How To the Read the Bible, Part Seven: Mind the Gap!

A major shortcoming of today’s rich online and media environment, with thousands of sources to choose from for our education, information, and entertainment, is that we can heed those we like, and ignore those we don’t.  As a result, we can surround ourselves with voices telling us what we already believe to be the case, and persuade ourselves that every reasonable person on earth thinks–or indeed, has always thought–just as we do.

This creates a major problem when we turn to the ancient and venerated text of the Bible.  We may think that our questions are no different than those posed by the original audience of the text.  We may even persuade ourselves that our cherished assumptions were also held by the writers of Scripture.  We may, in short, naively assume that our reading is the right reading: the plain meaning of the text for everyone and anyone–to the end that, sadly, the Bible winds up confirming our own prejudices, and telling us, in the end, nothing that we did not already know.

A moment’s thought dispels these deceptions.  For the Bible is old: speaking to us from as far as three thousand years in the past (the likely date of the ancient Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1-18, probably the oldest passage in Scripture), and expressing traditions and memories even older than its oldest written texts.  The Bible was written in languages foreign to us: classical Hebrew, Aramaic, ancient Greek.  Its traditions were formed and preserved in cultures very different from ours–and in many cases, different even from one another.  This means that those of us reading the Bible in English must remind ourselves continually as we read that any particular word or concept, translated from its original language and context into ours, may have meant something very different to them than that same word means to us.

Ubiquitous cautions in London’s subway system, the Tube, warn about the space between the platform and the train: “Mind the Gap.” In our Bible reading, we too must carefully and prayerfully mind the gap between ourselves and the text.

To take a fairly innocuous, noncontroversial example, consider the word “bishop.”  This year, the United Methodist Church will hold its Jurisdictional and Central Conferences, at which new Bishops will be elected.  Delegates to those conferences will prepare for this serious task by doing Bible study–as well they should.  But simply looking up the word “bishop” in Bible concordances and considering “what the Bible says about bishops” is not likely to be helpful.

Two passages are often held to relate the “biblical teaching” concerning the office of bishop.  In the King James Version, 1 Timothy 3:2 reads,

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach (so too the NRSV).

Likewise, Titus 1:7-9  says:

If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.  For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers (KJV; again, compare NRSV).

Our first problem is that the proper translation of the Greek word episkopos (rendered “bishop” in the passages above) is uncertain.  The NIV reads “overseer” instead of bishop, and the CEB has “supervisor” in these same passages.  Both are consistent with the use of this term in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, where episkopos translates various words related to the Hebrew paqad, referring to duty, responsibility, or some official position of authority (for example, Numbers 4:16 or Nehemiah 11:9).  Elsewhere in the New Testament, episkopos refers to a church office in Philippians 1:1 (compare the NRSV), but is also used in 1 Peter 2:25 for Jesus, “the shepherd and guardian [Greek episkopon] of your lives” (compare the KJV!).  In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the elders of the church in Ephesus,

Watch yourselves and the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as supervisors [Greek episkopoi], to shepherd God’s church, which he obtained with the death of his own Son.

So, whom did New Testament episkopoi oversee or supervise: A single congregation (as Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders implies, and as is often the case in modern African American churches)? Many congregations in an area (as bishops do in my own tradition)? Christians generally? We do not know–making the application of these passages to our context difficult.

Indeed, we need to ask whether the word episkopos meant at all for the first readers of Timothy and Titus what “bishop” means for United Methodist Christians.  Even in the contemporary church, “bishop” means something very different in, say, Roman Catholicism, or in African American Baptist traditions, than it means for United Methodists. The officials of the early church who are called “bishops” in the KJV and NRSV (among other translations) clearly differ from United Methodist bishops in multiple ways.

For example, it is evident from these biblical passages that episkopoi were to be men–not surprising, since  1 Timothy 2:8-15 denies women the right to preach or lead:

Adam wasn’t deceived, but rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived (1 Tim 2:14).

We don’t need to take the author of 1 Timothy’s word for what the text says, of course–we can look up Genesis 3:12-13 for ourselves!  There, sure enough, the man declares, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12)–blaming not only Eve, but God, who had brought her to him.  The woman in turn blames the snake: “The snake tricked me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13).  God, however, buys none of this.  As the narrative unfolds in Genesis 3:14-19, the man, the woman, and the snake are all held accountable, and each suffers the consequences of the choice made.

The claims in 1 Timothy notwithstanding, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of women in leadership in the earliest church.  John’s gospel tells the remarkable story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, talked with him, and became the first missionary.  The work of Jesus and his followers was enabled by women of independent means “who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:2-3).  At the end, when his male disciples had forsaken him, the women remained, at the cross and at the tomb, so that it was women who were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

In his letters, Paul mentions women leaders by name every time he offers personal greetings.  Romans 16 provides several fascinating examples. First, there is Phoebe, whom Paul calls a diakonon (Rom 16:1)–the CEB reads “servant,” but diakonos, the Greek word found here in a feminine form, is the same title the tradition assigns to male servant leaders such as Philip and Stephen (see Acts 6:1-6): like them, Phoebe was a deacon.  Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3-4) were a husband and wife ministry team; here as elsewhere, Paul breaks convention by mentioning the wife, Prisca (also called Priscilla), first. Paul also greets Mary (Rom 16:6), and most remarkably, Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7): another husband and wife team mentioned only here, but who Paul says are “prominent among the apostles.” Paul refers to Junia, a woman, as an apostle!

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul insists that Corinthian women follow custom by wearing a head covering while prophesying: emphasizing a distinction in dignity between women and men.  Still, this passage assumes that women were speaking in the churches–Paul just wants them to do so more respectfully.  Most remarkable of all is Paul’s bold proclamation in Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  

The attitudes expressed in Timothy and Titus must be read, not in isolation, but in the context of the whole of Scripture.  A solid biblical argument can be made for female pastoral leadership, at every level of church life.  In the United Methodist Church, women have been serving as bishops since 1980, when Rev. Marjorie Matthews was elected to that office.  Currently, 15 women serve as United Methodist bishops worldwide.

The passages from Timothy and Titus assume that bishops are not only men, but married men–clearly not the case in the Roman Catholic context!  Indeed, bishops must have had only one wife.  Again, the United Methodist Church (with the exception of the church in Liberia) does not follow this practice, permitting divorce and remarriage for laity and clergy alike, including bishops–indeed, my own Bishop fits into this category.  In short: it is by no means clear that the New Testament term sometimes rendered “bishop” has any simple relationship with the word “bishop” as my own Christian tradition–or for that matter, any contemporary church–uses it.

More controversial examples could be cited, of course.  Christian Zionists such as Rev. John Hagee argue that in these last days, the state of Israel must be re-established out to its ancient borders–rejecting the claims of Palestinian Arabs (including Christians) who also live in the land.  But shouldn’t the Bible’s clear call for the just treatment of all in the land (Exod 22:21-24Lev 19:33-34Deut 10:18-19) have a say in this matter as well? The relationship between biblical “Israel” and the modern political state called “Israel” may be less evident than is sometimes claimed.
Many folk opposing same-sex marriage (for example, the Primates of the Anglican Church, who in their recent meeting disciplined the Episcopal Church in the U.S. in part for celebrating same-sex marriages) base their opposition on their support for “biblical marriage.”  But can we assume that “marriage” meant for the ancient communities who gave us the Bible what it means for us? Indeed, is there any unified biblical view of marriage at all?
We will certainly revisit these questions in future blogs.  But, for now, all of us need to be wary of reading our own perspectives into the Bible.  We need to give the Bible its own independent and authentic voice–to listen humbly, to read carefully, and always, to mind the gap.

Aint Peter’s Church

aint peters church

When friend and colleague in United Methodist ministry Tom Barnicott shared this picture from Analytical Grammar on Facebook, I first laughed uproariously (what can I say–I love a good pun!), then shared it myself (with the added caption, “‘Tain’t Paul’s, neither”), and then thought, “Huh! Whose church is this?”–that is a profoundly important question.

The Christian season of Lent, during which we are called to repent of our sins and to seek God’s will for our lives, begins with Ash Wednesday, February 10.  I can think of no better way to enter into this Lenten discipline than to reflect on whose church it is, after all, and what that means for our lives and outreach.

Likely, many readers will think immediately of Jesus’ words to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, following Peter’s acclamation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter.  And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.  I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven” (Matt 16:16-19).

Traditional Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage finds here the establishment of Peter, the first Pope and vicar of Christ, as the foundation–the Rock–upon whom the church is established.  This passage, by the way, puns on the name “Peter” (Greek Petros), a nickname given to Simon bar Jonah by Jesus (see Mark 3:16; John 1:42).  Petros means “rock;” as does the Aramaic name Cephas (used for Peter in John 1:42 and consistently by Paul; see 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14).  It is as though Jesus called his friend “Rocky”!


This passage is also the source of the association of Peter with the keys to the kingdom, seen in the El Greco painting above, and in the crossed keys of the papal seal (here, the official seal of Pope Francis):

In the Greek of Matthew 16:19, the second-person pronouns (“you”) are singular, which could support the understanding that the keys were given to Peter. But other aspects of this passage call that into question.  First of all, while Petros is, of course, masculine, the noun translated “rock” in that very same verse is feminine: not petros, a rock or stone, but petra, a crag or outcropping (in the parable of the sower in Luke 8:6, 13, this is the word used for bedrock with only a very thin covering of soil).  In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) of Isaiah 8:14petra is used for Mount Zion–a passage quoted in Romans 9:33 and in 1 Peter 2:8 with reference to Jesus as the Messiah:

God will become a sanctuary—
    but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel;
    a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem.

In short, it appears that the Rock on which the church is founded may not be Peter after all, but rather Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Certainly, the text is very clear on whose church this is: Jesus declares, “I’ll build my church on this rock.”  The church belongs to Christ.

In Matthew’s gospel, the “kingdom of heaven” is not a reference to the afterlife (as in the myriad jokes about Saint Peter standing at the pearly gates).  Instead, the very Jewish Matthew, reluctant to refer to the Divine too directly, consistently uses this expression where Mark and Luke have “the kingdom of God“–the inbreaking of God’s reign into our world which Jesus both announced and inaugurated (compare Matt 4:17 with Mark 1:15). The kingdom is God’s–but we who claim to know and love the Lord can either give people access to what God is doing, or stand in their way.  The keys are ours–but that is less a promise or an honor than a caution.

Sadly, when we think that the church is ours, we may also think that having the keys gives us the authority to admit or exclude whomever we like.  On James Dobson’s radio program “Family Talk,” evangelist Franklin Graham said,

We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children. 

What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches. You have immoral people who get into the churches and it begins to effect the others in the church and it is dangerous.

Rev. Graham’s pronouns are significant: “our churches,” “our homes”–as though the church of Jesus Christ were our personal preserve, our private club, into which we need admit only those who think like us, and from which we can exclude anyone who makes us uncomfortable. This view of the church is not only mistaken, it is idolatrous: the church is Christ’s, not ours.  Indeed, as Christian blogger Benjamin Corey writes, the call for the exclusion of gay children, from Rev. Graham and others,

is precisely why 40% of homeless children in the United States are LGBTQ. It’s also why 68% of them report their homelessness is due to family rejection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, often by religious parents.

Mr. Corey is right: “these are dangerous, dangerous ideas– ideas the people of Jesus must resist and rebuke.”



My dear friend and colleague Andrew Purves, the Jean and Nancy Davis Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts this better than anyone I know:

Seeing ministry as “our” ministry or “my” ministry is the root problem that ails us. Ministry, rightly understood is our sharing in the continuing and ongoing ministry of Jesus in the world. . . . The heart of the matter is this: To participate in Jesus’ ministry requires our being willing to crucify any understanding of ministry as ours so that we may more fully experience the resurrection hope and power of Jesus’ ministry in and through our lives.

After all, brothers and sisters, it ain’t Peter’s church–or Paul’s, or yours, or mine.  It is the church of Jesus Christ.  God help us to claim and live this truth, in every congregation of Christ’s Church.


Clergy of all traditions are invited to join in a continuing education event sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and led by Dr. Andrew Purves called “The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord,”  Saturday, March 5, 9 AM – 3 PM, at Dutilh UMC, 1270 Dutilh Rd Cranberry Twp, PA 16066 (click on the link to register).  This will be a soul-stirring, life-changing, ministry-transforming experience!



How to Read the Bible, Part Six: What the Bible Isn’t


2016-01-18 15.07.09

Sorting through the boxes of papers left by her mother Gerry, Wendy found a stack of material that Mom had used in her Sunday School classes.  Among those old papers, I found this intriguing piece (clicking on it will reveal a larger image), attributed to Erwin L. Shaver, a pioneer in the Weekday Religious Education program of the ’40s–a program still operative in at least four states (Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, and Virginia).

This text is titled, “TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR THE TEACHER’S USE OF THE GREAT RULE BOOK.”  If there was any doubt as to the Book being referenced, the “first commandment” reads,

Thou shalt use the Bible as the Great Rule Book of the Christian life.

This is not the first time I have seen the Bible described as a rule book or instruction manual, of course.  A popular humorous piece claiming to present “The Entire Bible Explained In One Facebook Post” essentially summarizes God’s message to humanity as “Don’t do the things.”  Not long ago, when I asked a study group to reflect on what the Bible is, one participant responded: “The BIBLE is God’s Book of Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

This perception of the Bible is neither modern, nor American.  Pioneering astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) famously wrote in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615; quoting a private conversation with  Cardinal Cesare Baronius ), “La Bibbia ci insegna la via per andare in cielo, non come il cielo sia fatto“–commonly translated,

The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

For Galileo, science tells us how to understand nature in this world, while the Bible tells us how to prepare for the world to come–once more, the Bible is a rule book.

John Wesley, leader of the Wesleyan revivals in eighteenth century England, spoke similarly of the Bible as a guidebook to the afterlife:

I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing–the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [that is, “a man of one book”]. Preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, 1746.

At least in this essay, Wesley too seems to present the Bible as a rule book for how to go to heaven.

The problem, apparent to anyone who has actually sat down to read the Bible through, is that it is not a rule book–at least, not in any simple, straightforward sense.  While some portions of the Old Testament can be identified as rules or laws (notably, the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy), large sections of Scripture are not laws at all.

For example, the very first book of the Bible presents not rules, but a story: the story of Israel, from the beginnings of creation (Gen 1–3) to the ancestry of Abraham (Gen 11:25-32) to the lives of Abraham’s descendants, culminating in the family taking refuge in Egypt, led by Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph (Gen 46–50).  Along the way, the stories of Abraham’s family certainly do not serve as moral lessons (Jacob, for example, is a scoundrel!).  But they do demonstrate God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

Similarly, while some parts of the New Testament may fit the bill as setting forth rules for life (for example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7, or the book of James), much of it does not.  The Gospels, for example, are primarily narratives of Jesus’ life, and in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches not by setting forth rules for life, but by telling stories called parables (see Mark 4:34; Matt 13:34).  Once more, the Bible does not so much present rules to follow as tell a story about what a life lived in relationship to God is like.

Even those texts which certainly qualify as rules sometimes conflict, or are even abrogated–that is, set aside–by later texts.  For example, Deuteronomy 23:1-8 (23:2-9 in Hebrew) states clearly the makeup of Israel’s qahal: a term used both for a division in battle and for the worshipping congregation.  Specifically barred from participation are eunuchs:

No man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off can belong to the LORD’s assembly (Deut 23:1[2]).

Yet, despite the clear and explicit teaching of the  Torah, Isaiah 56:3b-5 states:

. . . don’t let the eunuch say,
        “I’m just a dry tree.”
The Lord says:
    To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    choose what I desire,
    and remain loyal to my covenant.
    In my temple and courts, I will give them
    a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
    I will give to them an enduring name
    that won’t be removed.

Why would the prophet directly contradict the Torah?  The answer lies in the different context of this oracle.  Likely, Isaiah 56 addresses the community in the days after the return from exile in Babylon, when Israel was rebuilding its culture as well as its towns and temple.  Some of those returnees would have been persons who had attained significant positions in the Babylonian bureaucracy, an honor that could carry with it a significant personal sacrifice: to ensure the king’s bloodline, and to restrict the temptation to rebellion, such persons–particularly those whose duties brought them into contact with the queen–could be castrated (see 2 Kings 20:18//Isaiah 39:7).  As eunuchs, they would have been barred from the congregation as ritually defiled.  But the prophet declares that other things are more important than ritual law: loving what God loves, honoring God’s sabbath, and loyalty to the covenant.  Far from rejecting these persons, the prophet affirms them, and assures that, despite being childless, their names would be remembered in Israel.

This is far from the only time in Scripture that one passage takes issue with another, based on what is deemed most important.  In 2 Chronicles 30:15-22, King Hezekiah of Judah invites all Israel to celebrate the passover in Jerusalem.  When he learned that some “hadn’t purified themselves and so hadn’t eaten the Passover meal in the prescribed way” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, in violation of the rules of Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5)–Hezekiah’s response was not to expel them.  Instead,

Hezekiah prayed for them: “May the good LORD forgive everyone who has decided to seek the true God, the LORD, the God of their ancestors, even though they aren’t ceremonially clean by sanctuary standards” (2 Chr 30:18-19).

The Lord heard the king’s prayer, and the community was healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Often in the Bible, interpreters of Scripture look beneath the rules for the RULE, if you will.  So, the prophet Micah asked, “What does God truly want?

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Jesus too sets aside strict legalism, seeking the heart and spirit of God in Scripture.  Six times in Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “But I say.” Jesus reads specific texts of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals of justice upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire.  Jesus does not take the Bible literally.  He takes the Bible seriously.

In Erwin Shaver’s second commandment for teachers, he urged, “Thou shalt seek to discover in it [that is, in the Bible] the rules of the spirit and not be misled by the ‘the letter which killeth'” (the reference is to 2 Corinthians 3:6 in the KJV).  Indeed, for all Shaver’s disparaging words about exalting “the Word and His principles set forth in this Great Ruler Book above the compromising ethics and customs made by agreement of ‘men-pleasers'” (his tenth commandment; the reference is to Colossians 3:22//Ephesians 6:6 in  the KJV), his sixth commandment reads, “Thou shalt reveal the Bible as an up-to-date rule book by interpreting its everlasting truths in terms of today’s needs.” Mr. Shaver knew that Scripture calls for interpretation, not mechanical, rote application.

So too, in the preface to his Sermons, John Wesley acknowledged that understanding the meaning of Scripture calls for more than rule-following:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

May we turn to the Bible, not as an inflexible book of rules, but as an invitation into relationship with the God of Scripture.  Only then will we understand what the Bible truly is.


The Sun of Righteousness

 For millions of Western Christians, this Wednesday, January 6, will be the Feast of the Epiphany–a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  More broadly, however, Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!

In Malachi 4:1-3 (3:19-21 in the Hebrew), that coming day of the LORD is described, as is typical in the Book of the Twelve (for example, see Zech 10:3-6; 12:1-9), as a day of fiery judgment upon the wicked oppressors of God’s people:

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the LORD of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch. . . .
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
       on the day that I am preparing, says the LORD of heavenly forces.


But Malachi also declares that that day will be a time of renewal and blessing for God’s faithful, who are rejuvenated and filled with exuberant joy:

But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall (Mal 4:2).

Christian readers of this blog will likely be reminded of Charles Wesley’s use of this passage in his 1739 Christmas carolHark! the Herald Angels Sing.”  Charles Wesley’s third stanza is:

Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.

Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.

In Wesley’s mind, clearly, the “Sun of Righteousness” is Jesus!

For Malachi, it is the LORD who is “the sun of righteousness,” rising with “healing. . . in its wings.” The Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate, have “his wings” (see the KJV, and the words of Wesley’s carol), but the Hebrew text and the Targum (the Aramaic version of this text used in early synagogues) have “her wings”–probably with reference to “righteousness,” which is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

For good (for example, Ps 84:11) or for ill (see Ezek 8:16), images of the LORD as the sun, and associations of the sunrise with God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple (which faced east) are fairly common in Scripture.  As a part of the worship reforms put in place by King Josiah, the horses and chariots of the sun were removed from the temple (2 Kgs 23:11).  Indeed, mosaics of the solar chariot (associated in Greco-Roman religion with Apollo or with Sol Invictus) appear in early synagogues at Beth Alpha (shown above), Naaran, Hamath Tiberius, Yafa, and Isfiya.


The Egyptian sun disc, often combined with a winged scarab, was a widespread symbol in the ancient Middle East, even incorporated into the royal seals of Judean kings such as Hezekiah.

Malachi, writing in the Persian Period, was likely familiar with a modification of the winged solar disc from Persian art.  This symbol appears with Persian king Darius’ monumental inscription at Behistun, at his palace at Persepolis, and above the door of his tomb (depicted above); likely, it is meant to represent the Persian creator god Ahuramazda.  But for the prophet Malachi, of course, the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings can only be the LORD!  Depicting God’s coming as the sunrise represents a positive counter to the destructive image of the day of the LORD “burning like an oven” (4:1): the coming of the LORD may burn, but it also heals.

May this new year be for us all a time of healing and renewal.  May the Sun of Righteousness rise today, in our hearts, our homes, our country, and our world, burning away the chaff and dross of the past, and empowering us to live anew!




Cosmic Christmas

Friend and fellow United Methodist minister Rob Hernan posted on Facebook, “Today in church I called Bethlehem a ‘timey’ village. Thanks, Doctor Who!”

Fellow Whovians will recognize the reference to a scene from this British science fiction series (from the episode, “Blink,” written by Steven Moffat, starring David Tennant), in which the Doctor, an alien time traveler, says,

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey. . . stuff.

Actually, I think that Rob’s slip of the tongue is rather brilliant.  Christians have always confessed that Christ’s coming has altered the whole shape of reality.  There is definitely something “wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey” about the effect of Christ’s incarnation on the whole of space-time, backwards as well as forwards in time!

That is the reason that most Christians recite the phrase “He descended into hell” as part of the Apostle’s Creed–a confession incorporated into the Creed by around the eighth century, drawing perhaps on 1 Peter 3:19, which says that after his death, Jesus “went to preach to the spirits in prison.”  This confession, and the linked tradition of the harrowing of Hell, recognizes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring salvation, not only to those of us who live on this side of Easter, but to all the generations who lived before.

This Sunday, as we sang “Once in Royal David’s City,” I heard for the first time that confession in Cecil Frances Alexander‘s old carol, of the cosmic significance of Christmas, for our time and for all times.  I share that carol with all of you, as we celebrate Christ’s coming, and look for his coming again.

Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.


For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

God bless us, every one–and have a very Merry, timey-wimey, Christmas!



I had decided that I would not address Mr. Donald Trump’s bombast at all–that I would ignore him until he went away.  But then, this week, he gave a speech to which I must respond–to which, I believe, all committed people of faith must respond.  Mr. Trump is “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Called on this xenophobic rant by voices from all over the political spectrum, Mr. Trump reiterated his stance, justifying it by appeal to the disastrous policies regarding people of German, Italian, and Japanese descent in WWII, policies which led to the infamous Japanese internment camps.

To this message of hatred, and to its messenger, people of faith must say, “No.”  This cannot be permitted to stand as just another political position among others.  This is not about Republican or Democrat, right or left, conservative or liberal.  Mr. Trump’s words are a denial of our fundamental identity as Americans, and of fundamental morality, and must be repudiated by all of us.

As a Christian and a Bible Guy, I find peddling hatred and fear of outsiders totally at odds with this season, and with the texts we read and remember as Christmas draws near.  Consider Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, a young family compelled by violent and hate-filled rulers (first mad Herod, then his vicious son Archelaus) to run for their lives, becoming refugees first in Egypt, and ultimately in Nazareth (see Matt 2:13-23; compare Luke 2:1-7, which says that Joseph and Mary were originally from Nazareth).

Consider, too, those wise men.  Tradition says that there were three, that they were kings from three continents and three races, that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  None of this is in Matthew’s simple account:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him” (Matt 2:1-2).

The Magi were a clan of priests and astrologers from Persia–our words “magic” and “magician” derive from “magi.”  Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came–the traditional number three comes from their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11-12). The idea that they were kings from distant lands and races comes from Isaiah 60:1-6, traditionally read as fulfilled in the visit of the Magi:

Nations will come to your light
    and kings to your dawning radiance.

. . . the nations’ wealth will come to you.
 Countless camels will cover your land,
    young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
    carrying gold and incense,
    proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

Still, there is an appropriateness to the tradition’s reading of the Magi as representing the whole outside world.  After all, they come to the manger as the ultimate outsiders.  They come not only from outside of Judea, but from outside the Roman empire itself–from the land of the feared Parthians, an armed and unstable threat on the empire’s eastern frontier. They are not Jews, either ethnically or religiously; while nothing is said of their religious heritage by Matthew, they would have been Zoroastrians.  Remarkably, it is Matthew who tells their story: Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, is the one who records a visit to the Christ child from foreigners and unbelievers!  Yet in this gospel these foreigners come, not as enemies to threaten the Child, but as pilgrims to honor him.

Herod’s religious experts also see the Magi’s star, and rightly interpret the Scriptures that witness to the coming king:

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
 Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5; see Matt 2:4-6)

But these faithful, patriotic citizens stay in the false security of Herod’s walled palace, and never see the miracle.  Instead, it is the foreign, Gentile Magi who become the first, faithful witnesses to the new thing God is doing–breaking into our world as one us there in Bethlehem.

May we learn from the wise men to be “wise guys” ourselves: to be ready to receive God’s blessing from the hands, and to hear God’s word in the voice, of a stranger.  May we say to all hatred, racism, and fearmongering a firm and unequivocal “No.”



Whose Land?


I have just come back to work after convalescing from a fall.  I am thankful for all the prayers lifted up on my behalf, and am pleased to report that I am feeling great–though I regret my lengthy hiatus from my work, including this blog.  Rather than delaying these posts any further, and in sorrowful recognition of recent conflicts in Israel and in the West Bank, I am reposting my blog from April 14, 2013, entitled “Whose Land?,”  with prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, and justice for all of God’s people.

The Bible is always in the background of discussions about the land in Palestine.  Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the American churches and synagogues that support them, sometimes insist that Jews can settle wherever they like, because the land is theirs: promised to them by God.  Just as Abraham and Joshua were told to walk through the land and so claim and possess it (Genesis 13:17; Joshua 1:3; 24:3; compare Ezekiel 36:8-12, where this is applied to those returning from exile in Babylon), so building more and more settlements in the West Bank is for some a way of laying claim to God’s promise. 

So, what is God’s promise?   In Genesis 12:1-3, God says to Abraham, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you” (Common English Bible).  This promise, repeated in different forms in Genesis 17:7-8 and Exodus 3:16-17, seems fairly explicit.  The land of Canaan—modern-day Palestine—is promised to Abraham and to his descendants.

But to whom is the promise given? Deuteronomy 26:1-11 directs that, when presenting the offering of the first fruits gathered in the harvest, the worshipper is to recall the history of God’s kindness to the ancestors, beginning with Abraham: “My father was a starving Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).  In Exodus 3:16-17, God promises the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land full of milk and honey.”  As we discussed in an earlier blog (see “The Bible and ‘The Bible’”, March 13, 2013), Israel is described in Joshua and Judges as a landless and friendless people, to whom the land comes as a gift.  In the Bible, the promise of land is not given to a people securely settled and established: it is an offer of hope to homeless, landless people, without power or property.

Further, while God says, “I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession” (Genesis 17:8), the promise of possession never involves ownership.  The people of Israel are given the right to live on the land, to farm it and to graze their flocks upon it, but the land itself does not belong to Israel.  This important distinction is emphasized in the laws concerning sabbatical years and jubilees in Leviticus 25 (from a part of the book of Leviticus called the Holiness Code).  According to these laws, every seventh year (the sabbatical year), the land is to be left fallow: the fields are not to be plowed, and no new crops are to be sown.  Then, every 49th year (the seventh seventh year) is to be followed by another fallow year, called the jubilee.  In the year of jubilee, all debts are forgiven, and any land claims revert to the family among Israel’s tribes and clans to whom that particular piece of real estate was originally entrusted, according to Joshua 14:1—19:51.

What this means, in short, is that the land itself could not be bought or sold—not permanently.  All that one could do is rent a property for the number of harvests remaining until the jubilee, when it would return to its properly assigned clan.  Leviticus 25:23 makes this principle explicit: “The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”  We do not know if the priestly ideal of the jubilee was ever historically realized.  But the principle it expresses, that the land belongs to the Lord, is consistently upheld in Scripture.

Since the land is and remains God’s, the prophets make it very clear that God’s permission for Israel to live in the land was not absolute.  In Jeremiah 7:3, in response to Jerusalem’s false worship, violence, and injustice, the Lord says, “Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place.”  In fact, the Hebrew of this verse could be translated as a plea, expressing God’s longing and love for Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (New Revised Standard Version).  God will be in Israel’s midst in the land, and Israel will enjoy the benefits that presence brings, only if Israel worships God rightly, and acts justly.  Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel rejects the claims of violent people who rely on the sword that they shall possess the land (Ezekiel 33:26).  The land is God’s, and its inhabitants will be those whom God permits.

In Isaiah 61:1-2, the promise of jubilee becomes God’s promise of justice to all the oppressed:

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
    to bring good news to the poor,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim release for captives,
        and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and a day of vindication for our God,
    to comfort all who mourn. . .

For this prophet, “the year of the LORD’s favor” must also be “a day of vindication for our God.”  Sometimes oppressors must be overthrown before real peace can be found; peace without justice is no peace at all.

But when Jesus read from this passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he pointedly dropped that line (Luke 4:18-19) – not because he sided with the oppressors (Romans, in first century Palestine), but because he had come to bring new life to everyone: Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, alike (Luke 4:25-27; see also Isaiah 66:18-23; Jonah 3–4).

There are, have always been, and will always be hotly contested claims to the land of Palestine.  The modern state of Israel, first established in 1948 in the wake of World War II as a homeland for the dispossessed Jews devastated by Hitler’s holocaust, has a right to exist and thrive.  But the Palestinian Arabs also have a right to live and thrive, in a state of their own (such a state, in fact, was stipulated by the same UN resolution that established the modern state of Israel).  But that discussion is a matter for another day.  For today, my purpose has been simply to address the claim advanced, particularly by American Christians, that the land belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them, while Arabs (Christians and Muslims alike) have no right to the land.  That claim, I would suggest, is not valid.  According to Scripture, the land doesn’t belong to Israel: it never did.  The land is God’s.


How to Read the Bible, Part Five: “God-Breathed”?


The threefold battle cry of the Protestant Reformation was Sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura: “Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”  Against the claims of medieval Catholicism– that salvation came through the traditions of the Church, with its saints and sacraments and papal indulgences–Reformers such as Martin Luther asserted that we are saved by God’s grace alone, received through faith alone, and that all that is necessary for salvation is revealed through Scripture alone.

This emphasis on the primacy of Scripture rather than tradition has remained perhaps the central tenet of Protestantism.  Yet curiously, adherence to “Scripture alone” has not unified the church.  Rather, Protestant churches have continued to fission and fracture into a multitude of Christian expressions down to the present day, when nearly 40% of Protestant Christians worldwide identify as “independent, nondenominational or part of a denominational family that is very small or otherwise difficult to classify.”

The reason for this diversity, of course, is that the “one book” (or more accurately, the many books) of Scripture is interpreted in many different ways, by different Christians in their myriad contexts.


For example: John Wesley, leader of the Wesleyan revivals in eighteenth century England, famously referred to himself as homo unius libri, “a man of one book.”

I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.

Yet, in the preface to his Sermons (where he identifies himself as homo unius libri), Wesley acknowledges that the meaning of Scripture is not always simple and straightforward:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

The interpretation of Scripture requires prayerful reflection and spiritual discernment–that is, a personal experience of devotion to God through Christ and of yieldedness to the Holy Spirit. Understanding the Bible requires study–that is, the exercise of reason!–and so the careful consultation of other books.  Faithful interpretation of Scripture calls us to enter into conversation with other believers past and present: in short, with the tradition.  All claims to the contrary, then, sola Scriptura strictly understood is an unobtainable–indeed, an undesirable–goal.

Often, Christians who insist upon the Bible’s absolute and infallible authority refer to 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  In the CEB, this passage reads:

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good (compare KJV and NRSV of these verses).

The highlighted phrase is a single word in Greek: theopneustos.  The NIV famously renders this as “All Scripture is God-breathed“–which is, literally, what theopneustos (combining the Greek words for “God” and “breath”) would seem to mean.  This reading of theopneustos is followed in the ESV, and in Eugene Petersen’s popular paraphrase The Message Christians who insist upon the Bible’s inerrancy–that is, its absolute and infallible authority–often cite this passage. Surely, if the Bible is God-breathed, that must mean that its words are God’s very words, as perfect and infallible as God is, and carrying God’s own authority.


This is the position of Josh McDowell, whose book God-Breathed sets out “to present a compelling case that God’s Word can be trusted to be undeniably reliable.”  As McDowell states,

Each book, each page and each paragraph of Scripture was written through the lens of its human spokesmen, yet it still communicates the exact message God wants us to receive.       . . . His words were supernaturally guided through his selected human instruments so that his truth would be vivid and relevant to our lives. With God as the author and men as the writers, the sixty-six books of the Bible can rightly be called the Word of God.

The Sarcophagus | Gnostic Warrior

But the derivation of a word is not necessarily a reliable guide to its meaning.  Consider that the “literal” meaning of the word “sarcophagus” is “flesh-eater”!  A surer guide to what theopneustos means would be how the word is actually used elsewhere.  Unfortunately, this word is uncommon: it appears nowhere else in the New Testament; nor is it used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint.

Outside of the Bible, the term is no less obscure. In the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a first-century Jewish philosopher, theopneustos is used to distinguish wisdom from God from human wisdom (Sentences 129); note, though, as P. W. van der Horst observes, “This line, in clumsy [Greek], is probably inauthentic.  It is lacking in some important textual witnesses” (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985], 579).  In a compendium of the teachings of the philosophers ascribed to the first-century historian Plutarch, but likely written much later than his time, theopneustos is used to distinguish “dreams which are caused by divine instinct” from “dreams which have their origin . . . from the soul’s forming within itself the images of those things which are convenient for it” (Placita Philosophorum 5. 2. 3).  Perhaps characterizing the Bible as theopneustos sets it apart as sacred writing, different from other, ordinary books.

William Abraham - SMU Perkins School of Theology

Another way into this question is to ask what we usually mean when we speak of inspiration (a word which is also related to breath).  Methodist theologian William Abraham considers what it means when we say that a teacher is inspiring, or that a teacher’s students have been inspired:

. . . there is no question of students being passive while they are being inspired.  On the contrary: their natural abilities will be used to the full extent, and as a result they will show great differences in style, content and vocabulary.  Their native intelligence and talent will be greatly enhanced and enriched but in no way obliterated or passed over. . . . there need be no surprise if, from the point of view of the teacher, they make mistakes (William J. Abraham, The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture [Oxford: Oxford University, 1981], 63-64).

As a Bible teacher, this illustration resonates strongly with me.  I do indeed hope that I inspire my students.  But by that, I certainly do not mean that I expect them to repeat my own words by rote, or even that I expect them to think just as I do.  I do hope that they will love the Bible as I do, and that through their study they will be led into a deeper and deeper relationship with the God of Scripture.

Applying this analogy of classroom inspiration to Scripture, Abraham writes:

We must allow a genuine freedom to God as he inspires his chosen witnesses, knowing that what he does will be adequate for his saving and sanctifying purposes for our lives.  In so doing we escape the tension and artificiality of those theories that have staked everything on the perfectionist and utopian hopes that stem from a theology of Scripture that substitutes divine speaking [i.e., “the Bible is the literal word of God”] for divine inspiration without biblical or rational warrant (Abraham, Inspiration, 69-70).

While Abraham’s statement that the Bible is “adequate” to God’s saving purposes may seem to us far too weak, it is not much different than the claim that the writer of 2 Timothy makes.  Scripture is “useful”–not infallible, not inerrant, not even authoritative, but “useful”:

for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good 

As Daniel Migliore observes, “Scripture is indispensable in bringing us into a new relationship with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  However, “Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible” (Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second Edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 50).

The Bible is not an end–it is a means to an end. These ancient words express the faith of women and men who were enlivened and transformed by God’s presence; hearing their words, we are brought into an encounter with the same God, and equipped for service in God’s world.




How to Read the Bible Part Four: Lost in Translation

Sundown Sunday, September 13 marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have always resonated with beginning the year in the fall–since for most of my life, as a student and as a teacher, I have been involved with education, September rather than January has always been my time of new beginnings!  As I write this, we are toward the middle of the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As my colleague Edwin van Driel and I are team-teaching a course at PTS this term on models of the atonement in Christian theology, that solemn day too is much in my mind.

In Judaism, Yom Kippur is a fast day, on which one reflects upon the sins of the past year, repents before God, and resolves to live differently in the year to come.  In Scripture, both the rite for Yom Kippur and its significance are quite different from the day as it developed in Jewish life and practice.  But those ancient rites, and what they might mean for how we think about God, have a great deal to teach us about the ways that we read, and sometimes misread, Scripture.

First, take that word “atonement.”  Look it up in any dictionary, and the first definition you will find will be something like, “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  Growing up as a young Christian, that was certainly the way that I saw Christ’s atoning death on Calvary: as Jesus making reparation to God for my wrong.  The only way of understanding the cross I knew was that Jesus had taken on himself God’s wrath, and the deserved punishment for my sin, so that I could be forgiven–an understanding of the atonement called “penal substitution.”  I grew up singing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “Jesus Paid It All.” However, like many believers, I have come to be concerned about what this language says about God.  Do I really believe that God’s wrath can only be assuaged by blood, even the blood of his innocent Son?   Further, if it is solely the death of Jesus that atones for our sins, doesn’t that make his life and teaching irrelevant?

The history of the word “atonement” suggests a different original meaning for this term, which may broaden our understanding of God, Christ, and the cross–as well as our reading of Yom Kippur.  The Oxford Dictionary dates “atonement” to the early 16th century, when it was coined out of  the phrase “at one”–influenced by the Latin adunamentum (“unity”), and an older word, “onement” (from an obsolete verb form, “to one,” meaning “to unite”).  The word was used, particularly in Christian circles, to talk about the reconcilition of God and humanity accomplished by Christ.

When the King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, the relatively new expression “make atonement” was used for the Hebrew verb kipper, particularly in connection with Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16).  This word apparently had the original meaning “cover.”  However, kipper came to be used specifically for rites of cleansing and purification.

In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the day when all lingering defilement from the previous year, either accidental or deliberate, was expunged, making full access to and communion with God possible in the new year.  The Common English Bible, which translates Yom Kippur as “Day of Reconciliation,” captures both the meaning of this ancient rite and the older meaning of the word “atonement” as dealing, not with reparation or punishment, but with communion restored.

The centerpiece of the ancient ritual for this day involved two goats.  One was selected by lot as the goat to be offered as the sin offering (the most familiar translation of the Hebrew khattat; the CEB reads “purification offering,” which better catches the significance of this sacrifice in ancient Israel).  The second goat was given to Azazel.  We have no idea what this means; perhaps Azazel was a monster or demon believed to live in waste places, or perhaps Azazel is an old word for “wilderness.”  The KJV read “scapegoat,” which has entered our language as a person or group blamed for wrongs done by others.

In Leviticus, the goat for Azazel is not a sacrifice, nor is it killed.  It is driven out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the defilement of the people.  The other goat, selected by lot as belonging to the LORD, is sacrificed.  Its blood is taken by the high priest into the inner room of the shrine, called the Most Holy Place, where God was believed to be specially present.  This inner chamber held a golden box, called the Ark (the Hebrew word for the Ark, ‘aron, simply means “box,” or “chest”).  The lid of the Ark was a slab of gold, molded in the image of two cherubim: terrible semi-divine heavenly beings like winged sphinxes.

The cherubim‘s inner wings overlapped to form a throne: the divine title “the LORD, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (for example, 1 Sam 4:4; Ps 80:1) recalls this connection.  The Ark itself served as the LORD’s footstool, making this golden box the intersection of divine and human worlds.  In the days of Israel’s wilderness wandering, Moses and Aaron encountered the LORD at the Ark (for example, Exod 25:22).

On Yom Kippur, the blood from the people’s purification offerings was applied to the lid of the Ark (kapporet in Hebrew; translated as “mercy seat” in the KJV and the NRSV, but best rendered, as the CEB has it, simply as “cover” or “lid”).  This meant that, once a year, the blood of the purification offering was brought to the very feet of God.

In Romans 3:23-25 (NRSV), Paul seems to use the rite of Yom Kippur as a way to understand the work of Christ on the cross:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

The Greek word translated “sacrifice of atonement” in the NRSV (the KJV has “propitiation”) is hilasterion.  But this Greek word is used in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, not for either the sin offering or the scapegoat but for the lid of the Ark: the kapporet.  The CEB translation “place of sacrifice” is a little better, though still misleading.  Paul’s point appears to be that the cross where Jesus’ blood was spilled has become the kapporet: the point where divine and human worlds intersect, and so the place where reconciliation–atonement–happens.

Reading the Bible in English, we are likely to miss all of this.  We may assume that, in Leviticus, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement in our sense: referring to a reparation for sins, made in blood to an angry, judging God.  We may assume that the death of Jesus too must be read it this same way: as Jesus taking the punishment, or paying the price, for our guilt.  The meaning of the Hebrew words  kipper and kapporet, the Greek hilasterion, and even the history of the rather new English word “atonement,” may well pass us by.

This is, of course, an argument for learning the biblical languages, so that subtleties and nuances often lost in translation can be recognized.  Even for those of us without access to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Scripture, it means learning to read the Bible carefully and prayerfully, making use of commentaries , study Bibles, and other resources that will “complexify” our plain reading of the text.  For all of us, it means remembering that the Bible was not written in English.  We need always to be aware of the bones beneath the flesh of the translation, and to resist the temptation to see our own surface reading as what the Bible “plainly” says.


As the new academic year begins at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, welcome to all new students, staff, and faculty–and welcome back to the old-timers!  Praying for all of us, for God’s blessings on this new year of possibility.


Preaching from the Left-Hand Side of the Bible

I love the scene in the first “Ghostbusters” movie where the team warns the mayor of New York of a coming “disaster of biblical proportions”:

Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Actually, except for the “dogs and cats” part, this is a pretty fair summary of the impression many people, even life-long believers, have of the Old Testament.  No wonder we are reluctant to read and study, let alone preach from, the first two-thirds of Christian Scripture!

I am going to list the top three reasons I have heard for not preaching from the left-hand side of the Bible.  I am then going to argue that each one is actually a reason that we need to preach these texts.


1) The Old Testament God is wrathful and violent.

Certainly, there is bloodshed aplenty in the texts south of Matthew (for example, see the account of Nineveh’s fall in Nahum 2–3). But the New Testament certainly is not lacking in texts witnessing to this theme (for example, Revelation 16:1-20Matthew 10:34; or Luke 22:35-37).  Avoiding the Old Testament doesn’t solve the problem.  However, addressing these texts carefully in context reveals a God who cares passionately about justice, and who sides with the oppressed against the oppressor–themes we must address from our pulpits.  For example: the horrific texts in Nahum are introduced in the final form of that book by a psalm (Nah 1:2-11) affirming that the LORD is a God of justice who punishes the wicked and the oppressor:

The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty (Nah 1:3 NRSV).

Nineveh’s destruction, then, is presented as a measured act of just punishment, not the capricious act of a violent deity.  Indeed Habakkuk, the book that follows Nahum, wrestles with the problem of divine justice in the face of violence and suffering:

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
        you are unable to look at disaster.
Why would you look at the treacherous
        or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? (Hab 1:12-13).

Rather than providing simple, condescending answers to our questions, the Old Testament invites us to join in the age-old struggle for meaning, and so to find ourselves in conversation with the Divine.

2) The Old Testament is law, the New Testament is grace.

This misunderstanding of the Bible derives from a misreading, not only of the Old Testament, but also of the New–particularly, the letters of Paul, who sometimes opposes legalism to faith (for example, in Romans 4:13-16).  Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the idea expressed that, by proper observance of the law, one earns God’s favor.  Rather, always and everywhere, obedience is a faithful response to the love and grace that God has shown.  Micah expresses this very aptly:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Grace is the beating heart of the whole of Scripture.  Indeed, hearing that grace expressed in the pithy, earthy language of the Old Testament, rather than the often otherworldly language of the New, may make its message all the more potent.  This leads to the third objection:

3) The Old Testament is odd.

Guilty as charged!  The Old Testament is, after all, old: it reflects the worldview of ancient cultures, far removed from us in time and space.  The oddity of texts such as Ezekiel’s vision of the LORD’s glory (Ezek 1; depicted effectively in the woodcut above) should not, indeed cannot, be denied or explained away.  However, precisely because they are strange, these passages may be able to help us hear anew a message that more familiar texts no longer effectively convey.  The message of God’s caring, and God’s determination to come to us where we are, may no longer sound so strongly in passages we have heard over and over again (such as John 3:16).  But the wheels beneath the divine throne in Ezekiel’s vision reveal that God is enthroned in a chariot, enabling God to be present in God’s full glory wherever God wishes–a striking image that, in its very strangeness and unfamiliarity, may break through to us as it did for African slaves discovering the Bible and its faith.

Preaching the Old Testament is not optional: if we believe that the Bible is indeed word of God for the people of God, then we need to preach Scripture in its fullness.  When we do so, we will experience the power of God’s word and God’s presence anew.

AFTERWORD: Wendy and I are just back from a glorious vacation in New England and Atlantic Canada.  The Bible Guy series on how to read the Bible will resume next time.  This week’s blog responds to a request from Melissa Logan, Director of Communications at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, for ideas on preaching from the Old Testament.  Hope you find it useful.