Epilogue: perceiving the Judges

The history of Israelite Judges is an account of a series of so-called deliverersEach one, in sequence, appears to have been victorious over this or that people group, in this or that way, for some length of time.  John Bright has offered a neat historical portrait:

It must be understood that the Israel of the early days in Palestine was not at all a nation as we would understand the term.  On the contrary, she was a tribal League, a loose confederation of clans united one to another about the worship of the common God.  There was no statehood or central government of any sort.  The clans were independent units unto themselves.  Within the clans there was the recognition there was recognition of the moral authority of the sheikhs, or elders, but organized authority was lacking. . . .  [At Shiloh] the tribesmen gathered on the feast days to seek the presence of their God and to renew their allegiance to him.  This tribal structure corresponds perfectly to the covenant-people idea and may be assumed to be an outworking of it.  The covenant league was a brotherhood; it was ruled only by the law of the covenant of God.

One may best to see how the primitive order in Israel operated from a reading of the book of Judges.  Here we see the clans maintaining a precarious existence, surrounded by foes but without government, central authority, or state organization of any sort.  In times of danger there would arise a hero, one upon whom the spirit of Yahweh rushed (Judg. 3:10; 14:6), called a judge (shôphēt).  He would rally the surrounding clans and deal with the foe.  While his victories no doubt gain him prestige, he was in no sense a king.  His authority was neither absolute over all Israel nor permanent; in no case was it hereditary. -John Bright, The Kingdom of God, 31

I’ll add just a comment or two here.  First, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to paint all the “judges” as men over whom “the spirit of Yahweh” rushed.  The judges were a motley crew, so I’d like to guard against a monolithic view that considers only the stories, say, of Gideon, Samson, and maybe Deborah.

Next, Bright has observed some important limitations.  The Judge was not a king; s/he was not absolutely or broadly in power; and there were no dynasties.

Also important from a higher vantage point is this textually based, yet also philosophical probe:  Texts may have multiple aspects or even “purposes” in different times, with different audiences.  A reader in, say, 500 B.C.E. would naturally have read the Judges text differently in his historical/cultural context than you and I read it in our situation.  And that variance ought not to threaten the sincere student; rather, if we’ll allow it, the cognizance of different contexts can illuminate.

In this brief series on the Judges, I have offered but a few snippets.  I didn’t care to go into Ehud or spent much time with a few others.  I’ll conclude this series before the sad case of Eli’s sons and Samuel’s unique influence.  Overall, in reading and observing, I think of all the history of God and his people—not only during the actual time of the Judges, but during the centuries and millennia to follow.  And I’m essentially led to wonder this:  Is the whole history of Judges/Deliverers recorded for ancient Israel and New Israel to see that those deliverers were nothing but human, whereas God is the only One who delivers and is sovereign?  Although some times of peace lasted 40 years or more, no one could ultimately deliver Israel except God.

Did Israel ever comprehend God’s utterly singular sovereignty?  Do we?

Interlude
In the tale of Abimelech, a son of Gideon, the name Ebed or Obed appears.  I suppose it’s doubtful that this would be the same Obed who was the son of Boaz, since Abimelech’s clan is said to have lived quite a bit north of Boaz’s.  Yet the later Israelite reader might connect the two stories, and, after all, the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz is set in the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1).  At least, we might note that Abimelech (meaning something like father-king” or “my father is King”) figures into the Judges narrative, in which the Israelites are hopelessly un-delivered.  On the other hand, Naomi’s husband is Elimelech (meaning something like “my God is king”).  Something tells me the reader would pick up more than a name here.  Not only Naomi is given renewal and hope; Ruth, a Moabite outsider of all things, is also given a place within God’s providence.  Here, God is a benevolent, gracious King.  We remember here, with John Bright, that “the idea of monarchy [had been] consciously rejected.  This was Illustrated in the words with which stout Gideon spurned a crown:  ‘I will not rule over you. . . .'”   Bright, 32

Recapitulation
As Bright observed re:  the “primitive theocracy” with a given Judge, “it was the direct rule of God over his people through his designated representative.” (32)   In a very real sense, the entirety of the Christian believer’s life may be summed up in two aspects:  the perceived place/role of God the King, and doing His will.  More succinctly put:  Kingdom and discipleship.  God is our Emperor/King, and we owe Him allegiance, which might also be termed loyal living as a disciple of Jesus, who was God’s “designated representative.”

Coda:  Excursus
N.T. Wright has asserted these truths:

“[T]the call to faith is also a call to obedience.  It must be, because it declares that Jesus is the world’s rightful Lord and Master.  (The language Paul used of Jesus would have reminded his hearers at once of the language they were accustomed to hearing about Caesar.)  That’s why Paul can speak about “the obedience of faith.’  Indeed, the word the early Christians used for “faith” can also mean “loyalty” or “allegiance.”  It’s what emperors ancient and modern have always demanded of their subjects.”

Living by “faith,” therefore, is not merely saying “Jesus, I trust in You,” although that attitude and posture are important.  Living by faith is also living loyally, acting obediently, being a disciple of the one everlasting “emperor.”

Judging and perceiving (5-Jephthah)

Gideon showed mixed allegiance, and faith in God was in evidence at points in his life.  Abimelech was a blight in Israel’s history, showing nothing good at all.  Jepththah was a tragic character—and his story, even more so.

The Jephthah narrative is relatively lengthy (compared to the accounts of, say, Tola or Abdon), so this character is clearly interesting, theologically significant, and/or memorable for the author of the account—and also to the Jews who could come later.  Its dramatic force was noted by such composers as Carissimi (in a mid-17C oratorio predecessor) and Handel (in a mid-18C oratorio).  Handel apparently didn’t care for the outcome of the story, though, so he changed it!

God’s changing attitudes toward the people are intriguing:  first indignant (10:11-14), then influenced by affection (10:16).  He does eventually see this matter through.  In all, the reader perceives that Yahweh, not Jephthah or any other human, is sovereign.  The narrative even labels God (a) a judge called on (b) to judge (11:27), twice using the same root as the one used for the human judges of the book.

The account of Jephthah is not glowing, by any means:

He is the son of a prostitute and is excluded by his half-brothers.  (As with Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, being driven out doesn’t keep God from paying attention.)

The Gilead elders (presumably the half-brothers) persuade Jephthah to lead them.  He consents to be their ruler, and he vows to offer in sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns victorious.

Yahweh, using Jephthah and his men, defeats the Ammonites in battle.

Jephthah’s only child, a daughter, becomes a sacrifice, and a commemorative tradition was born:  Israelite girls would mourn the daughter’s fate.

In-fighting begins:  a sort of civil war between Jephthah’s Gileadites and the offended Ephraimites.  42,000 of the latter were killed.

I don’t find the word “rule” or “ruler” in Judges prior to Gideon.  In other words, Othniel “judged.”  Deborah “judged” but was not said to have “ruled.”  Each of these was said to have been “raised up by God,” but that phrase is not used of Jephthah.  He is a “ruler” who appears to have arisen by human non-God-blessed initiative.

Jephthah leads for only 7 years, but his story rings through history.  “Jephthah’s rash vow” and “shibboleth” have been the main takeaways, but perhaps those are not the only things to note.  At this point I would ask—not because I think it’s a pleasant question or even a good question—what the reader ought to take from this story.

Are we to feel only disgust over Jephthah and over the horror of the killing of his daughter to satisfy the vow? 

Or, perhaps a broader, deeper view is called for:  (1) A man keeps his promises to God, period; and (2) Jephthah’s daughter, who in the story is nameless but not character-less, is a heroic figure, not a tragic one.

The daughter is pure, submissive, and faith-filled.  I can imagine that her father Jephthah secretly hoped she would be mauled by wild animals while mourning in the mountains (11:37-38) so he wouldn’t have to have her killed.  In the end, I suppose that, although her human life was valuable, her eternal one was more valuable, and she seems exemplary to me.

Judging and perceiving (4-Gideon, Abimelech)

The book of Judges includes accounts of ~ 13 Judges.  They were by no means homogeneous.  The nature of the role seems to have morphed, or at least it was amorphous.  I think they might be grouped along these lines:

  1. Othneil, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah (mostly admirable folks, as Israel’s stories go)
  2. Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair (mixed)
  3. Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson (more deeply mixed, with some horrific incidents)

With this post we move into the second group, beginning with Gideon, of “fleece” fame.  Gideon is presented largely as a good guy, although not entirely built of faith.  We want to be careful not to be to presumptuous in conceiving of the overall reality when we don’t have a complete picture; what we do have is this piece of literature that presents him in X way.  Perhaps Gideon was actually more or less faith-filled than we read of, on average.  He initially focuses on his own weakness/stature¹, and he appears to struggle with fear and doubt (6:15, 6:27).  On the other hand, he must have had some courage, or he would not be flouting (albeit surreptitiously) the exploits of the Midianites and Amalekites by threshing the grain that they had a penchant for stealing.  The angel of the Lord approaches Gideon, calling him “brave,” and Gideon’s father later renames his son to commemorate a bold, in-your-face move against Baal.  God continues using Gideon, acknowledging and engaging with his fears (7:10).

After the fleece event, in another famous Gideon story, God shows who’s in charge by reducing an army to 1% of its original size . . . and then he uses an inimitably unconventional battle plan (trumpets and pitchers with torches, not arrows and shields).  I find curious what happens with the battle cry:  “for the LORD and for Gideon” had been prescribed, but the chant gained a foreword:  “a sword for the LORD and for Gideon” . . . yet it appears the sword didn’t have to be used at all in the victory.  Maybe the reader is to notice that, whereas the men wanted to use their own might and swords, God didn’t need those.  Who is king, after all?

Speaking of the locus of power and strength . . . have you assumed that the 300 men were chosen because lapping water like a dog somehow made them more alert for battle, as compared with the men who fully knelt down?  How important would human battle-readiness be, after all, if God was doing this?  Notwithstanding repeated teaching to the contrary through the years, I now figure the posture was more an arbitrary means of selection than a symbol of readiness in God’s mind.

I’m not sure I completely follow the conversation between Gideon and the men of Ephraim in 8:1-3.  “Our hero” seems at least to have some diplomatic abilities.  He’s also relentless and ruthless:  if the men from Succoth and Penuel wouldn’t help his efforts by feeding him and his men, well, forget them.  The narrative, in recording that Gideon made good on his promise to take vengeance, shows him to be a man of action.

Gideon’s military heroism, which seems at least partly God-ordained at this juncture, sounds forte within the overall narrative of Judges, but the man’s character remains mixed, in my estimation.  On the upside, we read that the men of Israel wish to start a dynasty with Gideon.  He refuses.  Then, with great devotion and character, Gideon responds,

I will not rule over you, nor will my son;
The LORD will rule over you.

This cry should ring like chimes in the ears of all Israelites who were to come!  Gideon shows the right focus!  But just as impressively, the next part of the story shows his failure:  he makes a gold ephod (apparently a tribute to himself) that becomes an idol and results in the next downfall of the people.  “All the Israelites went astray by worshipping it, and it also became a snare for Gideon and his household.”  (8:27b)  Despite Gideon’s folly with the gold, Midian was defeated, and Israel lived in peace for 40 years.

Gideon’s concubine gave him a son in Shechem, and that son was to carry on his father’s negative side.  Abimelech boldly went to the people of Shechem and more or less proclaimed himself king.  The tribal people Image result for gideon abimelechweakly allowed this to happen, and Abimelech promptly, brutally murdered 70 half-brothers in a show of self-aggrandizing force.  Jotham, the only brother to survive, seems to manifest at least some faith in the LORD:  he expresses the hope that God will listen to them (9:7), even as he prophesies doom in what amounts to a second piece of literariness in the book.  “Jotham’s diatribe” in chapter 9 is not quite the song of Deborah and Barak from chapter 4 but is nonetheless notable within the narrative—and more listenable, in my estimation.  Jotham’s prediction comes true in the end:  those who once gave Abimelech allegiance became his enemies and ultimately did him in.

Postlude to an episode
It bears mention that the name Abimelech is common and may be more of a title (or blanket designation of kings/would-be-kings?) than a name per se.  The word means “father-king” or “my father is King” or “father of a king.”  One of several biblical Abimelechs also appears in Genesis 20.  Might this name in Judges invite the reader to hark back to Abraham’s fear and folly when he conveniently “forgets” Sarah is his wife as well as his half-sister?²   Abraham wasn’t exactly acting faithfully at the time, whereas that Abimelech seems to fear God.  The ruffian Abimelech in Judges clearly is not a man after God.  At any rate, Israel remembers Saul, not Abimelech, as its first king, and rightly so:

  1. Abimelech is but a provincial, regional leader.
  2. Abimelech is not a man of God, nor is he in any sense chosen by God’s will.

¹ It should not surprise us that God might choose a “little guy” to accomplish a big thing.

² Here, I assume Judges was written later than Genesis.  Even if that is not the case, oral history about Abraham would likely have been a factor.  In other words, stories were told, and the name Abimelech was surely known.

Judging and perceiving (3-Deborah)

I’ve begun to see the book of Judges as a historical theology narrative in which Israel’s stark slide toward ignoring God’s kingship may be perceived.  Faith-wise, the Israelites definitely appear to have plunged in the time of the Judges.  (Find the first two posts in this series here.  I anticipate 3-4 more.)

Having skipped lightly over Shamgar, because the text nearly does the same, we see that Deborah, the 3rd judge, is unique:

  1. She is a prophetess.
  2. She is presented as having had a place for judging.
  3. It is not as a military leader that she earns her role.
  4. She is a woman.

Why, when I was a 9-year-old at Vacation Bible School, had my memorization list included Barak’s name along with Deborah’s as a Judge?  Barak seems to be a non-entity, really.)  In the story, Deborah’s prophecies and courage eclipse Barak’s might.  He is criticized for a lack of courage,.  The horrific story of the enemy Sisera’s death seems to show not only Jael’s (didja catch that name? Jah-El!  Yahweh is God!) fearlessness but also the courageous faith of Deborah.  It’s a victory, but not by traditional male might.  What’s highlighted here is the power of women who were willing to take action.

Then comes the notable “Song of Deborah and Barak,” as the heading sometimes goes.  It takes up an entire chapter of Judges, indicating its historical and theological significance within the narrative.  A general principle of narrative interpretation is that when a portion of the story is notably longer (a conversation, a description, or in this case, a song of victory), the reader should take notice.  And this song takes a whole chapter!

The song itself seems largely inaccessible to the modern ear.  This is no “Wichita Lineman” or “She Loves Me, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”  I suppose it’s more akin to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but that’s another story.  Some tribes or portions of tribes are taken to task for not heeding the battle call.  The exploits of other tribes are praised.  The song’s overall impact, I suppose, is clear, but along the way, it speaks things that do not resonate or even make sense to me.  The closing sentiment (5:28-30) about Sisera’s mother looking for her son, the now-dead general, to come home is just mean.  The song’s conclusion seems to be cognizant of the Lord’s role, and Israel, having apparently relied a little on God for a short time, “had rest for 40 years” . . . but then did what was evil.  Again.

And this time, at least in the narrative, God seems resistant to delivering them.

Next:  Strength and weakness . . . Midian and Gideon

 

 

 

Judging and perceiving (2-Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar)

As noted in the first Judges post here, the Israelites’ downfall appears to begin in the time of the Judges.  The people had not completely driven out the Canaanite inhabitants from the land, instead being assimilated and integrated, to some extent.

Here, we might acknowledge that the politico-military events described in Judges involve what would today be termed “ethnic cleansing.”  One people group, the “chosen” ones, wiped out other groups.  Some of these realities, as described, are horrific to most 21st-century ears, including mine.  What to do with this?  Some would say that we have in the Hebrew Bible a manifestation of a merciless God; others have asserted that the whole Exodus and Conquest of Canaan scenarios were entirely fabricated.  I lean heavily toward affirming historical significance and accepting the events as described, although that inclination is informed by these realizations:

  1. Ancient writers don’t appear to view historicity and the recording of history in the same way a 20th- or 21-st century journalist would.
  2. Theologically oriented narrative sequences do not depend on precise dates and time periods.  Truth and “accuracy” are not to be seen in our strict terms.
  3. The God-ordained conquest of Canaan was not to be the end of the story, and ultimate deliverance is not physical.

With the above in mind, I set out to record some anecdotes harvested during my reading of Judges.  Please note that I do not present these observations as researched.  I hope they will be, at least at points, insightful, but it will be up to the reader to determine accuracy (e.g., of speculation about the meaning of names)—and to discern whether any insights or theories here can hold water.

First, I note that the tribes of Israel ask who will take the lead.  God replies (1:2) that Judah—indicating the tribe descended from the fourth son of Jacob—would do so.  Is the early, prominent mention of power/leadership indicative of what is to come in the book?  It could be signaling something I want to pay attention to, but I shouldn’t allow myself to assume the book is playing into my presuppositions.

Right away in the narrative, we read of violence.  Horrific, mean-spirited, gruesome violence.  Adoni-bezek (meaning “lord of Bezek”), a Canaanite king, was captured and had his thumbs and big toes cut off.  Othniel, the nephew of Caleb (and cohort of Joshua, of conquest fame), arises as a military leader.  His name is said to mean “Lion of God” . . . so “Othni” must mean “lion,” because the oft-seen syllable “el” is a shortened form of “Elohim.”  Othniel’s battle success earns him a wife; he becomes Caleb’s son-in-law, as well.  And isn’t that interesting?  For the Hebrew who hears or reads this story, the faith of Caleb and Joshua (the God-oriented two of the twelve spies who had been sent on reconnaissance) becomes linked to the work of God.

The Israelites settled in with existing people groups, e.g., the Amalekites and Jebusites (from what would become Jerusalem).  This had not been the plan.  God calls the people on the carpet, as it were, in 2:1.

Following the death of Joshua, the deliverer, the new generation is generally unfaithful.  More unholy integration is noted in 3:5-6.  In the memorable story of Ehud and his brutal slaying of the Moabite King Eglon, there is no mention of God.  Only the sword.  The land’s “rest time” under Othniel and Ehud is roughly 120 years—a long period, it seems to me.

Shamgar, officially Judge #3, has only one event attributed to him.  Perhaps he is particularly strong, or at least driven by adrenaline, foreshadowing Samson:  he kills 600 Philistines single-handedly.  As with Ehud, God is not mentioned in connection with Shamgar, so I begin to suspect that the narrative is intent on showing a misplaced focus, i.e., on human strength apart from God.

God shakes things up in the person of Deborah.  She is the only female judge and is also a prophet.

Next:  Deborah, Gideon, and Abimelech

Judging and perceiving (1)

It took me six days, but I did it.  I had told myself I was going to sit down and read the Hebrew Bible book of Judges in a sitting.   It’s only 21 chapters and should have taken 2-3 hours, I figured.  I was pre-motivated by the redemptive and historiographical “kingdom” significance I perceived, but it still took me six days.  Pathetic, I know.

I did learn a few things.  Or, more accurately, I observed a few things that might or might not be valid.  (You’ll have to be the judge.)  For instance, the duration of the period of the Judges seems to have been between 300-400 years.  Early on in reading, I also recalled that the people of Israel sometimes eliminated the existing inhabitants of a region, and sometimes, they didn’t.

The book of Judges begins by telling us that Israel hasn’t completely driven out the Canaanites from the land.  Instead, Israel follows their corruption and child sacrifice, becoming just as bad or worse.  – The Bible Project

This seems to be the beginning of the Israelites’ downfall.

Out of the gate, I will admit to having prejudged Judges:  I’ve begun to see it as (1) a historical theology book (2) in which Israel’s stark slide toward ignoring God’s kingship could be plainly seen.  My premise, in other words, is that we find a significant era in the time of Israelite Judges.  The Bible Project’s video introduction bears this out, referring to the “tragic downward spiral of Israel’s leaders and people” and to a “descent into madness.”  Of course, there had been numerous departures from God in the past, but once the people had been finally delivered from the Egyptian oppression and enslavement, had suffered, wandered, and finally been given their promised inheritance in the new land, it would seem that God’s reign would be clear to them—and honored by them.  This was not to be the case.

I judge that I have more to learn about the word “judge” (Heb. shophet).  I have come to suspect that the English word does not do justice to the original role, as conceived and lived out among the ancients.  The role also seems to have shifted with the time, personality, and need.  One source¹ frames the scene well, I suspect:  the Hebrew judges were people “who served roles as military leaders in times of crisis, in the period before an Israelite monarchy was established.”  It’s important to recognize that there was no “nation of Israel” per se at this point in history.  The judges, therefore, were not national leaders; they were “unelected non-hereditary leaders”¹—more like regional/tribal lords who arose, or who were elevated, based on military need and proven might.

Some judges failed miserably at points, but they also had many impressive successes.  In general, we see in the book of Judges that it is God’s power that provides victory.  On the contrary, when God is forgotten or ignored, bad things happen.

The number of Judges counted in this time period varies from 13-16, upward to 19 or 20 if others are counted that are not mentioned in Judges or 1Samuel.  The events of Eli’s and Samuel’s lives, for example, seem to be in the line of Judges.

Next:  the first three Judges


¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_judges

Yancey on Psalms and Ecclesiastes

Philip Yancey has for years been a favorite author of mine.  He writes fluidly, communicating genuinely to the common person without “talking down” to him/her.  His work never fails in terms of significance.  I’d say Yancey generally does Christian writing without Christian platitudes.  His is a voice worth hearing.

I recently picked up a Yancey book I’d seen before but have never read:  The Bible Jesus Read.  (The title refers to the so-called Old Testament.)  I sampled four sections.  Below are a few gleanings from two of them.

Psalms
While lament is widely recognized as an important feature of the Psalms, rarely does the typical believer take note of its prevalence.  Under the heading “Realignment,” Yancey refers to Eugene Peterson, who had asserted that more than 70% of the Psalms’ material can be seen as lament, as opposed to praise or trust or something else more “positive.”  Yancey has a hunch that “the average Christian bookstore reverses the proportions.”

If Yancey had said anything about churches in this regard, I doubt his publisher would liked it.  I’d say most churches do worse than bookstores—rarely if ever giving vent or voice to lament, in times of either personal or corporate distress.  Compared to celebration, praise, and other upbeat activities, lament seems less desirable, but it’s just as important for the human soul.  I could elaborate more and add personal observations about congregational practice, but I’ll simply let this stand for reflection.

Ecclesiastes
On Ecclesiastes, Yancey offers this:

[The] key word “meaningless” appears 35 times, drumming home the theme from beginning to end… It conveys a strong sense of “the absurd.”  The issues bothering the teacher were the same ones that bothered Job and that bother all fair-minded people today.  The rich get richer and the poor poorer, evil people prosper as good ones suffer, tyrants reign, disasters happen, disease spreads, everyone dies and turns to dust.  Life is unfair.  Nothing makes sense; the whole world seems off-balance and twisted….  There is only one word fit to describe this life:  meaningless.

Existential despair did not terminate in the hell holes of Auschwitz or Siberia but rather in the cafes of Paris, the coffee shops of Copenhagen, the luxury palaces of Beverly Hills.  After a trip into Eastern Europe during the Cold War, novelist Philip Roth reported, “In the West, everything goes and nothing matters.  While in the East, nothing goes and everything matters.”

 

Despair is certainly appropriate at times in human existence, but not always.  Ecclesiastes has struck me as being deeply philosophically and appropriately filled with melancholy.  I seems good to realize, too, that Psalms are not brimming with praise; rather, they alternate and juxtapose God-lifting thoughts with cries and laments.

Negative emotions need voice, and literature such as the Ecclesiastes and the Psalms can help.


For two previous posts on Ecclesiastes:

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (1)

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

Of handwriting and old letters

My handwriting is getting worse.  Our son’s handwriting is sporadically OK (e.g., with his name) but isn’t improving as nicely as we’d like.  This interview-blog with Steve Reece, professor of classical languages at St. Olaf College, is about handwriting in ancient letter-writing, and it kept me reading.  The particular passage at issue is Galatians 6:11-18, which begins with the famous exclamation “See what large letters I make . . . in my own hand!”  For a thoughtful professor and researcher, multiple questions arise when students ask a question about such a passage.

Some Christians cater to teachers and preachers who believe in the so-called dictation theory, which has God/the Holy Spirit dictating words to apostles (controlling the motions of their hands and arms?)  In the following paragraph, Steve Reece describes another possible scenario, expanding his thoughts to the way we think generally of the production of scripture—and, in particular, the writing of letters:

My impression is that Paul may have sometimes dictated syllable by syllable (e.g., Philemon), but that at other times he may have dictated the words and phrases to his scribe but given him the freedom to use his own diction and style (e.g., some of the Pastorals). The composition of a letter may have been a team effort, as Paul, his companions, and the scribe(s) bounced ideas off one another and read and re-read drafts of the letter. Obviously, if it were determined that Paul used his scribes to varying degrees in the composition of his letters, this would offer another angle from which to contemplate the ongoing debate about the Pauline authorship of some of the letters that have been traditionally attributed to him, particularly with respect to judgments that have been made about the authenticity or inauthenticity of some of the letters based on their stylistic and linguistic traits. Differences in the style and diction of letters may have arisen from the influence of scribes working at various levels of participation with the author/sender, for in such different compositional circumstances we should not expect stylistic and linguistic uniformity.

I found that succinct depiction very helpful.  It dovetails with, and bolsters, some of my comparatively non-studied hunches.  In the following paragraph, Reece deals with the specific of 1Cor 1, speculating a bit:

Incidentally, we appear to have a vestige of Paul’s interaction with a comrade and a scribe at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, which he is dictating to a scribe, perhaps his companion Sosthenes (1.1). An irate Paul declares to the Corinthians (1.14-15): “I give thanks that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that none of you may say that you have been baptized in my name.” Then, perhaps having been reminded by the Corinthian Stephanas – who appears to have delivered a letter to Paul from the Corinthians, was expecting to deliver Paul’s letter in return to the Corinthians, and therefore was a witness to the dictation process (16.15- 18) – that his memory has failed him here, Paul offers an addendum (1.16): “And I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but as for the rest I do not know if I baptized any other.” We seem to be witnessing here a glimpse of the actual process of composition: having misspoken during his dictation, Paul simply had his scribe insert a parenthetical correction, perhaps interlinearly or marginally, rather than requiring him to go back and rewrite the entire section. Later copyists inserted the parenthetical addition into the body of the text, where it has resided, though somewhat uncomfortably, to this day.

Find the entire interview here.

The shield

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Here are some memory-jogging highlights:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. . . .  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. . . .  (Eph 6, NRSV)

In the context, we might first note the imperatives in 6:10-20.  The first imperative—”be strong” or “be strengthened”—while clearly indicating voluntary action on the part of the Christian, employs the “passive voice,” suggesting the power comes from another source.  In other words, the Ephesian Christian is not told to exercise his triceps, which would result in power based on his own efforts.  On the contrary, the source of power here is God.

A second notable aspect of this first imperative, to be strengthened, is that it appears to be modified by three succeeding imperatives,¹ and this fact is instructive.  We might then ask the question how is one to be empowered/strengthened?  Then we see the answer:  take up the armorthat’s how.   In other words, Paul employs the armor language in 6:13-17 to suggest how the strengthening or empowering is to occur.

Previously, here, I offered a generally pejorative look at the communicative issues with battle imagery.  I would like now to hone in on one piece of the armor—the shield of faith(fulness)—discussing its interpretation and application.  Although we could bog down in the type of shield (the word signifies not a little, round shield but a larger one), I rather want to shine light on the faithfulness represented by the shield.  Here is the text:

In every situation take the shield of faith,
and with it you will be able to extinguish
all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  (Eph 6:15b, HCSB)

Although Paul appears to have drawn on older texts in Ephesians 6,² this is the only time the word translated “shield” is used in all the NT writings.  It might also be noted that the Ephesians example gives us the most extended armor language in the NT.  Those observations might not turn out to be significant.  What we can be sure of is this, though:  in the Ephesians 6 micro-context, the shield is uniquely emphasized textually in at least these two respects:

  1. The expression “in all” or “in every situation” above (en pasin in Greek) appears with the shield but does not appear before the other armor elements.  The root word is employed several times in 6:10-20, perhaps most notably in v18 where prayer is the topic.
  2. The future tense, not used in connection with the other armor pieces, seems to indicate for Paul a certain result:  that the one who takes the shield will be able to extinguish the flaming arrows.

We should bear in mind that it’s not the size or composition of the shield, or the nature of the darts, that matters most.  It’s what the shield represents in the life of the believer:  pistis.  I use the English transliteration of the Greek word here both advisedly and conscientiously.  I certainly don’t intend to put up any barriers for those unfamiliar with Greek, but I do purposefully assert that it is the original word-concept to which we should appeal, not the word-concept that has developed around it—in another language, centuries later.  Pistis, or faith(fulness), is found all over the place in Paul’s writings; it appears eight times in Ephesians, for instance—in every chapter but the 5th.  The range of meaning for this word includes (1) trust, (2) “the faith,” i.e., a collected body of understood beliefs, and (3) faithfulness.  It is this last possible definition that I am after in the context of the shield of Ephesians 6:16.

Here I would refer to the motivated reader to Matthew Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.  I have blogged about that book previously here and here.  I find Bates’s thoughts persuasive—and also very helpful to the overall Christian proposition in terms both of doctrine and pragmatics.

To reiterate:  in the perspective of 6:10-20, we see a built-in textual design that spotlights the being empowered/strengthened.  The taking up of the shield is illuminated by a somewhat less intense spotlight, but it is a spotlight nonetheless.  The primary concern is the pistis, not the shield.  But what did Paul mean by pistis?  Is it the “trust” aspect he had in mind in telling Christians to hoist the shield?  Or is it the quasi-corporate aspect of “the faith”—in other words, was Paul saying they should surround themselves with “people of ‘the faith'”?³  Perhaps one, or the other, or both.  Here, though, I commend the reading in blue below as plausible and perhaps the most helpful:

Be empowered . . . (6:10)

To do so, take up God’s armor; withstand, and stand firm (13, 14)

by fastening truth (14)
by putting on righteousness,
by preparing for spreading the gospel of peace
and in all, shielding yourself by allegiant living (6:16)
by topping with salvation
by being prepared to take the Spirit’s message

“Taking the shield of faith,” then, could mean “shielding oneself by making faithful choices that are loyal to the Lord.”  The verbs above are naturally plural, since Paul is writing to a group, so there is a corporate aspect to Paul’s language.  However, I would suggest that taking up the shield of faith represents an individual choice to live loyally to King Jesus.  This same King had been in the literary spotlight in 1:19-21:  God’s power led to His resurrection and ascension, and that same power is in turn connected to my being individually empowered to live loyally.  As I ponder, attempt weakly to live out, and experience a degree of allegiant living, I am becoming persuaded that holding the shield of faithfulness becomes an integral part of “standing firm” (6:13,14).  That same shield in turn is a key aspect of being empowered (6:10).

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/7/18


¹ “Take on” and “receive” are basic past-tense imperatives that are “simply listing what empowerment entails.” – Stanley Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (1999), 13,2.3

² Isaiah 59, Wisdom 5, and 1Thess 5.  The shield is not mentioned in Isaiah or in 1Thess.  Another word for “shield” is used in Wisdom 5 and in many other OT and Apocryphal texts.

³ On this point we might recall that the “struggle” of 6:12 appears to signify a close-encounter “wrestling match” type of conflict.  See my prior post here, noting particularly the expression “hand to hand combat” in the 3rd footnote there.

 

Does the “armor of God” imagery communicate as intended?

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Where does this battle language come from?  Approximately 14 years prior, Paul had used similar language in his first letter to the Thessalonians.  He also appears to have drawn on other texts—specifically, Isaiah 59 and Wisdom 5:17-20.  These armor texts might at first seem about the same, yet it soon strikes the reader that there are similarities but no quotations per se. 

I don’t think the point in Ephesians 6 is to relate each piece of armor strictly to a particular aspect of Christian life.  It’s not, for example, that Paul is saying the helmet protects the salvation thoughts in our brains so we can avoid the loss of salvation.  Paul’s purpose in using this extended metaphor seems somewhat more general.  The battle imagery has found continued life in many Christian songs through the ages—some good ones and some not so good.  “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1742), for instance, contains quite a few expressions derived directly from Ephesians 6:

  • “Strong in the strength which God supplies and in His mighty pow’r” (6:10)
  • “Stand entire at last” (6:13)
  • “Take, to arm you for the fight the panoply of God” (6:11, with “panoply” being a transliteration of a Greek word)
  • Still let your feet be shod, ready His will to do (6:15)

The full poem (found here) does descend into militaristic machismo a time or two.  Here’s an example:

Brandish in faith till then the Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men in pieces with the Word

I doubt that stanza has ever shown up in a widely published hymnal (!), but the song’s references and analogies are communicative overall.

“Lord, Speak To Me” (1872) similarly echoes the Ephesians emphasis on being filled with God’s power, especially in the later stanzas:

  • “O strengthen me, that while I stand firm on the rock, and strong in Thee” (6:10, 11)
  • “O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord” (1:10; 4:13)

Never a favorite of mine but widely sung for more than a century, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858) has some negative expressions, such as “charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout” and “each soldier to his post; close up the broken column, and shout through all the host.”  To my ear, those phrases are gratuitous appeals to those experienced in the military forces and are not very communicative of spiritual realities or imperatives.  Yet a phrase such as “put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer” does highlight not only the armor angle in Ephesians 6 but also the letter’s strong emphasis on prayer.  On the whole, it is easy to see why this song has been published in more than a thousand hymnals.

The children’s song “I’m in the Lord’s Army” includes these words:

I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never zoom o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army!  (Yes, sir!)  

As the reader might remember, body motions suggestive of physical battle accompany that song.  And why shouldn’t there be (from a keep-the-children-active perspective)?  The actions are fun.  Yet weaning children on that kind of thing probably gets them thinking more about U.S.A. military service than about spiritual armor and battle.  Recently, I unexpectedly acquired a castoff record of George Beverly Shea (singer for Billy Graham crusades) and found myself unwittingly listening to a  song called “The Army of the Lord.”  This song is a hokey exhortation to march for the Lord, laced with Christianese, and set to music that unites Leroy Anderson with a sort of Sousa-like polka.  At least it didn’t become blatantly militaristic.  At this point, I start to wonder whether it’s been military personnel who write such things, as opposed to theologians or biblical exegetes.  Leaving those ill-advised examples now, let me comment more thoroughly on the implications of two songs I would call ambiguous or perhaps questionable.

In the church of my youth, we sang “Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) (late 1800s) quite a bit, but I don’t think I’d sing it today without prefatory explanation for the sake of the contemporary mind.  For instance, what do the expressions “press the battle” or “let all our strength be hurled” mean to us nowadays?  Yes, in one sense, “faith is the victory that overcomes,” but if we appeal to those “saints above” who “with shouts of triumph trod” and “swept on o’er ev’ry field,” we might start to envision a physical battle, largely unaware of the unseen realm that is under consideration in Ephesians 6.  Put differently:  if we have human war mechanisms at the forefront, trying to apply their strategy and protective gear to the (spiritual) cause of Christ, we’ll stumble.  On the contrary, Paul had the cause of Christ in mind first, applying various metaphors and analogies in order to explicate Christian living, here focusing on the unseen.

The song has “we’ll vanquish all the hosts of night in Jesus’ conqu’ring name,” and that sounds like a mass military offensive, whereas Paul’s idea of “living as children of light” (Eph 5:8) is not aggressive at all.  His advice to put on the armor so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil (6:12) is singular/individual, so it’s a leap to conclude that this is directly about any kind of “army of the Lord” or the actions of any faith community group. 

Curiously, the music for the once-popular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864) was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan¹ of British operetta fame.  Sabine Baring-Gould’s lyrical exhortation to be a soldier for the Lord is biblical, yet what is communicated now (or in the 1860s, for that matter) to an American by the term “soldier” may not be what was originally intended by the poet, an Englishman, in words written very hastily for a children’s procession.²  The first stanza (“marching as to war … with the cross of Jesus going on before”) seems the most problematic, possibly conjuring up Grant or Sherman for a Union loyalist, or Constantine and Theodosius for those with a broader view.  The song has been removed from some hymnals, but it might still be used judiciously, if one is aware of possible communication gaps.

Further on the differentiation of corporate military actions from the individual spiritual battle, we might note at this point that Paul chose a word for “struggle” (6:11) that had been used in secular literature for a wrestling match.  The word describes not a company-front marching offensive but an individual, up-close-and-personal conflict with the devil.³  Christian solidarity is no bad thing, but the notion of a Christian flag carried at the front of a marching military regiment communicates more to those versed in military history or experienced in the ways of war than to those who wish to understand the Christian life and mission on an individual scale.

Neither “Faith is the Victory” nor “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a bad song if one interprets appropriately, but as the decades pass, and as we have in the collective consciousness not only the Civil War but the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and more, the picture becomes obscured with different types of clouds.  The so-called Cold War and justifiable indignation over various outbreaks of tyranny, genocide, or human enslavement have led to increasing, many-faceted polarization.  Anti-war politicists are more in the mainstream, if not more rabid; and it seems increasingly likely that rightist “Christians” would indiscriminately mix human/geopolitical militarism with Pauline imagery, forgetting that killing people is foreign to Christ and His ways.  Apparently with notions of “manifest destiny” at heart, none other than the late Prime Minister of Great Britain said this, for example:

We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.  W. Churchill, 1941)

It makes great sense for Mr. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, to have delivered that stirring-if-over-confident “kill the Nazis” rhetoric at that point in history, but his comments became presumptuous at the point at which he appealed to “on high.”  It was ignorant and arrogant for him to have mashed together (a) those who were killing the enemies with (b) those who spoke English, all under the aegis of “Christianity.”  Yes, presumptuous:  the very suggestion that God would help the English-speakers rid the world of that particular horror passes lightly over the prospects of death and hell in a way that Paul would abhor, suggests that Churchill and Truman had taken a prophetic mantle, and ignores that God had not always led His Old-Covenant people to physical victory.  So why would God assure Great Britain and the U.S.A. a victory from on high?

In the event that I would be judged too serious and “too heaven-minded to be of any earthly good” at this point, let me share this fine parody on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:

Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.

(Ian Bradley, The Book of Hymns, New York:  Testament Books, 1989, p. 333)

Perhaps church music in our era is no more nuanced or developed in the few instances in which it uses military imagery.  In my estimation, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” (1984), full of musical strength, has some ironically weak lines.  It is not a great song, but it does greatly point to the great Lord.  Surely it is good to remind ourselves often that we have a greater One to serve.  In considering this notion, we might recall Paul in 2Tim 2:  the soldier’s aim is to please his “commanding officer.”  And of course, the Lord’s power and strength are themes in Ephesians (e.g., 1:19ff; 3:16,20; 6:10).

The hymn-style “Fight the Good Fight” (1853) was once among my top 50, but I doubt it rises to that level for many.  My conception of it was shallow, and its words do not even speak much of battle or armor, but I mention it here mostly to call attention to its title.  “Fight the Good Fight” would not be sung much these days because concepts fighting and battles are different now, geopolitically speaking.  I do love expressions such as “Christ is thy path, and Christ thy right,” “lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally” and “upon thy Guide lean.”

Perhaps it is largely a result of my non-violence bias that I find so much of the military imagery in songs to zoom over the area of Paul’s real concern.  The singer may mentally don his fatigues and load his guns, having been raised in post-World War America, before he ever stops to ponder what Paul was really writing about.  As we ponder what “spiritual warfare” in the unseen realm means to individual Christians and to our churches, I think there are multiple good reasons to emphasize the shield of faith(fulness)—both in the Ephesians literary context and in the real-life context of Christian existence.  In the next post, I will deal more briefly with an interpretation of this central piece of the “armor.”

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/4/18


¹ Operetta, a subgenre touched off by Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan combo, is light, humorous opera.  Sullivan wrote comparatively few “serious” works.  It would come as no surprise that no deep or stately connection to Christian theology arose when Baring-Gould’s words were set to his music.  Aside:  Sullivan wrote “religious music” while being known to have adulterous affairs, indulge heavily in gambling, and participate in Freemasonry.  See this Wikipedia link for more information.

² Baring-Gould apparently had second thoughts about some of the words and revised some later.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers.

³ According to Benjamin Merkle, the word πάλη  | palē “was most widely used for the sport of wrestling.”  Merkle continues, “. . . Paul is envisioning a fierce battle and not merely an athletic competition.  Nevertheless, the term may have been used to intensify the closeness of the battle.  The struggle is not fought by proxy or at a distance but involves close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.”  Benjamin L. Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Publishing Group, 2016.

Come together

The number of “together” words and expressions in the NC¹ documents is impressive.  As I live and read and think, I apprehend these words (many of which begin with the prefix “syn” and many of which are found in Pauline literature), comprehend them as I can, and ponder their significance.

For example, we find five instances of synerchomai” (come together”) in 1Corinthians 11:17-34, and two more in 14:23-26.  There are quite a few more “syn” words in Romans, and three in Ephesians (with some duplication of two key examples in Colossians), where the coming together of Jew and gentile² is a key topic.  Paul might even have coined some of these words.

When no single term exists to translate a word, it will naturally appear as a phrase in our English Bibles, and that is the case with the ones I’ve selected below.  The spiritual realities embedded in these “with” words/phrases should elicit a reaction nothing short of “wow”:

Romans
6:4 buried with Him (pl.)
6:6 crucified with Him (sg.) (note:  this Greek word drops the “n” on the prefix “syn”)
6:8 live with Him (pl.)
8:17 (2 words) suffer with Him (pl.)
be glorified with Him (pl.)
Ephesians
2:5 made us alive together with Him (sg.)
2:6 (2 words) raised us up with Him (also Col 2:12, Col 3:1) (sg.)
seated us with Him in the heavenlies (sg.)
2:21 joined us together (participle) (sg.)
2:22 built together (passive voice) (pl.)
4:3 bond of peace (noun)
4:16 joined and held together (participle) (sg.)

Paul’s choice of singular vs. plural is intriguing, and studying the senses of participles may be, as well.  Primarily, though it seems to me that Paul is intent on presenting and intensifying a cognizance of spiritual togetherness.  To what extent do we comprehend these realities and their underpinnings?

Men named denominations like the “United Church of Christ” and “Unity” and Unification Church—ostensibly with some sense of unified “with each other” in mind, but the basis of the unification is questionable.  In some cases, it seems as though people are supposed to unify over nothing (or little to nothing).  In the case of Paul’s theology, however, it is hardly nothing.  Cosmic significance is found in the unification of Jew and gentile.  The two groups are with each other, and that is the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3).  The basis of the unity is sound, solid, and spiritually significant, for it is none other than Jesus the Christ.  I think that fact is as significant now as it was then.  Christians are with each other in a very spiritually rich sense.  We are buried together, made alive together, raised up together, and more—because of Jesus.


¹ I sometimes like to choose “NC” over “NT” for reasons of stylistic variety and because of my interest in the word “Covenant” in addition to the older, more time-tested word “Testament.”
² The lower-case “g” on the word “gentile” is intentional.  I think it helps our understanding of the 1st-century milieu to see “Jew” as more of a proper name, with “gentiles” serving more as a common-noun catch-all for others, i.e., non-Jews.

About 1,956 years ago: a possibly intentional difference

In studying Ephesians last week, I found that 1:15 has some “stock” wording:

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints (NRSV)

To my ear, that sounds like “typical Paul.”  I quickly recalled, though, that Philemon, which is easily among my three favorite¹ letters in the NT, includes similar wording:

I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus (NRSV)

We could slice and dice and parse the English translation in this version or any number of others.  We could discuss the chronology and Christology of both letters, but I doubt there would be any major discoveries in those respects.  The thing is, the Philemon wording is not the same as the wording in Ephesians, and that fact just might be significant.  The difference might be attributable only to style or preference . . . or it could give us a clue into one or more emphases in each letter.  Let’s break it down a little.

In Ephesians, the hearing is in the aorist tense—a basic past tense—but it is a participle, and participles come in different flavors, and my palate isn’t refined in this area, ll just leave that alone before I get myself in grammar trouble.  In Philemon, the hearing is in the present tense but is again a participle in “mood.”

Note the next difference, carefully.  The succeeding phrases are quite different.  In Greek, word order is not nearly the same thing as it is in English, but these are two different bunches of coconuts.  “Your love and faith that you have toward Jesus and all the saints.”

Ephesians:  I have heard of your . . .

faith in the Lord Jesus (pistin en to kurio iesou)

the conjunction and (kai)

the love for/to all the saints (ten agapen ten eis pantas tous hagious)

Philemon:  I hear of your . . .

love and faith that you have (agapen kai ten pistin en exeis)

toward Jesus and all the saints (pros ton kurion iesoun kai eis pantas tous hagious)

Isn’t the difference curious?  I observe first the inclusion of the verb “to have” (exeis) which is not present in Ephesians.  This verb is used again later in Philemon, so its (ostensibly unnecessary) inclusion here may be notable.

Next—and I think quite significant textually—are the phrases that involve faith, love, Jesus, and the saints.  Philemon has things sort of mashed together on both sides of the verb.  Whereas the wording in Ephesians is more “stock,” Paul’s wording in Philemon reveals, or at least hints at, a purposeful mixing of things:  love and faith can both be directed toward Jesus and other Christians.  (1) Love of others and (2) faith toward Jesus are obviously norms, but we can also love Jesus.  Moreover, we learn in Philemon that Paul is attempting to elicit faithful behaviors from Philemon (and his house church) toward Onesimus, who is newly a Christian brother.  This possibility becomes especially pregnant when pistis (faith) is translated as “faithfulness” a la Matthew Bates.²  Bates continues to influence my thinking, now particularly as I study Ephesians 6:10-20 and the shield of faithfulness.


¹ Not only is Philemon a favorite; it is among my three most ardently studied—and not because it’s brief.  This is no “‘Jesus wept’-is-my-verse-to-memorize” thing.  It’s simply a great letter!

² See this blogpost and this one for an introduction to Bates on this topic.