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Showing posts with label #Bible. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Bible. Show all posts

14 July 2017

The bible’s genres.

It’s not all written in just one style of literature.

Genre /'ʒɑ(n).rə/ n. Type or category of literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, and subject matter.

Our word genre originates from the Old French word gendre/“gender.” ’Cause while men and women are both human, we’ve still got some important, distinctive differences. (Not as many as our culture dictates, but still.)

There are many types of literature. Stop by the local public library, and you’ll notice how the books tend to be lumped into categories so we can find them easier. Whether your library uses the Dewey system or the Library of Congress system, you’ll notice the gardening books are on one shelf, the photography books on another, the legal books on another, the biographies on another.

Now when the average person picks up a bible, they assume they’re picking up one category of literature: Non-fiction religious instruction. After all, that’s where we’ll find bibles in the library.

Thing is, the bible’s an anthology, a book collection. Yes, it’s religious. Yes, it’s mostly non-fiction. (You know the parables never literally took place, right? Jesus was just making ’em up to illustrate his lessons? Hope you knew this.) But within its pages are several books and letters of several different types: Commands and instructions. Logical arguments. Wisdom. Parables. Histories. Creation stories. Gospels. Poetry. Prophecy. Apocalypses.

Christians who figure it’s all one genre, and try to interpret the whole of it literally, are gonna get the bible wrong.

Problem is, even though many Christians know there are multiple genres in the bible, they figure these differences really aren’t that great, and don’t entirely matter. One part’s prose, one part’s poetry; this bit is prophecy, that part is history. But all they really care about is religious instruction, and figure they can be instructed by all parts equally.

After all, didn’t Paul say so?

2 Timothy 3.16 KWL
Every inspired scripture is also useful for teaching,
for disproving, for correcting, for instruction in rightness.

Every inspired scripture. All the bible. Every bit of it can be used for instruction in rightness, so they’re gonna try to pull that instruction right out of it. After all, the bible’s our “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” our guidebook for life, with all the answers to all our questions—if we analyze it just right.

So to them, genre doesn’t matter. We can find instructions in the wisdom writings or the gospels; doesn’t matter whether we quote the apostles or Moses. It’s all bible. It’s all inspired. All good. Right?

Well, let’s take apart these claims a tad.

07 June 2017

Adultery, concubines, and marriage, in the Old Testament.

Adultery has a whole different definition in the Old Testament.

Years ago one of my eighth-grade students asked me what a concubine was. ’Cause he wasn’t familiar with the word, and it was in his bible. It’s in everybody’s bibles: Pylegéš/“concubine,” which Strong’s dictionary defines as “concubine; paramour.” I just went with the 21st-century term for paramour: “It’s a girlfriend,” I told him.

Later that day his mother called me to complain. She heard the story, spoke with her pastor, and he assured her a concubine is a wife. Not a girlfriend. What sort of morality was I attempting to teach her son?

Um… it wasn’t a morality lesson. It’s a definition. The morality lesson comes from whether you think the bible’s references to concubines is prescriptive or descriptive: Whether because the patriarchs did it, we can; or whether the patriarchs simply did it, but Jesus calls us to be better than they. (I’ll save you the guessing game: It’s nearly always the second one.)

The patriarchs had concubines. These were, as my Oxford dictionary defines ’em, “a regular female companion with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship.” Our English word comes from the Latin con cubaré/“to lie down with.” A patriarch would lie down with one of the women in his household, making her his concubine. Not necessarily have sex with her, as was the case with King David and his concubine Abishag. 1Ki 1.1-4 (And if you wanna argue Abishag wasn’t a concubine, then it doesn’t make sense why Solomon freaked out when his brother Adonijah asked to marry her. 1Ki 2.13-25 Claiming your father’s women meant you claimed your father’s kingdom. 2Sa 16.20-22)

Why do some Christians insist a concubine isn’t a girlfriend, but a wife? Simple: It’s a culture clash.

When we read the Old Testament, we’re looking into an entirely different culture with an entirely different worldview about sex and marriage. We don’t realize this: We figure since they followed God, and we follow God, we share worldviews. And in our culture, a married man with a girlfriend on the side is an adulterer. Well, all these God-fearing OT saints with concubines, like Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, or King David: We’ll can kinda, grudgingly accept they had multiple wives. But multiple wives plus girlfriends? Beyond the pale. That’d make them, to our minds, adulterers.

So to clear them of the charge of adultery, “concubine” can’t merely mean “girlfriend.” It has to be some ancient kind of wife.

26 April 2017

Do you know your bible quotes?

After centuries of influence, stands to reason some phrases from the scriptures are kinda familiar.

Generally if you’re gonna call yourself biblically literate, you oughta at least know these quotes from the bible. Probably already do; you just didn’t realize they were from the bible.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Or “come short” in the KJV. Comes from Romans 3.23; means nobody measures up to God’s standard of perfection, but God graciously forgives us and grants eternal life. Ro 6.23

All things to all people. Or “all men” (KJV): Paul’s claim he adapted his circumstances so he can find common ground with everyone, and share Christ with them. 1Co 9.22 Y’know, “when in Rome.” Certain Christians are quick to point out Paul didn’t compromise his beliefs or behavior in so doing.

All things work together for good. In context, “to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Ro 8.28 Various Christians pull it out of context and claim everything always turns out for the best. I remind ’em to read Ecclesiastes sometime.

All we like sheep have gone astray. Isaiah’s warning to his people: They turned away from God, like sheep who disregard their shepherd. Is 53.6

Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain’s excuse to God for not knowing where Abel was, Ge 4.9 though in fact he just murdered him. The phrase gets used to claim we’re not responsible for one other. In reality we often are.

Ask and it shall be given you. Jesus’s teaching that the Father wants to give good gifts to his kids. Mt 7.7

Be fruitful and multiply. God’s directives to his animals after creating them. Ge 1.22 Including to the humans. Ge 1.28

Be sure your sin will find you out. Moses’s warning to two tribes who promised they’d fight with the other ten; that if they broke their promise they’d get caught. Nu 32.23 Christians sometimes use this verse to claim every sin eventually gets found out. And many do… but some don’t.

Beat their swords into plowshares. A prophecy about future peace—or not—found in multiple books of the prophets. Is 2.4, Mc 4.3, Jl 3.10

10 April 2017

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

And how Christians observe it. Or don’t. Or do, but medieval-style.

“Why don’t we celebrate Passover?” asked one of my students, when I once taught on the topic.

“We do,” I said. “Christians call it Pascha or Pascua or Páques. But in languages with a lot of German words mixed in, we call it Easter. And obviously we do it way different than you see in the bible.”

So different, English-speaking people routinely assume Easter and Passover are two entirely different holidays. I can’t argue with that assumption. Christians don’t bother to purge our homes of yeast or leavening. Don’t cook lamb; nor do we practice the modern Jewish custom of not having lamb, and emphasizing it ’cause there’s currently no temple to sacrifice a lamb in. Don’t put out the seder plate, don’t tell the Exodus story, don’t have the kids ask the Four Questions, don’t hide the afikomen and have the kids search for it. Although both holidays have eggs, and we do have the kids look for eggs.

Well, some Christians observe Passover as a separate holiday. Some of us do it Hebrew-style, as spelled out in the scriptures, in Exodus and Deuteronomy. More often it’s observed as practiced by Jews today.

The Messianic Jewish movement wants to emphasize the Jewish origins of Christianity. As they should. But many Messianic Jews aren’t all that solid on their history, and wind up teaching medieval rabbinic Judaism instead of the stuff Jesus and his first-century followers actually experienced. So when they observe Passover, their haggadah—the order of service—is nearly always adapted from Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Which means it dates from the 10th century. Not the first.

Yes, some of its customs are in the Mishna, so they do date back to the first century. Still, these weren’t standard practices; not even in the 10th century. Just as Christians celebrate Christmas every which way, Jews then and now got to choose their own customs. Hence families have unique traditions, and various synagogues emphasize various things. Medieval Jewish communities in eastern Europe, north Africa, Spain, and the middle east, all individually came up with their own haggadahs. (As did the Samaritans.)

The point of the haggadah is to teach the Exodus story to the children. But remember, Jesus’s students weren’t children. Teenagers certainly, but still legal adults who knew the Exodus story. If they hadn’t heard it at home, Jesus would’ve taught it to them personally. So, just as some families don’t tell the nativity story every Christmas after the kids get older, don’t be surprised if Jesus skipped the haggadah’s customary Four Questions (why matzot, why bitter herbs, why roasted meat, and why the food gets dipped twice) as redundant.

Christians don’t always realize this. So whenever they attend a Passover seder, or ritual dinner, and hear whatever haggadah the leader came up with, they routinely think it’s so profound how Jesus “practiced” and “brought such meaning and fulfillment” to these customs. Even though it’s highly unlikely he practiced any of these customs. It’s pure coincidence his ministry “fulfilled” them. But y’know, not every Christian believes in coincidence.

16 March 2017

Preaching the dictionary.

How to keep from misusing the original languages in your bible study.

Six years ago I was visiting a family member’s church, and the pastor had just started a series about home-based small groups. His proof-text came from Acts 2, where Luke described the actions of all the brand-new Christians in Jerusalem:

Acts 2.42-47 KWL
42 They were hewing close to the apostles’ teaching,
to community, to breaking bread, and to prayers.
43 Reverence came to every soul,
and many wonders and signs happened through the apostles.
44 Every believer looked out for one another, and put everything in common use:
45 They sold possessions and property, and divided proceeds among all,
just because some were needy.
46 Those who hewed close unanimously were in temple daily,
breaking bread at home, happily, generously, wholeheartedly sharing food,
47 praising God, showing grace to all people.
The Master added saved people to them daily.

He was using the NLT, I believe. Its verse 46 goes like so:

Acts 2.46 NLT
They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity…

“They met in homes,” he pointed out. “The Greek word for ‘home’ is oíkos.” (Yep, just like Dannon’s brand of Greek yogurt. See?—knowing Greek comes in handy.) “And according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, that means ‘a dwelling; by implication, a family.’ So what that verse really means is that they met as families.”

Um… no. It means what the NLT rendered it as: “They met in homes.” If “They met as families” would’ve been a better translation, that’s how they would’ve translated it. It’s how I would’ve translated it. It’s how any translation would’ve translated it, but check out all the different English translations on Bible Gateway, and you’ll find not one of these translations decided, “Y’know, oíkos really means ‘family,’ so we’re going with that.”

But the pastor had a point he wanted to make: That the Christians of his church oughta meet together in one another’s homes, and be family together. Which isn’t a bad idea. In fact it’s precisely what church oughta be. It’s just he was trying to prove it from Acts 2.46, the misuse of a Greek dictionary… and the wow factor of a secret, cryptic meaning which you never really knew before, didja? “Home” really means “family.” Wow!

Okay yes, in certain contexts, oíkos can mean family. As when Paul told the Corinthian guard that he and his whole house/family would be saved. Ac 16.31 But all translation depends on context. If it doesn’t—if every instance of oíkos means family—then explain to me Jesus’s story about a wise man who built his house on rock and a foolish man who built his house on stand, Mt 7.24-27 and do try not to sound ridiculous.

02 January 2017

Good and bad bible translations.

Stuff I’ve discovered by reading different translations every year.

I realize people are gonna find the title of this article through Google or one of the other search engines, and are gonna be vastly disappointed I haven’t provided an easy-to-use chart establishing, “These translations are good and holy and inspired of God… and these translations are the product of an international conspiracy of devil-worshipers,” or some other such extreme. You want fear-ridden nutjobs, you’ve come to the wrong blog.

Nope; today’s rant is about the bible translations I wind up reading through—and getting irritated by—when I do my bible in a month thingy every January. That’s right; I don’t merely suggest you do it, and leave you with a big pile of reading material. I do it too. I pop over to Bible Gateway, pick a translation I’m not all that familiar with, and get to readin’. Sometimes I start in December, while it’s still Christmas. Sometimes later in January. Still tend to get it read within 3 to 4 weeks.

Most of the time it works out okay. I pick an unfamiliar translation, read it in its entirety, and now I can experientially tell you what it consists of… unlike some nimrod who reads a few passages and jumps to a conclusion; usually an angry one. Fr’instance a decade ago I read the Message back to front. So now, when people ask me what I think of it, I can say, “I read it,” and not just mean a book or two, or assorted chapters; I read it. And…? And I like it. It’s good. I don’t agree with all the translation choices, but I’m never gonna agree with all the translation choices. But it’s good. Feel free to use it for casual reading, devotional reading, or even in church. It’s not gonna bite.

It’s not infallible. No translation is. When you do serious bible study, do not use only one translation, the Message included, without double-checking it against many other translations. (Even when you know biblical languages: Make sure your interpretation isn’t too far afield from all the others!) But again: Casual, devotional, church, Twitter: Use it. Have fun.

Then there are the translations I don’t care for. And yeah, even if you found this article for other reasons, you’re probably gonna be curious about my take on them. You’re looking (in vain) for a perfect translation, and you wanna eliminate a few contenders. Or you’ve already convinced yourself it’s the King James Version, but you spitefully wanna know why other translations suck, just so you can bash ’em a little more. I don’t wanna enable you, but at the same time I don’t wanna encourage publishers to crank out bad bible translations. So I’ve got mixed feelings… but I’m plowing ahead anyway.

01 December 2016

Apocalypses: Those freaky visions in the bible.

Short answer: No.

Apocalypse /ə'pɑk.ə.lɪps/ n. Vision meant to reveal heavenly secrets through representative or parabolic images.
2. Any supernatural revelation.
3. [uppercase] Destruction or damage on a tremendous scale, particularly the end of the world.
[apocalyptic /ə.pɑk.ə'lɪp.tɪk/ adj.]

When people talk about “the apocalypse,” they typically mean the end of the world. “It’s the apocalypse!” means “It’s the End”—and we’re f---ed.

Not even close to the original meaning of the Greek apokalýpto/“to uncover.” It’s just our last book of the New Testament, Apokálypsis Yisú Hristú—or Apokálypsis for short, Apocalypse in Latin and many other languages, Revelation in English—is about the End. So people have come to mix up apocalypse and the End. Stands to reason.

Our word Revelation defines it best. It has to do with revealing. Uncovering. Telling us what’s gonna happen in future. Except… well… not literally.

See, an apocalypse is a type of prophetic vision. Y’know how Jesus tells parables, and explains his kingdom with weird things which represent the kingdom, but aren’t literally the kingdom? Like mustard seeds which grew into huge trees? Lk 13.19 Like yeast which infuses flour? Mt 13.33 Like seed which grows on its own? Mk 4.26-29 Now imagine actually seeing these parables. Not just as a mental picture, like we do when we picture Jesus’s parables. You look in front of you… and there’s one of those images, clear as day.

Zechariah 1.7-11 KWL
7 On 24 Šebát of Darius’s second year [15 February 519 BC]
God’s word came to the prophet Zechariah ben Barukhyahu ben Iddo, to make him say,
8 “I saw this at night. Look, a man preparing to ride a red horse!
He stood between the myrtles in the valley. Behind him, red, speckled, and white horses.
9 I said, ‘My master, what are these horses?’
Giving me the word, the messenger said, ‘I’m letting you see what these horses are.’
10 The man standing between the myrtles answered, ‘These are the horses
which the LORD sent to walk round the land.’
11 The horses answered the LORD’s messenger standing between the myrtles:
The horses said, ‘We walked round the land. Look, all the land sits, and is quiet.’”

The horses answered? Sure. Most translations simply go with “they answered,” and leave it to us to deduce who “they” are. They don’t wanna look dumb by making the very simple logical leap. Ain’t no other group of people there to answer.

Talking horses, man. But that’s the sort of thing we see in apocalyptic visions: All manner of weirdness. Deliberately weird, ’cause God’s trying to grab our attention. You know how you’ll have some freaky dream, and the images in your dream bug you for a good long time after you’ve awakened? (Happened in the bible a bunch of times too.) It’s for the same reason God shows his prophets bizarre apocalyptic visions: He wants this imagery to stay with us, and burrow into our minds. Mere words, even God’s words, won’t stick with us like these visions do.

That’s why so many Christians are fascinated, even obsessed, with Revelation’s imagery. Weird chimeric creatures with multiple heads. Women with strange names. Angels and bowls and trumpets and declarations. Prophets being obligated to eat books which, while tasty, upset their stomachs.

Now. Jesus says the reason he uses parables is to inform those who are really listening, and go over the heads of those who really aren’t. Mk 4.11-12 This is just as true of apocalypses. Those who are truly seeking God will recognize their meaning and importance: What God wants to reveal through them—and just as importantly, what he doesn’t want to reveal through them. Not yet.

In contrast, there’s those who truly aren’t seeking God. Really, they figure knowledge is power, and covet some degree of control over an uncertain future. But their interpretations of these apocalypses don’t produce good fruit. Oh, they sell books, and definitely help Jim Bakker sell loads of overpriced supplies for your End Times bunker. But they don’t spread love, peace, gentleness, patience, and hope. Just more panic and worry, and God knows there’s far too much of that in the world already.

10 November 2016

Audio bibles!

Don’t yet have an audio bible? Here’s the hookup.

No doubt you know about audiobooks. Well, the audio bible is simply an audiobook of the bible. A really big audiobook, ’cause the bible’s not a little book.

Just as many book publishers try to produce an audiobook version, many bible publishers do likewise with their bible translations. Sometimes it’s a straight reading. Sometimes they play soft music in the background. Sometimes they dramatize it: They hire actors to play different people in the bible, and add sound effects and music. Sometimes they overdramatize it, and hire really bad actors who put zero thought into the motivations or meaning of the folks in the bible. The first dramatized audio bible I ever heard, it was so over-the-top I gave up on dramatized bibles for a decade. They’ve improved since. Well, some have.

Anyway, I’d recommend you get an audio bible. I’ve provided links to some inexpensive and free ones.

They have their pros and cons. Obviously I think their positives outweigh the negatives. If you’re struggling with the discipline to read through the whole bible, an audio bible will help. If you have a reading disability, they solve that problem. If you have a short attention span, they can help—you won’t get distracted by study bible notes and cross references. However you may still be distracted by birds chirping outside. Some folks can’t focus on any kind of book. But hey, it’s worth a shot.

The main drawback is an audio bible goes at its own pace. Not yours. Unless you’re quick at the stop and rewind buttons, it’s not like a written bible, where you can go back and reread a sentence: It just plows ahead. It sometimes makes it tricky to meditate on what you just listened to.

And of course if you get it on disc or tape, it’s not a small book. That’s a lot of discs to lug around… and scratch, and lose. Me, I switched to the MP3 format as soon as I could.

25 August 2016

Prophets in the bible: Read their books!

Wanna know what prophecy sounds like? Read what God’s prophets wrote.

The Prophets /ðə 'prɑf.əts/ pl.n. Biblical writings by and about God’s Spirit-inspired messengers.
2. [In Christian bibles and book order] Books in the Old Testament primarily consisting of prophecies. Usually Isaiah through Malachi.
3. [In Jewish bibles and book order] The second major grouping of the Hebrew scriptures: Books written between 1000 and 400BC; Joshua through Malachi.

Sometimes I refer to “the Prophets,” and I admit this can be confusing to Christians who grew up Jewish. To Jews, “the Prophets” are the middle part of their bible—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the 12 minor prophets.

But to Christians, “the Prophets” are the prophetic literature. Isaiah, Jeremiah (and Jeremiah’s book Lamentations), Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some of us throw in the New Testament book of Revelation, and others throw in the apocryphal book of Baruch.

And for too many of these Christians, these are flyover books.

Yep. Just like snobs on the east and west coasts assume the middle of the United States consists of irrelevant “flyover states” which one needn’t bother to visit, many Christians figure these books needn’t be read. ’Cause they were written to the ancient Hebrews, not us. And they’re too confusing. Too filled with hard-to-interpret visions. Too weird. Not relevant.

The Prophets, they figure, have only two functions; only two reasons why we bother to publish bibles including them. First of all, they’re full of predictions that Messiah was coming. So they point to Jesus. So we keep ’em for the Messianic prophecies, in case anybody isn’t sure the Prophets did foretell Jesus’s first coming.

The other is because they also foretell Jesus’s second coming. They foretell the End Times. So “prophecy scholars” mine ’em for their End Times prognostications, for stuff that fill in the blanks in their timelines.

Otherwise, these books are considered a hard read. So Christians don’t read ’em. We read the books we consider relevant: The New Testament. The Old Testament origin stories, or tales of great biblical heroes. The psalms, for the poetry. Proverbs, for the wisdom. Song of Songs, for the smut.

But not the Prophets. Otherwise you’d have to learn about the historical context these prophets were talking about, and that’s way too much homework for your typical Christian’s taste. Plus they’re a bummer, ’cause they’re full of condemnation and God’s wrath. So, as I said, they’re skipped. Mine ’em for proof texts, but otherwise skip ’em.

This attitude is incredibly short-sighted of those of us who wanna hear from God.

These prophets heard God. You wanna know what God sounds like? Read the Prophets. You need to hear what God’s legitimate messengers sound like.

09 August 2016

What KJV-worshipers believe about the bible.

A warped alternate history, invented by Jack T. Chick.

I know; I already wrote an article about the history of the King James Version—and the people who worship it. But two years ago I wrote a different article, and was asked to repost it. I was a little reluctant to, ’cause it’s largely based on a Chick tract.

Some of you already know who he was: Jack T. Chick (1924–2016) was a conspiracy theorist who believed the devil was behind everything he doesn’t like. Seriously everything—and Chick didn’t like much. In order to prove it, he played really fast and loose with the truth. He’d misquote bible, mangle history, and apparently just make stuff up from scratch. ’Cause for some of his claims, I can’t find confirmation anywhere—well, other than books Chick himself published.

Primarily his company publishes evangelism tracts. Nearly all of them lack fruit of the Spirit: They’re loveless, impatient, unkind, joyless (his humor is the ironic, mocking sort), graceless (any little slip-up on our part sends us to hell), and fearful. I needn’t remind you they likewise make up any facts he needed to prove his points… and hopefully scare you into the waiting, loving judgey arms of Jesus.

His tracts are controversial, because many Christians love love LOVE them. Believe it or not, some of them actually aren’t bad. But most of them are. Christians justify using them ’cause “Chick tracts work!”—but that was just Chick’s marketing slogan. If they win anyone to Christ, chances are you wind up with just another Chick-style conspiracy theorist.


Yep, someone’s supposedly burning the One True Bible. Attack 1
(Reference numbers refer to images on the website; the cover is 1, the next page is 2, etc.)

So I’m loath to use him as an example, ’cause the man doesn’t need any more publicity. Then again, he was mighty typical of what a KJV-worshiper believes. Not only that: You’ll find more than one KJV-worshiper actually turn to Chick’s publications as their “historical” justifications for believing as they do. So if you wanna go straight to the source of the madness, Chick’s got a river of bile flowing out of him.

Chick’s tract, “The Attack,” is his alternative history of how we got the King James Version, and the devil’s conspiracy to deny it to us. You can read it, in its entirety, on his website. As with all his “historical” tracts, a fraction is true. The rest is out of context, hyper-compressed, reinterpreted, whitewashed, or pure fiction.

It uses two sources. One’s David W. Daniels, whose book Did the Catholic Church Give Us the Bible? is published by Chick Publications, and where “The Attack” got its secret history. The other’s Alberto Rivera (1937–97), a con artist who claimed he used to be a Roman Catholic bishop, whom the Jesuits sent to infiltrate and undermine Protestant churches. In the 1970s, Rivera “outed” himself, told all sorts of wacky tales about how the Catholics are secretly behind Islam, Communism, the Masons, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mafia, the Mormons… and pretty much every boogeyman Chick feared. Rivera was debunked years ago by Cornerstone, Christianity Today, and Walter Martin’s Christian Research Institute. But Chick Publications still produces Rivera’s books, and plenty of anti-Catholics still believe his every word.

18 July 2016

Remember the Sabbath day.

Our weekly holiday… and a command we regularly violate.

Believe it or not, we Christians actually have a holiday every single week. You likely forgot about it because it’s so regular.

It’s Sabbath. It’s the day God mandated (in the Ten Commandments, you know) that people take off. We’re not to work on it. We have the other six days of the week for that.

Exodus 20.8-11 KWL
8 “Remember to separate the day of Sabbath.
9 Work six days, and do all your work. 10 The seventh day is Sabbath.
It’s for me, your LORD God. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
your sons, daughters, male slaves, female slaves, animals, or visitors at your gates.
11 For six days, I the LORD made the skies and the land, the sea and everything in it.
The seventh day, I stopped, so I the LORD blessed a day of Sabbath. I made it holy.”

And once again, in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 5.12-15 KWL
12 “Keep separate the day of Sabbath, as your LORD God commanded you.
13 Work six days, and do all your work. 14 The seventh day is Sabbath.
It’s for your LORD God. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
your sons, daughters, slaves, ox, donkey, animals, or visitors at your gates.
Because your male and female slaves will rest like you:
15 Remember, you were a slave in Egypt’s territory.
Your LORD God got you out of there with his strong hand and extended arm.
This is why your LORD God commands you to do the day of Sabbath.”

Note God said it was ’cause he rested on the seventh day, but Moses said it was ’cause the Hebrews used to be Egypt’s slaves. It’s one of those little contradictions people like to pretend the bible doesn’t have. But really, there’s no reason we can’t accept both interpretations. After all, real life is messy like that.

Sabbath comes from the word shabbát/“stop.” God stopped creating the earth on the seventh day; Ge 2.2 likewise we’re to stop working every seventh day. We’re not meant to work seven days a week. We burn out. Our mental state collapses. God, recognizing this (’cause he made us, of course), put a moratorium on work every seven days: Stop. Rest. That goes for everyone.

27 June 2016

The proof text.

If we’re gonna refer to the bible, let’s be sure we’re doing it right.

Proof text /'pruf tɛkst/ n. A scriptural verse or passage, used (or misused) as evidence to support the idea one wishes to teach.
2. v. Using (or misusing) the scriptures as a reference.

Y’know how sometimes I’ll mention a biblical idea, like God saving us by his grace, Ep 2.8 and do exactly what I just did there: Tack on a link to a bible verse which proves my point. It’s called proof-texting. If you weren’t sure whether that idea was backed by the bible, I pointed you to the bit of bible which confirms it.

I know; the word texting can confuse people. Especially if you’ve always thought of texting as sending a Short Message Service file from your phones. (Didn’t know that’s what SMS meant, didja?) I made the mistake of not clarifying that when I was instructing kids in how to proof-text properly. Some poor lad thought every time he referred to the scriptures, he had to send a text message—and wasn’t sure where to send it. To me? (No.)

And I also know: There are Christians who use the term “proof-texting” only when they mean wrongly referencing the bible. To them, “bible references” are proper quotes, always in context, and therefore good; “proof texts” are always misquoted, therefore bad. First time I ever heard of proof-texting, the term was introduced to me by a youth pastor who warned us kids to never proof-text. Which really alarmed me when a visiting speaker taught us we should always proof-text. For a while there I worried my church had invited the Antichrist over to mislead us all.

See, a lot of people proof-text wrong. Did it myself: When I was a kid, my youth pastors actually used to let me lead bible study groups, or even preach, from time to time. (I knew a lot of bible trivia, and they confused this with maturity.) To prepare, I’d bust out my handy Nave’s Topical Bible, which lists all the verses which touch upon almost any given Christian topic. Problem is, unless you’ve got a computer version (and sometimes even then), Nave’s verses are provided without context. And I didn’t care about context: I had my own opinion on the subject, and arrogantly assumed God felt the same way. I just wanted verses which proved me right. If they obviously didn’t, I might change my tune. But this wasn’t always obvious.

Since my youth pastors kept letting me preach, I assume I didn’t go too far afield with my out-of-context proof texts. Then again, most of the youth pastors likely did the very same thing with their own sermons. To this day I catch preachers doing it. They’ll download sermon outlines, won’t double-check the references, and misquote bible like crazy. The reason I catch ’em is because I was taught in seminary to always check references. And this bit of wisdom, I pass along to you: Always check references. Always always always.

Even when you think you already know that reference—’cause you might be wrong. As we usually are.

12 May 2016

Literally.

The way a whole lotta Christians like to interpret the bible.

The word literally has two definitions. And they contradict one another.

Literally /'lɪd.ər.əl.li/ or /ˈlɪt.rəl.li/ adv. In a most basic and exact sense, without metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, nor distortion.
2. Used for emphasis or strong feeling, though not precisely true.

I know; plenty of people insist the second definition isn’t the proper definition, and anyone who uses the word like that is wrong. Problem is, words are not absolutes. I know; plenty of people wish they were, and insist they are. (It’s why people still buy the original edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary, instead of something more recent.)

But words aren’t defined by historical precedent—like laws, treaties, or biblical doctrines. They’re defined, and regularly redefined, by popular vote. It’s why we need to keep re-translating the bible; why we need to look up the original definitions of the King James Version’s words when we interpret that translation. Once enough people use a word “wrong,” the wrong definition evolves into another definition. (But if it makes you feel any better, the “right” one still comes first.)

Anyway. The reason I bring up the evolution of language, is because plenty of Christians insist they interpret the bible “literally.” By which they think they mean the first definition: In its most basic sense. In reality they mean the second definition: They interpret it seriously.

I remind you: The first definition means without metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, nor distortion. But the bible is full of metaphors, allegories, exaggerations, and distortions. You knew this. If you forgot, I’ll remind you.

  • Hebrew poetry is full of metaphor and simile. “The LORD is my shepherd,” Ps 23.1 obviously. Not a literal shepherd; like a shepherd. And the psalmist is like a sheep.
  • Jesus’s parables are allegories. Certain prophetic demonstrations, like when Ezekiel built a little siege around a brick with a drawing of Jerusalem on it, Ek 4.1-2 are allegories. Apocalyptic visions are allegories. God used ’em all the time to grab our attention, and teach lessons. Again, not literal.
  • Jesus himself exaggerated. Fr’instance:
Mark 9.42 KWL
“Whoever trips up one of these little ones who trust me:
It’d be even better if you tied a donkey wheel round his neck and threw him in the sea.”
  • Anybody planning to drown kids to rescue them from false teachers? Nobody? Good. I’d be worried. Yet when certain interpreters come across exaggerations—like when David said he could fight a troop by himself and leap over a wall, 2Sa 22.30, Ps 18.29 meaning one of those 30-foot city walls—I kid you not, they’ll claim he literally could. ’Cause some interpreters are just that dumb.
  • If you’ve read the gospels, you’ll notice they don’t always sync up in the order of events. Fr’instance Matthew and Luke have a different order for Jesus’s temptations in the desert. For the authors, timeline didn’t necessarily matter: Sometimes they wanted to bunch Jesus’s teachings together. Or bunch his miracles together. Or show how the Pharisees were getting more and more peeved at him. For various reasons, they moved the Jesus-stories around. Not to decieve—but if timeline is really important to you (and it is to some Christians), you’re gonna find these alterations really irritating.

There are plenty of instances where we can’t interpret the bible literally.

20 April 2016

The Judean senate.

The folks who ran Judea… and condemned Jesus to death.

Something Americans need to be reminded of, from time to time: Ancient Israel was never a democracy.

  • Originally it was a patriarchy, run by the male heads of the Hebrew families: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
  • Then the Egyptians took over and enslaved ’em.
  • Then the LORD rescued ’em from Egypt. So it became a theocracy, where God and his commands ruled Israel… with Moses and the judges serving as the LORD’s deputies.
  • Then monarchy here on out: The rule of kings. The people wanted kings; the LORD gave ’em kings. In theory the kings were to function the same as the judges, with the LORD really in charge. In practice they did whatever the heck they wanted.
  • Then foreign kings: The Babylonian emperors, Persian emperors, Greek emperors, Egyptian kings, Seleucid kings. Each of ’em put governors, like Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, over the Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.
  • Back to local kings: The Maccabees overthrew the Seleucids and put the head priests in charge, who accepted the title “king” and ruled till Herod 1 toppled them.
  • Back to foreign kings: Augustus Caesar took over from the Herods, and the Romans ruled till the caliphs conquered Jerusalem in 638. And so we move into the middle ages and Crusades.

In Jesus’s day, the Romans emperor was king. The Caesars appointed governors—military prefects like Pontius Pilate, puppet kings like the Herods, and procurators—to represent Rome’s interests, and make sure the locals didn’t do anything which’d interfere with taxes and “peace,” as the Romans defined peace. Everything else was left in the hands of upper-class locals: The head priests, the leaders of the older and wealthier families, the “elders” of Israel.

In Latin, “elder” is senex, and that’s where they got the word for their council of elders, senatus. It wasn’t an elected body, like our senates. It consisted of Roman nobles. Those who had the most to lose if the fortunes of Rome changed. The Roman Republic was an oligarchy, ran by the upper class. And when the emperors took over, and commandeered many of the senate’s powers, they still sought the senate’s advice and consent.

Well, Judea had a similar senate. After the Persians permitted Jewish exiles to return and rebuild Jerusalem, Persian governors organized the elders into a governing council, loosely based on the 70 elders of Israel in Moses’s day. Ex 24.1 By the first century this synédrion (Greek for “seated together,” which the Mishnah translated sanhédrin) consisted of 71 people: Seventy elders of Judea, supposedly representing the great Judean families; and the head priest, its naší/“president.”

This is the group which ran Judea in the New Testament… under the suspicious eye of the Romans.

31 March 2016

Strong numbers. Or Strong’s numbers. Whichever.

Don’t know biblical languages but wanna look up an original-language word? Strong has you covered.

From time to time I refer to Strong numbers or Strong’s numbers. I suppose I need to explain ’em before people get the idea I’m introducing them to numerology.

A concordance is a list of every single word in a book. People make ’em for the bible so they can use it as kind of an index: You might remember there’s a verse in the bible about “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but not remember where it’s found. (And you might live in 1987, when you couldn’t just Google it.) So you bust out that concordance, flip to “meek,” and find out where it’s hiding. Seems it appears 17 times in the King James Version.

Nu 12.3 the man Moses was very m., above all the men H 6035
Ps 22.26 The m. shall eat and be satisfied H 6035
Ps 25.9 The m. shall he guide in judgment H 6035
Ps 25.9 and the m. shall he teach his way. H 6035
Ps 37.11 But the m. shall inherit the earth H 6035
Ps 76.9 to save all the m. of the earth. H 6035
Ps 147.6 The LORD lifteth up the m. H 6035
Ps 149.4 he will beautify the m. with salvation H 6035
Is 11.4 reprove with equity for the m. of the earth H 6035
Is 29.19 The m. also shall increase their joy H 6035
Is 61.1 to preach good tidings unto the m. H 6035
Am 2.7 and turn aside the way of the m. H 6035
Zp 2.3 Seek ye the LORD, all ye m. of the earth H 6035
Mt 5.5 Blessed are the m.: for they shall inherit G 4239
Mt 11.29 for I am m. and lowly in heart G 4235
Mt 21.5 Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, m. G 4239
1Pe 3.4 even the ornament of a m. and quiet spirit G 4239

So check it out: The meek inheriting the earth comes up twice, actually. In Psalm 37.11, and in Christ Jesus’s “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Mt 5.5

Some bibles have a mini-concordance in the back, to be used as just this sort of index. They don’t include every word. Really, not even an exhaustive concordance does: There are 64,040 instances of “the” in the KJV. (More instances of “the” than there are verses.) When people are trying to track down a verse, they don’t use “the.” Too common.

Anyway. Dr. James Strong wasn’t the first guy to produce an exhaustive concordance of the KJV, but his was powerfully useful for one reason: His numbers. When you looked up any word in his 1890 concordance, you’d find it provided a number. In the back of the book were his Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament, and Greek Dictionary of the New Testament. Don’t even have to know the Hebrew or Greek alphabets: You look up the word by its number, and there you go: The original-language word behind the KJV’s translation.

Wanna know the original word for “ass” in 2 Peter 2.16? Strong’s concordance will point you to number 5268, and once you look up that number in the Greek dictionary, you find this:

5268. ὑποζύγιον hupozugion, hoop-od-zoog'-ee-on; neuter of a compound of 5259 and 2218; an animal under the yoke (draught-beast), i.e. (specially), a donkey: ass.

Nice, huh? Wanna know the original word for “buttocks” in Isaiah 20.4?

8357. ‏‏שֵׁתָה shethah, shay-thaw'; from 7896; the seat (of the person):—buttock.

Yes, I’m twelve.

08 March 2016

The cycle: The good old days, and the dark times.

Why history repeats itself.

Cycle. /'saɪ.kəl/ n. Series of events, regularly repeated in the same order.
2. [biblical] The repeating history of apostasy, oppression, revival, and salvation.
[Cyclical /'sɪ.klə.kəl/ adj.]

History repeats itself.

Most people figure it’s for the reason philosopher George Santayana famously stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” More accurately it’s that people didn’t learn from the past. They remember it just fine. But they think this time, they’ll get it right. The disasters of the past? People were naïve back then. We’re more intelligent, more evolved now. They failed, but we’ll succeed.

Then we don’t. ’Cause history repeats itself.

The usual form of this repetition is an up-and-down cycle. Historians call it all sorts of different things. An economic boom, followed by a period of downturn. An era of good feelings, followed by serious partisanship. A gilded age, followed by a panic. Good times, bad times, you know we’ve had our share.

We see the cycle in the bible as well. Different Christians call it different things. Often it’s the “cycle of sin” or “cycle of judgment” or “cycle of discipline”—something pessimistic. Since it’s an up-and-down cycle, some of us throw in the up side as well as the down: The “cycle of sin and repentance.” Regardless most Christians include the word cycle.

Looks like yea:


Round and round and round ya go.

Again, the steps and titles change depending on who’s making the chart. Sometimes all the phases cleverly start with the same letter, or spell out a word. (I don’t bother.) I have seven.

02 March 2016

How to study your bible.

’Cause every Christian should. And should know how.

When I was a kid, I went to a Fundamentalist church. Say what you will about those folks: They’re big on studying the bible. Not all of ’em know how to do it properly—and they definitely didn’t teach me how to do it. (Man alive was I over-dependent on my Scofield Reference Bible notes!) But I gotta give ’em credit for making a serious, earnest effort just the same. They really wanted to know what was in there, and rightly believed every Christian should.

But even while I was in that church, I discovered I knew way more about the bible than the average Christian. Not ’cause I’m a genius or anything, although I have a really good memory: I knew more because I read the bible, read the notes, read everything about the bible I could get access to: I studied. And most Christians honestly don’t.

Most humans don’t. When we get out of school—whether high school, university, or grad school—we figure we never, ever have to study again. And don’t. We quit. We’re done. We might make exceptions for something important, like our contractor’s license; but we’re done. Study the bible? Nah. We’ll leave it to the experts. Pastors can study the bible. When we wanna get something profound out of the scriptures, we only expect to get ’em one of three ways.

  1. Somebody else has to say it. Like a favorite preacher or author, whom we trust to say reliable things. (Trust based on what? Well, that’s another discussion.)
  2. It’s gotta be a clear, obvious statement in the bible. Something anyone could find, like a penny on the sidewalk.
  3. It’s a God-inspired idea which unexpectedly pops into our heads, like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky, as we’re reading the bible. Illumination, some call it.

But study? Go digging out truths from the text? Never gonna happen.

There’s a common but false assumption God’s kingdom, because it runs on grace, arrives by grace: We don’t have to make any effort. Just take the talent God gave us, bury it in a field, and it’ll grow like an acorn into a tree filled with shiny metal discs. Wisdom will just come to us naturally. After all, there’s no shortage of people posting pithy platitudes on Twitter.

Here’s the quandary: Which of those platitudes are true, and which of them are merely clever… but wrong?

’Cause I’ve heard loads of platitudes. So have you. I’ve been a Christian for four decades, and listened to sermons every Sunday morning, many Sunday and Saturday and Friday and Wednesday evenings, many mini-sermons by bible study leaders and prayer group leaders and college professors, many sermons in chapel at schools I’ve gone to or taught at, and of course sermons on the radio or podcasts. I have no idea how many Christian books I’ve read, both before and after seminary. Or how many posts on Christian blogs.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Most of it looks like good Christian advice. But it only looks good: Much is junk, is misinformed, is misleading, is foolhardy, is ignorant, is dark Christianity, is heresy, or is hypocrisy disguised under thick Christianese.

And some of it is pure Christianism: It’s pop psychology, godless politics, Mammon worship and social Darwinism, ulterior motives disguised as devout Christianity. It’s totally wrong—but sounds good. Sounds wise, familiar, benevolent… and totally appeals to our bratty inner child, so we repeat it.

How do we know the difference? Well, unless we have the supernatural gift of discernment (which in my experience, the Holy Spirit uses to point out false teachers, not bad theology), we gotta discern stuff the old-fashioned way: We gotta know our bibles. And not just superficially. We gotta study our bibles. We gotta buckle down and do our homework.

But we don’t wanna.

08 February 2016

Read the bible over Lent.

Got a spare 40 days? Do your bible.

Lent is the 40 days before Easter, during which time some of us Christians do a little fasting or other forms of self-deprivation, and meditate about what Jesus suffered on our behalf. And of course others of us contemplate nothing, but fast anyway ’cause it’s tradition. And of course still others (namely the Evangelicals I know) contemplate nothing, fast nothing, and feel smug because our religious customs don’t obligate us to do a thing.

True, Lent is voluntary. It comes from Christian tradition, not the bible. Same as every church activity, you can opt in, or opt out. You can deprive yourself of a lot of things, or just a few things. You can adopt lots of religious practices during this time, or not.

But if you’re gonna adopt a practice, why not read the bible? The whole bible? ’Cause you can. You can do it within a month, so there’s certainly no reason it can’t be done in a time-period with 10 extra days.

So if you’re giving something up for Lent, like television, there y’go: You can easily take the time you’d spend watching the boob tube, and read the scriptures. And have time left over. Easy-peasy.

And if you’re giving up nothing for Lent, ’cause self-deprivation isn’t your thing—like so many Americans, gluttony is—you can still carve out a bit of time each day to read some bible, and make up for the fact you didn’t read the whole thing back in January. Or that you started, but dropped the ball. Or that you’re doing the six-month or year-long bible track, and dropped the ball on that. Either way, it’s catchup time.

So there’s your Lenten challenge: Read your bible. You know you oughta.

27 January 2016

The bible in “the original Greek”: The Septuagint.

Still the authoritative translation of a lot of Christians.

SEPTUAGINT sɛp'tu.ə.dʒɪnt noun. An ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament.
[Septuagintal sɛp.tu.ə'dʒɪnt.əl adj.]

When you read the New Testament, and one of the apostles quotes the Old Testament, most of the time they’re not translating it from the original Hebrew. They’re quoting a Greek translation.

There wasn’t just one translation. Same as English versions of the bible nowadays, different translators had taken different shots at putting the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Some Greek-speaking Jew in Jerusalem might put together something like a “King Jonathan’s Version,” or KJV; some Greek-speaking Jew in Egypt might’ve cobbled together an “Egyptian Standard Version,” or ESV; some curious gentile in Laodicea might’ve put together a “New Laodicean Translation,” or NLT… I could come up with more hypothetical reasons for these familiar initials, but you get the gist. But over time, copyists smooshed all these different Greek bibles together into one sorta-kinda-the-standard copy, and we call it the Septuagint.

Why’s it called the Septuagint? Funny story. According to a Pharisee legend, told in the Letter of Aristeas, King Ptolemy Philadelphius of Egypt wanted a copy of the bible for his famous Library of Alexandria. So he asked Jerusalem for translators; they sent him either 70 or 72 scribes, who cleverly answered Ptolemy’s test questions and got the job. Each were given their own room, got to translating, and when done all their translations miraculously matched, word-for-word. Therefore this is an inspired, inerrant translation of the bible. (Oh, and septuaginta is Latin for 70. It’s why people tend to use the abbreviation LXX, the Roman 70, for the Septuagint.)

Yeah, it’s as bogus as the myth KJV-only adherents have for their favorite translation. Because if it really were an infallible version of the bible, the New Testament authors would’ve quoted it, and only it, for their scriptures. Instead some apostles quoted it. And others translated the Hebrew for themselves. Paul went back and forth. Seems sometimes he just didn’t care for the way the Septuagint put it, and decided to phrase the original Hebrew in his own way.

21 January 2016

God’s names. (And a bunch of his adjectives.)

We call him lots of things. Some of them he even approves of.

New Christians tend to be fascinated by the fact God has a lot of different names in the bible. There’s “God,” there’s “the Lord” (in capital letters or not), there’s “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “I Am,” there’s “the Most High” and “the Almighty”…


James Nesbit is selling this poster of God’s names. Without the watermark, I expect. jnesbit.com

And I haven’t even got to the titles yet. Like Mighty God, Ancient of Days, Alpha and Omega, Lord of Hosts, and so on. Go to your average Christian bookstore (if it hasn’t closed up shop yet) and they’ve even got a poster covered in these titles.

Bust out some Hebrew to go along with it, and some Christians will get sloppy with excitement. I can write about the attributes of God till my fingers go numb, but there’s just nothing like God’s names. Because, as many Christians teach, there’s power in God’s name. Jr 10.6 Power, power, wonder-working power. Power to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.

But of all I should point out these many names of God are not necessarily God’s idea. He named himself, and yes I’ll get to what he named himself. But before he gave us his name, humans had to come up with terms to describe him.

Like “God.” In nearly every ancient culture, a god is simply a powerful being. It’s not a human; it’s more powerful. You suck up to it like you do a king: It’s more powerful than you, and could either do things for you, or smite you. It might have expectations on you, or capriciously decide it doesn’t like you. But to the ancients, a god was only the being in charge of a particular thing, like weather or sex. It wasn’t the creator of all things, nor necessarily the Supreme Being, nor even almighty. If you’ve read pagan mythologies, you’ll know most of these gods weren’t even moral beings. (Well, Baldr was good. But of all the gods in pagan mythology, it’s pretty much only him. And they killed him.)

Well, we Christians are monotheists: There’s only the One God. We don’t consider any of the “gods” to be legit. When we use the word “god,” we only mean the One God—who also happens to be the Creator, the Almighty, and good.