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Much Ado about Shwa

April 11, 2012

Shwa (schwa) means “nothing.” In the Hebrew vowel system, shwa is the name for the most reduced, most indistinct vestage of a vowel. (We have borrowed the term for our symbol Ə). It is written underneath a consonant and consists of two dots, looking like a tiny colon (:). It happens to be the first vowel in the Bible, underneath the letter beth inbereshith, the first word of Genesis.

Understand that Moses never wrote a shwa. It is part of a system dating from about the eighth century A.D. in which the traditional pronunciation was preserved by diacritical marks, dots and dashes, which indicated phonetic details such as vowels, accents, pauses, punctuation etc. They are not letters as such–only the consonants are the original text–but they do carry great weight, as the scribes who employed them were remarkably meticulous.

The reason that I mention the shwa is that I need it in order to discuss an exegetical issue involving the first verse of the Bible. There exists what I will call the “alternative parsing” (AP), as opposed to what I will call the “standard parsing” (SP). Which option one chooses makes a difference in meaning and translation, as follows:

SP: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (ESV, likewise KJV, NIV, etc., etc.)

AP: When God began to create heaven and earth (JPS Tanakh, likewise NEB, and YLT)

I’ll explain a little later how the AP works. It is preferred within a certain circle, though I do not think it is correct–or even has very much to commend it as an option. In this post I intend to explain why. This explanation is necessarily technical and I will address myself to those unfamiliar with Hebrew grammar, with apologies to those who do.

I began by explaining the shwa, because this “nothing” is the only thing on which the AP is based, that is the sole graphic mark which the proponents of the AP can point to in the text to indicate how they understand the syntax of the verse. From its presence under the prefixed proposition b- (“in”), they parse the noun reshith (“beginning”)as being in something known as the “construct state,” which I will now endeavor to explain.

Construct State

Imagine two nouns in a relation we might characterize as “X of Y.” Indeed English indicates this idea with by putting the preposition of between X and Y. Many other languages do likewise. In some cases we can  reverse the order and add a suffix to the Y element: Y’s X. Several languages have this pattern.

In Greek, this same relation is indicated by a marking on the Y element (putting the noun in the genitive case), though the order of the words is not fixed, e.g. he agape tou theou (“the love of God”).

In Hebrew, the same relation is indicated by forming a chain in the order X:Y with the X element marked by being lightened, reduced stress, reduced vowels (as far as possible), and some variations in the form of suffixes. This lightened form is the “construct state.” It is not limited to two elements, but can be X:Y:Z or more, with both X and Y in the construct state and only Z being in the default “absolute state.” Also the entire phrase is either definite or indefinite. If there is an article, it only occurs on the final element, and never present on a noun in theconstruct state.

A familiar example is the name of the town Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” The noun meaning house in absolute state is bayit. In construct it becomes betLehem means “bread.” So bet-lehem, is “house of bread.”


It is absolutely factual that the prepositional phrase bereshith does not contain a definite article. The English translation “in the beginning,” does, of course, but no article is present in the Hebrew. The Hebrew article has the form ha-, though with the preposition b- the letter he would drop and we would have the fused form ba- “in the.” So the word reshith is “anarthous” i.e. it does not have an article.

Now the AP takes things a bit further, identifying reshith as not only anarthrous but in the construct state. Remember, all nouns in construct are anarthrous, though not all anarthrous nouns are construct, by any means.

Understand that the noun itself is identical in form whether it is construct or absolute. Nothing about it shows any marking for construct state. If it is not specifically identified as construct, by default is is absolute, as the SP takes it.

The lack of article is the sole indication for parsing reshith as construct. Is this enough? Hardly, in my opinion. Of course, other reasons are cited in favor of the AP, and we will touch on these below.

Identification from Context

What else can be an indication of construct state? What about context? In fact many nouns do not vary their form in construct state and are so identified only by relation to the word or words that follow. In the most typical instances (as we have described) a noun in construct state is followed immediately by a noun in the absolute state. These are very easy to identify.

E.g. melekh shalem “king of Salem” (Gen. 14:18)

We do see this with our word reshith elsewhere; in Genesis 10:10 it is unquestionably in the construct state:reshith mamlakto “the beginning of his kingdom.”

Now when I say “noun,” I mean this in a wide sense, proper and common, of course, as well as pronouns. Also nominal forms of verbs do occur, such as the construct infinitive. We do not have an OT example of one following reshith, but we do with another word meaning “beginning”:

bithillat shibtam

b-tehilla shebet-am

in beginning to-dwell their

“at the beginning of their dwelling there” (ESV)

“When they first lived there” (NIV)

We see a similar structure in Genesis 2:4

beyom ‘asot YHWH ‘elohim ‘erets weshamayim

b-yom ‘asot YHWH ‘elohim ‘erets we-shamayim

in day to-make YHWH God earth and-heaven

“in the day of the making of YHWH God earth and heaven”

“when YHWH God made earth and heaven”

In both examples the X noun is invariable, but is parsed as construct because of the Y forms that follow.

Finite Verb?

Do we have an analogous situation in Genesis 1:1, as proponents the AP maintain? What follows berishit is not any kind of noun or nominal, but a pure verb form, a finite verb. Note the difference with Gen. 2:4, where we have ‘asot, the construct infinitive “to make” or “making,” and not ‘asah, the finite verb form “he made.”

However Genesis 1:1 reads:

bereshit bara’ ‘elohim ‘et-hashshamayim we’et-ha’arets

b-reshit bara’ ‘elohim et ha-shamayim we-et ha-arets

in beginning created God OBJ the heaven and-OBJ the earth

Thus the AP parses reshith as the “X” of the construct chain with the Y being the finite verb bara’ with it’s subject‘elohim.

If this is the true syntax it is an extraordinarily strange thing. However, this is Hebrew, and extraordinarily strange things do sometimes occur. The most commonly adduced parallel is Hosea 1:2:

tehillat dibber YHWH

beginning spoke YHWH

This is so anomalous one could suppose the vowel pointing should read debar “word” instead of dibber “he spoke,” which would make this perfectly nominal (in both senses). But if the vowels are to be taken as written, we do have a finite verb as the “Y” element in a construct chain. Note however that tehillat (“beginning”)–unlike reshith–is readily identifiable as construct by form.

Another example is Job 29:2:

kime ‘eloah yishmereni

k-yeme ‘eloah yishmer-eni

“as days God watched me”

“as in the days when God watched over me”

Here also, the form unambiguously identifies the construct form of kime. A handful of similar structures may be identified (see GKC 422 §130.d), but they are always “extraordinarily strange.” And extraordinarily strange things happen rarely.

So is Genesis 1:1 another example? It is certainly imaginable, though not, I submit, the most likely syntactic understanding. By comparison, the SP is straightforward and ordinary.

Is the article expected?

The AP really only rises to a thinkable possiblity if with the SP we really do need the article in berishit but do not have it. In other words, in reading Gen. 1:1 are we really offput by the absence of the article? Ought we do expect it?

It’s no good of course, to reason back from the English translation. Just because we say “in the beginning” is no reason to expect an article in another language. The syntax of definite articles is frequently surprising, and particularly in prepositional phrases which have an adverbial meaning they may be absent.

A few English examples:

We employ some phrases with a distinction in meaning between articular and anarthrous versions:

e.g.: at school/at the school; in church/in the church; in the hospital (Am?)/in hospital (Br?)

Some are typically anarthrous:

e.g. at work, at home, at play

Some vary by dialect: an American might say “in the future I expect improvement,” whereas an Englishman might omit the article “in future I expect improvement.”

And we even say “from beginning to end” without articles on either noun.

Note that the LXX Greek translation of Gen. 1:1 has an anarthrous form in Greek: en arche. Now it may be supposed, and is frequently stated in the literature, that the Green is anarthrous due to the influence of the Hebrew. Perhaps this is the case, but note that ‘elohim is similarly anarthrous in Gen. 1:1 but the LXX translators rendered ho theos as articular.

John 1:1 similarly has the anarthrous en arche, though this is undoubtably an allusion to the LXX reading of Gen. 1:1. However, in NT Greek arche seems to be routinely anarthrous, particularly in prepositional phrases:

en arche (John 1:1,2Acts 11:15Phil. 4:15😉

ap’ arches “from (the) beginning (Mt. 19:4824:21Mark 10:613:19John 8:4415:27Acts 26:42 Pet. 3:41 John 1:12:71314243:811; 2 John 5,6)

ex arches “from (the) beginning” (John 16:4)

kat’ archas (Heb. 1:10) “at beginnings”

But what about Hebrew? What we would like to see is clearly anarthrous examples identical or analogous tobereshith and in the absolute state. The data are ambigous, as we do have several examples in Isaiah:

Isaiah 46:10 has the closest parallel with mereshith (“from the beginning”), anarthrous with the preposition min“from.” The example is weakened by the fact that this is prophetic literature, and poetic, which means the article is used very sparingly. We have the same problem with a synonym in Is. 40:2141:42648:16Jer. 17:12). Otherwise many, many examples where reshith is in construct because of following nouns or has possessive pronominal suffixes.

On the other hand, of the 51 instances of reshith in the Hebrew text, we have no example of *bareshith in the absolute with the article. In fact there is only one use of reshith with the article at all: Neh. 12:44 has lareshith“for the firstfruits.” Along with “contributions,” and “tithes,” here it refers to physical objects, a significant semantic distinction from what would be an adverbial use per the SP.  We also have Leviticus 2:12, the sole example ofreshith in absolute state, anarthrous, and not in a prepositional phrase, in prose, and it is likely simply indefinite. All others are in poetry such as Deut. 33:21 and Prov. 4:7.  Many, indeed most instances are unquestionably in construct state. Such is our data. We can therefore hardly claim to have any expectation in regard to the article or lack thereof in Gen. 1:1.

One other consideration which falls within textual evidence. The Masoretic pointing includes “accents” which include both disjunctive and conjunctive marks. This tells us what the scribes intended to be read as pauses or minor separation within verses and which words join together in a unit. If the AP holds, berishith links immediately with the following two words as a construct chain. It should be accented accordingly.

However, this is not what we have. The first word, bereshith, is marked with a major disjunctive accent, as shown in the figure below. It is that “backslash” marked m’yela in the illustration. The scribes, recording their centuries-old tradition, are showing us that berishith is followed by anything in a construct chain. Again, the accents are not part of the original text, but neither is the shwa.

Bottom line here is whatever the shwa may seem to give in the AP’s favor, the accent pointing takes away.

The above graphic courtesy of John J. Parsons, Hebrew for Christians ( תודה רבה

So much for the primary sources. At this point the AP is imaginable, else no one would have imagined it. But to say that two options are possible is not to grant them equal probablity. Construct chains with finite verbs in the “Y” position exist, but as a handful of oddball examples within the thousands and thousands of construct chains in the Hebrew text. These are generally recognized as such because there is no other reading possible. In contrast, the SP simply has an anarthrous noun where we might have expected to have an article. The Hebrew text does not supply us with enough data to indicate how formidable an obstacle this actually is for the SP. At this point a native speaker competence would be very helpful.

We do have a stand-in for an available native speaker of ancient Hebrew. The standard parsing is standard because it is the way every ancient translation renders the text. By this measure, the lack of article was definitely no hindrance to the SP, nor did it lead any to propose the AP. The unanimity of this witness is highly significant. So what does the AP have in its favor?


We do have to admit a respectable pedigree in the person of the eminent 11th century AD French Rabbi known as “Rashi.” He proposed the AP in his commentary on Genesis, as proponents hardly fail to point out. He explain the meaning in this way:

At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, when the world was unformed and desolate, G-d said, “Let there be light.”

He explains his reasoning by saying that reshith is exclusively used in the construct state:

For the word reshith never appears in Scripture except when it is annexed to the following word. For example, “At the beginning of Yehoyakim’s reign,”[or] “The beginning of his reign,” [or] “The first of your corn crop.” Here, too, you must interpret “In the beginning El-him created” as if [it were written] “At the beginning of the creating.”

The logic is sound: IF the word is only and always used as the “X” element of a construct chain, it must be so here as well, and we have no option but to understand the AP.

With respect to the rabbi, however, the premise of his “IF” is manifestly false. It is perfectly true that what he describes is commonly the case, but not by any means without exception. By my count it is 82% or 41 of the 50 instances besides Gen. 1:1. The nine other instances are as follows:

  • Lev. 2:12 refers to the “firstfruits” but reshith is the “Y” element in the chain, therefore in absolute.
  • Deut. 33:21 refers to “the first part” but has no element following. In the absolute.
  • Neh. 12:44 mentions “firstfruits” in the absolute.
  • Prov. 4:7 refers to wisdom as the “main thing.” Again absolute state.
  • Is. 46:1 refers in general to the “beginning” as well as the “end,” both in the absolute.
  • Job. 8:742:12, and Hos. 9:8 have reshith in the construct, but with a possessive, e.g. “his beginning,” not with a “Y” element denoting the whole.
  • Ezek. 48:14 has a construct with a different relationship: “firstfruits of the land,” i.e. belonging to the land, i.e. the first part of things coming from the land, but not a part: whole relation with the land itself.

This being the case, I have to dispute Rashi’s conclusion, since his premise exaggerates the data.

Lexical Tendancy

A similar argument stated is that since reshith is “usually” in the construct state (and we note that for one reason or another, we can put this at 90% of the time, including with possessive pronouns. It is not sound reasoning, however, to suppose that Gen. 1:1 has a 90% probablity of being in construct state. Each instance needs to be evaluated in its own context. We have already seen that the text and context of Gen. 1:1 does not readily suggest a construct state.

Enuma Elish

This supposed parallel, AKA the Babylonian Genesis begins with a “when” clause. Its opening words, enuma elish, mean “when in the height,” and the following opening is said to show similarities to Genesis 1:

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,
Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…

The idea of citing this Babylonian text is the suggestion that a “when” clause is a standard opening for an ANE cosmogonic text, and that Genesis 1 could not fail to follow the rules. After all, proponents say, we see this pattern in the so-called second creation narrative in Genesis 2:

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:5-7)

So then if one adopst the AP, Gen. 1:1 may be seen as falling into this pattern–so the argument runs. (1) When phrase, (2) list of negative conditions (3) state of preexisting matter, followed by (4) creative acts.

Now given the very nature of the subject matter, an account of the remote past in which that which did not exist was brought into existence, introductory time references and statements of the non-existence of certain items is not particularly surprising. Supposition of some kind of dependence or features of a common genre are rather forced in this argument. Whatever may be noted similarities between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish, the differences vastly outweigh them. It is fashionable to dwell on a purported connection between the Babylonian and the Hebrew texts, but it is far from clear that there is any connection beyond some superficial details. Nor is there any particular hint in Genesis that the author either was aware of the Enuma Elish or more to the point, thought his readers would be.

At any rate, it is entirely speculative, and scarcely overcomes the data of the text itself. Nevertheless, I have the impression that here is the most persuasive argument for the AP for some interpreters at least. Parallelism conquers all. It has a definite appeal to those with a desire to take the Scriptural text down a notch, which disposition is not difficult to observe in the world of Biblical studies.

Preexistent Matter

More of a consequence than a reason for adopting the AP, this yet provides a certain appeal. It is said that if the per the AP reading, matter is preesistent, or eternal, and ex nihilo creation is denied. This is not quite correct, as even so all the text would mean is that God’s initial step was the creation of amorphous matter, since it is the earth that is formless and void and what is beginning is the “creation of heaven and earth.”

Nevertheless, to a certain mindset, finding an option that finds in the Scripture a statement of eternal, preexistent matter is a consumation devoutly to be wished. It would not exactly be support for biological evolution, but this theory is something of an opportunistic agent, and any crack in the integument will do.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

This post has attempted to demonstrate that from a strictly textual and linguistic basis, the AP is non-impossible, but hardly rises high in probablity, the SP being without true difficulty and readily comprehensible–and not just potentially, but the actual construction understood by translators over the centuries.

More to the point, to those who take the Scriptural text seriously, its commentary on itself has a supreme value. We have already pointed out that all ancient translations, particularly the LXX follow the SP. So does the most direct NT allusion to it, John 1:1-2–a deliberate parallel:

In the beginning (en arche) was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

Hebrews 1:10 refers back to it as well, though less directly through citation of Psalm 102:26:

And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning (kat’ archas), and the heavens are the work of your hands; (Hebrews 1:10)

And Jesus’ own words serve as confirmation of the SP. “The beginning” is understood as the entire initial creation period in Genesis 1, not simply the initial formless condition as the AP would indicate:

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning (ap’ archas) made them male and female (Matthew 19:4)


Based on primary evidence, the text and immediate context, as well as lexical usage, the AP is an imaginable option to the SP, but does not have enough to commend itself to displace it. Ancient learned rabinnic endorsement of the AP is impressive, but equally emminent rabbis supported the SP, and all ancient translations follow it. Purported parallels to ANE literature holds a magnetic attraction to those with a certain mindset. But the analogia fidei and direct parallels of Scripture, to my mind at least, trump any supposed parallel with Enuma Elish and its ilk. In the end, I think it is most likely that the SP is correct and is what was intended by the original author.


Hooked on the Kingdom (part 1)

January 26, 2012

Never been happy with the customary handling of the Sermon on the Mount? Same here. Let’s take a fresh look at it then, starting with the Beatitides.

What we’ll discover, I think, is that in the Sermon Jesus is not laying down a new ethic. Though he is atop a mountain of sorts, He’s not Moses 2.0 laying down a new Law. Yes, He’s commenting on the Law of Moses. But He’s not beefing it up, raising its standards. He is speaking to Israel as Israel–Israel’s King–calling to memory and clarifying the way its always been, for Israel, under the Law. It defines them, as a people, as a nation, as those on a mission. They bear a responsibility before the world, corporately. And that responsiblity He is taking on, as Israel par excellence, their King. And for the world, as King of kings.

What He is about to tell them is good news. It will all take some sorting out, but they’ve all been sitting waiting for centuries, and things are moving now. It’s going to take some extraordinary shape, but it all fits with what the Law and the Prophets and the Writings have declared all along. The Messiah is here, and the people have reason to rejoice.

Who has reason to rejoice? He’s going to tell them who. That’s what the Beatitudes do, I think. We miss the point when we see in them a how-to, some variation on the Four Spiritual Laws. These blessed states, qualities that will be rewarded? No, that really doesn’t fit consistently. Burdens that will be compensated? Still not quite it, I think.

Let me suggest that the unifying theme of them all is for whom is the announcement good news? The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) are the “hook” of the Sermon, an introductory section which hints at the content to come and whets the appetite so that the hearers will listen attentively. Somewhere in it He mentions you, and you prick up your ears.

A word about “blessed,” the word they all have in common. You’ve heard it means “happy,” which is perfectly true. Understand though that it is the classic sense of happy, which is objective not subjective. We find the same thing in the Declaration of Independence: “pursuit of happiness.” It isn’t descibing how anyone actually feels, but what situation someone is in. We seldom use “happy” for this any more; we cover it with lucky, fortunate, to be envied, in a good situation. Those in such a condition, ought to be glad about it, true, but whether they are or not, life has handed them a pretty sweet deal, so to speak. The man with land and wealth and family and influence is “happy” in this sense, even if he’s an emotional wreck despite his “happiness.”

Poor (in spirit)

We have a problem right from the start, in my opinion. I really cannot fault the straightforward translation “poor in spirit,” because that’s the way the words read. But a cardinal rule in translation is to avoid renderings that produce either (1) wrong meaning, or (2) zero meaning. And zero meaning quickly gets filled in with wrong meaning. It just seems to me that “poor in spirit” approaches zero meaning in English. You’re frequently told the whole thing amounts to “humility,” by a kind of semantic snowball, where the words pick up additional content as they roll along: poor becomes needy, needy becomes “recognizes their neediness,” this becomes “recognizes their neediness for a savior.” Thus you have a good Calvinist, with a firm grasp on the T. Knowing his unworthiness is what makes him worthy. I think not.

So what is “poor in spirit”? Offhand, I’d say more English speakers, unfamiliar with the standard line, would assume it means “depressed.” In French people tend to think it means “feeble minded,” as I discovered when I inadvertantly insulted someone I was intending to help. As it happens I ran across an English usage yesterday in George Eliot, who can spin a mean phrase, let me tell you. I also found a second example, both from the earlier part of her novel Middlemarch.

Yet Dorothea had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself; and in the midst of her confused thought and passion, the mental act that was struggling forth into clearness was a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was the fault of her own spiritual poverty. (Ch. XX)

Will wrote from Rome, and began by saying that his obligations to Mr. Casaubon were too deep for all thanks not to seem impertinent. It was plain that if he were not grateful, he must be the poorest-spirited rascal who had ever found a generous friend. (Ch. XXX)

For Eliot, a poor spirit seemed to mean a deficiency of character. This, of course does not tell us what Jesus meant, in Aramaic presumably, translated for us already into Greek.

One consideration we must not overlook is that in a similar message recorded in Luke, at a parallel point Jesus simply says “poor” without “in spirit.” (Luke 6:20) And he will contrast this with “rich” in v. 24. Can’t be completely a different idea from the Matthew version, can it?

Something I’d love to float (though I’ve never seen it suggested by anyone, and I understand that novelty is no recommendation for such things) is could we have misread “in spirit” as a modifier of “poor” when it is meant to modify blessed? So instead of “Blessed are (the poor in spirit),” we’d have “Blessed are the poor (in spirit).” I.e. “Blessed in spirit are the poor.” Well, I’m not much persuaded by this, but its something to mull over, perhaps, before we toss it out.

What I’ve suspected for a while is that Jesus is at once talking about poverty as in being poor not rich, but is considering it at a deeper level. Perhaps in Aramaic He simply used the word for “poor” and Matthew found its meaning so rich (if you’ll pardon the pun) that he had to render it with a fuller expression. This would explain how Luke parallels it simply with “poor.”

At any rate, it would seem to go back to back to the sense of “afflicted,” not just poor but crushed down, as we see so often in the Psalms:

Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame;

let the poor and needy praise your name. (Psalm 74:21)

For I am poor and needy,

and my heart is stricken within me. (Psalm 109:22)

And in particular this one:

He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,

with the princes of his people. (Psalm 113:7-8)

Aha! Here we have something approaching our first beatitude. Good news for the pauper is that they will be made princes: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor, the needy, the afflicted, the downtrodden, the one of meanest estate has reason to rejoice that King Jesus is on the move. Glory for Him is salvation for us. Welcome to the royal family.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)


Here we see a similar treatment to the first beatitude. How often have you heard this one transmogrified by stuffing it with extraneous information? Thus “mourn” is specified to “mourn over sin,” which we understand as repentence, something you need to get you saved, right?

Let’s keep Ockham happy, shall we, and stick with the simple idea of being lugubrious, doleful, sorrowful, for any of the manifold causes that life on this mortal coil hands us. Pain and suffering, loss and regret, bereavement and deprivation. Luke has his version: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:21). Sorry if this is not spiritual enough, but this blessedness is not a reward, it is a grace:

He will swallow up death forever;

and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,

and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8)

(Read Isaiah 25 in its entirety. See if you do not think it foreshadows Jesus’ Sermon.)

And of course we see the same promise later:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

(Revelation 21:4)

The grace we receive (and it is good news) is that we “shall be comforted.” We have a King who is here to work a plan to restore the cosmos to its rightful owner, see to it that the kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, but He is also our great High Priest who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)


Okay, this at least is a positive character quality, right? Meekness is even listed within the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:23 (where ESV, NIV, NLT et al. render it “gentleness.”) Yes, but it is still not quid pro quo, a reward for well doing. It is a grace.

This one has a clear OT antecedent:

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!

Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

For the evildoers shall be cut off,

but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;

though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

But the meek shall inherit the land

and delight themselves in abundant peace.

Wait for the LORD and keep his way,

and he will exalt you to inherit the land;

you will look on when the wicked are cut off.(Psalm 37:8-11, 34)

This is good news for Israel, good news for us. In a world where the aggressive take all, the non-assertive get nothing. But in the Kingdom of Christ, we have the whole earth bequeathed to us. The promise to inherit the land becomes, as fulfilled in Christ, an inheritance of all the world.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. (Romans 4:13)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:16-17)

To be continued in part two.

And Now A Brief Time of Q&A

January 24, 2012

When I recommended in my earlier post A Very Good Place to Start, that you hold your questions for the moment, I did not say never ask questions. I only said the best place for us to start was by listening, absorbing, meditating, mulling on the text of Genesis one as God’s initial self-introduction. When we do, we find (I suggested) a series of self-revealing acts, none of which was done by necessity, and all of which were designed to communicate a fundamental and vital truth about the God with whom we have to do. Thus the acts themselves and what the text tells us about God and His first works convey a wealth of understanding that we will not grasp sufficiently, if we allow our heads to be distracted by matters we are curious about.

Now that you have mulled, and assuming you are sufficiently filled with awe, gratitude and allegiance, I now open the floor for questions. At least, I’ll attempt to field a few, in terms of how I would answer them. Beyond this, you’ll have to go over my head (which is not that high, believe me.) So, any questions?

Yes, this idea of light on day one but no sun until day four seems ridiculous to me.

I’m not sure that’s a question, but are you basically saying whenever you’ve seen the universe being created, it didn’t happen that way?

No, I mean, I don’t see how you can have days without the sun?

Okay, still not a question. But are you saying if you can’t quite see how it works, you are justified in doubting it happened that way?

No, no. Okay here’s the question. How could there have been days taking place before the sun was there to make it day?

I don’t know of course. I wasn’t there and the text doesn’t tell us. But we do see God’s Spirit deigning to be locally present to the earth: “hovering over the waters” and we learn that God robes Himself in light. Wouldn’t that do it? Not saying I know it worked this way, but wouldn’t that be one way it could have happened?

I guess. I just don’t see why.

So which came first, the light or the lamp? If we continue to mull over it as a self-revealing act, what could we say? That the source of life, truth, time and right is God Himself and not the universe?

What about prefiguring Christ, of whom John says: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (1) But then came John the Baptist, who came “to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (6-8)

And Jesus Himself said of him: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. (5:35-36)

I don’t know. That just sounds like the sun and light situation of Genesis one to me.

There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars” (1 Corinthians 15:41) But ultimate glory belongs to God.

Well, what about the suggestion that day one and day four are really talking about the same event?

Hmm. You mean a Kline thing, Framework? Well, we see correspondence of course, first three days, next three days. That much speaks for organization. Is that surprising? God presenting order and organization? No. Beyond this, is the correspondence so close that it really suggests identity rather than just similarity?

Let me ask you this. If I said last week I went to church on Sunday. And I also told you I went to church on Wednesday, would you think I was talking about one and the same visit to church? Or two?

Well, two, of course.


Because you said one was on Sunday and the other was on Wednesday.

Right. So why wouldn’t we understand the same thing when the text tells us God created light on Sunday and the sun and moon on Wednesday?

Um. Cause we call it Sun-day?

Riiight. Any more questions? You in the back.

Let’s talk about science. My problem is that if you interpret the text as you suggest, it conflicts with science.

Does it? Really? Do you mean by science the rigorous application of observation and reasoning which is geared to eliminate bias, control for variables, and lead us to the most probable conclusion? That science?

I guess so. Yeah. What you said. Science says it didn’t happen that way. I think we should consider other ways of reading the text so it doesn’t conflict with science.

I see. Well, let’s back up again and examine your assertion that the offered understanding, spoken into existence by God, spaced out over six days, is contradicted by science. How are we going to do this?

Given we are testing a certain scenario: call it six-day creation, what kind of observation situation are we going to set up in order to consider it scientifically?

Let’s say we take as a hypothesis the six-day understanding we’ve been mulling over from the other day. If indeed God did do it that way, what would we see now in terms of visible, observable, measurable phenomena?

I, uh, I don’t know. How do you expect me to answer that? We’ve only got a few details. You said yourself that 99.9999999999 % or more is not told us. How could we even begin to answer that question? We don’t know enough to say what to expect.

So what you’re saying is this approach is going to take us nowhere. That if it really did happen this way, we couldn’t begin to know what the universe ought to look like. And if we don’t know what the universe ought to look like, we cannot know that it doesn’t look like that. So strike one for science.

Yeah, but assuming a six-day creation is not science anyway.

So let’s take the opposite approach. Let’s take as our hypothesis that the purported six-day fiat creation did not happen. That’s an assumption scientists make, isn’t it? Uniformitarianism? Six day fiat creation is specifically excluded by the principle of uniformitarianism, right?

So if a chain of reasoning that begins by assuming six-day fiat creation didn’t occur also ends up concluding that six-day fiat creation didn’t occur… who’s surprised by this outcome?

Isn’t that a tad circular? Garbage in, garbage out. Science hasn’t demonstrated anything, because science with a built-in bias isn’t science.

In fact, if God’s act of creation is invisible or opaque to human observation, it’s going to be beyond science. And if you begin with a false premise, you’re likely to end up with a false conclusion. Aren’t we asking just a bit much of science?

Okay, but the universe is clearly billions of years old. Not six thousand years.

Excuse me. Where did you get the six-thousand figure. Was that somewhere in the previous post?

No, but everyone knows, a six-day creation means the universe is only six-thousand years old.

Everybody but me, I guess. Perhaps you’re thinking about the genealogies. They’re not in Genesis one, but we get some pretty soon. Sure, add those up and you’ll get something like six-thousand. A bit more if you take the LXX figures as more likely original. If you figure for occasional gaps in them, maybe its more like ten or twelve thousand. But that’s for the existance of mankind. You were talking about the universe.

Okay, then, six to twelve thousand years–and two days–if you say the stars were created on day four and man on day two. That’s two days, fourty-eight hours. The stars are much further away than that, much, much older. Obviously.

Aren’t you making a few unwarranted assumptions?

Such as?

Remember the 99.9999999999 % we don’t know? “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) You limit Him to some two-demensional, linear way of thinking. If He proceeded in one of the myriad ways He could have acted otherwise, your reasoning is pointless.

For example, what do we know about the relationship between time and space? You listen to Einstein. You listen to Hawking. And they can spin all kinds of nearly incomprehensible theories about the fabric of the universe. Curved space. Time relative to velocity.

So what if, say, as God stretched out, so to speak, the stars and galaxies away from the earth in space, He also did so backward in time? Just a wild speculation, of course. But if he designated their creation on day four of earth, but build into the fabric of space a vast span of time, well, wouldn’t that mean even if man were six to twelve thousand years old, the stars could be billions of years old, with no problem.

I guess so, if…

Gives new meaning to A Brief History of Time, doesn’t it. Not saying, you understand, that I have some way of knowing God did it that way, but it’s one possiblity. We’re not limited to your earlier assumption.


Or simply earth had one time frame during that week and the heavens another. Say for every day on earth, ten billion years passed out there. You’re average third grader has no problem with such a concept in the Narnia stories. And if C.S. Lewis could think of it, I’m pretty sure God could have.

Yeah, and next you’re going to give me that old “appearance of age” thing.

Could be. That’s a theoretical possiblity. Or even actual age. The universe was created in medias res, perhaps. Like at the opening of Lord of the Rings. There are thousands of years of history–the narrator tells us as much–though all this predates the beginning… of the movie.

Listen, we spent some time mulling over the six-day fiat understanding of the text. Something that anyone can derive from it with no difficulty. If it posed some problem, this basic reading, well, then perhaps we’d have reason to look for another one. But I suggest that if you read it, once you take it in for what it says, it is eminently satisfying. More than satisfying; it is profound. It is, to the Biblical theist, perfectly acceptable as is. One fails to see any real objection to it. It’s, at the very least, good enough.

If you’d spend as much time considering alternative interpretations of the physical cosmos–which is a much harder book to read–we don’t know the language–and it’s hardly begun to be translated–if you’d put a tenth of the energy into rethinking your view of the universe, you wouldn’t have to spend a second considering alternative interpretations of a single chapter, which is, after all, pretty easy to read.

Plenary Indulgence

January 23, 2012

You’re not going to like this post. That is, you may like this post, but if you do, you’re not the “you” I’m writing to. So back to the first “you.” I’m pretty sure what I say will irritate you, but my purpose is to give you something I hope you will appreciate.

And even worse, I’m going to presume to speak for “us,” not you-and-me us, but us as contrasted with you. Sorry. Not meaning to exclude you, but just to talk about a subject on which we seem to differ. I’m not alone in the point of view I’m going to address, though “we” are far from unified in general. I hope and think, though, that I capture enough of what I share with some of my fellow “us,” that this resonates at least a bit with them.

So here it goes, my conclusion after years of chatting with you:

While you fully believe in the God-Man who was crucified and rose again, you do not want to be obliged to believe in a talking snake.

I’m using the serpent as an example, of course. If this is not an issue, substitute the bête noire of your choice. I think you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Something you see many of your fellow Christians accepting “literally,” though you can’t bring yourself to–don’t really want to. And you dang sure don’t want to be told you “have to.”

You believe everything all Christians believe–must believe or not be Christians. But some things only “fundamentalists” believe, or the more fundy-sided evangelicals, anyway. The serpent, for example. You can’t, won’t, don’t. Not as a factual part of history.

Now for the good part, my gift to you: you don’t have to. You are under no obligation. You are free from any requirement to acknowlege any particular entity or event to be in the “actually happened” category. I mean, at least as far as we are concerned. Really, though, it doesn’t come from us–much less me personally–this liberty. You’ve always had it, and I hope you already knew that you had it. But I thought it important to give you this “license to (dis)believe” on behalf of “us,” because you kind of feel it is we who place the obligation on you. Well, no more. On behalf of us, I hereby absolve you from the aforementioned obligation.

Thing is I thought I needed to say it, because what seems to place the onus on you is the very fact that we believe the things we believe. Why it should be a problem for you, your brothers and sisters who “believe too much,” I don’t know. Best I can figure is that since we think that these are things “good Christians” believe, ipso facto you are not a “good Christian.” I agree you are well in the right to object to such a doom placed on you. I’m sure it has happened to you. That is why I want to disavow the verdict explicitly.

Who are [we] to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:4)

This goes both ways, of course. So at this point I’d like to lay a little of our point of view on you, and discuss a few of the measures you seem to have been led to take by this perceived obligation. By “measures” I mean ways of speaking and dealing with us and with the text of Scripture that are unnecessary, absent pressure from our quarter. And, frankly, I’d just as soon you wouldn’t. I think both you and I and we, all of us in fact, would be better off without, and so I guess my granted “indulgence” is not without self-interest.

For some reason, you seem to be intent on showing us we are wrong about believing the Bible to be right.

Now understand, I at least cannot claim to be a very exemplary disciple of Jesus Christ. I’ve got me plenty of days that would make Simon Peter’s night of shame seem worthy of a badge of honor. And my best days… well, best I not make any claim for myself. “Crappy disciple” would be putting on airs, okay.

But I consider, we consider, that being disciples of Jesus Christ entails, at the very least figuring that when He and I disagree–He’s right and I’m wrong. In other words, He, the Master, knows better than me, the lowly student. And He, my Teacher, has some recommended reading, the Bible, which as far as I can see He takes to be true in every way. My faith is in Him, of course. Belief in Christ is salvific, not belief in the Bible, as such. We understand that. But within that faith in Him is the conviction that He knows whereof He speaks. Our persuasion then is that, like Him, and for His sake, we approach the Bible with the assumption that it is true.

Yes, I did say “assumption.” I’m sure some of us will want to use a stronger word. And I’d be happy also to use a stronger word: conviction, persuasion, confidence, faith. Fine. But for now I will work with “assumption.” By that I mean any time I encounter something affirmed as true in the Bible that is different from what I otherwise think is true, my “assumption” is the Bible is right and I am wrong. The reasonable course of action then is to correct my thinking. Can I turn my belief system on a dime, at will, on a simple reading of a Scriptural proposition. No, of course not. At least at first I’m sure I hold to contradictory opinions at different levels. Somehow I believe X down inside, simultaneously believing God contradicts X and is right to do so. Thank God His Holy Spirit comes to sort out my inward mess, by His grace.

So when the Scriptures present me as factual and historic–as I think they do–an episode in which a serpent communicates verbally with a woman, I am persuaded that my appropriate response as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to affirm it along with the Bible. Sure, I’d recommend this to you, too. But nothing I think or say obliges you. Believe me, I’m well aware you may be a zillion times the disciple I am and not see eye-to-eye with me on these things. Your best Braveheart now, on three: “FREEDOM.”

Now for the “measures.” First, I’d like to talk about the concept “true” and what you choose to do with it versus what I’d like to do with it. I’ve said above, we see the Scriptures as “true” in every way. It’d be fine with me to just leave it like that, but you, or some of you, come along with something like: me too, completely true, and by true I mean not necessarily factual or historic, here and there. Forgive me if I say that is playing a little fast and loose with “true.” I mean, go out an do a survey of actual usage among English-speakers. I’d predict that by and large, the way we use it generally includes both “factual” and “historic.”

But I suppose there’s enough leeway in usage so that you can legitimately use it to mean the non-factual kind of “true,” if you so desire. Fine. It’s just that now we have to find another way of expressing what we mean by true-including-factual as opposed to true-but-not-factual. So we use “inerrant.” Yes, there’re some drawbacks with this word. It’s kind of technical, needs a whole “statement” to specify what we mean and don’t mean. It tends to emphasize the “factual” part of true, though we know as well as you do that “true” means more than “factual.” We just don’t think it means “less.”

Understand too, we know perfectly well that there are sections of Scripture that are deliberately fictional narratives, parables for example. Obviously, those should not be taken as “factual” or “historic,” since the Scripture does not claim that they were. Now it’s entirely possible some of what we take as historic or factual really should be placed in the same category as parables and such. The original readers would have spotted them as such, but we’ve missed it, taken them wrong. Okay, let’s agree that’s possible. So what’s the best course of action? Understand, if we knew X text was not intended to be factual (a parable or metaphor or such) we’d be happy to take it as intended. No problem.

But this can happen the other way around too. One could take a text as non-factual that was intended by author as “true” in the sense that includes “factual.” Now this may not be the end of the world, but it is not desirable, as a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ.

That’s one reason I think it is important to hold the persuasion I mention above, that the appropriate stance for a disciple of Jesus Christ to be ready to accept correction from the Scriptures. It would be far too easy otherwise to categorize a given text as “not-intended-to-be-factual” for my own convenience. In other words, I’m comfortable making that decision about the text, if something in the text tells me to, but not if it simply gets me out of “having to” believe something I’d rather not have to.

Is that what I think you’re doing? Well, I don’t know about you personally, but I sure think I see a lot of people taking that kind of route. And if you should decide to, remember, that’s your business, not mine. I mean, I’m happy to talk with you about it, show you why I take a different position on it, but you don’t “have to” for my sake.

However, some of you go to a great deal of trouble indeed to demonstrate that a certain passage is this kind of text and not that kind. Some of the techniques employed are a little far fetched. Some are considerably more than far-fetched. What can we say about this? That’s what makes horse races, right. Only thing is, sometimes your verbage gives you away. It’s this “have to” kind of phrase. This doesn’t “have to” mean X. Frankly, it’s a red flag that someone is avoiding one of those “rather not believe” situations. So I can’t read your mind, certainly, but if you find yourself taking one of these “I don’t hafta and I ain’t gonna” positions, I’d try my hardest to examine my own motivations if I were you. Of course, I’m not you, and I don’t know how successful I’d really be if I did try it. Do what you think best, of course.

Some of you don’t particularly like our word “inerrant.” Well, first of all, we wouldn’t need it if it weren’t for… well, you… LOL. Sorry. But a lot of you object to the word because you think it is not true (ironic, isn’t it?). You seem to have some vague notion that there are plenty of places where the Scriptures deviate from factuality or historicity (I mean unintentionally). Ergo it has errors and therefore is not “inerrant.” Now, these are harder to come up with than one might initially suppose. Very frequently it is plain to see that not a lot of thought has gone into some of the examples cited. I’m actually not aware of too many instances that are not pretty easily dismissed.

But here’s the problem: if Scripture contained an error, how would you know? Again, if I approach it as assuming it it right and I am wrong in case of uncertainty, when am I going to correct the Bible? Okay, I’m afraid that if the Bible makes an error, I’m going to make an error right along with it, this way. I don’t know what other choice I have, frankly. The servant is not greater than his Master. And the Bible isn’t my Master, Jesus is, but again, it’s His book, His recommended reading. So, yes, my pre-committment to Him, and secondarily to His book, is going to mean I take it as “true” as an a priori. Therefore, you’re probably spinning you’re wheels to try and get us to buy a particular “error.” The vast majority of them aren’t, and should you manage to find a “true error” (LOL), we’re going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.

Another thing we hear from you is “it doesn’t matter.” That is that we’re barking up the wrong tree even to think in terms of the “factual” and “historical” part of “true,” since what really matters is the “teaching” or “theology” part of “true.” You’ll excuse us, I hope, for not finding this a very fruitful direction to take. I’m not ready–not smart, wise, insightful enough–to know when the “fact” part is unimportant. Our faith is firmly rooted in the “actually happened.” And at some point it was important enough for a writer to record the events, and if he (she?) intend to communicate, along with it’s theological meaning, that it also happened to actually happen, well, we’re going to assume the author is right–whatever we might otherwise suppose.

But again, that’s just us. Don’t feel constrained to do likewise, simply because we are so persuaded. We do think its better over here, but we’re not you.

So what is my bottom line? I just suggest, that if there is a part of the Scripture you don’t believe, don’t wish to believe, don’t want to “have to” believe–then don’t. I hope you will feel this freedom, rather than try to build a mechanism that allows the text of Scripture to happen to agree with what you already believe. I just think that is a suspect procedure. Sorry. I’m not totally sure how you’ll know when you’re doing it. I guess you could ask me, and I’ll tell you. LOL. Just kidding. (Or not.)

When you hear yourself say things like “I’m willing to accept X or Y or Z interpretations” but the one you are not really that “willing to accept” is the one “we” do, you might take this as a clue. When you hear yourself saying this doesn’t “have to” mean that, you might find you’re up to something.

Listen, from our point of view no text “has to” mean something, it just does. And I think if you felt free to disbelieve whenever, wherever, you might see it that way too. Many of these situations are pretty obvious, without the “have to” business clouding them up. We know you’re clever enough to find a way around the cloud. That’s not in question. When we don’t buy the “clever” though, many on your side concludes it’s due to lack of brain power on this side. That’s a bit sad when it happens, and it does happen quite a bit.

Well, I’ve said enough, I think. Probably more than enough. I do wish you the enjoyment of your freedom, though I still suspect I was right about your not liking this post. Oh, well, you can’t please everyone.

A Grain of Truth

January 20, 2012

Just a quick word about that good old mustard seed thing, since it came up in a forum thread somewhere. I thought I’d post it here rather than bury it in that thread. It’s ridiculously simple, but still it continues to live on… the idea that Jesus made an error of fact by stating the mustard seed was the smallest plant seed in existence. He didn’t, as I think I can demonstrate.

The parable occurs in all three synoptics: Matthew 13:31-33; Mark 4:30-32; and Luke 13:18-19.

Luke doesn’t include the “smallest” reference. So we’ll concentrate on Matthew and Mark.

It really should be enough to point out that he is telling a parable, but there is more we can say.

I’m going to cite from the ESV. In this case, to show, sadly, that the translation does us no favors, and I think obscures the meaning.

Matthew 13:31-32

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

The Greek behind “It is the smallest of all seeds” reads:

μικρότερον μέν ἐστιν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων

ho mikroteron men estin panton ton spermaton

which smaller -0- is of-all the seeds

(A few technicalities: here is a comparative form functioning as superlative, apparently. Also note an etymological connection between “sowed” (espeiren < speiro) and “seed” (spermaton < sperma), etymologically sper-ma, “a sowed thing.” This probably indicates that “seed” is not exactly equal to sperma, and Jesus is specifically referring to the class of seeds sown by farmers.)

The principal thing I wish you to note is the presence of the article, Lit. “all the seeds.” Now, “all seeds” could be a reasonable way to translate this. But so could “all the seeds.”

Listen to the difference this would seem to make in English at least:

a. It is smaller than all seeds.

b. It is smaller than all the seeds.

If you think reading a makes it sound like a universal statement, while reading b indicates merely all the seeds in a particular class–for example, all the seeds the farmer has to sow–I think you are understanding this correctly. It seems to me that is all the language of the parable is doing, out of all the man’s seeds the mustard grains are the smallest. By contrast it grows larger than any other plant in his garden. (Not any plant in any garden on earth.) This is all just talking about a particular garden. It’s not really that complicated either.

Fine, you say, but look at Mark. You can’t get out of that one so easily. Well, I’m not trying to get out of anything, of course, just showing you what is actually going on. But I do admit, the ESV rendering of Mark 4:30-32 appears to give us a worse case:

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Aha! “All the seeds on earth.” If that’s not universal. I don’t know what is. Right?

Note first of all, this time the ESV translators gave us the definite article “the.” Following their lead from Matthew, I suppose they could have said “the smallest of all seeds on earth.” I’m not sure it makes a big difference here, in view of “on earth,” but it does make me wonder why the article doesn’t appear in the Matthew version.

But I invite you to make a little observation about the text. More Greek, sorry.

First let’s look at the phrase “when sown on the ground.”

ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

hotan spare epi tes ges

when sown on the earth

Note the use of ge “earth” in the sense of “ground.” (Daniel will like that.) Obviously, Jesus means the man sows the seed where seed goes when it gets sown, onto the soil, on the ground.

Now let’s look at the phrase rendered “is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.”

μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

mikroteron hon panton ton spermaton ton epi tes ges

smaller being of-all the seeds the on the earth

You, being astute and observant, will want to say: “Wait, there’s epi tes ges again. The exact same words. Didn’t they mean, two nano-seconds ago, “on the ground”? Why are they now supposed to mean “on earth”?

I think that’s a very good question. Can two similar forms have disparate meanings in close proximity? Sure. But is the local context a reasonable guide for which way to take the intended sense. Uh, yeeee-ah.

Someone please tell me why it is more likely that Jesus here means “on the earth” (a universal statement) than simply “on the ground” where the seeds go to grow into a plant. Can’t think of a reason? Me neither.

So for the life of me, I cannot understand why the ESV translators took it the way they did.

Now, if we adapt our ESV reading, let’s see if this changes our perception:

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the ground, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Poof, the “problem” disappears.

Understand, I’m not presenting this because I think it “solves the problem,” but because I think it shows more accurately what’s actually going on in the text. There is no “problem” and there never was.

A Very Good Place to Start

January 13, 2012

The beginning of an ancient covenant, before the dos and don’ts, was a historical recap of the relations of the parties to that point–highlighting, perhaps, the reason for establising the present covenant. The beginning of this beginning was a brief presentation of the superior party who is granting the covenant. This self-introduction was formulated to inspire awe and gratitude and allegiance.


As it happens, the Penteteuch, the Torah, the Law, the coventant document of the nation of Israel, newly constituted at Sinai, contains chapter after chapter of stipulations, regulations, obligations. But before any of these comes an extended narrative section, characterized by progressive narrowing of focus from humanity as a whole, to the Israelites, to Moses.


The nation, we should understand, will be a chosen instrument. It plays a role on the earth, among the peoples of the earth. It’s ultimate purpose, and the main way it will fulfill its role on the earth is to bring the incarnate Son of God into it. But this is not yet clearly known, as we read this chapter. Well, you and I know it.


Prior to this is a single chapter that stands out, a chapter that paints a picture of the sovereign who is granting the covenant. The way to see this chapter then, I submit, is as a divine self-portrait, one designed specifically to lay the foundation for the narrative that follows, the Law that He gives, and the whole larger story of His plan of redemption which we know from the Bible.


We ought then to receive this chapter as a sort of press conference given by the most important Being in existence, and be prepared to respond in awe, gratitude, and allegiance. As an avid member of the press, you have lots of questions, but this isn’t the day for questions. It’s the day for listening. Listen to every word. Ponder over what He has decided to tell you, and how He has decided to tell you. For now, at least, take it for granted that what He appears to be saying, He is saying.


If the function of the chapter is to present the supreme sovereign, the form of the chapter displays Him in the primary role in which we have any relation to Him: Creator to creature. This relation we share with all other humans, and also with subatomic particles and the most distant galaxies. Naturally enough, He presents a sketch of His creating all that is, and the genre of the chapter is a construction narrative. The chapter has a particular look, stylized one might say, structured, even repetitive in a way. All these features it shares with other examples of this genre, such as the tabernacle construction passages in Exodus 25-31 with its echo in Exodus 35-40.


It isn’t an allusion, as if Genesis 1 were God’s building a heavenly temple, or the other direction, Moses constructing a microcosm of the universe in the tabernacle. Those might be interesting directions to meditate, but the structures are not similar enough to hearken back to one another. Yet the structure of the passage follows much the same form as other construction narratives, and I think this would be obvious to the first readers.


Construction narrative, about as far as you can get from poetry, by the way, tends toward basic and concrete forms of expression. So the chapter presents an account of the Maker making. Understand that He is telling you what He wishes to tell you about it. Don’t expect the account to satisfy you in terms of your own understanding and your curiosity about what is or even that you should be able sucessfully to fit all the pieces together. If I say He doesn’t tell you 99.9999999999999999 percent of what’s what, it would be an almost infinite understatement. So what He does tell you, He tells for a reason. May I suggest listening.


If something seems odd, strange, puzzling, then by all means puzzle over it. You are very welcome to ponder the words of the great King. What you are not invited to do is to play the “has God really said” game (see chapter 3). For today at least, consider that He has a message in how He did what He did, or at least how He tells you He did what He did. If later you want to imagine that He’s fudged with reality, given you a baby-talk version of His doings, well, be my guest. But if you get to this too soon, I’m afraid you’ll miss the point of what He’s saying, and you won’t properly understand anything that follows. Do you get it yet? Listen to the words He has to say.


The basic structure of the chapter is hard to miss. It is laid out in a series of sections, each tagged with a numbered day. Days are time units, in case you didn’t know. One might suggest that the chapter is organized topically rather than chronologically (a la Frameworkers), but why would one suggest this, really? There are the sequential time references marking the divisions in the text. Ladies and gentlemen, we do theology with the texts we have, not the texts we wish we had.


More about the days in a moment.


The first bit of information we are told is that He created all that is (I’m not going to append verse references, since the chapter is quite familiar). The most important point of this is: we belong to Him. Even before the covenant is inaugurated, making Israel His special possession, He already owns them. Owns you and me too. Owns everything. He made them and they are His. He made us and we are His, by right. He has right to do with us as He will. Get this truth straight right from the beginning.


The first step He tells us about is creation of time and space. “In the beginning” tells us about time. “Heaven and earth” tells us about space. I don’t specifically mean “outer space” here, but the extension of here-ness that I suppose wasn’t there before God created it. What is present in “heaven and earth” at this point? We’re not told yet. We’ll be told a number of things as the chapter progresses. So try not to get ahead of it. Also try not to imagine your own mental picture. It’s going to be wrong. You aren’t told enough to form even a cursory image, and you won’t be able to fill in the gaps from your pea-brain. Sorry. Just receive the statements. Listen.


Whatever was there apparently was dark. At the very least, this earth, in some rudimentary form, is unlit. This is important to understand. Also it is yet to be organized. But the God shows up. His Spirit is locally present somewhere over the surface (a watery surface) and is about to act.


The next thing we learn is that He acts by issuing commands. He doesn’t have to do this. I mean, just who is He talking to? But He does it. And He tells us that He does it. Why? Here is the voice of authority? I say to this one go and he goes; to another do this and he does it. God speaks and all that is obeys. (All that is except His people. But that comes later.) He is, in short the great King.


His first order is that light exist. Not a light, as in a lamp, but light itself. He didn’t have to do this either. But He did. And He told us He did. Why? It is self-expression. Self-revelation. This is the message that we have heard from Him: God is light, and in Him is no darkness.


With light we have also a new thing come into existence: a day. Day as opposed to night. God is light and in Him is no darkness. The text describes this as separating. It’s going to use the language of separating a lot. He separated this. He separated that. Why did He separate things. He surely didn’t have to. But He did. And He told us that He did. Why? Because separation is basic to His strategy. That’s just what He is doing with the nation of Israel. All these laws that make them distinct from other nations. It separates them. It makes them His particular possession.


So what is this day to which the text refers? No need to ponder too much, as the text essentially tells us. But a perusal of the Hebrew corpus does clue us in. At least this is what I reconstruct. One of the most salient (noticeable, prominent, remarkable) features of human existence is that our environment is alternately illuminated and dark. The world around us is lit, and we can get things done. The world then becomes dark, and we close ourselves in our shelter and sleep. Then the cycle repeats.


The lighted part is a day.


Forget for a moment our use of day as a 24-hour unit. I don’t think you need it. A day is the illuminated phase of the recurring cycle. A few things about the day: first, it’s the most significant part, because you can work during it. Second, you can count them. So it becomes by far the most basic unit of time measurement, at least to the Hebrews. As I said, it is the most salient. Years we can identify by changes in temperature and foliage and such. Months we can follow by observing phases of the moon. But day and night? Hard to miss. Note that the week is arbitrary. The only way to note them is to count days. Have you noticed that the text is counting days. Have I mentioned this point?


An excursus is perhaps necessary at this point. No reader in his right mind could miss the day counting aspect I just mentioned. He or she would think of the lighted phase in the light-dark cycle. Without question. No over-thinking of “day” here. Incidentally, you may hear someone tell you that Hebrew sometimes uses “day” for an indefinite period of time, as in “back in my day.” If it does, I haven’t found it. It simply doesn’t occur. It definitely doesn’t occur in the Mosaic corpus. This thing is a myth.


Extended periods of time are very frequently called “days” plural. As in “after days,” meaning some time later. And the word for day is a compontent of some idiomatic phrases. The most important is structred like  IN+DAY+OF which functions a relation marker we could gloss as “when.” The semantic value of an idiom belongs to the whole phrase. The word for “day” in this phrase has no particular meaning, even though it does contribute the time idea. What you cannot do is extract it back out of the idiom and suppose it has the sense of “an indefinite period of time.” You may wish to do this, but the Hebrews never do. The word does not function that way. To expect the word for “day” to be anything other than what I mention above, the light phase of the cycle is improbable in the extreme. If it is non-impossible, theoretically, it certainly would be a very, very odd thing to find in this text. Unique in the Mosaic corpus, and in the OT in general.


This is not to say the whole chapter could not be some kind of fresh metaphor. You’d have to find evidence for such an assertion. And as far as I can tell, the evidence runs the other way. Certainly, Exodus 20:11 seems to take it as non-metaphorical. But you are free to keep looking. Why would you though? Seriously? For now pay attention, please, to the day motif. And the numbers. It will prove significant, I think.


So the days progress one after another. And the sections they signal one after another. One more thing about the day. Every day has a night. Days are work periods and nights are rest periods. You count the days, but there is always a night that comes along with it. Pardon the image, which you may object to but I hope you recognize a cultural pattern that can help us understand how days work. The day is something like the man and the night something like his wife. Sorry for the patriarchal reference, but bear with me. A man may know another man in terms of what his does, his job, his function. In another way he knows the man comes as a couple. The lady is the butcher’s wife, but she is not also a butcher. Same with the cobbler’s wife, and so on. So the night is attached to the day, is part of the day, in a way, such as the fifth of the month is still the fifth at night. But the day proper still ends at sundown.


So one counts days, to mark time. It is similar to speaking about “winters,” as we used to do, to reference years. “Winter” does not mean year. But we understand that every winter is followed by spring, summer, and fall. So when we say so many winters we indicate so many years. Likewise when we say so many days, we indicate so many 24-hour-periods even though as far as I can tell “day” (yom) does not actually mean the 24-hour unit. I may be wrong about this, but if it does, this is a decidedly secondary sense. Day means the lighted phase.


So as I say each day comes with a night, before the following day. The day to night transition is evening, i.e. sunset. The night to day transition is morning, i.e. sunrise. I think, therefore, that the phrase “There was evening, there was morning” is a transition phrase indicating the end of the current day, more or less indirectly referring to the night, and the start of the next day. Each is followed by the beginning of the next day cycle. So evening-morning is not a way of saying night-day. Nor does it mean “days” are day-night units. Nor is it saying the “Hebrew day” begins with the evening. Recall that the first day began with the creation of light. That’s what made it a day.


Do the days progress. The first day features light and its consequence day and night. The second day features a gaseous bubble that is the atmosphere, or as we perceive it, the sky, with the resultant hydrosphere. The third day features some reconformity of solid and liquid matter, dry land, places people can stand, walk, and live as opposed to the sea. It actually has two features, the second being the first reference to living things, vegetation.


The fourth day follows, featuring the luminous objects in the sky. This is a tad surprising, given the three light phases that have already occurred. We’d have thought perhaps, that the light referenced earlier and the days associated with them sort of implied the sun. I suggest the text corrects our assumptions at this point. It is, I admit, a strinking aspect. Not a problem though, such that we’d constuct an elaborate work around (as Frameworkers do) to imagine that the fourth day is some kind of recapitulation of the first day. This would be pointless. It is unlikely that this oddity is unintentional or that somehow the author is unaware of it. God definitely didn’t have to do it this way. But He does it. And He tells us that He does it. Why?


Consider for a moment that this is just what the text says and that it means something. The sun and the moon are more or less said to be lamps and clocks (or calendars, perhaps). A lamp has no purpose unless light first exists. A clock has no purpose unless time first exists. So the order is not illogical. More to the point both time and light are God’s, not merely phenomena of the sun and the progress of days. It’s the other way around. God is light and God is Lord of time. These objects serve His purposes for continually making one and marking the other.


So where does the light come from during the first three days? I told you, He’s not taking questions today. Just listen for now. You can try to figure it out later. (But okay, here’s a hint from later reflections on the matter. Psalm 104 follows this sequence–in a way that is poetry, by the way. And it has sun and moon coming in somewhere in the middle, like Genesis 1 does, verse 19, to be exact. But right at the beginning, like in Genesis 1 we have the presence of light–non-solar light: “covering yourself with light as with a garment” (v. 2).  Frankly, I think this provides the Scriptural commentary on the question. Remember the localized presence of God, His Spirit in place over the surface of the waters? He robes Himself in light. Works for me.


The days continue to progress. Animal life is the feature of day five, and yes, this mirrors day two, just as day four (sun) mirrored day one (light). The end of day two left us with sea and sky. Day five fills these with sea creatures and sky creatures. There’s a lot, lot more we could say, but this is just a broad overview.


The sixth day follows, and mirrors day three, both in centering on the land, and in providing a double feature. The first feature is the land animals. The second, and most prominent feature is the creation of man. One ought to say a great deal about this event, but we’ll try to remain brief. This is unquestionably the climax of the account. It is marked with special attention to language.


If anything is poetry in this chapter, it would be v. 27. It is commonly cited as a poem, and printed texts do set it out in that form. I don’t think even this is poetry. It doesn’t really fit the pattern. Roughly speaking, parallelism, a major aspect of Hebrew poetry, has different words in corresponding places. This verse has the same words in different places. It’s rhythmic, marked as special, but not generally what we find with poetry. It is similar, I think, to climax moments in construction narrative, which is what I told you before that this genre is.


Anyway, just a few more comments. One important theme in the chapter is food, which I must say warms my little heart. The text tells us God not only made his living creatures but provided for them to eat. For that matter, the whole narrative is essentially God’s provision of the environment in which His creature, man, call live–a habitat for humanity. Not only live, but thrive. Recall the part about gratitude. Mankind is supposed to be grateful for the food. Will he be? Will food become an issue? Will gratitude and ingratitude become an issue? Stay tuned for chapter 3. And following chapter three stay tuned for the rest of the Bible. There you’ll see Jesus Christ going to the cross, basically because mom and dad had issues with the menu. Stupid. But I can tell you about stupid from personal experience. So who am I to point fingers?


Also there’s this image reference; mankind is said to be created in God’s image. Lots to say about that to be sure, but I suggest it points to relationship as the purpose of mankind’s creation. We’re supposed to be His offspring, God’s children. There’s the whole seed thing here too, which is in the offspring theme and will be very important as Christ is the seed of the woman and the seed of Abraham. Altogether I tend to lump Provider and Procreator together and see the text revealing God as Father. You might recall this is not an insignificant aspect of later Bible teaching.


Another detail we should mention is God seeing and judging His creation good. This is a feature that comes out of construction narrative, but I think it plays a larger role here. God is not just Creator, Father, and King, but He is also Judge. If it is good, it is because it reflects His being. If it is good, it is because God recognized His own goodness in what He has made. If it is good, it is because He sees and says it is good. He doesn’t have to do this, but He does it. And He tells us He does it. Why? Because no one is good but God alone. Because seeing good, that is judgement, is God’s role. Will it become an issue, people wanting to see and say something is good, people seeing and saying something is good? See chapter 3.


Finally, we have finished the sequence, all six days. And there is a seventh day, which is technically part of chapter two as they have come to be numbered. Six days, and then the seventh day. Okay, anything about this surprise you? Anything stand out?


I’ll tell you what isn’t a big deal here. Age of the universe questions. Or why didn’t this process take eons, since Dr. Proctor in eighth grade earth science said it took eons. Just forget about this. At least for today. Today He’s not answering questions. More to the point, that’s a dumb question. The only dumb question is an unasked question? That’s dumb too. If you’ve been paying attention the whole time, that’s not the question that comes to mind. That’s not what’s odd about it.


What’s odd is that God stretched the whole thing out at all, that He didn’t just make it all in the twinkling of an eye, in less than an instant. He spread it out over a work week. Or what would become a work week. What am I about to say?


He didn’t have to do this, but He did. And He told us that He did. Why? What does it mean?


Well, first of all, recall, He is Lord of time. And He is Lord of life, our lives. As His Spirit was locally present in space to do the creating, He set the rhythm of life in terms of time. Recall that a week only exists by counting days. Seven days recur,and God ordains this cycle for His special nation. It is so important to His plan that He makes it one of ten commandments, to follow the cycle of seven and set apart one day in seven as holy to Him.


And sevens keep coming up over and over. It is like a signature. Seven days in a week. Seven years. Seven of these seven-year periods. Then seventy years due to ignoring these. Then seventy seven-year periods again. And that bring us to Jesus Christ. Seven, I’d say is a very important number, an important marker. He knew what He was doing, I’d say. And He meant to do what He did. (Just tell Dr. Proctor to take a flying leap.) Not to mention (in my opinion) there’s a seven left. I think you’ll find it in the last book of the Bible, which might just mention seven now and again. Take a look and see.

How Mount Carmel Should Have Ended

January 9, 2012

So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said:

“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

“So what you’re saying is religion and science are incompatible.” The question came from a slight man on the edge of the crowd, whose thick glasses and toussled hair gave him the classic geek look.

Elijah looked nonplussed. “Why, er… No, I wasn’t saying that, exactly…”

The stranger extended his hand. “Eleazar P. Bosheth. High Priest of Baal. It’s nice to meet you Mr. Elijah.”

“How do you do? What’s on your mind, Mr. Bosheth.”

“Well, just as I indicated, the intersection of religion and science. And it’s Doctor Bosheth, by the way. I should tell you, I have a PhD in meteorology. Now, I have no problem with this ‘the LORD’ thing you’ve got going there. It’s just that that’s a matter of religion. The Baalist perspective, that is, science, is every bit as valid. There’s no reason to have to make a choice between the two. I mean, this is the ninth century.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“Very likely not. Let me see if I can explain it on your level. First of all, you talk a lot about the LORD and the Torah and all that, which is great for doctrine and theology and spiritual truths. I really don’t think the Bible is about where rain comes from. That’s a matter for science.”

“Go on.”

“Scientifically, it’s a matter of atmospheric conditions. To the west is the sea, and when a warm, moist airmass moves in over the land, it rises as it contacts the higher elevation and the water condenses. The result is precipitation.”

“If the air out there is warm enough?”

“Yes, and of course, when we bow down to Baal, do him homage and abase ourselves in his eyes, this creates a low pressure system that draws the warm air in.”

“So you’re saying it’s not the heat; it’s the humility?”

“Heh, heh, that’s a good one. Mind if I use it sometime?”

“Be my guest.”

“Anyway, another important scientific factor is the work of our team of temple fecundity surrogates. Agriculture is largely a matter of sowing the proper seed and careful irrigation. Modern techniques are based on the obvious interconnection between the virtual dissemination performed at the local Baalist center and the on-site soil-based seed application. What’s more, studies have shown that rainfall is increased 47%, when the agriculturist has appropriately contributed PBF.”


“Sorry, I keep forgetting you’re not trained in science. Precious Bodily Fluids.”

“Okay, okay. I get the picture. So where are we going with this, Dr. Bosheth.”

“Just that science is science, and religion is religion. We shouldn’t confuse the two. But by the same token, there’s no reason the two can’t be friends, the LORD for religion, Baal for science.”

“How’s that.”

“Could we not understand the Bible to be saying that the LORD creates the rain, but simply uses Baal to do it? That just seems like the best balance of good religion and good science.”

“Hmm. I never really thought of it that way.”

“I mean, I don’t need to point out that Hebrew Fundamentalism is an increasingly obscurantist position that is distinctly a minority opinion in today’s society. There’s what–one of you? Compared with 450 of us prophets of Baal, not to mention 400 prophets of Asherah. That’s approaching one tenth of one percent for your side. Do you really want to hold out for anti-intellectualism and Torah-thumping ignorance? Isn’t there something in there about worshipping the LORD with your mind?”

“Well, I am getting awfully tired of always having to put up a fight.”

“When it’s all so unnecessary.”

“I see what you mean. You’ve really given me a lot to think about.”

“Thinking for yourself. That’s all I ask.”