Read This Book 3: How Paul ‘Misuses’ the Old Testament

Wayyyyy back at the beginning of the semester, we started reading Peter Enns‘ Inspiration and Incarnation, a book that honestly tackles the problems posed by a traditional literalistic reading of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. He first focused on the creation question, then moved to internal contradictions or “theological diversity” and, after meandering through all of the other required readings in the class, we finish with Enns’ final chapter: How the Old Testament is used by New Testament writers.

He argues, rightly I think, that if we heard a preacher using the Old Testament the way Paul, Matthew and even Jesus did, we would say he or she was misusing, even abusing, the text.

For example, in Galatians 3:16, Paul says this:

The promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant. It doesn’t say, “and to the descendants,” as if referring to many rather than just one. It says, “and to your descendant,” who is Christ.

Most translations say “seed,” rather than descendent, and the Hebrew word similarly can be used in both singular and plural contexts. But no matter. The fact is in all the passages promising land to Abraham and his seed, the context is clearly plural, not singular. (Gen. 13:15: “All the land that you see I will give to you and your descendants forever.”)

Why would Paul do this? If a preacher said such a thing, we’d question why he wasn’t telling the truth.

In Romans 11:26, Paul quotes the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah:

In this way, all Israel will be saved, as it is written:

The deliverer will come from Zion.
He will remove ungodly behavior from Jacob.
This is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.

Except the relevant passage, Isaiah 59:20, actually says:

A redeemer will come to Zion
and to those in Jacob
who stop rebelling,
says the LORD.

It’s a small change, but it completely changes the meaning of the prophecy. Paul simply adapts it for his purposes, seemingly disregarding its actual meaning.

That’s one class of interpretive creativity on the part of New Testament authors. Examples also can be found in Matthew, quoting Hosea, and Hebrews, quoting the Psalms. The other class of creativity is the addition of facts not found in or supported by the Old Testament text. Continue reading Read This Book 3: How Paul ‘Misuses’ the Old Testament

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A Tough Job

Our professor in class talked about the two kinds of wisdom presented by the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament – constructive and deconstructive. The former is found mostly in Proverbs. It contains keys for “the good life,” maxims that generally prove true and provide glimpses into how to be successful and happy during your time on earth.

But most of the biblical Wisdom literature is actually deconstructive – describing or questioning the fact that, for many people who do the right things, the good life doesn’t actually happen. Instead, they suffer and die. These texts can be stupefyingly depressing, especially so in Ecclesiastes:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no one to comfort them. Their oppressors wield power—but they have no one to comfort them. So I declare that the dead, who have already died, are more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But happier than both are those who have never existed, who haven’t witnessed the terrible things that happen under the sun.

Happy Monday!

In truth, the Wisdom texts of the Bible appear to be in conversation with each other, and the conclusion they reach is unsatisfying. Because they ultimately do not reach a conclusion, do they? Sometimes we think they do – we’ve probably been taught that they do – but what is it?

Continue reading A Tough Job

When God Makes Fun of You

We focused the past two weeks on Wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, those often-abused or -ignored books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. They aren’t easy books – I could do a whole post about the numerous problems raised by Job’s portrayal of God, and Ecclesiastes is the hands-down winner of the Most Cynical Biblical Text Award – and I don’t think the way we’ve traditionally used them does these texts any favors.

I’m thinking specifically of Proverbs, which contains 31 chapters of allegories and maxims that pretty clearly should not be taken literally; rather, they give good advice and often speak of how things usually – but not always – work. In fact, I think most Christians would agree with this. After all, it’s hard to look at the subsequent, contradicting verses in Proverbs 26:4-5 without thinking perhaps these are not meant to be commandments:

Don’t answer fools according to their folly,
or you will become like them yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will deem themselves wise.

Yet I grew up being taught in the literalness of at least some proverbs, especially 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14 and 29:15:

Those who withhold the rod hate their children,
but the one who loves them applies discipline.

Folly is bound up in a child’s heart;
the rod of discipline removes it.

Don’t withhold instruction from children;
if you strike them with a rod, they won’t die.
Strike them with a rod,
and you will save their lives from the grave.

The rod and correction lead to wisdom,
but children out of control shame their mothers.

And then there’s the classic 14:34, the prooftext used for keeping prayer in schools, criminalizing abortion, prohibiting gay marriage and whatever else the speaker defines as “righteous.”

Righteousness dignifies a nation,
but sin disgraces a people.

Here’s the problem, though. Continue reading When God Makes Fun of You

Is Left Ever Right?

Apologies for the slow week. Our big semester-end paper is this week, which has meant late nights and the corresponding late mornings, and when I wake up late in the morning, the blog gets axed.

Scot McKnight must have known my family when I was growing up:

Among conservative evangelicals moving to the right seems never to be wrong.

Moving to the left, however, is either on the way to being wrong or is in fact already wrong (for the right).

To the left is a slippery slope, to the right is faithfulness (even if it is extreme).

Indeed.

Continue reading Is Left Ever Right?