Jun
2021

Just How Big WAS Goliath?

 

Title: David and Goliath [Click for larger image view]

The Old Testament reading for this Sunday is 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49: the familiar story of David and Goliath.  The painting above by folk artist John August Swanson is the way that I recall this scene from my childhood Bible story books.  Goliath is a fairy-tale giant, inhumanly massive.  Little David’s defeat of this monster is a nothing short of a miracle: especially as David eschews armor and weaponry, facing the giant with only his shepherd’s sling and five smooth stones.  That is how we tell the story.  But what does the Bible say?  Just how big was Goliath, anyway?

In the old King James Bible, where I first read this story, his “height was six cubits and a span” (1 Samuel 17:4; see also the NRSV, the NIV, and the ESV)–a literal rendering of the Hebrew shesh ‘ammot wazareth.  The Hebrew units were originally rules of thumb: a cubit is the distance from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger; a span is the width of your outstretched hand, from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your little finger–or, as you can check for yourself, about half a cubit.  According to Kahler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon, that would be about a foot and eight inches (50 cm) for a cubit, and about ten inches (25 cm) for a span, making Goliath ten and a half feet tall!  The CEB (and text critic P. Kyle McCarter in his HarperCollins Study Bible footnotes) presume a more conservative reckoning: “he was more than nine feet tall.”  Now, that is big, to be sure, but it isn’t fairy-tale big: Goliath was not 25 feet tall, or 50 feet tall.  He was much bigger than people usually get, but still a very big man, not a monster (although the marginal notes in one Latin text suggest that Goliath was sixteen cubits tall!).

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Intriguingly, the Septuagint–the translation of Jewish Scripture into Greek from north Africa, in the century or two before Jesus’ birth–says that Goliath’s height was four cubits and a span, or (according to McCarter and the CEB footnotes), over six feet tall.  This is still big–particularly in the Late Bronze-Early Iron Age, when (at five and a half feet) I would have been tall.  But it is scarcely gigantic: most pro basketball centers (who average seven feet) would be taller than Goliath!

Sometimes, the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text used in the synagogue, on which our Old Testament is based (called the Masoretic text, or MT) involve the translators re-interpreting or even misreading the text before them.  But the discovery of ancient Hebrew scrolls and fragments at Qumran (commonly called the Dead Sea Scrolls) confirms that often, the Septuagint translators were working with different–and in many cases, older and better–texts of those books.  This is particularly the case with Samuel, which seems to have been poorly preserved by the MT scribes.  One fragmentary Hebrew text of Samuel, found in Cave Four (4Q Sam a), is now the oldest and best text of Samuel available.  In 1 Samuel 17:4, it too reads four cubits and a span.

So, if Goliath was not a giant, but just a big man, why was no one in Saul’s army willing to face him in single combat?  The text tell us why: Goliath was ‘ish-habbanayim–“the man who stands between” (English Bibles render this as “champion”).  In other words, going out alone between combatting forces, to face and defeat the ish-habbanayim of his enemies in single combat, was Goliath’s job.  That he was still alive, and famous, means that he was very good at his job.  Goliath was a dangerous, well-trained, and well-armed professional killer.

To us, this too may sound like a fairy tale: would any army really rely on single combat to determine which side would prevail?  We know that other clan-based cultures did use such contests to resolve their differences.  The Celts, in particular, sometimes settled disputes over property or territory not only by single combat, but by non-lethal contests between bards involving song, poetry, and insults! Such resolutions would be far more economical than pitched battles, with their loss of life and destruction of property.

The description of Goliath’s armor and weaponry tells us much, both about the culture of the times, and this champion’s preferred fighting style:

He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels [about 125 pounds] of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels [about fifteen pounds] of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him.(1 Samuel 17:5-7, NRSV).

The mixture of bronze and iron in Goliath’s weaponry is a reminder of the late eleventh century BCE context of this narrative.  The Philistines (unlike the Hebrews; see Judges 1:19) had mastered the working of iron, but it was still difficult, and expensive.  So only the head of Goliath’s heavy, stabbing spear is made of that wonderful, armor-piercing metal; his armor, and his throwing javelin, are bronze (intriguingly, his sword is not mentioned).  That javelin, note, is Goliath’s only distance weapon–which makes sense, for a single fighter. Goliath counts on closing with his enemy, where his size and strength–and his armor-piercing spear–will make short work of any adversary.

David’s chosen tactic, then, makes good sense!  Being unarmored, he can move quickly: much more quickly than his heavily armored adversary.  Should Goliath opt to throw his javelin, David will be able to dodge.  Goliath, on the other hand, is anything but nimble: a scarcely-moving target for David’s sling stones.  David’s sling catches him in the forehead, just below his bronze helmet, and knocks him senseless–so that David can run up and decapitate the Philistine champion with his own sword (1 Samuel 17:51).

Title: Tapestry of David slaying Goliath [Click for larger image view]

This is a different story than the one in my childhood Bible story book!  But I think it is a better one.  Retelling the story, we tend to heighten the marvelous and miraculous elements, something that indeed the Bible does as well.  Some biblical traditions do claim the the Israelites faced giants in Canaan–monsters descended from the half-human, half-god Nephilim (Numbers 13:33; Genesis 6:4).  But the more human story revealed by the best text of Samuel does not in any way lessen God’s involvement and care.  If anything, it makes the encounter between David and Goliath more real: less a children’s story about “Bible times” and more a promise of God’s presence with us in our encounters with enemies that seem too strong to overcome: whether the besetting sins that threaten our personal spiritual walk, or the national and cultural sins of racism, poverty, and pollution.  With David, we can say to our contemporary adversaries,

You are coming against me with sword, spear, and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel’s army . . . the whole world will know that there is a God on Israel’s side.  And all those gathered here will know that the LORD doesn’t save by means of sword and spear. The LORD owns this war, and he will hand all of you over to us (1 Samuel 17:45-47).

Jun
2021

Juneteenth

Title: Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp
[Click for larger image view]

FOREWORD: I am re-sharing this post (slightly edited) from last year, regarding what Juneteenth is, and why it matters to us all.  Pray, friends, for peace with justice, and for the willingness to let God send us forth, giving those prayers hands and feet and a public voice.  

 

June 19th has long been a famous day in the African-American community, where it is remembered and celebrated as “Juneteenth.” In recent days, more and more white Americans have been brought to realize the significance of this day, as tragic events have brought forcefully and painfully to our national attention America’s original sin of racism and injustice. Juneteenth recalls June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war was over, and that the enslaved were now free. This was over two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, delivered on January 1, 1863. Yet Black Americans in Galveston remained enslaved until the arrival of General Granger’s regiment overcame local resistance to the idea of liberation.

General Granger issued General Order Number 3, which began:

 

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

 

Perhaps we should not be surprised that freedom came so late to Galveston. After all, while the decades following the Civil War saw the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, promising freedom and equality, they also saw the betrayal of that promise, as with at best the indifference, and at worst the connivance of the federal government, the rights that the Constitution conveyed to all Americans were denied.

Corridor in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Whatever the Constitution said, the social norms of white supremacy were codified in Jim Crow laws, and enforced by horrific violence. The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama honors the memory of more than 4,400 black people lynched in the United States–hanged, burned, murdered, tortured to death– between 1877 and 1950.

 

That legacy of violence is not past. In this past year alone, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the police killings of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, and most of all, the horrific videos of George Floyd‘s public murder by a Minneapolis police officer, prompted not only a national, but a world-wide outcry against racial injustice and police brutality.  Yet sadly, even as justice has prevailed in some of these cases, it remains deferred in others–while new acts of racist violence continue to arise.

 

Some readers of this blog may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Bible, which is after all the subject of this blog. That, as it happens, is a very good question. It is no accident that nineteenth-century abolitionists did not base their arguments on Scripture. The bulk of the biblical witness seemed to be on the opposite side of the issue–indeed, African slavery was justified then on biblical grounds.  After all, both testaments assume the existence of slavery, and the New Testament repeatedly urges slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).

 

While I was studying for my doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, my library carrel was for a time near a tall shelf of books written by Bible scholars teaching and writing at that distinguished Southern school in the years prior to the Civil War. Their books noted, rightly, that the Bible never challenges the institution of slavery. Indeed, some argued that slavery had been a boon for the African people, civilizing these savages and introducing them to the Christian gospel.

 

What those white antebellum Bible scholars could not see, but new African American Christians could, were texts such as Paul’s statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Somehow those distinguished Bible scholars could not see that the heart of the Hebrew Bible–called by philosopher Emil Fackenheim the “root experience” of the Jewish people–was the exodus out of Egypt: God’s action to set slaves free.  Sadly, it still remains possible for us to read the Bible from cover to cover and somehow miss the passion for justice that runs like a river from Genesis to Revelation. Similarly, in white America, racism remains invisible to those who, thanks to white privilege, do not–or cannot–see it, over 150 years after that first Juneteenth.

 

Community and equality, cooperation and justice, mutual respect and mutual regard are biblical principles. Far from being unreachable ideals, they are the only way that the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator, who is in Godself a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When any culture elevates one person, class, or race over another, and exalts taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down. No wonder our economy, our world, and our church are in trouble!

Juneteenth
In 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf declared Juneteeth a holiday in Pennsylvania, following the unanimous passage of a bill establishing this holiday in the state House and Senate. “Proud to designate June 19 as #Juneteeth National Freedom Day to commemorate the ending of slavery in the United States,” the Democratic governor tweeted that day. “On this day, let us recognize the importance of continuing to build a nation that truly reflects the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.” This Juneteenth, may we Christians embrace that message, which is at the core of the gospel. As Jesus Christ himself has said,” you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free” (John 8:31-36).


AFTERWORD:

The photograph at the head of this blog is from “Art in the Christian Tradition,” an on-line gallery linked to the lectionary, managed by The Vanderbilt Divinity School Library. The image comes from The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, April 1939. The sculpture by Augusta Savage (1892-1962) appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It is called “Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp,” and was inspired by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s hymn, “Lift Every Voice:” sometimes called the African American national anthem.

May
2021

Re-membering Through Scripture

May be an image of text that says 'Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay, but we can honor their sacrifice. Barack Obama'In the U.S., today is Memorial Day: a day for remembering and honoring the deaths of soldiers, sailors, and pilots who fought for freedom. It is good, and right, that we do so.  But today is also the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth: a celebration of God’s gift of new life, and a prayer for the day when “The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power!” (1 Sam 2:4).

This line from the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10) is reminiscent of the Song of Mary in Luke, often called the Magnificat after its opening word in Latin (Luke 1:46-55):

He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly (Lk 1:51-51).

May be an image of 1 person and outdoors

The Magnificat (the Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage!) draws freely in style and imagery on the Song of Hannah.  This is typical of the way that Luke uses Scripture.  Unlike Matthew, who quotes and cites biblical passages (for example, Matt 2:17-18), Luke alludes to texts, writing in the style of the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint.  According to New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall, Luke’s “use of a [Septuagint] style must raise the question whether he thought of himself as writing a work of the same kind and thus continuing the ‘salvation history’ which he found in it” (I. Howard Marshall, “An Assessment of Recent Developments,” in It Is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture [ed. D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988], 9).

The degree to which Luke values Scripture is shown, not only in his Septuagintal style, but also in the content of his gospel.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found only in Luke, the rich man’s plea that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers is answered by Abraham, “They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them” (Luke 16:29).  When the rich man says that if someone came back from the dead, his brothers would be sure to listen, Abraham says, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

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This proves an effective foreshadowing of Luke 24, where the resurrection continually prompts doubt and disbelief (with the sterling exception of the women at the tomb!), until Jesus dispels doubt by turning to the Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 44-45).  Of course, reading the Scriptures alone is not enough.  Only when Jesus himself has “interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27) and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45) does their meaning become powerful and apparent.  As the two friends in Emmaus say after their encounter with Jesus, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (Luke 24:32).

It is difficult to know precisely what Luke has in mind when he writes,

This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:46-47).

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It seems unlikely that Luke is thinking of a specific text for each claim Jesus makes here about himself (remember, unlike Matthew, Luke does not often quote Scripture).  Rather it seems that the whole of Scripture extends into, and finds its fulfillment in, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  This is the point of Luke’s gospel, and the reason he writes as he does, in the style of the Septuagint, echoing its language and themes.  Luke believes that he is writing Scripture, and that Scripture bears witness to God in Christ Jesus.

When I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College, I met a Korean-born Christian named Peter Chang.  Peter, like me, had done his Ph. D. in Hebrew Bible at Union (now Union Presbyterian) in Richmond, VA, and for a time worked as an adjunct in our college Religious Studies department.  We talked often, about common friends at Union, about our discipline of biblical studies, about teaching, but also about faith.

Peter told me how he had become a Christian in South Korea.  He was a university student, he said.  At this time, he knew no Christians: his family was not Christian; he had no Christian friends.  Together with a group of other students, none of whom was Christian, Peter began a study of the gospel of Mark.  In the course of that study, they became convinced of the truth of what they were reading.  Unguided by missionaries or tracts, unproselytized by Protestants or Catholics, without an evangelist or an altar rail in sight, they gave their lives to the Jesus they met in the pages of Scripture.

Why Study The Bible? | eProphetic

I found Peter’s story amazing, but not surprising.  In my years of teaching Bible to undergraduates, many of whom had never opened a Bible before, I had often seen similar evidence of the power of Scripture to change lives.  Many times, students have written a note on the last page of their final exams, telling me that they have started going to church, or that they have started listening to their pastor’s sermons.  One student wrote, “I think I know now what I need to do to be saved.”  Scripture has this power, not because the Bible is a magic book, but because in its pages, God comes to meet us.

Through the words of Scripture, we encounter the Word made flesh, our living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Remembering Christ, we are ourselves “re-membered”–put back together, healed, and made whole.

AFTERWORD:

The statue that I have used to represent Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter is Two Women” (ca. 1950-1960), by Charles LePlae.  It stands outside the Openluchtmuseum voor Beeldhouwkunst Middelheim (Antwerp, Belgium).  I found this image in Vanderbilt Library’s wonderful online resource “Art in the Christian Tradition,” which is linked to the lectionary.  Also from that lectionary site comes this beautiful prayer for the day:

Blessed God,
who invited us to be handmaids of your creative power:
Bless us as you blessed Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary,
filling our barren hearts with your fertile word,
nurturing faith within us,
sustaining us as we ripen with hope,
until your desire calls us to the time of labor,
and we give birth to your incarnate love. Amen.
Apr
2021

Muons and Unicorns

The Muon g-2 ring sits in its detector hall amidst other equipment

Recent experiments seem to confirm that the behavior of muons–extremely short-lived subatomic particles related to electrons–does not conform to the expectations of standard physics.  The title of an article in the journal Nature describes one reaction to this find: “Is the standard model broken? Physicists cheer major muon result.”  Indeed, the physicists at Fermilab tweeted, “We’re thrilled to announce that the first results from Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment strengthen evidence of new physics!”

This reaction may seem surprising.  After all, the Standard Model has for decades been the foundation of modern physics; scientists have spent their careers teaching, and experimentally validating, its claims about reality.  Why should they celebrate the possible refutation (subject to experimental verification!) of their lives’ work?  The answer is in that Fermilab tweet: these scientists are excited by the prospect of “new physics”–discovering something previously unknown about the way that the world works.

I remember eagerly following the news as the very first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings came back from Voyager 1 in 1980. One planetary astronomer in particular laughed out loud as he told an interviewer, “We were wrong!  Everything we thought we knew about Saturn and its rings was wrong!”  He was not sad to be wrong at all–nor was he resistant!  He did not claim that the Voyager images must be false, or faked, or misleading.  In fact, he was jubilant at the new science those images revealed–and are still revealing.

I thought of that excitement this past week, as I was chasing down a question from my former student and ministry colleague Kerry Dowdy.  She had shared with me a newsletter celebrating National Unicorn Day (I had not known that there was such a thing!), and asked me what I thought.

The newsletter read in part:

Unicorns Are Mentioned in the Bible   The King James Version of the Old Testament contains nine references to unicorns, thanks to a mistranslation of the Hebrew word re’em.  The original word was likely the Assyrian rimu (auroch), an extinct species of wild ox. 

The relevant passages are Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7.  You can readily confirm the KJV reading “unicorn” with any KJV concordance, or by searching the KJV on Bible Gateway.  The Hebrew, as the newsletter observes, is re’em (רְאֵם). In each of these nine references, as you can also confirm by checking the link above, most modern translations, including the CEB and the NRSV, read “wild bull” or “wild ox.”  The translation “unicorn” is apparently due to the Greek Septuagint’s rendering monokeros (μονοκερος; that is, “one horn”).  The Latin Vulgate accordingly reads rinoceros (“rhinoceros”) in Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17, and Job 39:9-10, and unicornis in Isaiah 34:7; Psalm 22:21 (22:22 in Hebrew); 29:6 (28:6 in Greek and Latin texts), and 92:10 (92:11 in Hebrew; 91:11 in Greek and Latin).  I honestly am not at all sure why King James’ translators in 1611 decided to use “unicorn” for all nine, but there we are.

Most Hebrew lexicons, as the newsletter also observes, render re’em as wild bull or ox.  Some suggest that it may refer to the now-extinct (since 1627) aurochs (Bos primigenius), a massive wild bull that was the ancestor of our modern cattle.  Perhaps the Greek translators called the aurochs “one horn”  because Assyrian and Babylonian art typically depicted it in profile (as on the Ishtar Gate).

So, why did this delightful unicorn hunt, through ancient texts and images, remind me of the muon experiment?  In the course of my online searching, I found this page in Kenneth Ham’s Answers in Genesis.  The headline says it all: “To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God’s Word, which is true in every detail.”  To be sure, that page covers much of the same ground that I cover above–although it also suggests a variety of extinct one-horned beasts for the biblical re’em.

But the approach of Answers in Genesis is diametrically opposed to the open attitude of discovery exemplified by the physicists responding to the Fermilab muon experiments, or the astronomers responding to the first images of Saturn’s rings.  The assumption of this article, from its beginning, is that unicorns have to be real because they are in the Bible: that is, that what we hold to be true from our interpretation of Scripture must be correct, whatever the evidence says.  This approach condemns the reader to a stagnant faith, unable to accept the possibility that our reading (or in this case, our translation) may be wrong–and accordingly, unable to learn anything authentically new.  By contrast, Hebrews 4:12 says of Scripture,

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.

Certainly, this is the way that Jesus reads Scripture in Matthew 5:21-48: not as a dead, static word, but as living!  Six times in this passage, Jesus says, “You have heard it said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “but I say.”  Jesus places his own words on a par with Scripture—and not just any Scripture, but the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, still central to Jewish faith and identity) and even the words of the Ten Commandments!

In part, this is what it means to speak of Jesus coming to fulfill the law and the prophets: he is himself the Word of God, made flesh (John 1:14).  But Christian readers should not be too quick to conclude that Jesus sets the Torah aside: after all, Jesus said, “I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality” (Matthew 5:18).  Jesus’ reading of Scripture is faithful to the tradition, not contemptuous of it.  However, Jesus reads these texts for what they mean, within the whole body of Scripture—not merely for what they say.

For example: the Ten Commandments say, “Do not kill” (see Exodus 20:13).  But that does not mean that any act of violence short of murder is fine.  Jesus knows that violence begins in the heart, in the attitude that demeans and dehumanizes the other.

Words of contempt issuing from such a heart not only lead all too readily to acts of violence, they are themselves already acts of violence.  Rather than narrowing the text to the letter of the law, Jesus’ reading broadens and deepens the text, seeking its spirit.

So too, though the commandment says only, “Do not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) this surely does not mean that anything short of adultery is okay!  Adultery too begins in the heart, with the lustful attitude that reduces the other to an object for my own gratification.

Like violence, then, adultery begins by denying the humanity of the other—by refusing empathy.  By reading the Bible this way, not narrowing and restricting the texts but broadening and deepening them, Jesus reads like the rabbis before and after him.

On the other hand, the Torah permits divorce.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 states that if a man finds “something inappropriate about her” (Deut 24:1 NRSV; the Hebrew is ‘erwah dabar, that is “a shameful thing”), he may divorce his wife.  The rabbis debate what “something inappropriate” means.  For example, Rabbi Shammai concludes that ‘erwah dabar means adultery, while Rabbi Hillel says, “If she burns the meat in the pan, you may divorce her.”  Still, all the rabbis accept the legitimacy of divorce.

But Jesus thinks differently.  In first-century Palestine, women could not own property.  Divorced women could then be left homeless and hungry, unable to care for themselves or for their children.  Jesus recognizes that what is permissible is not necessarily good—let alone God’s best.  He therefore rejects divorce, except (like his near-contemporary Rabbi Shammai) when the relationship is already broken by unfaithfulness.

What does this mean for our own time?  Does Jesus’ rejection of divorce and remarriage hold for us today?  My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, recognizes divorce, and permits clergy to perform marriages for divorced persons.  Is this wrong? I have many dear friends and members of my family who are divorced and have remarried; some are pastors themselves.  Should I tell them that their marriages are invalid, or their children are illegitimate?

I don’t think so. Why should we read the Gospels narrowly and legalistically, when Jesus did not read his Bible in that way?  If we want to read as Jesus read, we must look for how best to live out Jesus’ affirmation of faithfulness and commitment in marriage in our own context, rather than applying to his own words a legalism that Jesus rejects.

Jesus approaches each specific text of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire.  Unlike Answers in Genesis, Jesus does not take the Bible literally.  He takes the Bible seriously—and so must we.  I suggest, friends, that we approach Scripture like those physicists responding to the unexpected results of Fermilab’s muon experiments: not assuming that we already know what the answers must be, but ready to learn, from the text and from the Holy Spirit, something new.

 

Apr
2021

Christ Is Risen Indeed!

In the early church, when believers met one another in this holy season, they would greet one another with a hearty and enthusiastic Christe anesti–“Christ is risen!”–to which the only possible response is Allthos anesti–“He is risen indeed!”

This poem by one of my favorite poets, e.e. cummings,  catches for me the exuberant joy of this Easter day:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

May this Easter find you overwhelmed with joy “for most this amazing” gift of life, from “most this amazing” God!  Brothers, sisters, friends, Christ is risen!

Apr
2021

“He descended into hell. . .”

 

May be an image of 1 person

The alternate Old Testament reading for Holy Saturday is Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24:

I am someone who saw the suffering caused by God’s angry rod.
He drove me away, forced me to walk in darkness, not light.
He turned his hand even against me, over and over again, all day long.

He wore out my flesh and my skin; he broke my bones.
He besieged me, surrounding me with bitterness and weariness.
He made me live in dark places like those who’ve been dead a long time.

He walled me in so I couldn’t escape; he made my chains heavy.
Even though I call out and cry for help, he silences my prayer.
He walled in my paths with stonework; he made my routes crooked.

The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

 

This odd passage–beginning in despair (“He drove me away, forced me to walk in darkness, not light”), yet ending in hope (“The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him”)–is perfectly appropriate for this odd, in-between day in the church calendar, bridging the sorrow of Good Friday and the rejoicing of Easter Sunday.

Early Christians wondered what Jesus was doing on this day between death and resurrection. 1 Peter 3:18-20 declares,

Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water.

The idea that after his death Jesus proclaimed the Gospel to souls in the underworld (see also 1 Peter 4:6) led in turn to the tradition of the harrowing of Hell: the notion that the risen Christ triumphantly descended to the underworld to deliver into heaven the righteous who had died before his coming.

By around the eighth century, this confession was incorporated into the Apostles Creed; most Christians today recite the phrase “He descended into hell” or “He descended to the dead” as part of the Creed (although many United Methodists stick with the older form). Whatever we may think of this confession, it recognizes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection transform all space and time, bringing salvation not only to those of us who live on this side of Easter, but to all the generations who lived before.

Encourage Christians To Eat Vegan This Easter', Pope Francis Told | Plant Based News

Pope Francis has said of Holy Saturday:

The day of God’s silence–invites us not only to solidarity with all who are abandoned and alone, but also to trust in that faithful love which turns death into life.

We, of course, know this in-between place well: this Holy Saturday zone of ambiguity and unresolved tension. Many of us feel trapped in just such a place of uncertainty. May Christ’s victorious life bring possibility even into these shadow lands, and give us hope that we will be delivered into his marvelous light.

AFTERWORD:

The Revised Common Lectionary Prayers include this prayer for Holy Saturday:

Christ our God,
your love is poured out in death for our sakes.
Hold us in your embrace
as we wait for Easter’s dawn.
Comfort us with the promise that no power on earth, not even death itself,
can separate us from your love;
and strengthen us to wait
until you are revealed to us
in all your risen glory. Amen

 

Mar
2021

Hosanna!

FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog from 2018, on the meaning of the shout, “Hosanna!”  Have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyfilled, triumphant Easter!

In “The Princess Bride,” one of my favorite films, a continuing shtick involves Wallace Shawn’s character, Vazzini, who uses the word  “Inconceivable!” over and over again.  Eventually, this prompts Vazzini’s henchman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think that it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes, we use words without thinking what they mean, just because they seem to fit a context: think of how astonished we are when we say, “How are you?,” and someone actually starts to tell us!  We didn’t mean, really, “Tell me how you are.”  All we meant was, “I see you there, I recognize and acknowledge you, and now I am off to do something  else.”

Or consider the word “Hosanna.”   Hosanna is a church word, like “amen” and “Alleluia”—in fact, I would bet that you have never used or heard that word outside of a church.  Hosanna pops up in hymns, particularly the Palm Sunday standards, and in prayers–particularly in the Great Thanksgiving, every time we celebrate communion:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
      heaven and earth are full of your glory.
     Hosanna in the highest.
     Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
     Hosanna in the highest.

 

In the gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year, the shout seems to be taken up spontaneously by the crowd as a parade takes shape, and word spreads that the one on the donkey is David’s descendant, who has come to Jerusalem to claim a throne. They use Hosanna as a festival shout–the way we might cheer at a ball game:

Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10).

But unlike “Yahoo!” or “Hurray!” in English, “Hosanna” is a real word in Hebrew.  It comes from Psalm 118—part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118). These psalms are sung in Jewish festivals, particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.

Just as around Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” is everywhere–in our ears and in the air!–the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

To be more specific, “Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118:25, which in Hebrew reads

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

Though the Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, most ordinary Judeans didn’t actually speak Hebrew: in Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Palestinian Jews would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what they mean. So, while they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, then, they are calling to Jesus for help.

Do they need help? Indeed, they do!  In Jesus’ time, Judea was under the heel of Roman military occupation.  Taxes were high, prices were high, and popular unrest was high—which is probably why the crowds were spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to lead them.  This ferment would explode into disastrous revolts against Rome that will result, first, in the destruction of the temple, and then, in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem itself for generations.

But that is not why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.  We know the story that unfolds in this next week very well.  Jesus has come, not to claim a throne, but to take a stand against the religious and political establishments that will result in his execution.  He has come to suffer, and to die.

 

From the first, Christians have confessed that somehow, all of our suffering and death is caught up in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Jesus will die for us—communicating at once the depth of human sin and depravity, and the extent of God’s love for us.

 

It is well, then, that we should shout “Hosanna,” friends–“Save us, please!”  For Jesus has come to save, not just those ignorant crowds at the gate, who were crying for help but didn’t know it, but you, and me, and all of us, for all of time.

Friend, whatever your need is this day, in this Holy Week, whatever your sorrow, whatever your pain, you are not alone!  Christ has come to be with you right where you are, in the center of your darkness– to bring you home.  We can join the Palm Sunday crowds, and call, not in ignorance but in earnest, “Hosanna”–“Save  us, Lord!”—knowing that Christ will answer.

Mar
2021

The Breastplate of Saint Patrick

FOREWORD:  This week, in keeping with my duties, obligations, and privileges as the World’s Biggest Leprechaun, I am reposting this blog entry in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Wednesday March 17, is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

Patrick embraces a joyful spirituality of nature, wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.  This St. Patrick’s Day, may we too seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

 

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!

AFTERWORD

Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me:

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness,

Of the Creator of Creation.

 

Mar
2021

Faith, Not Belief

What SETI can learn from evangelical sports fans.

Sunday’s Gospel features John 3:16–perhaps the most memorized and quoted passage in Scripture.  I learned it myself in the King James:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16 has embedded itself so deeply in our culture that it can be held aloft at sporting events, posted on billboards and bumperstickers, worn on tee-shirts, and even flaunted in tattoos!  Perhaps more than any other passage, it is the cornerstone of Evangelical Christian faith: if you believe in Jesus, then you will be saved.

But what does it mean to “believe in” Jesus?  In the Greek, the verb used in this verse is pisteuo, the verbal correspondent to the noun pistos, “faith”–so it would be better rendered as “have faith.”  According to nineteenth-century Bible scholar Joseph Henry Thayer, pisteuo expresses “the conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of his soul.”  Having faith in Jesus means committing myself to Jesus; it means trusting that, in Jesus, God’s love for the world–and for me–is made manifest. However, most English translators follow the KJV here in translating the verb as “believe.”

We may wonder what difference this makes: after all, aren’t “belief” and “faith” the same thing?  But I am persuaded that they are not–and indeed, that confusing “belief” with “faith” has done considerable harm in American Christianity. “Belief” is intellectual assent to a concept: “I  believe it is going to be a sunny day.”  We use “belief” in that everyday sort of way when we lack the evidence for certitude, and are fairly, but not absolutely, sure of what is going to happen–after all, the sun is shining now, but it may yet cloud up and rain!

But as used in many Christian circles, “belief” instead conveys an absolute certainly, despite the lack of evidence, or even in the face of conflicting evidence.  Indeed, believing without evidence, or against the evidence, is seen as evidence of a strong faith.  Forgetting that Jesus himself did not condemn Thomas’ desire for evidence, such Christians find sanction in John 20:29: “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Church historian Diana Butler Bass observes a similar misunderstanding in the Christian creeds.  The Latin verb credo, from which we get our word “creed,” doesn’t mean“I believe,” but rather, she notes, “I set my heart upon.” The difference is “a shift from information about to experience of”–that is, from belief to faith!  Indeed, in her revolutionary book Christianity After Religion,  Bass writes:

A great modern heresy of the Church is the heresy of believing. Christianity was never intended to be a system or structure of belief in the modern sense; it originated as a disposition of the heart.

No photo description available.

Confusing faith with belief has made many Christians suspicious of other sources of knowledge–and of science in particular.  So, regarding the vaccines now available for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, only 54% of white Evangelicals say that they will probably get the vaccination, while 45% say they will not: the worst record among any religious group surveyed.  John Fea, a U.S. historian at Messiah University, was unsurprised:

“There’s a long history of anti-science within American evangelicalism,” Fea said. “It goes back to the Scopes trial and evolution in the 1920s,” in which evangelicals debated Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Also disturbing is the susceptibility of such Christians to conspiracy theories–which one is also required to accept “on faith.”  In a recent survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center, one statement to which participants were asked to respond was, “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites”–a bizarre idea that is a central claim of QAnon.  Among those who regarded that statement as mostly or completely true, 27% were white Evangelicals.  Ed Stetzer, an evangelical pastor and executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, sadly observes

“People of faith believe there is a divine plan — that there are forces of good and forces of evil at work in the world.  QAnon is a train that runs on the tracks that religion has already put in place.”

Perhaps the best way to derail that train is to uncouple “faith” and “belief.”

Holy Prophet Habakkuk – Damascene Gallery

The best way into an authentic biblical understanding of faith is through the prophet Habakkuk, who speaks out of the doubt, fear and anxiety prompted by the rise of Babylonian imperial power in sixth century Judah.   Habakkuk 2:4–one of the primary texts Paul cites for his doctrine of justification by grace through faith (see Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11)–expresses how the righteous are to live in such perilous times:

Look at the proud!
    Their spirit is not right in them,
    but the righteous live by their faith (Hab 2:4, NRSV)

The Hebrew word ‘emunah (rendered “faith” in the NRSV) typically has to do with steadfastness, trustworthiness, and reliability.  Habakkuk contrasts the righteous one (Hebrew tsaddiq) and the one who is not righteous, but is instead “puffed up” and proud.  The righteous “live by their [changed in the NRSV for reasons of inclusivity; the Hebrew reads “his”] faith” (Hebrew be’emunato yikhyeh). If “his” refers, as seems simplest, to the righteous one, then “his faith” refers to the steadfastness, trustworthiness, and reliability of the righteous: in a word, to their commitment. The Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew reads, “the righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity.”

Unlike the wicked, who are concerned only for themselves, the righteous live lives of commitment and devotion to God and to God’s torah (that is, God’s instruction, or law).   Habakkuk 2:5 and the woes that follow in 2:6-20 serve by contrast to describe the selfish, arrogant lifestyle of the wicked, and so to legitimate God’s judgment upon them.  This verse is not about what the righteous believe about God, but about their commitment to God.

Facsimile Editions - Dead Sea ScrollsOur oldest references to the book of Habakkuk come from the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls–indeed, from one of the first scrolls found, in what is now called Cave 1.  It is a Bible study (in Aramaic, a pesher) called 1QpHab, interpreting Habakkuk as a prophecy concerning the Essene community at Qumran.   The portion dealing with our passage from Habakkuk (1QpHab 8:1-3) says that Hab 2:4 “concerns all in the house of Judah who observe the torah, who God has removed from the house of judgment on account of their hard labor and their faithfulness to the Teacher of Righteousness.”  This early Jewish community understood our passage to be about faith, not belief.

The Septuagint (the Jewish Scriptures in Greek translation) of Hab 2:4 has pisteos mou “my [God’s] faith,” rather than “his faith.”  This may reflect a common scribal error (the third person and first person pronominal endings are often confused), but it is also possible that the translators are interpreting the text here, refocusing the verse upon God’s faithfulness.  Still, the Greek captures the point we have been making: in contrast to the self-righteous, who are self-centered and proud, the truly righteous are characterized by their devotion to God.

Paul cites Hab 2:4 twice, in Galatians 3:11 and in Romans 1:17.   In Galatians, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham is not restricted to Abraham’s physical descendants, but rather applies to all, Jew and Gentile alike, who like Abraham believe God’s word (Gal 3:6-14). In that connection, Paul asserts, “But since no one is made righteous by the Law as far as God is concerned, it is clear that the righteous one will live on the basis of faith” (Gal 3:11).

Similarly, Paul cites our passage from Habakkuk in Romans 1:17 as part of his larger argument for the commonality of Jew and Gentile before God: first in condemnation, and then in salvation through Christ (see Rom 2:9-29; 3:21-26). Paul declares, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). To demonstrate this truth, Paul cites Hab 2:4b: “God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Paul’s point, in both Galatians and Romans, is the inclusion of the Gentiles, not (as is sometimes claimed) the exclusion of the Jews (see Rom 11:13-26) or the rejection of the law (see Gal 3:19-29).

Intriguingly, Paul’s citations of Hab 2:4b do not follow either the Hebrew (“his faith”) or the Greek (“my faith”) text!  James Dunn sees Paul as charting a middle course between them, embracing both (James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1—8 Word Bible Commentary 38A [Dallas: Word, 1988], 45).  Referring back to Rom 1:17, where God’s righteousness is revealed “from faithfulness to faith,” Dunn sees the Habakkuk citation as referring to faith in both senses:

He who is maintained within or has been brought into the relationship with God which brings about salvation, by the outreach of God’s faithfulness to his own faith, shall experience the fullness of life which God intended for humankind as he lives in the dependence of faith on the continuing faithfulness of God (Dunn 1988, 48).

Like Dunn, Richard Hays proposes that Paul’s citation is purposefully ambiguous, but in a different sense. As Paul uses it in Gal 3:11, the phrase from Hab 2:4 means:

  • The Messiah [i.e., the Righteous One] will live by (his own) faith(fullness).
  • The righteous person will live as a result of the Messiah’s faith(fullness).
  • The righteous person will live by (his own) faith in the Messiah (Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, Second Ed [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 140).

The second option is of greatest interest for Hayes, who argues that “for Paul the obedience and faithfulness of Jesus Christ are of central soteriological significance. . . Jesus’ faith is not merely exemplary, as in nineteenth-century liberal theology, but vicariously efficacious” (Hays 2002, 210). In any case, Paul’s citation of Habakkuk intends all three: “Paul’s thought is rendered wholly intelligible only if all three of these interpretations are held together and affirmed as correct” (Hays 2002, 140).

In the deepest sense, what Paul affirms in his use of Hab 2:4b is not unlike what the authoritative compendium of rabbinic teaching, the Talmud, affirms about this same verse.  In b. Makkot 23b-24a,  Rabbi Simlai teaches that though there are 613 commandments in Torah, they are condensed into eleven by David (Ps 15), into six by Isaiah (Isa 33:15-16), into three by Micah (Mic 6:8); into two in Isaiah 56:1, and into one in Amos 5:4 (“The LORD proclaims to the house of Israel: Seek me and live”) and in Habakkuk 2:4–“the righteous live by their faith”!  In the claim that all of the commandments in Torah find their heart in our passage and in Amos 5:4, Rabbi Simlai, like Paul, affirms that a dynamic, committed relationship with the God must come first and remain foremost in our lives.  Salvation does not come through, like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, “believing six impossible things before breakfast.”  It comes through faith: through commitment to God and trust in God’s love for us, demonstrated and made accessible in Jesus Christ.

 

Mar
2021

Counting to Ten

How many commandments are there?  That’s an easy one–ten, right?  This Sunday’s Hebrew Bible reading is Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments.  The Hebrew Bible refers to this passage three times (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4) as ‘asheret haddebarim: that is, “the ten words.”

Growing up, I learned the Ten Commandments as they are presented (from the KJV of the Exodus passage) and numbered here, in this photograph of the old commandment boards from the original Anglican Church (built 1752-3) of Trinity-on-the-Green, New Haven, CT (photographed by John Wallace).

But, as it turns out, not all faith traditions count to ten in the same way!  Depending on how–and where–we count, we may come up with a different numbering of the ten (or eleven!) commandments.

In Judaism, the first “commandment” really doesn’t seem to be a commandment at all.  This stained-glass window from the Plymouth Synagogue (built in 1762, it is the oldest synagogue in England; indeed in the English-speaking world) shows that the first commandment begins ‘Anoki Yhwh: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6).  That makes the second commandment the one that, as a young United Methodist, I learned to call the first: “You must have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7)–in Hebrew, Lo’ yihyeh-leka ‘elohim ‘akherim ‘al-penay.

The Ten Commandments

Recall, though, that the Hebrew expression for this passage, ‘asheret haddebarim, actually means not “the Ten Commandments,” but  “the ten words.” Similarly, “Decalogue,” a title often used for this text, means literally “ten words.”  In the first of these “words,” God introduces Godself, by name, as Israel’s deliverer.  In Hebrew, God’s name is YHWH.  Pious Jews, out of respect for the Name (see Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11), do not attempt to pronounce it, but simply say “Adonai,” or “My Lord;” most English translations accordingly render YHWH as LORD in all capital letters.  In Judaism, God’s self-identification becomes very appropriately the first “word,” on which all of the words that follow depend.

Another difficulty with numbering and listing the Ten Commandments is that they are recorded twice in our Bibles: not only in Exodus 20:1-17, but also in Deuteronomy 5:1-21.   Indeed, one reason that the fifth book in our Bibles is called “Deuteronomy” (“second law” in Greek) is that this second account of the commandments is found there.

While the two versions of the Decalogue are over broad swaths identical, there are differences.  For example, the priestly Decalogue in Exodus 20 says that we are to Remember [Hebrew zakor] the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. . . .  Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day” (Exod 20:8-11; see the priestly account of creation in Gen 1:1–2:4a).  But the Deuteronomic version reads, Keep [Hebrew shamor] the Sabbath day and treat it as holy . . . Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut 5:12-15).

Busy Housewife Vector

Which version of the Ten Commandments we are reading makes a particular difference in the meaning, and possibly in the numbering, of the last commandment.  In the priestly Decalogue,  Exodus 20:17 (which many of us learned as the tenth commandment) states,

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.  

Here, your (explicitly male) neighbor’s house–that is, all that he owns–is placed first, followed by a list of its contents.  His wife, like his slaves, his domestic animals, and everything else included in his house “belongs to your neighbor,” and his ownership is to be respected: the same verb (khamad) is used both times in this verse (the NRSV, like the KJV, simply has “covet”).  Other texts–most notably, the priestly account of creation to which the Sabbath command alludes (Gen 1:27)–challenge this idea, but in the priestly Decalogue, women are property.

However, Deuteronomy 5:21 reads:

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

The change in the order here, the break in the middle of the verse, and the different verbs used with regard to the neighbor’s wife (Hebrew khamad) and the neighbor’s property (Hebrew ‘awah) are all accurately rendered features of the Hebrew text.  The perspective is still masculine.  But Deuteronomy puts the neighbor’s wife first, and makes a clear distinction between her and the neighbor’s house.  Women are not property, here!

Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, following the version of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5, appropriately regard coveting a neighbor’s wife and coveting a neighbor’s property as two different commandments: the ninth and the tenth, respectively.  They avoid having eleven commandments by, with Jewish tradition, reading the prohibition of idols (Exod 20:4-6; Deut 5:8-10, which I learned to count as the second commandment) as part of the command to have no other gods (commandment number one in my Sunday School class–but, remember, the second of the ten words in the synagogue).

The differences in the ways that we count to ten are more than ecclesiastical curiosities.  They remind us of how much our traditions have to learn from one another, and lead us deeper into reflection on this most numbingly familiar of biblical passages–reminding us that the Bible never loses its capacity to surprise and challenge us.