Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

Did God Sanction Genocide?

April 1, 2010

The destruction of the Midianites in Numbers 31 is a tough truth to swallow in scripture.

Reference: Numbers 31, See also Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 20:16-18

Question:
What is up with the God-sanctioned genocide of the Midianites in Numbers 31? Killing women and children? Taking virgins as plunder? This is the loving and merciful God I’m supposed to be worshiping?

Answer:
I’m not gonna lie folks, it’s ugly.  When Israel moved into the land of Canaan it was a virtual blood bath and yes, our God, the one we praise and worship and try to share with other people, was leading the charge.

In the interest of full disclosure I admit that I’ve been avoiding this question for about 3 weeks now.  But at some point we all need to wrestle with these very hard sayings of the Bible.  As a pastor I often need to deal with the fact that when people misunderstand passages like this, they often misunderstand God, discredit the faith, or discredit scripture.  Then the door is wide open for us to define God the way we want him to be not the way he really is.

So before I look at what is happening in places like Numbers 31, where God and the Israelites wipe out Midianites, I first need to remind everyone of the character of God.  God is perfectly loving, but God is also perfectly just.  It may take a few moments, but eventually you will see the inherent problem in the character of God.  Namely, if God is perfectly just, then he MUST have vengeance on people that he MUST love.  Or you could say it the other way… If God is perfectly loving then he MUST love the people who he MUST punish.

Our tendency is to avoid this conundrum by jettisoning one side of God’s character.  Very naturally many of us truncate our view of God so that we only see the ‘loving’ side of him.  We can convince ourselves that he is worth worshiping if he is a loving God; but we question if he is worth worshiping if he is a just, vengeful, jealous, and wrathful God.  So we put God in a box and then get grumpy when we read in scripture that he lead the genocide of an entire region of people.  “That can’t be God.  God is gentle, loving, and sensitive!”

Before I delve into the passage itself, I propose to you that passages like Numbers 31 are imperative to our understanding of who God is and ultimately what grace is.  If we don’t understand that each one of us deserves to be wiped out just like the Midianites then we can’t fully understand God’s grace.  What makes his grace so AMAZING is that each of us, every person on this planet, deserves one thing… death, BUT we get life.

Now which part of that statement shocks you?  If you are shocked by the ‘everyone-deserves-death’ part, then you have been deceived by the lie that ‘you are a good person who has earned God’s favor.’  What should shock you about that statement is that God extends to you his grace, free of charge.  You and I deserve death, but we get life.  You and I deserve damnation, but we inherit eternity with God.  You and I deserve his wrath, but we get his smile.  That’s grace!  But it means nothing if we don’t understand that we deserve death.  In Numbers 31 we see the hard reality of God’s just character, but also his grace and divine restraint.

NUMBERS 31…

Now that we have dealt with the ‘character of God’ issue that is so hard to grapple with.  We need to figure out the context of this passage and exactly why God went to this extreme.  We could go all the way back to the beginning and talk about ‘Sin’, ‘The Fall’, etc.  but I’m just gonna go back half way.  Several hundred years before Joshua even set foot in the land of Canaan (see map), his forefather Abraham stood in the same place and received a powerful prophetic promise from God.  It was there that God promised to give this land to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 15:18-20), but perhaps more interesting, as it relates to  Numbers 31 and others, was that in verse 16 God said to Abraham, “After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites [those people in the land of Canaan] do not yet warrant their destruction” (Genesis 15:16 NLT).

There are a couple important truths that we can draw from these Genesis 15:16-20.

1) God has a plan (see post on Jeremiah 29:11):  Remember, God is loving and just.  By all rights God should just start over again with creation, we are all sinners falling short of his glory (Romans 3:23), furthermore, we all deserve death because of our sin (Romans 6:23).  But God loves those that he must destroy.  This is a God-sized conundrum… thankfully God has a plan to fix it.  In Genesis 15 we see God taking steps and making a covenant that would set things in motion toward a solution.  A solution that would settle this conundrum once and for all (hint: it’s Jesus).

2) Destruction of the People in Canaan was in the Plan: God already anticipates the destruction of the Canaanites in Genesis 15, but he shows restraint.  Even during the time of Abraham, the people of Canaan were wicked people.  They dishonored God, they practiced injustice, they engaged in human sacrifice (even child sacrifice).  You name it, they did it.  But God shows his restraint, saying “their sins do not yet warrant their destruction” (Genesis 15:16 NLT).  The NIV more accurately says, “their sin has not yet reached its full measure.” In other words, God was saying, ‘there sin is bad now, but it’s gonna get worse.” For the time being, God extended his mercy toward the people of Canaan.  Thus, when God does annihilate these people, he is not acting preemptively toward them, it is their sin toward God that has built up over time.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that God comes into Canaan and wipes out the people living there because he promised to do so generations ago if their sin continued.

Perhaps the greater issue in Numbers 31 is the extremity to which the genocide was carried out.  Basically only virgin girls were spared.  That makes it sound not only ruthless, but disturbingly kinky as well.  The situation in Numbers is that the people of Midian had led the people of Israel into the sin of idol worship.  This posed a huge threat to God’s plan.  The people of Israel (from whom Christ would come), were the crucial element to God’s redemption plan.  Thus, God was not only punishing Midian for their sin (which was great), he was protecting his plan (Israel).  Only the female virgins were spared because only they would not pose a threat to Israel’s relationship with God, and even that might be seen as a great mercy.  The virgins were taken as plunder (Numbers 31:32-33), but it was not for some sexually deviant ritual or pleasure, these girls were spared because there was no chance that they could have been pregnant with a Midianite son.  This is ultimately is a sign of God’s mercy.  These women would now be a part of the nation of Israel, part of the promise.

Some may say “if Israel sinned, why weren’t they exterminated as well?”  Obviously all nations have sinned, but caring for the nation of Israel was a huge part of God’s plan so that ultimately all nations might be saved by him, not destroyed by him.  God did punish Israel for their sin with the Midianites.  In Numbers 25 we see that 24,000 Israelites were killed in a plague because of their sin with Midian/Moab (Numbers 25:8-9).   But you might be surprised to learn that there was another time when God DID want to destroy all of Israel after they had worshiped the Golden Calf (see Exodus 32:9-10).  After God’s people had practiced blatant idolatry he wanted to scrap the project and start over with Moses and his descendants.  But Moses pleaded with God to have mercy on the people and God heard him.  All that to say, God does not take sin lightly, no matter what nation it is, even his own people.

Always Remember the Cross  (IMPORTANT!)
At the end of the day, we need to be able to look at a passage like Numbers 31 and shout, “THANK YOU GOD FOR SENDING YOUR SON!”  In this passage we see the great wrath of God.  It is the same wrath that God’s own son experienced on the cross.  Jesus died a brutal death so that there wouldn’t have to be any more Midianite genocides.  Why?  Because he loves us so desperately.  And guess what?!? he loved the Midianites desperately too, but remember he is a just God.  Jesus received the justice that we deserved, even though he was innocent of all sin (2 Peter 2:22).  He did this so that we would not be destroyed if we believe in him (Hebrews 10:39).  Thus we freely receive God’s love without fear of his wrath and justice, because the sentence has already been carried out once and for all.


Like the Midianites, Jesus himself was the recipient of God's wrath. But with him, it was once and for all.

Begat Beget Begot… Are biblical genealogies important?

March 24, 2010

Question:
Why are there so many genealogies in the Bible? Are they important? What purpose do they serve?

Answer:
Let’s be honest. When reading the bible sometimes we are excited and engaged but other times we are bored out of our minds. Reading through genealogies usually constitutes the latter sentiment. But to be bored by a genealogy you actually have to read it, and most of us skip right over them, don’t we?   You might be surprised to find that genealogies can actually be interesting, and some even have some broader interpretive significance.

There are genealogies for the descendants of 23 people in scripture (you can see them listed below, as recorded in Willmington’s Book of Bible Lists).  Genealogies were kept for the purpose of records and understanding family connections.  Several times in scripture they are referred to as necessary for some type of legal or ceremonial proof, or as historical documents for study (1Ch 9:1; 2Ch 31:19; 2Ch 12:15; Ne 7:5).  Obviously the historical book keeping practices were much different in Ancient Palestine. For example, Genealogies rarely contained women (the fact that Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew contains 5 women is somewhat rare).  It’s important to remember though that the bible is not a scientific document, nor is it a historical document as we understand historical documents today.

The interpretation of genealogies can be an interesting thing as well.  For example, Adam’s genealogy is one of the more interesting genealogies because it lists the ages of the men who lived very long (see previous blog on long life spans).  But perhaps most interesting is the way that this particular list of names subtly highlights one person in particular, Enoch.  Each of the men in that genealogy dies, except Enoch, of whom it is said “he walked with faithfully with God” and then God “took him away”.  What a powerful commentary on the value of walking with God.  And we see it in a genealogy!

In Matthew and Luke’s gospel we find the two genealogies of Jesus.  Each is slightly different, especially for the generations between David and Jesus.  Causing some to refer to the Lukan genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) as that of Mary, and the Matthean genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17)as that of Joseph.  But more interesting is the direction of the genealogies.  Matthew’s genealogy goes from Abraham to Jesus while focusing on David’s line in the middle. But Luke’s genealogy uncharacteristically goes from Jesus back to Adam.  The difference is not insignificant.  Each evangelist trying to communicate different messages with their genealogies.  Matthew’s gospel is emphasizing the redemptive history from Abraham to Jesus, and specifically the royalty of Jesus, as emphasized by highlighting King David.  Thus Matthew’s genealogy screams to the first-century reader, “this is the King,” “here comes the Kingdom of God,” “here comes redemption”.  A message which is very consistent with the themes of Matthew.  Luke’s genealogy however, goes back to Adam, thus emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, the truth that Jesus comes from the first man, like each of us.  It is also a reminder that through Adam sin entered the world, but through Jesus sin will be destroyed.

For the astute reader out there, you will be quick to find discrepancies when comparing the various genealogies.  Give yourself a nice pat on the back for being observant, but don’t worry you haven’t discredited the Bible.  Remember that the Bible is an ancient document written to ancient people (not us), who had different priorities when recording life, history, and ancestry.  Even the infamous genealogical term ‘beget’ is loose enough to skip entire generations (see past blog).   So we should be cautious to proof text genealogies against each other.  Paul warns Timothy and Titus to avoid controversies over genealogies (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 3:9).  We should probably adhere to that advice as well and simply allow the genealogies to speak the messages they were meant to speak, no more, no less.

The Genealogies of the Bible

1. Cain’s  Gen. 4:16-24
2. Adam’s Gen. 5:1-32
3. Japheth’s Gen. 10:1-5; 1 Chron. 1:5-7
4. Ham’s Gen. 10:6-20; 1 Chron. 1:8-16
5. Shem’s Gen. 10:22-31; 11:10-30; 1 Chron. 1:17-27
6. Abraham’s Gen. 25:1-4, 12-18; 1 Chron. 1:28-34
7. Isaac’s Gen. 25:19-23
8. Jacob’s Gen. 49:1-27; 1 Chron. 2:1-2
9. Esau’s Gen. 36:1-43;1 Chron. 1:35-42
10. Judah’s 1 Chron. 2:3-12; 4:1-4
11. Simeon’s 1 Chron. 4:24-38
12. Reuben’s 1 Chron. 5:1-8
13. Levi’s 1 Chron. 6:1-53
14. Issachar’s 1 Chron. 7:1-5
15. Benjamin’s 1 Chron. 7:6-12
16. Naphtali’s 1 Chron. 7:13
17. Asher’s 1 Chron. 7:30-40
18. Jesse’s 1 Chron. 2:13-17
19. Caleb’s 1 Chron. 2:18-20, 42-55
20. David’s 1 Chron. 3:1-24
21. Ephraim’s 1 Chron. 7:20-27
22. Pharez’s Ruth 4:18-22
23. Jesus’     a. The genealogy of Mary Luke 3:23-38      b. The genealogy of Joseph Matt. 1:1-17

Cited:
H.L. Willmington, Willmington’s Book of Bible Lists (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1987), 118.

What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

February 17, 2010

What does the adage "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first" have to do with the workers in the vineyard?

Reference: Matthew 20 Matthew 20:16

Question:

What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”  And what does it have to do with the parable of the vineyard workers?

Answer:

The meaning of Jesus’ curious statement about the first and last role reversal has everything to do with the parable that precedes it.  I have said in previous posts that parables should not be treated as strict allegories.  In other words, we should avoid assigning a specific meaning to every element of a parable.  However, there are some overwhelming first-century symbols that cannot be overlooked.  In this parable we find just such a symbol… the vineyard.  Remember, we need to hear this parable as the first century listeners would have heard it.  Considering that important interpretive note, the idea of the vineyard takes on a potent meaning that cannot be ignored.

The vineyard was an analogy for the people of Israel (see Isaiah 5 or Psalm 80). The vineyard was a symbol of Israel and its promised prosperity.  With this knowledge the message of the parable becomes much clearer.  Thus the workers who come late still get to take part in the reward of the vineyard and its owner. Jesus is communicating a radical message to the leaders and the people of Israel that says, ‘the Kingdom of God has been opened up to the Gentiles too’.  The nation of Israel may have been first, but that doesn’t mean that others cannot receive the blessing.

Thus, when Jesus says “those who are last now will be first, and those who are first will be last” we must interpret it in light of Jesus message about Jews and Gentiles.  This is more than just a comment on pride and humility.  Jesus is suggesting that the ones who show up later, the Gentiles, have just as prominent a place in the kingdom of God as the Jews.  The trouble is that this does not sit well with those who were already there.  In Verses 10 and 11 one can see the discontent of the workers who showed up first.  It is there that you get a sense of what it means for the first to be last.   For those who think they deserve more and they get less, it feels like losing.  But what Jesus is really saying is that there is no distinction between those who arrive early and those who arrive late (Jews and Gentiles respectively).

Today this message applies to the Church.  Sometimes the Church can be so closed off from the world.  The message for those of us who know Jesus already is that we should long for all people to partake in the same reward that we ourselves receive when we follow after Jesus.

Subtle Contradictions in Scripture (How long did the Exodus plagues take?)

February 17, 2010

Do the plagues contradict each other?

Reference: Exodus 9

Question:

How long was the period of time of the different plagues? It seems that it must have been many years because in one plague God killed all the livestock and then later the livestock had boils.

Answer:

It is difficult to tell exactly how long the Exodus Plagues took.  Thankfully it’s not important at all.  Some students of the Bible might like to go through and count  days, weeks, tomorrows, etc. that are mentioned in Exodus 7 through 11 (e.g. Exodus 7:25).  This rough calculation ends up somewhere in the vicinity of 2 weeks to a month.  But this doesn’t account for larger (unmentioned) time spans that could have occurred between other plagues.  We cannot comment on things that scripture leaves unsaid.   The fact is that the author of Exodus does not tell us how long the process took.  Probably because it doesn’t matter.

But what do we do with the apparent contradiction in this chapter?

In chapter 9, it says that all the livestock of the Egyptians were killed (Exodus 9:6), but later in the same chapter we see that livestock of the Egyptians were subject to other plagues.  The following plague of the boils stuck the “animals” in the land.  It does not say “livestock”, in fact it is a completely different word in the original Hebrew.  Livestock refers to the animals raised for human use.  Animals is a broader term that encompasses all animals.  Thus, we don’t need to jump to the conclusion that livestock had repopulated Egypt in time to be struck with boils.  However, in the subsequent plague, the plague of hail, it alludes to the fact that the Egyptian livestock were subject to the horrible hail storm.  Also, in chapter 14 Pharaoh and his army chase after the Israelites on their horses, so clearly there were livestock still alive in Egypt.  How could there be livestock if they had all been killed in the fifth plague?  What explanation could there be for that?

Well, I could be a smart-alek and point out that God said back in verse 3 of chapter 9 that he would strike down the livestock ‘in the field’. Thus, those livestock that were not outside would not have been affected by the plague against the livestock.  That answer doesn’t sit well with me though.  We should never overlook words and details in scripture, but we should only give them the weight that their communicative intent warrants.   Proof-texting and word-for-word literalizing does the meaning of the text a disservice.  When interpreting scripture, we need to continually ask the question “what is this passage trying to communicate?”.   Exodus is not a historical document like we understand historical documents today.  Thus, even when we read in scripture what we would call contradictions, it does not diminish its truth or its weight for our lives.

This passage is not trying to communicate the subtleties of the plagues, it IS trying to communicate the power of God, the rescue of God, and the glory of God.  We also see the significance of what it means for the will of a man (Pharaoh) to contend with the will of God.  This is a significant theme throughout scripture, and here we see that although God gives us free will, ultimately God will not contend with our disobedience, and he will accomplish his perfect providential will.  In this case, part of that providential will was releasing his people from captivity.  The amount of time that the plagues took, or the appearance of what we might call a contradiction does not change what this passage was meant to say.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast. How do I interpret this parable?

February 3, 2010

Reference: Matthew 22:1-14

Original Question:

Could you please explain the end of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13. All the people who were coming to the feast  were wearing wedding clothes, except one. First, how did the guy without the clothes get into the feast? For us the feast means the feast in heaven and the wedding clothes are our new life in Christ. So can I get into heaven without putting on the new clothes?  Or was the reason to throw the man outside not for wearing the wrong clothes but because he couldn’t reply to the King’s question? He calls the man Friend, so he wasn’t mad at the beginning of the conversation.

Modified Question:

How do I interpret this parable (and others)?

A note on interpretation of parables:

The interpretation of parables is not an easy task, and this parable is considered by many to be THE MOST DIFFICULT to interpret.  Unfortunately parable interpretation is a difficult task that scholars have made even more difficult for centuries by ‘over interpreting’ the parables.  The tendency of most people (including historical smarties) is to apply allegory to the parable where it does not belong.  Allegory is a literary device that uses elements of a story to represent elements of real life.  The Wizard of Oz for example, is an allegory.  The Tin Man represents the industrial revolution, the Scarecrow represents the midwest farmer, etc.  Almost every character and setting in the story has some symbolic meaning.  Some parables have allegorical elements, but we must resist the temptation to allegorize the parables.  Usually they are simple stories that have a specific intent.  They are not all-encompassing allegories in which everything has some hidden meaning.  Jesus was not trying to speak in some hidden code.  Thus, in this parable, we should be slow to assign specific allegorical meanings to each element and instead ask the simple question, What is Jesus’ message here?

To do so though there are some things we need to know…

The Parable of the Feast in Matthew (an Explanation)

“Friend, where is your wedding garment” - 14th Century Russian icon of the 'Parable of the Feast'. Note the man on the right being bound and thrown out in the street.

First of all, we need to know WHO Jesus is talking to.  This will help a great deal with our understanding.  Remember, he’s not talking to us, though once we have come to an understanding of Jesus’ intent we can apply it to our lives.  For now though, Jesus is talking to some first century Palestinian audience.  Most likely he is addressing this parable to the religious leaders of Israel.  We can gather this given the context and tone of the previous parable, the immediate transition from the previous parable, and the opening of this parable “Jesus told them”, we can assume that “them” refers the religious leaders that he was already pissing off in chapter 21.

Secondly, we need to understand who this parable is about.  Like the previous parable in chapter 21, it is likely that this parable is also about the priests and Pharisees, though we might be able to apply this to the broader population of Israel.

Lastly, this parable is eschatological (see other posts dealing with eschatology).  It has to do with God’s coming kingdom.  We can gather this from the language of banquet and feast.  These terms would have been synonymous with the end times for first century listeners.  So also is the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” which would have been synonymous with judgment and the end.

Even with this little bit of knowledge we can begin to piece together the intent of this parable.  Essentially what Jesus is communicating to his listeners here is that it is often those who we may not expect who will be invited into the Kingdom.  Imagine what this would have been like for the Pharisees and teachers of the law to hear.  They think that they are a shoe-in for heaven, they think that they have lived there lives perfectly and all their ducks are in a row.  Jesus has other ideas though.  He sees a group of people who think that their merit and their Jewish-birth-status will earn them salvation.  They think that they are already there at the feast, but the reality is that they haven’t even responded to the invitation.

For us the message is simple. “The Kingdom is like a prepared banquet, and to refuse its invitation is to encounter judgment” (Snodgrass, 320).  It is a harsh message to be sure.  We would probably like it better if Jesus was more “nice guy” and just let everyone come without the whole destruction and killing part.  But remember that our God of grace and love is also a God of justice and judgment.

At the end of the parable we still need to deal with another part that can be a bit confusing.  The last 3 verses (Matt. 22:11-13) are thought by some to be part of another parable that was added on to this one.  Whether or not that is true, we still need to deal with the intent of what Jesus was trying to say, when he talks about a man who was at the feast without the proper clothes for the wedding feast.

Fortunately we have already dealt with who Jesus is addressing and to what the parable is referring.  In this apparent addendum to the parable we are dealing with a man who has shown up without proper wedding clothes.  Likely his clothes are his every day dirty clothes.  Some of us may be tempted to equate the wedding clothes of the other guests as “being clothed in the righteousness of Christ” or something similar, but that is the kind of allegorizing that we should avoid.  We need to deal with Jesus’ intent toward a first century Jewish audience, not our own external understanding and Christian imagery.  “What is important is that the man made no preparation to wear something fitting to the feast he chose to attend” (321).  Simply put, this man in his dirty clothes represents those unrighteous people who make no preparation for the coming Judgement of God.  Again, these are harsh themes, but they are important for us as we look toward the return of Christ and consider our own preparation and the pursuit of those who are far from God.

Because of the complexity, length, and two-part nature of this parable it has more than one theme.  It has three…

1. The refusal of Israel’s religious leaders to respond to the invitation to the banquet.

2. The gathering of the kingdom of God

3. The separation that takes place at Judgment.

There is no need to assign specific meaning to the man’s non-response at the end, or the king’s initial reference to him as ‘friend’.  The important thing is that he showed up for the banquet unprepared and he was Judged accordingly.  This is a hard teaching for us but the message for our lives should be very clear.  We need to be ready for the banquet.  Christ promised that he would come “and come quickly” (Revelation 22:12 NASB).  Our task is to ready our lives and the lives of others that we meet. Whether we like to hear about God’s Judgement or not does not make its reality any more or less real.  Fortunately, our salvation is based not on our merit but on Christ’s work on the cross.  Our readiness then, is the product of believing in him.  If we believe in him, our lives will reflect the kind of clothes we are supposed to be wearing to the banquet.

See Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass