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January 23, 2007

Origen on the Deep Weird

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As Jim Jordan has pointed out, you can’t read very far in Scripture without encountering something that makes you say, “Huh.  I wonder what that‘s doing there.”  You’re reading about Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which is strange enough, but you can handle it.  And then you reach the end of the story and find out that because the Angel touched Jacob on the hip and caused his muscle to shrink, the children of Israel don’t eat the corresponding muscle on any animal they killed.  “What’s that all about?” you ask.  And if you start to think about it, it’s not long before you’re off into the deep weird.

Well, that’s nothing new.  I learned today that Origen, in his ninth homily on Genesis, pointed this out as he talked about the wonders of God’s Word:

The further we progress in reading, the greater grows the accumulation of mysteries for us.  And just as if someone should embark on the sea borne by a small boat, as long as he is near land he has little to fear.  But, when he has advanced little by little into the deep and has begun to be lifted on high by the swelling waves or brought down to the depths by the same gaping waves then truly great fear and terror permeate his mind because he has entrusted a small craft to such immense waves.  So also we seem to have suffered, who, small in merits and slight in ability, dare to enter so vast a sea of mysteries (cited in Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, p. xiv).

And that’s exactly how I feel as I preach my way through Genesis 1.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:07 pm | Discuss (0)
December 7, 2006

Reading the Bible

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The Jollyblogger has an excellent entry about reading the Bible and the barriers that keep us from hearing what it actually says.  At the risk of letting you think you don’t need to read the whole entry, here’s part of it, a quotation from Jaroslav Pelikan:

To invoke a Kierkegaardesque figure of speech, the beauty of the language of the Bible can be like a set of dentist’s instruments neatly laid out on a table and hanging on a wall, intriguing in their technological complexity and with their stainless steel highly polished — until they set to work on the job for which they were originally designed. Then all of a sudden my reaction changes from “How shiny and beautiful they are!” to “Get that damned thing out of my mouth!”

Once I begin to read it anew, perhaps in the freshness of a new translation, it stops speaking in cliches and begins to address me directly. Many people who want nothing to do with organized religion claim to be able to read the Bible at home for themselves. But it is difficult to resist the suspicion that in fact many of them do not read it very much. For if they did, the “sticker shock” of what it actually says would lead them to find most of what it says even more strange than the world of synagogue or church.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:28 pm | Discuss (0)
November 1, 2006

The First Time

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On my drives out to Ashland for a Bible study on the campus of Southern Oregon University (12:30 on Tuesdays at Elmo’s, if any of you are interested!), I’ve been listening to Jim Jordan‘s lectures on “How to Read the Bible for the First Time,” which he gave a few years back at a church in Paducah, Kentucky.  They’re available from Biblical Horizons now, and I highly recommend them.

In the first lecture, Jordan talks about the importance of hearing the Bible.   Today, most of us can read and reading the Bible is fine in itself.   But the Bible doesn’t stress reading the Bible; it stresses hearing it.  Why?

One reason has to do with the difference between hearing and seeing.  With sight, you’re the one in control.  If you don’t like what you’re seeing, you can shut your eyes.  Immediately, the sight is gone.  Don’t like what you’re reading?  Turn the page.  Close the book.  Close your eyes.  You’re in control, and that “offending” verse is gone.

But with hearing, you’re not the one in control.  The speaker is.  Don’t like what you’re hearing?  Shut your ears.  Except that you can’t.  Not effectively.  You can put your fingers in your ears, but all it takes is for the speaker to raise his voice and your fingers won’t be able to shut out the sound.  Your only hope to escape is to raise your own voice to drown out his voice or to get out of earshot.  If you don’t want to listen, you have to leave.

Seeing has to do with judgment.  Think of how God sees that things are good in Genesis 1 or how God’s eyes test men in the Psalms.  But hearing has to do with submission.  In fact, hearing and obeying are almost synonyms in some passages in the Bible.  In every conversation, if things are going well, there’s mutual submission: I talk and you submit and listen, and then you talk and I submit and listen.

So when Scripture is read and preached, you have to submit and listen or you have to get up and leave.  True, you can leave mentally, letting your mind wander while the pastor speaks.  But whether you leave physically or tune out mentally, you’re rejecting a demand that comes to you from outside, the demand that you hear, that you listen, that you submit.

And that’s how God wants it.  Reading doesn’t change you the way hearing does.  If you can read the Bible, Jordan was saying, go ahead and read it.  But more importantly, hear it and submit to it.

That is, of course, what the church has done for much of its life.  In most of the past, only a few people could read and the rest of the people were illiterate.  If you wanted to have something written or read, you’d go to a scribe and he’d read it for you.  For that reason, God appointed certain men to be readers and, going along with that, teachers.  That was true in the past when, for instance, the Levites read the Law and gave instruction in Nehemiah’s day, and it’s still true today.  We’re always relying to some degree on “experts,” on people who know at least a little bit more than we do.  That’s how God wants it.

To flesh that out some more, hearing creates community.  There’s at least the one speaking the words and the one hearing the words spoken (assuming you’re not just reading the Bible out loud to yourself, which is what I usually do).  God wants His Word heard and meditated on in community, so that we help each other understand it better.

In the next few lectures, Jordan then began to trace some themes through the Bible.  In particular, he focused on a theme which, I have to admit, I don’t remember hearing much about before, namely, the theme of maturation.

What is the Bible all about?  What’s the main story, the main theme?  Most of us would probably say “Sin and redemption” or something like that.  But that’s really a secondary theme.  Redemption would not have been the theme at all if there hadn’t been the Fall.

God had a theme in mind from the beginning even apart from sin, and that theme was growth and maturation.  God intended to grow His people to maturity, from glory to glory.  Sin made that growth more difficult and added extra challenges and hurdles, but God is still following the same plot, working out that same theme, maturing His people.

That’s why the Bible is so long, Jordan said.  If it was just about sin and redemption, then the next person after Adam and Eve should have been Jesus.  He would have died and then there would be salvation and forgiveness, and that would be pretty much it to the Bible.

But that’s not how the story goes.  Instead, we have genealogies, laws that seem obscure to us and which were always intended to pass away, proverbs and poems, and so forth, all of which culminate in Jesus Christ who, as Paul says in Galatians 4, was the first full-grown man.  All of that stuff has to do, not just with redemption, but with maturation from childhood toward adulthood.

Of course, sin and redemption is a major theme as well.  Jordan spent some time on that theme in Lecture 5, which I heard today.  Along the way, he talked about the difference between sins of “wandering” and sins “with a high hand” in the Bible, which roughly match the sin of Eve (being led astray) and Adam (sinning deliberately). 

He also dealt with something I had wondered about but hadn’t figured out.  Here’s how he set it up: When Israel comes out of Egypt, she’s made up of tribes.  And the enemies she encounters are often also tribes.  By the time Israel has a king, it seems that all the enemy nations around her have kings.  When she continues to rebel, she gets oppressed by empires.  But what happens if you continue to rebel after that?  Demons.

That’s what we see in the New Testament.  Back in seminary, I wrote a paper on demon possession in the New Testament, and it struck me that we don’t hear about demon possession much at all (Saul being a rare exception) in the Old Testament.

But then we turn the page from Malachi to Matthew and suddenly demons are coming out of the woodwork.  In the synagogue, no less, which says something about synagogue worship.  Jesus goes around casting out demons from Israelites because Israel is being oppressed, not so much by the Romans, who aren’t cast in such a bad light in the New Testament, but by the demons.

Why that change from hardly any demons in the Old Testament to tons of demons in the New?  Because of the growth and maturation (if you can call it that) of Israel’s sin and therefore of the powers of evil that are arrayed against them.

Furthermore, in the Old Covenant, God’s people weren’t mature enough to stand against Satan and his legions and so God restrained them and sent tribes and kingdoms and empires instead.  Now, in Christ, we’re mature enough to battle, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.

All of which led into the other great theme besides maturation and redemption, which is the holy war.  And that’s where I left off when I arrived back at home today.

I’ve only touched on some of the stuff in this tape set.  But I highly recommend it.  It will revolutionize the way in which you read Scripture so that a lot more of it makes sense to you and, in turn, it makes sense of you and of your life, as well.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:25 am | Discuss (1)
February 6, 2006

Raising Priests, Kings, & Prophets

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RAISING PRIESTS, KINGS, AND PROPHETS
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Proverbs 2:1-22; Ephesians 6:1-4
(January 8, 2006, Sermon Notes)

[For much of this sermon, I’m indebted to James Jordan’s From Bread to Wine and to Peter Leithart‘s sermons in April and May 2004.]

In Advent, we considered what it means that Jesus is the Christ. “Christ” means “anointed one,” and in the Bible priests, kings, and (in one case) a prophet are anointed when they are ordained to office. We traced the history of these three offices in Scripture, noticing that history moves from an emphasis on priests to an emphasis on kings to an emphasis on prophets.

That historical development by which God grew Israel to maturity until Jesus, the first full-grown adult, teaches us about Jesus. But it also teaches us about ourselves and how God grows us to maturity. For that reason, it also instructs us about how to raise our children to be faithful servants, wise rulers, and then mature adults who shape the world by wise words.

INFANTS

Before we talk about our children as junior priests, kings, and prophets, we should first say something about them as infants. The Bible doesn’t provide us a handbook on raising infants. We do learn something about that task by watching how God treats infants.

From the beginning, God establishes a relationship, a bond of love, with them. David sings about how God made him trust while on his mother’s breasts (Ps. 22:9). Babies learn to trust God by experiencing His trustworthiness through their mother’s love and their mother’s milk.

Furthermore, God welcomes babies. Jesus’ disciples wanted to turn them away, but Jesus got angry and called the children to Himself, took them in His arms, and blessed them. Jesus welcomes and blesses His people’s children. He wants His church to do so, too. And He wants us, as parents, to follow that same pattern.

How do you care for infants? You take them in your arms and welcome them. North American dads sometimes have trouble showing affection in this way, but we ought to get over it. Our babies need to be held and cuddled, nursed and nourished, welcomed and loved.

JUNIOR PRIESTS

Infants ought to receive a lot of love and attention and milk, but not a lot of rules. You cuddle newborns and talk to them; you don’t give them detailed schedules and household chores and expect them to obey. But as babies grow up, they become more response-able. They enter a phase roughly equivalent to Israel’s priestly phase.

In the Bible, a priest is God’s household servant. The calling of a priest wasn’t hard. His duties were straightforward, spelled out in detail. He simply had to hear and obey. And that’s how it was for all Israel during this early phase of her history. Even if an Israelite didn’t understand the meaning of a commandment, he still had to obey.

And when Israelites disobeyed, judgment was swift (e.g., Lev. 10; Num. 11, 13, etc.). That was also the case in the early church (cf. Ananias and Sapphira). But that isn’t always the case today. Many times today, there’s a long wait between sin and judgment. But in the early stages of history, judgment comes swiftly. That’s how it is in the beginning: clear, detailed rules and swift judgment for disobedience.

That pattern teaches us something about raising little children. When our children are very little, we don’t leave them to figure out for themselves what they ought to do. We tell them. Little children need clear rules.

The basic one is this: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). That’s a simple rule, and the other rules which we give to unpack that one ought also to be relatively simple, tailored to the abilities of your child (so that you don’t provoke your child to wrath, Eph. 6:4).

More than that, little children need oversight and they need immediate consequences for their actions — praise when they do well and punishment when they disobey — all within the context of love and trust established already when they were infants, so that they learn to love obeying and to hate disobeying.

Little children are like junior priests, learning to be obedient servants, servants who hear their parents and obey them and who hear God and obey Him. For that reason, parents need to make sure their instruction and discipline are grounded in Scripture, so that they bring up their children in the “training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Children need to hear the stories of Scripture. They need clear rules. They need training in the regular patterns of life: liturgy in church, the rituals of teeth-brushing, and so forth. They need a foundation on which they can build for the rest of their lives.

JUNIOR KINGS

Our goal must not be to keep our children in the early stage forever. That’s a temptation some parents succumb to, and it leads to immature teenagers who don’t take responsibility because Mom and Dad didn’t give it to them or to rebellious teenagers who are exasperated because their parents don’t give them responsibility. Parents ought to desire their children to mature.

Israel’s history starts with a focus on priests but moves to a focus on kings. Kings have greater authority and responsibility than priests. While a priest’s duties are spelled out in Scripture, a king’s aren’t. Kings don’t simply apply laws; they must exercise wisdom.

Our goal, too, is to raise children who have internalized the commands, stories, warnings, and so forth we’ve given them in their early years so that they act with wisdom. We want our children to rule well when they leave the home. We don’t want to raise children who are goofballs, who joke when they should be serious, whose insensitivity hurts other people, who have no sense of what’s appropriate in this situation.

The emphasis on wisdom as our children reach their preteen and early teen years doesn’t mean they no longer need commandments or discipline. But they should not need the same kind of oversight little children need. They ought to learn to make decisions for themselves. And just as God doesn’t always judge the kings with immediate judgments but sometimes allows them to face consequences, we also will sometimes allow our children to face the consequences of their bad and even sinful decisions.

The path to wisdom is found in Scripture (Deut. 6; Prov. 2). If our children are going to rule well, they need a hunger for wisdom and understanding, and that starts with them receiving their father’s words and treasuring his commands. Fathers need to train children so that they crave wisdom and rule thereby.

JUNIOR PROPHETS

The third stage of Israel’s history focuses on prophets. Prophets are God’s council members, God’s advisors and spokesmen, who build up and tear down with their words.

Our goal is not only that our children be obedient servants and wise rulers, but also that they be junior prophets who communicate wisdom to others and shape the world by their words. As they grow older, they provide examples for their younger brothers and sisters and can help train them to be obedient and wise. In this later stage, the later teen years, children ought to know what they believe so that they can communicate it effectively to others.

This stage isn’t the time to clamp down or impose restrictions, which will provoke your children to wrath (Eph. 6:4). The time for that is when the children are little. When they’re older, you should be able to lighten restrictions and move from laying down the law to offering advice and coaching your children through the challenges they face, preparing them to leave your home and set up their own.

FATHERS

What kind of father can effectively train his children to be obedient to him and, more importantly, to the Lord? Only ones who have themselves learned (and are learning) to be obedient servants, following the pattern of Jesus our High Priest.

What kind of father can give his children a love of wisdom so that they search for it and find it and rule well by it? Only fathers who mediate on God’s law day and night and hunt for wisdom themselves so that they rule their families wisely, following the pattern of Jesus our shepherd-king who gave Himself for the sheep.

What kind of father can raise children who will transform the world by their wise words, speaking effectively to God and man? Only fathers who have learned by experience to listen to God and speak to Him, following the pattern of Jesus our great prophet, who speaks God’s Word and intercedes for us.

As parents, you will fail in many ways. You will sin, but because Jesus is the priest, king, and prophet there is forgiveness for your sins. And though you will make mistakes, your Father in heaven is faithful and will care for your children in ways you can’t. But as a parent, you have a calling. You also are a priest, a king, and a prophet, called to obey, to rule wisely, to speak well. And your calling is to raise children who carry out those same callings after the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:55 pm | Discuss (0)
December 20, 2005

Advent 2005: Jesus Our Prophet

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JESUS OUR PROPHET
Scripture: Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Jeremiah 1:4-10
(December 18, 2005, Advent Sermon)

[For much of this sermon, I’m indebted to James Jordan’s From Bread to Wine and to Peter Leithart‘s sermons in April and May 2004.]

During much of Israel’s history, there were priests and kings and prophets at the same time. But different offices come to prominence in different stages in Israel’s history: first priests, then kings, then prophets. Prophets are prominent in the divided kingdom, at the time of the exiles of Israel and Judah, and after the return from exile.

Priests are God’s housekeepers, obligated to be obedient servants who hear and obey. Kings are greater than priests. They aren’t just under authority; they exercise authority. They are to be wise and glorious rulers who give themselves for God’s people. But prophets are greater than kings.

Understanding this development in Israel’s history helps us understand what it means that Jesus is priest, king, and prophet. It also helps us understand God’s goals for our lives as He brings us through the stages of life toward maturity in Christ’s image.

OLD COVENANT PROPHETS
We often think of prophets as people who predict the distant future, and some do. Daniel talks about events that would take place long after he died. But more often, prophets talk about the near future (cf. Deut. 18:21-22). Jeremiah talks about the exile, which took place in his lifetime.

But the future is not the prophet’s primary focus. He may talk about the future or the past, but his focus is on the present. Prophets speak God’s Word to people in the present about their present responsibilities. Abraham is a prophet, but he doesn’t speak very much about the future. Moses speaks about the future briefly at the end of Deuteronomy, but that isn’t the limit of his prophetic work. His main work as a prophet was giving God’s Law to Israel.

In fact, sometimes when prophets talk about the future, what they say doesn’t happen. Jonah announces Nineveh’s destruction in forty days, but Nineveh repents and that destruction doesn’t happen. The future Jonah announced wasn’t fixed; it was contingent upon how Nineveh responded to Jonah’s message. When Nineveh repented, the Lord relented and didn’t do what He had said He would.

Prophets, therefore, do not simply predict what’s going to happen in the future. They speak about the past, too, and they focus on the present. But prophets also do not simply speak to people. They aren’t simply God’s messengers to men. Prophets also speak to God. Prophets intercede (cf. Gen. 20:7).

In the Bible, a prophet is a member of God’s court, God’s Council. In eternity, that Council consisted of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Adam was created to be a junior member of that Council, but his sin cut him off from it. But God was determined to have men in His Council.

Prophets are not mere message boys. They are men who stand in His council (cf. Jer. 23:18-22). God doesn’t act without telling His secret plans to them (Amos 3:7). But He doesn’t always allow them to reveal His plans to men. Why does He tell His plans to the prophets if they aren’t allowed to report them? So that they can talk to Him about them.

Abraham hears God’s plans for Sodom and Gomorrah and challenges God to do what is right (Gen. 18:16-33). Moses hears that God intends to destroy Israel and he argues with God until He relents (Ex. 32:11-14). Amos hears God’s plans to bring judgment and pleads for Jacob until Yahweh relents (Amos 7:1-6).

Prophets may be young, but they are mature men, men whom God wants as His counsellors, to hear His plans, sometimes to challenge them, and then sometimes to announce the decision of the Council. As Council members, prophets function sometimes as God’s prosecutors, announcing God’s lawsuit against His people, and sometimes as defence attorneys, appointed by God to plead His people’s case.

Unlike priests and kings, the prophets do almost everything by the authority of their words. Their words are God’s words, placed in their mouths (Jer. 1:9) and they have His power. They don’t simply announce the future; they bring it about by their words. They destroy and build by their words (Jer. 1:10). Their words bring God’s judgment to tear down an old world and then plant a new world.

JESUS AS PROPHET
Jesus’ baptism was His anointing as a prophet. He announced the coming of God’s kingdom and called people to repent. By His Words and actions, He inaugurated that kingdom. People recognized Him as a prophet (or sometimes dishonoured Him as a prophet). People saw Him as a new Moses bringing about a new exodus. Stephen identified Jesus as the prophet like Moses, promised in Deuteronomy 18 (Acts 7:37; cf. John 6:14; 7:20).

Jesus is a Council member as the Word who is God, the Son who is in the Father’s bosom (John 1:1-18). He is the Father’s closest counsellor and therefore He is the one who reveals the Father in everything He does and says. And the Father always listens to Him (John 11:42). He is the defence attorney and He is also the Father’s prosecutor, bringing wrath on the Father’s enemies.

As a prophet, Jesus went to die in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). He was rejected as a prophet, but God raised Him again and confirmed His words. By His death and resurrection, Jesus brought about a new creation in the midst of the old creation, a new covenant and then the end of the old.

Jesus is still our prophet. He is the fully mature man (with white hair: Rev. 1) who stands in God’s Council, who upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3), who intercedes for us, who makes petitions before God’s throne, and who speaks God’s words to us through His messengers, words with the power to kill and make alive.

US AS PROPHETS
Jesus has given to us His life so that we share in His anointing as a prophet. In one sense, there are no more prophets. No one today is inspired as Moses or Jeremiah were. In another sense, however, all of us are prophets, as Moses desired (Num.11:29) and Joel promised (2:28-29) because Jesus has poured out His Spirit on His church (Acts 2), on all who are baptized into it (2:38-39).

All of us are Council members in Christ. Jesus calls us His “friends” (John 15:14). In the Bible, a king’s “friend” is not his buddy; he’s his counsellor (cf. Abraham: 2 Chr. 20:7; James 2:23; cf. 1 Kings 4:5; 2 Sam. 15:32-17:15; 1 Chr. 27:33). All of us who have been baptized into Christ are now Jesus’ “friends” and God’s, members of God’s Council.

We get to hear God’s plans, though not in detail. We learn from His Word what His plans are in the world so that we can interpret things that happen and reveal who God is to each other and to people around us. More than that, God also listens to us. He invites us to intercede, to present petitions. And He acts in response to us and He acts through us, through our deeds but also through our words. When we speak His Word, that Word is powerful to comfort, rebuke, judge, condemn, tear down and plant.

But the Bible also shows us prophets as mature men. Children are like priests. Middle-aged people are like kings. But older people are like prophets. When you’ve worked at a job long enough to become the boss, you rule often by your words. Generals speak a word and send armies to war.

Men of experience and wisdom are prophets in this sense. They’ve been through trials and temptations and can help younger Christians with them. They have a sense of plot and can help people see where they fit in the story. They’ve had to die as priests and kings and God has raised them in greater glory, and so they can assure others that, if they’re faithful, their crises and “deaths” — in their work, their marriages, their relationships — will lead to more glorious resurrections. Because of their wisdom and experience, their words have weight and open up new possibilities for the future.

But there are temptations that older people face. It’s possible to become set in one’s ways and to resist all change instead of using mature wisdom to see where change is necessary. People sometimes figure that because they are old they can retire from serving in Christ’s church and so they don’t help the younger Christians around them. It’s possible to grow old without having learned to die and rise again and so to become bitter and cranky. It’s possible to grow old without any wisdom to pass on.

But Christ came to be our prophet, to reveal God, to intercede for us, to establish the New Creation and new covenant. He came to imprint the pattern of His life on us, to make us priests who are obedient servants, kings who are wise rulers, and prophets who are mature members of God’s council, who say things God listens to, whose words change the world for God’s glory.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:55 pm | Discuss (0)
December 16, 2005

Advent 2005: Jesus Our King

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JESUS OUR KING
Scripture: 2 Samuel 7
(December 11, 2005, Advent Sermon)

[For much of this sermon, I’m indebted to James Jordan’s From Bread to Wine and to Peter Leithart‘s sermons in April and May 2004.]

Jesus is the anointed one. In the Bible three types of people are anointed: priests, kings, and prophets. Though there is some overlap, in the Bible God first calls Israel to be a kingdom of priests, represented by the Levites, priests, and high priest in particular. Later, He gives Israel a king. And then, when the kingdom splits and especially when Israel and Judah are headed for exile, He raises up prophets.

That historical order helps us understand something about Jesus as priest, king, and prophet. It also helps us understand how God grows us to maturity in the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Last Sunday, we talked about priests. Priests in the Bible are palace servants, housekeepers in God’s house — both the physical building and the people of God. Priests hear God’s Word and obey it, whether they understand or not. Priesthood corresponds to the early phase of life when you simply follow orders and learn obedience.

But at a certain point in history, God gave Israel a king as He had always planned. The gift of a king to Israel is an increase in glory. It’s maturation.

OLD COVENANT KINGS

What do kings do? Kings rule. While priests are servants, kings are sons of God (2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7). While priests are servants under authority, kings exercise authority over others.

They are to rule as shepherds (2 Sam. 7:8) for the good of their sheep. They are God’s firstborn sons (2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 89:26-27) who represent God’s corporate firstborn son, Israel (Ex. 4:22-23) and, as we see throughout Kings and Chronicles, the fate of Israel turns on the faithfulness of the king. Kings rule, not by looking out for themselves, but through faithfulness and self-sacrifice.

One way kings rule is by passing judgment, which is often associated with “the knowledge of good and evil.” God promised Adam that he would be a king with dominion. He promised him all the trees of the Garden. But for a time, He withheld the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam had to wait patiently for that gift so that he could be a wise king, but instead he grabbed for it and for kingly glory on his own terms and found death instead.

But God did give Israel’s kings “the knowledge of good and evil” so that they could be wise rulers (2 Sam. 14:17; 1 Kings 3) and so that they could pass wise judgments.

Sometimes, the kings carry out God’s judgments on a larger scale. Kings are conquerors of Israel’s enemies. David finishes conquering the Promised Land. Solomon’s dominion includes all the land God promised Israel.

In all of this rule, kings are to exercise wisdom. Priests have detailed instructions; kings don’t. Priests simply have to hear and obey, whether they understand or not; kings have to exercise discernment. During this kingly period, the wisdom literature appears. Wisdom isn’t a matter of commandments. It’s often a matter of timing and appropriateness. Do you send these men to attack knowing that they’ll likely die if it means that you can rescue these other people over here?

Kings have to meditate on God’s Law so that they can rule wisely. And as they share in God’s wisdom and God’s rule, they also share in God’s glory. Under David, Israel’s worship begins to include singing and instruments. This is the time when most of the Psalms were written. And this is the time when the king builds a glorious house for God and another for himself.

JESUS AS KING
Israel’s kings did not reach full maturity. Saul, David, and Solomon all started with humility but later rebelled. David had to go through an experience of exile before being restored to glory again. As God said, David’s sons who rebelled against God were chastened by men (2 Sam. 7:14). The Temple, which represented the people, was torn down and the people were poured out into exile.

But God didn’t take His covenantal loyalty from David’s house (2 Sam. 7:15). When David’s line had dwindled to a nobody named Joseph in a hick town in a backwards province, God kept His promise. Joseph’s fiancee conceived a son by the power of the Spirit, a son who would have David’s throne and reign over Jacob’s house forever (Lk. 2:32-33).

Jesus was born to be king. His baptism was His anointing, at which time God declared Him His Son (cf. Ps. 2:7). But like David, Jesus had a long wait between anointing and enthronement, during which time He fled from jealous enemies.

Still, He kept displaying His royal authority. He conquered Israel’s enemies, freeing people from Satan. He cared for His people, restoring them to wholeness. His speech, too, begins to include wisdom elements when He speaks in parables instead of openly. And in all of His actions, Jesus displayed His wisdom and glory, especially at the cross, when, in the wisdom of God, Jesus died as “The King of the Jews” and thereby triumphed over sin, Satan, and death

Now Jesus has been raised and exalted to glory at God’s right hand as the king, the Lord. That is the gospel: “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

US AS KINGS
Jesus’ Lordship is good news for us because we live in a world full of competing lords. Some people live in anarchy or under oppression. But Jesus is Lord and He judges righteously, defending His people, conquering the wicked.

But that isn’t the only comfort Jesus’ kingship gives us. Jesus also gives us His life, not as a model (we don’t do exactly what He did) but as a type, a pattern for our lives. Jesus is a king, and so are we (Rev. 5:10). Jesus is enthroned in heavenly places with all things being placed under His feet (Eph. 1:20ff.) and so are we (Eph. 2:6).

All of us are kings who reign with Christ. But it’s helpful also think about kingship as a stage in our development toward maturity. We start off as children or young people in a sort of priestly phase, but we move on to something that parallel’s Israel’s kingly phase. We start out learning to be obedient servants and then we grow — or ought to grow — into wise rulers.

But there are temptations we face. Young people who haven’t learned to serve make bad rulers, often flaunting their authority and bossing others around. It’s easy to forget that biblical rule involves service.

It’s tempting, too, to be irresponsible as kings, to get married but wish you were still single and free from responsibility, to try to shift your responsibility to your wife. Middle-aged men, in particular, go through mid-life crises when they are tempted to shirk their responsibilities and act like teenagers.

It’s hard to be a king because kingship in Jesus’ pattern means dying for others, putting others ahead of yourself (Phil. 2:5ff.). Priests have to die, and so do kings. But this double-death is what leads to full glory. If we grab for glory for ourselves we lose it. But if we follow Christ’s pattern and let God grow us to maturity through suffering and death, we will share in glory with Christ.

Jesus came to be king. That’s the good news we celebrate at this time of year. But He came also to make us kings to serve God, to exercise dominion, to care for His people, to make wise judgments, and to give ourselves for others. That is the path to glory with Christ.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:10 pm | Discuss (0)
December 11, 2005

Jesus Our Priest

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JESUS OUR PRIEST
Scripture: Hebrews 4:14-5:14
(December 4, 2005, Advent Sermon)

[For much of this sermon, I’m indebted to James Jordan’s From Bread to Wine and to Peter Leithart‘s sermons in April and May 2004.]

In the Bible, three kinds of people are anointed to office: priests, kings, and prophets. As the Christ, the Anointed One, Jesus holds and fulfils these three offices. We often speak of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king in that order. But the Bible presents a different order.

At first, God formed Israel into a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), represented by the Levites and priests and in particular by the High Priest. Later, the focus shifts from priests to kings with the rise of Saul and then of David. Now the king represents the people. As the kingdom splits and in particular as the threat of exile looms, the focus shifts again to the prophets.

The historical development is thus from priests to kings to prophets. Each of those transitions is a time of crisis, a time of death and resurrection. That development is important. In the Old Covenant, God was maturing Israel as a child (Gal. 4) until the coming of Jesus, when at last we have a full-grown man.

The pattern by which God matured Israel tells us something about Jesus as priest, king, and prophet. It also tells us something about our lives and about how God matures us as we grow in Christ’s image from one phase to another. In the weeks to come, we’ll be looking at kings and prophets. Now, however, we focus on priests.

OLD COVENANT PRIESTS

All through Hebrews, Jesus is presented as the great High Priest, greater than the Old Covenant priests. To know what that means, we need to know what a priest is and to know that we need to ask what priests do.

We often think of priests as men who offer sacrifices. There’s some truth to that. Priests offered morning and evening sacrifices and offerings on special feast days. But ordinary Israelites also offer sacrifices; so do God-fearing Gentiles. What is unique to the priest is that the priest supervises the offering and tends the fire of the altar. Priests are chefs who cook the offerings and take care of the food presented to God.

Priests also take care of God’s house. They offer incense to make the house smell nice, keep the lamps shining so that the house is bright, make sure there is showbread on the table, guard the house and determine who can draw near to it, and sprinkle blood on the furnishings to cleanse them. Priests are housekeepers. Furthermore, taking care of God’s house includes taking care of God’s people. The priests are teachers in Israel and even act as judges (Deut. 17).

The Bible tells us that priests “stand to serve” in God’s presence. That language is also used for servants in a royal palace: they stand before the king (e.g., David, 1 Sam. 16:21-23; Solomon’s servants, 1 Kings 10:8; 12:6; Daniel and his friends, Daniel 1:4-5, 19-20; 2:2). The priest is to Yahweh what a servant is to a king. The priest is Yahweh’s household servant (cf. Ps. 134; Joel 1:9; 2:17).

As a servant, the priest lives by his Master’s word. The priests’ duties were spelled out in detail. The priest didn’t have to understand the rules. He had to hear and obey.

JESUS AS A PRIEST

Israel’s priests weren’t always faithful. Because of Eli’s sins, judgment came on Israel, on the tabernacle, which was torn in two, and on Eli’s house. God told Eli that He would replace him with a faithful priest. That priest was Zadok, but Zadok also points forward to Jesus, the faithful High Priest.

Jesus, of course, wasn’t a priest in the line of Aaron. Rather, He was a priest in a greater order, the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110; Heb. 5, 7). Jesus is therefore greater than the Old Covenant priests. They offered repeated sacrifices and never sat down, but Jesus offered one final sacrifice and sat down because His work was finished. Jesus is unlike the Old Covenant priests.

But in other ways He is like them. Like them, He was appointed to office (Heb. 5:4). Like them, He suffered from the weakness brought about by man’s sin, though Himself without sin (Heb. 4:15). Like them, He learned obedience through suffering (Heb. 5:8). Like them, He was God’s palace servant, working in God’s house, declaring lepers clean, giving people access to God, teaching Israel, giving people access to God’s food, and finally presenting a sacrifice: Himself.

The Old Covenant period focused on the priests ended with the tearing apart of the tabernacle, which represented Israel. The loaf was broken. And so Jesus’ body was broken, first in the garden when Jesus’ disciples (the church, His body) fled, and then on the cross where Jesus died alone as the priest who gave His body for us.

And then God raised Him in glory. Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus primarily as a priest but it ends with Jesus as the king with all authority in heaven and earth, sending His disciples to conquer the world. Jesus’ priesthood leads to death but it leads beyond it to glory as the priest-king at God’s right hand as the “author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Heb. 5:9).

US AS PRIESTS

Jesus our priest gives us access to God (Heb. 10:19-22). In the Old Covenant, only the High Priest could enter the Holiest Place, but now all of us do in Christ. All of us draw near to God because we’ve been washed with pure water, like the Old Covenant priests. We have been ordained to be priests ourselves (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5).

But some people are priests in a special sense. Pastors are a special sort of priest, servants appointed by God to teach, to proclaim God’s Word, to help us carry out our calling as God’s priests.

Consider, too, the process by which God matures us. As God matured Israel through a process moving from priest to king to prophet, so He moves us through various phases of life. That process started with priesthood, in which Israel (and the priests in particular) had to learn to hear and obey. So, too, Hebrews 5 tells us that before we teach we have to learn. Before we eat solid food, we have to start with milk. Before we “discern good and evil” (which is associated with kingship in the Bible) we have to start with the basics, by which Hebrews appears to have in mind the Law.

That’s how our lives are. Childhood is a priestly phase of life. It’s a time for learning to obey, a time when the rules need to be spelled out, a time when parents want submission and not back-talk. In another sense, early adult life is a priestly phase. When you first start out in a job, for instance, you have to learn the basic skills. Often you learn obedience by suffering.

There are temptations we face in the priestly phase of life. We are tempted to resist authority because we don’t like living under rules. Young men may be tempted to think they can get along without oversight.

We’re also tempted to try to stay in childhood in order to avoid increasing responsibility. When you’re at home, someone else pays the bills, takes charge of the house, makes the important decisions. When you’re on your own, everything rests on your own shoulders. It’s tempting to stick with irresponsibility, especially when becoming mature involves learning obedience through suffering.

Maturity comes through suffering and death. But if you are faithful, trusting in God and serving Him, you can trust that beyond that “death” will be a glorious resurrection in greater maturity. Why? Because Jesus is the faithful High Priest who died and rose so that we can be faithful priests who draw near to God to serve Him, who hear His Word and obey it, and who grow through suffering into the image of God’s Son, God’s servant, Jesus our priest.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:25 am | Discuss (0)
March 27, 2004

Jesus and the Restoration of Israel

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Yesterday, I finished Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, a collection of essays which interact with and sometimes critique N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.

As with almost every essay collection, it’s a mixed bag. Craig Blomberg’s essay, for instance, is largely just a summary of Wright’s book. Blomberg’s only significant criticism, it appears, is that Wright isn’t a premillennialist. In fact, much of the criticism Wright receives in this volume relates to his preterist approach to Mark 13, as might have been expected.

Klyne Snodgrass’s charge that Wright overreads the parables may have some validity. Craig Evans offers extensive evidence that many Israelites in Jesus’ day did see themselves as being in exile, though he doesn’t ask whether the Jews were correct in their attitude toward the Romans. Richard Hays offers some helpful comments with regard to Christian ethics in the light of Jesus’ life and death.

Some of the comments in the book, however, were downright strange. Alister McGrath, for instance, says, “If Sanders or Wright is correct, Martin Luther is wrong” (p. 169), an overblown claim which certainly deserves more explanation (and justification) than McGrath gives. Later, McGrath suggests that Wright gives more emphasis to the Last Supper than to the cross., a criticism that baffles Wright.

C. Stephen Evans misunderstands Wright at several points, not least Wright’s statement that “many other people” besides Jesus healed people and performed what we would call “miracles.” That statement disturbs Evans (p. 191) because he sees it as “naturalizing’ Jesus’ mighty works. But all Wright means is that the prophets (e.g., Elijah and Elisha) did things that were similar to the things Jesus did and therefore we shouldn’t conclude that the performance of “miracles” proves that Jesus was God (see Wright’s response on p. 294). Wright also adds this about Evans’ essay:

I am amused, by the way, by Stephen Evans’s speculations about what might be helpful for me to think “as a clergyman.” I wonder how many Episcopal priests he actually knows?” (pp. 316-317n4).

Luke Timothy Johnson completely misses the boat when he criticizes Wright for having a minimalist view of the resurrection, a charge that’s really funny in the light of Wright’s new massive The Resurrection of the Son of God. Here’s Wright’s response:

I intend to address the question head-on in the next volume in the series, which should also put paid to the (frankly very funny) suggestion by Johnson that I hold “minimalist” view of Jesus’ resurrection. Why Johnson thinks I describe the resurrection as a “resuscitation” (p. 219) I don’t know. Why he thinks I restrict its significance to Jesus as an individual I can’t imagine. What he means by the “radical character” of the resurrection is not clear. And why he supposes I “dislike” such a view (p. 221) I have no idea. It is strange that Johnson, who is so skilled as an exegete of first-century texts, has such trouble reading one or two texts by a twentieth-century colleague that he must needs first invent a view for me to hold and then tell me off for holding it. If, of course, he means that when the early Christians said, “Jesus is risen from the dead,” they were referring not to something that had happened to Jesus but to an experience that they had had, then not only is it he who is the minimalist but it is he who is inventing a story that none of the New Testament writers corroborate (p. 268).

It was helpful to have Marcus Borg’s comments toward the end of the volume, largely because it helped to highlight what Borg rightly recognizes as Wright’s fundamental orthodoxy. Wright’s own response to all the essays, though necessarily brief and sometimes too brief, is quite helpful. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the editor, Carey Newman, then tacked on a conclusion in which he critiqued Wright, without allowing Wright a chance to respond to him (and his critique really does seem to be a ball that Wright could easily knock out of the park).

Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, then, is a moderately helpful book. Some of the essays are rather dull. Some aren’t all that helpful. A couple are challenging. And Wright’s response is worthwhile.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:36 pm | Discuss (0)
November 10, 2003

Bible Study Deconstructionism

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Recently, I’ve been reading N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, in preparation for preaching a series of sermons on Mark’s Gospel starting sometime early next year. I’ve waded into Wright’s work from the shallow end, starting with the books of sermons and meditations and progressing gradually to the heavier works.

In this volume, Wright make a point which might be obvious but which hadn’t actually occurred to me before. Many of the people attending conservative evangelical churches would be strongly opposed to deconstructionism, viewing its approach as a form of deadly relativism. And yet these same people often bypass careful exegesis in favour of “what this passage means to me” or “what this passage means for me,” which might be different from “what it means to/for you”: a form of radical deconstruction-like relativism!

Wright writes:

Most Bible-readers of a conservative stamp will look askance at deconstructionism. But its proposed model is in fact too close for comfort to many models implicitly adopted within (broadly speaking) the pietist tradition. The church has actually institutionalized and systematized ways of reading the Bible which are strangely similar to some strands of postmodernism. In particular, the church has lived with the gospels virtually all its life, and familiarity has bred a variety of more or less contemptible hermeneutical models. Even sometimes within those circles that claim to take the Bible most seriously — often, in fact, these above all — there is a woeful refusal to do precisely that, particularly with the gospels. The modes of reading and interpretation that have been followed are, in fact, functions of the models of inspiration and authority of scripture that have been held, explicitly or (more often) implicitly within various circles, and which have often made nonsense of any attempt to read the Bible historically. The devout predecessor of deconstructionism is that reading of the text which insists that what the Bible says to me, now, is the be-all and end-all of its meaning; a reading which does not want to know about the intention of the evangelist, the life of the early church, or even about what Jesus was actually like. There are some strange bedfellows in the world of literary epistemology (p. 60; cf. pp. 54, 66).

Posted by John Barach @ 6:48 pm | Discuss (0)
October 29, 2003

Typological Catechism

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I was interested to notice in Danielou’s From Shadows to Reality that the early church’s catechesis was heavily typological (e.g., pp. 182-183). I suppose that may have been due, at least in part, to the context. As Danielou points out, typology “brought out, as against the Gnostics, the unity of the two Testaments, and the superiority of the New, against the Jews” (p. 1).

It is interesting that the early church saw biblical typology as an important part of its instruction of new converts (and, no doubt, of its children).

Our own catechesis, in contrast, does little with typology. Though the Bible is full of symbolism — take, for example, the amount of space Scripture devotes to describing the tabernacle and the details of sacrifices — and though much of the Bible consists of stories rich in typology, we usually leave the stories to the little children, as if they aren’t so important for grown-ups, and we spend little if any on the symbolism. (When was the last time you even heard a sermon or a lecture on the details of the sacrifices in Leviticus or on the structure of the tabernacle?).

As I thought about typology in connection with catechesis, I was reminded of Peter Leithart‘s “catechetical” question and answer in Blessed Are the Hungry:

What happens in holy communion? I wish to say: “We, as children of Adam, are offered the trees of the garden; as sons of Abraham, we celebrate a victory feast in the King’s Valley; as holy ones, we receive holy food; as the true Israel, we feed on the land of milk and honey; as exiles returned to Zion, we eat marrow and fat, and drink wine on the lees; we who are many are made one loaf, and commune with the body and blood of Christ; we are the bride celebrating the marriage supper of the Lamb, and we are also the bride undergoing the test of jealousy; at the Lord’s table we commit ourselves to shun the table of demons” (pp. 12-13).

That answer is certainly not the kind of definition we usually require catechism students to memorize. It doesn’t give us the kind of theological analysis we might be used to. At least at first it doesn’t seem to answer the kinds of questions we might want to ask (and there’s certainly a place for asking and answering these questions).

But it’s packed with biblical imagery and grounded on the stories and symbols of Scripture. It opens all kinds of Scriptural paths for us to travel as we meditate on the Lord’s Supper. It certainly helps us the understand the Supper better. As Leithart says, in its own way, it’s just as rich as our more philosophically worded answers.

It strikes me that such a typological approach might benefit our catechesis, not least by making us spend time with what the Bible spends the most time on: story, symbol, and song. It may enrich our theological definitions, showing us God’s truth in a fuller light. And it may be especially helpful for children — and for all who haven’t lost their childlike love of story.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:52 am | Discuss (0)
October 27, 2003

From Shadows to Reality

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Yesterday, I finished reading Jean Danielou’s From Shadows to Reality, a very helpful study of the biblical typology of the early church Fathers.

In my early biblical studies, I was under the impression that the Fathers were all given to a methodology called “allegorization.” Danielou, however, shows that there is a difference between allegory, which involves using the Bible to express philosophical ideas, and typology, and that, while some of the Fathers blend the two, they were aware of the difference between them. As Danielou writes:

It would be an entire abuse of language to include moral allegory with typology under the one heading of the spiritual sense, as opposed to the literal sense: typology is a legitimate extension of the literal sense, while moral allegory is something entirely alien: the former is in truth exegesis, the latter is not (64).

Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that typology is included in what Danielou and others call “the literal sense.”

But what appears to have happened in some more modern exegesis is that, instead of asking about typology in a text, exegetes settle for “the grammatical-historical method.” That is to say, they endeavour to understand a passage of Scripture by looking at the meaning of words, the grammar of the passage, and the historical and cultural background of the passage.

Grammatical-historical exegesis may give an impression of scientific accuracy, especially when compared to some of the fanciful interpretations that the Fathers give (though some of them aren’t nearly as fanciful as they first appear). If you’re reading about Herod, you can look up Herod in your encyclopedia and learn which Herod you’re reading about and what he did. If you discover that a certain verb is in the present tense, you can say, “Aha! The biblical writer is talking about something which was is taking place even as he writes.” One may get the impression that if we apply the correct methodology in reading the Bible, we will be able to prove our interpretations of it beyond the shadow of a doubt.

That impression of scientific accuracy, however, is an impression. Interpreting a text is never a matter of “scientific accuracy.” (Indeed, one might also queston whether science is a matter of “scientific accuracy,” in this sense.)

For instance, learning some things about Herod doesn’t yet tell you what the text is saying about Herod, why he’s mentioned in this particular place, and so forth. Nor is grammar a matter of strict and unbendable rules. That a verb is in the present tense doesn’t mean that the action of the verb is taking place in the writer’s own time. Many of the verbs in Mark (like the verbs in my “Aha!” sentence above) are present tense, but they are describing events prior to the time when Mark wrote his Gospel. Interpreting a text involves more than analyzing the possible meanings of words, examining the grammar, and taking the historical context into account.

Furthermore, given that there is such a thing as symbolism, is it possible to come up with an interpretive methodology that guarantees you’ll be able to know (and prove) exactly what the author is doing with his symbolism? We read about a man who has been separated from the woman he loves and at that point in the story it’s winter. Everything is icy, cold, bleak. Later, when he finds his love again, it’s spring. I would like to say that the symbolism is obvious, that the winter reflects the bleakness and barrenness of his own life and that the spring fits with his new life, reunited with his love. And maybe it is obvious. But could you ever prove that the writer is using winter and spring symbolically?

But even more significantly, interpreting a text in Scripture involves reading it typologically. In particular, understanding Scripture entails understanding how Scripture speaks of Christ. That’s what Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27). Origen, commenting on that passage, says,

Jesus it is who reads the Law, when he reveals the secrets of the Law. We, who belong to the Catholic Church, do not reject the Law of Moses, but receive it if and when it is Jesus who reads it to us. For it is only if Jesus reads the Law in such wise that through his reading we grasp its spiritual significance, that we correctly understand the Law (cited in Danielou 283).

Origen is correct: we understand the Old Testament only if we read it the way Jesus read it to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, that is, only if we see it as speaking of Christ (which is what Origen has in mind, primarily, when he speaks of the “spiritual significance” of the Old Testament). As Peter Leithart has written, “Interpretation of the Old Testament must be grounded in grammar and history, but if it does not move to typology, it is not Christian interpretation” (A House For My Name 27).

Reading about the typology of the Fathers is helpful, then, for showing us how our forefathers understood Scripture and how they struggled to see all of Scripture as speaking of Christ. Their interpretations were not always correct. Sometimes they blended allegory with typology. Sometimes, even when their typological connections were correct, they missed key elements which would have helped to put their interpretations on a more solid basis. Nevertheless, they have a lot to teach us and their meditations on Scripture are useful for sparking our own meditations and for pushing us to a better approach to Scripture, one which isn’t characterized by their mistakes and abuses, but one which also seeks to avoid our own.

For that reason, I’m thankful for Danielou’s study. I just wish he’d covered more than the first six books of the Bible!

Posted by John Barach @ 4:37 pm | Discuss (0)
October 24, 2003

There Are No Idioms

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I was thinking, in connection with my last post, about why translators sometimes mistranslate certain phrases in the Bible. Part of what promotes mistranslation, it seems to me, is the push for readability.

Virtually every translation has, as one of its goals, to produce a readable version of the Bible. In translations such as the NASB and NKJV, that goal is balanced by the goal of trying to come as close as possible to a word-for-word translation. In other translations, such as the NIV, the goal of readability is much more dominant. Sometimes, translators even claim that they are translating the ideas, and not so much the words. After all, they might say, the words are but the vehicles for the idea, and the goal is to get the ideas of Scripture across to people. And what’s more, we do want people to be able to read the Bible, don’t we?

But readability cannot be our chief goal in translation. For one thing, we don’t simply want to get the ideas across. We want people to hear what God actually says, and that involves trying as much as possible to reproduce the words He uses in the way He uses them. Ideally, if a passage is chiastic in structure, we should want our translation to be chiastic, too.

Besides, if our goal were to produce a completely readable Bible, we’d certainly trim down a lot of the repetition in the Bible. We’d probably eliminate most of Numbers 7 (“one silver plate, the weight of which was one hundred and thirty shekels…”).

“Does all that repetition really matter?” I can imagine someone asking. After all, the ancient world may have loved lists (just look at all the lists in medieval literature), but we don’t, so why not translate the Bible into our own style, the style readers today are accustomed to? Lists aren’t part of that style, so lists must go. We can say the same thing — get the same idea across — in fewer words.

Now most translators don’t go to that extent. But in the push for readability, certain other sacrifices are made.

Take the matter of idioms. When you’re translating from another language, you often run into idioms which aren’t found in English. Sometimes a metaphor might make sense even when it’s translated literally, but often the translator struggles to find an equivalent English idiom to get the same point across.

Once when I was translating something from the Dutch, I discovered that instead of saying “Putting the cart before the horse,” the Dutch writer had “Putting the horse behind the cart.” It’s the same idiom from a different perspective. When I translated that passage, it was easy to switch the Dutch idiom for our version of it.

But can we do that to a phrase in the Bible without losing something? Here’s a thesis for consideration: There are no idioms in the Bible.  Put another way, the Bible’s idioms are normative.

The Bible does not simply adopt pithy idiomatic sayings from its surrounding culture, and its short, often metaphorical, sayings cannot be switched for other sayings in English that “make the same point.” Rather, the Bible says what it wants to say in the way that it wants to say it. The Holy Spirit chooses his words carefully. If we switch phrases in the Bible for what we think their English equivalents would be, we lose something of what the Spirit is saying. In particular, it seems to me, we lose a sense of the Bible’s symbolism.

And so to refer back to my last post, “uncover his father’s corner” or “his father’s wing” is not simply an idiomatic way of saying “commit adultery with his father’s wife.” The Spirit could have said “commit adultery with his father’s wife” if He had wanted to. He didn’t. He chose to refer to the wing of the garment for a reason, even though “commit adultery with his father’s wife” would seem to be much clearer — much more readable — for modern readers, and even though modern readers might find the reference to the father’s wing baffling. That puzzling reference to a wing is normative: it is part of what the Spirit is telling us about man, about clothing, about marriage, about holiness, and so forth. It isn’t a Hebrew idiom which can be traded for something clearer for English readers. There are no such idioms in Scripture.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:56 am | Discuss (0)

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