Isaiah’s Four Sons

220px-IsaiahIt doesn’t take much interaction with biblical criticism to understand that the New Testament writers do some crazy things with their Old Testament sources. Probably the most notorious of these is when Matthew 2:15 turns Hosea 11:1, which clearly is talking about the exodus, into a prophecy for Jesus’ flight to and return from Egypt.

We ended our class on Monday talking about that and one other particularly egregious “misuse” of the Old Testament, this one less well known. Hebrews 2:13 cites Isaiah 8:18, which says this:

Look! I and the children the Lord gave me are signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of heavenly forces, who lives on Mount Zion.

Before we get to how Hebrews uses the verse, what does Isaiah mean when he says, “the children the Lord gave me”? Our professor, an Old Testament scholar, pointed us to four verses.

First, the context for this verse is the Syro-Ephremite War, in which Judah’s King Ahaz is unsure what he should do in the wake of a joint attack on Jerusalem by Syria (Arem) and Israel (Ephraim). Isaiah comes in chapter 7 to give him counsel and in the course of his prophecy, four children are mentioned.

Continue reading Isaiah’s Four Sons

Love: It’s a Mind Thing, Too

250px-LovestampRachel Held Evans had a powerful set of posts last week detailing her problems with what she described as “the scandal of the evangelical heart.” She noted the often disturbing lengths to which evangelical Calvinists such as John Piper, Al Mohler and Mark Driscoll have gone to affirm the bigness and sovereignty of God, ascribing to him atrocities and tragedies that, were they correct, would turn God into a monster.

Rachel notes that many have criticized what I’ll call establishment evangelicalism for its anti-intellectual strain. She instead focuses on its stunning lack of grace, love or compassion.

But the questions that have weighed most heavily on me these past ten years have been questions not of the mind but of the heart, questions of conscience and empathy. It was not the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart. …

For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority?  What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?

In a followup post, she quotes from readers, one of whom makes a point similar to what I’ve argued on this blog before:

If “God is Love” is something that cannot be fathomed by our emotional understanding of love, then that verse has little meaning outside of any context people wish to place upon it. And placing a context upon ‘love’ that lies outside of our emotional understanding diminishes Christ’s loving sacrifice.

Rachel’s purpose in these posts is to defend the existence and use of emotion in our faith, and I certainly have no problems with that.

But I also want to affirm that love is not only emotion; those of us who are more “head” types than “heart” types can get this, too. Continue reading Love: It’s a Mind Thing, Too

The Time Jeremiah Accused God of Raping Him

250px-Jeremiah_lamentingThere’s been some discussion ever since my post about the Christian rock group P.O.D.’s use of the f-word in a song about appropriate means of addressing God. I’ve argued that God does not want nor expect us to hold back from letting him see the full range of our emotion in a time of crisis or tragedy, and if that range includes full-throated anger, so be it. Others, tending to emphasize God’s holiness, believe that there is a baseline of reverence that should be kept in place, no matter what.

But those folks need to deal with Jeremiah’s striking broadside against Yahweh in Jeremiah 20. The problem is most of our translators are wary to describe exactly what the prophet is accusing God of doing when he laments ever having accepted Yahweh’s call. The key verse is v.7. Here it is from an array of common translations (I’ve grouped ones that translate the bolded words the same:


(O) Lord, thou deceivedest me, and I am deceived; thou were stronger than I, and thou haddest the mastery; I am made into scorn all day. All men bemock me,

Geneva, KJV, RSV, ESV:

O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.

For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the Lordwas made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.


O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived;
You have overcome me and prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
Everyone mocks me.

NIV ’84/TNIV/NIV ’11:

O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived (footnotes include “persuaded” in both cases);
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.


O Lord, you misled me,
and I allowed myself to be misled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you overpowered me.
Now I am mocked every day;
everyone laughs at me.


You tricked me, Lord,
and I was really fooled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you have defeated me.
People never stop sneering
and insulting me.

The Message:

You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it.
You were too much for me.
And now I’m a public joke.
They all poke fun at me.


Lord, you enticed me, and I was taken in.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
Now I’m laughed at all the time;
everyone mocks me.

I think you get the idea. Kudos to the older translations. In this case, the KJV/RSV family use the stronger word, “deceived,” while more modern translators seem uncomfortable with the notion that God could deceive someone and so change it a little – the NIV adds a more anodyne verb in the footnotes, and the New Living Translation and the Message even seem to blame Jeremiah, although that sense is not at all in the original, which simply repeats the same verb.

But that verb has a context that goes even beyond “deceived.”

This was first pointed out by Abraham J. Heschel, in his 1962 book The Prophets. The verb patah is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example:

When a man seduces a young woman who isn’t engaged to be married yet and he sleeps with her, he must marry her and pay the bride-price for her. (Exodus 22:16)

The rulers of the Philistines confronted her and said to her, “Seduce him and find out what gives him such great strength and what we can do to overpower him, so that we can tie him up and make him weak. Then we’ll each pay you eleven hundred pieces of silver.” (Judges 16:5)

If my heart has been drawn to a woman
and I have lurked at my neighbor’s door, (Job 31:9)

Therefore, I will charm her,
and bring her into the desert,
and speak tenderly to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

while she’s a virgin,
that she not be seduced
and become pregnant
while still living at home;
when she’s married,
that she not go straying;
or having married,
that she not be infertile. (Sirach 42:10)

The typical context of patah is sexual, which makes the rest of the verse far darker:

Lord, you seduced me, and I was seduced.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.

The image of overpowering that follows seduction is less rhetorical and more physical. The image seems to be far closer to rape than any mere contest of wills. Indeed, this is exactly what Heschel argues, noting the second verb, hazak, usually translated “stronger” in Jeremiah 20:7, is also used elsewhere in a sexual context:

But if the man met up with the engaged woman in a field, grabbing her and having sex with her there, only the man will die. (Deuteronomy 22:25)

So the Levite grabbed his secondary wife and sent her outside to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning. They finally let her go as dawn was breaking. (Judges 19:25)

When she served him the food, he grabbed her and said, “Come have sex with me, my sister.”

So Heschel argues, “The words used by Jeremiah to describe the impact of God upon his life are identical with the terms for seduction and rape in the legal terminology of the Bible. (113)”

The overall impression is one of shame and embarrassment, especially given the mockery Jeremiah subsequently describes. Walter Baumgartner in Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament says the seduction language is only “a weak allusion” but when combined with the stronger language of the subsequent line, which he says is taken from wrestling, it is clear the prophet has “half willingly, half under coercion, placed himself in Yahweh’s service. … But now, like a girl stranded in shame, … he reaps nothing but scorn and derision” (74).

Needless to say, Heschel’s argument, while adopted by some, has also been opposed by others.

Continue reading The Time Jeremiah Accused God of Raping Him

Can Kingdom Work Include Gay Rights Advocacy?

220px-Stonewall_Inn_1969Last night, I sat down and read in its entirety, somehow for the very first time, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written 50 years ago this April. Doing so after what can only be termed the one of the most remarkable MLK Days we’ve ever witnessed was powerful indeed.

Not only did the federal holiday honoring King coincide with the second inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, a laughable impossibility during King’s lifetime, but President Obama’s speech directly tackled the civil rights cause of our time – the right of every couple to marry, regardless of gender.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

The reference to Stonewall is especially remarkable, as Obama placed it in line after the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and the voting rights march led by King himself in 1965. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City are considered the seminal moment in gay rights history, when LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn refused to be bullied any longer by the NYPD and began the push that is culminating before our eyes in the successful drive for gay marriage in multiple states across the country.

Equating gay rights with the civil rights era personified by King remains controversial in some circles, but less so in recent years – and rightly so, I’d argue. Race may be more clearly genetic than sexual orientation, which appears to be a complicated, even mysterious, mix of environmental and genetic factors, but the right of minorities, including sexual minorities, to be treated equally remains a driving force in American society. We should not close the book on racial equality just yet, but working on a new one simultaneously is not inappropriate. Indeed, gay rights and civil rights are more like chapters in the same book, rather than separate tomes entirely.

Which brings me back to King’s letter from Birmingham. The context, in case you’re unaware, was the criticism King and his  marchers had received from, of all people, local church leaders. King, as was his wont, issued a remarkable response, defending his passion for nonviolent resistance and leveling some eloquent – and richly deserved – criticism at those “moderate whites” who seemed to spend more time finding reasons not to support the cause of justice. In one section of the letter, King quotes from a letter he received from a white Texan arguing that since racial equality was inevitable, but that such things take time, and that King should not agitate for change that will happen in its own time.

King’s response is, of course, beautifully written, but it also dovetails with a theme of this blog lately, that God calls us to do kingdom work now, partnering with him in the restoration of all things and ensuring that his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Remove the word “racial” from the last sentence, and this could have written by any advocate for gay marriage rights today.

But should it be? Should gay rights be tied to “the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God”? Can Christians who advocate for marriage equality be performing kingdom work?

Continue reading Can Kingdom Work Include Gay Rights Advocacy?

What Is the Son of Man?

Son-of-ManThat’s a question I’ve had for a long time. Jesus’ self-appelation of the title in Matthew always seemed needlessly complicated, and I don’t recall ever receiving an answer that made much sense (which isn’t to say one wasn’t given). My main impression growing up – and until very recently, truth be told – was that the “Son of Man” was an arcane way of essentially asserting Jesus’ humanity, the human equivalent of his description, primarily in John, as the Son of God.

But that really sells the title short. In fact, until we understand the roots of the phrase and why Jesus uses it, we run the risk of badly misinterpreting what he is trying to say.

A great example is one my wife brought up the other day. Matthew 10:21-23 caps a series of verses in which Jesus sends out the disciples and promises persecution:

Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Given the context of Jesus sending the disciples out, the literal sense of this passage is that they will not make it far before Jesus returns (since he’s already there and cannot simply “come” unless he’s coming back, right?). Yet they did actually make it quite far, certainly outside the cities of Israel, and he still hasn’t come back. Was Jesus wrong?

Certainly some biblical scholars believe so. I offered to read up on the passage in some biblical commentaries during my weekly study night at the library, and here’s what I found (in chronological order):

Continue reading What Is the Son of Man?

Diachronic vs. Synchronic Theology Cage Match

images-1So I’m taking Old Testament Theology this semester, and since theology tends to make my head hurt, I wasn’t looking forward to it terribly, but after one class and 60 pages of one of our textbooks, it actually might be a fun class.

What little we’ve gone over has been the mention of the basic debate among those who study the theology presented by the Old Testament: synchronic vs. diachronic. Synchronic theologians find one overarching theme, or “center,” in the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of God and describe that as the text’s theology. Diachronic theologians argue there is no single theology at all, that the various sources of the Old Testament had different views of God, which are reflected in the text.

I tend to support the diachronic position, at least for now. I don’t see how one can look at the wide variety of Old Testament texts and find a single theology (although my professor, having already said he finds a synchronic theology there, I’m sure will do his best to open my eyes). God is presented alternately as distant and almighty, close and personal, unchanging and omniscient, or flexible and given to change his mind.

One of our textbooks for the semester is Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, by Gerhard Hasel (although “current” is somewhat relative, meaning here apparently current to a time when George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Saddam Hussein were the most powerful men in the world, but I digress). And working through the first chapter does not give me much reason to think differently.

Continue reading Diachronic vs. Synchronic Theology Cage Match

Evil: Always the Problem

ehrmangodsproblemMy wife pointed out a hole in the eschatology outlined last week in my review of N.T. Wright’s How God Became King. Namely, if Christians are called to make things better, to prepare the world for the arrival of the kingdom of God, which was inaugurated by the ministry and death of Jesus and proven by his resurrection – in other words, if God is currently king of the world to which he will return and physically rule at the end of time as we know it – then why does the world suck so much?

In other words, theodicy. Evil is the problem with this system.

But here’s the thing: Evil is the problem with every system.

Believe God is an all-powerful judge, waiting to destroy the world with fire and brimstone after rapturing his true followers to heaven? Believe God is the sympathizer-in-chief, stooping to identify personally with the grieving, the wounded, the outcast? Believe God is radically loving and gracious, to the extent that each and every person eventually will be welcomed into his presence?

Good for you. None of it explains the existence of evil.

Continue reading Evil: Always the Problem

Is Football Immoral?

Normal-v-CTE-brain-courtesy-Ann-McKeeWord came this week that Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, a star in the National Football League for 20 years who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest several months ago, did indeed have CTE, the degenerative brain disease that leads to significant neurological problems for its victims.

Seau is the highest-profile NFL player to have had the disease, but by no means has he been the only one. In fact, of 19 brains donated by the families of former NFL players to be studied, 18 have shown evidence of CTE. Seau’s case is also troubling in another aspect: He never once was diagnosed with a concussion, implying that the routine, subconcussive hits that take place in a football game are no less damaging when compiled over years of play.

This increasing knowledge of football’s detrimental, even deadly effects for its players could have profound consequences for the sport, even leading to its demise – either in a natural way as proposed in this Grantland piece, or because the game is forced to change its rules to such an extent that it simply isn’t the same game that has become the runaway favorite for Americans.

Frankly, this wouldn’t trouble me in the least. There is little doubt in my mind that the net effects of football in our society are negative – whether that’s the perverse incentives that lead coaches to be paid more than high school superintendents and college presidents or the glorification of aggression and violence for which millions tune in every Sunday. When history and science classes are routinely given to coaches who care nothing for the subject but need to teach so as to justify their salaries, something is decidedly wrong with the way we prioritize athletics – football, in particular – versus academics.

But the latest revelations lead me to a new question: Is football immoral? More practical for us, is supporting football immoral?

Continue reading Is Football Immoral?

Eschatological Song Wars!

220px-Vice_versesI love the old hymns. I grew up singing them, and I wish there were more opportunities for singing them in our modern world. Nevertheless, it’s no surprise that some of them are chock full of bad theology (at least I hope it’s no surprise; you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Christmas hymn that takes all sorts of liberties with the biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth).

But in light of our discussion Monday about the way in which N.T. Wright (and others) have urged a reshaping of our eschatological consciousness from seeking to escape this world to instead seeking to restore it, I couldn’t help think of the following contrast between the 1929 hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” one of the most popular spirituals of all time, and the much more recent, decidedly unhymnlike “Afterlife,” by the modern rock band Switchfoot.

Continue reading Eschatological Song Wars!

Book Review: ‘How God Became King’ by N.T. Wright

How-God-Became-KingSomething is missing.

You know it – sense it, more accurately – but you can’t quite place it. You begin searching, but of course it’s hard to find what isn’t. More frustrating, you can’t even figure out the vocabulary to describe it. So you learn to live with that feeling, that itch you can’t scratch, that helpless notion of running into the same dead end over and over again. Over time, the itch subsides, the roaring distraction becomes a dull ache, and you move on.

Then along comes someone who clearly and succinctly describes not only what you’ve been missing, but how you can replace it.

That moment becomes a life-changing one, when everything begins making sense for the first time since … when? Ever?

For me, that moment came while reading N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne, 2012).

For nearly two years, I’ve been studying toward a degree in history and theology. A few books along the way have proven monumental in reshaping my view of God, faith, science, politics, the nature of humanity and the nature of creation. But for all of that reassessment, much of it chronicled in this blog, something was missing.

That something was Jesus. More specifically, it was a deep understanding of who Jesus was and why he lived, died and rose again. I was attempting to renew my faith with an old understanding of Jesus, and it wasn’t working. What’s more, I didn’t even realize it fully until N.T. Wright came along.

Wright isn’t the first person to deconstruct the traditional evangelical view of how the gospels portray Jesus and his ministry; Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel predates this book by a few months. For that matter, I’m sure this isn’t the first time the prolific Wright has addressed these topics in print. But it’s the first time for me to hear him do so – and for anyone to do so in such an accessible way.

By the end of How God Became King, the conclusion is inescapable: those of us raised with a traditional view of atonement and salvation – one in which Jesus comes so that we can say a prayer, “ask him into our hearts” and procure insurance against the fires of hell – have been sold a bill of goods. We have become unwitting accomplices to the cheapening of the life-changing message of Jesus, to the corruption by Western individualism of what the gospel writers understood to be the world-reshaping entrance of God’s kingdom in the person and ministry of Jesus, a kingdom that calls us to ensure the doing of God’s will on earth, as in heaven.

In other words, this Christianity thing isn’t about escaping hell and this world to go to heaven. It’s about bringing heaven to this world and abolishing hell forever.

Continue reading Book Review: ‘How God Became King’ by N.T. Wright