Why I only eat “God Certified” food (and why I am not worried about Halal Easter Eggs)

My Facebook newsfeed is awash with discussions about Halal food. Today it’s Halal Easter Eggs (from Cadbury). Last week it was people speculating about links between Halal food and funding for people trying to introduce Sharia Law to Australia, or funding for terrorism.

I think all food is certified by the true and living God, provided it is “received with thanksgiving,”

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

And, the ultimate key to “certified,” God-approved, food,” is Jesus, who calls himself the “bread of life.”

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval… “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Halal Easter eggs are a great opportunity to love your Muslim neighbours and share the message of Easter with them. But getting to that conclusion, and dealing with some of the objections Christians have to Halal food, might take some doing…

Halal is an Islamic term that means “permitted” it is the opposite of Haram, which means not permitted. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on Halal, I’m not a Muslim. It would be odd for me to do so. But, from what I gather, for a food to be permissible for a Muslim (Halal) it simply needs to not be haram — there are certain foods, especially meat, where there are guidelines that must be met to ensure certain boxes are ticked. Outside of this, it seems most foods (those not forbidden) are fair game.

Here’s what the Australian Food and Grocery Council says about Halal certification.

Many Australian food manufacturers seek Halal certification of their facilities and processes, in order to label their products as Halal and ensure they are able to be enjoyed by Muslim consumers. In the same way that food labeled as vegan or gluten-free is suitable for consumption by a broad range of consumers, Halal certified foods are commonly enjoyed by non-Muslims.

For a product to be Halal, it must be as a whole, and in part:

  • free from any substance taken or extracted from a Haram animal or ingredient (e.g. pigs, dogs, carnivorous animals, animals not slaughtered in compliance with Islamic rites);
  • made, processed, manufactured and/or stored by using utensils, equipment and/or machinery that has been cleaned according to Islamic law (e.g. not cleaned with alcohol); and
  • free from contact with, or being close to, a Haram substance during preparation, manufacture, processing and storage (e.g. blood, alcohol, poisonous and intoxicating plants and insects such as worms and cockroaches).

Many foods and drinks, particularly those that do not contain meat or alcohol, are inherently compliant with Halal criteria. Official certification, which may be granted by accredited religious authorities in Australia, any claim of certification is however required before products are able to be labelled as such.

Halal certification is a gateway into a massive industry, a Monash University study estimates the Halal industry’s global value at $3 trillion, and growing, with the Halal food market a relatively small $700 billion per year segment of this industry. This primer on Halal certification from The Conversation suggests it’s $1.75 trillion. It makes sense (and cents) for Australian food producers to try to sell their products to a large portion of the international population.

I get the impression that Halal certification is simultaneously a semi-unnecessary marketing tool, and part of an increasingly global marketplace — it seems to me that the Islamic world survived pretty well for a long time without labels on food. But setting up businesses to make it clear that particular food stuffs are free of contaminants is a clever business model for serving the Islamic world.

Business sense aside, there seems to be some “Christian” concern out there about halal food on the shelves of grocery stores in Australia, and in the pantries of non-Muslim households.

These concerns seem to operate on a few levels. At least so far as the social media campaigns and anti-halal campaigners are concerned (I won’t link to these campaigns because I don’t think they need the oxygen).

  1. The costs imposed to “Aussie” businesses and passed on to non-Islamic consumers.
  2. The supposed links to terrorism and Sharia Law.
  3. That Halal food is “food sacrificed to idols” so Christians shouldn’t eat it.

It’s the third point that I think is most interesting, but I’ll deal with the first two first.

It seems to me that Aussie businesses who pursue halal certification are doing so in order to increase their profits, to expand their markets, I’d hope that this means the benefits outweigh the costs and that rather than passing on costs to the non-Halal audience, the costs of Halal certification are covered by being able to sell their goods to people who would not otherwise buy them. I’m yet to see anyone offering anything like proof, and a few spurious economic arguments that seem to ignore the massive commercial benefits for entering this industry, for the idea that these increased costs will impact consumers.

Halal certification is carried out by a range of organisations, some, it seems, are businesses that have set themselves up to supply services according to this new market, presumably, these businesses are operated by Muslims, who, as a result of their faith, give a portion of their income as zakat (much like a Christian might give to their church), others, like Muslims Australia are a specifically religious institution that invest income generated through their certification into Muslim institutions (mosques, schools, etc).

Consumers in Australia (and everywhere, really) are free to make decisions about what they consume, just as businesses are free to make decisions about how best to open up their products to new markets, deciding who to sell, or not sell, to.

Should Christians oppose Halal?

If Halal products are, directly or indirectly, supporting Muslim institutions, and the expansion of Islam, should we, as Christians, not buy Halal? How should we decide what products to buy, beyond this debate? How do we shop in a way that is consistent with our faith?

Part of making this decision will include being educated about what cause the money that goes to a certain company might support, but where do we draw the line? Why are Christians not campaigning about companies giving money to workers who use it to buy cigarettes, or pornography, or who choose to gamble it? Or companies that profit from these industries? Are they not equally harmful to the end user in terms of the soul? And, more harmful, in terms of the body?

Consumer ethics are a pretty massive minefield, and it’s hard to know where to start drawing a line, saying “boycott X, because X is bad,” it’s hard to know whether or not metaphorical fruit that comes from a metaphorical tree we buy from is poisonous because of its roots. It’s harder still to find fruit that isn’t tainted in some way in a poisonous world full of people who do things that are opposed to God, and for their own benefit (not the benefit of others), by nature (though when it comes to frozen berries that carry hepatitis these concerns about poisonous fruit might be justified and non-metaphorical).

It’s good to shop ethically. It’s good to be informed. It’s good to support people who are doing good. It’s also good, I suspect, to support people because you want to love them well and see them be able to put food on the table for their families. But where is the line when it comes to companies supporting religious ideologies? Do we eat Certified Kosher meat? It hasn’t been prayed over during the sacrifice, but presumably the Kosher certification bodies are funding Judaism? What about businesses run by Christians whose teaching you disagree with? I don’t particularly like some stuff Hillsong says, but that’s not what stops me buying Gloria Jeans coffee (the lack of quality does). I think the Seventh Day Adventists teach a pretty messed up version of Christianity, with a harmful approach to the Old Testament, but this doesn’t stop me buying Sanitarium products. I don’t ask every owner of every business how they’re going to spend their profits. If an Islamic business wants to fund their version of Islam, by allowing a non-Islamic business to sell food to people who trust their certification process, then this seems to be the product of a free market. The non-Islamic business is free to make educated decisions about who certifies their food, for whom, and there are plenty of options out there.

We have great freedom, as consumers, to choose what to buy, and what to eat. More freedom than, historically, anybody has ever enjoyed.

I’m not really interested, in this post, in convincing you not to exercise this freedom. Quite the contrary. But I do think it’s important that we’re consistent in how we exercise this freedom, and that we’re not doing it out of fear, or worse, hatred. It’s downright bad for the Gospel when Christians take part in campaigns against companies and people who exercise this freedom when we are operating out of fear or hatred of the other – rather than love.

I think it’s great when Christians campaign against certain sorts of consumption out of love for people (eg when we stand up against gambling, or pay day loans, or pornography, or prostitution, in a way that loves those whose lives these insidious industries destroy). I think false religions — as a form of idolatry — are destructive, but I don’t think the right response to destructive false religions is hate, or fear, but love.

The loving answer to false religions, is Jesus, not wiping out the food supplies as though these religions are a city under siege.

It seems to me that one way to love our Muslim neighbours is to allow them to eat food in good conscience, just as we might feel loved if we are allowed to eat food in good conscience. If halal certification allows that, then I can’t see how, generally, this is a problem.

As Christians we shouldn’t be on about poisoning the proverbial waterhole — limiting a Muslim’s access to food they can eat— but we should be on about holding out the bread and water of life. Jesus.

There is no way that we can equate campaigning against halal food with God’s work. It is not what we’re called to do… God has his own seal of approval, his own certification method, his own version of certified food — it’s from Jesus, and it is Jesus. Here’s a thing Jesus says, just after he’s fed the 5,000 in John’s Gospel.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Bacon is part of the good news of the Gospel (Why Christians don’t follow the Old Testament food laws)

As Christians, our great desire for people is that they enjoy their freedom, we should, I believe, be promoters of freedom. Promoting the freedom to enjoy the goodness of God, that comes through the good news of the Gospel, news where your standing before God doesn’t depend on keeping a bunch of rules and regulations about what you eat, but on God’s good gift to people in Jesus.

The Old Testament contains a bunch of regulations, like the Halal/Haram food laws in Islam, that guided God’s people before Jesus.

Christians don’t have to worry about food laws. And that’s good news. Christians can speak about finding freedom in following God and truly mean it. Hopefully in a way that shows that certification plans for perfectly tasty food are a bit of a rort.

Ultimately, Jesus being the bread of life, the one who gives life, the one who defines “clean” and “unclean” is going to transform the way the people of God approach earthly food. The Old Testament was full of food laws that marked Israel as different from the nations around them, like this, from Leviticus 11:

And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

“‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. —Leviticus 11

No bacon. No lobster. No prawns. No prawns wrapped in bacon.

But Jesus is a game changer. Here’s a few important bits of Bible.

Jesus says it’s not what you eat that defines you as a person in God’s eyes. You aren’t what you eat, you are the product of your heart.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” — Mark 7

What separates God’s people from here on in is not that they avoid mixed fabrics and bacon, it’s that they follow Jesus, are shaped by the Holy Spirit, and love people, one another, and people who don’t yet follow Jesus.

Here’s what a heart like that will look like. Here’s John, who had that stuff about Jesus being the bread of life before, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus…

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  — John 13

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” — John 15

And here’s some stuff from Matthew

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22

Both John and Matthew are recording words of Jesus from before his death, before his resurrection, before his people are given the Holy Spirit, and all of these statements anticipate the way Jesus loves people at the cross. Just in case we think John is talking about something else, later, in one of his letters, he writes:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. — 1 John 4

Why all this love stuff? What does love have to do with Halal food? What does love have to do with bacon? Hopefully that’ll become clearer, but it’s worth seeing that love, shaped by the way Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, is the foundation for any Christian response to any ethical issue. We do this so that people will know we are his disciples, that we are his children.

This also explains (apart from the fact that most of us aren’t Jewish) why we don’t follow the food laws. The Christian approach to food unites, rather than divides. Sharing food with someone is way of loving them.

There were some pretty major fights about food in the early church. Food was a big deal in both Jewish and Roman culture. It limited who Jewish people could associate with — the food laws in the Old Testament made it difficult to get out and about in Roman culture. Food was an identity marker then, as it is now (Halal food is an identity marker for Muslims, just as freedom to eat anything is an identity marker for Christians). Josephus, the Jewish historian, brags that Jewish food practices are consistently observed throughout the world:

“For there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts, and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed. — Josephus, Against Apion

Philostratus, a Roman writer, says this approach to food alienated the Jews from the Roman world.

“For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.” — Philostratus, Life of Apollonius

This sort of distance is likely to get in the way of the spread of the Gospel to the non-Jewish world. Which explains what happens to Peter as God tells him to go and see Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, in the book of Acts.

“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him,“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” — Acts 10

 

Now, I’m pretty sure the food stuff isn’t just a symbol of the bigger point of Gentiles being included in God’s people through Christ, it’s also part of the means by which this will happen. When the church has to start grappling with how Jews and Gentiles co-exist in the body of Christ a few chapters later, they do away with almost all of the Old Testament food laws, with the exception of some that are linked to the practice of idolatry (and feasts in idol temples).

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

There’s a good case to be made that this is sort of shorthand for saying “Gentiles need to steer clear of idol-worship,” and that these are the steps that are required for Jewish Christians who are still keeping Torah (perhaps, like Paul when he visits Jerusalem, in order to preach the Gospel to Jews) to share what’s called ‘table fellowship’ with Gentile converts.

The apostle Paul applies the framework from Acts 15 in apparently different ways in different contexts – in Rome, and in Corinth. I wrote an essay on this in college which you can read online, the conclusion, in sum, is that in both situations Paul wants his readers to promote the Gospel in the way they eat, to eat with love for the other, whether that be eating in a way that is loving to people whose consciences don’t allow them to eat certain things, or eating in a way that allows you to share in the lives of non-believers.

“…if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” – Romans 14

“And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 8

Here’s Paul’s advice specifically about food sacrificed to idols, which, in Corinth, was just about every bit of meat sold in the marketplace (it comes just after Paul tells Christians not to join in idol worship and idol feasts in temples, possibly specifically referring to emperor worship in the Imperial Cult temple in Corinth.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — 1 Corinthians 10-11

There’s an interesting tension here, publicly participating in idol worship, in a way that suggests that false gods are real is a problem, but going to a non-Christian’s house, and eating with them, is great, unless they try to make dinner in their house something akin to an idol worship session, and it appears this is only an issue for Paul because it harms Christians who are bothered by it.

The other thing that I’ve always found interesting about these passages is that Paul talks about issues of conscience as being divides between the weak and the strong, but he, one of the leaders of the church, who is writing Scripture, takes a position on these issues that must surely have the affect of persuading some of the weak to alter their position.

Paul warns about people who will try to limit people’s freedom to enjoy the goodness of God. He may well be talking about bacon (although, it’s probably he’s talking about anyone who comes along saying that certain foods are off limits).

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

Is Halal meat “food sacrificed to idols” – and what are the implications for Christians?

I think this collection of Bible passages has some interesting implications for Christians as we participate in discussions about Halal food. There’s a whole heap of Halal food that just falls into the “permissible” category for Muslims that doesn’t have anything especially religious done to it. It’s just certified because it’s not banned (and in some cases because it doesn’t contain banned ingredients, where it might). I can’t fathom why Christians are opposed to Halal yoghurt, or chocolate (I can fathom why Islamophobes are, because fighting against Halal certification in any form is striking a blow for that ideology). Halal meat, on the other hand, is meat slaughtered following a process called Dhabīḥah. There are some interesting bits of the Qur’an governing this process, one bit says:

“Forbidden for you are carrion, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that which has been slaughtered while proclaiming the name of any other than God, and one killed by strangling, and one killed with blunt weapons, and one which died by falling, and that which was gored by the horns of some animal, and one eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and that which is slaughtered at the altar and that which is distributed by the throwing of arrows [for an omen]; this is an act of sin.”— al-Māʼidah 5:3

I’m not an expert on interpreting the Qur’an, but the clause “while proclaiming the name of any other than God” has some interesting implications, it has been held to mean that a specific prayer must be uttered as the animal is slaughtered, or, failing that, the slaughter is to be conducted by a “person of the book”— which includes Christians and Jews — so that there is no possibility the animal has been sacrificed to an (Islamic) idol.

Interestingly, except for the prayer to Allah, this process is pretty much what the Old Testament, and Acts 15, calls for to keep Jewish food laws enough to enable table fellowship between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. To be clear, I think the freedom the Gospel brings includes the freedom to eat a medium rare steak, but I wouldn’t do this with a Jewish Christian (or a vegetarian Christian), if exercising my freedom in this way caused them to stumble. Even if I would write something like this to outline why I think it’s ok (good even) to eat a medium rare steak as an act of appreciating something delicious that God made. 

If the above approach which outlines a consistent treatment of idol food in the New Testament is right, then there are some interesting implications in the Halal debate. Just to sum up in case it wasn’t clear above I’ve suggested that non-Jewish converts were urged to avoid meat linked to idolatry for the sake of fellowship with Jewish Christians (Acts 15), Paul then upholds this instruction in cases where a Christian brother or sister might be lured into idolatry, or disunity, and have their faith destroyed (1 Corinthians 8, 10-11, Romans 14-15), while essentially agreeing with those who take a position that emphasises Christian freedom — provided the food is received with thanksgiving, and eaten for the glory of God (which, could be, in a sense, said to be something of a spiritual trump card that wipes out the prior idolatry, perhaps), and both in Acts 10 and 1 Corinthians 10 the eating of previously ‘unclean’ food, and, food sacrificed to idols is part of the spread of the Gospel to non-Jews (provided it doesn’t lead them to get confused about the validity of idols).

The guiding principle is conscience —exercising Christian freedom should never come at the expense of your own conscience or the conscience of others. This seems to be behind Paul’s specific instruction, regarding idol meat in the market place (which was probably all the meat except the Kosher stuff), or, perhaps, Halal meat in the shopping centres.This meat sold in the Corinthian market place was typically meat from the many sacrifices in the many idol temples of Corinth. Presumably the market vendors bought this meat from these temples, presumably the proceeds were funding these temples, and yet Paul says to “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” 

Paul expects Christians to eat this meat with non-Christians. I’m not sure that there were idolators in Corinth who were so pedantic about the source of their meat that they would only eat meat sacrificed to their idol, so it’s interesting to ponder whether or not Paul would have served idol meat to such a person in order to dine with them, and whether that means we should serve Halal meat to Muslims in order to dine with them. But I suspect he would have. He was keen to behave like a Jew to win the Jews, and like a Greek to win the Greeks (1 Corinthians 9), and would obey Jewish laws (presumably including food laws) in order to reach Jews (even though there’s some confusion in Jerusalem, from the crowd in the Temple, as to whether this is the case in Acts 21), and, I think (and this is speculative), given the importance of conscience in his framework, he would want Muslims he was sharing the Gospel with both to see the freedom from food laws that is caught up with the message of Jesus, and for them to act according to their conscience until such time that they wanted this freedom for themselves.

It’s probable that Paul wouldn’t have rocked up in the local mosque to join into the slaughter of an animal in any way that affirmed the truth of Islam, but beyond that, he’d have been keen to win Muslims to Jesus, and to enjoy the delicious meat God made in all its deliciousness as an act of thanksgiving to God for his goodness.

Are Halal Easter Eggs “food sacrificed to idols” and what are the implications

But what about Halal Easter Eggs? If the meat question is a grey area, Halal certification where no sacrificial prayer is offered to Allah, but the certification is purely an indication that nothing Haram is involved is much more black and white.

Halal Easter Eggs are an incredible opportunity to include Muslims in your celebration of Easter. Presumably, as a conscientious Christian consumer you’re not buying into the commercialism, or idolatry, of chocolate at Easter, but you’re enjoying the opportunity to talk about Easter as a celebration of new life, and eggs as a symbol of that celebration, you know, the new life found in Jesus, through his death and resurrection. If that’s the case, and there’s no sense that you might be mistaken for a follower of the idolatrous God of crass commercialism, then I’d recommend buying up big on Halal Easter Eggs and sharing them with the neighbours in your street — Muslim or otherwise — inviting them to enjoy the good news of Jesus, bacon, and chocolate. But mainly Jesus.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The bones of my Wisdom Literature = cultural evangelism argument

I’m getting closer to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for my Old Testament essay that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. I still haven’t found many scholars who take the line I’m taking – and those that do come from a particular “missional” bent when interpreting scripture.

But here’s the flow of my logic – feel free to critique…

  1. God, from the very beginning, has been Lord of the whole world
  2. He selected Israel to be his chosen people.
  3. His promises to Abraham, involving Israel’s choseness included a promise that Israel would be a blessing to the nations – 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;  and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
  4. Israel’s laws included laws for dealing with sojourners – those foreigners who chose to become Israelites.
    • Exodus 12: 48 An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. 49 The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.”
    • Leviticus 17 suggests that these converts are “his people”: “8 “Say to them: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice 9 and does not bring it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to sacrifice it to the LORD -that man must be cut off from his people.”
    • Numbers 15: “For the generations to come, whenever an alien or anyone else living among you presents an offering made by fire as an aroma pleasing to the LORD, he must do exactly as you do. 15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the LORD : 16 The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you.'”
  5. We see examples of foreigners coming into citizenship of Israel, and testifying to YHWH’s rightful position because they’ve heard of God’s greatness. For example, Rahab, as Israel occupy the land of Canaan: “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
  6. The nations are most blessed, throughout the Biblical narrative – including in the Old Testament – when they recognise YHWH’s position via Israel’s faithful example.
    • Deuteronomy 4:5-8: “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
      Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
      For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
    • Micah 4:2 seems to me to hark back to the glory days of Solomonic rule (at least as it’s reported in 1 Kings – and I’ll get to that soon) – 2 Many nations will come and say,  “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,  to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”  The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 3 He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
  7. On this basis I think it’s fair to assume that Israel was to have some sort of interaction with the surrounding nations where they would notice this difference.
  8. The wisdom literature borrows content and ideas pretty heavily from surrounding, contemporary philosophies – and corrects them, offering “the fear of the Lord” as the beginning of true knowledge and wisdom.
  9. It seems that in the era in which the wisdom literature was produced sages and wise people were popular, schools of philosophical thought may have been operating around the traps, and ideas were flowing across national boundaries.
  10. It follows, in my mind, that these works from Israel’s wise people may have been a contribution to this international conversation – offering the fear of YHWH as this basis for wisdom.
  11. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (and the Song of Solomon) are linked to Solomon – whether he actually wrote them or this is a fictive link is irrelevant. I think we’re meant to read them in the light of Solomon’s reign, as documented in the Bible. I’d also suggest that the accounts of foreign dignitaries and thinkers flocking to hear Solomon’s ministry of wisdom confirms both points 9 and 10 above.

    • Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8 is a starting point: “ 41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name- 42 for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when he comes and prays toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name…59 And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the LORD, be near to the LORD our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day’s need, 60 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other. 61 But your hearts must be fully committed to the LORD our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commands, as at this time.”
    • 1 Kings 10 provides a picture of Israel’s Golden Age under the reign of Solomon – where the Abrahamic promises of Genesis 12 appear to be fulfilled – somewhat temporarily. The Queen of Sheba, on the basis of Solomon’s wisdom (and his relationship to YHWH) makes the following declaration: 9 Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness.””
    • Towards the end of the chapter the description of Solomon’s reign focuses on his global impact (his blessing of the nations): 23 King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. 24 The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.”
  12. Psalm 72 appears to link Genesis 12 with Solomon’s reign…

    15 Long may he live!
    May gold from Sheba be given him.
    May people ever pray for him
    and bless him all day long.

    16 Let grain abound throughout the land;
    on the tops of the hills may it sway.
    Let its fruit flourish like Lebanon;
    let it thrive like the grass of the field.

    17 May his name endure forever;
    may it continue as long as the sun.
    All nations will be blessed through him,
    and they will call him blessed.

    18 Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel,

    who alone does marvelous deeds.

    19 Praise be to his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory.

  13. The fear of the Lord is an important idea developed throughout the Old Testament – and often linked to the nations. It’s essential for Israel (see Deuteronomy 6), and Israel’s kings (1 Samuel 12). But it’s also the appropriate and expected response from the nations. For example, Egypt’s problem in the Exodus is that their officials do not fear the Lord. Joshua 4 links Israel’s conquest of the land with God’s desire for the nations to “fear the Lord.” Leviticus 19, quoted earlier, also contains instructions to “fear the Lord” (this link is tenuous – but it’s in a passage about “loving your neighbour” which deals with how to treat sojourners and converts). It’s what happens when Israel’s kings do the right thing (1 Chronicles 14, and their calling when Israel does the right thing in 1 Chronicles 16 – “tremble before him, all the earth“). There are other passages that link “the fear of the LORD” with the nations not taking certain actions against Israel (2 Chronicles 17). It’s also the particular focus of Proverbs (Proverbs 1, and then about a million other verses), a bunch of Psalms (eg Psalm 19, Psalm 22) the reason Job is held up as righteous (Job 1:8, 2:3), and the theological turning point in the book (Job 28:28), and the closing words (and “duty of Man”) in Ecclesiastes (Ecc 12:13-14).

So, my theory, is that rather than being riddled with inconsistent “acts-consequences” (eg you reap what you sow) theology (Proverbs) and the suffering of the innocent (Ecclesiastes, Job) – the wisdom books serve a unified, dual purpose. Firstly, they’re didactic for Israel – encouraging them to live out their obligations as a testimony to the nations of true wisdom, and a participation in an international “wisdom dialogue” advocating the fear of Israel’s Lord as the beginning of knowledge. And they’re to be read in the light of Solomon’s legendary reign and ministry of wisdom to the whole world.

What do you reckon?

Doug Green on Job

Doug Green, another member of faculty from Westminster Theological Seminary, is guest lecturing on Job now. This is some of his speculation. Let me stress, speculation, on Job. Here are my notes…

Questions of authorship and date are pretty irrelevant (Doug Green has shifted in his thinking on this). Job seems to be an ancient story, and the text of Job in our Bible seems to be the “God ordained” version of the text… the question he asks is: What is it about Job that encouraged or invited its readers to consider it worthy of its spot in the Bible?

How did they discern that it was actually scripture. What is it about the book that when we read it we say “it’s Biblical” – this question was settled long before any modern councils (or post AD councils) – Israel valued Job the same way it valued Torah and Prophets.

Theologically it doesn’t “become” Scripture. It is Scripture. But it takes people to discern that. The path to canonicity for the “writings” was more rocky than the law and the prophets. In the redemptive historical tradition in which he stands is that the Bible is an unfolding story of redemption (ie following Geerhardus Vos). The Bible is the product of, and gets its shape from, the great narrative of redemption. At its core the Bible is a history book – the history of a covenentally structured relationship. This relationship has an ethical dimension to it.

The Bible tells a story to people living in a story and tells them how to live in that story.

The Psalms are not just a hymn book, but a prophetic book and a redemptive history of Israel…

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon – don’t seem to be reflections on redemptive history but on a creation theology. The first verse of these books all have a hook on them to redemptive history. The beginning of these books says “make a connection between these books and Solomon” – there’s something that connects them to this figure from Israel’s history. Could there be a post-exilic use of Solomon to make a point for post-exilic Israel? Doug hasn’t found the connection yet. I reckon it might be something to do with this

Job is an anomaly. He’s not Jewish, he’s not connected to Israel in any particular way, and yet the book is both now, and historically, part of Scripture.

Job is a blameless and upright man. He contends for his innocence in chapter 31.

The Satan in Job is not the devil, but rather the leader of the opposition.

Job’s friends appear to be applying Deuteronomic theology to Job (if you’re righteous God will reward you, if you’re suffering you’ve done something wrong). They work backwards from his suffering to prove that he is not blameless and righteous.

Job steadfastly maintains his innocence and calls for his day in the celestial court. Job eventually earns YHWH’s rebuke. But initially YHWH comes down on Job’s side (between Job and his friends). Nothing in the book suggests that Job is anything but blameless or innocent (this doesn’t mean sinless). He’s sacrificing, so he’s probably atoning for sin…

Job’s life moves through three stages – from the good, to the bad, to the better. That’s the Bible’s redemptive story in a nutshell.

Job’s recovery from his calamity involves a metaphorical resurrection from death. It’s proto-resurrection language. The concept of exile and the concept of death are closely related concepts. For example, the Garden of Eden – on the day you eat this you will die – he didn’t die, but he did get exiled. This opens up interesting readings of Ruth also – if exile = death and return = resurrection…

The transition from the bad to the better is summarised in 42:10 – the Hebrew should best be translated “The Lord turned/repented the captivity of Job” – elsewhere in the Old Testament this phrase is used with reference to Israel’s return from exile (Deuteronomy 30:1-3). This (Deuteronomy 30) is how Israel’s story will end. The language is picked up and used throughout the prophets to describe Israel’s return/restoration from exile.

By using this same language to describe Job’s return from his conditions is the author/redactor encouraging us to read Job as a parable of the righteous remnant of Israel as they join naughty Israel in exile. Does it answer the problem of why the righteous are lumped in with the unrighteous?

Is it expressing Israel’s hope of a blessed return from exile.

Objections to this treatment of Job are based on the Hebrew words in question – it’s only elsewhere used to discuss the treatment of nations, this is the only use of the word with regards to an individual.

Doug wants to avoid illegitimate totality transfer – but he thinks the original readers were more likely to draw parallels between this use of language and its common use with regards to national restoration.

Job’s description as a “servant of YHWH” could possibly, possibly, be a link with Isaiah’s suffering servant…

Job’s speeches throughout the book contain syntactical and lexical similarities to the suffering servant language in Isaiah.

Are our current readings of Job to sober – we’re trained as moderns to read very carefully and with discipline. Ancient Jewish readers draw connections between texts that we think are a little too long a bow to draw. They read with much more abandon…

Is there anything in the text that links Job to the suffering servants or to exiled Israel. Reading Job either as a type of the suffering righteous member of Israel in exile has been dismissed by sober “enlightened” readers who want one particular meaning or interpretation. Some have said this view doesn’t account for the richness of Job.

But are there enough things in Job that suggest we should read it in line with the Suffering Servant and Israel’s exilic context. The Targum (early Jewish interpretation) depicts Job as a Torah keeping Israelite. Perhaps even a righteous Israelite.

This pulls Job into the great narrative of redemptive history – like the latter part of Isaiah, and Daniel – books that are commentaries on the conundrums of exile – the suffering of righteous members Israel. It’s a reading that turns into an additional commentary, not just a generic commentary on suffering, but on this non-covenental treatment of the righteous members of Israel. Who should have expected to remain in the land…

Doug concludes: There is a huge circle in his argument – the assumption of redemptive history filtering through Scripture effects the way he reads Job. It’s not necessarily developed by the text itself without this framework.

But if it’s right – Job isn’t purely a “wisdom book” it has a connection to the history of Israel’s redemption. It’s a theological account of Israel’s experience. It can be read as a parable of the experience of the righteous suffering in Israel. It gets pulled into the orbit of the Suffering Servant prophecy. It takes on a prophetic nature when read in dialogue with Isaiah (eg Isaiah 53) we can now draw a connection between Job and Jesus. Christian readings are always Christotellic (directed to Christ) – not Christ under every rock, but a story that ends up with Christ. Christ is the archetypal innocent sufferer.

Christological ramifications – the incomprehensible sufferings of the righteous, the question of why the righteous suffer sits unanswered until Christ comes.

Job has this intriguing role as intercessory for his friends – “go to Job, he will pray for you”… there’s a hint that the suffering servant’s job is to mediate for the unrighteous.

One of the intriguing things at the end of Job is that the three daughters are named, and the sons are not… another striking thing about the three daughters is that they get an inheritance. Normally this happens when the sons are dead. But in this ending of Job (a picture of the age to come – perhaps) the daughters are named, and inherit alongside the sons. Job, the feminist. It’s an intriguing “age to come” ending.

He calls Psalm 44 “Job’s Psalm”…

Did ancient Israel do mission?

I’m working on an Old Testament essay at the moment. On the wisdom literature. And I’m wondering if the wisdom literature – particularly Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs functioned as pro-Yahweh propaganda for the surrounding nations. Other nations had comparable wisdom literature (and indeed Israelite wisdom literature borrows directly from some of these surrounding documents providing a bit of a theological corrective – namely that knowledge starts with the fear of the Lord). Solomon’s dispensation of wisdom to the nations (in 1 Kings) seems to be the most fitting pre-Christ fulfilment of the Genesis 12 promise that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to the nations.

Part of my thinking is that Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are either written by Solomon, or presented as being written by Solomon, which I think makes a pretty compelling claim for reading them alongside the accounts of Solomon’s reign – where nations gather to experience his wisdom (somewhat vicariously – at the very least rulers of the other nations come to see Solomon).

Trouble is, I can’t find anybody (in the academic world) who agrees with me yet. And unfortunately, the question is “evaluate the proposal that Ecclesiastes and Job are protest literature” – some scholars think they’re basically a corrective of Proverbs – particularly the idea that material blessings flow from our actions (it’s called the acts-consequences nexus). So I have to show that I think the three are theologically united and serve this missional purpose. If I still think this is the case tomorrow.

What do you reckon the place of mission was in Israel? There were provisions to look after “sojourners” there are Psalms about the nations coming before God… that was also part of the messianic framework that developed in Israel prior to Christ. But, other than Jonah, there doesn’t seem to be too much direct preaching to gentile nations in Old Testament times (Obadiah’s prophecies about Edom might be an exception).

AACC Liveblog: Robert Gordon on the Former Prophets

Former Prophets (Joshua to 2 Kings) – Robert P Gordon

Called Former Prophets because they talk a lot about prophets, like Samuel and Elijah etc. In Jewish tradition (the Talmudic period) the idea was that the prophets wrote these books – Josephus thought Samuel wrote 1 and 2 Samuel. The term “former prophets” may owe a lot to assumed authorship.

Turning Points – Judges to Kings: Repentance in the Deuteronomic History

Martin Noth suggested the Deuteronomic history were works produced to explain why/how Judah found trouble. The book of Deuteronomy proceeded this material, it played a part in the formation of these books.

Deuteronomy is the engine pulling the books along – Deuteronomic language and theology imbues the following books.

It’s common to say that in Judges chapter 2:6-12 there’s a scheme at play that operates throughout the rest of the book.

Defection/Defeat/Repentance/Deliverance – a cycle.

Gordon says there’s no repentance in Judges 2.

Subsequently Israel calls out in despair, and they’re delivered, but they don’t “repent.” The verbs that would traditionally be used in a context of repentance are not used in the book of Judges. Except in chapter 2 (v18) where it is used to described God having compassion on Israel, and Israel returning to their corrupt ways. The verbs are used in close juxtaposition – perhaps a deliberate inversion/irony. Israel doesn’t repent, but a case could be made for translating the verb as God repenting.

In Chapter 10 the Israelites confess their sin against the Lord, but they are rebuffed, because God is literally “fed up” with them. This is the best you’ll get in Judges in terms of Israel’s repentance.

The question of Israel’s polytheism isn’t really relevant, or dealt with, within the text of Judges.

1 Samuel

Eli and Samuel continue the judging tradition. The issue of repentance comes up in chapter 7. “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts…” (shades of Deuteronomy 30). The Israelites aren’t lamenting about their own circumstances at this point but rather the situation with the Ark of the Covenant being held by the Philistines.

The narrative is portraiture not rather than photography. The text contains generalisations and hyperbole in order to make theological points. We have to be careful to understand what the aim of the text is. We can do this while still maintaining a high view of scripture.

What is the point of the Deuteronomic History?

Depends on your view on dating – is it a Josiaic composition withan exilic editor? Is it early? Is it to paint Israel as abject failures? To present post exilic theological options?

What are Israel to do in the hour of judgment? They are to turn and repent. Even after Josiah’s repentance God’s anger burns against Israel and seems to be a repudiation of the kingship in total.

Repentance is important and unavoidable in the New Testament – both John the Baptist and Jesus preach it first up, Hebrews 6:1 makes it a pretty foundational doctrine. It was also held to be very important in Hebrew theology. Repentance, in Jewish theology, converted unforgivable sins into ritual sins addressable through the law. “Great is repentance, for deliberate sins are accounted as sins of ignorance” – the Talmud. The Targum follows this pattern – repentance leads to forgiveness.

The age old question…

Al Mohler is the thinking evangelical’s favourite Southern Baptist, he’s reformed, he’s intelligent, he’s eloquent. He seems like a nice guy. But in a talk at the Ligonier Ministries conference in the US he basically did the anti-Wattke (Wattke was the OT scholar who moved institutions after publishing his views on the possibility that Genesis 1 might be compatible with evolutionary theory). Mohler (as reported at Challies.com) says it’s not. And furthermore, that not holding to a young earth, 6 day, 24 hour, view of creation leads to theological disaster.

If there’s one thing I dislike more than stupid theological debates that can’t be resolved, it’s people who make such debates the yardstick of theological orthodoxy. There are people I love, and respect, on both sides of this debate. And I’m pretty sick of posts like this that caricature opposing views in order to attack them. There’s a word for that logical fallacy. It’s a strawman.

Here’s the first “strawman” from Challies’ post – it’s a rebranding of the “literary theory” that is pretty narrow, and doesn’t look like the literary theory any reformed evangelical I know holds to while questioning the function of Genesis 1-11:

“The literary theory. Here we take the first eleven chapters of Genesis as literary, understanding that the Creation story is merely myth, a story as understood by ancient Hebrews.”

It’s almost never held to be “merely myth” – any literary theorists will affirm essentially the same theological truths as the six day young earth adherent. This is a nasty carricature that pays no heed to the complexities of the debate, and certainly rules out any knowledge that we may bring to the text based on ancient Hebrew literature…

Mohler’s (or Challies’) conclusion based on that first strawman is another fallacy:

“The literary theory has to be rejected out-of-hand since it otherwise contradicts inerrancy. We cannot hold to a robust theory of biblical inerrancy and interpret the chapters in this way.”

Why does reading the Bible as literature, or at the very least, pondering the genre of the received text, rule out a “robust theory of biblical inerrancy”? It seems that by including the qualifiers “robust” in this sentence, and “merely” in the first, Mohler can dismiss anybody who agrees with him 90% of the way by lumping them in with the people who disagree with him 100% of the way. This shouldn’t be a question of semantics – a “plain reading” of Mohler’s views is that unless you hold to a young earth six day creation you think the Bible is an errant myth. This just isn’t true of most of the reformed guys I’ve read this year (and in the past) when it comes to disagreements on Genesis 1. Every big name in American reformed circles seems to have a different view on the question – Piper, Driscoll, Mohler, Keller… the reason thoughtful people reach different conclusions is simple – we weren’t there at creation (and neither was Moses), we weren’t there when Genesis was written, and any postulation on the question of the mechanics of creation (past the “God did it by his word” idea) is purely speculative. It’s guesswork. Some guesses may be more educated than others. But to make this some sort of yardstick for theological orthodoxy is perilously stupid.

This is the kind of issue people lose their jobs over. Because of this ludicrous desire to see the issue at front and centre. The bit I think is the most frustrating is the clamouring over the “reformed” label for your view – as though disagreement on the issue is new. Here’s what Calvin said (in a commentary on Genesis 1:16), if you want to be reformed you at the very least want to be agreeing with Calvin. Right?

“I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.”

Old Testament 101: Judging Judges (Webb)

Barry Webb, in his seminal work analysing the structure of Judges, departed from Noth’s view that it fit into a deuteronomistic history. Noth believed the Judges period began in Judges 2:6 and ended in 1 Samuel 12, this overlap between books meant that few saw Judges as a piece of literature in its own right.

Arguing for the literary cohesion of Judges as a stand alone text does not dismiss its place in a framework of Biblical Theology.

Webb believes Judges is internally coherent. That it deals with two primary characters God, and Israel. God is angry at Israel for disobedience but continues to show faith to his promises. Webb suggests the dynamic is more complex than a simple “repentance/deliverance” cycle. That it is more the case of consistent mercy in the face of apostasy.

Webb says the emergence of the monarchy is the next major narrative movement at the end of Judges. Judges ends “to be continued.” He sees “now after the death of…” as a common biblical means for introducing a new chapter in Israel’s history. From Moses (Joshua), to Joshua (Judges), to Samuel, to Saul (2 Samuel 1), and to David…

Webb suggests any approval of the monarchy in Judges is an approval of the Davidic/Judaic monarchy. Webb argues that the monarchy isn’t fully realised until Yahweh’s chosen king (based on Deut 17), David, takes the throne. Saul is “a king like the other nations” while David is a king after the Lord’s heart. But he sees the monarchy as a secondary issue to the relationship between Israel and Yahweh.

He sees a parallel in the downward spiral of kingship with the downward spiral of the judges, comparing Othniel to David.

Webb’s structure of Judges

Webb, like Wenham, identifies Chapter 1:1-3:6 as a prologue, or Overture.

1:1, opening with “after the death of Joshua” represents both continuity and discontinuity. Chapter one concludes essentially revealing the hopelessness of Israel’s attempts to meet the expectations as laid out. The overture climaxes with the meeting with Yahweh’s messenger who makes it clear that they are not to make agreements with the inhabitants of the land (2:1-5), and God’s speech in 2:20-22 about his faithfulness.

Chapter 2:20-22 lays out Yahweh’s rationale for not giving the whole land over to Israel as promised. They failed their end of the bargain. The structure of the overture is:

  1. Israel comes to terms with the Canaanites (1:1-2:5)
  2. Israel is ensnared by their Gods (2:6-3:6)
  3. Israel is now in conflict with Yahweh (2:20-22)

Webb identifies the same pattern of “The Israelites did what was evil” – six times throughout 3:7-16.31. He identifies motifs like improvised weaponry, worthless fellows, seizure of the fjords of the Jordan, weak women overcoming male heroes, and flaming torches that emerge throughout the narrative. And the following issues as thematic:

  1. Israel’s special status as a nation separated to Yahweh (a holy people)
  2. Israel’s going after other gods in willful violation of this status,
  3. The implied contest between Yahweh and those other gods
  4. The freedom of Yahweh’s activity compared to Israel’s presumption that it can use him as required.

Samson epitomises the Israelite condition – he is set apart, chases foreign women, and calls on Yahweh when he gets into trouble.

Webb calls the concluding chapters (divided along the same lines as Wenham) a coda, because he sees it as bringing balance to the book in terms of literary symmetry. He sees some chiastic closure with Judah receiving prominence in chapters 1 and 19, Jebus/Jerusalem and the Jebusites in 2:1-5 and 19:10-12, the weeping at Bethel and the weeping at Bochim (2:1-5 and 20:18, 26), and the Danite migration in 19 as closure for Dan’s failure to secure territory in 1:34.

Old Testament 101: Judging Judges (Wenham)

For my next trick, I’ll tackle the question of how the structure of Judges impacts interpretation. I’ll be interacting with two texts on the subject – Wenham’s superb “Story as Torah” and Webb’s “Judges: An integrated reading”.

Wenham seeks to extract ethical principles from Old Testament narrative. Ethics have traditionally been ignored in interpreting these narratives because the narrator often passes no explicit judgment on the acts reported, he simply reports and the events speak for themselves.

Wenham applies historical, literary, and rhetorical criticism to these narratives. He recognises that ethics ultimately don’t rely on the historicity of the text but the literary approach. If only I’d read this when writing my violence essay… that would have been another footnote. Essentially I agree with him. Though I didn’t know it at the time…

Wenham notes that the narrator of the Old Testament is omniscient – aware of the thoughts and feelings of characters in the story. Some use this as justification for seeing the narrative as fiction, others as part of the case for divine inspiration.

Wenham suggests the first readers of the text read them as though they were historical, which legitimises the approach of extracting ethical principles from the stories as though they are indeed historical…

Wenham on the structure of Judges

Judges opens with Israel’s inability to conquer the land (and thus their inability to meet God’s requirements), and closes with the gloomy “in those days there was no king in the land, and everybody did what was right in their own eyes.” These ideas bookend (and perhaps technically bookbegin) the book.

The stories within the book are intended to shock the reader, and beg the question “what should this character have done” (which I think is one of the best ways to understand the spiraling despair of Judges – 2 Kings, and probably any narrative, it’s one of the first questions I ask – the second is the hypothetical “what would things have looked like if they had” because I like speculative ideas).

The stories in Judges follow a pattern of conquest by foreigners, an agent of delivery acting in Israel’s interest, followed by a period of stability, followed by their deaths, followed by Israel “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Wenham argues this idea is tied to Deuteronomic principles (I reckon Deuteronomy 30 is a pretty key interpretive rubric for these passages – Israel’s national autonomy is linked to their obedience to God).

Wenham identifies three sections in Judges:

  1. The prologue: 1:1-3:6
  2. The Core “Book of Deliverers”: 3:7-16:31
  3. The Epilogue: 17:1-21:25

The epilogue and prologue are split into two parts. The prologue contains a summary of the conquest (failed) of the land (1:1-2:5) and a commentary on the constant apostasy of Israel in the Judges period (2:6-3:6). The epilogue deals with a disturbing civil war and essentially a chaistic repetition of chapter 1 with the repetition of “who shall go up? Judah shall go up” (1:1-2, 20:18).

The six major judges in the middle of the book arise in a formulaic manner – the people do what is evil, they are sold into enemy hands, they pray for deliverance, and the Lord raises up a judge.

These judges follow a downward spiral from Othniel who escapes uncriticised to Samson who is the ultimate flawed hero.

The narrative represents the narrators dismay with the state of Israel’s faith, but delight in the actions and methods of deliverance. Within Judges we see people killing enemies with ox goads and jaw bones, stealth (and toilet humour) and after setting fire to fields using foxes tied together by their tails.

Judges 2:2-3 provides a useful interpretive schema for the whole book: “I [God] said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land… But you have not obeyed my command… So now I say I will not drive them out before you but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare for you”

This becomes a key theme in the book.

Judges 1 contrasts Joshua 1 while dealing with the same circumstances. Wenham says Joshua is celebrating the success of the conquest while Judges paradoxically declares it a failure. This represents the different literary/rhetorical purposes of the narratives.

Critical wisdom suggested that the epilogue came from a different hand, but it seems more valuable to read it as a commentary on the preceding chapters using the closing refrain as a literary marker (first in 17:6). Wenham argues that it is entirely consistent with the rest of the content. He suggests “doing right in their own eyes” mirrors “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord” but represents an evolution (or devolution) from that position.

Wenham sums up his commentary on the structure as: “Judges portrays Israel becoming progressively more lax in its religious practice, and ever more prone to disunity between the tribes, it reaches a climax with outright idolatory amongst the Danites and a civil war that could have destroyed the nation (nb. which also incidently foreshadows the ten tribes semi-rebellion under David in 2 Samuel and the eventual split of the kingdoms). The reader is driven to conclude that this must not continue, if the new nation is to enjoy harmony at home and peace abroad. A new way of life under new leadership is required…”

Wenham on the date of Judges

A variety of theories – most plausible seems to be for a composition under David prior to his capture of Jerusalem and shoring up of authority (due to a repudiation of Benjamin and Gibeah – Saul’s tribe and birth place), while a post Assyrian editing under Hezekiah (because 18:30 refers to the “capturing of the land” – this editing possibly took place to explain why the southern kingdom survived while the north didn’t) is also plausible if 19-21 are downplayed. The first view almost relies on the capturing of the land being a mistranslation of “the capturing of the ark”…

A timeline of (post documentary hypothesis) Old Testament Theology

1870s – Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (Source Criticism): Identifies JEDP – the four voices alleged in the Pentateuch. Breaking the texts into parts based on their use of names for God, theological focus (on ritual, or law), and on literary style. This followed about 100 years of source criticism.

Here’s what the breakdown of the text looks like (from Wikipedia):

1890s – Vos takes up a position as a professor of Biblical Theology in Princeton in a move designed to combat the emergence of text criticism as the dominant interpretive paradigm. Princeton was apparently looking for someone familiar with the German school and committed to a framework of Biblical Theology, Vos, having studied under the German school was perfect.

1940s – Noth and Von Rad (following Gunkel) introduced the idea of common oral sources (form criticism) for significant moments in Israel’s history. Noth also pioneered “the Deuteronomistic History,” the idea that Joshua to Kings represented a cohesive sociological-historical account of Israel for post exilic (7th century BC) use, at the same time both he and Von Rad saw Joshua as part of the same unit as the Pentateuch, arguing for a hextateuch (to me it seems like only a small step from Joshua to Judges which would make a septicheuch).

1941 – Cassuto, a Jewish Rabbi who wrote in Italian, offered a substantive criticism of the Documentary hypothesis that was not translated into English until 1961. He proposed that the Pentateuch was a single text, written by one author in the tenth century BC. His dating was a subsidiary to his criticism of the Documentary Hypothesis. He demonstrated that textual criticism – the notion of examining inconsistencies in the text to identify separate voices – was essentially cultural imperialism reading modern mores into ancient writings – and that the style of writing presented in the text was entirely consistent with Hebrew literary structure.

1976 – Schmid (another German) almost singlehandly removes the notion of the Jahwist voice (J), and some see him as having done away with all but the Deuteronomist.

1977 – Rendtorff went a step further than Schmid, he did away with both J and E, suggesting a Deuteronomic School was the most likely final editor of the OT, though allowing for a later “priestly” redactor.

My thoughts

Given my bias for Biblical Theology (ie a unified view of the text and an emphasis on inspiration), I’m glad the Documentary Hypothesis is on its way out the academic door. But I think it has provided useful insights (provided it sits under the umbrella of divine inspiration).

So here’s what I think.

The Pentateuch was probably around in some sort of oral/written form pretty early on, which was discovered (and possibly edited into a more cohesive form) under Josiah (there’s reference to a book of law being found in the temple under his reign so it must have existed before then), though compiled in its final form, and attached to the “deuteronomistic history” post exile as Israel struggled to come to terms with its identity. I think the Old Testament as a whole is a subjective retelling of Israel’s history so sociological and literary approaches to the text are useful, historical criticism is useful only insofar as it assumes the accounts will be flavoured in favour of Israel and genre is taken into account.

Biblical Theology: Tying it all together

So, in summary, if I was answering a question like “how is Biblical Theology useful for understanding the Old Testament?” I would make the following points (probably with reference to Goldsworthy, Scobie, Dumbrell and Demster):

1. It grounds us in the notion that the Bible is a unified text not a hodgepodge of disparate parts strung together because no other documents existed.

2. It puts other forms of literary criticism in their place as subsets of this view (here I would reference Von Rad, Brueggemann, Barr, the documentary hypothesis and anything else that would demonstrate I knew what was at stake in terms of viewing the Bible as a loose collection of texts).

3. It helps us chart the development of God’s redemptive plans for creation from go to woe. Starting with creation and the fall, through the creation of his people with covenant obligations, the development of kingship, and ultimately culminating with the new creation and Jesus as king.

4. It reminds us that themes carry on, and develop through the Biblical text that are helpful for guiding our exegesis and our preaching.

None of the ideas put forward as unifying concepts for the Bible are entirely satisfying on their own, they all miss something of the complexity of the text (any simplification or summary will inherently do that), but they all play a role in shaping our interpretation. Pointing out linking themes is useful. Provided you don’t want to turn it into the only thread that holds the Bible together.

Old Testament 101: Biblical Theology: background, pros, and cons

I promised my wife I’d do some reading up on Biblical Theology for the both of us… This is a long post. Feel free to just skip it.

What is Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology is a framework, or the attempt to create a framework, that sees the Bible not as a set of disparate texts brought together by chance and the say so of a council of clergy centuries later – but rather as a consistent piece of revelation. One work that outlines God’s interaction with his creation from beginning to end. It is different to systematic theology, which seeks to bring pieces of the Bible together in order to approach particular topics, but good systematic theology stems from solid Biblical theology.

Geerhardus Vos, apart from having a cool name, described Biblical Theology as the art of drawing a straight line through Biblical texts, where Systematic Theology draws a circle.

He also, when taking the chair as Princeton’s inaugural professor of Biblical Theology, made the following statements about the value of Biblical Theology.

First, he defined the anti-supernatural readers (textual critics) that he says Biblical Theology counters:

“Revelation [by their definition] consists in this, that the divine Spirit, by an unconscious process, stirs the depths of man’s heart so as to cause the springing up therein afterward of certain religious thoughts and feelings, which are as truly human as they are a revelation of God, and are, therefore, only relatively true… The people of Israel are held to have possessed a creative religious genius, just as the Greek nation was endowed with a creative genius in the sphere of art…Writers of this class deal as freely with the facts and teachings of the Bible as the most extreme anti-supernaturalists. But with their evolutionistic treatment of the phenomena they combine the hypothesis of this mystical influence of the Spirit, which they are pleased to call revelation. It is needless to say that revelation of this kind must remain forever inaccessible to objective proof or verification. Whatever can pretend to be scientific in this theory lacks all rapport with the idea of the Supernatural, and whatever there lingers in it of diluted Supernaturalism lacks all scientific character.”

I especially like the last bit.

Then he uses this analogy of the intricacy of the human body (with a hat tip to the argument from design) to describe why Biblical Theology opens up exciting new possibilities for understanding the Bible:

“In the Bible there is an organization finer, more complicated, more exquisite than even the texture of muscles and nerves and brain in the human body; that its various parts are interwoven and correlated in the most subtle manner, each sensitive to the impressions received from all the others, perfect in itself, and yet dependent upon the rest, while in them and through them all throbs as a unifying principle the Spirit of God’s living truth. If anything, then, this is adapted to convince the student that what the Bible places before him is not the chance product of the several human minds that have been engaged in its composition, but the workmanship of none other than God Himself.”

Recognising the unity of the Bible is not a priori a reason to dismiss analysing its individual parts (provided you recognise that they have a larger role to play), there is, to stretch the analogy, value in studying the anatomy and physiology of the human hand (or the eye – if you want to follow the traditional path of the argument from design). The Biblical body is both the sum of its parts, and greater than the sum…

Vos saw Biblical Theology as the antidote to what he perceived (writing in the late 19th century about ten years after Wellhausen had proposed the “Documentary Hypothesis” – that there were four separate writers, or schools of writers, responsible for the Pentateuch)…

“Biblical Theology is suited to furnish a most effective antidote to the destructive critical views now prevailing. These modern theories, however much may be asserted to the contrary, disorganize the Scriptures. Their chief danger lies, not in affirmations concerning matters of minor importance, concerning errors in historical details, but in the most radical claims upsetting the inner organization of the whole body of truth. We have seen that the course of revelation is most closely identified with the history described in the Bible. Of this history of the Bible, this framework on which the whole structure of revelation rests, the newest criticism asserts that it is falsified and unhistorical for the greater part. All the historical writings of the Old Testament in their present state are tendency-writings. Even where they embody older and more reliable documents, the Deuteronomic and Levitical paste, applied to them in and after the exile, has obliterated the historic reality. Now, if it were known among believing Christians to what an extent these theories disorganize the Bible, their chief spell would be broken; and many would repudiate with horror what they now tolerate or view with indifference.”

Cons – Problems with Biblical Theology

The effect of holding to no consistent theological framework or understanding led Carl Trueman to make the following observation about the state of modern “theological” studies in universities:

With no coherent epistemological or ontological basis to hold itself together, the university discipline has long ago collapsed into an incoherent mish-mash of courses of the `Theology and ….’ variety, where you insert your own particular concern or interest, be it women, ecology, politics, vegetarianism, or Tom and Jerry cartoons. Hey, it’s a postmodern world, cartoons are as worthy of time and energy as starving children, and the unifying factor in our disciplines, if there is one, must be found in our own little universes, not in the God of revelation.

Ouch. I guess I’ll be shelving plans to write “Theology and Coffee”…

Trueman offers a valuable critique of Biblical Theology – a corrective from a self styled theological revolutionary (from his first paragraph)… in his sights is the redemptive history movement championed on the global stage by Australian’s like Graeme Goldsworthy through Moore College. He thinks, in the circles that he moves in, this framework has become the “establishment” and because he self identifies as a “Marxist” when it comes to challenging establishments he wrote the following critique:

“First, there is the problem of mediocrity. It is one thing for a master of biblical theology to preach it week after week; quite another for a less talented follower so to do. We all know the old joke about the Christian fundamentalist who, when asked what was grey, furry, and lived in a tree, responded that `It sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer to every question is `Jesus’’.

One of the problems I have with a relentless diet of biblical theological sermons from less talented (i.e., most of us) preachers is their boring mediocrity: contrived contortions of passages which are engaged in to produce the answer `Jesus’ every week. It doesn’t matter what the text is; the sermon is always the same.

Second, the triumph of the biblical theological method in theology and preaching has come at the very high price of a neglect of the theological tradition. The church spent nearly seventeen hundred years engaging in careful doctrinal reflection; formulating a technical language allowing her theologians to express themselves with precision and clarity; writing creeds and confessions to allow believers over the face of the earth to express herself with one voice; and wrestling long and hard with those aspects of God which must be true if the biblical record was to be at all coherent or make any sense whatsoever.”

His closing statement (in an online debate that Goldsworthy subsequently responded to)…

My fear is that the biblical theology movement, while striving to place the Word back at the centre of the church’s life, is inadequate in and by itself for the theological task of defending and articulating the faith. Reflection upon the wider church tradition is needed, creeds, confessions and all, because this is the best way to understand how and where the discipline of biblical theology and redemptive history can be of use to the wider picture without it usurping and excluding other, equally necessary and important theological disciplines.

A paragraph from Goldsworthy’s response to Trueman is useful when assessing the importance of Biblical Theology when reading the Old Testament:

Biblical theology is necessary to prevent this de-historicising of the gospel by anchoring the person and work of Christ into the continuum of redemptive history that provides the “story-line” of the whole Bible. The only thing that can rescue systematics from such abstractions is biblical theology. In fact, systematic theology is plainly impossible without biblical theology. Biblical theology is the only means of preventing every biblical text having equal significance for Christians (eg. we need it to sort out what to do which the ritual laws of the Pentateuch). It prevents us from short-circuiting texts so that we isolate them from their theological context and then moralize on their application to believers.

Old Testament 101

Greek is done and dusted. So now its on to the Old Testament. Which I like. Much. Much more. I dug up some past exam questions in the library today, and our exam is on Thursday, so I’m thinking I might engage in a little learning through blogging exercise…

Our first Old Testament subject covers Genesis to 2 Samuel (I think). Which means the following academic “chestnuts” are sure to feature strongly:

1. The creation account(s)
2. The flood (though this has been covered by an essay topic)
3. Something about the covenant promises to Abraham.
4. The patriachs/creation of a nation.
5. Something about the law
6. Something about violence (though this has also been covered by an essay topic)
7. Something about the historicity of the Genesis-Joshua accounts of occupation of the promised land.
8. Something about Judges
9. Something about Biblical theology
10. Something about kingship (1-2 Samuel, and probably, to a lesser extent, Judges).
10. Something about the documentary hypothesis (source criticism), form criticism, sociological criticism, literary criticism etc or the structure of the Pentateuch…

There’ll be eight questions, we’re expected to answer four. I like all of these topics. Does anybody have any recommended readings for the next 32 hours that will see me through?

Cool stuff that you notice after doing a bit of Hebrew

Melchizedek (Genesis 14) is a cool king of Salem (Jerusalem) who blesses Abraham. His name, in Hebrew, means either “king of righteousness” or “righteousness is my king”.

Adoni-zedek (Joshua 10), is also the king of Jerusalem, who summons an army of other kings to fight Israel. His name, in Hebrew, means “lord of righteousness” or “righteousness is my lord”…

Bit of a contrast there…

Biblical gangsters

We’re working through 2 Samuel at church at the moment, during Bible Study on Wednesday I was struck by the thought that the book reads like a gangster novel (I’ve read quite a few, I consider myself an expert). There’s a touch of Arthurian legend about David and his champion (Joab) and Saul and his (Abner).

Someone ought to use the narrative structure of Samuel 2 to write a mafia drama. In chapter 2 there’s this cool scene where Saul’s Capo (Mafia for captain) Abner decides that Ish-Bosheth will take over running Saul’s family.

Then Saul’s family meets David’s family for a bit of a discussion (2:12-13), family enforcers Abner and Joab decide to let the up and comers earn their bones – and twelve of the men knife each other (2:14).

Then Abner whacks Joab’s brother (2:13). But David’s family gets more powerful, and people stop paying tribute to Saul’s gang (3:1). Before long, Abner falls out with his Godfather and wants to switch families after an argument about some broad (3:6-21). Joab doesn’t like this, so tricks him, and sends him to sleep with the fishes. His Don (David) doesn’t like this (3:22-38).

Ish-Bosheth goes to the (metaphorical) mattresses, but two of his capos betray him, killing him on his (literal) mattress. David whacks them (4:1-12).

And the rest of the book plays out a bit like the Godfather, David, like Michael Corleone, comes to power, has to deal with the betrayal of a family member, the jostling for power of his “family”, while taking over the kingdom of his predecessor.

Who says the Old Testament can’t be fun…

Gary Millar on preaching God’s wrath

You can’t preach the Old Testament faithfully while avoiding the subject of God’s judgment. Especially in the current age where the idea that the God of the Old Testament is “evil”.

Bonus Bit – David chopping Goliath’s head off is an echo of, and an allusion to the story of the Philistines capturing the ark and it causing their idol to fall over until its head falls off.

Apparent injustice may in fact be a case of not knowing all the facts.

To make sense of the cross we need to understand that God is:

  • Infinitely angry at sin
  • Infinitely irrevocably committed to justice
  • Staggeringly creative and innovative.

The God of the Cross is breathtakingly holy, passionately commited…

Without the OT – and in particular these stories of judgment – we can not have any idea how holy God is, or the depths to which people sink, or how important it is for the God of the Bible to deal with sin in a way that is fitting. We can not hope to understand the cross without it.

If we ditch the nasty bits we are ditching the holiness and justice of God. These stories are there to teach us that God is not tame – that he does things that shock us.

It is not our job to apologise for God’s behaviour.

God’s actions are explained in Romans 3.

19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Bizarrely, we culturally think that our treatment of the planet reaps just rewards – seeing causation in our actions – and occasionally predicting our own painful demise – but we will not afford God the same courtesy. Gary referenced the Day of the Triffids and this post from an Irish friend.

In the two episodes (which were rather a drag unfortunately), we got lots of warnings about what happens when you interfere with nature, namely that nature will eventually inflict its wrath on you. Come to think of it, this was a sort of Wrath of God story with nature standing in for God.

In fact in the last few years there have been several ‘Wrath of Nature’ movies; The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Day After Tomorrow to name but two. In both movies, and in this latest version of The Day of the Triffids, we are led to believe that we deserve what’s coming to us.

The funny thing is, no-one would ever make a movie these days about the Wrath of God in which the message also was that we had it coming to us. We’re able to accept that if we sin against nature we deserve our punishment, but not if we sin against nature’s maker.