We Three Kings: exegeted, explained, and exposed

A carol-commentary for the Festival of Epiphany
(a little weird, a little forced, perhaps a little sin-ical ?)

WE: the first person plural subject of the song, suggesting this comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak

THREE: or perhaps four, or maybe seven, or even twelve, or some other indeterminate number, since the initial story does not specify the precise number of subjects in the story

KINGS: or some say wise men, or others say sages, which they offer as an interpretation of the term magus, used in the initial narrative … so perhaps the subjects of the song are Zoroastrians, for whom star-watching was a highly-developed skill.

OF ORIENT: or, lands east of Israel, so perhaps Babylon, or even further to the east, in Parthia, where the Zoroastrian faith was dominant

ARE: the main verb, denoting the existential state of being of the subjects

BEARING: adverbial participle, descriptive of the activity of the aforesaid subjects of the song

GIFTS: by tradition, three of them [see below], which goes to explain why you might think there are three of the subjects [see above] … and providing grist for the mill for the idea that these subjects were kings, since Psalm 72:10-11 speaks about kings bringing gifts to the King of Israel

WE TRAVERSE AFAR: presumably on camels, the deluxe form of transportation of the time … although ………

FIELD AND FOUNTAIN, MOOR AND MOUNTAIN: a little bit of poetic excursus, a selective account of the natural phenomena encountered on the journey, arranged in alliterative couplets (it feeds the creative imagination of the listener/singer, you see)

FOLLOWING: another adverbial participle, providing a second description of the activity of the subjects

YONDER STAR: a bright celestial phenomenon, shining in the eastern sky but apparently moving or pointing in the direction of Israel, which was dutifully followed by the subjects

star on a dark background

O Star of wonder, star of night / Star with royal beauty bright /
Westward leading, still proceeding / Guide us to thy Perfect Light:
more poetic extrapolation, as befits the season

*****

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain / GOLD I bring to crown Him again /
King forever, ceasing never / Over us all to reign:
which explains the claim that the subjects of the song are kings, as the gift of gold was what the kings of the nations bring to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6–bearing in mind the injunction of Exodus 20:23, that this gift of gold not be in the form of any idol

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

FRANKINCENSE to offer have I / Incense owns a Deity nigh /
Prayer and praising, all men [oops!] raising / Worship Him, God most high:
in relation to the gift of frankincense, as already noted above, the kings of the nations bring this to the Lord God when they travel to Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 60 verses 3 and 6 … and, ahhh, presumably there has been a divine change of mind since Isaiah 1:13, where the Lord God declared that “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” ?

***

MYRRH is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes of life of gathering gloom /
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying /Sealed in the stone-cold tomb:
curiously, there is no scriptural tradition about kings bringing myrrh to the Lord

Nevertheless, myrrh certainly featured as a gift in the religious practices of Israel, according to Exodus 30:23–27 (The LORD spoke to Moses: “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil’ — an oil to anoint “the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand”)

As the song signifies, it points forward to a moment in the passion of Jesus as narrated at Mark 15:23, where it is mixed with wine [but in that case, the gift was not accepted] and to the burial scene as reported at John 19:39, where it is mixed with aloes.

And let’s not make any link to the scene in Revelation 18:11-13, where the merchants of the world lament the fact that nobody is purchasing their goods any longer … goods which include, amongst many options, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh …

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

Glorious now behold Him arise / King and God and Sacrifice /
Alleluia, Alleluia / Earth to heav’n replies:
adhering to the Golden Evangelical Rule of always taking the opportunity to smuggle Easter and the Cross and the Sacrifice of Jesus into any song or sermon or worship service or, even, Christmas/Epiphany Carol!

O Star of wonder, etc …

*****

So: Merry EndofChristmas and HappyEpiphany!!!

And for more exotica on the Magi, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/04/tales-from-the-magi-the-revelation-of-the-magi/

Fulfilling the Law (James 2; Pentecost 15B)

I have already given some consideration to the strongly Jewish ethos of the book we know as the letter of James—which, as I have argued, is better portrayed as a moral treatise. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/

The passage in view in the lectionary epistle reading for this coming Sunday (James 2:1-17) places this characteristic right to the fore, when it declares that “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (2:8).

The recipients of the treatise of James are identified in the opening verse as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). This is a generic description giving no specific clues as to their identity. This does, however, provide a testimony to the continuing presence of Jewish believers within the Jesus movement.

The readers of this work would well have recognised the reference to Leviticus 19:18, which clearly states: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. They would also have known very easily that the laws cited in James 2:11 are drawn directly from The Ten Words which God gave to Moses to give to Israel (Exodus 20).

This Jewish element can be seen in much of the treatise, particularly in the way that God is portrayed. God is the Father (1:17, 27; 3:9), the One God (2:19), both “lawgiver and judge” (4:12), who is acknowledged as being “compassionate and merciful” (5:11). God has created the world (1:17) and made humans in image of God (3:9). God acts as the champion of the poor (1:27), and requires human beings to act with justice for the poor (5:1–6). All of these claims about God can be seen to have been drawn from the testimony of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The treatise of James thus draws on the prophetic tradition of Israel for its view of God. It shares this viewpoint with Matthew’s Gospel, where God is acknowledged as Creator, judge, lawgiver, showing mercy yet demanding righteousness. These two books of the New Testament testify to the ongoing vitality of “Jewish Christianity” in the middle and latter decades of the first century.

Also similar to Matthew’s Gospel is the way that this treatise includes numerous explicit references to Hebrew scripture. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus quoted often from his scripture and drew on biblical imagery as the basis for his teachings. This characteristic is heightened both by the Matthean narrative’s emphasis on fulfilment of scripture (Matt 1–4; 8:17; 12:17–21; 21:4–5; 27:9–10) and the words attributed to Jesus concerning the fulfilment of the law (5:17–20) and of the prophets (13:14–15, 35; 26:52–56).

In the treatise of James, there are two significant passages which contain direct citations of the Law. First, the Levitical command to love the neighbour (Lev 19:18) introduces a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law (2:8). There is reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11) before a succinct moral conclusion is drawn: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.

Second, in his consideration of faith and works (2:18–26), the author engages in a midrash on the Genesis account of Abraham being reckoned as righteousness (Gen 15:6); once again, a concise conclusion is drawn, that “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Ever since Martin Luther dismissed James as a “right strawy epistle”, interpreters have tended to assume that James 2 stands in direct contrast to Paul’s argument in Gal 3:6–18; more recent interpretation has questioned this assumption. James here defines “faith” as mere verbal assent, with no practical outworking (2:18–19)—a sense which it does not have for Paul, who links faith and love by referring to “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

In fact, it is claimed, both authors regard authentic faith as inextricably linked with “works”. But the sense remains that this treatise reflects a strand of the Jesus movement which differed from Paul’s views—and was perhaps more in tune with the opponents with whom Paul often argued. The polemic against a Pauline understanding certainly underlies the argument of James 2:14–26; the twice-stated conclusion (2:17, 26) is pointed in rebutting the Pauline criticism of relying on “the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16; 3:2, 10–12). It’s a matter of priority: faith comes first, the “works of the Law” come as a consequence of that first priority. Trusting first in works has the order the wrong way around.

But simply relying on faith with no regard for the Law is not good enough for James. In affirming that “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26), the treatise of James affirms the ongoing validity and central importance of “the royal law”, continuing the ancient Israelite commitment to living a life consistent with the intentions of God that they be a holy people.

The ethic imbued by keeping the Law is fundamental to the life of faith. In this way, for followers of Jesus, the model of Abraham continues to inform their discipleship; “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22).

In this regard, viewing Abraham as a model of faith, this letter is consistent with what Paul writes, in Romans: Abraham “did not weaken in faith … no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:18-21).

And Paul, like James, also affirms the ongoing validity of the ethic that is taught in the Law, asserting that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12) and “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19).

Indeed, Paul affirms that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, citing some of the Ten Commandments in support (Rom 13:8-10). So whilst there are some points of disagreement between James and Paul, as to how the Law is used in specific ways, there is a fundamental commitment to keeping the ethic, the way of life, that is taught by the Law. James can’t simply dismissed as being as unsubstantial as straw–sorry, Luther!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/01/wisdom-from-ages-past-for-the-present-times-leviticus-jesus-james-and-paul-pentecost-15b-23b/

Clobbering the clobber passages

There are a number of passages in scripture which appear to address the matter of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. They have often been (mis)used to “clobber” LGBTIQA+ people by Christians.

This small handful of scripture passages have exercised an inordinately huge influence on the church—and, indeed, on society as a whole—in relation to various matters associated with same-gender relationships and the range of gender identities which exist amongst humanity.

Over the past 25 years, Elizabeth and I have regularly taught about these passages, providing a constructive way of understanding each of them. In keeping with the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia, the way we approach these biblical texts is to draw on the insights of critical scholarship in order to develop a clear understanding of what is, and what is not, referred to in these passages.

This is consistent with the commitment of the church to “sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought”, through drawing on “the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries”, which leads to the articulation of “an informed faith” (para 15). There are many insights about gender identity and sexual relationships that have been gained over the past decades, from work undertaken in medical, psychological, sociological, and biological arenas.

In surveying these passages, it is to be noted that none of them must, by necessity, be seen as weapons to be used to “clobber” LGBTIQ people. Each passage needs to be understood within its context. Careful scholarly work has been undertaken to indicate just how this interpretative process illuminates these texts, and does not provide any warrant for their earlier negative, hurtful, and harmful use, by the church, against LGBIQ people.

Language. The first thing to note is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek languages, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. A key observation is that many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.

Culture. A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it. Scripture does not show awareness of the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. There is a clear cultural difference between the world of the texts of scripture, and the 21st century world.

Leviticus 18 and 20: Neither the oft-quoted verse about same-gender sex (Leviticus 18:22), nor a similar statement two chapters later (Leviticus 20:13), are dealing primarily with same gender relationships, but about cultural shaming practices, using power to create inequality in relationship. This text occurs in a section of Leviticus called “The Holiness Code” which has as its main purpose to set out laws to keep Israel different from the surrounding cultures.

The rules in this section of Leviticus were meant to set the Israelites apart from the Canaanites and Egyptians, who at that time participated in fertility rites in their temples that involved different forms of sex, including homosexual sex. Male-to-male sex was seen to mix the roles of man and woman and such “mixing of kinds” during ancient times was defined as an “abomination,” in the same way that mixing different kinds of seeds in a field was an abomination.

These verses critique the practice in which a stronger male seeks to subordinate and demean a weaker male, through sexual activity. This is what is declared to be an “abomination”. This abusive and shaming action is not what we are talking about when we refer to same gender relationships today: committed, loving, long-term relationships between two equal people.

Genesis 19:1–29: The same applies to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (told in Genesis 19). This story is an example of what happens when God’s people do not live up to God’s expectations. It provides a lesson about the importance of hospitality to the stranger—a key value in ancient Israelite society. The cruel men of the town were planning to rape the visitors and were definitely not homosexuals. The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the spirit (Ezekiel 16:49-50), declares that this is not about sexual sin, but about the sin of not providing hospitality.

Judges 19:1–30: The terrible story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) also deals with hospitality. It is clear that hostile men used a breach of hospitality protocols as a weapon against other men, seeking to shame the strangers in this way. Like the story of Sodom (Gen 19), this account shows the extremely inhospitable behaviour of the town. Some mistakenly interpret the townsmen’s behaviour to be somehow related to homosexuality, but this was an example of the brutality of one group of men toward a group of visitors. This, again, is not about a same-gender relationship where equality and mutuality are paramount. It is about violating a cultural norm in an abusive and violent manner.

Genesis 1:1–2:4a: This passage is not part of the “clobber passages”, but is included because it provides a clear affirmation that God made a good creation, and encouraged human beings to enter into positive relationships with each other within that good creation (Genesis 1–2). Our human expression of sexuality is one way of expressing the goodness of that creation. We ought not to exclude people who are attracted to people of the same gender from this understanding.

Romans 1:18–27: The behaviour which Paul was addressing here is explicitly associated with idol worship (probably temple prostitution). It is directed towards heterosexual people who searched for pleasure and broke away from their natural sexual orientation or their natural ways of having sex (both male and female) and participated in promiscuous sex with anyone available or used methods not culturally accepted.

In the surrounding culture, it was common for men of a higher status to take sexual advantage of male slaves or male prostitutes. Here Paul is instructing his readers to keep pure and honour God. Paul is talking about the use and misuse of power and authority and how that impacts one’s relationship with God. Paul didn’t have in mind specifically prohibiting consensual same-sex relationships, because they were never considered in his cultural context.

1 Corinthians 6:9–10: In Paul’s vice-list he identifies a list of sinners whom he declares will not be granted entry into the kingdom of God. Amongst the thieves and robbers, drunkards and “revilers” we find a number of sexual transgressions mentioned. This includes two critical words: malakoi and arsenokoites.

The term malakoi means “soft” and is also interpreted as male prostitutes. The word arsenokoites is difficult to translate, but it probably refers to a male using his superiority to take sexual advantage of another male. Paul is right to condemn these sexual activities, but this has nothing to do with a consensual homosexual relationship.

References to sexual sins in Paul’s letters (in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) sit alongside a range of other sins, which are equally condemned, and equally challenging to our discipleship. It is quite legitimate to ask, why single one particular sin out?

Paul related all of these sins to idolatry, which, for him, was the fundamental sin. A loving relationship between people of the same gender is not idolatrous, but rather it can strengthen a sense of the value of human life which God desires for us. Paul was writing about the abuse of relationships, which is quite different from the expression of a loving, faithful relationship.

1 Timothy 1:8–11: This passage is similar to 1 Cor 6, above. This time it is a list of sins (as opposed to sinners) and includes the words pornos, arsenokoites and andrapodistes. Each term needs to be clearly understood. The word pornos most likely refers to a male having sex outside of marriage, presumably with a female (but also, feasibly, with a male); the second term, arsenokoites (found also in 1 Cor 6) can probably be defined as male same-sex relationships that involved some level of exploitation, inequality or abuse. Finally, andrapodistes can be translated as “slave traders.”

Scholars believe that the three terms were used together in that slave dealers (andrapodistes) would be acting as pimps for captured boys (pornos) who would be taken advantage of by powerful men (arsenokoites). These are sins that certainly need to be addressed, but this particular passage does not relate to homosexuals in a committed relationship.

Jesus: In all four Gospels, Jesus rarely discusses sexuality; when he does, there is very little detail. This topic rates as of only tiny significance for him, alongside the greatest focus which Jesus had—on wealth and poverty, and the importance of serving those on the edge, those who are in need. There is no saying or parable of Jesus that directly addresses the situation of LGBTIQ people in particular—apart from the fact that such people are part of the whole of humanity who are addresses in the same way by Jesus in all of his teachings.

From this very brief survey of key passages, we are able to affirm that the most important conclusion to draw from the scholarly explorations of relevant biblical texts, is this: what God wants from human beings, is a commitment to loving, respectful relationships, a commitment to long-term, hopefully lifelong, relationships. In short, the specific genders of people in relationships is less important than the quality of relationship shown between individuals in relationship with each other.

In the Church, we affirm that God is faithful—that those who diligently seek to know the will of God, will be upheld and loved by God. God is not disturbed by differences of opinion; God made a diverse creation, and God honours our search for truth within that creation.

In Jesus, we see the key attributes of God, lived out in a human life. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union declares that “in his life and in his death, he made a response of humility, obedience and trust” (para 3). These are the key qualities of a faithful life. These qualities are the controlling lenses through which we should read the biblical texts, and develop our understanding of sexuality and marriage.

A heterosexual relationship, at its best, will exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. So too can a same genderrelationship. Medical, psychological, and social explorations show that a relationship between two people of the same gender, can itself exhibit the best of human qualities, and demonstrate the finest moral values in human relationship. It can certainly exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. 

Reinterpretation for the present age. Throughout the New Testament, we can see places where NT writers offer radical reinterpretations of the norms of their cultural and religious practices. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus tell us of Jesus’ affirmation of women, his willingness to break religious law by healing on the Sabbath, and his redefining of aspects of Jewish law in the light of his message of the coming kingdom.

The accounts of the early Church include instances where redefinition and breakthrough took place: most strikingly, in Acts 10, as we have already noted. This chapter tells the story of Peter, who was a faithful adherent to a long-established pattern of eating in the manner that was set forth in the laws of Leviticus. He was told that what he did not eat—because it was “unclean”—he was now free to eat—because God had declared such food “clean”.

This opened the way, in the early church, to a new way of inclusive table fellowship where Jews and Gentiles are welcome to eat and share together. Who is to say that the spirit, which once moved in this way, is now not able to move in a similar way, and to declare what some consider “unclean” to be “clean”—and that we can rejoice in this!

In Ephesians, a standard Hellenistic pattern (a “household table”) is adapted to instruct husbands and wives. Eph 5:21–33, while appearing on the surface to reinforce patriarchal norms of wives submitting to husbands, actually instructs husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificing love (“as Christ gave himself for the Church”) and encompasses all marriage relationships under the heading, “submit yourselves to one another”. This was a radical reinterpretation of the marriage relationship itself, even within the first few decades of the life of the church.

The biblical account shows that the spirit comes to faithful people, offers a vision of a new way, and opens hearts and minds to a greater vision which broadens the impact of the good news and reinvigorates missional activity. In the Uniting Church, we seek to walk in that new way, faithful to the witness of scripture, and open to the guidance of the Spirit, accepting of new insights and welcoming to all.

*****

This post formed the basis for a presentation by Elizabeth and myself at the Rainbow Christian Alliance on 8 August 2021. A follow-up presentation on passages from scripture that support an inclusive and affirming attitude on 14 November 2021; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/30/affirming-and-inclusive-passages-from-scripture/

Misunderstanding Jesus: “they came to make him a king” (John 6; Pentecost 9B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary offers us five weeks of readings from John 6, revolving around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven”. The story of the feeding of the crowd of “men … about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) replicates the story omitted from the last week by the lectionary, where the crowd also comprises “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The Gospel offering provided by the lectionary last week omitted the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44) and provided only the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56). It also omitted the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33 as well as John 6:16–21.

In doing this, the lectionary had excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). In this Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/14/whats-in-and-whats-out-mark-6-pentecost-8b/

In the book of signs, the Gospel of John, Jesus moves freely between Galilee and Judea, a number of times; but there is no indication that he visited Gentile territory, despite the question of people in Jerusalem, “does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

The story of feeding the crowd is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14). The Johannine version, as we have seen, also estimates the total number of men present as being “about 5,000” (John 6:11).

So the early sections of John chapter 6 tell of incidents that are told also by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels: feeding a crowd (6:1–14) and walking on the water (6:16–21).

Woven through this long chapter, however, are a series of encounters that Jesus had with people around him—the crowds in Galilee (6:2, 22), his own disciples (6:3, 16, 60, 66-67), and a group of leaders who had come north from Judea into Galilee, to hear and see him (6:41, 52).

Note: Most translations describe this latter group simply as “the Jews”. The Greek word used, however, can equally be translated as “the Judeans”. There is a good case that has been mounted that the way the word is used in the fourth Gospel means that it should be translated as “a group of Jewish leaders who exercise great authority among their compatriots and are especially hostile to Jesus and his disciples … it refers to certain authorities rather than to the people as a whole.” See D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John”, accessible at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel thus offers a series of encounters that reveal misunderstanding, antagonism, and conflict in the ways that people relate to Jesus, even whilst he sets forth this significant teaching that he is “the bread of life” (6:35, 48).

*****

The first of these encounters takes place in the opening scene of this chapter, near to Passover, when Jesus and his disciples are gathered with “a large crowd” beside the Sea of Galilee (6:1-15). The issue, of course, is how to feed the large crowd; the scene thus provides the pressing situation which enables Jesus to speak, at length, about the gift of living bread that he offers.

The scene, as we have noted, is reminiscent of the Synoptic scene of feeding recounted at Mark 6:32-44, Matt 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17; and also the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”.

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36), prefiguring the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

In John’s Gospel, the last supper (13:1 onwards) does not contain any such remembrance of bread (and wine); whatever Eucharistic overtones are contained in the book of signs appear later in chapter 6, with references to “feeding on my flesh and drinking my blood” (6:63-58).

In the opening scene, nevertheless, there is an allusion to this pattern in the description of Jesus as he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (6:11)—although this is immediately followed, not by drinking wine, but by distributing fish (6:11b).

The miracle that is experienced by “the large crowd”—five barley loaves and two fish (6:9), which not only feeds the crowd (6:12) but also provides twelve baskets of left-overs (6:13)—is, understandably, interpreted by the people as a prophetic sign (6:14).

Jesus is this described as “the Prophet who is to come into the world”, alluding to the eschatological expectation of “the prophet to come” (Deut 18:15–18; Mal 4:4–6). Prophets were know to be capable of performing signs, following the model set by Moses (Acts 7:36; Exodus 4:1–17; Deut 34:10–12).

*****

The insight that Jesus was a prophet has already been expressed by the woman of Samaria, beside the well (John 4:19). In that encounter, the woman moves from a recognition of Jesus as prophet, to an awareness that he is Messiah (4:25-26, 29), and then to her testimony that he was the saviour of the world (4:39-42). So the initial response of the crowd is positive, affirming Jesus as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14)

Immediately, however, it turns sour: “when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (6:15).

To make him king: this is the first misunderstanding of Jesus that can be identified in this chapter. (There are a number of other misunderstandings that can be noted in the remainder of this chapter.)

The appointment of a king in Israel was contested, according to the narratives included in 1 Samuel. The prophet Samuel did not wish to anoint a king (1 Sam 8:6) and argued against this before the people (1 Sam 8:10–18). But the voice of the people (1 Sam 8:5, 19–20) prevailed; Samuel duly anointed the first king, Saul (1 Sam 10:1) and begrudgingly declared him to be king (1 Sam 10:17–24). So Israel had kings, and they ruled for some centuries.

Of course, by the time of Jesus, the institution of the monarchy had been well established, and had flourished under David and Solomon, Omri and Josiah. Then the monarchy had been dismantled through the violence of foreign invasion and the upheaval of large scale movements into exile, from 721 BCE in the northern kingdom, then from 587 BCE in the southern kingdom.

The accounts that we have of the role of kings in Israel (in 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles) comes from later, after the return from exile on the 6th century BCE. The vision of the king in these documents was highly romanticised; the tradition about David and Solomon in particular had minimised their numerous faults and strongly valorised their virtues (1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:13–28).

In Christian tradition, this trajectory continues. Jesus is acknowledged as King of the Jews (Mark 15:2 and parallels) and even has a feast day in the liturgical cycle named after this: Christ the King. The author of the book of signs knows the irony of the fact that this is where Jesus will come undone: from the moment when Pilate put to Jesus the notion that he might be “the King of the Jews” (18:33). The very claim was enough to ensure that he would be scorned and ultimately crucified (19:3, 19-21).

To the Romans, a king was not a position to be valued. The terrible experience they had with Julius Caesar, the one-man ruler called rex, was enough to turn them away from having a king for centuries. There was a political naïveté in the Jewish crowd’s actions in acclaiming Jesus as king, at least in terms of how the Romans would have viewed him.

And to a pious Jew like Jesus, it was clear beyond doubt that only God was king over Israel (Ps 72)—indeed, over the whole earth (Ps 47). Jesus definitely wants to avoid such an acclamation about him at this point. The crowd are misunderstanding him. So he withdraws.

The author includes this clear indication, dripping (as is typical in this Gospel) with irony. The one whom the crowds excitedly wanted to crown as king, will be savagely put to death by the Romans as “King of the Jews”, pretender and aggravant.

How can we preach on passages in the Bible that are myths?

In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we spent some sessions dealing with texts that we characterised as myths. These are narrative sections of the Bible that look, on the surface, to be historical reports—but, in fact, we have come to the conclusion that there is little, or no, evidence from outside the Bible to support our reading them as history.

In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. Some of the passages that we saw as fitting into this category were the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.

What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.

Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith.

We do this every time we reread a children’s story to our children, or grandchildren, or tell a story as the “children’s address” in worship. We do this whenever we go to the theatre and watch a play, created by a playwright, set in an imaginary location at another time. We do this when we listen to music that enriches our spirits, that takes us “out of ourselves” into a different place. The saints of the Celtic church talk about “thin places” where the environment can invite us to pause, reflect, imagine, and as we move out of ourselves and gain a deeper sense of God, present with us.

So we know the dynamic of stepping out of the concrete, specific, material, historical realm, and entering into a deeper, expanded, transcendent dimension. We can do that in the ways noted above (and more); why not also in the times that we read scripture? We can perhaps do this when we listen to one of the parables of Jesus, knowing that they are stories, not historical accounts. Can the same be done for other, longer, narrative sections of scripture?

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer writes about “a fusion of horizons” that can take place when we step out of our familiar world, into the world of the story, the myth, which has its own dynamics and patterns. The basic premise of this understanding is that the familiar world that we inhabit in daily life has its own horizon; we see all of life encompassed within the overarching framework that is provided by the furthest horizon of our culture. We instinctively operate within that horizon. We have our own understanding of the world; we operate within our own experiences, our own received traditions, our own expectations and patterns of living.

Myth that is offered in a biblical text has another horizon, a different horizon. The patterns of behaving, the structures of relationships, the ethos of the culture, are each set in a different way by the different horizon of that text. Stories that are myths offer us alternative experiences and patterns of living, and different traditions and customs. These patterns and experiences shape a different horizon within the story. Recognising the extent of that horizon—how it is broader, or how it is closer, than our familiar everyday horizon—is a part of the process of interpretation.

When we provide an interpretation—when we start to think and talk about how “that text” relates to “our context”—we are fusing the horizon of the text with the horizon of our life. Our everyday horizon incorporates what we have been taught, what we have experienced for ourselves, and thus what resonates in the depths of our soul. These are the prejudices (the pre-judgments) that we bring into the process of interpretation. Those prejudices need to be named and acknowledged. They are not barriers to interpretation; they are factors that facilitate our interpretation.

The horizon of the text may introduce new factors, bring different awareness, invite fresh experiences. Those new and different factors need to be integrated into our familiar horizon. That process is the pathway of fusion, as the two horizons are brought into relationship with each other. The creativity and imagining that a myth offers, invites us to reshape our familiar patterns of interpretation as we enter into a framework with a different horizon of understanding. That is a great gift offered to us through this particular genre.

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Hans Georg Gadamer defines a horizon as follows:

Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. … A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have an horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it. … [W]orking out the hermeneutical situation means acquiring the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2013). Truth and Method. Translated by Weinsheimer, Joel; Marshall, Donald G. (revised 2nd ed.). London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-7809-3624-6.

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For earlier posts, see:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

How should we read the Old Testament? Considering Genres.

Reading the Bible and reflecting on its message for us, is a fundamental activity for people of faith. Understanding the Biblical message and its application in our lives is the purpose of private meditation or devotion times, group studies, and preaching in worship. So thinking about how we undertake that process of interpretation is good to do, from time to time.

One of the issues that is raised, when we think about interpretation, relates to what we understand the biblical texts are. We need to appreciate the nature of the text we are reading; let it speak in its own right; let the kind of text that it is guide the way we go about reading it.

In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we identified a number of different literary genres that are found within the Old Testament: narratives, laws, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic. We also noted that we think about the nature of these texts, that will shape and inform the way that we interpret and apply them.

(1) When we read passages that comprise lists of Laws, we probably begin to think about how these laws were relevant to the ancient society, where people had different customs and practices. Are they still relevant today? Do we still keep slaves or stone sinners or slaughter animals for sacrifice? Such matters have shifted over time, so we automatically start to sift and sort amongst the laws.

Some laws, we will want to keep, because they seem to apply across time and space, or because they contain fundamental principles (“love your neighbour as yourself”, for instance). Other laws, we will classify as no longer relevant. Some will sit in between and we need to think further about them. We happily engage in this process of sorting and sifting when we read Laws in the books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy).

(2) Other parts of the Pentateuch contain extended Narratives, telling stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs (in Genesis) and of the origins of Israel as the people left Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and entered into the land of Canaan (Exodus and Numbers, Joshua and Judges, and Ruth). Then follows a series of narrative books telling of the kings and the prophets (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) and then, later, of the return to the land (Ezra and Nehemiah).

These Narratives have the appearance of historical accounts—they are organised chronologically, the have a series of key characters, and they focus on developments, challenges, and changes in society. Indeed, we label the main stream of these books with the term The Deuteronomic History, laying claim to their character as history.

Nevertheless, careful study of these books indicates that this is not always history as we know it in the contemporary world. We have other expectations and patterns in our modern histories. And we certainly should not consider these to be “objective history”; they are not, as the biases and prejudices of the authors are evident. (And, besides, is there actually any such thing as “objective history”? Are not all accounts told from a particular perspective with a specific agenda in kind?) These narratives are history-like, but not exactly history per se.

So as we read these history-like texts, we can have a number of questions in mind, that help us to enter into the story, understand the dynamics at work, and identify with or against the various key characters. As we do this, we may well develop an understanding of how God is portrayed as being active in the story as we have it.

(3) In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like Myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. The passages that we saw as fitting into this category are the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.

What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.

Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith. Seeing certain narrative texts as myths may well open up new insights when we allow the text to engage us in a quite different way.

(4) When we come to Poetry, we bring with us an assumption that we will be reading words that have been carefully chosen, artistically arranged, and designed to create specific feelings in us as readers. We don’t come expecting the poetry to apply directly in the way that some of the Laws apply. Nor do we expect that poetry needs to be read as objective factual accounts of things that happened. Rather, we accept that the creativity of the author is designed to inspire our own imaginations.

So we bring a different method of interpretation to this kind of literature. We appreciate the structure of the songs in the book of Psalms, or of the oracles of various Prophets, enjoying the skill of the wordplays and imagery employed for their own sake, as well as for what insights they offer into the human condition and how we relate to God. The love poetry of the Song of Songs and the wistful poems of The Preacher in Ecclesiastes

(5) Wisdom sayings such as we find in Proverbs are different again, and we read them with a different set of expectations in mind, asking a different set of questions, with another bunch of conclusions emerging from our consideration of them. By their nature, proverbs are quoted without any specific context—they look just like “general sayings”—and are strung together to form longer sections of text which actually have no sense of plot, character, development, and so on.

We can perhaps happily extract individual proverbs from their biblical context and talk about how they apply to us today, with apparent relative ease. Perhaps there is a place for this, although gaining understanding of the social and historical contexts in which the proverbs were created and passed on, can offer different insights and deeper understandings 9f what is being said in such texts.

(6) Prophetic words are found largely in the books named after individual prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve grouped together as “minor prophets” (Amos, Joel, Hosea, Jonah, etc …). Some prophetic words are embedded in the history-like narratives noted above; this relates to figures such as Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha.

The classic way to approach prophetic texts has been to scout these books looking for “words that have been fulfilled by Jesus”. That is a very narrow way to approach such texts. For one thing, it actually discounts many of the verses in each of these books. For another, it discounts the political, cultural, social and religious contexts in which the prophetic oracles were delivered.

Prophecy, in its fundamental character, is not fore-telling, oriented to the future. Rather, it is more naturally understood as forth-telling, proclaiming a word of the Lord into the current circumstances of the prophet. So understanding the original context assumes a greater significance in the way we approach prophetic writings. Likewise, exploring both the impact of the poetic language and the reasons for the literary ordering and shaping of the oracles merit careful attention.

(7) In some of the books of the prophets, we find sections that are characterised as Apocalyptic (Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, Joel, Zechariah, and Daniel). These are passages which paint a picture of a time and a place that is differs from the time and place of the author. They are texts which claim to reveal how God is going to act in the future, to judge the wickedness that exists and bring about the kingdom of justice and peace on the earth.

The word Apocalyptic is a transliteration of a Greek word that means “unveil” or “revealing”. An Apocalypse is usually presented as a message that has come through a dream or a vision, in which a messenger from God speaks about what is yet to come. It most often contains vivid, dramatic scenes that we cannot interpret as literal scenes; Apocalyptic is thoroughly symbolic.

Apocalyptic literature was written in situations where the people of Israel felt oppressed, dominated by a foreign power, forced into compromises in their religious and cultural practices. The vision or dream portrayed life in a positive, hopeful manner. It was offered as an encouragement to people of faith to hold fast to their faith and look to the promised future, when God would act in their favour.

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In each of these genres, the questions we have in mind, the presuppositions we bring, the reading tools that we have honed and developed, will inform amd guide how we interpret each form of literature. There is no general, overarching, blanket set of rules. Each text needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/how-can-we-preach-on-passages-in-the-bible-that-are-myths/

and see earlier posts at

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

Reading Old and New Testaments together (3): Redemption and Hope

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have already suggested that the church, as a whole, needs these books, and values these scriptures; that they shape, inform, and enrich our lives as Christians. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

There are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

Thus far, we have explored themes of the people of God, in covenant with God, who offers love and mercy, through the gift of the Law, as well as the worship offered to God and the justice demanded by God. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

In this post, we continue with to further themes: redemption, and hope.

In the story about Israel that was told and retold by the people over centuries, the theme of Redemption holds centre stage. God is the one who Redeems Israel (Exod 6:6; 2 Sam 7:22–24; Ps 19:14, 78:35; Job 19:25; Isa 41:14, 43:14, 44:6, 24, etc) and who brings salvation to Israel (Exod 14:13–14, 15:1–2; 1 Sam 2:1–2; 1 Chr 16:8–36; Isa 12:2–3; 33:22, 35:4, 63:1; Jer 30:8–11, 42:11; and in many psalms).

The story of the Passover (Exod 14) and the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15) becomes the central and all-informing narrative for the people of Israel, regularly repeated in brief assertions (Exod 19:4, 20:2; Lev 11:45, 25:38; 26:13; Num 15:41; Deut 5:6; Judg 2:1, 6:8; 1 Sam 8:8, 10:18) and extended credal affirmations (Deut 26:5–9; Josh 24:2–8), as well as sung in psalms (Ps 78:9–72; 80:8–14, 136:10–22; and see Hosea 11:1–4).

Indeed, it was the experience of Exile from the land, and the yearning to return to the land of Israel, that brought the story of the Exodus from Egypt to the centre of the identity of the people of Israel. Much of Hebrew Scripture was collated and constructed as a literary whole during this period of return to the land, with the rebuilding of the city and the restoration of the worship life of Israel in Jerusalem.

The Passover was retold and remembered, not only in the annual festival, but also in the psalms and stories of the people. Looking back, from the perspective of being once more back in the land, meant that the power of this story of leaving behind and moving ahead, took a stronger grip on the collective psyche of the people.

This Passover focus then shapes the story of Jesus and defines the central purpose of Christian faith. Jesus is described as the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), the Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7). It is Jesus who effects salvation (Luke 2:29–32, 3:3–6, 19:9–10; Acts 4:8–12, 13:26–31, 28:28; Rom 1:16–17; 1 Thess 5:9; Eph 1:11–14). It is Jesus who brings redemption (Luke 2:38, 21:28, 24:21; Rom 3:21–26; Gal 4:4–7; Eph 1:7–10; Titus 2:11–14; Heb 9:11–14) for the people of God.

Finally, the theme of Hope is articulated in the Old Testament. The theme can be found in the stories of Israel wandering in the desert, searching hopefully for the promised land. Hope is articulated most clearly in the prophetic stream of writings. The prophets decry the infidelity of Israel and proclaim God’s judgement. They proclaim that judgement will fall on the people on the Day of the Lord (Isa 2:12–22, 13:6–16; Jer 46:10; Joel 2:1–11; Amos 5:18–24; Zeph 1:7–18; Mal 4:1–5). Yet they also look with hope to a time when peace will reign and justice will be done (Isa 2:1–4, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 28:16–17, 42:1–9, 52:9–10, 66:12; Ezek 34:25; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12).

Under the weight of oppression by foreign powers—initially Assyria and Babylon, and then after the Macedonian expansion under Alexander the Great—this prophetic Hope transforms into apocalyptic literature (Isa 24–27, 33-35; Ezek 38–39; Dan 7–12; Zech 12–14). Given the grim circumstances of daily life, the vision of a new era continues to motivate and inspire the people with hope grounded in a deep trust that God would overcome evil and institute a new era. Writers beyond the Old Testament continue to articulate this hope (1 Enoch; Testament of Moses; 2 Baruch; 4 Ezra; and a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The theme of Hope also informs Christian faith. Jesus offers a vision of the Kingdom of God which has been influenced by Jewish ideas (Mark 1:14–15; Matt 4:17–20, 5:3–10; Luke 4:43, 17:20–21; John 3:1–8). So many of the parables of Jesus focus on this kingdom (Mark 4:10–34; Matt 13:24–52, 25:1–46). This vision of Jesus had clearly been sharpened by the yearnings for freedom that had percolated within Israel over centuries under the extended rule of foreign powers (the Seleucids and then the Romans).

Paul articulates a sense that “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor 7:29). He writes “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13), affirming that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2), that is, it will be very soon that the kingdom will come. The groaning of this creation yearn for that time to come soon (Rom 8:18–25).

The very last book of the New Testament, the Revelation attributed to John, portrays the dramatic events which lead to the ultimate instituting of “a new heaven and a new earth”, here on this earth (Rev 21:1–4). In the final chapter of this book, Jesus declares, “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12), and invites believers to respond, simply, “come” (Rev 22:17). So it is that Hope, a central Old Testament theme, continues unabated right throughout the New Testament.

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We have thus reviewed a number of key themes, which indicate how the Old Testament connects with the New Testament, informing the faith of Jesus and his followers, shaping the beliefs of the emerging movement and the way that communities of faith lived out their discipleship. As a major influence for those times, so the Old Testament continues to provide guidance, nourishment, challenge, and inspiration, for faithful followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

So that’s why we should read, study, and preach from the Old Testament!!