Posts Tagged ‘Interpretation’

For I know the plans I have for WHO? (Jeremiah 29:11)

March 25, 2010

Reference: Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

Question:
I want to know, is this verse for EVERYONE? I mean, does God really have plans for EVERYONE to prosper? Because it seems to me like he doesn’t.  I’m curious as to who Jeremiah was written and the context and all that stuff.

Answer:
This is one of my all time favorite passages.  But before I slip into Bible geek mode I want to clarify that, yes, God does have plans for us and they are plans to prosper us.  God wants our restoration, he desires our healing, he desires our reconciliation.  Sometimes we don’t experience any of that until we see Jesus face to face, but in the end God’s plans will be realized, and the hope we have in Jesus will be a physical reality as well as a spiritual reality (see post on present suffering).

Jeremiah 29:11 is so beautifully articulated through the prophet that we love to memorize it and make it into songs.  That said, it is often misinterpreted because we remove it from its context.  Jeremiah was not speaking to you and me, he was speaking to the people of Judah who were being exiled to Babylon (a long long way from home, see map).  Specifically, he is trying to set the record straight because some other prophets have been giving bad information to the people.  Look at Jeremiah Chapter 28.  In this Chapter we see the prophet Hananiah who is falsely telling the people of Israel that they will only be in Babylon for 2 years.  He’s lying.  Jeremiah (the true prophet) knows that the people will be there longer than one generation (70 years).  That is what Jeremiah 29 is all about.  He is telling the people to settle in, build homes, get married…ultimately the message is be a blessing to Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Being a blessing to the people around them is supposed to be the whole mission of Israel as a nation (Genesis 12:1-3), Jeremiah’s message reminds them that their mission doesn’t stop just because they are living in a different place.

Judah (The Southern Kingdom of Israel) was conquered by Babylon and taken into exile.

When the Lord says through Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you,” he is not suggesting that bad things will never happen to the people.  Obviously that’s not true because he is saying it to them right in the midst of one of the most traumatic moments in their history.  No, he says this to them so that they will find peace (“shalom”) in the midst of their trials.  The kind of peace that reminds them that God is in control, that he will not leave them, and that restoration will come.

So what are the plans that God has for Israel? Well, the plans have never changed.  God had promised from the beginning that he would give them land (Genesis 17:8), and that they would be a blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3), a blessing that we now know is Jesus Christ himself.  The plans had not changed, and God is reassuring them that he knows the plan, an it’s a good one.

So what does this mean for us?  For one thing, it means that we should be seeking to be a blessing to the people around us, our communities, our schools, our under-resourced neighbors.  That’s what Jeremiah was telling the people, that they should be “seeking the prosperity of the city”, and Babylon was their great enemy, wow!  God wants our lives to be a blessing to others, even our enemies.

God is also teaching his people that they shouldn’t be looking for a quick fix.  Quick fixes are the words of politicians and false profits (see Jeremiah 28).  But the people were going into exile for 70 years!!!  You think you’ve got problems?  Try getting dragged from your home by an army into a land that wants to strip you of your culture and indoctrinate your children.  Yet in the midst of such trials, God reminds us “I’m in control”, “I’ve got the screenplay”, “I know the plans”.   The idea that God has plans for us that will give us hope and a future, we also need to be prepared for the fact that their future, their hope, may not be realized until long after we are dead.  The reality is that many Israelites died while in Babylon.  If you left your home when you were 30 years old, you could count on the fact that you were never going to see home again.  BUT, your children will.  For us when we thing of the future we are usually only thinking of our own life, but God sees lives and generations beyond our own.  Remember, he is much bigger than us, so when he says to the people, “I have plans for your future”, he sees a MUCH bigger future than we do.

Lastly, the idea of ‘prosperity’ can be confusing.  The NIV translates the Hebrew word shalom as ‘prosper’ here, the NLT translates it as ‘good’.  Both are true, but neither captures the full picture of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’.  This word is a theologically loaded word that is so much more than a modern Hebrew greeting, more than just ‘peace’, and more than experiencing a good life.  The idea of shalom refers to whole-world restoration, wholeness, fullness, completeness.  It is a communal word that looks forward to the welfare and health of the nation and indeed the world.  It has cosmic implications, not just individual implications.

At the end of the day the truth of this passage (though not spoken to us) should teach us that God is in control.  Even when the situation is as bad as it could possibly get, like it was for Israel at this time, we should trust that God is intimately aware of our situation and that his big-picture plans will not be thwarted.  The sovereignty of God (his incontroledness), should give us great hope.  When it seems like life is falling apart he still holds us close to him, he cares for us, even to the point of death.   Jeremiah 29:11 is a powerful reminder of that hope.

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 in the world is Jesus talking about in Mark Chapter 13?

March 14, 2010

The Jerusalem Temple, remains of the western wall (

Reference: Mark 13:14-37

Question:
In my understanding, Jesus is taking about the end times in Mark 13:14-37. So how can you explain that Jesus is saying that “this generation” will experience the end times (referring to Mark 13:30) and now almost 2000 years after that this generation is gone and Jesus didn’t come back yet?

Answer:
The fact that Jesus is speaking of the end times is not in doubt, the question is, “what are the ‘end times’?” Often, when we think of the end times we think of the last days of the earth when Christians will be ‘raptured’ up to God and the rest will be ‘left behind’ (you know what I’m talking about). The reality is that we are living in the end times right now and have been since the time of Jesus. Jesus’ on this earth arrival ushered in the beginning of the end times. The end times is the coming of the Kingdom of God and the ousting-out of the kingdom of Satan. The Kingdom of God is the reign and rule of God through which the perfection of his creation will be reinstated on this earth, not as something new but as something RE-newed. That which is broken will be restored, that which is sick will be healed, that which is lost will be redeemed, etc.

All this to say, the end times is not something we wait for and fret about, we are living in the end times now and we are called to be an active part of bringing God’s Kingdom to this earth. What we wait for and what we long for, as believers, is the return of Jesus when he will bring this cosmic redemption to completion. In the meantime, we live in the tension of the already-but-not-yet nature of this age. In other words, Jesus has ALREADY ushered in his Kingdom, but NOT YET has it come in its fullness (see post on present suffering).

To the question at hand, yes Jesus is talking about end times, but he is not talking about some far-distant thing that will happen just before he returns. The realities that he mentions are end-times realities, but he is actually being much more specific, talking about something much closer to his contemporaries. Namely, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. See Post on Matthew 16:28.

This entire passage of Mark 13:1-31 is based around Jesus’ statement to his disciples about the temple in Mark 13:2, “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” It is not insignificant that the context of this passage is a discussion about the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is looking toward the future destruction of the Temple (a historical event that took place in 70A.D.) and telling his disciples both what they can expect and how they should live their lives.

What the disciples can expect:

False Messiahs 13:6,22
Wars 13:6-8
Earthquakes 13:8
Famines 13:8
Persecution and trials 13:9,11,13
Dissension within families 13:12
The Abomination that Causes Desolation 13:14
Sun and moon darkened, stars fall from sky – 13:24-25
Son of man coming in power and glory – 13:26-27

What the disciples should be doing:

Watching 13:5
Don’t be alarmed 13:7
Be on guard 13:9,23
Preach the Gospel to All Nations 13:10
Don’t worry 13:11
Stand Firm – 13:13
Pray 13:18

The message about what followers of Jesus should be doing is clear… “Be ready!” But the words about what we can expect seem cryptic at best. Taken at face value it sounds like we should be looking for a time when the world is cosmically falling apart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that the end times must be getting close because we have an earthquake or hurricane. The end times are not getting close, we are living in the end times right now and we have been for 2000 years.  We should be living our lives in a state of constant readiness and constant vigilance in spreading the good news about Jesus.

Jesus here, is addressing something much more specific within the end times. He is answering the disciples question about the temple. Believe it or not, all of the events that Jesus speaks about in Mark 13 are events that can be linked to the destruction of the temple in 70A.D, or that happened before or near that event. I will briefly look at those listed above one by one…

False Messiahs – This was already an issue in first century Palestine when Jesus arrived on the scene. False messiahs were popping up all over the place. This was true before Jesus and after Jesus, and is not something reserved for the ‘end of all things’. Thus, it would not have been strange for there to have been false prophets and false messiahs leading up to the destruction of the Temple.

Wars – The Jerusalem Temple was torn down in the Jewish War with the Romans in 70 A.D. And we have seen many wars since.

Earthquakes – On the day that Jesus died, there was an earthquake that had significant implications on the Temple and its future destruction. In the moment of Jesus’ death the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom signifying the end of the age of temple worship which was soon to come (Matthew 27:51).

Famines – The great ancient historian Flavius Josephus records the Jerusalem famine saying “Now of those perished by famine in the city, the number was prodigious, and the miseries they underwent were unspeakable” (Josephus 192).

The Abomination that Causes Desolation – Whenever you see footnotes in your bible that cross reference other parts of the bible, go to that address and figure out what it means. Jesus knew scripture inside and out and he used it to teach his disciples. These are words taken from Daniel. This particular passage in Daniel is speaking about desecration of the Temple. Thus Jesus, again is referring to the Temple and what will happen to it, namely that ‘no stone will be left on another’ (Mark 13:2).

The Gospel must be preached to all nations – This happened in Acts chapter 2… “There were staying in Jerusalem God fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” (Acts 2:5). It is this group of people from every nation who heard the first sermon given by Peter.  While it is likely that not every nation under heaven was really there, we must take into account the figurative nature of the statement, and the fact that all known nations may have been represented.  Likewise, in Mark this may just as likely be a figurative statement about the need to preach the gospel to every nation before the Temple was destroyed.  Though we can be certain that it is the will of God that the Gospel be shared with every nation (even the one’s we don’t know about).

Persecution and Trials – One need only read the book of Acts to see the kinds of trials that Jesus’ followers went through in the years leading up to the destruction of the temple (Acts 8:1)

Sun and Moon Darkened – This is not a literal description of the universe falling apart, this is an allusion to Isaiah 13:10 and Isaiah 34:4, both of which use the same language to describe seismic shifts in the political landscape of Isaiah’s time, namely the fall of the Babylonian empire. Jesus uses the same figurative language to describe the fall of Jerusalem (that is Jesus being ironic).

Son of Man coming in Glory – Our classic view of the end times is that the ‘elect’ people will get to see Jesus floating down on the clouds. I won’t say that that is not true, but I will say that this statement by Jesus is not about the manner of Jesus’ arrival when he returns. Rather, it is about the shift that is taking place in the world as Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of God. The destruction of the Temple would be another powerful symbol that the Kingdom of God has arrived and the age of the Temple is over. Authority is shifting from the Temple to the Christ.

When Jesus ends his teaching to the disciples by saying, “THIS GENERATION will not pass away” (Mark 13:30), he is indeed referring to his contemporaries, the ones who could hear him speaking these words. They would soon experience the tragedy of seeing the Temple destroyed, some 40 years after his resurrection. However, this did not mean that Jesus would return immediately and the world would come to and end, rather, it was a powerful sign that the age of the Kingdom of God was being realized.

Cited

Flavius. Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus : Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1987), Wars 6.192

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.

Did God approve of slavery in the Old Testament?

February 5, 2010

Reference: Exodus 21:2-11

Question:

We simply can’t believe that God made the regulations for having slaves. Although we know that these regulations were a big deal at that time, it’s unbelievable for us that God literally said them. Wouldn’t God say that everybody belongs to him instead of to a person?

Could God really have condoned slavery?

Answer:

An entire volume could be dedicated toward the explanation of this topic, but this is a blog, so I will try to keep it brief.

For obvious reasons, it is very difficult for us to justify the issue of slavery as it is presented in several parts of scripture.  First of all, the idea of possessing or owning another person is detestable to us, as it should be.  The other reason that we find this so difficult is because the primary understanding that our westernized culture has of slavery comes from the history of African slaves and their experience in Europe and the Americas during the 16th through the 19th century.  Even today people of African decent still feel the effects of that racist system that was abolished a hundred and fifty years ago.  Perhaps the most intriguing issue with slavery in the book of Exodus is the fact that God just rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, so it seems that there is an inherent contradiction within the culture if there is any acceptance of slavery.

In an effort to answer the question above as it pertains specifically to God and slavery, I will approach the question with a mind toward faithful Biblical interpretation.  There are 3 angles from which we can better understand slavery in the Bible, cultural context, textual context, and theological context (the latter of which will give the most concise answer concerning God).  I will stay away from doing any in depth language or other exegetical work and I will keep this post focused on the Old Testament, as there will likely be future posts on slavery in the New Testament.

The Practice of Slavery in its Cultural Context

As with any difficult issue of interpretation in the bible we must not underestimate the importance of cultural context.  It is too complicated an issue to simply say “slavery was accepted in the ancient near east” and then brush it aside.  But it is important that we understand that the kind of slavery referred to in the Mosaic Law is a different kind of slavery than the African slavery in U.S. history or the sex slavery that is still so prevalent today.  Even when Exodus was written there were different kinds of slavery.  There was prisoner of war slavery, in which prisoners became the property of the nation or army that captured them in battle; there was the chattel slavery, in which slaves were captured, sold, and traded as the Israelites had experienced in Egypt (this can be likened to the capture and sale of Africans during the African diaspora).  Lastly, there was a kind of slavery called debt slavery, in which individuals or families would submit themselves to temporary or permanent slavery as a means of paying off a debt or taking care of their families.  It is the later kind of slavery, debt slavery, to which the laws in Exodus refer.

All forms of slavery are economic in nature.  Some though, are more socially balanced than others.  When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt there there was no social balance to speak of.  In other words, they were captured and forcefully put to work so that Egypt would have free labor for which the slaves received nothing but cruelty from their masters.  Debt slavery however, works much differently.  Debt slavery was a part of a social structure that allowed for the poor to care for themselves.  Sadly, this was the lot of the poor and destitute in ancient society.  For the poor there were few options for them to pay off their debts or earn a wage that would allow them to survive.  In such cases they could (by their own free will) submit themselves to a slave/master relationship in which they would work for a certain amount of years (depending on the size of they’re debt) in return for their debt being released or paid for.  While this is not an ideal situation, and led to many abuses, there is a clear difference between this kind of slavery and chattel slavery which was explicitly forbidden by God (Exodus 21:16).

In ancient near eastern culture the practice of debt slavery would have been common.  What would not have been common were laws designed to protect the slaves, as we see in Exodus 21 and elsewhere.  Thus, God was providing a means of protection for people who otherwise would not have had rights at all.

The Practice of Slavery in Its Broader Biblical Context

It is not enough though to acknowledge that slavery was an accepted part of the ancient social structure and then move on.  These laws are still difficult to swallow, so we need to understand them in their broader textual context.  As we read through the Law of Moses in Exodus through Deuteronomy we need to remember that the Law works much differently then our laws today.  Unlike our laws, the laws of Israel did not stand alone, they complemented each other, leaned on each other, and relied on each other.  There are 613 different laws from Exodus through Deuteronomy and none of them stands in isolation, they support and sustain the whole (Bruckner).

In other words, if you are going to fully understand the laws on Slavery, you need to understand ALL of the laws together.  They cannot stand on their own.  For example, we cannot simply read the first few verses of Exodus and assume that all slavery was okay, because later in the same chapter we see that the kidnapping of people and selling of slaves is forbidden (Exodus 21:16).  Furthermore, we cannot fully understand the social structure of debt Slavery within the Jewish faith without fully embracing the idea of ‘debt release’ as prescribed in the Law’s teaching on the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25).  The year of Jubilee was an unprecedented time of renewal, redemption, and forgiveness that God prescribed in his law.  It took place every fiftieth year.  In the verses below you see what represents a radical protection of the poor who otherwise would have been subject to harsh treatment as slaves.

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. 40 Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee… 42 The people of Israel are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, so they must never be sold as slaves. 43 Show your fear of God by not treating them harshly.” Leviticus 25:39-43

The astute observer would note that the next verses in Leviticus state that for the foreigner it is okay to purchase them as slaves and treat them as property (Leviticus 25:44-46).  These words seem hard, yes, but we must not forget the many laws that protect and advocate for the foreigner, as well as the foreign slave.  God reminds the Israelites often that they too, “were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

The Practice of Slavery in the Broader Theological Context

Ultimately, the question that we need to wrestle with here is ‘how could God allow for this within the community of his people?’  God is not advocating for slavery in these passages.  God abhors the inequality that exists in our world .  No human can belong to another because we all belong to God (Psalm 24:1).  But we must not forget that the laws that God provides in Exodus are for a broken society living in a broken world.  The system of slavery (be it debt slavery or chattel slavery) is a powerful reminder of that brokenness.  The Law does not bring redemption of that brokenness, only Jesus Christ can do that.  Thus, when God gave Law and regulations concerning slavery, that did not constitute an acceptance of that broken system, it was more like a bandage given to his people to help protect those who were marginalized in society.  At the end of the day though, salvation and redemption do not come through the Law, but through Christ (Galatians 2:16)

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

Does Jesus show a preference to Jews over Gentiles?

February 2, 2010

Reference Verse: Matthew 15:22-28, Mark 7:24-30

Question:

Jesus’ reply is that he doesn’t help gentiles and only helps God’s people.  Why does he wait for her to beg and then reluctantly help her?

Answer:

Was Jesus rude to the Gentile woman?

As much as we would like to, we cannot remove Jesus from his culture.  He was a first century Palestinian man of the Jewish faith.  When we interpret Jesus we must interpret him through that lens.  Thus, we cannot come to scripture with our preconceived notions about how he is supposed to behave.  Ultimately such a thing almost is impossible to do, but as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle”.  And when we interpret scripture, we need to know that Jesus doesn’t usually fit our mold, as much as we’d like him to.

Jesus’ response to this Canaanite woman (Syrophoenician in Mark) is a tough one to swallow for obvious reasons.  We usually have a picture in our mind of a warm and loving Jesus who tells stories to little Children.  But here he seems downright rude.  He basically refers to non-Jews, and this woman in particular as ‘dogs’.  Certainly not a term of endearment!  One of the interpretive difficulties that we face here is that we only have the text from which to judge the conversation.  There is no way to discern the tone of what Jesus and the woman are saying.

What if, perhaps, Jesus said this seemingly harsh response with a hint of sarcasm and a twinkle in his eye?  He replied to the woman’s request, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  To which the woman, with keen understanding about the culture, bantered back with Jesus wit for wit by saying “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  If looked at in a different light the conversation can take on a whole new character.

We often take Jesus’ tone to be so serious that we have a hard time imagining that he could have wit, or a sense of humor.  But given the woman’s response, and what we know to be true of Jesus love and compassion for the marginalized in society, this scenario is perfectly legitimate, and perhaps most likely.

That said though, we still need to wrestle with the issue of Jesus and his call to serve the Children of Israel first.  Remember, that the nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all people (Genesis 12: 2-3; Galatians 3:8).  When Jesus came he was definitely not rejecting the Gentiles, on the contrary, he went out of his way to care for them (John 4) and they went out of their way to seek him for healing (Matthew 8:5-13).  Still though, Jesus was sent as a Jew, to the Jews.  He came urging the Children of Israel, and the leaders of Israel to remember their call to the nations.  In Mark 15 Jesus’ anger toward the teachers of the Law reached its limit when he overturned the tables in the temple.  This was not in response to the practice of selling things in the temple, it was in response to the fact that Gentiles were being excluded from Temple worship, even though the Temple was supposed to be “a house of worship for ALL nations.”  So clearly, Jesus was not exclusive in his teaching or healing, but still, his mission was to the Jews.  This was even reflected in his sending out of the 12 disciples in Matthew 10.  There he gave them explicit instructions only to go to the “lost sheep of Israel”.  Only later after Jesus death and resurrection would the message be sent to the rest of the world.  Jesus ministry was to the Jews, but the Holy Spirit and the Church would be given a mission to the whole world.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus says to his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But note that this was after his death and resurrection.  Through his blood, Jesus brought reconciliation to Jews and Gentiles.  So he could say to his disciples in Matthew 28, to “go into ALL the world”.

In the Gospel of John there is another strange interaction between Jesus and some Gentiles (John 12:20-23).  A group of ‘Greeks’ came seeking Jesus, but rather then speaking to them, Jesus speaks to His disciples and says “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory”.  Weird, right?   Something significant occurred when those Greeks showed up to see Jesus.  When these ‘unclean’ gentiles came to Jesus, it signified to him that something was about to happen, namely, his crucifixion.  Gentiles were coming to him, and it was time to make a way for them to receive the full blessing of Abraham.  Ultimately it would be Jesus death on the cross that would break down the barrier between the Jews and the rest of the world (See Galatians 3:26-29).

Jesus was a radical who did radical things.  And through him, dividing walls like those between Jews and Gentiles were torn down.  But we must be careful not to interpret Jesus inside the vacuum of our own limited understanding of culture and the world.

Questions about the psalms of David?

January 19, 2010

What do David's Psalms tell us about David, and us?

Question 1:

The Psalms of David seem to bounce back and forth between praising God for taking out his enemies, and then asking God where he went when his enemies are defeating him.  Who was attacking David?

Answer 1:

Like most people throughout the course of their lives, David experienced highs and lows.  There were times when he felt like he was victorious and things were going well, and there were times when it seemed like the whole world was crashing in around him.  David’s first attacker was King Saul.  David had been hired by Saul as a musician in his courts.  But following Saul’s rejection as King by God and David’s famous defeat of Goliath it slowly became clear to Saul that David would be a rival to his throne because he was so loved by the people.  David became a fugitive and was pursued by Saul (1 Samuel 19 see also 2 Samuel 3:1).  It was in the midst of this that David wrote many Psalms that spoke both of his triumphs and his defeats (see intro to psalm 18).

David was also a great warrior king, in fact David spilled so much blood during his reign that God would not allow him to build the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.  The primary enemy was the Philistines, but also included the Moabites, the Edomites, and other enemies of Israel.  David was victorious in almost everything that he did but he had trials too (see intro to Psalm 56)

Sadly, one of David’s final enemies was his eldest son Absalom, who rebelled against David to take the throne (see Psalm 3).

Question 2:

How should the Psalms be viewed? David comes off as prideful and unloving at many times. Building himself up in the sight of God. My thought was that they should be viewed as a study of how stress and constant anguish can take its toll on a person, and how humans cry out for vengeance, while God cries out for love. What’s the dilly?

Answer 2:

There is a bit more going on in this question.  The first issue “how should the Psalms be viewed?” is a question about interpretation.  It is important that we view the Psalms for exactly what they are, poems.  Some of them are songs, some of them are prayers, others are expressions of wisdom, while others are liturgies used for worship services.  Just like songs today, they capture the most raw emotions of the human spirit, and they run the range of human emotion.  One of the great things about the psalms is that they can help us find words for our own circumstances today.  If David seems prideful in one psalm and depressed in another, this does not advocate these feelings as virtues, rather, it speaks to issues and feelings that all people experience, and it reminds us that we can go to God as we are.

I would not be too quick to say that the psalms of David are a commentary on human anguish or a cry for vengeance, nor would I want to suggest that humans are all about vengeance while God ‘cries out for love’.  The narratives in 1 & 2 Samuel help us with the commentary of the psalms.  In 1 Samuel you see that David actually had mercy on Saul (his greatest enemy), sparing his life on multiple occasions (1 Samuel 24 & 26).  David never murdered Saul, Saul killed himself.  Similarly, David asked that his son Absalom not be hurt when David’s army went out to meet him (2 Samuel 18:12), and David grieved over his loss when Absalom was killed (2 Samuel 18:31-33).  So it must be more than a simple commentary on the vengeful nature of humans.  Likewise, it is God who is enables the victories of David (see 2 Samuel 5:9-10) so we cannot make such a simple commentary that God is love and humans are vengeful because God helped David win some bloody battles.  While God certainly is a loving God, he is also a God of justice, vengeance, and wrath (see post on Atonement).  Those are the ones that no one ever wants to talk about.

“I haven’t seen faith like this is all Israel!”

January 12, 2010

Question:

In Matthew 8:10 Jesus said that:”… I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!”  Since Jesus is God he’s been present since the be beginning of all time, does that mean the there’s never been somebody in Israel with faith like this officer?

Answer:

There are two things going on in this question.  One is a question of Jesus’ omnipresence (presence everywhere all the time), and one is a question of the centurion’s faith.  But what is the verse about?  That is the most important thing.

Jesus uses the Centurion as an example of great faith.

There is no doubt from scripture that Jesus was omnipresent God, present from before the very beginning.  In John 8:58 Jesus says, “before Abraham was born, I am”.  This is not only a statement of Jesus’ deity, but of his presence all places at all time.  But Matthew 8:10 is not a moment where Jesus is trying to emphasize his omnipresence, rather it is a moment where he is trying to emphasize the centurion’s great faith.  The response of people hearing Jesus say these words would not have been, “wow, this guy must really be faithful because Jesus is God and he would really know who the most faithful person in history is.”  No, their response would have been, “really?!?! a gentile? a roman centurion has greater faith then a jew?!?”  Jesus statement has shock value because he is not only pointing out that a non-Jew can have real faith, but he is also indicting the Jew’s around him who have not seen him for who he really is.  Instead, the least likely of people has correctly identified Jesus as the God and Lord that he is.