinful ways and refuseed to acknowledge Yahweh as its deliverer (Isa 22:1-14—esp. vv. 12-14). And so, the judgment that began with the invasion Assyrian invasion would continue with the exile to Babylon (Isa 39:5-7). Yahweh sent the Babylonian exile as a double punishment for Israel’s sins (Isa 40:2). As the exile came to an end, Yahweh was prepared to blot out Israel’s sin (Isa 43:25) and to wipe them out like a cloud (Isa 44:22). The goal of Yahweh’s judgment of his people all along was restoration, not destruction. With his judgment completed, he would act to remove the blindness that has characterized his failed servant (cf. Isa 29:9-10, 18; 35:5; 42:18-20; 48:8).

Because of Israel’s failure and inability to perform its role as the national servant, Yahweh ultimately completed the work of purging by raising up an individual servant. The individual servant was identified with Israel (49:3) and yet also had a ministry of restoring Israel to all that God intended her to be (Isa 49:6). While Israel was guilty before God and suffering for its own sins (Isa 48:4, 18; 50:1), the individual servant was absolutely faithful to God (Isa 50:4-9) and his suffering on behalf of the sins of others was ultimately what would restore Israel to God (Isa 53:4-6, 10-12). The restorative function of the individual servant’s work is reflected in that every use of the term “servant” after chapter 53 appears in the plural (Isa 54:17; 63:17; 65:8, 9, 13, 14, 15; 66:14). Because of the servant’s work, the Lord’s continual protection and blessing would be the “heritage” of Israel as his “servants” (Isa 54:17).

Like the prophet, the people of Israel would experience restoration and forgiveness when they were willing to acknowledge and confess their sins (Isa 59:12-14; 64:5-9). The people would ultimately come to the same recognition as the prophet on the day that he saw Yahweh in his glory, “We have all become like one who is unclean” (Isa 64:6). The seraph purged Isaiah’s lips, and Yahweh would also act in grace to remove sin from Israel. Yahweh promised that he would heal Israel’s sin (Isa 57:17-18) and when Israel lacked even the ability to return to him, Yahweh would act alone as warrior to rescue his people from their sin (Isa 59:15-20). Yahweh would complete his work of salvation by pouring out his Spirit on Israel so that the people would not return to their sinful ways (Isa 59:21).

Unfortunately, the blessings of Yahweh’s deliverance and the work of the servant would not extend to all of Israel. When returning from exile, Israel would persist in its sins of social injustice (Isa 58:1-14; 59:3-9, 14-15) and pagan worship (Isa 57:3-8; 65:1-7; 66:17) The prophet distinguished between those in Israel who would be Yahweh’s “servants” and those that would persist in their sinful ways and remain under his judgment. For those who disobey, being in the presence of Yahweh would remain a dangerous thing (Isa 66:1-4). Prior to the coming of the eschatological kingdom (“new heavens and earth”), the Lord will carry out a final purging judgment of Israel so that only those who are truly his “servants” will remain (65:8-16; 66: 15-16, 24).

The Proclaiming of Yahweh’s Glory to the Nations

In his initial vision, Isaiah saw that the glory of Yahweh filled the earth (Isa 6:3), and the agenda of his ministry became that Israel and ultimately all peoples would recognize the glory of Yahweh. More than any other book in the Old Testament, the book of Isaiah highlights the participation of the nations in God’s future kingdom, because the blessings of God’s glory were too great to belong to Israel alone.

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isa 2:2-4)

In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. And the LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them. In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance." (Isa 19:19-25)

"Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.' (Isa 45:22-23)

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isa 60:1-3)

As the restored servant of Yahweh, Israel would become a light to the nations (Isa 49:6), and the book of Isaiah concludes with the survivors of Israel going out to the nations to “declare the glory of the Lord” so that the nations might come to Zion and worship (Isa 66:18-21):

For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD.

What God did for Isaiah in his call as prophet is ultimately what he would do for all of Israel. The cleansing of Isaiah so that he might fulfill his mission as Yahweh’s spokesman prefigured how Yahweh would cleans Israel through purging judgment so that Israel might fulfill its role as Yahweh’s servant by proclaiming his glory throughout the earth.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Where Exactly is "Babylon the Great?"

In recent years, prophecy writers often comment on how the rebuilding of the ancient city of Babylon is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a sign of the end times in part because of the prophecies concerning the fall of Babylon the Great in Revelation 17-18 ( ). However, the contrasts developed between Babylon and the New Jerusalem in Revelation 17-22 suggest that Babylon is more a theological symbol than a specific geographical location. In his book From Eden to the New Jerusalem, T. Desmond Alexander (p. 176) has noted several specific contrasts between the New Jerusalem vs. Babylon in the closing chapters of Revelation:

1. The chaste bride and wife of the Lord (Rev 21:2, 9) vs. the great harlot (Rev 17:2)
2. Nations walking by her light (Rev 21:24) vs. the corruption and deception of the nations (Rev 17:2; 18:3, 23; 19:2)
3. Glory of nations brought to her (Rev 21:26) vs. luxurious wealth extorted from the nations (Rev 18:12-17)
4. Uncleanness, abomination, and falsehood excluded (Rev 21:27) vs. impurities, abominations, and deception as prominent features (Rev 17:4-5; 18:23).
5. The association with life and healing (Rev 22:1-2) vs. the association with the blood of slaughter (Rev 17:6; 18:24)
6. The water of life and tree of life for the healing of the nations (Rev 21:6; 22:1-2) vs. the wine which makes the nations drunk (Rev 14:8; 17;2; 18:3)
7. The call to enter (Rev 22:14) vs. the call to leave and come out (Rev 18:4)
As Alexander explains, Babylon represents the world in rebellion against God. In the Old Testament, Babylon is the locale where humans unite in their defiance against God by building a city and tower (Gen 11:1-9).

Babylon is the prime example of a tyrannical empire that opposes God and oppresses the people of God (Ps 137; Isa 13-14; Jer 50-51):

“Whereas the New Jerusalem lies in the future and will be a city built by God, Babylon already exists. It is here and now, for it is the great human city built by people who live in defiance of God. As we shall see, the book of Revlation presents us with an important choice. We have to choose between being a citizen of this world’s godless Babylon or a citizen of God’s future New Jerusalem.”

“The Babylon of Revelation is often taken to be a cipher for Rome, the greatest ‘city’ in the first century AD. There is no doubt that Rome is included within the image of Babylon. However, Babylon as a symbol should not be restricted to the capital of the Roman Empire, because it represents and embodies what human beings strive after when separated from God, Babylon is the antithesis of the city that God himself desires to construct upon the earth.” (p. 181)

“In Revelation, the city of Babylon symbolizes humanity’s obsession with wealth and power, which become a substitute for knowing God. History witnesses to the ongoing existence of Babylon, as one nation after another has used its power to grow rich at the expense of others. We live in a world where economic power dominates national and international politics.” (pp. 182-83)

James L . Resseguie, in his recent The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary, also recognizes the contrast between Babylon and the new Jerusalem and provides a similar understanding of what Babylon symbolizes and represents in Revelation (p. 35):

"Two cities . . . are symbolic: Babylon and the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem is the ideal city, the city of God, the new promised land (21:1-22:5). The other symbolic city, Babylon, is the satanic parody of Jerusalem. Babylon looks like Rome with its seven mountains (17:9); claims to divinity (‘blasphemous names,” 17:3) are plastered over its throne, the scarlet beast. Yet Babylon is more than the imperial city. It is ‘Babylon,’ the ancient city of Israel’s exile and alienation (see Ps 137). It is ‘Sodom,” a symbol of wickedness (Rev 11:8; cf. Gen 19:1-25; Deut 29:22-23; Isaiah 1:9-15; 3:9; Jer 23:14-15), and ‘Egypt’,’ the place of slavery and alienation (Rev 11:8; cf. Exod 5:1-21; Joel 3:19). It is the tower of Babel rising to the heavens staking a claim to be God. Babylon is the archetypal city of this world that seeks to deify itself and to rule supreme. Rome fits the bill--and so does any and every place that makes claims that belong to God alone."

"Babylon and Jerusalem represent the two choices of the Apocalypse. Babylon, the city of this world, the place of exile and alienation for Christians, is the spiritual capital for those who are earthbound, whose point of view is from below (that is, from this world). The earthbound includes not only those outside the church but also those within. Babylon is where the 'inhabitants of the world' dwell and the followers of the beast make their home. Yet Babylon is not only the home of the earth's inhabitants; it is also where Christians live, although it cannot be called their home. In John's world, Christians are exiled to Babylon. Thus, John calls Christians to come out of Babylon in 18:4 and not take part in her sins. Although it is impossible to leave Babylon physically, Christians can leave Babylon figuratively by resisting its norms, values, and believes and by following the Lamb to the new promised land, the new Jersualem.”

We also see a contrast between two cities in Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse (Isa 24-27), a section portraying God’s eschatological judgment of the nations and salvation of his people. The inhabitants of Jerusalem will rejoice in God’s deliverance (Isa 26:1-3; 27:13), and peoples from all nations will gather for a banquet in celebration of the removal of death itself (Isa 25:6-10). In contrast to Jerusalem is the desolate city of the proud that has become a heap and a ruin because of God’s devastating judgment (Isa 24:10-12; 25:1-2, 12; 27:10). Rather than indicating a specific place here, the city stands for the whole world and represents all of the cities of the earth that stand in opposition to God and his rule over them. John Oswalt explains the significance of the city imagery: “The city offers wealth, glamour, excitement, pleasure, intrigue, and power—all the things that humans are prone to sell their souls for. But as mighty and alluring as the city of earth is, a day of harvest is coming when all the fruit will be stripped off and nothing will be left of all the riches that earthlings thought were their own.”

Similarly, the end-time empire in Revelation 17-18 encompasses something much larger than a geographical location and reminds us that the nations of the world are in rebellion against God. Like Rome in the first-century, nations today embody the spirit of Babylon. The danger of restricting “Babylon the Great” to a particular geographical location is that it leads us to ignore the ways in which our nation and culture reflect Babylonian beliefs and values that are contrary to God’s kingdom agenda. One of the prominent features of Babylon the Great is its great wealth (Rev 17:4; 18:11-13), and so the American dream of prosperity and success is the modern reflection of an ancient idolatry. Rather than satisfying our curiosity about end-times events, biblical prophecy is designed to change the way we believe and behave. Rather than giving us a geography lesson, the end-time scenario of the book of Revelation is another reminder to “seek first the kingdom of God” and to “flee Babylon” by refusing to buy into the lies of the prevailing culture around us.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

When teaching or preaching the Old Testament as Christians, we have a responsibility to bring Christ into every sermon. Spurgeon explained his preaching method by saying, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” Christian pastors or teachers often bring Christ into the OT in some rather strange ways (allegory, excessive typology, etc.) and not every OT passage is about Christ. Our job is not to make Christ magically appear in every OT text, but we also have not really done our job as preachers unless we explain how Christ relates to every message we preach from the OT. Bringing Christ into the passage is especially a challenge when we preach the OT prophets. It’s easy to see Christ in the “messianic prophecies” like Isaiah 9, 11, 53, 61, etc., but what about Isaiah’s judgment speeches, his calls for justice, or his oracles against the nations?

In exploring how we preach Christ-centered sermons from the OT, Bryan Chappell has explained that the OT points to Christ in four specific ways. First, the OT predicts about Christ (we could look at OT messianic prophecies, messianic psalms, etc). Second, the OT prepares for Christ. OT persons, events, and individuals provide a bridge to Christ (the sacrifices pointing to the need for an ultimate payment for sin and the temple system pointing to God’s ultimate presence with his people in the person of Jesus). The OT also points to dead-ends where Christ becomes the solution and ultimate answer (the failed leadership of Israel; Israel’s inability to keep the law and its other covenantal failures). Third, the OT is a reflection of Christ—God’s calls for love, justice, and his holiness find their perfect reflection in Christ. God’s redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt or the deliverance of Israel form the Babylonian exile reflect God’s deliverance of his people from sin in Christ. Fourth, the OT points to the results of Christ’s coming and work (the salvation portrayals and announcements of the OT in passages like Isaiah 2:2-4 and 4:2-5 would fit into this category—and thus are not just things that will be true in the future kingdom but are also things that have at least become partial realities in the present in light of the first coming of Christ).

Preaching and teaching Christ from the prophets is more than just throwing in a correlating NT passage as a footnote to your lesson. Many times in the prophets, the text will present a problem; our job is not just to diagnose how that problem infects our lives, churches, or culture but also to show how Christ is the answer to that problem. For example, Isaiah 5:8-30 documents the problems of Judah’s oppression, selfishness, pursuit of pleasure—teaching this passage requires more than just showing how we struggle with these same sins in the present; Christian preaching and teaching must also show how the cross and knowing Christ provide the antidote to this type of living. If we fail to do this, we really are doing nothing more than moralizing about the text. We’re like a doctor who diagnoses a disease but then offers to healing prescription for the malady. We are preaching the law but offering no grace.

Chappell made the point in his message that the only reason sin has any power in our lives is that we love it. Our job as Christian teachers and preachers then is to help people love Christ more than they love sin and to point to the grace of Christ that helps them to break sinful patterns in our lives. The people of the OT followed idols and so do we because we love those things more than we love the Lord. It’s easy to simply use the prophets to catalog and condemn the idols in our lives; the real task is to show people how much Christ has loved them and to produce love for Christ that will ultimately transform the human heart.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Solomon in Kings: Good History and a Great Story

My previous blog dealt with the historicity of the biblical account of the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. We saw that there are credible reasons for looking at 1-2 Kings in the OT as reliable history. In this blog, I'd like to look at another feature of the stories of Solomon in 1 Kings. They are not only reliable history but also highly creative and artistic literature. Robert Chisholm (Interpreting the Historical Books) has observed that rather than "a dry record of bare facts about what happened in the past," the OT historical books contain "exciting and fascinating stories" of a highly literary nature that "read more like a historical novel complete with plot structure and character development" (p. 21). These stories "are historically accthat co urate," but also we should also recognize that they possess "an aesthetic, literary dimension that contributes to their theological development and purpose" (p. 26). The Bible is about real people and real events, but the artistry of biblical narrative rivals the best forms of historical fiction.

The story of Solomon in 1 Kings 1-11 reflects the creativity of biblical narrative. The writer extols the great accomplishments of Solomon but at the same time undermines praise of Solomon with subtle indicators that Solomon's accomplishments weren't so great after all. We could say that the narrator his damning Solomon with lavish praise. An excellent study by J. Daniel Hays ("Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11") brings out these aspects of the story. The story of Solomon highlights his successes in chapters 1-10 and relegates the story of his failure and apostasy to chapter 11, but there are numerous ways that the narrator suggests that even Solomon's successes foreshadow his failures. In a sense, the time of Solomon's reign was the best of times for Israel, the time when Israel was closest to being a true empire, but those best of times were also the worst of times. Solomon was truly a "great" king, but mostly he was "great" at not following the Lord.

It is certainly significant that Solomon's greatest accomplishments involve the accumulation of wealth (1 Kgs 10:14), horses and chariots (1 Kgs 10:26), and women (1 Kgs 11:1), the three things specifically forbidden of the Israelite king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8, Solomon makes 59 specific references to the book of Deuteronomy. He obviously knew its teachings very well, but he ignored the central thing that Deuteronomy had to say to him as Israel's ruler. Solomon was a wise man who collected proverbs and songs, but he was also a foolish man who collected wives and concubines.

There is something troubling about Solomon's rule from the very beginning. Unlike with Saul and David, there is no indication that the Lord specifically chose Solomon to be the ruler over Israel. David, Nathan, Zadok, Bathsheba, Benaiah, Adonijah, Joab, Abiathar, Abishag are all involved in the intrigues and politics of violence and sex that ultimately place Solomon on the throne, but the missing character in all of this is Yahweh himself. The prophet Nathan speaks but not on behalf of Yahweh. The Lord is obviously involved in the process that leads to Solomon's accession to the throne, but it is never explicitly stated that Yahweh chose him for the job.

Nothing could be more positive that Solomon recognition of his need for God's help at the beginning of his reign (1 Kings 3:1-15), and it is certainly praiseworthy that he chooses the attribute of wisdom over riches and wealth. In requesting wisdom from God, Solomon literally requests that God give him a "hearing heart" (Heb. leb + shema`) so that he might know the difference between "good" (Heb. tob) and "evil" (Heb. ra`) (1 Kgs 3:9). This request is exactly what the king should ask for, but the larger story of Solomon seems to stress that Solomon's commitment to this quality was rather half-hearted. The story begins with Solomon "loving" Yahweh (1 Kgs 3:1), but it ends with him "loving" foreign women (1 Kgs 11:1). The word "heart" appears three times in 1 Kings 11:4 to speak of Solomon's defection away from the Lord, and Solomon fails by doing what is "evil" (ra`) in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kgs 11:6). Solomon's prayer at first blush appears to be an act of great piety, but in fact, Yahweh's answer to this prayer highlights more the culpability of Solomon's failure and apostasy. God gave Solomon everything he needed to be a great ruler, but Solomon was ultimately more interested in other things, the trappings of wealth and power that he appears to eschew at the beginning of his reign. Solomon's apostasy was more a gradual decline than the moral equivalent of falling off a cliff.

Solomon's resolution of the dispute between the two women over who was the mother of the living child in 1 Kings 3:16-28 is a prime example of Solomon's wisdom and his concern for justice. However, there is something wrong about the fact that both of these women are prostitutes. Prostitution was an "abomination" in God's eyes (cf. Deut 23:18), and yet these women brazenly enter the king's presence without fear of retribution. It suggests something of the moral decay that becomes evident in Solomon's own life. The metaphorical use of prostitution (Hebrew zanah) elsewhere in the OT also suggests that this scene foreshadows the religious apostasy that Solomon himself will later create because of his worship of foreign gods.

1 Kings 4-5 narrates Solomon's administrative and organizational accomplishments in which he establishes a powerful royal bureaucracy, but the irony is that Solomon has become precisely the type of king that Samuel had warned the people about when they had first asked for a king in 1 Samuel 8. Solomon establishes an empire, but conscripts large numbers of the people into his army and work forces. The royal bureaucracy demands exorbitant provisions of food that must come from the land and labor of the people (1 Kgs 4:7, 23). Even though the people enjoy food, drink, and security (1 Kgs 4:20, 25), it comes at the cost of heavy taxation (1 Kgs 4:22-23; 1 Kgs 4:27-28).

Solomon's great accomplishment was building the temple, but even that accomplishment is tainted. There is no mention that Solomon ever pays the workers who labored to construct the Temple, in contrast to Josiah's later action when he commissions repairs on the temple (see 2 Kgs 22:3-7). The reference to the exodus in 1 Kings 6:1 in the context of forced labor makes Solomon appear like the Pharaoh in oppressing the Israelites to build this great house of worship for the Lord. The Temple is an impressive structure, and Solomon seems to exult in the fact that he is the one who has built the temple (cf. 1 Kgs 8:13, 20, 27, 43-44, 48). Solomon takes seven years to build the Temple, but 13 years to build his own house (1 Kgs 6:38-7:1). Throughout the rest of Kings, Solomon's great Temple is going to be systematically dismantled because of the apostasy of king and people (see 1 Kgs 14:26; 2 Kgs 16:17; 2 Kgs 18:16; 2 Kgs 25:9, 13-17).

The visit of the Queen of Sheba to recognize and honor Solomon perhaps represents the pinnacle of Solomon's international acclaim. This scene represents in some sense what God designed for Israel when he chose them to be a "holy nation" and "kingdom of priests." Israel was to mediate God's blessing to all other nations, and God designed that the nations would come to inquire of Israel concerning their God when they saw the great blessing that God bestowed on Israel for obedience to his covenant commands. However, when the Queen of Sheba sees the splendor of Solomon's palace, she comments only about the happiness that his reign brings upon those who live in the palace with him (1 Kgs 10:8). Her ironic comment about "justice and righteousness" in 1 Kings 10:9 perhaps implies that those qualities have disappeared from Israel during Solomon's reign.

Helping people to see the artistry of biblical narratives is one of the ways that we can help the Old Testament to come alive for modern audience. Biblical illiteracy is one of the serious problems in our churches today, and even people who know these stories may have never deeply reflected on their meaning and significance for their lives. The artistry of biblical stories ultimately point us to their theological message and their relevance for Christian living today. Even before Solomon's great apostasy in chapter 11, there are evidences of moral failure and spiritual neglect. And Solomon's life continues to remind us of the great differences that often exist between human achievement and success in the eyes of God.

If you would like to see further development of these features of the story of Solomon, please see J. Daniel Hays, "Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11" Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2003): 149-174.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Queen of Sheba and the Historicity of the Books of Kings

I read an interesting discussion of the story of the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10) this week in Jens Braun Kofoed's 2005 work Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text. Kofoed notes some of the rather fanciful legends that exist about the Queen of Sheba in Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia, and Israel. Arabian folklore and the Qur'an relate stories about the queen (named Bilquis or Balkis) that involve magic carpets, talking birds, and the magical transfer of the queen's throne from Sheba to Solomon's palace. In one legend, a hoopoe bird tells Solomon about Balkis and then delivers a message to the queen that Solomon will destroy her people if she does not come to visit him. In another, the queen has a foot shaped like an ass's foot that is transformed into a human foot the moment she stepped on Solomon's glass floor. Solomon invents a depilatory that removes goat hair from the queen's legs in another tale. A Jewish legend recounts that the queen sent Solomon six thousand boys and girls all born the same hour, the same day, the same month and same year, all of equal size and dressed in identical purple garments. Islamic legends portray the queen as marrying Solomon, abandoning her gods, and converting to faith in the God of Israel. In the Ethiopic national epic, Kebra Negast, the queen's name is Makeda. She became queen at the age of 15 and later travels to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. While she is there, Solomon dazzles her with his wisdom and also tricks her into having sexual relations. The queen conceives and gives birth to a son named Menelik. When he is old enough, Menelik travels to Jerusalem to meet his father. Solomon commanded that the firstborn sons of the priests and elders of Israel accompany Menelik on his journey back home. However, Menelik and Azariah, the son of the high priest, stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and took it with them on the trip, making Aksum the New Jerusalem and Ethiopia the New Israel. You can read more about these legends and tales about the Queen of Sheba at

It was common for scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries to also dismiss the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon as legendary propaganda designed to praise the greatness of Solomon's wisdom and piety. However, extra-biblical evidence has actually served to enhance at the very least the historical plausibility of this story. Though many of the legends connect this queen to ancient Ethiopia, she more likely resided in the country of Saba, in southwest Arabia (present-day Yemen). Studies by Kenneth Kitchen have demonstrated that the kingdom of Saba was well-established by the tenth-century B.C. and engaged in a lucrative caravan trade. The "incense route" extended from Saba to the Levant and across to Mesopotamia. The inscriptions of Ashurbanipal II and Tikulti-Ninurta II from the 9th century BC refer to these Assyrian kings collected tribute at Hindanu, a main outlet along this caravan road, and an 8th century record documents how a caravan with at least two hundred camels coming from Saba was plundered at this site. Kofoed concludes: "It is highly likely, therefore, that by 1000 B.C.E. camel caravans occasionally traveled the 1,400 miles up the 'Incense Road' and along the Red Sea to Israel, bringing with them the highly prized goods of Saba." All of this adds credibility to the biblical account that a queen from Saba could and would have visited Solomon for diplomatic purposes in this time period.

Even more significantly, the final form of Kings was not written until at least the middle of the exile in the 6th century (note the last event recorded in 2 Kings 25:27-30), and Kofoed notes that many scholars believe that the author of Kings wrote in the Hellenistic or Persian times. If so, it is all the more remarkable that the writer(s) of the material in Kings got it right when they placed trade relations between Saba and Israel in the 10th century. It was either "just a lucky stab" or more likely that the biblical writers had access to reliable historical sources and traditions from the time of Solomon's reign. Kofoed notes other places where the writer of Kings got it right in regard to specific details about historical events that are confirmed by outside sources like the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions and the Babylonian Chronicle. This evidence that the writer of Kings used reliable sources in compiling his history means that "a basic trust in his historical information, therefore, is heuristically defensible and commendable—not only when we can check the information elsewhere, but generally." The minimalists have tended to view the biblical portrayal of the Davidic-Solomonic empire as a literary fiction, but here is another example of how solid and credible evidence does not require or support that conclusion.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary

The 5 volumes of the recently-released Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary for the Old Testament is a wonderful reference tool that I would highly recommend to anyone involved in studying and teaching the Old Testament. Understanding the historical background and cultural context of a biblical passage is an important aspect of good exegesis. I often hear people defend their understanding of a passage as "the most natural reading of a text," but often without realizing that the meanings that we assign to text from our setting and context may not be the same as that of the biblical writer and his original audience. I have included some examples of the types of information found in this commentary from the two volumes dealing with the Old Testament prophets. I hope these examples will demonstrate how the careful and informed use of background information can help us to arrive at a better understanding of the difficult imagery and speech forms found in the Old Testament prophets.

Yahweh's Promise to "Swallow" Death in Isaiah 25:7-8

This image of Yahweh swallowing death serves as polemic against the conception of "Death" as a deity in other ancient Near Eastern religions. David Baker comments:

Death (mwt) was a god, and there is evidence of its personification in the ancient Near East as well (Ps 49:14). In Akkadian literature, death (mutu) eats people, since one person says, "He took me out of the mouth of death." The Canaanite god Mot devours others voraciously, including his fellow god, Baal, the god of fertility. Of him it says, "Baal will enter his innards (lit. 'liver'); he will enter his mouth like a shriveled olive." This devouring is a cyclical event, happening in the fall, which leads to the "death" of winter. In the spring Baal is released from the netherworld. For Isaiah the tables will be turned; death rather than devouring, will be devoured by Israel's god."

This background information helps the Isaiah passage come to life. The prophet is promising both the destruction of death (see the connection of these two ideas in Isaiah 26:12-19). The pagan worldview was essentially a hopeless one where death wins and swallows up everything in its path. One Canaanite text pictures Mot the god of death with one lip to the earth and one to the heavens. The Old Testament counters this dark reality with the promise that Yahweh will ultimately overcome death's power—the great swallower will be swallowed up. Paul references this passage from Isaiah when he taunts death at the end of 1 Corinthians 15 in celebration of the Christian hope that comes through the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15:54-56).

Ezekiel 38: The Identity of Gog of the land of Magog

Ezekiel 38 portrays the future defeat of a powerful army led by Gog from the land of Magog that will invade and attack the land of Israel. The identity of this army has been a subject of speculation throughout church history. The army and/or its leader has been variously identified as the Goths (4th cent), Arabs (7th cent), the Mongol hordes (13th cent), the Pope or the Turks (17th cent), Russia (20th cent), and an Islamic-coalition of nations. Several features of the passage when seen from its ancient Near Eastern background would argue against trying to identify the army with specific peoples or nations. The name Gog for the leader of this coalition seems to derive from Gyges, the name of the king of Lydia in Asia Minor (668-631 B.C.). This king is mentioned in several Assyrian inscriptions and had a legendary reputation of brutality. Thus, this king from the time of Ezekiel becomes representative of the future leader of the coalition that will invade Israel. I would see Daniel using a similar convention when he compares the future Antichrist to Antiochus Epiphanes IV in Daniel 11 and John when he draws a parallel between Nero and Antichrist in John 13. There is no indication that Gyges ever actually attacked the land of Israel. The seven nations that are part of Gog's coalition are real nations mentioned as trading partners of Tyre (Ezekiel 26) or recorded in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 (cf. Gen 10:2). These seven nations represent peoples that surround Israel from all points of the compass. Meschech, Tubal, Gomer, and Beth-Togarmah represent the northern extreme of the world known to Israel, while Persia, Cush, and Put represent the eastern and southern extreme. The correct interpretation of the passage is to recognize these seven nations as representative of peoples from all the nations what will join in the future attack on Isarel and not to identify these seven ancient peoples with the specific geopolitical entities that occupy the same territories today. This international coalition will be led by a Gog-like figure, but not necessarily a leader who originates from the same geographical location as Gyges of Lydia.

Daniel Bodi's commentary in the ZIBBC notes a parallel between Ezekiel 38 and the Old Babylonian Cuthean Legend that was popular in the Neo-Assyrian period. In this text, an invading horde from the north (and specifically Anatolia) is set apart by the gods. The army goes out on a long march of plunder and devastation and is led by several prices under the supreme command of one of them. The leader of the army is identified by a historical royal name but without any specific connection to actual historical events associated with that ruler. Thus, Ezekiel is using a literary convention to portray an actual prophetic event—the eschatological assault on Israel by the nations (for other descriptions of an eschatological battle, see Mic 5:5-9; Zeph 3:8-9; Zech 12:1-9; Zech 14:1-5; Zech 14:1-5, 12-15; Rev 16; Rev 19 ) but is not giving a detailed list of the actual nations in the attack—they are merely representative of the unidentified army of the future.

Bodi points to one other feature that would seem to indicate the representative nature of the enemy portrayed in Ezekiel 38. The name Magog for the land of Gog is perhaps an atbash, a type of ancient code, for the nation of Babylon. In this atbash, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is replaced by the preceding one and thus, the letters m-g-g if read backward thus render b-b-l (or Babel, Babylon). It would have been dangerous for Ezekiel when prophesying in Babylon to have directly mentioned Babylon by name, but this code is perhaps a way of portraying the future invasion of the nations against Israel as a reversal of the Babylonian exile. We see similar atbash code names for Babylon in Jeremiah 25:11 and 51:1. Babylon will once again at some time in the distant future lead a powerful army against Israel, but God will use this invasion to destroy Babylon and those that oppress and oppose his people. We see Babylon as the leader of the forces against God and his people in Revelation 13-18 as well, and again, the intent is not to identify Babylon as the geographical location of the nation that opposes God but to use Babylon as representative of the peoples from all nations who stand against God and his purposes.

The purpose of prophetic revelation is not to give us specific and minute details about the future in order to satisfy our curiosity but rather to give us the big picture of God's plans for the future in a way that ultimately assures us of the triumph of God and his people over all opposition. Understanding the ancient context of Ezekiel's vision helps us to better understand the original intent and design of this passage.

The "sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood" in Joel 2:28-32

In this passage, the Lord promises to pour out his Spirit in the last days and also promises that the "sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood" (2:31). This astral phenomena is connected to blood, fire, and smoke on the earth in 2:30. We have another example of how ancient Near Eastern background helps us to understand this imagery and to avoid reading in a literalistic manner that violates the likely intended meaning of the original author. Mark Chavalas explains:

This passage is no doubt describing an eclipse, which was usually considered an evil omen in Mesopotamian society, often bringing disaster, specifically to the nation or the king. In fact, Mesopotamian kings sometimes "abdicated" their throne and had another "sit on the throne" until the eclipse (and bad omen) was over. In effect, it was hoped that the substitute king, not the true king, would thus endure the hardships associated with the eclipse.

Celestial observations were especially important to the kings of the Neo-Assyrian empires, and solar eclipses were particularly viewed as a good omen for the king and a bad one for his enemies. Even the time and color of the eclipse were important to the meaning and significance of the omen. One text specifies that the eclipse indicated a coming locust plague if it was red on the west side and rode the south wind. If the eclipse occurred on the 28th day of Iyyar, the king would have a long and prosperous reign.

Thus, the meaning of the Joel prophecy seems clear. The prophet promises that the last days will be a time of great blessing as Yahweh pours out his spirit so that all of his people will dream dreams and see visions. However, this eschatological blessing will be accompanied by a time of catastrophic time of judgment on Yahweh's enemies in which celestial signs reflect the doom that is to come upon the earth. We see this idea in the New Testament fulfillment of this passage. Peter views the pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost as the fulfillment of the promise in Joel 2 (cf. Acts 2:17-21), but this blessing is also accompanied by catastrophic judgment. The cataclysmic language of Joel 2 also appears to refer to the even greater and more intense eschatological judgment that will befall the earth in connection with the second coming of Christ (see Matt 24:29; Rev 6:12-14; 8:14).

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Isaiah’s New Creation and the Gospel

We were privileged to have Dr. Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament and Professor for Spiritual Development and Culture at Dallas Seminary, as a visiting lecturer at Liberty University this past week. In his lecture to the seminary students and faculty, Bock discussed the issues surrounding the New Perspectives on Paul and particularly the debate over justification between N.T. Wright and John Piper. In agreement with Wright, Bock argued that justification is primarily a legal and forensic term where the believer is declared to be "righteous" in God's law court, in contrast to Piper's view that justification involves the moral imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer. Bock believes that the moral imputation of righteousness has more to do with sanctification and the Spirit's work in the life of the believer than the act of justification itself. Bock also stated that he believed the weakness of Wright's position in the debate is that he has not properly developed the role of the Spirit in the working out of salvation. More important than the critique of Wright and Piper was Bock's discussion of the nature of the Gospel itself. Bock stressed that we have diminished the gospel message by reducing salvation to a transaction that delivers us from the death penalty of sin and the punishment of hell. In Bock's words, "what jazzed Paul about the Gospel" is the promise that God has accepted us by his grace and that graces changes us into a new creation, indwelled and empowered by the Spirit to reflect Christ in the way that we live our lives (cf. Rom 1:16; 2 Cor 5:16-20). More than simply saving us from hell, the Gospel is that we have new life in Christ.

Paul's use of new creation imagery from the Old Testament reflects the radical nature of this new life given to us in Christ. The Old Testament prophets often present the kingdom era as a time of restoration for Israel. God would restore Israel to their land so that they would enjoy the covenant promises under the rule of a righteous Davidic king (Messiah). At other times, the prophets' view of the future transcends the present order and envisions nothing less than the creation of new heavens and new earth. We find one such vision in Isaiah 65:17-25:

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity,for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," says the LORD.

We see echoes of this new creation imagery throughout the book of Isaiah (cf. Isa 32:14-18; Isa 41:18-19; Isa 55:12-13; Isa 66:22-23). Nothing could more stress the transformative power of the Gospel than Paul's use of the imagery of New Creation to describe for us what God has done for us in Christ. In his New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Thomas Schreiner reflects in several places on the fact that the new creation promised in Isaiah has dawned in Christ.

Those who are in Christ Jesus are now a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). …. The new creation is tied to the promise of "the new self" (Eph 4:24), and this new person represents what believers are in Christ instead of what they are in Adam (Rom 5:12-19; 1 Cor 15:21-22). Believers are a new creation in Christ Jesus and created by God to do good works (Eph 2:10). The 'new creation' language fits with the theme that believers have been regenerated, which is the work of the eschatological Spirit (cf. Titus 3:5) [cf. Isa 44:3; Ezek 11:18-19; Ezek 36:26-27; Joel 2:28] (p. 31).

Because believers are in Christ, they are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17; cf. Eph 2:10) and "sons of God" (Gal 3:26), and they enjoy the blessings of Abraham (Gal 3:14). In other words, being in Christ is an eschatological reality, signifying that God's covenantal promises are theirs. Because of believers' union with Christ, there is "no condemnation" (Rom 8:1), and they are sanctified (1 Cor 1:2). By virtue of union with Christ believers enjoy the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21; cf. Phil 3:9). They have been freed from the power of sin and death because they are united with Christ (1 Cor 1:4), so that they are complete in Christ (Col 2:10) (pp. 316-17).

The new creation is not merely personal and individual but also corporate because God has created a new humanity where the distinction between Jew and Gentile is done away in the body of Christ (cf. Gal 6:15; Eph 2:11-15). In reading the New Testament, we see that Isaiah's promise of a new creation is in fact a "pattern prophecy" fulfilled in successive stages. The new age has arrived (Gal 1:4), but overlaps with the present evil age and is awaiting a final consummation. Schreiner again explains: "Christians live in, so to speak, the 'twilight zone' for they have experienced the saving power of the age to come, and yet they still reside in the present evil age. Even now, Jesus reigns, but the consummation of his rule and the destruction of every enemy has not yet occurred (Eph 1:21; 1 Cor 15:26-28)." (pp. 98-99). The new creation has arrived, but believers await their full redemption from sin and death. The creation itself groans in anticipation of its own redemption (Rom 8:19-22) that will come at the climax of redemptive history when the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven (Rev 21:1-4).

I appreciated Dr. Bock's reminder of the real message of the Gospel and our tendency to make it something far less than it really is. Salvation is more than a transaction, and the Gospel is an invitation to live the new life that God has made possible through our becoming a new creation in Christ. It is impossible to truly believe this message about Jesus and not be changed. Even more importantly, the theme of new creation reminds us of the cosmic significance of the Gospel and that the message of Christ crucified, buried, and risen again is the only real hope for our fallen world.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

John Walton and The Lost World of Genesis 1

One of the benefits of Christmas break is the opportunity to catch up on some reading, and yes, I do feel sympathy for students who have little or no time to read they would like rather than what their professors have assigned. I had the opportunity this past week to complete John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One. The purpose of this essay is not to critically review or to endorse Walton's interpretation but merely to summarize some of the key concepts for those who are interested in the conversation (and controversy) that the book has generated.

Walton uses 18 propositions to develop two key ideas. First, Genesis 1 is an ancient document reflecting an ancient cosmology and that modern scientific theories about the origins of the universe, whether they be creationism or evolution, should not be read into the text. Second, Genesis 1 is not describing the material creation of the universe but rather is an account of the functional origins of the world. More specifically, the world is given its functions as God's temple, where God has taken up residence and from where he rules the cosmos.

Walton would have the reader see that much of the modern debate over Genesis 1 concerning how God created the world or the age of the earth is an attempt to use Genesis to answer questions that are foreign to the text itself. Genesis 1 "does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their 'scientific' understanding of the cosmos." Like other ancient peoples, they understood the sky to be a material substance able to support the residence of the deity and to hold back the waters above the earth. They viewed the earth as resting on pillars. God revealed truth through the creation account, but the purpose of the creation account was not to give ancient Israel advanced cosmological understanding. Genesis 1 was not designed to address how God's creative activity relates to the natural world or the natural processes that stand behind creation.

All of these are modern issues imposed on the text and not the issue in the culture of the ancient world. We cannot expect the text to address them, nor can we configure the information of the text to force it to comply with the questions we long to have answered. We must take the text on its own terms—it is not written to us. Much to our dismay then, we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today's dialogues. (p. 21)

As we begin our study of Genesis 1 then, we must be aware of the danger that lurks when we impose our own cultural ideas on the text without thinking. The Bible's message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism. Its message transcends the culture in which it originated, but the form in which the message was imbedded was fully permeated by the ancient culture." … we must respect the integrity of the author by refraining from replacing his message with our own. (p .21)

We should not worry about the question of 'truth' with regard to the Bible's use of Old World science. As we mentioned before, some scientific framework needs to be adopted, and all scientific frameworks are dynamic and subject to change. Adoption of the framework of the target audience is most logical. The Old World science found in the Bible would not be considered 'wrong' or 'false' as much as it would just offer a different perspective from a different vantage point. (p. 61)

God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography—he revealed his Creator role through the cosmic geography that they had because the shape of the material world did not matter. (pp. 61-62)

Concordist interpretations attempt to read details of physics, biology, geology, and so on into the biblical text. This is a repudiation of reading the text at face value. Such interpretation does not represent in any way what the biblical author would have intended or what the audience would have understood. Instead it gives modern meaning to ancient words." (pp. 104-05)

The theology of Genesis 1 is built around the idea that the cosmos serves as God's temple. Walton demonstrates how the ancient Near Eastern concepts of the temple as a microcosm of creation and the cosmos as a temple are reflected in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Isa 66:1-2; 1 Kgs 8:27). The glory of the Lord that fills the earth (Isa 6:3) is also the glory that takes up residence at the sanctuary in Israel (cf. Exod 40:34). Various objects in the temple and tabernacle represent various aspects of creation (1 Kgs 7:23-26—the basin as sea; 1 Kgs 7:15-22—the bronze pillars; the veil separating the heavens and earth). The Garden of Eden represents a temple (cf. the waters flowing through Eden in Gen 2:13-14 and the waters that flow from the temple in Ezek 47:1-12; Ps 46:4; Zech 14:8; Rev 22:1-2). For further development of the cosmic symbolism, I would also recommend chapter 2 of G. K. Beale's work, The Temple and the Church's Mission.

Genesis 1 can now be seen as a creation account focusing on the cosmos as a temple. It is describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all its functions and God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God's presence. (pp. 84-85)

The idea of the cosmos as a temple has profound implications. "Once we turn our thinking away from 'natural world' to 'cosmic temple' our perspective about the world around us is revolutionized." We are no longer able to look at the world from a secular perspective. All of live is sacred and lived in God's presence. Even the most mundane activities of life become acts of worship. God's presence is "the defining element of existence." We also have a sacred responsibility to protect and take care of the earth.

The cosmos as temple also impacts Walton's understanding of the significance of the seven days in Genesis 1. The number seven is pervasive in temple accounts from the ancient world, and thus the seven-day structure of Genesis 1 is related to the idea of temple building and inauguration ceremonies for a temple. The seven days of Genesis 1 thus have no bearing on the age of the universe (whether read as literal days or long eons of time):

… it is evident that the nature of the days takes on a much less significant role than has normally been the case in the views that focus on material creation, in that they no longer have any connection to the material age of the earth." (p. 91)

… the seven days are not given as the period of the time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple, and perhaps also its annual reenactment. It is not the material phase of temple construction that represents the creation of the temple; it is the inauguration of the functions and the entrance of the presence of of God to take up his rest that creates the temple. Genesis 1 focuses on the creation of the (cosmic) temple, not the material phase of that preparation." (p. 92)

If the seven days refer to the seven days of cosmic temple inauguration, days that concern origins of functions not material, then the seven days and Genesis 1 as a whole have nothing to contribute to the discussion of the age of the earth. This is not a conclusion designed to accommodate science—it was drawn from an analysis and interpretation of the biblical text of Genesis in its ancient environment. The point not that the biblical text therefore supports an old earth, but simply that there is no biblical position on the age of the earth. If it were turn out that the earth is young, so be it. But most people seek to defend a young-earth view do so because they believe that the Bible obligates them to such a defense. I admire the fact that believers are willing to take unpopular positions and investigate all sorts of alternatives in an attempt to defend the reputation of the biblical text. But, if the biblical text does not demand a young earth there would be little impetus or evidence to support such a position. (p. 95)

Walton's intent in this work is to allow the text of Genesis to speak for itself on its own terms. He writes, "The interpretation set forth in this book arose out of my desire to fully understand the biblical text." His purpose is not to argue for evolution or any other particular view of how God created the material world, though Walton is certainly open to evolutionary thought in ways that will be uncomfortable to many conservative Christians.

According to the interpretation offered in this book, the Bible does not tell us [how the world was created] , so we are left to figure it out as best we can with the intellectual capacity and other tools that God gave us. But the material world was created by him. (p. 169)

I am not suggesting a wholesale adoption of evolution, merely suggesting that neither Genesis 1 specifically not biblical theology in general give us any reason to reject it as a model as long as we see God as involved at every level and remain aware of our theological convictions." (p. 137)

Evolution represents the current scientific consensus to explain the many observations that have been made in paleontology, genetics, zoology, biochemistry, ecology and so on. The question is how much of what is involved in biological evolution runs counter to what I understand to be biblical claims and theological reality. In the interpretation of the text that I have offered, very little found in evolutionary theory would be objectionable, though certainly some of the metaphysical claims of evolution remain unacceptable. (p. 170)

Walton seems open to the idea that Adam and Eve could be understood "corporately as the first humans, not a single original human pair" (p. 139), but his explanation of how this could reconcile with Romans 5 and the Adam/Christ headship issue is not clear. Fossil homo specimens would be part of the prefunctional cosmos and would not be viewed neither as human in the image of God nor as moral beings responsible before God. Death existed prior to the Fall (and was thus potentially part of the evolutionary process), and the only consequence of the Fall was that death was passed on to human beings (cf. Rom 5:12). Walton briefly discusses the issue of origins in public education, arguing that Christians should focus on demanding that metaphysical naturalism, a matter of belief rather than science, not be bundled together with the teaching of evolution," rather than trying to promote the teaching of young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design in the classroom (p. 165).

Whether one agrees with Walton's interpretation or not, his caution we must not allow modern agendas attached to the issues of origins to prevent us from hearing the theological message of Genesis 1 is an important reminder. From an apologetics standpoint, Walton's work also helps us to see that defending a theistic worldview is far more important than defending a particular view on how God might have created the material world.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why Israel Means Israel, Part 3

The two previous blogs on this topic have set forth the biblical support for the belief that there is a future for the people and nation of Israel. I would like to address one final topic related to this issue—how does the future Israel promised in the Bible relate to the present nation of Israel? I believe it is clear from Scripture that we must be careful to distinguish between the restored Israel of the Bible and the modern state of Israel that exists today. The secular state of Israel today does not meet the criteria for the restored people promised in Scripture. Israel's restoration is conditioned upon national repentance and recognition of Jesus as Messiah (cf. Deut 30:1-5; Zech 12:10-14; Acts 3:19-22). The Lord's new covenant blessings for Israel include empowerment for Israel to fully obey the Lord's commands so that they will never again forfeit the Promised Land (Deut 30:6-9; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:26-29). The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates how far present conditions fall short of the future envisioned by Ezekiel where the Jews will share their land with sojourners and treat them as "native-born children of Israel" (Ezek 47:22). Stanley Ellisen comments: "Judged on biblical grounds, the nation today does not pass divine muster. The promise of the land is directly tied to the nation's response to Messiah. Though her international right to the land can be well defended, her divine right by covenant has only sentiment in its favor." The prophetic promises concerning the restoration of Israel will only become reality when Israel has returned to the Lord and recognized her Messiah. Israel's divine right to retain the Promised Land and to enjoy the blessings of the land hinges on her obedience to the Lord.

And yet, while we do not know the future and what will happen to modern Israel, the formation of Israel as a nation would seem to be the beginning of her ultimate restoration. Merrill comments: "If the present nation of Israel isn't the nation to come, it's the foundation for it. The account of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 describes Jews who are alive physically but not spiritually. The text says they will come to life as a miraculous act of God. We've got the bones—we just need the Spirit." The prophecy against Gog in Ezekiel 38 envisions a powerful army of seven nations attacking Israel in the last days ("the latter years") when Israel is dwelling securely in the land (cf. Ezek 38:8-11). However, the prophet Zechariah also envisions this assault of the nations as a purging judgment on the people of Israel themselves (Zech 12:2; Zech 14:2). We also see the idea of the purging of Israel in the land as preparation for the coming of Christ in Matthew 24:15-22. The fulfillment of these prophecies requires a physical return of Israel to the Lord prior to Israel's full and complete restoration to the Lord. Thus, the return of Israel to the land in 1948 has potentially set the stage for the fulfillment of what is envisioned by the OT prophets in the last days.

We can only say "potentially," because we do not know the future and the specifics of how God will ultimately restore his people. Church history reflects the poor track record of Christians who have tried to predict the future with their Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. No one could have predicted the history of the Jewish people over the past 2000 years, and we engage in fruitless speculation when we go beyond what Scripture unfolds for us about the future. At the same time, the endurance and preservation of the Jewish people is confirmation of God's faithfulness and testimony to the fact that Israel has a role to play in the consummation of salvation history. A number of years ago, novelist Walker Percy explained that he was Catholic in large part because of how God's preservation of the Jewish people. Percy wrote:

Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but no one single Hittite even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people? When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkable to wonder, if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here? Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City.

The continuation of the Jewish people and the presence of the modern state are a major reason why biblical scholarship has more and more questioned the idea of supercessionism and come to realize that God has a future for Israel and that the promises to Israel are not merely to be read in a figurative and spiritual manner.

Recognition that God has a future for Israel does not mean that we endorse every action of the nation of Israel today. Mark Bailey, the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, observes that we have often allowed our theological discussion of the place of Israel in Scripture to be "hijacked by the contemporary political conflicts in the Middle East." Any form of political militancy either for or against Israel is incompatible with the Christian faith and the ethic of Scripture.

Recognition of God's special purposes for Israel should also not lead us to look down upon Arabs as our enemies. Christians have a responsibility to be peacemakers and to help to overcome the prejudices that equate Arab peoples with militant forms of Islam. In his book, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel, Dr. Tony Maalouf reminds us that the Bible has special promises of blessing for Ishmael and his descendants. God preserves the life of Hagar and Ishmael in one of the most touching scenes in all of the Old Testament (cf. Gen 21:14-19). Ishmael was circumcised as a member of the covenant community (Gen 17:25-26) and was also extended specific national blessings in addition to the ones given to Isaac and his descendants (cf. Gen 21:13, 18). The divine pronouncement that Ishmael would be "a wild donkey of a man" and that "his hand will be against everyone" (Gen 16:12) is not intended as a curse or insult. It does not characterize Ishmael's offspring as rebellious and violent but rather testifies to their strength and independence as desert-dwellers and nomads. The imagery is not markedly different from the way that Jacob portrays his own sons when blessing them at the end of his life (cf. Gen 49:13, 17-19). In the future kingdom of God, Isaiah envisions the descendants of Ishmael (Midian, Sheba, Kedar, Nebaioth) coming to Jerusalem to bring tribute to the Lord (cf. Isa 60:1-9). Maalouf writes:

The same God who predicted a shining of Messiah's glory over a faithful remnant of the Jews (Isa 60:1-3) foreordained the drawing of the Arab faithful remnant to the glory of salvation light (60:5-7). God's visitation of Jerusalem in messianic times cannot be separated from his visitation of his people among the Arabian tribes of Midian and Sheba (60:6) or the Christian worship of Ishmael's children (60:7). Removing unwarranted biases against Arabs, which neither the Bible nor history sustains, would play a healing role in the Middle East conflict. It would also create a better attitude for dialogue between the antagonists."

Beginning with God's promise to Abraham, God's special relationship with Israel carries forward until the final act of salvation history, but God's plan was always one of inclusion. The blessing of Abraham's physical descendants was to be the instrument for the blessing of all peoples. The Old Testament promises that Israel's restoration and renewal will bring about the salvation of the Gentiles (Isa 19:19-25; Isa 49:6), and the New Testament completes the picture by demonstrating how the salvation of the Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel will prompt the restoration of Israel (Rom 11:25-26). Failure to understand God's abiding purposes for Israel ultimately diminishes the grand design of salvation history.