Humility in the Time of Corona — Romans 12:1–3

What? — Defining Humility
God calls us to future perfection in Christ but for now we are to attempt to lead a good life. This is not about an attempt to earn salvation. Our future with Christ, and our loving Father, is established in Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection. We will one day be made good, once and for all because Christ himself is wholly good. In the present we should live a good life because we follow a God who defines goodness. Goodness is arguably the most fundamental characteristic of God. His glory, his wisdom, his love, his grace, they are all intertwined with his fundamental goodness.

Of course, the very concept of goodness, as well as humility more specifically, is not a priority in the modern world. Humility is not typically a topic in self-help manuals—I am not commending self-help manuals but simply pointing out that humility is not a modern preoccupation, nor in many eyes a desirable trait. Humility is not generally a theme in secular management training. Humility is arguably not the best attribute for getting to the top in business, politics, law, performing arts, science, or anything else.

Pride, of course, is the opposite of humility. The self-confidence, the self-reliance, the self-belief that can lead to pride, they are more often celebrated as keys to success. In contrast to self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-belief, humility can be perceived as weakness. Even in Church circles it is questionable whether humility is anywhere on the list of attributes we normally look for in our ministers and leaders.

And yet the Bible celebrates and champions humility. We have the near-paradox of an almighty God being revealed best in a humble man who set aside power and glory. For Jesus Christ—the best of us, the only perfect human to have graced creation—was humble. As Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5–8, NIV

Perhaps Jesus Christ is the place to start to define humility? What happens when we do this? We can note that his humility is not the one-dimensional passivity we sometimes equate with humility. The same Jesus who surrendered himself to death, even death on a cross, overturned traders’ tables. The same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, confronted, without fear, cold-hearted religious leaders and proud authorities. The same Jesus who did not raise a hand, or a voice, in the face of violence to his person rebuked his disciples in the boldest terms.

Romans 12:3 defines this sort of humility without even mentioning the word:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

For Paul, our humility is a static underpinning reality. We should exhibit humility. We should see ourselves as creatures before God our creator. This requires sober judgement. As both creatures and broken humans we are brought down to size. In Christ we are mercifully made whole again. This is our dependence on God which leads to humility. But humility is also a dynamic thing. The nature of our humility will change. It is according to the measure of our faith. As our faith deepens so our humility changes. The greater our faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us the greater our dependence on him the more we can boast in him.

How? — A Renewed Mind
Our ability to show humility brings to mind the maxim that used to be found on school reports in days gone by—a phrase that would be frowned upon today I think:

“Could do better.”

When it comes to humility, we could arguable all do better. This means different things for different people. For most of us we need to take verse 3 in its simplest sense and think of ourselves less highly than comes naturally. For a few of us we might need to transform a broken meekness, grounded in a feeling of lack of self-worth, into wholesome humility by thinking of ourselves in Christ more highly. But either way, how can we display humility as seen in the life of Jesus? How can we be good by being humbler? How?

Romans 12:2 provides an answer to this question:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Humility, as the opposite to pride, is also the opposite to conforming to the world. It was pride that set the ball-rolling in Genesis 3. It was pride that is captured so powerfully in the vanity project called the Tower of Babel a few chapters later. Pride rears its ugly head in wider society, time and again as well as continually in us as individuals. Moral theologians often suggest that pride—the opposite of humility—is the foundation of all sin. So, if we are already wired this way—conformed to a pattern of thinking that is the natural way of human flesh—how are we to be transformed?

We have already defined humility through Jesus. But the meaning of the word in English is also a help to us. The word humility has the same origin as humus, or earth. Humility is about being earthy, lowly. It’s about being grounded. It’s about remembering where we came from. The Bible tells as that we were made from earth. In Hebrew adamah means earth, hence Adam:

. . . then the Lord God formed adam from the adamah, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.
Genesis 2:7

Being humble means remembering where we came from and where we are, in one sense at least, going. As Ecclesiastes says:

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ecclesiastes 3:20, NIV

Such sobriety before God is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. Being grounded in this way means recognising our earthiness is not a firm foundation. It is God our rock, it is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that we should build upon. Humility makes room for the grace that we so desperately need in our lives—this is the grounding we need.

Humility means standing on the earth from which God made us and looking to him in all his majesty. Unless we do these basics, we return to our Eden factory settings, one hour at a time. There is grace that comes through being together in fellowship. Never underestimate the grace that we can show to one another. In the face of Corona, and limited gatherings and self-isolation, let’s work hard to find ways to be available.

If some of us do get more time at home over the next few weeks and months, use your imagination to find ways to improve your time with God. Store up treasure for life after Corona. Be transformed by the grace of God. Humility should be a foundation for disciplined dependence—a realisation of our need to pray and listen to God’s word.

Why? — Being Living Sacrifices
Humility is the foundation of other virtues. It is the foundation of the good life lived before God. How can we serve God unless we understand ourselves in relationship to him?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Romans 12:1, NIV

Don’t miss Paul’s point here, spiritual worship has real physical consequences. Paul knows nothing of a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. In a time of pandemic, we can show Christ to those around us. The simple acts of avoiding the excesses of panic buying, stockpiling at the expense of others, and  the discipline of washing our hands. These are a start, but only a start.

Washing your hands in the current context is a remarkable picture of humility. Each time you wash our hands you have no idea whether this is preventing the spread of disease. In most cases it won’t make that difference. But its only by doing it regularly and frequently that it works—it is a discipline. Persistence is everything in this as in spiritual disciplines. So, see each 20-second hand wash as a necessary step of humility putting the needs of our healthcare system and the frailer members of society ahead of yourself. Such a frequent discipline will on occasions make an unseen difference. But, on every occasion it can be a celebration of our collective frailty—our dependence on a loving God. Like any discipline each and every occasion can help shape us, change us, and transform us.

Life in the time of Corona can remind us of our lack of control—our dependence on God—the very basis for humility. In a time of pandemic we can make a difference. We have the love of God that eclipses fear. Humility enables us to be living sacrifices for God.

Over the next few days and weeks let’s be creative and attentive to how we can support one another and minister to our neighbours. Let’s do what Christ always makes possible—the turning of darkness into a place where his light shines all the brighter.

Surely our faith in Christ, our trust in our Father, can make a real difference in the time of Corona?

 

Matthew 28:16–20: We Have One Job . . .

1. Making Disciples—Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

“You had one job”, has become a popular Internet meme over the last couple of years. It is a way of celebrating those tasks that seem like they should be simple, but an individual has managed to get them disastrously wrong. To this end, the Internet is awash with examples of benches facing walls, tee-shirts with upside down logos and ineffectual security barriers. The one job that the Church has differs in just about every way to this meme. The one job of the Church is stated in the famous Great Commission:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

A job, or task, it might be. But let’s be honest this is not an easy one. It is rather more challenging than getting benches the right way around and logos up the right way. And a lot trickier than building a barrier. We can all remember times when this one job might have looked rather less than straightforward. There are times when being a disciple feels embarrassing. There are times when it brings fear. Perhaps the fear of losing our job or of discrimination. For some it might bring the fear of violence. Even when we overcome fear and embarrassment the right words seem difficult to find in the heat of the moment. On some occasions the right words do come but the person we share with, smiles happily that our faith is good for us, but they have their own alternative. Sometimes our efforts elicit hostility; when we listen in turn we find out about someone’s pain from how a Christian ill-treated them. There are also times when we encounter someone who cannot entertain the idea that God is a God of love due to some personal tragic experience.

All of these obstacles, and more, can be roadblocks where our effort at discipling grinds to a halt. Sometimes these obstacles are merely hard ground which we can overcome. But let’s be clear it’s a difficult job. There are two things that help with this job. The first is to remember that the calling is a corporate one. The second is to remember the remarkable resources that God give his people to carry out this commission or mandate or job. I’ll look at three such resources each of which reminds us that we are called as churches, in fact the Church, to this task.

2. Resource 1: The Authority of Jesus—All authority in heaven and on earth . . .

The task of making disciples is not a hobby or a marketing exercise. It is not something based on the authority of politicians, business people, economists, experts or any frail human. This is something that is God’s plan for creation. He doesn’t just permit it, it’s the actual point of the Church. William Temple, a Twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

“The Church is the only organisation
that does not exist for itself,
but for those who live outside of it.”

It is important to note that the world is also ready for this role of the Church. This is all part of God’s post-Eden plan. The way back to God is the one-by-one discipling of those who hear the gospel. We can do much to serve people outside of the Church, and so we should, but our greatest hope is for them to become disciples of Jesus and to join God’s plan.

Sometimes we worry about such single-minded mission. What about the Church? By which we mean us—what about all our issues, concerns and needs? There is no tension if we understand mission and discipleship correctly.

God’s mission—being made a disciple—is not a one-time event. It is a lifetime pilgrimage. It is a lifestyle. Mission and discipling are on-going way of being and doing. As Church we are an organic living body—the body of Christ. As an organic entity we grow, firstly, by each of us becoming healthier, holier, more virtuous, more like Jesus (or whatever term we prefer), second, as new disciples join us. Paul famously said, that the gospel was “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). This might not only reflect the obvious racial and religious distinctions at the origin of the Church. Perhaps today he would say: “the gospel is first for The Church and then for the Nations”. Perhaps. In any case, the gospel of Jesus Christ is an organic reality—if the gospel is not alive and well in our lives and collective life—if we are not growing as disciples—we cannot disciple.

All authority has been given to Jesus and he freely delegates it to us—that is we his body. Like most biblical images its more than a picture, it’s an expression of an incredible reality. The plan was, and is, audacious. The Three-in-One-God sent the Son to become the man Jesus. Then Jesus who was both God and man made for himself a group of disciples. These disciples are no less than a revived Israel. This is the significance of the twelve – although at the Great Commission there are only eleven of course. The final stage is that Jesus delegates authority and empowers his disciples by the Spirit.

God’s authority had already been given to God’s people, of course. They were to reach and teach the nations—the ups and downs of that commission is the narrative core to the First Testament. Sadly, the story of Jonah sums up the overall impact made by the people of God. Jonah famously didn’t want to go and disciple the nations but went in another direction.

At the Great Commission the disciples were still reeling from recent events. They were still eleven not twelve. They had seen Jesus die the death of an insurrectionist. They had seen him resurrected. Some still doubted. They were, like us frail. The Great Commission started, and continues, from such a point of frailty. That is the right place to start because we have resources from God himself. For a plan such as this has the authority of God. An authority worked out in death and resurrection. An authority given first to Jesus and then to us. Surely such a mandate must stir our hearts to overcome fear? Doesn’t such authority put embarrassment in perspective? Surely such an important call must impact our life choices?

In this Great Commission we are the first to know the freedom we have in Christ. The gospel reveals God as a God of freedom. The gospel reveals that we are free in Christ. If we know what it means to live in such freedom we can’t help but contribute to the core work of the Church—in being free we become active for God.

3. Resource 2: The Baptism of Jesus—Baptising them in . . .

Have you ever thought about baptism as a resource? It is, but like all expressions of the gospel in our Information Age we can lose confidence in it. Despite first appearances, baptism is a powerful act—but it is not just something we do. It is not an arbitrary rite of passage. It is not a test, although maybe we experienced one afterword like Jesus did. It is nothing less than being incorporated into the body of Jesus. For as we go down into the water we die with Christ. As we rise from the water we are resurrected with Christ. It is the visible start of the life in the body, the Church. This is something to be remembered. It is something to call to mind as we continue the long walk as followers of Jesus.

But baptism is not about an individual. This sounds especially odd to those of us who see so-called believers’ baptism as the right approach (as do I). But it is only in our ridiculously individualistic modern world we could see it as an individual affair. It is about joining a body of people. Sometimes the individual guilt and feeling of failure we have around speaking the gospel is because we see it as an individualistic enterprise. It is not. We all have parts to play to be sure—but as corny as it sounds we are a team. But the Jesus team takes teamwork to a whole new level—we are one body. We need to know our part in the bigger work of the Church. Because together we have been baptised into one body. None less than the body of Jesus Christ.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this idea in his short but remarkably rich poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, where he says:

. . . — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Christ plays in the churches, as we gather in worship and fellowship. What a beautiful truth.

Many religions have acts of cleansing with water. But no other has an act of union with the living God. As we carry out Jesus’ task, we baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a great encouragement—when we see others baptised we are reminded of our baptism. This rather odd act is a life-giving one. It is an organic act. We visibly see the Church grow, one disciple at a time. As we see others baptised we see the gospel at work in the present and remember it at work in our past.

4. Resource 3: The Presence of Jesus—I am with you . . .

What a remarkable promise. What an encouragement. But what does it mean? Firstly, we can note that God has always been with his people. As Israel set out to inherit the Promised Land, we hear, God speak to Joshua:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

On the return from exile and during the building of the Second Temple we read:

Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: ‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord.

Haggai 1:13

How do we experience the presence of Jesus? Let’s be real and let’s be honest—it does not always feel like Jesus is right here in our midst. But our feelings are no measure of spiritual reality. There’s also some serious theology behind the promise of Jesus being with us. Because God as holy creator is distant, or transcendent. Yet in His grace He is close, or immanent. It has always been so. The first two chapters of the Bible show God as transcendent in the first creation account (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and God as immanent in the second creation account (Genesis 2:4–25). After the events of Genesis Chapter 3 it is in Jesus Christ that God’s resolution of the problem of our frailty and his holiness is made. God the Father is wholly other—neither our flesh, nor spirit, can survive his presence. But in Jesus, the God-Man, we have God with us, by the Spirit. This is mystical and not magical. We can’t conjure Him, we can only seek to experience him because God has promised to be gracious to us. And Jesus has promised to be with us to the end of the age. He’s bridged the gulf between us and God. Unlike the human response to fixing a broken relationship, Jesus didn’t meet us halfway—he came the whole way. Jesus came the whole way to make us disciples. He came the whole way to make disciples of all nations.

Sometimes we joke that God must have a made a mistake in delegating the discipling of the nations to the Church. But this is no joke. We are not inadequate for the task, because despite our weakness we have been given resources from God:

  1. We have the authority of Jesus himself.
  2. We have the gospel on show here in our midst in numerous ways including baptism.
  3. More than these two, we have Jesus with us.

We have not been set-up to fail. We have been equipped by the living God so that together we can make disciples of all nations.

 

God and Wisdom, Part 1

The form of this post is a little different to the previous ones in this #AtoZWisdom series. It is a book review. The book in question is by Tremper Longman III and the reason why it provides a fitting post on ‘God and Wisdom’ will soon become apparent.

Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017

Both the title and subtitle of this book distil the backbone of Tremper Longman III’s account of wisdom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB). He argues, with clarity and conviction, that the diverse elements of wisdom in the OT/HB find their unity within a theological framework. Such a view is not shared by all scholars. Indeed, some drive a wedge between wisdom (often in the form of the three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job) and the cultic life of Israel. Longman not only sees the wisdom elements of the OT/HB as theological but in his commitment to a canonical reading (p.26) he sees ‘Fear of the Lord’ as the specific theological locus. Perhaps some will find such a reading displays too great a hermeneutic of trust, but the book makes an excellent case for such a reading—and despite the claim of theological canonical unity the wisdom material is not flattened but is permitted its wide-ranging claims and emotions.

The book has fifteen chapters and covers more ground than many introductions to the wisdom books of the OT/HB. I would recommend this book, because of its clarity, to anyone wanting a first introduction to wisdom literature. The book engages with wider technical scholarship, but it is written without pretension and little prior knowledge is required to get the best from it.

The rest of this review will make some brief comments about each chapter to give a flavour of the book’s thesis—and yes that is what it is, a coherent argument for a specific reading. For this reason, readers already familiar with biblical wisdom will also find this book stimulating.

The length of this review means that it will be posted in two parts. In this post the first six chapters are covered.

1. Proverbs: The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom

This chapter considers three ways in which the Book of Proverbs defines wisdom. The first of these is at the practical level, as a skill for living. Longman suggests that wisdom, in this sense, parallels how emotional intelligence can lead to success in life. The second aspect of wisdom is the ethical level—the Book of Proverbs continually equates a wise person with a good person. The third level, according to Longman, is the theological level and especially the Fear of the Lord as expressed at the outset in Proverbs in 1:7. The theological perspective is further developed by considering the rich imagery of woman wisdom who permeates the Book of Proverbs.

2. Ecclesiastes: Fear God, Obey the Commandments, and Live in Light of the Coming Judgement

Longman explores from the outset his view that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the product of two voices and not just one. He argues that the bulk of the book, 1:12–12:7, are the words of Qohelet as indicated in by the constant use of the first person. He identifies Qohelet as a pseudonym of a post-exilic author. The case is made for the prologue (1:1–11) and the epilogue (12:8–14) being the second voice; the editor who commends the work to his son and thereby to all subsequent readers. This epilogue is key to Longman’s theological approach to the book. He argues that the work shows the limits of human wisdom—it is Fear of God (12:13) that is an essential stance for overcoming the limits of wisdom.

3. The Book of Job: “Behold, the Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom” (Job 28:28)

Longman dismisses the unhelpful caricatures of the Book of Job, such as a supposed concern with answering the questions of either suffering or theodicy. He rightly sees the book as a wisdom dispute. The three friends of Job share a similar wisdom view—so-called retribution theology. Because of this view they are convinced that Job’s suffering testifies that Job must have sinned. Job shares their perspective but knows he has not sinned. Thus, argues Longman, Job’s concern is that God is unjust (p.47). Longman sees Elihu as largely sharing the same view but being especially ‘full of hot air’. In the light of Yahweh’s speeches to Job and the book’s epilogues, Longman argues that Job makes three key contributions: (i) God is the source of wisdom, (ii) the proper human response to such wisdom is submission, and (iii) the fear of the Lord already articulated in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is central.

4. Other Sources of Wisdom: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Prophecy

In this chapter Longman explores various parts of the OT/HB some of which are generally recognised to have some wisdom elements (for example Psalms) and others that are more controversial with respect to the role of wisdom (Deuteronomy for example). Longman is at pains to point out that even if there were such a concept as wisdom literature the books mentioned in this chapter would not be part of this literature. His argument is that wisdom motifs and ideas are found more widely in the OT/HB than is generally appreciated. This is important to the argument about the nature of wisdom in later chapters.

5. Joseph and Daniel: Paragons of Wisdom

In this chapter, and the next, Longman further broadens the concept of wisdom to the narratives of the OT/HB. This chapter is concerned with the Joseph and Daniel narratives. Longman explains that some scholars, for example von Rad, have made much of the wisdom influence in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50). Others, like Crenshaw, have argued quite the opposite. Longman steers a clear middle road. He does not argue that wisdom is the dominant genre or theme within the Joseph narrative or the Book of Daniel. Rather he points to some core similarities between the characters at the heart of these stories. These are (i) their use of wisdom to interpret dreams, (ii) they acknowledge God as the origin of their wisdom, (iii) they use their wisdom to guide their foreign royal masters.

6. Adam and Solomon: From the Heights of Wisdom to the Depths of Folly

In this chapter Adam and Solomon (and the king of Tyre) are explored as examples of individuals who journeyed from wisdom to folly. The example of Adam is of course interesting due to the account of his folly at the outset of the HB/OT. The account of the fall in Genesis 3 is rich with the language of wisdom: the serpent is described as crafty/prudent (3:1), there is the tree of knowledge (2:17) and the fruit is perceived by Eve as being useful for gaining wisdom (3:6). The negative outcome of the story shows the stark problem of humanity seeking wisdom on their own terms without God. Longman shows that Solomon, despite his wisdom, followed a similar path of trusting in things other than God.

 

Q is for Quelle

Quelle is the German word for source and is used as a technical term by scholars who advocate source criticism. This approach to biblical texts was introduced briefly in an earlier post and the basic idea is a simple one. Its implications however are far from simple and raise a lot of questions.  Source criticism assumes that behind many of the Hebrew Bible’s books there are previous documents or sources. This is neither controversial nor even surprising. Many biblical books even refer to their sources as we shall see in the next post. What can be more complex, and sometimes controversial, is the quest to recover these sources and what might be done with the results of such an exercise. In the Hebrew Bible the most famous example of source criticism is that applied to the torah/Pentateuch.

It was Julius Wellhausen (1844‒1918) who provided the first detailed hypothesis about the textual origins of the Pentateuch. He suggested that there had been four separate sources, or documents, which all originated centuries after the time of Moses, hence it became known as the documentary hypothesis. This is the first complication of source criticism: it challenges traditional views of authorship. The four-document hypothesis came to be generally accepted in the early twentieth century although like all scholarly proposals of this nature there are many rival variations on the theme. In its classic expression the four hypothesised sources were designated:

  • J—a document which names God as Yahweh. The German for Yahweh is Jahweh hence the use of the letter J.
  • E—a document which refers to God as Elohim.
  • D—for essentially the book of Deuteronomy.
  • P—for a document with a priestly outlook.

These four hypothesised documents were said to date from the mid-9th century BCE, mid-8th century BCE, mid-7th century BCE and around 500 BCE respectively. Despite its original popularity this model is no longer the consensus view. This is not to say that the idea of sources is wrong. Rather it is recognised that the use of sources and the subsequent editing processes will never be reliably recovered. To complicate matters further some of the features of the Hebrew Bible which were said to provide evidence supporting the fourfold documentary approach are quite possibly literary devices. For example the two accounts of creation are said by some source critics to be contradictory accounts. It is possible however that there is a deliberate theological point behind the two accounts—they are designed to be complementary since one conveys the story of creation from a transcendent perspective (1:1‒2:3) and the other from an immanent one (2:4‒25).

Robert Alter in his brilliant book The Art of Biblical Narrative [1] looks at type scenes and explores how similar events in a book are actually a reflection of literary artistry rather than an indication of a patchwork quilt of sources. He uses the conventions of Hollywood Westerns as a masterful illustration of how conventions can be misunderstood. In this way he shows just how wide of the mark some biblical source criticism is. His concerns it should be noted are not whether the events are true but simply squashing the hegemony of sources as the explanation of similar stories and narrative motifs.

From a stance of faith there is no sense in awaiting a final outcome of such critical work as this will never arrive. Instead the question must be faced: given that there are some complex editing processes and source texts behind the Pentateuch (as well as other parts of the Hebrew Bible), does this invalidate the possibility that we have Scripture, i.e. an authoritative religious text? If the Pentateuch is understood as Scripture, then even if some original texts could be recovered what would be done with them?

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York: Basic Books, 1981.

 

J is for Judah

We met Judah a few posts ago as the 4th Son of Jacob. The sons of Jacob are the founders of the tribes of Israel. Despite being the 4th son of Jacob, Judah founded the tribe that ultimately gave its name to the people of God at the end of the story of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Jews. We saw in the last post that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was ravaged by a destructive war in the 8th Century BCE—a war that it never really recovered from in a tangible way. This saw the loss of ten tribes whose descendants, in part at least, gave rise to the Samaritans. The Southern Kingdom took its name from the dominant tribe of Judah although it incorporated the territory of the tribe of Benjamin and also included some Levites as they lived scattered among the other tribes.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible various events prefigure the dominant role of tribe of Judah. The earliest of these is the Joseph narrative in the book of Genesis. Judah leads the way in suggesting that he and his brothers rid themselves of the irksome Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:26‒28). Much later when Joseph has risen to a position of power and influence in Egypt, it is Judah who plays a lead role. Joseph turns on the emotional blackmail which will really test his brothers by holding Simeon, Judah’s full brother, hostage until the absent younger brother Benjamin is brought to Egypt. Judah offers himself to his father Jacob as surety of Benjamin’s return, thus persuading Jacob that Benjamin can go to Egypt. After Joseph enslaves Benjamin in a ruse it is Judah who pleads for Benjamin’s life. It is at this point that Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.

Very much later in the story of the people of God, King David from the tribe of Judah arises as a replacement for the failed King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. The foundation of a kingly dynasty from the tribe of Judah is prefigured in Genesis 49 where each of the sons, and thereby the tribes of Israel, are prophesied over by their father Jacob. The kingly motifs are rich when Jacob speaks of Judah:

‘Judah, your brothers will praise you;

    your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;

    your father’s sons will bow down to you.

You are a lion’s cub, Judah;

    you return from the prey, my son.

Like a lion he crouches and lies down,

    like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?

The sceptre will not depart from Judah,

    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until he to whom it belongs shall come

    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

Genesis 49:8‒10 (NIV)

We will see in the next post that similar language is used in the psalms to speak of King David and his line. As we have seen, the nation of Judah was the surviving nation and on return from exile the people of God took their name from the tribe which gave its name to the nation and they became Jews. One of the challenges in interpreting the role of Judah in the earlier narratives is to what extent this might be viewed as reconstructed history. To put it another way how much of the later history of Israel/Judah is read back into the earlier story? We will look at this issue in a later post.

G is for Genesis 12–50

We have already met the opening three chapters of the book of Genesis in the earlier posts on Creation and Fall. The book of Genesis falls into two unequal halves. Chapter 12 initiates a new turn of events in the book as it follows on from the flood narrative. Up to this point Genesis reads very much like a prehistory which accounts for the way things are in the world. In chapter 12 the concern with origins continues but at a much more specific level—it is with Abram that the story of the nation of Israel starts. In this chapter the founding father of the nation of Israel is introduced. Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, hears the voice of God and embarks obediently on a journey from his home of Ur of the Chaldees to what will become Israel. This is the start of God’s dealings with Abram which indicates that he is chosen by God to be the first of the Patriarchs. His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, later renamed Israel, are the foundation of a people who will become the nation of Israel.

A large part of the story of Abram is the covenant that God makes with him. This covenant takes place in two stages. The first stage in chapter 15 takes place whilst Abram is facing the challenge of being childless. This is ironic in that a key part of the covenant promise that God describes is that that Abram’s descendant will inherit what is often termed the promised land—God says ‘on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’ (Genesis 15:18). In the second stage, Abraham has a son but one born not to his wife Sarah but to Hagar, an Egyptian slave. As part of this more detailed unfolding of the covenant promises, God promises that Abraham will have a son by Sarah, and that it is this son from who his numerous descendants will come.

The stories involving Abram are just as foundational to the biblical story as the earlier chapters of Genesis but now we see that God is unfolding a complex plan. The promises of Land, along with descendants beyond counting, and the ultimate blessing of the nations are clearly long-term in nature. In many ways this covenant is a prelude to the covenant with Moses mentioned above in the post on the Deuteronomic History. Genesis a key religious marker, male circumcision, is introduced. The act of cutting foreskin is a literal echo of the cutting of a covenant in Genesis chapter 17.

The stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob contain similar elements to those of Abraham himself. Like most biblical narratives they are open to interpretation. The Hebrew Bible presents the story but often leaves readers unclear as to what to do with the story.

F is for Fall

Right on the heels of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 there follows the story of what is often termed ‘The Fall’. This familiar story of the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve and the serpent poses an interpretive challenge. Just as with the Creation accounts, translating Genesis 3 into straightforward propositional truth tends to pit science against the Bible. We should also note that seeing this story as in some sense symbolic or mythical poses different challenges. It is however this latter approach that I find sensible.

There are a number of reasons why this approach seems necessary to me. One example will serve for this post. What are we to make of the cursing of the serpent by God? What else is going on in this account about why snakes have no legs, and crawl on their bellies? Surely this has to be mythopoetic language and if so, the whole story must function in the same way. The challenge of seeing the narrative as imagery does however beg the question ‘How do we equate the symbolic language with the theological concept of the fallen nature of humanity?’ Throughout much of Church History theologians have taken Genesis 3 at face value and have built ontological arguments on it—the most famous of these being Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.

In contrast a more mythical interpretive paradigm does not provide a cause-and-effect account of how it is that human beings have collectively chosen their own path and have a broken relationship with God. For some this lack of mechanism is unnerving as it leaves unanswered questions. And yet more positively the very lack of a mechanical account resonates with the wonderful mystery, that though science can explain much about biology, including genetic evolution, it cannot provide a metaphysical account of ‘the world’ except for the singular possibility that there is no purpose to ‘creation’. Is ‘The Fall’ an account of the first two people making a bad choice that echoes through eternity—accounting for the broken relationship between man-and-man, man-and-woman, humanity-and-creation, humanity-and-God? Or is it a mythic statement of the way things are, a state of affairs which it is difficult to refute?

One way of looking at Genesis 3 is to note that it sounds like something of a prequel to Exile. The account of Genesis 3 concludes with Adam and Eve being exiled from Eden. When viewed in this way the history of exile, the mythopoetic imagery of Fall are mutually enriching and the common experience of human beings cohere into a theology of being strangers in a strange land. We are all lovers of those who share our humanity and yet we are unable to live this out with consistency; simultaneously in awe of the world around us and yet sowing the seeds of its destruction; day-by-day seeking self-fulfilment but discerning that something is absent.

Opening ourselves to a rich nuanced interpretation of The Fall (and Creation) is the start of a journey to a new worldview and this possibility turns into a exilic pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the heavenly Eden. It does this in a way that asks as many questions as it provides answers.

C is for Creation

There is no escaping the centrality of the theme of Creation in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is it encountered on numerous occasions, both explicitly and implicitly, but it is also the point of departure of the book of Genesis and therefore the whole Hebrew Bible.

In the previous post we considered two polar opposite approaches to the Hebrew Bible and their respective presuppositions. These were scientific atheism and highly conservative Christianity. Both conservative Christian approaches and militant atheism share a tendency to translate the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1–2 into propositional truth. In this way the outcome is either:

  1. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that the biblical account is false, or
  2. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that these sciences are wrong.

Of course there are alternatives. These alternatives centre on considering what these texts are—i.e. they are not a series of straightforward propositional truths. This is not to question their potential for conveying truth but rather to recognise that there is something more complex at work in these texts and that their interpretation is richer than a series of true/false statements. I want to suggest that an initial reading of the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1–2 which recognises their cultural milieu indicates two useful starting points.

Firstly, there is a poetic dynamic to the accounts:

  • They are highly rhythmic and stylised—for example the six fold refrain of ‘. . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31).
  • There is word play—for example the use of ‘adamah as earth (as in topsoil) in 1:25 and 2:6 and the use of ‘adam as the first man (earth creature) in 2:7.

Some poetic features are lost in translation but the rhythm and form are readily apparent.

Secondly, the two creation accounts in Genesis and other elements of Genesis 1–11 are part of a number of Ancient Near-Eastern texts which deal with origins. They arose in a context which saw a number of accounts for the origin of the world and explanations of the way things are. For example, there are Akkadian, Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories. These Hebrew accounts provide their own unique answers to the questions being asked at that time.

Of course even when such considerations are handled sympathetically these texts can still be dismissed as wrongheaded, but the way we can dismiss or embrace them is richer than polarising modern science against ancient text as propositional statements which capture timeless truth. The possible ‘thicker’ readings lack the simplicity and closure of the ‘thinner’ alternatives. They raise questions as well as provide answers. The central claims of Genesis 1–2 provide the presuppositions underpinning the whole of the Hebrew Bible—that the Hebrew God, Yahweh, created the universe and that humankind are, at some level, special within this creation. There is no scientific proposal here which can be tested. Rather, this is elegant use of the possibilities of poetry to populate the imagination with rich theological images. This thicker possibility leads us to wonder and perhaps argue about how we interpret the account—how do Adam and Eve fit with the scientific consensus? As a Christian who is also a scientist I welcome the fact that neither scientific consensus nor the Bible trumps the other at the outset of a process of critical evaluation and consideration.

 

Further reading

For a stimulating scholarly exploration of the centrality of creation in the Hebrew Bible see Herman Spieckermann, ‘Creation: God and World’, pp. 271‒292 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016