Sunday, 19 October 2014

Arguing with Oneself about Charity

Colin Kruse argues against mainstream interpretations of 1 John 3:19-22 as a digression. First, treating “heart” as a synonym for “conscience” is unprecedented in the NT [but there are examples in the OT, see 1 Sam. 24:5; 2 Sam. 24:6 – English verse numbering].

Second, there is no clear example in the NT where the Greek verb translated “set at rest” or “reassure” takes this meaning rather than its standard meaning “to persuade, convince” [other commentators point to Matt. 28:14].

Third, the opening “by this” in the other dozen instances in 1 John “carries forward the preceding discussion” which should lead as to expect a close relationship with the preceding [not merely a key word connection such as with “truth”].

“Bearing these three things in mind, and taking note of Deuteronomy 15:7-9 as the probable background to this passage, Court says that the interpretation offered by Sir Edwin Hoskyns [1928] ought to be explored once more. Court argues
The demand for sacrificial charity has been made towards ‘a poor man, one of your brethren’ (Deut xv.7, cf. 1 John iii.17); but a base thought arises in the heart of a Christian which condemns the sacrifice demanded as unnecessary, and suggests that it can be avoided and that love can be maintained apart from a definite surrender of life or goods. The writer of the letter insists that this impulse, however natural, must be eradicated. The heart must be reasoned with and persuaded in the presence of God to make the sacrifice willingly. The demand of God is greater than the base and ignorant impulse of the human heart (cf. iv.4). Moreover, His knowledge is infinite, and no motion of the heart escapes his notice.[1]
This approach provides a satisfactory resolution to the difficulties presented to the reader by verses 19-22, and makes way for an interpretation which takes full account of the integral nature of the whole section 3:11-24, and the place of verses 19-22 within it.”

We must persuade our hearts in the presence of God whenever they object to legitimate calls upon our generosity, when we are in fact in a position to respond.

“To assist his readers to persist in the necessary process of self-persuasion, the author provides them with a compelling reason for doing so…’because, if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and knows all things’…God does not share in the meanness that is so often found in human hearts. His generosity is far greater, his compassion towards the needy much greater, than theirs. This fact should function as a reason for them to overcome the meanness of their own hearts and to seek to be like their God. When the author continues, ‘and he knows everything’, he is reminding his readers that any meanness of heart on their part will not go unnoticed by an omniscient God. As was the case in Deuteronomy 15:7-9, so too here, God knows what his people do, and judges them accordingly.
     In summary, verses 19-20 function as a stern warning against that meanness of heart which objects to our expending material resources to meet the needs of fellow believers, and provide a foil for the positive reinforcement of generosity offered in verses 21-22.”

Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 140-141.

[1] John M. Court, "Blessed Assurance?," Journal of Theological Studies  33 (1982): 508-517, 512.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

God of Weal and Woe

What is going on in Isaiah 45? The covenant God of Israel wants his people to be settled again in their homeland. This is a political event requiring political power, as George Adam Smith points out. Cyrus is the greatest political power of the day and so becomes God’s means to accomplish the divine purpose. G. A. Smith contrasts the biblical picture with Greek writers who extol the virtues of Cyrus. In the Bible, “Cyrus is neither chosen for his character nor said to be endowed with one.” He is a tool endowed with strength and swiftness. “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.” (Isaiah 44:28).
“God chose Cyrus, the king of Persia, to overwhelm kings, subdue nations, and free Israel from their Babylonian oppressors. (On October 29, 539 bce, the priests of Marduk opened the gates of Babylon to the conqueror, and the city capitulated without raising a weapon.) Moreover, God’s objectives for selecting Cyrus are threefold: personal—that he will come to know the God of Israel; national—for the sake of Israel; and universal—to be the means whereby the entire world will acknowledge God’s uniqueness (emphasized by the fourfold repetition of the formula: “I am the Lord”—vv. 3, 5, 6, 7, and repeated again in the next pericope, vv. 8, 18, 19, 21, 22).”[1]
And so, strikingly, even a pagan king can be (temporarily) God’s anointed (“Christ”), designated to do God’s will. “For God is able to weave that tyrant’s wickedness and follies into the grand unfolding purpose which he has continually in mind.”[2] “God may disapprove of idolatry but use an idolater for some good purpose. The fact that he uses someone in a specific way does not mean that he approves of that person’s total lifestyle.”[3]

Like any servant of God, Cyrus is taken by his right hand (cf. 41:13) and called by name (cf. 43:1). Having been grasped by God to subdue nations, Cyrus will find kings helpless before him, their weapons’ belt loosened with robes hanging freely where they can entangle legs, and doors wide open.
“It is tempting to find in these lines very specific references to Cyrus’s conquests as reported by Herodotus and Xenophon. Babylon was supposedly guarded by hundreds of bronze gates that were thrown open to the conqueror as he came. Both authors make much of the endless fortunes that Cyrus captured from Croesus in Lydia and again in Babylon. But while this kind of specificity may be intended, one must also recognize that this is poetic language that could be generally appropriate to almost any conquest of a city in the ancient world (cf. Ps. 107:15-16). The point is, as above, that it is not the conqueror’s might or virtue that gives him the benefits of conquest but the grace of God that is extended to fulfill his saving purposes.”[4]
Cyrus was given the honorific titles “shepherd” and “God’s anointed” when he knew nothing about the God of Israel and even when he fulfilled his commission there is no reason to think that Cyrus converted to exclusive worship of Yahweh. “It is not necessary for the Creator to have the permission of someone’s faith before that person can be given a front-rank position in God’s plans.”[5]

“That an Israelite prophet should view the conquests of Cyrus purely as directed to the restoration of Israel may seem an intolerably narrow view of history. But it is a fact that the restoration of a Jewish community in Palestine has had a more lasting effect than anything else accomplished by Cyrus.”[6]

Is God’s desire that Cyrus (verse 3), Israel (verse 4) and the whole world (verse 6) might know him mere self-interest? No. “What is condemning the world to its depressing round of human arrogance, oppression, and cruelty? It is a failure to submit to, to acknowledge, the truth. So long as we continue to make God in our own image, so long as we continue to believe that we can insure our own security and comfort by manipulating the psycho-socio-physical world without the surrender of our own autonomy, just so long will we continue in darkness, destruction, and despair.”[7]

יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע
אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה׃
Shaping the light and creating the dark,
making well-being and creating calamity,
I am Yahweh, making all these things.

“What Isaiah asserts is that God, as creator, is ultimately responsible for everything in nature, from light to dark, and for everything in history, from good fortune to misfortune. No other beings or forces are responsible for anything.”[8]
“None of these count: Babylonian gods have no voice in the future of Babylon. Cyrus has no clout in the rise of his empire. Israel has no vote on its destiny. Everything is settled on Yahweh’s terms, for Yahweh is without rival, adviser, competitor, or aide. What is now to happen through Cyrus is sure, because it is the resolve of Yahweh.”[9]
 “Without question such a sweeping assertion raises some serious problems, especially as we try to puzzle out issues of justice and fairness. At the same time, we must take into account the point being made and the alternative. The point is that everything which exists, whether positive or negative from our perspective, does so because of the creative will of God. The alternative to this view is that things happen in the world of nature or history that have their origin in some being or force other than God, things that he is powerless to prevent. If that alternative is correct, then God is but one of the gods and is as powerless to save us from ourselves as they are. Furthermore, he is no more the expression of ultimate reality than they are. Since he is limited, we must look beyond him for whatever is final in this world. Given that alternative, it is easy to see why Isaiah makes his point in such an unqualified way. To be sure, one can and should make qualifications, given the rest of Scripture. But that is the correct direction to move: from principle to qualification. If we start with qualification, we will never reach the overarching principle.”[10]

The principle is this: On the most basic level, reality is unified, not divided.[11] “It is a harsh aspect of faith to accept that the God of love and justice not only allows woe but creates it! How much simpler to claim that the source of darkness is some other sinister, evil power. But those who share the tenacious faith of the prophet can hold to this severe confession because of their unswerving conviction that God’s final plan is light and weal. This empowers them to seek out the human evils that afflict their communities. And it allows them, in the places where others only see the gloom of war, to recognize rays of light.”[12]

“But what is the purpose of this absolute assertion of God’s transcendence and uniqueness? Is it to prove some dry and rationalistic point about ontology? Far from it, as [verse 8] shows. Once again the author joins nature and history, but now in a lyrical call to nature to bring forth the historical deliverance that the Creator has planned…If Israel is in the darkness and trouble [רָע] of exile, it is solely because of the Lord. Therefore it is to the Lord alone that Israel should look in order for the darkness to be turned to light and the trouble to well-being [שָׁלוֹם].”[13]

[1] Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40–66: Translation and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 251.
[2] George A. F. Knight, Servant Theology: A Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 40-55 (Edinburgh: Handsel Press and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 88.
[3] Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 182.
[4] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 201. Cf. John Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40-55 (London: T & T Clark International, 2005), 264-65.
[5] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 202.
[6] The words are McKenzie’s, as cited by Goldingay (Message, 266), but the point was already made by G. A. Smith.
[7] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 203, pointing to his earlier comments on Isaiah 8:11-22; 14:4-21; 28:1-6.
[8] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 204.
[9] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: WJKP, 1998), 77.
[10] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 204.
[11] Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 103. See Goldingay, Message, 270-72, for a brief summary of the reception history of this verse. Shalom Paul notes (Isaiah 40-55, 258) that the Rabbis were hesitant to attribute evil to God and emended this formula in the liturgy to: “He who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything” (b. Ber. 11a).  
[12] Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 104. Hanson points to Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela as servants called to specific tasks, having been enabled to see rays of light in the darkness of oppression.
[13] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 205.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Violence in 2 Kings 1

2 Kings 1 was in the lectionary provision for yesterday and offers food for thought following on from the previous post.

The narrative tells us that twice a captain and his fifty soldiers were destroyed by fire from heaven after Elijah the Tishbite said, "If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty." The third company was spared because their captain requests that the man of God would value the life of the soldiers and their captain.

Readers are not commanded here to resort to violence or encouraged to take up their swords. There can only have been a few people in the history of reading this story who seriously contemplated imitating Elijah; those who did would have quickly discovered that their words are not quite as powerful.

The most thunderous of the twelve disciples of Jesus (Mark 3:17), James and John, felt the urge on one occasion and even they recognised that it would be a good idea to ask Jesus' permission first (Luke 9:54) which of course he did not grant. Read as part of the biblical canon, which includes its reception in the Gospels, the passage can hardly be read as an invitation to violence.

So what is the violence doing? Injured king Ahaziah wanted to consult "Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron" about his life expectancy. According to consistent biblical witness trusting in idols is a sure way to death. The angel of Yahweh makes sure that the king's messengers are intercepted by baal-sear ("a hairy man," verse 8) whose proper name is Elijah ("Yahweh is my God").

This man (ish) is responsible for the fire (esh) but so is the king. It is because the king orders Elijah to "come down" that fire "comes down" on his soldiers ("going up" is used seven times in this chapter, "coming down" ten times; see Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, 169, for more on the significance of this). The hundred men are a casualty of a war the king of Israel started.

The violence has a positive purpose as well. It demonstrates that the "man of God" has greater power than the king of Israel or the Baal-zebub of Ekron. Arguably this serves to encourage all its readers to trust the word of the prophet even when there is a conflict between the word and government authorities. It also points Christian readers to the incarnate Word of God that is stronger than Beelzebub, the prince of demons.

We see that violence is not inevitable. The captain who humbly submits to Elijah, truly recognising him as a man of God rather than blindly following the orders of his totalitarian king, saves not only himself but his whole company. (We are reminded that much of what we experience is corporate whether it be violence or protection from harm.)

Finally, intriguingly, the angel of Yahweh tells Elijah, "Go down with him; do not be afraid of him." This suggests that the earlier violence may have been an expression of fear. Unlike some other story-tellers in antiquity, biblical narrators are often reticent in offering evaluation and comments, except that 1-2 Kings has one-line summaries which offer a broad evaluation of the various kings. We are not told that Elijah was afraid and therefore called for fire from heaven but we are maybe invitd to contemplate the possibility. We also know that God identifies with his messengers even in some cases in which they overstep the mark, most notably in divine use of Nebuchadnezzar; the readiness with which fire comes from heaven in this story is therefore not unequivocally a divine endorsement of Elijah's call.

2 Kings 1 suggests that there may not be a simple answer to the question of violence. The narrative does not spell out but implies that rebellion against God and fear of powerful people may have something to do with it, as well as the need for people to know where true power lies.

All of this should reduce our potential for violence rather than increase it. If violence is ultimately the result of rebellion against God, we have foresworn this in our baptism. If violence is an expression of fear of others, we have repeated encouragement in the Scriptures to fear God rather than powerful people. If we are concerned about where true power is found we know that the power of Christ is manifest in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). There is no encouragement for us here to rsort to violence, nor reason to overlook this chapter.

Dark Passages in the Bible and the Quran

A few months ago I enjoyed reading Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity (2009), so I was intrigued when I saw a link to an essay in the Boston Globe on harsh passages in the Koran and in the Bible.

Jenkins opens by reporting that the September 11 hijackers had been instructed to meditate on two lengthy suras from the Quran which “make for harrowing reading”. 
God promises to “cast terror into the hearts of those who are bent on denying the truth; strike, then, their necks!” (Koran 8.12). God instructs his Muslim followers to kill unbelievers, to capture them, to ambush them (Koran 9.5). Everything contributes to advancing the holy goal: “Strike terror into God’s enemies, and your enemies” (Koran 8.60). 
He then points out that at a more domestic level Sura 4.34 has been used to justify violence. This is how the text reads in a translation offered by Ahmad Shafaat who offers a commentary on the passage:
Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) guardians of women because God has favored some more than others and because they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear ill-will and nasty conduct, admonish them (first), (next) separate them in beds (and last) beat them. But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great. (4:34)
I am not a Quran scholar nor even a Quran reader and hence reluctant to say much about these passages. But the following comment by Jenkins prompts me to stress one of what are probably quite a few key differences between the Bible and the Quran:
The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery.
Is that so? I don’t know. But while Jenkins is right to stress that all Scriptures need interpretation and maybe even right to claim that there is a process of forgetting and remembering passages, he seems to overlook the simple fact that the Bible contains a variety of books and genres which individually and as a canonical whole function very differently from the suras of the Quran.

What is the evidence for the statement above? Jenkins thinks of “frightful portions of the Bible...ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races - of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted.” But can we find any such passage in the Bible? I am not so sure. 

There are narratives in which God orders or expects the extermination of a people. Most of these belong to the traditions about the conquest of Canaan. How these stories relate to historical events is much debated today, as is their role and significance for biblical faith. But what is clear is that they are not commands to the reader. They can only be read as “ordering the total extermination” of contemporary “enemies” by an act of imagination and interpretation which is far from obvious.

Jenkins then refers us to Psalm 137 which “begins with the lovely line, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept’” and “ends by blessing anyone who would seize Babylon’s infants and smash their skulls against the rocks.” It is a frightening prayer, to be sure, but again this pained outcry of an oppressed nation is not a call to arms

Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35) is not a passage Christians should suppress and forget but one we ought to remenber and treasure as a warning against taking vengeance into our own hands (Romans 12:19). 

The Quran was written over a comparatively short period of time with individual suras addressing readers on pretty much the same level, except for the hermeneutical principle that chronologically later passages can abrogate earlier verses. (This is a complicated matter, given that the suras are not arranged in the chronological order of their origin.)

The Bible by contrast was put together over a very long period of time and speaks to readers in many and different ways and only rarely by way of direct command. It has its centre in Jesus Christ who is spoken of as the Lion from the tribe of Judah and presented as a slaughtered Lamb. 

Much, much more would need to be said here, not least because there are other passages to which Jenkins appeals. But my point is that Jenkins seems to have paid no attention to genre and genre is critical for all interpretation. Here is the summary Philip Jenkins offers:
Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions . . . all are in the Bible, and occur with a far greater frequency than in the Koran. At every stage, we can argue what the passages in question mean, and certainly whether they should have any relevance for later ages. But the fact remains that the words are there, and their inclusion in the scripture means that they are, literally, canonized, no less than in the Muslim scripture.
The majority of biblical passages to which he refers are not in fact commands to readers of the Bible but commands within Biblical stories and some are not even commands at the level of the narrative. Even texts that may legitimately be called commands to the readers implied at first, albeit embedded in narratives (Exodus to Numbers) and speeches (Deuteronomy), are not now canonized as commands, not when we talk about the Christian Bible. There is therefore no need for a “holy amnesia” with regard to “dark passages” in the Bible. Even “texts of terror” are “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The LORD is Christ's Shepherd

Notes from Douglas J. Green, “‘The Lord is Christ’s Shepherd’: Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy,” in Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: Essays in Honor of J. Alan Groves (eds. P. Enns, D. J. Green and M. B. Kelly; 2010), 33-46. 

"From a grammatical-historical perspective, the psalm describes Yahweh's relationship with Israel (or Israel's king, David). The Christological interpretation develops in various ways out of this original meaning."

The traditional reading has the opening words to mean "my shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ" (cf. Augustine). "My sense is that the undergirding rationale for this classic Christological interpretation of Psalm 23 is not so much that Jesus fulfills a direct prophecy concerning the identity of Yahweh in his eschatological role as Israel's shepherd, but rather that there is an analogy between Yahweh's relationship with an individual Israelite, David, and Christ's relationship with individual Christians."

"Even if there is uncertainty concerning the intentions of the Psalter's redactors, it is clear that in the Second-Temple period many Jews did read the psalms in a prophetic and eschatological direction."

"I propose...a Christotelic interpretation in which Jesus fulfills the role played by the psalmist David, the sheep."

"Beginning at the grammatical-historical, or compositional, level, the psalm testifies to the Lord's faithfulness to David...[and] can be identified as a pilgrimage psalm. It tells a story about a journey -- not just any journey, but one that reaches its goals as the psalmist enters 'the house of Yahweh,' the temple in Jerusalem."

"More specifically, the psalmist's metaphorical journey passes through three spatio-temporal points: (1) it passes from a time and place of sufficiency and safety, depicted in the imagery of pasturage in springtime (v. 2), (2) it moves into the quasi-exilic condition of life under the threat of death, portrayed as a descent into a deep ravine in the Judean wilderness during summer (v. 4), and (3) finally, after safely passing through the 'valley of the shadow of death,' the pilgrimage -- or is it a return from exile? -- ends in the temple in Jerusalem in early autumn at the Feats of Tabernacles (v 5)."

"Read as a movement from pasturage to wilderness to temple, Psalm 23 gives specific expression to the most basic outline of the story of redemption. In its simplest form, this recurring 'redemptive pattern' can be described in terms of the development 'Good à Bad à Better' This can be restated in a variation such as 'Life à Death à Abundant Life,' 'Promised Land à Exile à Restoration,' or even more broadly, 'Eden à Exile from the Garden à New Jerusalem' and 'Life à Death à Resurrection and Exaltation.' This pattern will provide the framework for the different ways of reading the psalm."

"Messiah's story will conform to the pattern 'Life à Death à Life Plus.'"

The first episode offers a window into "the ordinariness of life" of Messiah Jesus who knows that the heavenly Father supplies his needs (cf. Luke 4:3; 11:3).

"He restores my life" (v. 3a) offers "a short summary of what will transpire in the following narrative of verses 4 and 5: Yahweh will 'restore' the psalmist's life by bringing him safely through the threat of death (v. 4) into the blessed life described in verse 5."

"Yahweh leads me in path of his righteousness, paths where he fulfills his obligations to the psalmist-sheep and does so in order to maintain his reputation as a covenant-keeping God."

"If Jesus Christ is indeed the telos, or goal, of Israel's story...then Christian interpretation of the OT must be an exercise in reading backwards, of reading earlier texts so that their meanings cohere with what God has actually done in history in Jesus Christ."

The Messiah walks "into the valley where death metaphorically casts a shadow" but "we discover that eschatological David actually keeps walking...into the next valley, into Death's own valley." Nor does he merely enter the temple in Jerusalem at the end of his journey but moves to "the reality of God's heavenly dwelling and ultimately to the eschatological reality of heaven on earth."

The traditional translation "I will dwell" towards the end of the psalm reflects the old Greek rather than the Hebrew text. The Hebrew text would be better rendered "I will keep coming back into the house of Yahweh" but "I will dwell" is "an excellent translation of the gospel...the eschatological David has been brought from the valley of death into the heavenly house of the Lord, to reside there."

And while the psalm only leads us to expect long life for the psalmist, "God has in fact granted Messiah Jesus a lengthening of days that stretches out into eternity. So in the end, while the KJV tradition ("I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever") may not be quite true to Hebrew grammar, it is true to the grammar of the gospel!"

"Psalm 23, read as fulfilled messianic prophecy, tells the story of Jesus Christ from the perspective of God's shepherd-like care for him: in life, through death, and on to glorious entry into the heavenly temple. Moreover it tells the story of those who have been united to Christ by faith. Jesus' story has become our story; his pilgrimage has become our pilgrimage."

"In fact, we face the valley of (the shadow of) death without fear because God has already brought the lead Sheep from his great flock safely through that dark valley. Because the Great Shepherd has led Jesus from the valley of death to the Temple Mount, he will provide the same death-defeating, life-restoring protection to all who follow in Jesus' tracks."