Jun
2013

Which Bible? Part 4

 

This is the fourth and final blog in this series on Bible translations, aimed at helping readers choose among various Bibles.  Today we look at the popular paraphrase, The Message, and a new, very accessible translation, the Common English Bible.

Some popular versions of the Bible are not translations at all, but paraphrases.  In a paraphrase, the words of Scripture are freely reframed in contemporary language, using the forms of speech that we use every day.  As a result, paraphrases are easy to read, and so can be very good for personal reading and devotions.

When I was a young Christian, my Bible of choice was The Living Bible (1971), a modern English paraphrase of the ASV (see “Which Bible? Part 2”, June 4, 2013) done by Kenneth Taylor, originally for his own children.  My copy of The Way looked exactly like the one pictured here!  In this paraphrase, Psalm 23:6 read, “Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.”  Still today, as I read these words, I can hear in the back of my head Ralph Carmichael’s musical setting of Taylor’s paraphrase of this Psalm, called “The New 23rd.”

Today, many Christians enjoy reading The Message, by Eugene Petersen.  This paraphrase is, as one would expect from Petersen, vigorous, creative, and pastorally sensitive.  These features are amply demonstrated by Psalm 23:6 as rendered in The Message:

Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

However, Petersen’s paraphrase is still a paraphrase, not a translation.  That means that it  is not intended for serious study, or as text for preaching.

Why am I so insistent on this?  A couple of examples will, I hope, make my point.  I once heard a sermon, based on The Message, from Matthew 9:35–10:4, but particularly 9:38–10:1:

“What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”  The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.

Petersen’s paraphrase makes numerous assumptions: that the commissioning of the disciples in Matthew 10 follows, chronologically, immediately upon Jesus’ statement about the harvest in 9:37-38; that the commissioning of the Twelve is an answer to the prayer in 9:38; that the healing ministry to which the disciples are called in 10:1 can be equated, in contemporary psychological jargon, to caring for “bruised and hurt lives.”  None of these assumptions is warranted by a simple translation of the text–which is not a problem, if we understand that The Message is not Scripture, but rather Petersen’s meditations upon Scripture.

But when we use The Message as text for preaching, it does become a problem.  The particular sermon I am describing had as its central theme the line, “The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered.”  It was an interesting, dynamic message about being willing to be used by God as the answer to our own prayers. But the central focus of that message was a line of Petersen’s paraphrase that does not appear in the Greek text of the Gospel, and so is not found in any actual translation of this text.  In short, this was not a sermon on a text from Scripture at all: it was a sermon on a meditation from Petersen.  That, I propose, is a major problem.

In my own preaching, I often use insights and stories from scholars and colleagues.  I use scenes from films and books, jokes, stories, poems, songs  –anything that may help a congregation apply the message of a text to their situation.  But it would be a very different matter if I set out to preach from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or if I used a scene from “Man of Steel,” or a line from “The Simpsons,” as my text.  The Message too may be used very effectively as an illustration, to jolt an audience into hearing a familiar text with fresh ears.  But it cannot be used as text for preaching, because it is not Scripture!

The problem with using The Message for Bible study may be illustrated by the conclusion of Paul’s famous Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13:13.  In the CEB, this reads, “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.

Petersen’s paraphrase is much longer:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

Much of this is simply not in the text: again, not a problem if we regard this as Petersen’s own meditation on Paul. But this time, there is a major grammatical distinction between The Message and any translation of Paul’s Greek.  In the text of 1 Corinthians, faith (pistis), hope (elpis), and love (agape) are nouns.  These are gifts of God–carrying on the theme from 1 Corinthians 12 of the gifts of God’s Spirit–that endure into eternity.  But in Petersen’s paraphrase, these become verbs–things that we must do “to lead us toward that consummation.”  That reading conflicts with Paul’s own understanding of the gospel as based on God’s free gift in Jesus Christ, not on our own efforts (for example, see Romans 3:21-26; 4:1-5).

For casual reading, for devotional reflection, or as a source of sermon illustrations, The Message is an excellent resource–that, indeed, is what it is meant for.  But no paraphrase can bear the weight of  study, or serve as text for preaching: to use this paraphrase, or any other, for those purposes is to misuse them.

If you are looking for a text that is both easy to read and a responsible translation from the original languages, I recommend the Common English Bible (CEB).

The Common English Bible (2011) is the work of the CEB Committee,
an alliance of five denominational
publishers, and features the work of 117 translators from 22 faith traditions and 5 countries.  The translation was vetted by 77 field testing groups with 400 participants in 13 denominations.  As you may have noticed, it is the version I have been using for references in my blog. I made this choice because the CEB is one of the most accessible English Bibles available, aimed at a seventh grade reading level.  This simplified vocabulary does not in any way mean that the translation is “dumbed down,” however.   The translators have been very creative in their use of the words at their disposal, leading to intriguing translation choices.

For example, the expression “Son of Man” (Hebrew ben ‘adam, Aramaic bar ‘enosh, Greek houios tou anthropou) is a very difficult phrase to translate well.  On the one hand, the masculine implications of the literal translation “son” are misleading.  In Hebrew and Aramaic, “son of X” is a way of indicating membership in a group (for example, bene Yisra’el, literally “sons of Israel,” typically means “Israelites”), making “human” or “mortal” the best translation of this phrase in most contexts (compare Ezekiel 2:1 in the NRSV and the NIV).  But on the other hand, as any reader of the Gospels knows, Jesus commonly refers to himself as Son of Man, so that this becomes a title for the Christ–making “human” a misleading translation (as the NRSV recognizes: see Mark 14:62).  The CEB gets around this by rendering “Son of Man,” in most places that it appears, as “Human One” (for example, see Ezekiel 2:1 and Mark 14:62).

In the CEB, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD’s house
as long as I live.

Here, a footnote on “live” reads (with my explanatory comments in brackets) “LXX [the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of Jewish Scripture; see “Which Bible?”, May 28, 2013)]; MT [that, remember, stands for “Masoretic Text,” the Hebrew scribal tradition that gives us our Hebrew Bible] I will return.”  All in all, this is the best rendering of the Hebrew for this verse in any English translation that I know!

The problems with the CEB are in many ways connected to its successes.  Aiming for accessibility rather than poetic grandeur, the CEB has a casual feel: for example, the translators have chosen to use contractions (compare Matthew 28:16-20 in the KJV, NRSV, and CEB).  To some ears, this informal tone may mean that the CEB lacks the gravitas necessary for public reading.

For ease and accessibility, it is hard to beat the CEB–though for serious study, I still recommend the NRSV. For a beautiful and fresh translation of the Hebrew Bible, I urge you to try the JPSV.  But most of all, I urge you to find a Bible, pick it up, and read it, in big hunks; let the wisdom of Scripture fill your life!

AFTERWORD

For the next two weeks, I will be in Scotland for the International Society of Biblical Literature‘s annual meeting.  Please pray for Wendy and for me as we travel!  The Bible Guy will resume blogging at this address in the middle of July.  See you then!

Jun
2013

Which Bible? Part 3

Selecting a Bible is a challenge today, given the number of Bible translations now available.  This is Part 3 of a series of blogs, aimed at helping the reader choose based on the features of each translation, recognizing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of each version.  In our last post in this series (“Which Bible? Part 2,” June 4, 2013), we considered the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and its recent revision, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV–my personal recommendation for serious study).

The RSV was widely accepted by many Christians, particularly in the so-called “mainline” churches (for example, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ).  But other Christians were disturbed by changes to beloved texts.  Some even went so far as to condemn the translation as heretical, or at least as damaging to the faith.  Bruce Metzger kept on his mantelpiece a block of ash: a burned copy of the RSV that angry protestors had mailed to him!

It was in large measure the desire for a translation deemed more friendly to Evangelical concerns that led to the New International Version (NIV) in 1973.  This translation has undergone further refinements (1978, 1984, 2011), but its fundamental character remains unchanged.   The Preface to the 2011 edition makes this Evangelical Christian commitment clear: “The committee has again been reminded that every human effort is flawed — including this revision of the NIV. We trust, however, that many will find in it an improved representation of the Word of God, through which they hear his call to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and to service in his kingdom. We offer this version of the Bible to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made.”

One example of this Evangelical commitment is the translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, which the KJV commonly rendered as “hell.”  Sheol is a place name, referring to the underworld as the place of the dead (for example, see Psalm 139:8 in the NRSV). This of course doesn’t quite jibe with Christian ideas about the afterlife. So until the 2011 edition, the NIV translated this word, in nearly every instance, as “the grave”–though Sheol never appears with the article (the word “the”), and rarely occurs in narratives about death and burial.

Another example of translation guided by ideology, rather than simply by grammar, is found in John 3:1-21: Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  The KJV of John 3:7 reads, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” This verse is a mainstay of Evangelical preaching–the basis of many an altar call as a summons to experience a new birth as a child of God.  The Greek word anothen, rendered “again” in the KJV, can mean either “again, anew” or “from above.”  Likely this passage intends both: Jesus describes a life in the Spirit (“from above;” see John 3:5-8), so different from the previous life as to be a fresh start–a new birth (which is why Nicodemus gets confused; see John 3:4).  But this pun is not possible in English, forcing translators to choose how best to render the word.

The RSV reads, “You must be born anew,” with a footnote indicating that “anew” could also be read as “from above.”  Indeed, the NRSV reads, “You must be born from above,” with a footnote indicating “anew” as another reading.  The NIV, like the KJV, has “You must be born again” (though a footnote on John 3:3 reads, “The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7″).

In the NIV, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me    

all the days of my life,                                          

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The only differences from the KJV are the use of “love” instead of “mercy” for the Hebrew khesed (see “Which Bible? Part 2”), and the specification that it is God’s goodness and love that follow me–assumed, but not stated in the Hebrew.

The NIV is easier to read than the NRSV, assuming a high school reading level.  Its translation is generally sound, as long as the reader stays aware of this version’s Evangelical bias.

In recent years, the English Standard Bible (ESV, 2001) has taken pride of place among many Evangelicals.  On their website, the ESV’s publishers state that their translation “provides the most recent evangelical Christian Bible scholarship and enduring readability for today. The ESV translation process itself was based on the trusted principles of essentially literal translation, which combines word-for-word accuracy with readability and literary excellence.”

However, much like the RSV, the ESV stands in the KJV tradition, and tries to preserve its language and rhythms.  So, the ESV of Psalm 23:6 is the same as the RSV, except that a footnote on “mercy” reads “steadfast love,” and an added note on “dwell” reads “return to dwell.”  The latter note recognizes that the Hebrew text is uncertain: the word weshabti could be (and most commonly has been) read as an unusual form of the Hebrew word meaning “dwell” (yashab), but the simplest way to read the Hebrew would be as “I will return.”

Much like the NIV, the ESV has a clearly stated Evangelical bias. But taking that into consideration, the translation is generally sound, and often (as in Psalm 23:6) interesting.

For the Hebrew Bible, one of the most interesting and beautiful English translations available  comes from the Jewish Publication Society (JPSV 1985, 1999).  This translation of the Tanakh (an abbreviation for Torah [Law], Nebi’im [Prophets], and Kethubim [Writings], the three parts of the Hebrew Bible) is intended for Jewish readers.  It stays with the Hebrew text as closely as possible (a problem in those cases where the versions may preserve a better reading), and has been attentive to good English as well as good scholarship (Jewish novelist Chaim Potok was on the translation team!).  I strongly recommend this Bible, especially the Jewish Study Bible edition pictured above, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler.  The introductions and footnotes are by Jewish scholars, and make use of the sayings and teachings of the rabbis.  Christian readers will find that, as the rabbis ask different questions than they do, new insights into the text open up.

The JPSV of Psalm 23:6 reads,

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.

Particularly striking is the rendering of Hebrew radaph as “pursue” rather than simply as “follow.”  This is not only accurate (radaph is what predators do to prey, or victors to the vanquished!), but evocative and interesting.

In next week’s post, we will finish this series by looking at the Common English Bible, a very easy to read translation, and paraphrases, particularly Eugene Petersen’s The Message.  See you then.

AFTERWORD

The Bible Guy congratulates the newly-ordained 2013 class of elders in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church:

From left, Rebecca Patterson, D. Renee Mikell (PTS alum), Tina M. Keller (PTS alum), Ross T. Pryor, Nathan W. Carlson (PTS alum), Anthony S. Fallisi (PTS alum), and Elizabeth S. Cooper.

Also to be congratulated are those approved as provisional elders:

From left, Jean Ann Smith (PTS student), Chad Bogdewic (PTS alum), Anthony R. C. Hita (PTS alum), and Alison Fisher.

God bless you all richly in this new phase of the ministry to which Christ has called you!  And to the PTS students: it was and is my joy and privilege to be your teacher.

Jun
2013

Stay Tuned!

AN EXPLANATION, AND AN APOLOGY:

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I was in the middle of a series on Bible translations, which will recommence next week.  This week, I have had the blessing to be the preacher at the Summer Leadership Conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  This afternoon, I head for Grove City, PA, where I will teach a Bible study tonight and tomorrow morning called “Opening Doors in Christian Hospitality to All” for Reconciling Ministries, as part of the Lay Academy of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Plus, grades were due Tuesday.  It is all good (well, apart from the grading. . .), but it means that I have not been able to complete my regular weekly blog.

Instead, I would like to share with you the sermon I preached this morning, on Isaiah 50:4-11 (I preached from the NRSV, but I invite you to compare with the CEB in particular), which deals, as it happens, with the issue of translation.  The title was, “Whose Tongue?”

 

A curious translation problem confronts us in the first verse of this  passage.  The problem is not with the text itself, which seems well-preserved, nor with the word in question, which is fairly common.  Instead, translators seem unable to say, straightforwardly, what the text says!  The major English translations vary broadly on their reading of leshon limmudim, the gift the Lord has given to the Servant.  Leshon means “tongue”–no problem there–but, whose tongue?  Is it the “tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), a “skilled tongue” (JPSV), an “instructed tongue” (NIV), or perhaps the “tongue of the learned” (KJV)?  Yet, when the same word, limmudim, appears later in the verse, it causes little controversy:  “Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear, to listen as those who are taught [kallimmudim].”  Surely, the same word in the same context should be translated the same way both times.  The Servant says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught.”

Perhaps the problem is that Bible translators are usually Bible professors.  We believe that teachers talk, and students listen: that teachers should speak from authority.  But, is that really so? My own experience as a teacher has taught me that my teaching is most effective when I am most engaged in the material myself: learners teach best!  So, too, students learn more when they are actively involved in the process, through discussion, dialogue, projects, and presentations—when, in short, the teacher surrenders authority.  The Servant says that the Lord’s gift was given “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4).  Surely, a word of comfort comes most effectively not from one who stands above me, but from one who kneels beside me: who shares my sorrow, feels my pain, and offers solace as a fellow sufferer.

In the wake of recent tragedies, from the human-spawned horrors of the Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing to the devastation wrought by massive tornadoes in Oklahoma, a quote from Fred Rogers has surfaced again and again, going viral on the Web: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In this Song, the Servant appears as a helper.  He does not claim authority, but is responsive and obedient:

The Lord God has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward (50:5).

Far from standing above and apart, the Servant identifies with the outcast and humiliated, to the point of sharing their humiliation and suffering:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting (50:6).

How do you do that?  The Servant declares, “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced. . . Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (50:7-9). The strength and validation of the Servant comes not from himself, or from the world, but from the Lord.  This passage is the appointed reading for the Wednesday of Holy Week.  But in the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading ends with verse 9, leaving the unfortunate implication that trust in God removes all our difficulties! The Servant relies upon the Lord, but that does not make his path clear, or easy.  Instead, the Servant

walks in darkness

and has no light,

yet trusts in the name of the LORD

and relies upon his God (50:10).

When the way is unclear, trust is hard to give.  The temptation in dark places is to make our own light, kindle our own torches, become our own guides.  But, the Servant warns all “kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands” who “[w]alk in the flame of your fire:”

This is what you shall have from my hand:

you shall lie down in torment. (50:11).

If we play with fire, we will get burned.

In his book The Crucifixion of Ministry, my friend and colleague Andrew Purves considers the all too common situation of ministers in mid-career, facing a sense of despair, exhaustion, and loss of purpose; what we call “burn-out.”  The root problem in our ministry, Purves suggests, is that we think of it as our ministry, not as Christ’s. Only when “our” ministry is crucified, as it must be, can Christ’s ministry flourish in and through us.  Only then, as we surrender authority and control, can we join the helpers!  Only then can we  teach with “the tongue of those who are taught.”

 

Jun
2013

Which Bible? Part 2

The explosion of translations in recent years presents a real challenge to thoughtful readers.  In our next two (or three!) posts, we will consider several translations: today’s post will look at the Revised Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version.  For each translation, I will say a little about its motivations and history, talk about its strengths and weaknesses (with examples), and for comparative purposes, give you the same passage in each: the last verse of Psalm 23.  In the King James Version (see the previous post, “Which Bible?”), this reads “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

But first, a word about that word “LORD.”  The translators of the KJV chose to use this word, in all capitals, to represent the Name of God in Hebrew:

in English letters, Yhwh.  By ancient tradition, the Name is not pronounced: in synagogue, when you come to the Name, you say Adonai: that is, “my Lord.”  Hebrew scribes, both to insure that the Name would not be pronounced accidentally and to remind the reader what was supposed to be said, wrote the Name with the vowels of Adonai.  European translators ignorant of this convention came up with the pronunciation “Jehovah,” which is used seven times in the KJV, usually where the context seemed to require a name rather than a title  (see Genesis 22:14; Exodus 6:3; 17:15; Judges 6:24; Psalm 83:18, and Isaiah 12:2; 26:4).  While some modern translations have gone against this convention (notably the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible which, following the prevailing view of biblical scholarship, renders the name as “Yahweh”), most follow the KJV and use LORD in all capitals to represent the holy Name.

The Revised Standard Version (1952) is so called because it was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881.  This revision of the ASV was undertaken by a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the bodies that led to the National  Council of Churches).  The RSV was not intended to be an entirely new translation; the intent was to preserve the familiar rhythms and language of the KJV as much as possible “in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other”  (from the preface to the RSV).

In the RSV, Ps 23:6 reads exactly as it does in the KJV.  However, there are several translator’s notes, recognizing other (and in some cases, better) possibilities for translating the Hebrew: “surely” could also be read as “only” (the Hebrew ‘aoften has that meaning), “mercy” could also be read as “kindness” (a much better rendering of the Hebrew word khesed; better still would be “steadfast love” or “loyalty”), and “for ever” could also be read as “as long as I live” (again, much better; the Hebrew literally means “for length of days”).

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee, formed by the National Council of Churches, chaired by Bruce Metzger.  One issue driving this call for a revision was the increasing recognition in many churches that our language should reflect more accurately the full inclusion of women in the community of faith.  So, in the NRSV, Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Here, the translation “humankind” is far better than the KJV and RSV “man”: the Hebrew word used, ‘adam, means “humanity” rather than “man” (see the post from May 11, 2013, “Women in the Bible”).  The NRSV renders the standard New Testament greeting to fellow Christians, “Brothers” (adelphoi in Greek; for example, 1 Corinthians 2:1), as “Brothers and sisters”–not an accurate translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities (again, see “Women in the Bible”).

But the major reason that a new revision of the RSV seemed needed was that new texts continued to come to light–particularly, with the publication of more and more material from Qumran: the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.  The NRSV translators have paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the footnotes), making this, in my view, the best scholarly translation of the Bible available, especially for the Old Testament.

For example: in 1 Samuel 11, the story of Nahash the Ammonite has always seemed very strange: who is this man?  Why is he laying siege to Jabesh-Gilead, a city far to the north of Ammon?  Most of all, why, when the people of the city offer to surrender, does he instead insist, “’I will make a treaty with you on one condition: that everyone’s right eye be gouged out! . . . That’s how I bring humiliation on all Israel.’” (1 Samuel 11:2, CEB).  Scholars had long known that the Jewish historian Josephus had a longer story about Nahash in Antiquities VI.5.1, but they did not know if that story had any ancient basis in a biblical text.

With the publication of a fragmentary text from Cave 4 at Qumran (called 4QSam a), we now know that this story was part of the text of Samuel: a paragraph that fell out of the text in the course of its copying and recopying over generations.  The NRSV of the end of 1 Samuel 10 reads:

Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead.

The translators’ footnote on this addition says (my explanations are in brackets), “Q Ms [referring to the manuscripts from Qumran] Compare Josephus, Antiquities VI.v.1 (68–71): MT [for “Masoretic text,” the Hebrew text on which our Old Testament is based] lacks Now Nahash . . . entered Jabesh-gilead.”  

In the NRSV, Psalm 23:6 reads:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

Clearly, this is very similar to the RSV for this passage, with the same footnotes, except for the last phrase, which has now been more accurately rendered, and where the footnote observes the literal meaning of the Hebrew, “for length of days.”

I recommend the NRSV for serious study, and especially the HarperCollins Study Bible,  edited by Harold W. Attridge. This edition of the NRSV has lots of maps, charts, and other helps, but the best part is the extended introductions to each book of the Bible, and the footnotes: a third or more of every page, providing cross-references, further information pertaining to the history back of the text, and in many cases, additional insight into the translation.  These introductions and footnotes are written by scholars doing cutting-edge research in the books on which they comment.  In fact, in some cases, the author of the notes is the person primarily responsible for the translation of the book in question (for example, S. Dean McBride in Deuteronomy), so that you can get straight from the horse’s mouth the reasons behind the choices made.

The problem with the NRSV is that it can be hard to read.  Often, the language clanks and clatters–clearly, the work of scholars rather than poets!  Further, the NRSV assumes a college-age reading level, a major barrier to many readers.  Finally, while the NRSV, and the HarperCollins Study Bible in particular, are excellent for academic work, they are harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection.

Next time, we will consider some other popular translations, comparing them to the NRSV in particular.

AFTERWORD

The Bible Guy salutes the recent graduates from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Look out, church–they are a great batch, filled with the Spirit and raring to go!

 

May
2013

Which Bible?

When I was a child, the question of which Bible I should read never arose.  So far as I knew, there was only one Bible: the King James Version.  I still hear in the back of my head the language of the King James in deeply familiar texts, and those passages which I have memorized are, as likely as not, recalled from this version.

Certainly, this common reference point had many advantages.  English-speaking Christians (or at least, English-speaking Protestants!) all had and used the same Bible, so when I heard a preacher read or quote from Scripture, what he (and yes, in those days it was nearly always a “he”) said matched what I saw on the pages of my own Bible.

Of course, that is not so today!  Go to any bookstore, and you will find dozens of different Bibles–not just different in binding or study notes, but different in content.  How could that be?

We know, of course, that the Bible was not written in English.  The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, was written in Hebrew, primarily–the language of ancient Israel.  Some parts, however, are written in another ancient language commonly used in the ancient Middle East: two words from Genesis 31:47, one verse from Jeremiah (10:11); the middle chapters of Daniel (2:4b–7:28); and some ancient documents cited in Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12-26) are written in Aramaic, the language of commerce and diplomacy in the ancient world, particularly in the Persian Period (539-333 BC).

The conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC) spread Greek language and culture throughout the ancient Middle East.  In the first and second centuries AD, when the books of our New Testament were written, Greek was the language used when cultures met, particularly for trade; as a result, nearly everyone spoke at least some Greek, in addition to their native language.

The Septuagint, a translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek, was written in the second and first centuries BC, in Egypt.  The New Testament too was written in Greek–not the Greek of the poets and philosophers, but koine, or common, Greek: what we might call street Greek!  In first-century Palestine, the native language was Aramaic (not, intriguingly, Hebrew, which had become the language of the synagogue and of scholars rather than the everyday language of the people), and there are some words and phrases of that language preserved in the New Testament as well.  When Scripture was read aloud in synagogue, the reading would be followed by a Targum: a translation of the passage into Aramaic.  In time, these too were written down and circulated among the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community.

Christians also translated the Bible into their native languages.  The Vulgate, for example, put the Bible into the common or “vulgar” language of the Roman Empire, Latin.

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was translated in 1611; it has just celebrated its 400th birthday!  We can scarcely overstate the importance of this translation for English language and culture.  Together with the plays of Shakespeare, the KJV helped standardize rules for English spelling and usage, and gave English its basic, common vocabulary.

However, the English language has changed a lot since 1611.  Not only are the “thees” and “thous” gone, but the meaning of some words has changed.  For example, the KJV of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous Love Chapter, reads “charity” rather than “love” for the Greek agape: appropriate then, but misleading now, when “charity” has taken on a more narrow and restricted meaning.  A more jarring is example is Mark 10:14, which in the KJV reads, “Suffer the little children to come unto me”!  Jesus meant, of course, that the disciples should allow the children to come; “suffer” no longer means all that it did in 1611.

Further, we know more about language and translation than we did in 1611, and translators today have access to far more texts than they did (including, for many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Dead Sea discoveries).  One of many places where this makes a difference is 1 John 5:6-8.  Here, the author of 1 John, referring to Jewish law requiring two or three witnesses for conviction (see Deuteronomy 17:6), declares that the testimony concerning Jesus is confirmed by three witnesses: the Spirit of God, the water (likely a reference to Jesus’ birth) and the blood (Jesus’ death on the cross).  The KJV of 1 John 5:7-8 reads, however, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”  This reference to the Trinity is not found in any Greek text of 1 John from before the 16th century, though it does appear in late texts of the Latin Vulgate.  Almost certainly, this sentence does not belong to 1 John, but rather reflects later Christian reflection on the text.

It was for these reasons and more that Christians saw the need for new translations of the Bible into English.  Next week, we will look at several English translations of the Bible, discussing their strengths and weaknesses.

 

May
2013

Talking Trinity

This Sunday, the first after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday–which, sadly, is unlikely to prompt tremendous enthusiasm either on the part of preachers, reluctant to preach on this difficult concept, or their congregations, who have to listen to those sermons!  Psychoanalytical pioneer and scholar of religion Carl Jung remembered taking confirmation classes from his father, a Lutheran minister.

It was all very boring–but young Carl had read ahead in his catechism, and knew that coming up was something strange, mysterious, and wonderful–the Trinity!  When the day assigned to study the Trinity arrived at last, however, Jung’s father said, “This is very complicated, and I really don’t understand it myself, so we’ll skip over it.”  For Jung, this marked a major turning point, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his decision that he could not accept what he saw as his father’s pallid, shallow faith.

The Trinity is foundational for Christians in the most basic sense: we are baptized in name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20).  So we really can’t “skip over” this; we need to talk about it!  However, the Trinity is not a logic puzzle for us to solve.  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible, as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him: hence, the New Testament’s language of the Father and the Son.  We come to the language of Trinity because the shape of our experience of God drives us to it.  As my friend and colleague from graduate school Ray Jones used to say about the Trinity, “I don’t believe this stuff because I want to.  I believe it because it’s true!”

While it would be generations before Christians refined their theology into the Trinitarian formulas in the classical creeds of the church, we can already hear the seeds of this idea in the pages of our New Testament.  For example, in John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is.  1 John 4:8 affirms, “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is Lover, and Beloved, and the Love that binds them.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

The early Christians were not the first to realize this.  The sages of ancient Israel looked for a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other intimately involved and engaged with the world.  They described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (hokmah) is feminine.

Lady Wisdom  says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.  Christian readers will be reminded of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God, through whom the world was made (compare Genesis 1).  It is a way of talking about Christ (that is, a Christology) drawn from Proverbs 8!

Lady Wisdom, describing her role in God’s creation, says:

I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race (Proverbs 8:30-31).

The Wisdom teachers of Proverbs are clear on the role of humanity in such a world, made in such a way by such a God: we are beloved!  God delights in us.  This is a very exalted view of humanity—the sages have no time for any “I’m only human” nonsense.  Being human is our glory, and our joy.

How are we to live with such a God, in such a world?  The role of the church is to build a community in the human family reflecting God’s own identity, and God’s will manifest in creation.  It is a daunting task.  But we are not on our own!  Remember the promise of God’s Spirit in John 16:14-15, to communicate to us all that Jesus has and is, which is in turn all that the Father has and is.

As strange, complicated, and paradoxical as the Trinity is, we believe it because it’s true to our experience of God in Christ, true to the witness of the Spirit in our world, true to our best hopes and dreams and insights into what the world can and should be—and in the deepest and truest sense, already is.

Community, interrelationship, mutual respect and regard are more than good ideas—they are the way the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator.  When we forget this, when we elevate the self above the other, when we exalt taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down.  But the gospel for this day is that God, who in Wisdom had the first word, also has the last word.  God calls us to share God’s very life in Christ Jesus, and by the gift of God’s Spirit empowers and renews us today live our lives in love.  We can dare to believe this, and to act on this belief, because it is true.

AFTERWORD:

The image of community at work above comes from Oklahoma City, in the wake of the recent devastating tornadoes there.  Please pray for this community.

A great way to help is to give to the United Methodist Committee on Relief: 100% of your gift designated for tornado relief will go to aid for hurting people in this region.

May
2013

Ghost Story

Want to hear a good ghost story?  Read Ezekiel 37:1-14.  If you have never heard this one before, you are likely to wonder, “What is this doing in the Bible?”  It is a scene out of a horror movie, or a Stephen King novel.  

First, the prophet is taken in a vision by the hand of the Lord to a valley, filled with dry, dusty, disjointed bones.  

God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (37:3).  The obvious answer is no—there is no life, and no possibility of life, in this place!  The bodies strewn across the valley are not only dead, they are long dead (37:2)–there is no point in calling 911!  But since his call, Ezekiel has seen (see 1—3 and 8—11) and done (see 4—5; 12:1-20; 24:15-27; as well as 37:15-28) some very odd things in the Lord’s service.  So he answers, simply “Lord God, only you know” (37:3).

Now, God commands the prophet, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word!” (37:4).  As Ezekiel delivers God’s promise of life to the dead bones, he hears “a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (37:7, NRSV).  He watches as, in accordance with the word he had proclaimed (37:5), the bones are joined by tendons and covered over with flesh.  Now, instead of a valley full of dry bones, the prophet is standing in a valley filled with corpses.

Again God speaks: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (37:9).  Hebrew writers love puns.  A pun on the different meanings of the Hebrew word ruakh (“breath” in the 37:8-9) runs through this story.  First, this word can mean “breath:” so, to say that there was no ruakh in the bodies (37:8) simply means that they were not breathing.  Related to this meaning is the use of ruakh for “wind” (37:9).  In keeping with the invisible force of the wind and the life-giving power of the breath is a third meaning. Ruakh can be rendered as “spirit”—that is, the empowering, enlivening agency of people, and in particular, of God (more on that one shortly).   So, as Ezekiel prophesied to the wind (ruakh), breath (ruakh) entered the bodies, and “they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company” (37:10)–not, please note, this

but this:

What does this vision mean?  In 37:11-14, God explains.  The dry bones are Ezekiel’s community, the house of Israel: exiled, and in despair.  They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.” (37:11)–and they are right!  Jerusalem is destroyed, the king is in chains, the temple is gone, and the people are scattered, in hiding or in exile.

But, deliverance is promised–a resurrection for dead Israel.  The Lord declares, “I will put my breath [there’s that third meaning of ruakh–God’s spirit, God’s very life]  in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says” (37:14).  Hope for the future, Ezekiel was convinced, would come from God and God alone, through the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit.

Another ghost story will be told in churches around the world on Sunday.  It comes from Acts 2 in the New Testament, but it builds on the same ideas and images Ezekiel used.  Jesus had told his followers, “Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power” (Lk 24:49).  So they had remained in Jerusalem; as our story begins, they have been there, waiting and praying, ever since Jesus’ resurrection.  It is now Pentecost, the Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover.

Suddenly, the room where they are praying is filled with wind and flame, and each person gathered in that room is filled with an overpowering urge to speak!  They pour out into the street, praising God, and discover to their astonishment and delight that everyone in that crowd, Pentecost pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from across the Roman world, understands perfectly what they are saying: “we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:11).

Ezekiel’s ghost story reminds us of the beginning–of how God had created the first human from the ground, breathing into him life.

Luke’s ghost story in Acts also takes us back to Genesis–this time, to the tower of Babel and the curse that confused human languages and divided the human community.

Just as in Ezekiel, God’s Spirit undoes the curse of exile, and brings those who had thought themselves as good as dead back to their homeland, so on Pentecost God’s Spirit undoes the curse of Babel, and restores all humanity to oneness.

Perhaps, like Ezekiel’s community, we have experienced abandonment and despair.  Certainly, the curse of Babel has stricken deeply into our community, even into our families, bringing division and confusion.  The solution, for us as for them, is God’s Spirit, the Holy Ghost!

That may be hard for us to hear.  Ghosts are scary, after all; why should we let go of what seems so solid and real?  Why exchange the visible and tangible for the invisible, mysterious world of God’s spirit?  Quite simply, because we must.  We need God’s spirit because we do not have the answers we seek, and we cannot find them.  We need the gift of God’s spirit to empower and enliven us, to renew and reunite us.

W. Sibley Towner puts it this way: “We need all the energy and effort we can muster to concentrate on the whisperings of the only ghost that matters, whose name is Holy.  This spirit who proceeds from God doesn’t rock in chairs or frighten dogs, but plants winsome words in the human heart that yield great fruit if the heart is supple and ready.”

So may it be for you and yours this day.  God bless you–and Happy Pentecost!

May
2013

Women in the Bible

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.  For me, it is a day of joyous celebration–an opportunity to honor my own mother, Mary, for the love and blessing she has poured into my life (that’s my father Bernard on the right),

1

as well as my wife Wendy, mother to our three wonderful sons.  Thank you, thank you, thank you–I do not know who I would be today without your love and wisdom.

familyathebeach

But sadly, Scripture is not kind to women.  To take an example particularly relevant to Mother’s Day, childbirth was regarded by the priests as a defiling act, for mother and child alike (see Leviticus 12:2-8).  This is not surprising: in the priests’ world view, the life of any being was contained in the blood, so that blood belonged exclusively to God.  Childbirth being a bloody process, it is little wonder that the priests regarded it as defiling.  Still, the period of uncleanness is not the same with every birth, but depends upon the sex of the child: 7 days of impurity for a male child, 2 weeks of uncleanness if the baby is female!

Broadly speaking, in the patriarchal (that is, male-centered) societies out of which both our Old and New Testaments emerged, a woman was regarded as the property of a man: first her father, later her husband.  In the priestly version of the Ten Commandments,  Exodus 20:17 states, “Do not desire 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, the wife, like the household servants, domestic animals, and everything else included in a man’s “house,” is regarded as property.

In the New Testament, then, it is no surprise to find passages restricting women’s role in the church.  1 Timothy 2:8-15 denies women the right to preach or lead, an argument made on the basis of the creation story: “Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived” (1 Tim 2:14; a rather biased reading of Genesis 3, where the man and the woman alike are held accountable).

Still, this is just what we would expect to find in a text that comes, as the Bible does, out of a patriarchal culture.   In biblical studies, what we do not find can prove as interesting and significant as what we do; surprises and exceptions take on a particular significance.

First of all, let’s consider the very beginning of the Bible.  While the traditional reading of Genesis 1:26 has God say, “Let us make man” (see the King James Version), the Common English Bible has “Let us make humanity” (Gen 1:26).   This is not, as some might think, political correctness.  It is a matter of accurate translation. In Hebrew, the word for “man” is ‘ish. But the word used here is ‘adam, which means “humanity.”  Human being is set apart from everything else in creation by something not mentioned.  There are “kinds” of plants, birds, fish, and animals (see Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25).  However, there are no “kinds” of people. This is not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations, African and Asian; Jews regularly encountered people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations.  Instead, there is just ‘adam: one single human family. It is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism.

It is particularly important that we translate ‘adam correctly, because Genesis 1:27 goes on very plainly to state:

“God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.”

Both masculinity and femininity, both maleness and femaleness, are reflections of God in this text. There is no basis here for placing women under men. To be sure, Israel’s traditions were not always equal to this insight!  Yet here it is, at the very beginning of the Bible.  Sexism, like racism, is denied any place in God’s rightly ordered world.  

Another surprise comes in the second version of the Ten Commandments, in the book of Deuteronomy (which in Greek means “second law”).  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.”

Both the break in the middle of this verse, and the different words used with regard to the neighbor’s wife and the neighbor’s property, are features of the Hebrew text of Deuteronomony.  While in the Exodus 20 version, women are included in the neighbors “house” as property, the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy make a clear distinction between the wife and the house: women are not property, here!

The Old Testament is filled with surprising stories about strong women taking the lead.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, was a prophet (see Micah 6:4, which describes Miriam alongside Moses and Aaron as leading the Israelites to freedom). The prophet Deborah (Judges 4-5) unites the tribes of Israel against their enemies. Ruth, a poor Moabite widow, takes the first step in proclaiming her love to Boaz, and becomes the ancestress of King David.  Esther risks her position and her life to stand up for her persecuted people.

In the Gospels, Jesus continually demonstrates concern for women (see the discussion of Jesus’ position on divorce in my earlier blog, “HWJR?”).  John’s gospel describes the remarkable story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well, talks with him, and becomes the first missionary! Jesus’ movement was supported by women (Luke 8:2-3).  At the end, even when his disciples had forsaken him, the women remained, at the cross and at the tomb, so that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

In the letters of Paul, everywhere that the apostle offers personal greetings, he mentions women, by name.  Romans 16 provides several fascinating examples: Paul greets Phoebe, who he calls a deacon (the CEB reads “servant,” but notice that this is the same Greek title given in Acts to male leaders like Philip and Stephen), Prisca and Aquila (a husband and wife ministry team; here as elsewhere, Paul breaks convention by mentioning the wife, Prisca, first), Mary, and most remarkably, Andronicus and Junia, another husband and wife team who are “prominent among the apostles”–Paul refers to Junia here as an apostle!

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul insists that Corinthian women follow custom by wearing a head covering while prophesying: emphasizing a distinction between women and men.  Still, this passage presupposes that women were speaking in the churches–Paul just wants them to do so respectfully!

Most remarkable of all is Paul’s bold proclamation in Galatians 3:28: “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.”  Since, for Paul, all of us have access to God through Jesus and Jesus alone, every earthly hierarchy has been overthrown.  All of us approach God on an equal footing, women and men alike.

Viewed in the context of the whole of Scripture, then, we can understand the attitudes expressed in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 without feeling bound by them. In my tradition, for nearly as long as the Methodist movement has been in existence, women have been preaching.  In 1787, John Wesley himself gave permission for Sarah Mallet to preach, holding her to standards no different than those expected of all Methodist lay preachers.  However, it was a move severely criticized.

Many regarded women preachers as little more than a novelty; Samuel Johnson, upon hearing of women preaching in the Quaker movement, said, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

The powerful preaching of women evangelists such as Jarena Lee

and Phoebe Palmer

gave the lie to such condescending nonsense.  But still, though women were recognized as evangelists or local pastors, they were mostly barred from ordination in the various denominations that would form the United Methodist Church (the former United Brethren being an occasional exception).  Not until 1956, the year I was born, were women ordained in the former Methodist Church, a right expressly continued in 1968 when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches joined to form the United Methodist Church.

Tragically, still today, women in ministry face resistance and rejection.  Rather like the eleven in Luke 24:11, who considered the women’s testimony about Jesus’ resurrection “nonsense,” too many of us refuse to hear the good news when proclaimed by a woman.  But by refusing to hear God’s word proclaimed in a female voice, we close ourselves off from God.  May the Lord open our minds and hearts and ears, to receive with joy the witness to our Lord’s death and resurrection that faithful women continue to bring.

AFTERWORD:

I apologize for the missed post last week–a cold and flu intervened.  I will endeavor to post weekly. Thank you for staying with me through this brief hiatus.

 

Apr
2013

“H.W.J.R.?”

Not too long ago, these four letters were everywhere: on bracelets, on tee shirts,

on bumper stickers,

even, heaven help us, on tattoos.

But today, I want us to consider a different question: HWJR?  How would Jesus read?  First, though, a qualifier: “read” is perhaps not the best term for what Jesus was doing. Jesus did not have a Bible of his own to read and study—in fact, no one in the first century owned a Bible.  The Bible as we know it did not yet exist.  The various books of Jewish Scripture were written on separate scrolls, which were held by synagogues and schools.

Only a very few, very wealthy people owned scrolls of their own.  Jesus would have experienced Scripture by hearing it read aloud in worship, and by singing and chanting its words along with the congregation.  He would have learned his Bible by heart.

While it takes an act of the imagination to consider what Jesus would do if he was cut off in traffic, say, or if his internet provider went down, we do not have to imagine how Jesus read.  Matthew 5:21-48 provides us several examples of Jesus reading, and interpreting, Scripture.

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 (that is, the Law: the first five books of the Bible, still central to Jewish faith and identity) and even the words of the Ten CommandmentsIn 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, unfaithfulness 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 objectionable” 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 Jesus’ words narrowly and legalistically, when he himself did not read Scripture in that way?  If we are to read as Jesus read, we will 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.

A story is told of comedian W.C. Fields on his death bed.  Friends visiting Fields in his hospital room found him thumbing through a Bible—something he had never been known to do before.  When they asked him what he was doing, Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

A narrow, legalistic approach to Scripture leads to that kind of reading:  we look for ways around the Bible’s more difficult teachings when they  bind us, while applying to others the full force of judgment and condemnation.  But this is not the way that Jesus reads!  In each case we have considered, Jesus reads the specific texts of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals of justice upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire.  Jesus does not take the Bible literally.  He takes the Bible seriously—and so must we.

May we learn to read Scripture as Jesus does: not like prosecuting attorneys looking for evidence to convict one another, or like hostile combatants looking for weapons to wield against one another, but as genuine seekers, desiring to know God and to live as God would have us live.  Only then will we hear the Word of God among the words of Scripture.  Only then can we be changed by what God has to say to us.

 

Apr
2013

When the worst thing that can happen, happens

God help us.

Once again, evil breaks out in our world, and lives are shattered by its violence.  Two bombs, loaded with pellets and nails, exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon; three people–one an eight year old boy–are dead, and over a hundred are injured, some greviously.  We are stunned, confused, heartbroken, and angry.  In our pain, we turn to God, to our faith, to Scripture, and to one another for comfort and guidance.

But sadly, in our anger, we also turn on one another–so that violence prompts more violence, in word or deed, and hatred breeds hatred.  Word that a “person of interest” was a Saudi prompted the New York Post to trumpet that he was a suspect, in custody.  In truth, he was a witness, himself injured in the attack.  Another columnist and television commentator tweeted the following:

We do not yet know who perpetrated this assault.  But we do know that it was not carried out by a race, or by a religion.  It was an act of people–sick, deluded, evil people.  Whether they prove to be white or brown, foreign or native-born; whether they claim to be Christian or Muslim or of any or no faith, we play into their delusions if we think that they are, as they may believe themselves to be, “representatives” of any people or ideal.  They represent no one, they stand for nothing but carnage, they work for no cause save chaos and evil.  We must not let their racism turn us into racists, or their fanaticism make us into fanatics.

Like many of you, I have found myself returning in my mind to the days following September 11, 2001.  On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk,  a prophet who saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  Habakkuk knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, and feel again in the wake of this fresh tragedy, Habakkuk knew well.

I am printing below the sermon I preached then.  It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.

Text:  Habakkuk 3.16-19

“What Do You Do When the Worst Thing That Can Happen, Happens?”

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.