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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What We Read the Bible For

If you've been a Christian for any length of time, you know (I sincerely hope) that you're supposed to read the Bible.  But you might not have realistic expectations as to what you're supposed to get out of it when you read it.  I think that there are three things that we read the Bible to get:

  1. Information.  We read to learn stuff about God and his work in history (by which I mean the past, the present, and the future).
  2. Insight.  We read for the "Aha!" moments, the times that we recognize a new truth about ourselves or about how to live life wisely and well in God's sight.
  3. Intimacy.  We read to spend time with the Triune God, engaging in the deeply personal conversation with the human race initiated by the Father concerning the Son inscripturated through the Holy Spirit.
Now the fact is, you're not going to experience all three of these every time you read the Bible.  That's totally okay.  For one thing, not every passage of Scripture lends itself to each of these three things equally, and for another, God gives us what we need when we need it, which will vary from day to day.

But it's also worth noting that different approaches to reading the Bible tend to produce different results.  The biggest factor is how much we read or try to focus on at a time.  To oversimplify it for the sake of a rule of thumb, reading big chunks (like in a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan) most readily yields information, reading medium-sized chunks (say, half a chapter in the epistles) produces insight, and repetitious meditation on very small portions (like a verse or two) is the most fertile for intimacy.

Of course, as I said, this oversimplifies matters greatly—the correlation is not neatly one-to-one as my rule suggests, and of course we can receive information and insight at the same time, for example.  We're also capable of reading a large section, narrowing to a smaller subsection within it, and narrowing still further to a tiny portion during a single time of reading.  But I mention this because keeping it in mind as you read the Bible may help you to get the balanced diet of information, insight, and intimacy that you need.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Mark has a curious way of telling two stories at once that we tend to separate: Jesus' response to the teachers who accused him of throwing out demons by the power of Satan, and Jesus' mother and brothers trying to get face-time with him.  We separate them because Matthew puts them back to back but doesn't tell them as a single story, and also Luke does the same and obscures the connection further by putting the actual arrival of Jesus' family elsewhere in his book.  But as Mark tells the story, Jesus' family comes to take Jesus away forcibly, believing him insane; then Jesus responds to the scribes' accusation that he is possessed by Beelzebul; then the family arrives and Jesus asserts that his real mother and siblings are those who do what God wants.  (This suggests another reason that we probably separate the two stories: Mark's version portrays Jesus' family in an uncomfortably bad light.)

A few things stick out to me here.

The world is so unused to seeing evil defeated that they think that there must be evil behind it when it happens.  And they are so unused to seeing people do what God wants that even seriously religious people think that people who do must be crazy.  This shows how screwed up is the world we're living in and how badly we go against the grain when we even get started really displaying the reign of God.

And yet, Jesus never stopped going against the grain.  I don't know how I would persevere if people accused me of being pure evil or if my close family believed that I need to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric unit.  But Jesus did.  He never stopped going against the grain because he was remaking the grain.  That's what the reign of God is all about.

Of those who opposed, misunderstood, and even slandered him that day, some remained in it stubbornly but others turned around.  The scribes, or at least most of them, stayed stuck in their opposition to Jesus.  But his mother and brothers became part of the backbone of the church.  Never count out those who think you're crazy because of your obsession for God's reign, especially those who, like Mary, have once heard the good news and humbly received it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Seen and the Unseen

By faith [Abraham] lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God [Heb. 11:9-10].
For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen.  For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal [2 Cor. 4:17].
And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever [1 John 2:17].
Ever seen a science fiction or fantasy movie in which a character knows that what appears to be his or her world isn't real, that it is actually a short-lived construct from which one will emerge into reality at any moment?  What would it be like to live believing that?

It would be living like Abraham . . . like Paul . . . like John . . . like Jesus.  It would be the ordinary Christian life.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How Modern Bible Translations Are Too Readable

Imagine that you are one of the enlightened souls who adores J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as one of the most awe-inspiring creative literary works in the English language (in case you don't already).  Now imagine that you read The Lord of the Rings in a new "translation" that renders all of Tolkien's intentionally archaic-sounding prose and poetry into the idiom of contemporary, suburban, middle-class Americans.  Can you imagine how much it would suck?  I mean, really, it would be amazingly bad.  Tolkien's masterpiece depicts fictitious foreign cultures, and the terms he uses and even the grammar itself evokes a world that is totally different from our own.  His genius is that when you read any of his works it truly feels like you're reading a long-lost manuscript from a strange place and time.

The truth is that the cultures in which the Bible were written are also strange places and times, very different from our own.  But contemporary translations make them sound remarkably like us.  Of course, in their humanness, the characters are indeed remarkably like us.  But the cultures they operate in aren't like ours, and in modern translations the foreignness and weirdness of the biblical landscape are not adequately preserved.

This is my problem with gender neutrality in Bible translations (replacing "he" with "they" or "he or she" or "that person" or something like that).  Now hear me loud and clear: in many, many cases, I'm in favor of gender neutrality.  For example, in most (though not all) cases the Greek word ánthrōpos should be translated "human" or "person" instead of "man," as it has traditionally been rendered.  In fact, in most cases I would bluntly call "man" an inaccurate translation.  And I think that if it's possible to avoid using "he" or "him" in non-gender-specific contexts without snarling the grammar, we should definitely do it.  But some translations make biblical characters and authors sound more enlightened and non-sexist than the average American walking down the street in 2011, which of course is laughable because they absolutely weren't.  And sometimes it does screw up the overtones of the text.  The new Common English Bible translates 2 Tim. 3:16-17, "Every Scripture is inspired by God and is useful . . . so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good."  "Person who belongs to God" replaces the traditional "man of God" here.  The new translation is employed for two reasons: (1) the Greek word "person"/"man" is the aforementioned ánthrōpos, and (2) we want women to know that this Scripture pertains to them too.  But there are two problems.  (1) The Greek phrase employed here is the same as that employed in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the phrase "man of God," which throughout the OT is a technical term referring to a (male) prophet.  Paul is intentionally calling Timothy a "man of God" with all the accumulated meaning of the OT phrase, an association that is lost in the gender-neutral translation.  (2) Notwithstanding our desire for contemporary women to know that this verse applies to them, the fact is that its context is a personal letter to one male, Timothy, and we should translate it according to that context, not contemporary relevance.

More literalistic Bible translations get a lot of situations like this right.  But even those translations sound much too much at home in the 21st century.  And here's where I start wishing for things that are impractical, undesirable, and crazy, but I still think would be totally cool.

How much thought have you given to the names of people and places in the Bible?  They generally fall into two categories: the names you can pronounce because we've adopted them into modern English (e.g., Jerusalem, Peter) and the ones you can't that frustrate you.  My stance is that all of them should frustrate you (see also, Tolkien).  See, our transliterations (a transliteration is using English letters to spell out words from other languages) of biblical names are terrible, generally because they've usually gone through another language or two before they wind up in English.  So you see the letter j in all kinds of Old Testament names like "Elijah" even though Hebrew has no sound like the English "j"; it should be y instead.  It would be so cool if all of our transliterations were redone to better match the languages they came from.

When you read about David, for example, you might as well be reading about your next-door neighbor, because "David" is, frankly, an English name.  But "Dawíd" isn't, and the king of Israel (I mean, Yisra'él) who had that name wasn't your next-door neighbor but a crazy guy who played the harp and took wives and slaughtered Philistines (I mean, P'lishtím) in hand-to-hand combat at the drop of a hat.  But when you read about a guy named "David" in 1 & 2 Samuel (i.e, Sh'mu'él) it doesn't sound exotic—dare I say, like "fantasy"?—enough.  This is important, because when you get too comfortable with the biblical text you thoughtlessly import all sorts of modern Western assumptions into it that you would be automatically more cautious about if you were immediately hit by the foreignness of the setting.

To take this one step further, in the New Testament we shouldn't settle for transliterating Greek transliterations from other languages into English.  If the authors of the NT transliterate a Hebrew name into Greek, and then we transliterate that into English, we're two steps removed from the original word and we fail to notice how odd that Hebrew name would have sounded to the original, Greek-speaking audience.  By contrast, check out this translation of mine of Luke 2:1-4:
Now it happened in those days that a decree went out from Caésar Aúgustus [pronounced KAI-sar OW-goo-stoos] that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.  This was the first census taken while Quirínius as the governor of Syría. And everyone was proceeding to register for the census, each to his own city.  And Yoséf also went up from Galilaía, from the city of Nazarét, to Ioudaía, to the city of Dawíd, which is called Bet-Léhem, because he was of the house and family of Dawíd.
I'm not claiming the translation is perfect, but I'm trying to show the multicultural dynamic present in so much of the New Testament.  We have here names from three languages—Latin (Caésar Aúgustus, Quirínius), Greek (Syría, Galilaía, Ioudaía), and Hebrew (Yoséf, Nazarét, Bet-Léhem, Dawíd)—that depict three cultures jostling in the same space, which is exactly what was going on at that place and time, and which is essential background knowledge for reading the New Testament.  The divergent sounds of the three languages themselves help to bring that across.

But it's not just names that should make reading the Bible harder.  Much of the Bible is poetry, and it should be harder to read too.  In all languages, poetry tends to use stranger words than prose, and it tends to bend sentence syntax in weird ways to accomodate the poetic form or just to be artistic.  One example of this in Hebrew poetry is to have two successive lines that say the same thing in different words but to leave the verb out of the second line.  In English it sounds weird, so even literalistic translations put the implied verb back in the second line to make it sound right.  I say we leave the verb out, even if it does sound strange.  Hebrew poetry ought to sound strange.  It is strange.  It probably sounded strange to the Israelites (I mean, the Yisra'elím) themselves.  Similarly, one of the idiosyncracies of Greek poetry and poetic-sounding prose was to have massively long, run-on sentences that went on forever but might not even be actually complete (subject-predicate) sentences.  We very understandably break those up into short, complete sentences so that they're comprehensible (e.g., in Eph. 1:3-14), but wouldn't it be fun to leave them as crazy, long-winded monstrosities set in poetic verse?  Again, to the original readers/hearers passages like this sounded kind of "out there" too, and additionally this way of setting it reminds us that we're dealing with a foreign culture when we read the Bible.

We should also employ more loanwords from the original languages in translation.  A loanword is a word or phrase from another language that gets used because one's own language doesn't have the right term to describe what one wants to describe.  Through the centuries, English has been especially good at picking up loanwords (in fact, you could argue that the entire language is a hodgepodge of loanwords).  French has been the source of a lot of our loanwords: esprit de corps, fiancé, croissant, coup de grace, tour de force, hors d'oeuvres, etc.  They're not really English words, but now they're a part of our language.  Why don't we use loanwords more often when translating the Bible rather than use an inferior English rendering for a hard-to-translate Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word?  A great example of a potential loanword is the Hebrew hésed.  In the KJV it's translated "mercy," in the NASB "lovingkindness," and in the NIV "love."  It means faithful kindness, covenantal love.  It is the virtue or action of showing compassion and mercy and kindness and helpfulness to the person that you have sworn loyalty and faithfulness to in a solemn covenant.  It's a concept that arises out of cultural norms that are as different from ours as the Hebrew language is different than ours.  So why not just write out hésed in translation, like, "Give thanks to the LORD, because he is good; his hésed is forever" (Ps. 136:1)?  Put a glossary in the back of the Bible to explain what hésed is and be done with it.  Readers will learn the word and then begin to get the fullness of the meaning of it as they encounter it in the Bible over and over again.  For that matter, we should transliterate loanwords from other languages in the text as loanwords in English too.  For example, in Old Testament passages that have the Persian loanword tirshatha, we should use that and then explain it in a note instead of using the English gloss "governor."  More cross-cultural fun.

Finally, and I know this is a biggie and impossible, we should print the name of God in the Old Testament as "Yahweh" instead of our awkward, capitalized "the LORD."  I know why we don't do this—this is a far, far too intimate, careless, and even blasphemous way to handle the name of God from the perspective of Jews, and it would be a major obstacle for us in talking with Jews about our respective religions.  So it's probably a bad idea.  But a guy can dream.  It sure would be nice to read a Bible that, when it speaks of "the name of the LORD," actually gives his name.  It would sound a lot more like the Old Testament too.  Along similar lines, "Jesus Christ" should be "Yéshua Khrístos" (see grouping of names from different cultures above) unless "Christ" is being used as a title, in which case we translate it forthrighly as "the Anointed One"; thus "Christ Jesus" is "the Anointed Yéshua."  This is also a controversial translation policy, but unlike with "Yahweh," we can't claim that it's impossible because of interfaith dialogue or evangelism.

So translation teams and publishers, when you've released a product that is as unreadable as this while also being as readable as what I suggested in my previous post, call me.  Until then, I'll stick with the translations I have.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How Modern Bible Translations Aren't Readable Enough

In the best film ever made, The Princess Bride (go ahead and quote me on that), Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) notes two of the classic blunders: "The most famous is, 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia,' but only slightly less well known is this: 'Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.' "  To these must surely be added, "Never conclude that there's no room in the marketplace for another English translation of the Bible."

Occasionally I'm asked questions like, "What's the best Bible translation?" or "Is ________ a good Bible translation?"  My answer is usually something like, "That depends.  What do you want it for?" which doesn't help anybody since no one thinks about that before they ask.  My opinion is that just about every translation of the Bible is good enough in the abstract, though depending on what you might use it for—in-depth study, teaching 2nd-grade Sunday School, recitation in a worship service, quotation on a blog, etc.—some are better than others.  I admit that I do have my favorites, but I still maintain that there is validity to every significant translation that you have probably read or heard of.  (That includes the King James Version, by the way, or at least the New King James.  Even though I don't see value in reading a translation into Shakespearean English unless you're a 17th-century Englishman, nevertheless in particular passages I think that those old translators often made some very insightful judgments.)

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their classic book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (3rd ed., 2003—if you haven't read it before, get it now), employ a spectrum diagram to explain Bible translations.  At the one pole is "literal," which is an attempt to render the ancient languages word for word, even maintaining sentence structure if possible.  Taken to the extreme (which none do) this kind of translation is incomprehensible since the grammar of those languages is so different from contemporary American English.  The opposite pole is "paraphrase," which really is not so much a translation as it is someone's complete rewrite of the Bible based on their interpretation and impressions of another translation (usually).  The middle area of the diagram is labeled "dynamic equivalence."  This is an attempt to translate the text not "word for word" but "thought for thought" so that the ideas in the text as they would be received by ancient readers are preserved in modern language for modern readers.  Fee and Stuart located all major English Bible versions (at the time) along this spectrum so that the reader can see where they fall in translation philosophy and in relation to each other.  (Apparently Fee and Mark L. Strauss wrote a book published in 2007 entitled How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth that I'm sure goes into this in more detail and is probably really good.)

The objective of every translator is to get the material into the target language so that the modern reader receives it—both understands it intellectually and feels it emotionally—exactly and as fully as an ancient reader would.  Sometimes this is easier than others.  Sometimes it's impossible.  And different translation teams have different philosophies about how to do this.  But every modern translation I've seen—I mean it: every one, whether the philosophy is more toward the literal or more toward the readable—has the same two problems: (1) it's not readable enough; (2) it's too readable.

Here's what I mean when I say that these translations aren't readable enough.  First of all, I really support the efforts of some of them to employ English as it's commonly spoken and even written today, which features, among other things, a whole lot of contractions.  Our language also features phrases like "a whole lot of" which are excellent translations of some phrases and terms in the original text but haven't shown up in English translations in the past because they sound too colloquial.  I like the fact that things like this are finding their ways into Bible translations now, especially because much of the biblical text includes ancient colloquialisms (especially in dialogue).  But no matter how painstakingly readable and contemporary these new translations try to be, they are still so under the sway of the King James (ironically) and centuries of church usage that some portions of the Bible and its language refuse to be liberated.  Let's take a couple of New Testament passages as examples.

Exhibit A: John 3:16.  Here's how it's rendered in the New Living Translation (1997), one of the more paraphrastic ("readable") translations in the dynamic equivalence school: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."  It sounds almost exactly the same as every other version's translation of this text.  But we have two problems in the first three words (I won't even get into "perish").  First, who in present-day America uses the word "for" as a conjunction?  No one.  But here it sits in this conscientiously "readable" translation.  The Greek word gar underlying "for" either means "because" or introduces some kind of explanation of what precedes (like, "See, . . . "), and it should only be translated in one of these two ways or (as context demands) omitted entirely in modern translations.  Now, perhaps you didn't know that there was text that preceded John 3:16, but there is.  As the NLT says it, "And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life, because [gar] God so loved the world. . . ."  That's how it should go, anyway.

But the second problem in the first three words of John 3:16 is the word "so."  Every American English reader of John 3:16 believes that "so" means "so much," because if we ever used "so" in this part of a sentence (note: we wouldn't) that's what we would mean.  Every student of Greek (not to mention scholar) knows that the word translated "so" here (hoútōs) doesn't mean "so much"; it means "like this" or "in this way" (in this context).  They all know that John 3:16 should read, " . . . because this is how God loved the world.  So he gave his only Son. . . ."  But despite that they all know this is the best way to render it in English, you can't buy a "readable" translation that puts it like this.

Exhibit B: The Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13).  Every translation starts with, "Our Father in heaven" and then some attempt at a contemporary rendering of "hallowed be thy name."  I admit that this is a really tricky one, because the text assumes a concept of holiness that is foreign to most contemporary people (which I've blogged about more than once, for example here).  It's probably impossible to get it exactly right.  But the one thing that every translation can get right if they want to is how to handle the Greek "third-person imperative" in "hallowed be thy name" and "thy kingdom come."  An imperative is a verb that says what someone demands to happen.  In English we have only have the imperative in the second person, that is, when we're directly talking to someone else: "You over there—open that window."  "Open" in that sentence is an imperative; "you" indicates that it's the second person.  In addition to the second person, Greek also has a third-person imperative.  In all kinds of English translations it is consistently rendered "let," like, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16).  In some versions of the Lord's Prayer it shows up as "may," like, "May your name be kept holy" for "hallowed be thy name."  But "let" sounds like I'm allowing you to do something, and "may" sounds like you may do it if you want.  Not strong enough.  Fortunately, English has a word with more force: "must," like, "your name must be sacred" for "hallowed be thy name."  Why doesn't "must," or at least "should," show up in the translation of every third-person imperative in the New Testament?

While we're on the Lord's Prayer, let's talk about the kingdom of God.  Readers of this blog know that I love talking about the kingdom of God.  You may remember that the kingdom of God isn't a place (like heaven for example) but the "kingship" of God, his acknowledged authority to rule as king.  It is more accurate to call it "the reign of God."  I know this because every biblical scholar knows it, and I was taught it repeatedly in college and seminary.  It's the very first thing they all tell you in a class when they bring up the kingdom of God.  And yet these same scholars who all know this and teach it to all their students continue to this day to employ the term "kingdom of God" instead of "reign of God" in every contemporary, readable Bible translation.

So these are just some examples of why contemporary translations that intend to be readable still aren't readable enough.  In the next post I'll tell you what I mean when I say that contemporary translations, including more "literal" ones, are too readable.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The National Day of Prayer and the Kingdom of God

[Note: This letter refers to a National Day of Prayer event held in one county.  It is not intended to insinuate anything about the parent, sponsoring organization known as The National Day of Prayer or NDOP events held in any other localities.]

Dear S,

I was honored to be asked to participate in the National Day of Prayer service [on May 5], and I appreciate your patience with me as it took me a few years to make good on your invitation.

However, at present I can't say that I'm interested in discussing how to increase the attendance at the event, because I am personally conflicted about the event.  On the one hand, the unity of the Church is of great importance to me, and to gather with other believers to pray is a substantial step toward the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17 that glorifies God and testifies to the world about the truth of the gospel.  But on the other hand, there were some assumptions in prayers, comments, and songs at the last event that I do not share and in some cases strongly oppose.

(I should interrupt myself here and affirm a few things.  First, I am convinced that your desire to please the Lord is pure and that your service is a fragrant sacrifice to him.  I have nothing but warm gratitude and admiration for you.  And I have faith in the integrity and desire to please the Lord of everyone involved with the event.  And if at all possible through the flat medium of e-mail, please hear that I'm baring my heart here, and this has more to do with what that heart beats for and bleeds for than anything else.  I'm writing because I think you deserve to know what I'm really thinking, and you don't deserve for me just to dance around things and blow you off.)

Perhaps I can explain where I'm coming from best by stating what I strongly stand for, much of which I put into words in our prayer circle at the end of the event.  I am convinced that all believers' truest, most basic, most important citizenship is in the kingdom of God, the heavenly kingdom that has broken into this world in Jesus Christ and that will transform this world fully and finally when he appears again.  (Relevant Scriptural references include Phil. 3:20-21; Dan. 7, esp. vv. 13-18; but there are many more examples.)  This kingdom includes members of all nations, and when it comes fully it will replace and eliminate all earthly kingdoms, including the United States of America.  Until that day comes, we live as aliens and strangers in this world that is not our real home.  We American believers actually (should) have more in common with citizens of God's kingdom of other earthly nationalities than we do with our own countrymen who don't believe.

Nevertheless, for as long as we live in these bodies we are also citizens of these earthly kingdoms, in our case the United States.  Like the Jews who were exiled to Babylon and were aliens and strangers there, we are urged to "seek the welfare [peace, shālōm] of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to Yahweh on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare" (Jer. 29:7).  So asking God to bless America, working hard for its good, and sacrificing for its safety are entirely appropriate things to do.  But even those things must stand in light of the ultimate promise that God "will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you . . . and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile" (v. 14)—the kingdom of the Son he loves.

The bulk of my problem with the thrust of the National Day of Prayer service was my sense that the assembled group desired to save something that won't be saved (and presumably shouldn't be saved)—namely, the United States as we know it—on account of confusing it with the kingdom of God, which is eternal.  The confusion between America and the kingdom was most evident in some of the songs, one that compared the flag flying "forever" with Jesus' sacrificial death for sins, another that promised that "America will bow, and the eagle will soar."  The passion of the event seemed to be toward recovering or propping up the health, strength, and permanence of America, because obviously (so the reasoning goes) America is God's people and that's what God wants.  The passion was not for the triumph of the kingdom of God that will take the place of America (and all other governments) when Christ returns.

At least some of what drives the zeal for America to be restored seems to be (for some, at least) the story that once upon a time all Americans were Christians, and America itself was Christian (whatever that means), and we've lost that, and that's why we have problems, and we're asking God to get it back.  I think that's what people mean by "revival."  Probably due to a combination of my generation, my understanding of history, and the fact that I haven't lived most of my life in a culturally Christian place like this county, I'm not really interested in revival.  I want "vival"!  I mean that I'm not looking for our community and nation to go back to the good thing that it once was.  I want us to become the followers of Jesus that we've never been!  The Church needs revival.  The world needs to be saved for the first time.  And that's what I care about.  I really don't care much about saving America.  I care a great deal about saving Americans.  And whatever is truly good about America will live on in them for eternity even when America is no more.

So if I'm going to gather with others to pray for America, what I want to pray for like our lives depend on it is that spiritually dead Americans will be born to new life for their own sake and for the sake of the kingdom of God.  I want to pray that Satan will be vanquished across the full sweep of the Bible's moral vision, which is far broader than just abortion and other social hot-buttons, important though those are.  And I want to pray that the Church globally, not merely in America, would live up to the full measure of the stature of Christ.  And if I quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 ("If my people, who are called by my name . . . ") then I'll mean it in New Covenant terms, by which I mean that if all believers in Jesus Christ around the world (God's new people) pray, then God will heal the entire earth by sending his Spirit to renew it and his Son to re-create it.

S, I'm not writing this to preach at you or haul off at you.  I just believe—passionately, as you can see—that despite the good intentions at work in the National Day of Prayer event, it seems to prioritize this age and this nation at the expense of the age to come and the holy nation that God made from all those who believe, which is where our heart belongs.

I truly hope that this explanation actually builds you up and doesn't tear you down, even if it makes it more difficult or impractical for us to work together.  Thank you for reading, and be blessed.  If you'd like to dialogue more, please call.

Grace and peace be yours.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Another Surprise in 1 Chronicles: The Devastating Exile

People who think that some parts of the Bible are a waste of time are wrong.  I know this in part because I'm continuing to pore through one of the biggest, time-wastingest parts of the Bible, the genealogies in 1 Chronicles (see earlier post), and I'm learning stuff that isn't purely trivial.  I've recently made my painstaking way through the genealogies of the tribe of Judah (2:1-4:23).  I'm not going to lie to you: this took some serious time.  And I admit that the ratio of time spent to divine insight received is probably higher in these two and a half chapters than in any other part of the Bible I can think of.  But insight came nevertheless.

The insight is that the genealogies of Judah are a strange, quiet, unexpected exhibit of how devastating the exile was, how small the surviving and returning remnant was, and how arduous the reestablishment of Jewish society in its homeland was.

The genealogies of Judah are wildly uneven.  Great detail is given to some parts of the family tree while other parts are gapingly neglected.  For example, nearly the entire set is dominated by the descendants of Judah's son Perez.  His twin brother Zerah gets three verses (2:6-8).  All of the descendants of Perez in the set come from his son Hezron; none of the descendants of Hezron's brother Hamul are listed.  This kind of thing happens repeatedly through the generations delineated here.  Then there are weird decisions about which lineages get more attention.  On the one hand, it's hardly surprising that the ancestry and immediate family of David get a good bit of space, as well as the sons of his wives and the line of kings extending even to their postexilic descendants (which, sad to say, lines up with neither Matthew 1 nor Luke 3, though Matthew is a smidge closer).  But why in the world do we get 13 generations of the descendants of Sheshan, not one of whom we know anything about (except that Sheshan may be the same guy three verses earlier who comes five generations after Hezron's son Jerahmeel)?  And there are other weirdnesses too, like people who appear with alternate names like Chelubai in 2:9, who for the rest of the section is called Caleb (not that Caleb) except in 4:1 where he's called Carmi.  Similarly, the last group of genealogies appears to be a miscellaneous category where bits and pieces of family lines go that generally aren't connected to anyone else.  The famous "prayer of Jabez" (whoever that is) is found here as also are fragmented descendants of Shelah, Judah's third son, that include the cryptic note in 4:22 that "the words are old."  Trust me, I could go on.

It seems that the Chronicler (perhaps Ezra), writing during the resettlement after the exile, is trying hard to reconstitute a sense of nationhood and family that was almost destroyed by the deportation.  One can imagine him interviewing his fellow returnees, asking them what they know and remember and if any of it had been written down anywhere.  He takes all he gets and tries to put it together into a coherent whole, but vast amounts of information are missing because the records and the descendants themselves are either scattered through the Persian Empire or didn't survive the destruction, and what little remains is enigmatic and conflicting with no one to answer the questions.

The situation of the returnees to Judea from exile must have been something like the settings of post-apocalyptic movies a la The Road Warrior, The Postman, etc.  It certainly wasn't (quite) as lawless with the Persian military nearby, but the remnants of physical destruction, the depopulation, and the social and psychological effects of the loss of so many people are hard to imagine.  We cannot wrap our minds around the severity of God's discipline of his people and the intensity of his wrath, nor can we fully grasp the miracle of how he preserved a remnant through it all out of his faithful love, for the purpose of his master plan.