Category: Exegetical Fragments

Testing God, providing God

September 26th, 2013 — 10:27am

The life of Abraham . . . is set by [Genesis 22] in the midst of the contradiction between the testing of God and the providing of God; between the sovereign freedom which requires complete obedience and the gracious faithfulness which gives good gifts; between the command and the promise; and between the word of death which takes away and the word of life which gives. The call to Abraham is a call to live in the presence of this God who moves both toward us and apart from us (cf. Jer. 23:23). Faithful people will be tempted to want only half of it. Most complacent religion will want a God who provides, not a God who tests. Some in bitterness will want a God who tests but refuse the generous providing. Some in cynical modernity will regard both affirmations as silly, presuming we must answer to none and rely upon none, for we are both free and competent. But father Abraham confessed himself not free of the testing and not competent for his own provision. (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, pp. 192–93)

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The death of Terah

April 11th, 2013 — 12:04pm

The apparent conflict between Genesis 11:26 (Abram is born when Terah is 70), 11:32 (Terah dies at age 205), and 12:4 (Abram leaves Haran when Terah is 145 years old), and Stephen’s account in Acts 7:4 (κἀκεῖθεν μετὰ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ μετῴκισεν αὐτὸν εἰς τὴν γῆν ταύτην) is well documented. Like other seeming contradictions between the OT and the NT, it raises interesting questions about the way Second Temple Jews read the histories of their people.

One possibility that doesn’t seem to have received much attention in this case is that Stephen simply follows the order of the OT story as presented. The MT of Genesis 11:26–12:4 presents a narrative chronology that differs from the actual chronology (chronological rearrangement is common in OT histories): it places the call to Abram and his departure from Haran (12:1ff) after the death of Terah (11:32), though it also gives enough information for readers to reconstruct the actual chronology and understand that Abram must have left Haran well before Terah died. Is it possible, then, that Stephen in Acts 7 follows the narrative chronology rather than the actual one? If so, was his rhetorical/theological purpose similar to that of the MT text, e.g., to show “that God was directing and using Abraham, whatever the role of Terah in the movement of the family from Mesopotamia to Harran” (David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 272)?

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Eden in the Psalter

May 11th, 2012 — 4:53pm

Quite some time ago, I expressed an intention to write a series of posts on the structure of the Psalter. That never came to fruition due to . . . well, small preoccupations like planting a church. But I noticed something new today that’s worth commenting on; and maybe one day I’ll situate it within a larger treatment of the structural features.

Book 2 of the Psalter opens with eight Psalms written by the sons of Korah. I had not noticed until today how heavily these Psalms draw from the imagery and themes of Genesis 1–3. For example, Psalm 42 begins with a corporate panting after God, who is described as a “flowing stream” (vv. 1–2) and the source of many waters (v. 7). The psalmist feels displaced from fellowship with this life-giving God, a theme that resonates deeply with the displacement of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, when they were thrust out from the stream-fed garden of Eden and the presence of the Lord.

In Psalm 43, the psalmist prays that God’s light and truth will go forth and lead him back to the “holy hill” of the Lord, to His “dwelling” (v. 3). Again this echoes the imagery of Eden as a garden on a hill, from which water flowed down into the lands below (Genesis 2:10–14).

Psalm 44 is a variation on the theme of displacement: here the anguish of God’s people is expressed in terms of rejection and disgrace (v. 9), such that their belly cleaves to the dust (v. 25) – they have been reduced to the place and posture of the accursed serpent in Genesis 3:14!

Psalm 45 is a dramatic shift, offering praise to a mysterious kingly figure who is described as “the most handsome of the sons of men” (v. 2), and at whose right hand stands a lovely queen in gold of Ophir (v. 9). It is especially noteworthy that this Adamic figure is destined to rule over all the earth through princely sons (v. 16), and that the nations will praise him forever (v. 17). This calls to mind the downriver mission of Adam and his seed, hinted at in Genesis 2:10–14.

The king has been mentioned in Psalm 45. A royal city is now mentioned in Psalm 46: a fearless city, untroubled by the roaring waters that sometimes assault her, because she is fed by the river of God Himself (v. 4). God is in the midst of her; she will not be moved (v. 5). She need not fear the nations around her, because her God rules over them all. In time He will be exalted among the nations; He will rule in all the earth (v. 10).

Psalm 47 takes up the celebration of the worldwide reign of God: He is “a great King over all the earth” (v. 2). He will subdue peoples and nations under the feet of His chosen who live in the royal city (v. 3), because He “reigns over the nations” (v. 8).

Psalm 48 turns an admiring gaze upon this lovely city, which sits on God’s “holy mountain” like Eden of old (v. 1). Kings stand in fear as they look upon her, for God is fearsome in her midst (vv. 4–8). The praise of her King now “reaches to the ends of the earth” (v. 10); and to look on her is to know the glory of God, who will be her guide even to the end (vv. 12–14).

In Psalm 49, the sons of Korah turn away from the holy city to offer a word of wisdom to “all peoples,” to “all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together” (vv. 1–2): “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (v. 12). All his vainglory notwithstanding, he is under the curse of God, and to dust he will return. But God will ransom His people from the power of Sheol; He will “receive” them (v. 15) back into His own presence, His temple, His holy city, His everlasting kingdom. For them, the gate of Eden has been opened once again, and the nations do well to consider it.

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More on space and time

May 11th, 2012 — 11:56am

“Eden is to created space what the Sabbath is to the [created] time rhythm.” (Arie C. Leder, “Christian Worship in Consecrated Space and Time,” in Calvin Theological Journal 32 [1997], p. 254)

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Place-making and mission

May 5th, 2012 — 11:53am

Working on this week’s sermon in Genesis 2:4–9, I’ve been exploring the importance in scripture of place and place-making. One fairly obvious objection to the idea that God’s people should be rooted to place – that they should be planted trees, lovers of the local, self-consciously embracing not only embodiment but also emplacement – is that our Lord had no place to lay His head (Matthew 8:20). Jesus was a wanderer; isn’t this a pattern for us to follow? Shouldn’t we be ready and willing to leave any place at any moment and follow Him we know not where?

I think a careful look through the Bible will reveal that its call to gospel adventure and its call to domestic stability are ultimately not at odds. The kingdom of God on earth embraces both a missional impulse and a cultural impulse. The kingdom seeks globally, and it settles locally. It advances militantly (albeit not with carnal weapons) even as it calls and commands its citizens to occupy, to cultivate, to build, to lead a peaceful and quiet life as saints in a particular place.

The work of Jesus and His apostles was predominantly missional, but they affirmed the cultural life of those to whom they ministered (e.g., by staying so often in homes, attending weddings, enjoying meals, etc.); indeed, they commanded that the structures of cultural life be honored (e.g., the marriage bed, parent-child relations, king-subject relations, lawful vocation, etc.). Their missional work was for the purpose of settling churches to be salt and light in their local places.

Some Christians today are gifted for, and called to, predominantly missional labors; they are the vanguard of the kingdom, so to speak. Most of us who follow Jesus, however, are gifted and called to be the cultural laborers of the kingdom: to live and learn, love and laugh, be faithful and raise up faithful generations, all in a local context. It’s important not to pit one of these against the other; both lie within the bounds of true discipleship.

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Kingdom way

March 16th, 2012 — 5:58am

Reading Luke 6 this morning, I found it difficult to follow certain transitions in Jesus’ sermon (vv. 20–49). The appearance of the parable in verse 39 seems especially abrupt, and it’s not easy to trace the flow of thought through the next several sections. After some meditating, however, I think this may be the progression:

In the first part of the sermon, Jesus gives a description of life in God’s kingdom that’s hard to absorb by the world’s standards. His disciples couldn’t yet have put it in these terms, but essentially what He says is that the kingdom way is the way of the cross, and only the crucified will reign in this kingdom. You have to die to yourself and love your enemies, just as Jesus will shortly do at Calvary.

If you’re going to walk this kingdom way, you’d best make sure whom you’re following (v. 39), because if you follow a blind teacher you’ll end up in a pit, not on the high road of the kingdom.

Pretty obviously, the teacher to follow is Jesus (He’s the one teaching in this sermon, after all); and the great news is that if you follow Jesus, you’ll eventually become someone others can safely follow (v. 40).

However (and this is important), you don’t become a teacher by running around plucking specks out of the eyes of your brethren (vv. 41–42). The way of the kingdom is the way of humility, growing out of a sincere quest for personal repentance and holiness. There are too many would-be teachers; there are far too few who have sat at the feet of the true Master, seen themselves for what they really are, and repented. There are too many who are full of their own opinions, their own importance, their own wealth, their own sense of what they deserve, their own ideas about how others should behave: these people end up being blind leaders of the blind.

And it’s not as if you have to be particularly astute to figure out who’s who. The people who have repented and are really following Jesus in the kingdom way are going to bear good fruit (vv. 43–45); the others . . . just follow your nose to the rottenness. Lest we’re still unsure how to follow the clues, Jesus says to check what’s coming out of the various mouths in question: when you hear blessing out of the mouth of one being cursed, you know that person’s on the kingdom way (v. 28); when you hear lofty judgments, bitter condemning, and scorn being heaped on the poor, look around for a great big ditch.

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When God shakes acorns

May 27th, 2011 — 4:39pm

I assume most of us recognize the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. The stuff of fiction stories hasn’t actually occurred in “real life”; the stuff of non-fiction stories has. Less obvious, perhaps, is the distinction between fantasy fiction and non-fantasy fiction (which, as stated here, is my own brainchild, so it’s a good time to trigger critical filters): non-fantasy fiction could occur in our world as we know it (though, in fact, it hasn’t); fantasy fiction is stuff that couldn’t occur in our world, though it might in a different one. In fantasy fiction, the rules of that world are different from those in play in our own.

Whither this? Well, I’m in a running dialogue with a friend about the value of fiction stories. Is there any real value in stories that have never actually happened; and mustn’t we ask the question even more seriously about stories that couldn’t possibly occur in the “real world” at all?

I wouldn’t have thought 2 Samuel 22 a likely source of answers to these questions, but preaching through the text, it has been impossible to ignore some truly fantastic elements in David’s song. We find him sinking in the “waves of death,” in “torrents of destruction,” entangled in “the cords of Sheol” (vv. 5–6). He cries out to Yahweh, and the next thing we know the earth is reeling and rocking – the very foundations of heaven tremble at the erupting wrath of the Most High (v. 8). Yahweh mounts a cherub (v. 11); He bows the heavens and descends upon the earth, veiled in canopies of watery darkness (vv. 10, 12). He roars from heaven (v. 14), scattering the enemies of His servant with lightning shafts (v. 15); at the fiery blast from His nostrils, the channels of the sea are laid bare, and the foundations of the world uncovered (v. 16). It’s a scene of fearful glory and stunning power. Now here’s the question: When did this “really” occur? In fact, we must ask whether this scene even could occur in the “real world” – does Yahweh have nostrils? could He possibly ride on a cherub? Well, not exactly, but such questions badly miss the point of the text. This isn’t about what actually happened, or what actually could happen, in the world as we know it: it’s intended to open our eyes to a whole other sphere of reality that intersects with our world in the most ordinary things (the death of a king on Mount Gilboa, for one), and in which lies our hope of deliverance from all the evils we suffer in this world.

One of the uglier bits of fallout that has attended the Enlightenment’s disenchantment (or, as we might prefer to say, demythologizing) of the world is the erection of a firm barrier between what is “real” in the “real world” and what is . . . uh, myth. What I think may not be so obvious to us is that in erecting this firm barrier, we have also erected very high and firm partitions between the actual (non-fiction), the possible (fiction), and the impossible (fantasy). Never mind where we got these partitions: they are up, and not going anywhere. Certain things are real, actual, and therefore believable. Other things are possible, given the rules of the world as we know it; but it is also quite clear that other things lie beyond the borders even of possibility – out there are the myths, the objects of unreasoned faith (UFOs, gods, fairies, dragons, trolls, and so on).

I’m not going to offer a critique of the Enlightenment at this point, but I find it interesting that the Bible regularly takes us into the realm not only of fiction (parables, for instance), but even of fantasy (especially in its poetry and prophecies). Why? I think at least part of the reason must be that we need constant reminders that our God is not simply the God of the actual; He is also the God of the possible, and indeed of the impossible. We need, for example, to know that God will move heaven and earth to save those who trust in Him: not because we’ve ever actually seen this happen in the world as we think we know it, but because it happens all the time in the sphere of reality where nothing is impossible, and which we have apprehended by faith. And to take this a step further, I think extra-biblical fiction stories and fantasies may serve a similar function in our lives: they may remind us that “what is” is not all there is, not all there need be, and not all there will be. They may gesture at that sphere of reality without boundaries: the sphere of the working of God. They may awaken hope in us; they may open our eyes again to transcendent things.

My daughter once asked me if the wind was God’s shaking the acorns out of the trees. If we are going to take 2 Samuel 22 seriously, I believe the answer must, at some level, be yes. And that’s also why I’m glad she loves a good fantasy story. Who knows, her God may use it to shake some Enlightenment silliness out of her head one day.

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Dare to be a David?

May 27th, 2011 — 11:58am

So it’s bugging me again, as I near the end of preaching through the life of David: Why does it seem that on one hand David is presented as a “type” of Christ (no attempt here to use that term with absolute precision), while on the other hand he is presented as an all-too-human example of the saints (who are, most assuredly, not Christ)? How can he be simultaneously a larger-than-life progenitor of the Messiah (the giant-slayer par excellence) and also an ordinary guy in whom we recognize ourselves and whose faith we are called to follow? To put it even more starkly, how can we hold together what is inimitable about David (his foreshadowing of Messiah) with what is imitable (and must, indeed, be imitated).

These difficult questions affect our whole method of interpreting the Old Testament. If we want to take seriously Jesus’ statements that the OT is about Him (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47), if we want to avoid the gross moralizing of the “dare to be a Daniel (or David)” approach that many of us learned in Sunday school, then we must affirm that various OT characters (especially anointed ones) foreshadow Christ to come. Some would even argue that to read the OT any other way – to make it in any sense about character rather than about Christ – is to read it legalistically and turn it into a sourcebook for works-righteousness.

Yet, on the other hand, if we want to take seriously the apostle’s statements that the OT is about us (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11), we need to be careful not to draw lines from the OT to Christ in a way that blurs the lines from the OT to us, the saints of God. We need to be careful lest a fear of moralizing keep us from drawing any “morals” (i.e., instruction in how our God would have us live). We need to beware, for example, lest speaking of David as an anointed one eclipse speaking of him as a Spirit-filled worker for God’s kingdom, very much like ourselves.

It is not true that finding human examples in the OT leads necessarily to moralism, perhaps even threatening the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is not true, conversely, that finding Christ in the OT leads to a kind of “drifting” over the text, with no ability to draw applications or imperatives from it. The reason is that the OT saints are examples to us, above all, of faith (see Hebrews 11) – they show us how to live by faith, how to walk with God by faith, how to please God by faith. They themselves looked forward to the very Messiah whom, in various cases, they typified. To see David is to see Christ in shadowy form; but it is also to see ourselves, our sins, and the victories of a faith that overcomes the world. The OT anticipates the Christ in whom the obedience of the people of God is fulfilled; it also anticipates the obedience of the new people of God in Christ – which is always the obedience of faith.

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Revised structure in 2 Samuel 22

May 12th, 2011 — 7:44pm

Here’s a revised proposal regarding the chiastic structure of 2 Samuel 22:

A          Praise to Yahweh for deliverance (vv. 2–4)

B            Yahweh routs the king’s enemies (vv. 5–20)

C              The king’s faithfulness (vv. 21–25, 3rd person)

D                Yahweh’s varied faces (vv. 26–27, 2nd person)

E                  Yahweh’s friends and foes (v. 28, 2nd person)

D´              Yahweh’s face toward the king (vv. 29–30, 2nd person)

C´            Yahweh’s faithfulness (vv. 31–35, 3rd person)

B´          The king routs his enemies (vv. 36–46, 2nd person)

A´        Praise to Yahweh for deliverance (vv. 47–51)

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Structure in 2 Samuel 22

May 10th, 2011 — 4:14pm

I’m outlining 2 Samuel 22 for an upcoming sermon. Various commentators see a chiastic structure in the text, but I haven’t found a proposal that’s detailed enough to be really helpful, especially when it comes to verses 26–46. Here’s one of my own:

A          Praise to Yahweh for deliverance (vv. 2–4)

B            Yahweh routs the king’s enemies (vv. 5–20)

C              The character of the king (vv. 21–25, 3rd person)

D                The mysterious ways of Yahweh (vv. 26–30, 2nd person)

C´            The character of Yahweh (vv. 31–35, 3rd person)

B´          The king routs his enemies (vv. 36–46, 2nd person)

A´        Praise to Yahweh for deliverance (vv. 47–51)

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