Archive for the ‘Bible’ category

An Ancient Near East View of Israel

October 18, 2018

Gehenna (Hinnom) Valley near the Old City in Jerusalem

I am grateful for the religion classes I had in college. I wasn’t a religion major, but I took all the classes to be one, including the thesis class. I took them because I was hungry for the truth that was contained in the ancient scriptures. That hunger began as a hunger for truth, and I searched for it in history, literature, art, philosophy and wherever I could find it, including religion.

I searched for whatever truth I could find in the various religions of the world, but the religion classes at Cornell College where I did my undergraduate work were largely the Judeo-Christian scriptures. There I got a solid academic foundation for Old Testament and New Testament, with an emphasis on the Pentateuch (Books of Moses), writings and the Prophets, because one of the two religion professors was Jewish.

I appreciate the sense of the sweep of biblical history that this education gave me. I wasn’t taught in the context of a particular Christian denomination, but from a Jewish perspective. So, I appreciate what James Michael Smith is doing in his ministry, the DiscipleDojo, who presents an authentic Ancient Near East perspective of Deuteronomy in the podcast that is embedded below. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing (and listen to the other installments if your interest is piqued).

To get an accurate and nuanced understanding of God’s interaction in history with His covenant people that became the backdrop and springboard for His plan of universal redemption, it helps to understand the Ancient Near East that formed the historical context for this interaction. The Abrahamic people were very much people of the Ancient Near East. God’s interaction connects with them where they were in the cultural understandings that informed them.

It’s amazing to me to think about how this very intimate and familiar interaction in an Ancient Near East culture with an Bronze Age people (as skeptics like to point out) has become a timeless, ongoing and ever relevant message for us through the Scripture that was inspired and written down in the process. How could such a Bronze Age perspective carry forward such a universal and timeless message?

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Meaning in the Metaphor in the Bible

October 13, 2018


Imagine hearing these words in the First Century:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in youWhoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
(John 6:47‭, ‬49‭-‬54‭, ‬56‭-‬58 ESV) (emphasis added)

The crowd asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”… and they were probably thinking, “Why would we want to it? That’s disgusting!”

They took him literally, but we understand that he was speaking figuratively. In fact, Jesus spoke figuratively all the time. In fact, Mark says that Jesus spoke in parables everywhere. (Mark 4:34).

To Jesus, the physical world was like one big figure of speech. He spoke about bread, and light, and salt, and a lamp, and a vine, and a mustard seed, and on and on and on. In this way, Jesus was continually challenging the people listening to him to think beyond the physical world they knew to consider spiritual truths that transcend it.

Many, like the Jews who asked how Jesus could give them his flesh to eat, had a hard time with the way Jesus spoke. Even the disciples, themselves, found these words the comparison of Jesus as living bread for people to eat hard to swallow (pun intended). (John 6:66)

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Giving Alms from Within

October 3, 2018


Jesus didn’t pull any punches, and the religious leaders were often the targets caught in his cross-hairs. One theme of his criticism was that they kept up righteous appearances while they were anything but righteous on the inside.  It’s a bit unnerving, is it not, that Jesus could see the thoughts and intents of the heart!

For those who might be tempted to say that the one person in history you would most like to meet is Jesus, maybe you should rethink that!

But then again, Jesus didn’t do anything more than God, the Father, already does. God “discerns our thoughts from afar”; He even knows every word “on my tongue” before I say them. (Psalm 139)

Think about that. Where can I go that God is not present? There is no use trying to hide from God. It’s futile to think that we can.

So, we might as well be honest. God already knows what’s going on in our heads and hearts!

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Metaphor for Heaven’s Sake (Literally)

October 2, 2018


I have been writing and thinking about the odd similarity in the way atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible, which is the subject of Digging Deeper to Mine the Meaning from Scripture. At the same time, have been going through the New Testament in my daily reading. As I went through Matthew, I had been thinking about the ancient tendency to use figures of speech, like metaphor and hyperbole. Perhaps, that is why I began to notice how often Jesus used figures of speech when Jesus spoke.

We are well-acquainted with the frequent use of parables throughout the Gospels. At one point Matthew observed, “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.” (Matt. 13:34) He also used other figures of speech. A figure of speech is defined as “a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or vivid effect”. Some of the more common figures of speech are hyperbole, symbol, simile, personification and metaphor.

For people who insist on reading Scripture literally, Jesus must be maddening. His words are full of figures of speech, and he interpreted the Old Testament by extrapolating on the figures of speech in the Old Testament.

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Digging Deeper to Mine the Meaning from Scripture

October 2, 2018


I have written on the subject of the similarity in the interpretation style of atheists and fundamentalists, or more specifically, perhaps, young earth creationists. Probably several times or more in fact. But, I am not the only who has noticed the similarity.

Among others who have made this observation is Michael G. Strauss, professor at University of Oklahoma. Strauss has been a research physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and more recently at CERN. Strauss has studied the interaction between quarks and gluons and the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics, and, most recently, the properties of the Higgs Boson and “the top quark”. Dr. Strauss is a pretty smart guy, and he is a Christian.

He writes in a blog article dated September 16, 2018, about A Shared Characteristic Between Atheists and Young Earth Creationists, observing that they interpret the Bible the same way. Both camps insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly the creation narrative in Genesis. It’s kind of like the person listening to the announcer giving the play-by-play of a baseball game on the radio when he says, “The runner is hugging the base at third.” Should we imagine that the runner is literally embracing third base in his arms?

Of course not, because we know from the context of our modern culture and language what the announcer is saying. While his words may convey a certain literal meaning, his actual meaning is different. We all know exactly what he means. He means that the runner is holding close to the base. We call this a “figure of speech” among other things.*

We don’t have to struggle to know when to take someone “literally” and when to grasp the nuance of metaphorical meaning. We don’t have to think very hard about it, usually, because we are immersed in the culture and intimately familiar with language usage that gives us clues from in the context of the statements.

We have to use that same approach with the Bible. The only difference is that we are not so immersed in the culture and familiar with ancient Hebrew that we can make those same “common sense” connections with the Bible without a little help. But, it’s not that difficult either.

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The Impossible Perfection of God

September 27, 2018


In the Gospel of Mark, we read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10:17) After a brief discussion about the law and keeping its commandments, Jesus said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mark 10:21)

The rich young ruler went away saddened and grieving. (Mark 10:22)

Obviously, the rich young man found the instruction very difficult. He was evidently hoping for a different answer. He claimed to have kept the commandments of God from an early age, but Jesus brushed his boasting aside and dashed his hopes by demanding the “impossible” from him.

Jesus turned to his disciples as the example for what he was about to say was walking away, and commented, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

If we are being honest with ourselves, most Christians in the United States are wealthy compared to the rest of the world. We might even be considered wealthy compared to the rich young man who sought out Jesus in the First Century. Unless we gloss over what Jesus said, these are hard words to swallow.

They were hard words for the disciples also. Though they had left everything to follow Jesus, they were still “amazed” at what Jesus just said. (Mark 10:24)

As if the example wasn’t enough, Jesus said it again, “[H]ow hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” and he added a word picture for emphasis:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

At these words, the disciples were not just amazed; they were “astonished”, asking, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26)

I believe they identified with the rich young man. I suspect they knew they had to more to give than what they had given. They might have also been thinking about the size of this following to which they had given themselves – it would be small indeed! Who could even qualify?!

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Looking for a Sign; Seeking God

September 26, 2018


Jesus came healing the sick, giving sight to the blind and doing other miracles, but when the religious leaders asked for a sign, he refused.

The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” (Mark 8:11-12)

What Jesus said to the Pharisees when they asked him for a sign seems curious in light of the fact that Jesus performed signs and wonders everywhere he went! The incongruity of these things struck me recently as I was reading through portions of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

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Malcolm Guite

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