The Strong Name of the Trinity

Friday March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation–as in the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity.  Of course, as a metaphor for God’s unity in three persons, the shamrock has its problems!  But then again, perhaps every metaphor for the Divine life must fall short.

This week, I have been remembering the controversial depiction of the Trinity in William P. Young’s novel The Shack.  My covenant group at St. Paul’s UMC read this book, but I honestly do not believe I ever finished it.  Wendy reminds me that I was dismissive of The Shack, scornful of what I saw as its naïveté and its theological shortcomings.

Then, on March 9, 2017, I went to see the film version with my father and my sister—and I wept. The film is visually beautiful, and, I thought, very well acted: especially by the lead Sam Worthington, and by the luminous Octavia Spencer as the First Person of the Trinity. I will freely allow that I was emotionally open and vulnerable, seeing this film with my father and sister on my late mother’s birthday, just a week before the first anniversary of her death. But mainly, I think, I was moved by the film’s potent portrayal of the boundless love of God, and the power of forgiveness.

In the movie as in the book, Mack Phillips has suffered a terrible tragedy. The loss of a child has plunged him, and his family, into darkness and despair. Led by a mysterious note to the eponymous shack, the place where his child had died, Mack is met by two women—a motherly African American cook and an Asian gardener—and by a young man, a Palestinian carpenter.

The three strangers reveal themselves as the triune Godhead, who teaches Mack about forgiveness, the major theme of this film: both the joy of being forgiven, and the freedom from anger and bitterness that comes when we forgive others.

The film, like the book, was harshly critiqued. Blogger Grayson Gilbert wrote,

The Shack panders to the sensationalism brought on by emotional appeal and subjective relativism. . . . If you want to hear from God, open up the scriptures and read. Drink deeply of a brook that never runs dry; fill yourself with waters free from the bitter gall of heretical teaching.

Pastor Jack Wellman concluded,

Even though The Shack is fiction, I believe it is dangerous, particularly for new Christians, because they don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible and of God, and so they might confuse these fictional characters with the way God really is. . . . I don’t need another fictional book to tell me what God is like. We have the best source on earth for that and its call [sic.] the Bible. We don’t have to guess about the nature of God or His attributes, because we can know.

Yet on the other hand, scholar Allan R. Bevere wrote,

I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered. I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian Trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.

I wonder how much of the fury directed at The Shack  really boils down to Wellman’s angry assertion, “the Father is not an African American woman and the Holy Spirit is not a mysterious Asian woman named Sarayu.” Reading this retort, I found myself thinking, “No, but neither is God an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), nor Jesus a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4), nor the Holy Spirit a dove (Luke 3:22).” Scripture is filled with metaphors; indeed all of our language about God, without exception, is metaphorical. How could it possibly be otherwise, God being GOD, after all, and not an object in the world of space and time?

In a column on faith in the 21st century West, David Brooks argues for a “friendship with complexity” that engages the world, rather than an ideological purity that rejects it. Brooks concludes that the real enemy of faith is “a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.”  How winsome can our faith possibly be if it is so rigid, pedantic, pedestrian, and rule-bound? What room can there be in such confining doctrinal boxes for a vibrant relationship with the living Lord?

Trinity Knot or Rings (Triquetra) | City of Grove Oklahoma

What, after all, does the Bible say about the Trinity?  The truth is–not much!  Indeed, it would be generations before Christians refined their theology into the Trinitarian formulas in the classical creeds of the church.  Christianity’s first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, met in 325 CE.  Particularly at issue for this gathering was how to speak meaningfully about the relationship between the Father and the Son.  According to Arius and his followers, Jesus was a creation of God–the highest creature to be sure, indeed the first-born of all creation, but still distinct from the one God.  Jesus and God are therefore homoiousias: of like substance or essence.

To be fair, this kind of language is used in Scripture. Colossians 1:15 describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the one who is first [Greek prototokos, “firstborn“] over all creation.”  The Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says that

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings (Phil 2:6-7).

The Council, however, wound up affirming that Jesus and God were homoousias: that is, of the same substance, or of one substance.  The Nicene Creed accordingly confesses,

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being [Greek homoousion] with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.

So, why did the Council at Nicaea insist upon this confession?  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible (what Lindbeck terms “Christological maximalism”), as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him. Hence, the New Testament calls Jesus God’s Son (The Nature of Doctrine [Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 94).

Trinity (Andrei Rublev) - WikipediaWhile full-blown Trinitarian language is wanting in the texts of Scripture, the Gospel of John comes very close.  John 1:1 affirms,

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.

Indeed, in John 10:30, Jesus proclaims, “I and the Father are one.”  In John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.

This language in turn reflects the struggle of the sages of ancient Israel to find a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other, as intimately involved and engaged with the world.  Particularly in Proverbs 8, they described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (khokmah) is feminine.

Best of Frenemies: Unexpected Role of Social Networks in Ecology | UC DavisLady Wisdom  says, “The LORD created me [Hebrew qanani; perhaps better “acquired me,” that is, as a wife] at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.

I was formed in ancient times,
    at the beginning, before the earth was.
When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs flowing with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
    before the hills, I was brought forth;
    before God made the earth and the fields
    or the first of the dry land.
I was there when he established the heavens,
    when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
    when he thickened the clouds above,
    when he secured the fountains of the deep,
    when he set a limit for the sea,
        so the water couldn’t go beyond his command,
    when he marked out the earth’s foundations.
I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race (Prov 8:23-31).

Christian readers will be reminded, again, of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God who is God, through whom the world was made. This is a Wisdom Christology: a way of talking about Christ drawn from the language of Proverbs 8!

1 John 4:8 gives us another way to visualize the Divine life: “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is at once the Lover, and the Beloved, and the Love that binds them as one.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

Psychoanalytical pioneer and scholar of religion Carl Jung remembered taking confirmation classes from his father, a Lutheran minister.  It was all very boring–but young Carl had read ahead in his catechism, and knew that coming up was something strange, mysterious, and wonderful–the Trinity!  When the day assigned to study the Trinity arrived at last, however, Jung’s father said, “This is very complicated, and I really don’t understand it myself, so we’ll skip over it.”  For Jung, this marked a major turning point, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his decision that he could not accept what he saw as his father’s pallid, shallow faith.

The Trinity is foundational for Christians in the most basic sense: we are baptized in name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20).  So we really can’t “skip over” this.  As the Council at Nicaea affirmed, it is true that God is three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; yet it is also true that God is one.  That may seem nonsensical–but the Trinity is not a logic problem for us to solve!  We come to the paradoxical language of Trinity because we are driven to it by the shape of our experience of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is, and what God is up to in our world.  As my friend and colleague from graduate school Ray Jones used to say about the Trinity, “I don’t believe this stuff because I want to.  I believe it because it’s true!”


St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is a classic expression of Celtic spirituality (perhaps best known from this familiar hymn), and a full-throated celebration of the Triune God.  Here is the prayer in full, translated into English verse by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1889:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.

I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!


All Along the Way

Title: St. Savin - Calling of Abraham [Click for larger image view]

The Hebrew Bible reading for Sunday is Abram’s call (Genesis 12:1-4a).  It is tempting for us, with the benefit of biblical hindsight, to think that this passage marks the beginning of Abram’s singular, goal-oriented pursuit of God’s promises: that he would find a homeland, become prosperous, and have many children. But our text cannot support such a reading. What Abram is leaving behind is defined, clearly and repeatedly: “Go from your country and from your family and from your home” (Gen 12:1, my translation)—leave, in short, all that is familiar. But as for where he is going, God says only that it is “the land that I will show you.” Abram sets out for—wherever. He and Sarai are given no map, no specific heading. Instead, they are required to be open to God’s direction and guidance all along the way.

We should not expect our own path to be any different than theirs: whether as individuals, as congregations, or as the church. We as well cannot know what the future might bring—and so, to limit our planning and dreaming to a simple extrapolation of what we now know may be to dream wrongly, to plan awry. Like Abram, we are called to lives of open expectation and radical trust in the God who goes before us.

The Cloud of Unknowing - DAM MUSEUM

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic of Christian spirituality, puts it this way:

Your whole life must be one of longing, if you are to achieve perfection. And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent. But, a word of warning: he is a jealous lover, and will brook no rival; he will not work in your will if he has not sole charge; he does not ask for help, he asks for you.

While Abram and Sarai are given no specific goal, they are given the assurance of God’s good intentions for them. God declares, “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). However, God’s blessing is not given to Abram for his own sake: to enrich Abram, meet his needs, and make his dreams come true.

This is particularly clear in the Hebrew of Genesis 12:3. While the NRSV of this verse reads, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”—implying that the blessing on Abram is primary, and that the blessing on the “families of the earth” follows from it—the Hebrew reads, wenibreku beka: that is, “they will bless themselves by you” (see the text notes in the NRSV, NRSVue, and CEB). The point, it seems, is that others, challenged and motivated by what they see in Abram and his heirs, will say to one another, “May life be for you as it has been for Abram.” Abram is blessed for the sake of others.

For us as well, the purpose of God’s blessing is “so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2, NRSVue). If our planning, as a church or as a denomination, is solely about our survival, our goals will be far too small. If we seek a future that will bless and enrich us, then even if that dream is realized, we will find it to have been the wrong dream!  Better questions, which will guide us into God’s dream for us, are:  How can we be a blessing to others? How can we be used by God in the continual reformation of Christ’s church? How can we be agents of God’s kingdom in the world?

Painting With Penicillin: Alexander Fleming's Germ Art | Science| Smithsonian Magazine

The story of Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, dramatically demonstrates the limitations of a focused, goal-directed approach to life. Fleming discovered this marvelous antibiotic in 1928, when bacterial cultures growing in petri dishes in his lab were contaminated by mold spores. As the mold spread, the bacteria died. Penicillin was discovered, not as the end of a deliberately focused research program, but by accident!

But then again, “accident” may not be the right word. Much like Abram and Sarai, Alexander Fleming was heading toward a goal he himself did not choose and could not have foreseen. He discovered penicillin, we might say, because he was open to discovery, and so found himself in the right place at the right time. We Christians call this “providence.”

A story is told about Sir Fleming that may not be true, but deserves to be. Late in his life, he was given a tour of an antiseptic, gleaming, state-of-the-art medical lab. Someone said to him, “Imagine what you could have discovered if you had had all of this at your disposal!” Fleming sardonically replied, “Not penicillin.”

This Lent, as we reflect on our calling and look into our futures, God grant that we might not be found focused on our goals and the pursuit of our dreams. May we instead discern God’s dream for us, by asking how we might become a blessing: to our church, to our city, and to our hurting world. May we be, not cold, antiseptic, and closed-minded, but like Abram and Sarai open to God’s unexpected gifts of grace and direction all along our way.


The fresco at the head of this blog depicting Abram’s call is from the upper south register of the nave of Abbaye de Saint-Savin in Vienne, France.  It is taken from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 27, 2023]. Original source: image donated by Jim Womack and Anne Richardson.

The digital artwork for “The Cloud of Unknowing” is by Roman Verostko.



When I was in seminary, my friend Frank Redding and I each served two of five churches in a cooperative New Jersey parish; elder David Wilson was pastor of the fifth and largest church on the parish (Allentown), and had administrative oversight over all five.  Each week, the three of us would meet to talk about what was happening in our churches, and to discuss the lectionary readings for the week.  Almost always, we found that Dave was concentrating on the gospel, Frank the epistle, and that I (no surprise!) was preaching from the Hebrew Bible.

I remember vividly one such discussion, just prior to the last Sunday before Lent: Transfiguration Sunday.  Frank was wrestling with how to preach these texts.  I remember him sharing the griefs and pains of his people that week, and then asking, “What difference does it make to them that Jesus lit up like a light bulb?”

So, what exactly did happen on that mountain–and why does it matter?  In the old King James Bible, Sunday’s gospel declares,

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light (Matthew 17:1-2; note that the NIV and NRSVue  follow the KJV reading “transfigured,” while the CEB has “transformed.”)

The Greek word rendered “transfigured” here is metamorphoo, source of our English word “metamorphosis.”  Likely, that word will call to our minds the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly; or perhaps, we may think of the macabre Franz Kafka novella of the same name, in which Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find that he has transformed overnight into a giant cockroach.

The Metamorphosis Audiobook By Franz Kafka cover artBut what would this word have meant to the writers, and hearers, of the Gospels?  The verb metamorphoo is not used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture), and in our New Testament, it appears only four times.  Two of these are the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew and Mark (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2).  So, in the mosaic of the Transfiguration at the top of this blog, the Greek title reads “The Metamorphosis.”

We may conclude with the CEB that Jesus was transformed on the mountain–indeed, we may even say that the disciples there at last saw Jesus as he truly was.  But that is a dangerous, and deeply misleading, conclusion.  After all, we Christians confess that Jesus was fully God AND fully human.  He was not God sometimes (say, on the Mount of Transfiguration) and human sometimes (say, in the manger–or on the cross).  Certainly, Jesus was not God pretending to be human–God in a people mask.  Nor was he a charlatan–a human pretending to be a god.  Jesus was, always and everywhere, himself.  So, yes: the Jesus they saw every day–laughing, crying, hungry, angry, dusty and weary from the road, Jesus in all his fleshiness–was indeed Jesus as he truly was.

Of course, the blinding glory of Jesus’ divinity was not always apparent–thankfully, for Jesus’ family and friends!  Indeed, had it been, Jesus could scarcely have been “fully human.”  But just this once, the “fully God” side of the incarnation equation was fully evident.  As the tradition passed down from Peter proclaims,

We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes.  He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18).

The change Peter, James, and John witnessed on the mountain did not mean that Jesus had changed–only that his disciples saw him more clearly.

The other two appearances of the Greek verb metamorphoo are both in Paul’s letters.  In 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Paul discusses the glory of God’s revelation on Sinai (see Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, Exod 24:12-18), which made Moses’ face shine (see Exod 34:29-35; by the way, in Hebrew the word for the rays shining from Moses’ face [qaran] is related to the word for horns [qeren], so Moses is sometimes depicted as horned!).

Image result for moses michelangelo

Paul compares that glory with the glory of the freedom revealed in Christ.  While the glory beaming from Moses’ face was only temporary–the result of the revelation he had received–gazing upon Christ works a permanent transformation:

All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed [metamorphoo] into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

Therefore, in Romans 12:2, Paul famously challenges his readers:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed  [metamorphoo] by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Gazing on Jesus, who is not only truly God but truly human, prompts us to change. Jesus shows us what being human–created in God’s image (Gen 1:27)–really means.  The International Theological Commission of the Vatican (2004) put it very well:

Thus, what it means to be created in the imago Dei is only fully revealed to us in the imago Christi. In him, we find the total receptivity to the Father which should characterize our own existence, the openness to the other in an attitude of service which should characterize our relations with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the mercy and love for others which Christ, as the image of the Father, displays for us (Communion and Stewardship, paragraph 53).

Image result for charlers Wesley

In his hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Charles Wesley joyfully takes up Paul’s language from 2 Corinthians:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Sisters and brothers, friends and siblings in Christ, so may it be for us!  This prayer for Transfiguration Sunday (from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts [Augsburg Fortress]) invites us to ask God for a transfiguration of our own:

Holy God, mighty and immortal,
you are beyond our knowing,
yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ,
whose compassion illumines the world.
Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ,
who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity,
through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


I am writing this on Valentines Day, thinking of my darling Wendy, for whom I am so very thankful!  God bless you, love.  This picture, from when we were very young, was taken at Siloam UMC (one of the two churches I served in seminary) by dear friend (and then, youth group member!) Lora McQueen.

Although the historical and religious connection with St. Valentine that gives the day its name was stretched past the breaking point long ago, it is still worthwhile on this day to reflect on Valentine, saint and martyr, whose legend includes his advocacy for couples in love, including secret marriages, and a note to his jailer’s daughter, whose blindness he had miraculously cured, signed, “Your Valentine.”


Bible Games

When I was a boy, my family had this very game!  I remember playing it with my sisters.  You moved your piece around a map of the Holy Land, gathering wheat, olives, fish, and grain to give to the poor and, one by one, collecting and memorizing each of the Ten Commandments.  The winner was the first to collect all ten, and recite them to a Philistine.  I still remember a visiting aunt scolding me when I told her that the game was fun!  The Bible, she said, isn’t supposed to be fun.

But fortunately, no one told the rabbis!  For the last several weeks, I have been working through Midrash Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic stories, sermons, and conversations about Torah.  Specifically, I have been reading the opening chapters of Bereshit Rabbah, dedicated to the creation accounts in Genesis 1–3.  A clear sense of playfulness runs all through these conversations.  For example: Bereshit Rabbah 20:8 says, regarding Genesis 3:17 (“Cursed is the ground because of you”):

The sign of the curse is that it will produce for you cursed things, such as mosquitoes, midges, and fleas.

Should it produce a pest as large as a camel for you?

Said R. Isaac of Magdala, “But in that case it would produce benefit, for someone could sell it and derive benefit from the proceeds.”

Often, the rabbis play word games with the text.  For example, R. Simon wonders how the original light created on the First Day (Genesis 1:3-5) differed from the lights created on Day Four (Genesis 1:14-19)—including the daylight of the sun that we know.  Since the word “light” (Hebrew ‘or) occurs five times in Genesis 1:3-5, R. Simon relates that original light to the Torah, which has five books (Bereshit Rabbah 3:5)!


In Bereshit Rabbah 14, the rabbis observe that in Genesis 2:7, where the LORD God creates ‘adam, the word for “formed” is spelled oddly, with two yods (wayiytser).  They conclude, then, that there must have been two formations, which some take to mean Adam and Eve (Bereshit Rabbah 14.2), others the upper and lower worlds (Bereshit Rabbah 14.3), and still others this world and world to come (Bereshit Rabbah 14.5).  Indeed, R. Hanina bar Idi says that this means God created humans with “both the impulse to do good and the impulse to do evil” (Bereshit Rabbah 14.4)–heady thoughts, prompted by an oddity in spelling!

Psalm 119 (from which Sunday’s Psalm reading is taken) is itself a complicated word game.  The psalm consists of twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza has eight verses beginning with that letter.  But to make the game still more complicated, eight different legal terms are used, usually one to each verse. In addition to “law” (torah) these terms in the NRSV are “decree” (‘edut), “statutes” (khuqqim), “commandments” (mitswot), “ordinances” (mishpatim), “word” (dabar), “precepts” (pequdim), and “promise” (‘imrah).  Most of this legal vocabulary comes from Deuteronomy, where these words describe different aspects of God’s law. However, in Psalm 119 no attempt is made to define any of these terms, nor is any distinction made among them. James Luther Mays suggests that in Psalm 119, they are all interchangeable with torah (Psalms [Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994], 382-383).

This Sunday’s Psalter (Psalm 119:1-8) is the first of these stanzas, so each line begins with ‘aleph:

Those whose way is blameless—
    who walk in the Lord’s Instruction—are truly happy!
Those who guard God’s laws are truly happy!
    They seek God with all their hearts.
They don’t even do anything wrong!
    They walk in God’s ways.
God, you have ordered that your decrees
    should be kept most carefully.
How I wish my ways were strong
    when it comes to keeping your statutes!
 Then I wouldn’t be ashamed
    when I examine all your commandments.
 I will give thanks to you with a heart that does right
    as I learn your righteous rules.
 I will keep your statutes.
    Please don’t leave me all alone!

The theme of Psalm 119 is expressed in the blessing pronounced in the first two verses:

Happy [‘ashre in Hebrew] are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy [again, ‘ashre] are those who keep his decrees,
    who seek him with their whole heart (NRSV)

The word translated “law” in Psalm 119:1 is the Hebrew torah, a word also used for the first five books of the Bible.  Although often rendered as “law,” torah could be better translated (as in the CEB) as “instruction.”  Psalms 1 and 19 resemble Psalm 119 in content and theme (compare Psalm 1:2 with Psalm 119:15Psalm 19:7 with Psalm 119:129-130). All three psalms express a life of piety centered on torah. In these poems, Mays suggests, the book of Psalms is viewed not simply as a prayer book, but as instruction in the pious life (The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 134-135).

Note, though, that this is the LORD’s  instruction. Consistently, all these terms are identified as the property of the LORD: it is “the law of the LORD” (verse 1); “his decrees” (verse two); “your precepts” (verse four); “your statutes” (verse 5). Confirmation of this insight comes even in the apparent exceptions to the rule. In Psalm 119:3, none of the eight torah terms appear. However, the Psalmist speaks of the blessed as those “who do no wrong,/ but walk in his ways” (emphasis mine; see also Psalm 119:15 and 37).

Psalm 119 does not identify God’s instruction with the written law: an important distinction, for the ideal of obedience to God’s will can all too easily be corrupted into petty legalism. Remember that Jesus’ opponents chastised him for breaking the law, while Jesus rebuked them for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23, NRSV). Unlike those among the religious leadership who opposed Jesus, the Psalmist recognizes that God’s instruction is also God’s gift, which cannot be possessed once for all but must be rediscovered in every time, by every seeker.  Mays writes,

The word of God is given but never possessed. Because it is God’s instruction, it is not owned apart from the teaching of God.… it must be sought and constantly studied in prayer in order to be taught (Mays, Psalms, 385).

God’s instruction is a gift.  In Christian theological terms, we are saved by grace!

Image result for happy

The best expression of what salvation by grace means that I know comes from Frederick Buechner:

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too (originally published in Wishful Thinking).

We may think that this psalm–indeed, that the Bible–is a grim and humorless series of commands and demands which we must follow unerringly or be condemned by a wrathful God.  However, the rabbis in Bereshit Rabbah, and the Psalmist in Psalm 119, read differently.  Psalm 119, after all, is a game!  Perhaps the Bible is an invitation to play.


“An Even Better Bible”

Title: Star of Bethlehem with Pomegranate Trees [Click for larger image view]

Christian friends, we are still (and will be right through February 19) in the season after Epiphany, during which we remember and celebrate the light of God’s revelation, symbolized by the Bethlehem star.  According to the old King James Version, the light of that star guided the “wise men” to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-12): a reading followed by the RSV, and the NRSV.  However, like the CEB and the NIV, the newly published NRSVue (that is, the Updated Edition of the New Revised Standard Version) more accurately reads “the magi“–a Persian clan of Zoroastrian astrologers.

To understand what the NRSVue is, we need to rehearse a wee bit of history.  The Revised Standard Version (1952) was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–itself the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881.  The RSV was the work of a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the predecessors of the National  Council of Churches [NCC]).  The RSV was not intended to be an entirely new translation; the intent was to preserve the familiar rhythms and language of the KJV as much as possible “in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other”  (from the preface to the RSV).

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee formed by the NCC, this time chaired by Bruce Metzger.  One issue driving this call for a revision was the increasing recognition in many churches that our language should reflect more accurately the full inclusion of women in the community of faith.  So, in the NRSV, Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind [the NRSVue simply has “humans”] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Here, the translation “humankind” is far better than the KJV and RSV “man”: the Hebrew word used, ‘adam, means “humanity” rather than “man.”   The NRSV renders the standard New Testament greeting to fellow Christians, “Brothers” (adelphoi in Greek; for example, 1 Corinthians 2:1), as “Brothers and sisters”–not a literal translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities.

But the major reason that a new revision of the RSV seemed needed was that new texts continued to come to light–particularly, with the publication of more and more material from Qumran: the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.  The NRSV translators paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the text notes), making this the best scholarly translation of the Bible to date, especially for the Old Testament.

The NRSVue, published in 2021, was begun about five years ago as a cooperative project of the NCC and the Society of Biblical literature (SBL).  According to an email from SBL Press and the Bible Odyssey team, “nearly seventy-five SBL members working individually and collaboratively over the course of four years” produced this “review and revision of the NRSV thirty years after its initial release.”  Much like its predecessors, the NRSVue is an updating and revision, rather than a fresh translation from scratch.  The NRSVue is readily accessible on the web, at Bible Gateway  and at Bible Odyssey.

The title of this blog is taken from a recent interview  with the two heads of the NRSVue project: Joseph Crockett, the (now retired) CEO of the NCC’s publishing house Friendship Press, and John Kutsko, then executive director of SBL (see Annelisa Burns, “An even better Bible,” The Christian Century [February 2023]: 62-65).  In that interview, John Kutsko observes,

We approached this project as if it were a regularly scheduled maintenance in light of new texts and understandings.  We believed from the start that its primary value would be in the review itself, regardless of the extent of revisions made to the text.  We did not know that we’d have 12,000 substantive changes. 

Most of these changes are minor, if significant: like the substitution of “magi” for the traditional reading “wise men.”  Just as the NRSV paid particular attention to gender, the NRSVue has paid particular attention to “ableist” readings that reduce people to their infirmity.  So, while the NRSV of Mark 1:40 reads, “A leper [Greek lepros] came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’”, the NRSVue of this passage (like the CEB) has “A man with a skin disease.”  In addition to granting the sufferer his full humanity, this reading avoids the ready confusion of biblical “leprosy” (the Greek lepros and the Hebrew tsara’ath/tsara’ are catchall terms in Scripture for a host of skin diseases, not to mention molds and mildews [see Leviticus 13–14!]) with clinical leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.

Of course, as with the RSV and NRSV before it, the ready accusation is that the translators are watering down the Gospel with their liberal agenda.  In response to an interviewer who asked if the NRSVue was a “woke revision,” Kutsko said,

“[W]oke” is a mischaracterization of what we do.  While all scholarship, including translation, is socially located and can’t be completely objective, our book editors and the general editors were both diverse and specialized.  They strove for the ideal of representing the sources and meaning of the ancient texts.

In the Christian Century interview, when asked about controversial changes, Kutsko and Crockett noted in particular the decision in the NRSVue to render the Hebrew khattat as “purification offering” rather than “sin offering.”  This was not, they noted, an attempt to take “sin” out of the Bible (Kutsko: “I can assure your  readers that there is still a lot of sin in the Bible.” Crockett: “And it doesn’t stop with the Bible!”), but rather a reflection of the best scholarship on the meaning and use of this particular ancient Israelite ritual (as Jacob Milgrom’s footnotes to Leviticus in the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible observe).

While I affirm most of the choices I have encountered in the NRSVue, I must confess that some took me by surprise.  To begin at the beginning, Genesis 1:1-2 reads,

When God began to create the heavens and the earth,  the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 

I have no quibble with this translation–in fact, I affirm it, although it does represent yet another step away from the traditional language of the KJV.

However, I do differ with the NRSVue on Genesis 2:2:

On the sixth day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done (Gen 2:2).

This reading (also found in the CEB) is in keeping with the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and the Syriac, all of which read in Genesis 2:2 that God completed God’s work on the sixth day (see also Exod 20:11; 31:17; 2 Esdras 6:38-59).  The versions, influenced in particular by the Exodus passages, are making an understandable decision: after all, how can God be said to finish God’s work on God’s day of rest?  Indeed, since, in Genesis as we have it the seventh day of creation is placed in a different chapter than the first six (Gen 2:1-3), one could easily conclude that the seventh day comes after the work of creation is completed.

But the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) reads wayyikal ‘elohim bayom hashibi’i mela’kto [“God completed God’s work on the seventh day”].  The NRSV stayed with the MT here (as do the KJV, NJPS, and NIV).  I am persuaded that that is the better course.  The priestly writers in this unit pursue a sabbatical logic.  In Genesis 1:1–2:4a, each day is numbered, from One through Seven (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:2-3). Indeed, rather than using the word “Sabbath,” Gen 2:1-3 speaks only of Day Seven, to preserve that numbering sequence.  In this context, then, the seventh day is the day of completion, the climax of creation.  The NRSV had it right.

While the RSV remains available, the editors have chosen to let the NRSV go out of print (so, for example, it is no longer available at the Bible Gateway website).  I think this decision is unfortunate: I am certain that, as I use this new Bible, I will find still other places where I prefer the text critical decisions made in that earlier version to those in the NRSVue.  Still, so far as I can now see, in most places the Updated Edition has stayed with the critical assessments of the NRSV, which is all to the good.

Unfortunately, the NRSVue suffers from some of the same limitations as the NRSV.  It assumes a college-age reading level–a major barrier to many readers.  While excellent for study, this Bible is harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection.  Those looking for a more accessible translation should try the Common English Bible.  Still, the NCC and the SBL must be commended for revisiting, and revising, their work.  Joseph Crockett puts it very well:

God deserves the best each generation can render, and the growth of information in the past 30-plus years makes Bible research, interpretation, and understanding an ever-changing enterprise.


The textile art at the head of this blog, “Star of Bethlehem With Pomegranate Trees,” was made by an anonymous quilter in 1850, and is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  This image comes from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved January 30, 2023]. Original source:,_New_York,_c._1850_-_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_Boston_-_DSC02710.JPG.

I cannot let Ms. Burns’ interview go without noting these sobering words of warning from John Kutsko concerning modern seminary education:

I worry about the future’s ability to support scholars with sufficient language facility. We found it pretty difficult to find a team of people who had mastered Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and so on. Most Protestant denominations don’t require Greek or Hebrew for ordination, so faculty are teaching these languages less. I’m not optimistic that a review begun in 2050 will find the necessary scholars to do what we did in this updated edition.


What Everybody Knows

Ames trapezoid - Wikipedia

Just this week, I learned about the Ames Window: a visual illusion invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1951.  Seeing it here in two dimensions, the Ames Window appears unremarkable–we readily understand this image as a rectangular window with six panes.  Actually, of course, it is nothing of the sort: the shape is a trapezoid, not a rectangle.  But since in our experience objects appear larger when they are close to us, and smaller when far away, we readily interpret the drawing as a rectangular frame viewed from one end.

The Ames Window really comes into its own, however, when we cut it out and play with it in three dimensions.  This astounding video, from the Australian educational program “The Curiosity Show,” demonstrates the Window’s amazing properties.  Since we perceive the longer end as closer to us even when it in fact is not, when the window is spun on a string, it seems not to spin, but to oscillate back and forth.  A pen stuck through the window will clearly be seen to spin when the Window spins.  However, since we still perceive the Window itself as oscillating rather than spinning, the amazing result is that the pen appears to pass through the solid fabric of the cut-out design–even though we know that to be impossible.

Adelbert Ames was a pioneering figure in the physiological study of the eye, and particularly of binocular vision.  But that work led him into the psychology of perception.  We can readily understand how and why his illusion works.  Our brain makes sense of visual stimuli in three dimensions by interpreting objects nearby as larger than objects far away.  That is how we judge distances: how we can know how far away a target (say, a piece of fruit, or a prey animal) is, or whether (and how quickly!) a threat is approaching us.

What Do Panthers Eat? 15 Animals They Hunt For Food - AZ Animals

Those hard-wired perceptual cues usually serve us well.  But, as the Ames Window demonstrates, what we know to be true can lead us astray when reality does not, in fact, agree with our perception.

In a recent article intriguingly titled,”The Key to Success in College Is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned,” Jonathan Milesic writes,

In more than 20 years of college teaching, I have seen that students who are open to new knowledge will learn. Students who aren’t won’t. But this attitude is not fixed. The paradoxical union of intellectual humility and ambition is something that every student can (with help from teachers, counselors and parents) and should cultivate. It’s what makes learning possible.

I have found this to be true in my teaching–and also in my own study.  The necessary precursor to learning anything new is the humble acknowledgement that we do not know!  Yet, as Milesic goes on to observe, a major obstacle to learning is “knowingness”–our insistence that we do know:

Knowingness is everywhere in our culture. From a former president claiming “everybody knows” some conspiracist nonsense to podcasters smugly debunking cultural myths to your feeling you have to have read, heard and streamed everything, the posture of already knowing supersedes the need to approach new situations with curiosity.

Perhaps nowhere is this tendency so obvious, and so dangerous, as in those matters of faith that mean most to us.  Our certainties about what faith means, and what therefore the Bible must say, can easily prevent us from seeing what the text on the page actually says.  Milesic’s experience teaching theology in many ways mirrors my own experience teaching Bible:

Every semester during my years teaching theology, students would tell me on the first day of class that they knew they would get an A, because they’d already had 12 years of Catholic school. But often enough, they’d get a C. Their assumptions about the subject matter kept them from learning the more critical approach to the subject I was trying to teach.

Life-size Noah's Ark | Ark Encounter

To take one fairly trivial example: everybody knows that Noah took two of every kind of animal into the ark, and that with that menagerie and his family he rode out the flood.  But is that in fact what the Bible says?  Genesis 6:19-20 seems conclusive:

From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive. From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive.

But what, then, are we to do with Genesis 7:2-3?

From every clean animal, take seven pairs, a male and his mate; and from every unclean animal, take one pair, a male and his mate;  and from the birds in the sky as well, take seven pairs, male and female, so that their offspring will survive throughout the earth.

I still remember, in my first teaching post out of grad school, seeing a young woman in my Bible course do a classic double-take when we read this passage!  After class, she asked me, “Why has no one ever told me about this?”  Of course, she didn’t actually need anyone to tell her anything: the biblical text was there to be read.  But it was only when she actually read the text, rather than reading over it, that she was able to see what it said, rather than what she assumed it said.

The conflict between Genesis 6:19-20 and 7:2-3, together with other tensions within the flood story,  strongly suggests that the final form of the text is not a single account, but an interweaving of two flood traditions.  One tradition assumes that Noah and his family are already eating meat, and that a clan leader like Noah is permitted to offer sacrifices (as he does in Gen 8:20-22)–hence the need for extra “clean” animals, suitable for altar and table.  The other evidently understands sacrifice to be the exclusive province of proper cult officials, and regards meat-eating as only beginning after the flood (see Gen 1:29-30; 9:1-6).  As a result, this tradition insists that no extra “clean” animals were required, and emphasizes that only two of every kind were taken on the ark.  The presence of two dissonant flood traditions, one of which seems to be correcting the other, complicates our straightforward assumptions about this text–particularly if we had assumed the text to be the factual account of an actual event.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No public man in these islands ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means” (“Our Theatres In The Nineties,” 1930). Certainly, Shaw had a point!  It is far easier, and simpler, to stick with what “everybody knows” the Bible says than to wrestle with what Scripture actually means.

On the one hand, the Bible continually frustrates our attempts to turn it into an end in itself: whether as an infallible witness to history, or as a self-sufficient, internally consistent rule of behavior.  The Bible is far more complex than that, as an honest reading of the text on the page continually reveals. But on the other hand, reading the Bible brings us into an encounter with the living God.  Reformed theologian Daniel Migliore puts it very well: “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 distinction is vital, friends.  Can we lay aside our biblical “knowingness,” and allow the words of Scripture to bring us into a new experience of the living Word of God?


Merry Christmas!

Frontier Dreams: Rhythm In Our Home : The First Sunday in Advent “Sharon’s Christmas Prayer.”


She was five,

sure of the facts,

and recited them

with slow solemnity

convinced every word

was revelation.

She said

they were so poor

they had only peanut butter and jelly

sandwiches to eat

and they went a long way from home

without getting lost. The lady rode

a donkey, the man walked, and the baby

was inside the lady.

Image result for nativity icon


They had to stay in a stable

with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)

but the Three Rich Men found them

because a star lited the roof

Shepherds came and you could

pet the sheep but not feed them.

Then the baby was borned.

And do you know who he was?

Her quarter eyes inflated

to silver dollars.

The baby was God.


And she jumped in the air

whirled round, dove into the sofa

and buried her head under the cushion

which is the only proper response

to the Good News of the Incarnation.


This year’s Christmas card is a delightful poem by John Shea, from The Hour of the Unexpected (1977).  God bless you and Merry Christmas, beloved! Christ the Savior is born!





“I Will Tend My Sheep With Justice”

My old friend from grad school days, fellow United Methodist minister Frank Norris, posted this panel by Everett Patterson on Facebook. It is called “José y Maria.”  Frank invites us to look for the many allusions to Christian art and Scripture in this image.

I have seen this piece many times, and posted it before myself, but this time, for the first time, I noticed the graffiti on the phone: “Zeke 3415-16.”

Ezekiel 34:15-16 reads, I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.

Greek orthodox icon of Christ the Good Shepherd –

The Hebrew Bible amply attests to the use of the shepherd metaphor for Israel’s rulers (for example, 2 Sam 5:2; Jer 3:15; Ezek 34:1-10; Mic 5:1-5a; Zech 10:2-3). By analogy, the LORD as king of the universe is also called a shepherd (see Ps 23; Ezek 34:11-16), an idea that lies back of the New Testament image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John 10  and (more disturbingly) Matthew 25:31-46, which begins,

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

 The specific source back of Matthew’s judgment scene is also the setting of that bit of graffiti in Patterson’s panel, Ezekiel 34:11-24.

This prophetic text from the Babylonian exile is reminiscent of the far better-known Psalm 23. Here as there, the LORD causes the flock to lie down in good pasture, beside streams of waters. But the mention of the settlements in the land (“inhabited places” in the CEB; 34:13) breaks up this pastoral imagery to remind the reader that this is about Israel after all, not about sheep: God will bring the exiles home, and repopulate desolated Judah.

The last verse of this section begins as a summary of 34:11-16, reiterating God’s determination to seek out and care for the scattered sheep. But then, abruptly, the image shifts: “I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16). This statement, like the mention of settlements in 34:13, explodes the metaphor: it makes no sense for any shepherd to destroy the strong and healthy sheep!

No wonder the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Syriac, and the Latin Vulgate all read “I will watch over” instead, assuming an original Hebrew ‘eshmor instead of ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”). The two words are nearly identical in Hebrew, where vowels are not written, and the consonants d and r look a great deal alike. It is easy to understand a scribe mistaking one for the other. The reading followed by the LXX certainly seems a better fit with the context of 34:11-16, which stresses God’s care for the flock, in striking contrast to the cruelty of the false shepherds: that is, Israel’s kings. Numerous commentators on Ezekiel (for example, Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 208; Daniel Block, Ezekiel 25—48, 287; Leslie Allen, Ezekiel 20—48, 157) therefore follow the LXX here.

On the other hand, not only the CEB, but also NIV, NRSV, and even the KJV all stay with the Hebrew Bible here, which reads ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”)– and they are right to do so. The next phrase in Ezekiel 34:16 makes the prophet’s meaning clear: “But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.” God’s justice was seen in 34:1-10 with the punishment of the false shepherds, Israel’s past kings. But while the shepherds had certainly been guilty, the sheep are not therefore innocent! Throughout this book, Ezekiel rejects the exilic community’s claim that they are innocent victims (see, for example, 18:1-4).

All Sheep Matter CARTOON | Etsy

In the next section, 34:17-24, God’s justice is visited on the sheep, just as it had been visited on the shepherds. Once more good theology trumps good animal husbandry, as God sides with the weak and injured over against the fat and strong (Christian readers may be reminded of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine unguarded in the fold to seek out the one lost lamb; Matt 18:10-14//Luke 15:3-7)! The startling introduction of this idea in 34:16 is in keeping with Ezekiel’s style elsewhere: this prophet loves to shock his audience.

God’s judgment upon the flock falls into two parts, the accusation (34:17-19), and the pronouncement of judgment (34:20-24). The accusation opens, “As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats” (34:17)–words that directly call to mind the judgment scene in Matthew 25 (compare 25:32).

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

In Matthew as in Ezekiel, the basis of the judgment is regard for the least (Matt 25:40, 45). So, in Ezekiel, the strong sheep are taken to task for selfishly and greedily trampling the pasture and muddying the water so that others cannot eat or drink (34:18-19). The point is expanded in 34:21: the strong are condemned for thrusting the weak aside.

In our own day, the gap between rich and poor is wider than it has ever been, as the lion’s share of the world’s resources is claimed by a diminishing minority of its people. The trampling of our earth and fouling of our water, through irresponsible use of this world’s resources, now threatens the entire planet through climate change, even as it robs opportunity from the most vulnerable. Ezekiel plainly states God’s place in this: on the side of the poor, and on the side of the abused land. God declares, “I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey” (34:22).

WAM Updates: Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation shines in the American  paintings galleries If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the season of Advent, or with the birth of our Lord, may I remind you that the alternate Psalm for this coming Sunday is Luke’s Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), often called the Magnificat after its opening in Latin, Magnificat anima mea Dominum (in the KJV, “My soul doth magnify the Lord;” the Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage!).  Here is the whole song:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
    In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
        because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
    just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.

In many Christian traditions, Advent is a penitential season (Orthodox call it “Little Lent”!).  Certainly, it is right that, in preparation for Christ’s coming, we search our own hearts and lives.  Mary’s song, like Ezekiel’s, reminds us that God takes sides in our world, and challenges us to ask what side we are on.


Gaudete Sunday: 11 things to know and share . . .| National Catholic  Register

Having grown up in a non-liturgical church (I don’t believe I knew about the seasons of the church year, apart from Easter and Christmas, until college), I always wondered why, in some traditions, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink, not purple.  

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete Sunday, so called for the first word in the Latin introit for this day, “Gaudete in Domino semper“–from Philippians 4:4-5 (KJV): “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”

The website “About Catholicism” explains the rose-colored candle, and vestments, for this day:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The change in color provides us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation—especially prayer and fasting—for Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ, is on the way!  The message of the rose-colored candle, then, is hope.  Hold on.


A Voice in the Wilderness

I love this meme, which comically demonstrates the importance of proper punctuation.  Intended, of course, was “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.”  For all I know, this meme has photoshopped out the punctuation for comic effect.  But without those commas, this cover announces a horror show!  On Facebook, I captioned this picture “Punctuation saves lives!”

But what about written languages–including our biblical languages!–which lack punctuation?  How are such confusions avoided?  The short answer is that, frequently, they are not.  Generally, the reader has to rely on context cues to the intended meaning of an ambiguous passage.

Matthias Grünewald: John the Baptist

Which leads us to the Gospel for this second Sunday of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12, concerning John the Baptist.  In all four Gospels, John is introduced by a quotation from Isaiah.  In the recent Updated Edition of the NRSV, Matthew 3:3 reads,

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’ ”

However, if you look up the Isaiah passage quoted, you will find:


A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3, NRSVUE).

You see the problem.  Where should the comma go?  Does Isaiah refer to a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” or does the voice cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”?  Does the text of Isaiah give us any way to resolve this ambiguity?

Matthew (like Mark before him) is quoting directly from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture that was the Bible of the earliest church.  Although later Greek texts do use punctuation and capital letters to enable the reader to distinguish sentences and phrases, the original text did not–indeed, often there was not even a space between words!

Greek Bible - Leviticus | MS 2649

For the gospel writers, there would not have been any clear indication of where the break belonged–and in any case, motivated as they were to find texts foreshadowing and interpreting Jesus’ life and work, we can certainly understand why they would read Isaiah 40:3 as referring to John the Baptist, “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Mark, likely the first Gospel writer and so the first one to make this connection, actually conflates Isaiah 40:3 with another text:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight” (Mark 1:1-3).

The first two lines of this quotation actually do not come from Isaiah at all.  They allude to two passages from Malachi.  The first is Malachi 3:1-4:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
 Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi comes at the end of the Book of the Twelve, and in the Christian Bible, at the end of the Old Testament.   Far from being moved to repentance and change by Malachi’s call to reform, his audience says, “Anyone doing evil is good in the Lord’s eyes,” or “He delights in those doing evil,” or “Where is the God of justice?”(Mal 2:17).  In other words, Malachi’s community believes that either God does not see what they do, or that God does not care.

Malachi gives assurance that these questions and doubts are about to be addressed, for “suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple” (Mal 3:1).  Those who piously claim to delight in God’s covenant will soon have the opportunity to express their gratitude personally!

Malachi proclaims not only the advent of the LORD, but also of the LORD’s messenger.  In Hebrew, “my messenger” is  mal’akhi–the same word that appears at the beginning of the book (Mal 1:1), where mal’akhi is the one through whom this book’s message of judgment is communicated.  While we might expect a name like Malachiah (“the LORD’s messenger”), “my messenger” seems an unlikely name for any parent to give a child! Probably, then, the prophet is anonymous; but is called Mal’akhi by the book’s editors because of Malachi 3:1.

But already within the editing of Malachi, we see further reflections on the identity of this enigmatic figure.  The second Malachi passage to which Mark alludes in his quotation from “Isaiah” is the conclusion to this book:

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse (Mal 4:5-6 NRSVUE [3:23-24 in the Hebrew text]).

The prophetic forerunner of the day of the LORD has become Elijah, who was taken alive into the heavens in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11) and so could be called upon for this task!

In Christian Scripture, Jesus is the one who comes to cleanse his people from their sins (Mal 3:2-3), and John the Baptist becomes the “messenger” sent to proclaim Jesus’ coming (see the quotes of Mal 3:1 at Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27), and “Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14; cf. Matt 17:10-11; Mark 9:11-12; Luke 1:17).  By linking these passages from Malachi to Isa 40:3, Mark laid the foundation for this reading.

Augustine too on the one hand describes John the Baptist as the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 (Tractates on the Gospel of John 14.10.1), and on the other relates Malachi 3:1-2 to Christ: both his first coming (reading the Lord coming to “his temple” as a reference to the incarnation; see Matt 26:59-61; Mark 14:55-59; John 2:19-21, where the “temple” refers to Jesus’ body) and also to his second coming at the end of time (“Who can endure the day of his coming?,” Mal 3:2; cf. The City of God 18:35; 20:25).

Perhaps as you have been reading this blog, the musical setting of Malachi 3:1-3 from George Handel’s famous oratorio The Messiah has been playing in your head–as it has in mine.  Charles Jennens, who composed the libretto for this oratorio, doubtless picked this passage for inclusion because, like Augustine, he regarded it as a reference Christ’s first and second coming.


Coming back to Isaiah 40:3 in the Hebrew text: originally, written Hebrew recorded only the consonants, and lacked any system of punctuation.  However, a system of marks above and below the line developed in the scribal tradition, and was used by the scribes (called “Masoretes”) to record what they heard when the text was read aloud.  This included not only the vowel sounds (indicated by marks called “pointing;” these marks are still used, sparsely, in modern Hebrew), but also rising and falling inflections and pauses (indicated by accent marks)–even, some think, musical tones for chanting!

As this chart (from Choon Leong Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, Revised Edition [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995], 65) shows, the accent marks are divided into conjunctive accents, which link a word to the word following, and disjunctive accents, which mark a break–acting like commas, semicolons, and periods in English.

The most common Hebrew accent, called the zaqeph qaton, is essentially a Masoretic comma. In the Masoretic text of Isaiah 40:3, the verb qore’ (“cry, call out”) is marked with a zaqeph qaton, showing that the Masoretes heard a break here.  In the printed text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the standard critical text of the Hebrew Bible, this disjunction is emphasized even more by a line break: qol qore’ (“A voice cries”) has a line to itself, while bammidbar (“In the wilderness”) opens the line following.  Even without those explicit markings, however, context clues would lead us to this reading.

Isaiah 40– 55 is addressed to exiles (Isa 45:11– 13), who now anticipate a return home— specifically, from Babylon (see 43:14; 48:20).  Jerusalem and the villages of Judah are described as abandoned ruins (44:24– 26).  Sarcastic reference is made to specific Babylonian rites, such as the cult processional of Bel Marduk patron god of Babylon and his son Nebo, scribe of the gods (46:1– 2); and the magical practice of astrological divination (47:12– 13).  Second Isaiah, as  Isaiah 40–55 is commonly called, can be dated to the mid- sixth century, shortly before the fall of Babylon—and about 150 years after Isaiah of Jerusalem.

An important theme in these chapters is the promise of a second exodus. Just as in the first exodus God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, so in this new exodus, God delivers the people from the bondage of exile in Babylon. Indeed, recollection of Israel’s deliverance through the Red Sea in the first exodus is supplanted by the new thing that God will now do:

I am the LORD, your holy one,
    Israel’s creator, your king!
The LORD says—who makes a way in the sea
    and a path in the mighty waters,
    who brings out chariot and horse,
    army and battalion;
    they will lie down together and will not rise;
    they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.
Don’t remember the prior things;
    don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing;
    now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert,
    paths in the wilderness (Isa 43:15– 19).

Just as in the first exodus, God had led God’s people through the wilderness (see Exod 13:21– 22), so now the prophet promises that God will make a way leading through the wilderness back home (Isa 42:15– 16; 49:8– 12; 55:12– 13). Indeed, in Isaiah 40:3-5, quoted in today’s Gospel reading, Second Isaiah declares that God will build a highway for the exiles’ safe return:

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.” 


The Gospel writers, by identifying John the Baptist as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” read Isaiah 40:3 differently than the Hebrew scribes who have given us the text back of our Old Testament.  From the best evidence, it appears that those scribes have accurately communicated the intent of Second Isaiah. Does this matter?  Only, I would suggest, if we insist on retrojecting the Gospel reading into the Hebrew Bible.  We can recognize Second Isaiah’s distinctive message and purpose, and still recognize that the purpose of this text in its historical setting does not exhaust its meaning.

Within Christian Scripture, this passage expressing God’s gracious concern and providential care of the Babylonian exiles has come to express God’s gracious concern and providential care in other ways, too.  By sending John the Baptist, God showed God’s care for Jesus, providing for him a support, and perhaps a mentor.

“The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor” in comparison with “The Isenheim Altarpiece – First View” by Matthias Grünewald and Niclaus of Haguenau

But John also, as Gruenewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim concretely proclaims, points us to Christ, and models for us in this Advent season the path to Christian maturity and to faithful witness: Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui (“He must increase; I must decrease”).



Does It Matter Who Wrote Hebrews?

A 'Jeopardy!' Competitor Confused Jay Cutler for Tim Tebow During 'Tournament of Champions' - Trending NewsIf you are a fan of the television quiz show “Jeopardy,” a fellow Bible wonk, or just a person of faith on social media, chances are that you are aware of the recent flap over a “Final Jeopardy” answer in the recent Tournament of Champions.

Heading into Final Jeopardy!, Professors’ Tournament winner [Sam] Buttrey led with $14,800, with He at $13,200, and super-champ Amy Schneider trailing with $2,400. The final clue under the category “The New Testament” read: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.”

Schneider’s answer, “Who are The Hebrews,” was deemed correct by host Ken Jennings, while Buttrey’s “Who are The Romans” was considered incorrect. Meanwhile, He answered incorrectly with “Philippiaes,” but after Buttrey’s wager, he ended up with enough earnings to win the episode.

Some fans were not happy with this outcome, as there is much debate over who wrote the biblical texts, including parts of The New Testament. As noted on the Jeopardy Fan website, there are “conflicting sources as to whether Romans or Hebrews contains more quotations. Secondly, there’s the more pressing question of authorship—specifically of Hebrews. There’s no dispute that Paul wrote Romans.”

To say that there “is much debate over who wrote the biblical texts” is true, but not really relevant to the authorship of Hebrews.  Our New Testament contains thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the Greek text: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon.  Indeed, the first word in all of these books is “Paul”!  But Hebrews is not one of them.  That book is anonymous: Hebrews never claims Pauline authorship, and indeed does not even sound like Paul.

The authorship of Hebrews was debated even in antiquity: Origen (185-254 CE) famously wrote, “God alone knows who wrote Hebrews.”  Still, in the King James Version, this book is titled, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”–a double error (carelessly repeated by the editors of the “Jeopardy” team as well).  Even the Evangelical NIV does not follow the KJV here, but titles the book simply as “Hebrews.”  Hebrews not only is not by Paul, but also is not an epistle: the book only superficially resembles a letter in its close, where it also mentions Paul’s friend Timothy (Heb 13:23-25).  Rather, Hebrews is a sermon on selected Old Testament passages: the book contains 32 citations from the Hebrew Bible, including ten from the Psalms, particularly Psalm 110.  Accordingly, Hebrews refers to itself (Heb 13:22) as logou tes parakleseos: a “word of exhortation” (NRSV) or “message of encouragement” (CEB).

The Historic Importance of Saint Paul

By the fourth century, Christian teachers such as Jerome and Augustine were ascribing this book to Paul–hence, the title in the KJV.  Quite probably, Hebrews came to be attributed to Paul in the tradition because of that epistle-like conclusion mentioning Timothy, because it was anonymous, and because, without it, there would be thirteen letters of Paul–an inauspicious and unfortunate number!  Of those thirteen, Paul’s authorship of Romans, the bulk of 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 is almost certainly a later expansion, as it conflicts with Paul’s statements about women elsewhere, even in this same book [see 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 ]), 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon is unquestioned.   But since in the ancient world, writing in the name of a well-known and respected teacher was common (Plato’s Dialogues, attributed by him to his teacher Socrates, are a famous non-biblical example), it is no surprise to find examples of this phenomenon in the New Testament as well.

Those letters attributed to, but likely not written by, Paul are called Deuteropauline Epistles.  Very few scholars accept Paul’s authorship of 1 and 2 Timothy or Titus (letters very similar in style to one another but unlike Paul’s certainly authentic writings, commonly called, collectively, the Pastoral Epistles), or of 2 Thessalonians (although I believe that Paul may have written this one!)  Paul’s authorship of Colossians and Ephesians can be, and is, debated, although most scholars hold that they are different enough from Paul’s theology, vocabulary and style elsewhere that Paul likely did not write them

The authorship of Hebrews, however, and its identification as a letter are (the unsupported claims of Augustine and Jerome not withstanding) non-controversial: despite the title page of this book in the KJV, Hebrews is not an epistle, and was not written by Paul.  This time, clearly, “Jeopardy” got it wrong.

But–does this matter?  Clearly it matters to Mr. Buttrey, as it was the difference between winning and losing the match.  It also ought to matter to the producers and researchers on “Jeopardy,” if they care about the integrity of their quiz program.  Whoever was responsible for this gaffe simply dropped the ball–a modicum of research would have told them that the answer was, at best, badly worded.  But whether Paul wrote Hebrews or not, it is part of the Christian canon.  Recognizing that Hebrews does not claim to be by Paul, or that it is not in fact an “epistle,” has nothing to do with the status of this book as Scripture.

Indeed, I am persuaded that Hebrews may be particularly relevant to our contemporary American church.  Consider the clues this book offers as to its context and audience.  Hebrews is written in excellent Greek–indeed the best Greek in the New Testament!  That suggests not only an educated author, but a highly cultured, well educated audience.  The community is well off: although they have known robbery (Hebrews 10:34), they are still able to help others in trouble, and do so.

The Great Awakening and the American Revolution - Journal of the American Revolution

In the past, this community had seen signs and wonders–their conversion had been marvelous (Hebrews 2:4)!  But those glory days are long past.  Now, the preacher of this extended sermon declares, they have grown complacent and  content.  They are dull of hearing. Although they ought to be teachers themselves, they instead need instruction in the very basics of the gospel (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Some in this community have experienced conflict and trouble because of their faith (Hebrews 10:32-34), but they have not known real, bloody persecution (Hebrews 12:4).  Yet, despite their privileged position, the community is weak, ineffectual (Hebrews 12:12).  Their problem is not persecution, or even sin, but indifference: indeed, some no longer even gather for worship (Hebrews 10:23-25)!

Worshipping at a country church | Minnesota Prairie Roots

Doubtless, this is the reason for the preacher’s terrifyingly harsh words in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31.  Reading those passages as a young believer, I became for a terrible few days convinced that I was damned–for I knew full well that I had sinned since I believed, and Hebrews 10:26 plainly states, “If we make the decision to sin after we receive the knowledge of the truth, there isn’t a sacrifice for sins left any longer.”  It took me awhile to realize that these passages are not the entire Bible, and to hear the assurance of forgiveness in other texts, notably 1 John 1:8-9

If we claim, “We don’t have any sin,” we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.

The author of Hebrews was railing at this community, trying desperately to break through their comfortable, casual Christianity and rouse them again to passionate faith.  Does this sound familiar, friends? I am convinced that we twenty-first century American Christians in particular may find challenge and power in these ancient words!

So far as its status as Scripture goes, it does not matter who wrote Hebrews.  But for students of the Bible who want to dig deeper, to understand the message and meaning of Scripture, it does matter that we pay close attention to what the texts of Scripture actually say.  Hebrews does not claim Pauline authorship for itself.  If we try to shoehorn this book into Paul’s writings, we may be misled.  For example, there is no mention of justification by grace through faith in Hebrews.  Its absence may prompt us to downplay the importance of this teaching in Paul’s writings (for example, Romans 5:1-10).  The author of Hebrews, evidently addressing a committed Jewish Christian audience, draws heavily on the imagery of priesthood and sacrifice (and particularly, of Jesus as both king and high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek;” Hebrews 7:17; Psalm 110:4).  Paul uses sacrificial imagery in very different ways.  It would be a mistake to try collapse these two understandings of the cross of Christ into one another.

As Origen observed nearly 1800 years ago, we do not know who wrote Hebrews.  We may never know.  That does not in any way devalue the message and power of this book.  However,  pretending that we know more than we do cannot possibly help us understand this book any better.