Lent 2019 Day 38: Mark 13:1-37

Mark 13

Buckle up, it’s a long one

Abomination unto Desolation

The last time I wrote or spoke about this passage, my words were largely misunderstood. That being the case, though, I do not think that I should somehow avoid talking about such a passage. With that in mind, I’m going to dive right into it, just note that I would ask you read this charitably, dear reader.

The first thing we need to do as readers is understand the eschatological context into which Jesus is speaking. Eschatology is anything that references the end of the world or “the day” of judgment. Jesus walks out of the temple and immediately begins talking about the end of the world. The entire chapter is a discussion of what the end of the world looks like and how to see it.

The second thing we need to understand as readers is that the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached was an eschatological Kingdom. That is, it was a kingdom that would only truly come about at the end of the world. Yet, throughout the gospels, Jesus speaks of it both coming (future) and already here (present). This is one of the hardest of the foundational concepts in Christian theology to grasp, but it is key to understanding much of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom. The Kingdom is both here and still coming. It is both inaugurated in Jesus and yet coming to fulfillment at the end of history.

The third thing we need to examine is how the Gospel writers, indeed the early church as a whole, understood Jesus’ death and resurrection. They understood it in many different ways, and with many different impacts, to be sure, but one thing I want to highlight is that they understood the death and resurrection of Jesus to be an eschatological event. Indeed this is behind much of the early church’s expectation (as you can read in various letters) that Jesus would return soon and the end of the world would come with it. It was only after some years, when the world did not end, that many of the authors had to reexamine their beliefs (and this may have resulted in 2 Thessalonians and the Revelation of John. There are a few key characteristics, beyond Jesus’ words, that would lead them to come to that conclusion. The first was that the sky would be darkened at the end of the world (and this happened, as recorded in other gospel writers); even Jesus makes mention of this belief. The second was that there would be earthquakes, which happened at the resurrection as well. Jesus does warn, however, that these two things by themselves are not a direct sign of the end of the world (but rather, birth pains).

The big piece, however, and the one convincing aspect, was that the dead would be raised to a new life at the end of the world. In Matthew’s account, the moment Jesus died, not only did the temple curtain split, signaling a new era, not only was there an earthquake, but lots of other people came out of their tombs. Matthew mentions, and then has absolutely no follow up on these other people, prompting us to wonder. But, if the death and resurrection of Jesus was an end-of-history event, then surely this would be expected. Yet history continued on.

The broader understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus became that this event was like a lightening bolt in history. It was like the end-of-history broke through in a quick glimpse at the resurrection of Jesus, but offered only a glimpse. The raising to life of others were like the riplings of thunder as God temporarily splint space-time asunder to call forth his Son. This is why we can have ultimate confidence. We’ve caught a glimpse of the end. God showed us the last page. And on that page we see Jesus standing triumphant over death. We need not fear death too much, for it is only temporary, and Christ has already defeated it. This is is all part of the background.

The last thing we need to examine is what is meant by the “abomination unto desolation.” It’s an odd phrase. To be sure, many contemporary “end times” preachers have sought to give a wide variety of interpretations of what this is. What is consistently missing from most of these accounts, though, is a recognition that Jesus did not speak into a vacuum. That phrase “abomination unto desolation” already had a specific reference in the Jewish mindset before Jesus ever spoke it. It was mentioned first in the book of Daniel as a clear reference to the desecration of a holy place (i.e. the corruption of the temple by some specific act).

In the book of Maccabees, part of the “apocrypha” or “deuterocanon,” it describes (in part) an historical episode in the life of the Jewish people. The history, in broad swaths, is that, following the return to Jerusalem under Cyrus and the Persians, Persia was taken over by Alexander the Great (and with it, all of that territory). Once Alexander died, the territory was split up between his four generals. Two of them, or rather the mini-nations that resulted from this split, Ptolemy and Seleucus, fought over the area containing Jerusalem due to its strategic military and economic position. The Seleucids eventually won control and Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned ritual sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Instead, he went into the temple and offered a pig as a sacrifice to his pagan gods. That act was the “abomination unto desolation” and it set off the Maccabbean revolt (that resulted in relative independence until the Roman general Pompey came on the scene). From then on, throughout the early centuries for Jewish thinkers and authors, “abomination unto desolation” referred to that specific act.

With all of that background, we should now revisit the words of Jesus. Jesus declares that when you (e.g. the audience there that day) see the “abomination unto desolation standing where it does not belong” (e.g. you see the horrific atrocity of a pagan group through their sacrifice) you will know that the end of the world has come. Jesus is referencing, in other words, himself. His own sacrifice will be seen as such an abomination.

The Romans were known for being a blood thirsty people. They loved the torture of others and used execution like crucifixion as a tool to demonstrate their superiority as the Empire. Caesar was in charge, and all who dare to argue for another ruler or another Kingdom would be executed in brutal fashion. While Jewish leaders may have played a role, ultimately the execution of Jesus was carried out by the Romans. He was executed for one charge and one charge only: sedition. This is the abomination. Later, Paul reminds the early church that “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree“. The Romans took the Holy One of God and crucified him, thus securing his fate as cursed.

Yet God took that instance and, in that moment, it was Christ taking on our curse. And as Christ, dying with our sin and curse, was on the cross, so our own curse under sin and the law was killed with him. When Christ was raised, following the abomination, the curse stayed dead. So Christ’s words here are not a guidebook to the end of the world, but a way for us to read his own death and resurrection. What Caesar intended to use for the destruction and desolation of Israel, God used to redeem the world. As when Antiochus was subject to a revolt for his actions, so too would the death of Christ inaugurate a new Kingdom in opposition to the Kingdoms of this world. Unlike the previous one, this would be a Kingdom without end and would include all nations. If any die with him, we will also live with him.

close up of hand feeding on tree trunk
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

*Note: when I originally spoke about this, and wrote about it, I was unaware of any other interpreter who had reached a similar conclusion. I have since come to be aware of at least two New Testament scholars, Professor David P Scaer and Professor Peter Bolt, have reached the same conclusion. My work was done independent of theirs, and, as far as I can tell, their work was independent and unaware of each others. So while I did not rely upon either, it is nevertheless encouraging to note that there have been numerous, more learned scholars than myself, who have reached the same conclusion.

**Extra note: this should not be misinterpreted in any way (as was, unfortunately done to me previously) to mean that Jesus is the anti-Christ. That is a ridiculous statement. Of course the Christ cannot be the anti-Christ. Discussions of the anti-Christ deserve their own separate post, but, suffice it say, anyone who acts against the cause of Christ assumes the role of anti-Christ.


Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

Confusion, Nearness, and beginning to look at the text of Revelation


So over the past few weeks, I’ve done a lot of background for studying the book of Revelation as part of my Difficult Passages series. Below I’ll briefly list out what I’ve covered before looking at the actual text this week.

First, I gave a brief introductory note, where I described the overarching views of the book.

Then, I looked at different views of history, most of which fit in the “futurist” view, which led to

Different views on the Millennial reign of Christ.

Next I noted that the book of Revelation fits in the style of literature known as Apocalyptic, which…

I noted is the style of the book of Daniel.

Finally, last week, I talked about how John, and other Christian Apocalyptic writers, use language like some rappers, including Jay-Z.

A word of warning

Revelation, even with all this background, can get confusing. What I am going to offer over the next few weeks is my particular interpretation. It is by no means undisputed. It is, however, one that does justice to the book of Revelation within its own particular genre, something which many interpretations fail to fully consider. I happen to think it is correct, but I am not so arrogant as to believe that it must be correct, and agree that, within certain limits, it is something we can (and possibly should) debate (respectfully) about.

With that said there is a helpful graph, done by someone else, for understanding Revelation, available here.

Into the text: Soon is not soon

Today, I’m going to be very brief (as it is something of a re-introduction) with my examination. In chapter 1, John says, in verse 1, that the things he describes “must soon take place,” and, in verse 3, that “the time is near.” What? I though this was about the future. Well, there is the option to take a preterist, or partial preterist view, which I describe in this post, but that isn’t particularly satisfactory, particularly when you look at the last few chapters which can only be describing the end of the world, which would not be close to John’s time. So what does he mean?

I think we need to understand how time worked for the early church. We tend to think of time as a straight linear progression, and I can already hear the Dr Who references coming in, but resist the urge.

I’m apparently failing to take my own advice

Instead, the early church saw time in two distinct ways: chronos, which is how we tend to think of time, and kairos, which is usually interpreted as “opportune time.” However even “opportune time” misses the point a bit. To be sure kairos is the word used in verse 3. Really, it has less to do with “time” as a set of cause and effect events, and more to do with a period characterized by some aspect.

So, for instance, when I am recalling the time I started dating my wife, I could say “oh, back in 2002…” but even then, my timing isn’t precise. I mean I met her in 2001, I did go on an awkward non-date date in September of 2002, we actually started dating shortly thereafter, but I didn’t really date her as my future spouse until 2003 (I mean I was intentional in dating before, but really intentional then). And we were engaged the following year, so she really was externally my future spouse, and we kept dating after we were married the following year. Now at which point could I say I started dating my wife? In chronos time I would need to make some decision was to what counted as “Dating as my wife” and what didn’t. Then I could pin point it. However, all of that occurred when I was in college. So, I usually just say “back when we started dating, when I was at OBU….” Now, precision isn’t as strong here, but accuracy is. Even then, though, I don’t use that language for accuracy’s sake. I just don’t think of the years as much as I do the period of time I was there. That was my “in college” time. We do this frequently, such as referring to when we lived at “that” house, or dating time “BC” and “AC” (Before Children, After Children). Our time was characterized in a specific way, by certain overarching events.

That is how to understand kairos. John is saying these eschatological (that word means “end of time”, and I’ll be using it a lot), things are near, and Christ’s reign is near. He’s not confused or mistaken about the intervening (almost) 2000 years. He’s talking about a different time that is running counter to the time of this world. The kingdom of God is near and will soon occur, and, because it is characterized by Jesus’ resurrection, it is an end of the world (eschatological) sort of Kingdom. Thus Christ’s reign and the end of the world are always “near” in that sense. In many ways, then, Revelation is a call to shift your kairos from “this present evil age” to “the Kingdom of God.” It is near, and not far from you. For you to overcome, these things must soon take place.


Side note: Not every week will be so focused (here only on 3 verses), but I will try to hit the highlights and the overarching trajectory of the book, as well as address most of the more troubling or difficult bits.

4 (or 5) Different Views of the Revelation’s message regarding history

Ok, so let’s jump right in with the different views of where the message of Revelation belongs.

What do I mean by that, first of all? Well, no one disputes, really, that the first three chapters comprise letters to genuine, historical churches. Where the disagreement begins is with how to treat chapters 4 through 21. Here I’m going to outline the major camps involved in how to interpret this:

  1. Preterist view: This view states that everything described (or almost everything), including the return of Christ is metaphorical language and describes events that happened near the time of its writing. This time frame is either prior to 70AD (the destruction of the temple), prior to 150AD (the height of Domitian’s persecution of the church) or prior to 250 (on a much later date for writing). This means everything can be traced to an historical occurrence. This is considered heretical in many circles, in large part because it claims that Christ has already returned in a “spiritual” sense. There are very few advocates of this today.
  2. Allegoricist view: This view states that the message is really “timeless” and one cannot identify anything in the book with specific events or people in history past, present or future.
  3. Historicist view: This view claims that Revelation recounts the whole of history in metaphorical language. For instance: they may try to identify certain types of locusts with certain military weapons throughout history (from long bows, to guns, to tanks, to helicopters, etc.)
  4. Futurist view: By far the most popular claims that all, or almost all of the events following chapter 4 refer to things that have not yet occurred (or have only recently occurred) and generally believe that the timeline for these events is fairly short.
  5. The option view is called Partial-preterist: This is a view that states that significant portions of the book of Revelation occurred near the time of writing, but advocates are very careful to say other parts, in particular the return of Christ, have not yet occurred.

It should be noted that, with the exception of option 1, these views are not mutually exclusive, and often combined together. The

St John on Patmos by Hieronymus Bosch (obtained via Wikicommons)

most frequent combination involves 2, 5, and a little of 4. I think I’ll stop there for now, but next week, I’ll further divide option 4 and talk about the different views within that option for the book of revelation. For the time being though, I’m trying to keep things fairly simple.

Do you gravitate toward one or more of these?

Difficult Passages 1 Samuel 28

This past week the people over at The Gospel Coalition asked Dale Ralph Martin some hard questions about 1 Samuel 28 the episode involving the witch of Endor (the non-George Lucas one), Saul, and Samuel. As I would expect, Martin does an excellent job with the three questions and you can read his response here. He is asked three questions about the passage:

  1. Is the spirit the witch summons actually Samuel? Or a demon acting like Samuel (1 Sam. 28:14-15)?
  2. Where is Samuel coming from—especially since he says Saul and his sons “shall be with me” (1 Sam. 28:19)?
  3. The Bible paints very different pictures of Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan. Yet Samuel seems to say they will all be in the same place (Sheol?). Should we assume anything about Saul’s salvation from this? (1 Sam. 28:19)

He lays out the various options, and does a good job explaining question three and two, for the most part. However, Martin is a bit more cautious (surprisingly) than I’d suggest, particularly with the first question. He simply lays out the options and doesn’t give an argument for any one of them in particular. I think we can afford a little bit more specificity than that. Here’s my attempt to do so. In other words, while I don’t disagree with Martin, I think a little bit of elaboration might be in order.

First, Martin notes the various options, which I repeat here for the sake of ease. It could be the case that either the witch actually summons Samuel through the forbidden act of necromancy, the witch summons a demon who merely looks and acts like Samuel, God allows this forbidden means to work so Samuel can appear to convey a message, or the witch is a fraud and is shocked when Samuel actually shows up.

I think we can begin by eliminating some of these options. While it might be possible that this is merely a demon who acts like Samuel, this seems very problematic and should probably be rejected. The message given by what appears to be Samuel seems to very clearly come from God. While it is certainly true that God could use the demons, since he has absolute sovereignty, to convey his message, such a position is not very attractive for two reasons. First, there is the idea of God using an entity with its own distinct will against that will. The very idea that demons were able to rebel in the first place suggests that they have some sort of free will. Likewise, if we are to assume that God is not responsible in any way for our sin we should argue that we have a free will and are not unwilling tools. Thus the idea of God using a creature, even a demon, against its will places in jeopardy all of freedom, including human freedom. Besides, most ethical codes note that it is immoral to use a free person without respect for the ends of the person. This does not mean we cannot stop someone from doing exactly what they want, but to compel them, not through convincing or negative consequences, seems somehow immoral, and I don’t think God ever changes what morality is to fit his purpose (rather he somehow uses and integrates our freely arrived at decisions in his greater plan). It is difficult to see how a demon would willingly convey God’s message considering that everything about their actions is geared towards rebellion against God. However, if this is not convincing, the second reason should be. Even if it is not a moral violation to use a demon in this way, ultimately by making Saul believe Samuel is speaking to him, if it were not Samuel it would be deceptive. Do we really want to say that God engages in deception? Even if God does not directly engage in it in this scenario, if he is allowing a demon to be deceptive in order to convey his own message, this still seems counter to the way in which God acts. Thus I would be inclined to say this is not and cannot have been a demon, but is instead Samuel himself.

This brings us to the second issue. How does Samuel get there? Is he summoned via necromancy? Does God permit it to work? Again, I think it a bit dangerous to assume that God would work through a forbidden and sinful act to directly convey his message (i.e. his message being conveyed is entirely contingent upon a willful sinful act taking place). Besides, we have the bewilderment of the witch herself. Regardless of whether the witch was genuine or a fake, I think we have to accept that Samuel appeared to Saul in order give this message, but that this appearance was independent of the witch’s actions.

Now this presents another problem, particularly for those who have been reading my Tuesday speculative posts. If I maintain that there isn’t an immaterial soul that is entirely separate from our bodies, then what is going on here? The text does not say it was an immaterial spirit that appeared. Instead, it seems that something was seen, which would run counter to the idea of immateriality. Further, the word could mean spirit, figure, object, any number of words that suggest a visible something that can’t necessarily be defined (it could be a body, but needn’t be one). But how would Samuel be seen at that time? There is a term for this that has been taken up and applied theologically called “prolepsis.” It is literally talking about appearance, but it has been elaborated to its more basic sense of seeing ahead of time. In other words, it is a vision, or appearance, of the future. In this instance, on my view, it is seeing the future day when the dead are alive again, and it is this Samuel who speaks to Saul. In other words, the medium is seeing, and Saul is hearing, through time. This is a possibility because of the nature of eternity. When Christ returns and we are transformed, this world remains (though is likewise transformed), but we are no longer bound by only our current space-time. In fact, it seems we exist in a much broader space-time where time as we know it begins to lose or shift in meaning. In this way, the future persons can convey messages with us (by God’s sovereignty) today.

What do you think? Any other problems with this passage? Any other passages you’d like to see covered here?

Difficult Passages: 2 Samuel 24 vs 1 Chronicles 21

And we’re back to looking at difficult passages in the bible. This week, I’d like to look at the instance of David taking the census as recorded in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.

Right of the bat, we have a bit of a discrepancy in these parallel passages that are otherwise in agreement (sometimes word for word agreement). 2 Samuel 24:1 says:

Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”

While 1 Chronicles 21:1 says:

Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.

So, first question:

Who incited David?

Short answer: Satan did. Today in theology we often talk about the “active” and “passive” or more frequently “active” and “permissive” will of God. To say God allows something to take place, we recognize, is not the same thing as saying God is the one who directly causes it to occur. God actively redeems his people because he permitted them to sin of their own volition. The Ancient Hebrew mindset, it seems, did not account for such a strong distinction. It seems they would have been able to recognize the difference if they talked about it (hence the distinction that was made by the (later) writer of Chronicles), but nothing in their language could directly account for this. In either case, it remains that the two passages in juxtaposition make clear that Satan directly tempted David, David freely chose to give into this temptation, and that God allowed it all to come about because he was sovereign over the entire situation. The difference in the two passages, though, brings out a different emphasis in both. While in the Chronicles passage the idea is that David had gone so low as to succumb to the temptation of the devil, in the Samuel passage, the main idea is that God did not abandon Israel nor was God’s sovereignty ever in question. Given the themes of both books this makes sense. Chronicles seems heavily “David focused” and Samuel seems heavily focused on the relationship of God to the rulers of Israel (and how their rule is paralleled or not by God’s rule). This brings us to the next question:

What’s so bad about a census?

It is true that nothing specifically forbids a census in the Hebrew bible (per se), despite the incredibly popular rabbinical tradition that seems to be based upon this. So what’s the big deal? Well there are a few things: first, in Numbers the precedent is set that the census is done at the request of the LORD (YHWH), not by personal ambition. Lest we think this is a bit too shaky, we should note that the primary instruction for how a census should be conducted is Exodus 30: 11-16; which is place directly in the middle of instructions for building the tabernacle (and worship). This places the census completely within the context of divine relations to people, not secular ambition.

Still, even if we grant that David was not doing anything wrong by doing the census in itself, it appears he did not conduct it according to the way set out in Exodus 30. Specifically, it states that a small offering (half a shekel) was required of every person who was counted in order to act as a “ransom” for their lives to make a symbolic atonement (so taking a census was a very serious thing). This money would then be used or set aside specifically for worship to God. There is no indication that this was done (in fact it is strongly implied that God was the furthest thing from David’s mind when he did this). This brings us to the final question

Why was everyone else punished for what David did?

There are actually two things at play here. First, Israel was collectively redeemed as a family. Thus their fate was held together for all of them. When one sinned they all were held accountable. That may be at play, and certainly there are other passages have this idea in them, in which case the punishments are actually redemptive not punitive (they save the person punished, in the next life, lest they be destroyed for their actions now and forever). However, there may be a more individual accountability also.

Again, referring to the Exodus 30 passage, it was required by the law that when a census occurred an offering to God be collected from every person who was counted. That was not David’s responsibility only (even if he should have asked for it), but the responsibility of every person counted. Keep in mind that, at least concerning the Torah, these laws were drilled into every person from an early age. Everyone was thus fully responsible for the law and adherence to it once they were old enough to have learned it (this is what the contemporary Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are intended to represent: adulthood comes about once the law has been thoroughly studied). Thus each person was responsible and God’s anger was with all of Israel. Also, considering it was only half a shekel, this was a relatively insignificant amount of money.

What do you think? Other questions? Also, please suggest future passages to be covered below.

Difficult Passages: 1 Corinthians 11 (Part 1 of 3)

It has been requested that I include a discussion of 1 Corinthians 11 in the hard passages series. Now, I’m not going to be able to cover it all in one week, so I’ve broken it into two dealing with the two major issues. In verses 1-16 there is the issue of head covering and worship, and the interesting implications this may mean for gender relations, and in verses 17-34 deal with abuses at the Lord’s supper and what seems, on the surface, the very harsh punishments associated with that. This week I’ll deal with the first half in part one, next week I’ll deal with the other major issue, and the third week I’ll deal with the second half of the chapter. So three weeks, this is week 1.

One of the major themes of 1 Corinthians, is the issue of how to conduct worship. It seems that the Corinthians had become incredibly disordered in their worship style to the point where people were not being edified, others were made so uncomfortable as to be unable to worship, while many nonbelievers did not feel particularly welcome. There were a number of problems and Paul gives, not only here but elsewhere in the book, some very practical ways to deal with these issues. This first section seems a bit odd to us, because Paul is speaking primarily about covering or not covering the head. While there are some who would link this to a view that women should always have there heads covered and men must always keep their hair short, most recognize this passage for what it is; that is, the passage is primarily concerned with a particular cultural practice that Paul wanted the church to steer clear of.

Having the head covered (for men) or uncovered (for women) was a long standing tradition among the Roman national religion. One particular incarnation of that can be seen in the picture of a coin picture I’ve included. There’s another image I came across a few years ago (though I can’t seem to find it now) that demonstrates this even more clearly. In these images, it displays a Caesar as the religious (not merely civil) leader of the people by worshipping and he has very clearly taken the bottom of his tunic and lifted it over his head (click on the picture to be taken to the page from Dartmouth’s Ancient Mediterranean Study Museum that explains the religious significance of it).

In the same way women, if they had their heads covered, were to uncover their heads. Keep in mind, though, that ancient Rome was still heavily misogynistic. The only women who could be present during these ceremonies would be the temple priestesses, who were also often prostitutes for the national Roman cult. In some parts of the empire, and particularly if the woman was a slave to the temple in question, the priestess’s head was shaved, lest she try to run away (so that people could recognize her still). That, it seems, is what is going on here. Apparently the church in Corinth was excited to worship, but they decided to conform too closely to the culture around them. The result was that their worship looked, on the surface, indistinguishable from the cultic Roman practices. While it may (or may not) have been theologically sound, the appearance was too similar. That is an important point. The Christian act of worship is different (by necessity) from the worship of others and it should look different. We have something better to offer.

I have not even made mention of the somewhat radical equality that is going on here. The Roman worship system seemed to try to publicly demean the woman in its worship and Paul did not think this was right. Further, it should be noted that there isn’t an argument that men and women should speak together in the service, it’s merely assumed. “Every woman who prays or prophesies…” The action of the woman praying or prophesying (speaking a timely word from the Lord) is assumed to be the case and this is not discouraged. Therefore, I don’t think we need to have women completely silent in worship services (which if we applied that other verse strictly it would mean women can’t sing, pray, read the bible, share their testimony, or teach mixed gender Sunday school classes for groups over the age of 13 (when the ancient world considered boys to become men). Clearly women do make contributions here and these should be celebrated.

Now, this brings us to the other thorny part of this first half, what does Paul mean when he says man is the head of woman as God is the head of the Christ? And what does all this talk about authority and independence and source mean? Well, I’ll try to deal with those issues (and try to be fair in my dealing) next week.

Difficult Passages: Judah and Tamar

Today’s post is rated PG-13 due to some dialogue about sex (it’s unavoidable). Be advised.

The Passage and the Difficulties

In Genesis 38 we have what seems like an interruption to the Joseph narrative that surrounds it. Moving away from Joseph, the focus shifts to Judah, before returning to Joseph. The reasons for this shift are because of the two things going on historically that the author of Genesis no doubt found important. 1) Israel would eventually go to live in Egypt (setting up the events of Exodus), hence the focus on Joseph, and 2) Judah would become one of the more dominant tribes, eventually yielding David the King (and in the NT Jesus). So there is the dual focus. Incidentally, there is also a theme of the second born throughout Genesis and Judah was second born after Gideon from his mother Leah, which is another indication of his potentially favored status in spite of his character.

So in Genesis 38, we see Judah taking an unnamed woman to be his wife. She conceives three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah finds a wife for Er, named Tamar, but apparently Er is so evil that God kills him. Since Er had no sons, they practice leverite marriage (I’ll get to that in the next section) and Onan is told he is obligated to make love with Tamar so that she can conceive a son who will be Er’s. Now Onan doesn’t particularly care for the idea of having his son be named as though it was his brothers. Here the text is unclear whether Onan “pulls out” or masturbates, but at any rate he does not climax while having sex. Because this is evil, Onan is killed by God. The Roman Catholic Church has taken this to mean that all male ejaculations that do not occur during sexual intercourse are sinful (often labeling them “Onanism”). Again we’ll get to this later.

Judah, having seen what happened to his other two sons, refuses to send Shelah, his third son, to act out his duty of leverite marriage, and so Tamar is left, essentially, to be shamed. Not content to bear the shame of never having a son, when Judah goes off to do some shepherding duties, Tamar comes up with a plan.

She dresses as a prostitute and, apparently having noticed her father-in-laws questionable sexual ethics, offers herself as a prostitute to him. He doesn’t have payment, but offers her some personal effects as collateral. She accepts and disappears without payment. Later she is revealed to be pregnant (by Judah). When Judah cries out for her to be killed, Tamar produces the personal effects, and Judah is convicted of his sin and calls of the execution. Then the next chapter goes back to Joseph.

How I’d suggest looking at it

Well as it turns out, we’ve got quite a few things to look at in this passage. Let’s start with the easy ones. 1) God kills people who are wicked. Personally, I don’t have a particular problem with this. God is revealing himself to be the defender of the weak, and it seems the wickedness portrayed by those whom God kills is against a weaker party (yes even Onan toward Tamar). This becomes a problem with why doesn’t God still do these things in modern history (often phrased, “Why didn’t God kill Hitler?”). While we could get into this in more depth, it seems an entirely separate issue. Let me just leave it by saying, we are under a new covenant where Grace is heavily emphasized above all else. It could be that God is allowing some grace to these people. I should also note that Er and Onan were only killed after they committed their evil deeds. There is something to be said for being innocent until you actually commit the crime.

2) Onan is evil? Really? I’m not going to go the route of the Roman Catholic Church on this one. This was (a) a very different time and (b) his act was of a particular sort. Specifically, Onan had an obligation to ensure his brother’s name did not die out. He had no problem accepting Tamar as his wife, only he wanted to enjoy her as his wife without giving his brother what was asked of him by the terms of such a marriage. So, in effect, Onan used Tamar for his own pleasure while also symbolically spitting in his brother’s face. It is almost the same as adultery, and it could even be bordering on rape, given the attitude that Onan seemed to possess.

Ok with that said there are still two more, perhaps more problematic, issues: 3) the entire concept of leverite marriage as required and 4) that Tamar is more righteous than Judah by deceiving him.

3) The Leverite Marriage: There are two routes to take with this one. First, one could say this was just the culture of the time and is something we will never understand. However, considering the details of such marriages (where brothers marry their deceased and childless brother’s wife) are given in Deuteronomy, this doesn’t seem like a valid position. Instead, I’d suggest looking at the distinction between the covenants. The Covenant, as it existed in the Old Testament, was one found primarily upon ethnic continuity. You were physically born into it. The covenant as it exists following the New Testament is one of faithfulness. You are spiritually born into it. Since the first covenant had this emphasis on the ethnic, physical birth, it stands to reason that continuing a family line would prove incredibly important. Now, while I doubt we can ever fully understand it, I do think this highlights the distinction between the two covenants and why such a thing was applicable then, but not as much now. The nature of the covenant is no longer physical/ethnic but spiritual/global.

4) How is Tamar Righteous? Well, Tamar is certainly not perfect here (Judah definitely isn’t, but I don’t think anyone would argue he was). She does practice deceit. However, she did accomplish what her father-in-law failed to do. Further she didn’t sleep with just anyone, but specifically with the man responsible for ensuring the child (or in this case children) who should have been born, were actually born (interestingly she has 2 husbands die and gives birth to twins). Notice in the text, though, it doesn’t say she was fully righteous, just more righteous than Judah (and because it technically was in fulfillment of the leverite law, she was not condemned as an adulteress). She was deceptive, but ultimately this was used for good. Later, God took one of her sons and put him in the line of David (and eventually Jesus). It is a slightly foreign world to us, but if we take into account the emphasis on the ethnic nature of the covenant, it may begin to make more sense. Also we need to take into account how righteousness is accounted to people. It has less to do with actions, which always fail, and more to do with faith/trust, especially trust in God. Going back to Abram/Abraham, it is his faith that makes him righteous, not his deeds. In this instance, though, even if her deeds were unrighteous, her faith credits her as righteous. Judah had no faith, not in his children nor in God’s plan. He acted as a result of his faithlessness, but it was the initial lack of faith that ensured he would be credited for his (unrighteous) actions only. In contrast, Tamar had faith that God would grant her the children she should have been able to count on having. Whatever her other deeds or methods, she had faith in God and relied on Him to protect her. It is primarily for this reason she is counted as righteous in this incident.

How’d I do? Would you like to extend the conversation (or offer counter-theories)? Suggest new passages to examine?

Difficult Passages: Jephthah’s Faithless Vow

Last Week, I talked about an episode at the end of Judges. This week I’m going right into the middle of it. Someone from Facebook suggested I look at Jephthah. This passage, along with last week’s and a few others I’m going to attempt to tackle, was first brought to my attention as a problematic passage through the book, by Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror. There are a few things you should know about that book before you go out and buy it. 1) She is incredibly detailed ad technical author. 2) She is a feminist theologian, which puts her theologically left of center. 3) Despite being a feminist theologian she does not seem ready to simply discredit or neglect the biblical text. In fact, she seems to take it very seriously and refuses to simply state it is “hopelessly misogynistic” as some of the more radical feminist theologians do. In the book, then, she reads the stories of four women who have somehow been mistreated in the text, and examines the story from their perspective. The result is that the passages seem very troubling and tragic. Rather than offer an easy solution to the texts, she simply leaves it there, having told the woman’s story. In the vein of the numerous responses to that book, I am attempting to broaden the perspective and demonstrate that the texts are, while still tragic, at least are not out of step with the rest of Scripture, and in particular the gospels.

Today’s Passage

Today’s passage is the episode involving Jephthah and his unnamed daughter. It can be found in Judges 11. Here’s the summary. Jephthah has been appointed judge over Israel, despite being rejected by his own family earlier. Although he is reluctant, as many judges were, he accepts the post and, following negotiations that breakdown, heads into battle. Prior to any action taking places, the text clearly states that the “Spirit of the LORD came on Jephthah.” In the Old Testament, the Spirit of the LORD would only come upon one person (at Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes upon the entire Church). Particularly in the book of Judges, this was an indication that whatever task the judge was about to do would be successful. So Jephthah already had victory.

It is at this point that Jephthah makes a faithless vow. He does not seem to believe God will let him win until he makes a foolish and rash vow to sacrifice whatever comes “out the door” to greet him upon his return. It seems the indication was that he would be killing some person, which is a clear violation of the law. Although vows were intended to be kept, only vows that the LORD would honor would fall into this category, not such rash and criminal vows.

So, Jephthah wins the battle and his daughter comes out to congratulate him. For some reason, Jephthah feels he is bound by his vow and so sacrifices her. In light of what I said last week, that the judges are not to be held as models to emulate, we might be tempted to interpret this passage the same way. However, we have an additional hiccup. Jephthah is mentioned again in the New Testament. Specifically, he is mentioned in Hebrews 11 in the section that is known as the “faith hall of fame” by many. So how is it that a faithless man is counted in this cloud of witnesses when Hebrews is talking about keeping the faith? Is his sacrifice somehow good? Can we trust such a God who would condone, or even honor this behavior?

How I’d suggest looking at it

Well, I’ve already said something about the passage in itself as far as the character of Jephthah. We do need to look at what it means for him to be included in Hebrews 11. Does his inclusion there say that his actions were therefore correct? Well, let’s look at who is included in Hebrews 11. The characters mentioned there are by no means of sterling character. They all did something great for the Lord, but they weren’t perfect, and often made large mistakes. And yet, they are part of the people of God, the great cloud of witnesses, and are examples of faith, even if we don’t emulate them in every way. Not to single Jephthah out, because this could be said about anyone, but he is fallen and flawed to the core. His vow was a faithless vow. It seems as though the writer of Hebrews might be indicating that even someone like that is included as an example of faith. Why? Because ultimately faith is not about you, it’s about God. People are faithful, not at least all the time. We are fickle and easily prone to emotional shifts. Yet God is faithful. Maybe it’s not as important that you are faithful to God, but that God is faithful to you. Maybe faith is really about mercy and God’s grace. Maybe Jephthah did make a mistake, but God used him anyway, in the midst of his error. If God could do that, maybe he can use you too. It’s not about your faith, but God’s faithfulness.

Difficult Passages: The Levite’s Concubine

At the suggestion of a few people, today I’m beginning a long running series. Every Monday I’m going to try to tackle a different difficult passage of the bible. If you have come across a difficult passage in the bible and didn’t know how to handle it, maybe we can tackle it together (leave it in the comments).

The Passage and Problem

So, today’s passage is on the episode in Judges 19.

If you haven’t read it (and can’t click the link above) here’s the summary w/ some brief commentary: A Levite has a concubine, definitely not married but sleeping together, who runs away. Clearly something’s amiss in the relationship. So the Levite goes after her, finding her with her family. Rather than letting the woman have a say, the Levite and the father bargain over what seems to be a fair price and she is forced to go with him. On their way, they stop in a town in the midst of the tribe of Benjamin’s territory and intend to stay in the town square. One person in the town knows most of the citizens are up to no good and offers them shelter. The Levite accepts, but that night, the townspeople are having none of this kindness. In an episode clearly reminiscent of Sodom, the townsfolk show up at the door and demand to rape the visiting Levite, suggesting they’ll break down the door if he’s not let out. While the host is attempting to reason with them (unfortunately in very similar terms to Lot’s bargaining), the Levite, without saying anything puts the concubine outside with the men.

The men, as is expected by this point in the story, rape the woman all night before letting her go and leaving. Exhausted and violated she collapses on the doorstep of the house. In the morning the Levite, seemingly annoyed, tells her to get up so they can go. She doesn’t respond. It’s unclear whether she is unconscious or dead at this point, but the Levite throws her on his donkey, takes her home and then he cuts her into pieces, mutilating her body (and possibly killing her in the process).

In the following chapter, it’s revealed that this causes the 11 tribes of Israel that are not Benjamin come together to nearly annihilate the tribe of Benjamin. Apparently they don’t leave the women or children alone since once the war is finished, there some concern that the tribe of Benjamin will completely die out, and soon. The solution is for them to kidnap a group of women in order to repopulate the tribe. The result is that the victimization of one woman results in others being victimized. To make matters worse, it seems the “judge” of this particular narrative is meant to be the Levite. What in the world is going on?

How I’d suggest looking at the passage

Let me be upfront about one thing in this series. The main guiding principle I have for dealing with most difficult passages resolves about 90% of the problems up front. Here’s the principle that I’ve learned from my hermeneutics instructor: There is one hero in the bible, and it is God. No one else is hero or a model to be perfectly imitated. Everyone else makes mistakes and shouldn’t be considered the hero. Instead, they are fallen characters in God’s story.

This passage is clearly no exception. No one here seems to be very moral, least of all the Levite. Understand that, particularly in this part of judges, that’s kind of the point. Judges opens after the conquests of Joshua when nearly all the land was taken. The problem was that the people failed to take all of the land. They had, in effect, already rejected the direct rule of God and, it seemed, needed a human intermediary to serve as king. The book of Judges, in part, tries to help the reader see why the king was necessary. This was the period without a king (a point that judges brings up again and again). In the absence of a human king, people sinned freely. The immediate result was that God sent a group to come punish the people (such as the Philistines).

The people would cry out for help for their immediate needs and God would send a deliverer, the judge, who would temporarily rule over the people. This was the immediate effect of the people’s rejection of God as king and the lack of an immediate human king. Long term, however, Israel began a downward spiral as things got worse and worse. This is reflected in the series of the judges. The cycle of rebellion, punishment, cry for help, God raising up a judge, redemption and then rebellion again takes place throughout judges. However, it also becomes a spiral. The first judges are downright admirable. The final judges less so. Samson, who appears not too long before this, isn’t just a strong man. He also systematically breaks every single aspect of he Nazarite vow. The hair was just the last one. He has no moral fortitude (an irony juxtaposed against his physical strength). Thus, when we come to the end of judges, we should expect to find the most morally repugnant of the judges. This is what happens in the absence of a king, the text seems to tell us, nearly smacking us upside the head with that point in the opening line “in those days Israel had no king.” The Levite is not the hero, but the problem. He’s why a king is needed.

In order to drive this point home further, when one looks at this instance there is no outside oppressor (as is the case with the other judges). The Philistines neither attempt to rape the Levite nor do they nearly destroy the tribe of Benjamin. Israel is its own oppressor. So in summary here is the best way, I think, to deal with the difficulty in this passage.

This was a terrible incident in the history of the world. It merely highlights how sinful we are and how much we need redemption, not only from sin, but also form ourselves. Historically it also highlights the need Israel had for a human king, one who would be provided in the best way as David. The incident of the Levite’s concubine is recorded in the bible to remind us how wicked we are capable of being, but how good God is nevertheless, and thus how little we deserve the grace that is poured over us, in spite of ourselves.

What do you think? Any thoughts you’d like to add, or any other hard passages you’d like to see covered?