Sexy Solomon

Today, I want to talk about what it means to be human. Below your skin, below your bones, below your nervous habits, and favorite Netflix shows. Like normal, we have quite the ground to cover.

Whips and Chains

The Bible is a diverse anthology, and yet one book stands out a lot. I think you know which one I mean.

Readers of the Bible have long struggled with Song of Solomon. The book is a back and forth between two lovers—the Israelite King Solomon and an unnamed (and probably teenage) girl. And, by “back and forth”, I mean mostly of erotic poetry. Some of its eroticism is right there on the surface; much of it comes by euphemism. But it is highly sexual, highly lustful, and ridiculous—even for erotic poetry.

When the two lovers are away, they descend into obsession. They see each other in trees, and towers, and goats, and . . . the pools of Siloam?

“My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.
His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels.
His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume.
His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh.
His arms are rods of gold set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory decorated with lapis lazuli.
His legs are pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars.
His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, this is my friend, daughters of Jerusalem.”

“How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter!
Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands.
Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim.”

“Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel.
Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses.
How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.’
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.”

OoOoOoh, yeah!

In one scene, Solomon comes to her by night, but because she is a teenager, she is living in what is probably her family’s house. Solomon—who is totally not a creeper—can only peer at her through some opening. And he most certainly does.

This is Song of Solomon, and it too is in your divinely inspired Bible.

A little more than ten years ago, one of my relatives, who has been an elder in the church for decades and who was on the board of a highly conservative Christian college, confessed to me that he didn’t think Song of Solomon should be in the Bible. Seeing as I saw nothing theologically important in it, I agreed with him.

This is because I was a modern conservative evangelical, and modern conservative evangelicals are trained to read the Bible to mean exactly “what it says it is.”

Genesis begins “In the beginning,” so Genesis must be about the beginning. Joshua describes a war in Canaan, so there must have been a war in Canaan. Revelation describes a war in Heaven, so Revelation must be about Heaven. And Song of Solomon contains erotic poetry between Solomon and just one of his many love interests, so Song of Solomon must be about sex.

Which means every once in a while, you get that hip, “edgy” preacher who tries to make Song of Solomon into a great sex counseling guide for married couples. But Song of Solomon isn’t really useful for any of this (unless, I suppose, you are among the 0.000000001% of married people who struggle with whether sex is a good thing). Worse, these almost exclusively male preachers almost inevitably descend into some thinly veiled version of, “See, women, God put this in the Bible so you would know how much your husband needs sex, and that it’s your duty to God to give it to him whenever he wants it.”

(And we also start wondering what kind of intimacy problems the preacher must be having at the moment.)

Never mind the woman in the poems expresses her sexual desire more than does the man. And never mind the harm this kind of thinking has done to women.

And never mind Solomon.

You need to understand, the people who wrote your Bible were not remotely impressed with that man. Especially as Solomon ages, the Bible depicts him in ways that were meant to remind the Hebrew readers of Pharaoh—a domineering, insecure, power-hungry, ruthless egomaniac. For the same people who felt the whip of slavery in Egypt, Solomon builds a temple out of—guess what?—slave labor. He is paranoid, insecure, and vindictive. And Deuteronomy, which is outwardly styled as the second telling of the law by Moses—but which really was written during the chains of more foreign domination—takes aim at Solomon in no uncertain terms.

Notice how neatly the telling of the “law of kings” in Deuteronomy corresponds with what you read later.

The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

Deuteronomy c17

The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 (!) talents, not including the revenues from merchants and traders and from all the Arabian kings and the governors of the territories. . . .

Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue—the royal merchants purchased them from Kue at the current price. They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty. . . .

King Solomon loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.

I Kings 

(that exclamation point isn’t in the real text, but it might as well be)

It’s as if the writer of Deuteronomy had a manuscript handy of what would later become the finished version of I Kings right in front of him, and he wanted to explain how Israel’s present problems with global empires looked a whole lot like their checkered past.

And, as you evaluate the usefulness of Solomon’s wisdom to your relationship with your life partner, if you still want to ignore Solomon’s shortcomings as a man, you just can’t ignore that Solomon saw no problem with taking hundreds of both wives and sex slaves—a point that should make inherently suspect anything he penned down. In fact, at one point in Song of Solomon, Solomon finds it meaningful and appropriate and I guess sexy to emphasize the superior beauty of his lover with reference to the many other women in his harem.

“Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins beyond number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique.”

(McNeal Revised Standard Version: “Gurrrrrrlllllllll, I’ve been with so many women, but you da best.”)

So, yeah, eroticism is good, but you don’t need Song of Solomon to know that. Solomon was a bad man, and there are better sources on how to spice up your love life. Which begs the question, if Song of Solomon is not a good book to discover the eternal secrets of love and romance and whoopee, then

why is that darn book in your Bible?

I have the answer: It’s the Sh’mah.

Fruit and Chocolate

On one occasion, a member of the Pharisees asked Jesus which command is the most important command of the Torah. Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’s answer here and commonly think that it was some major break from all that “rule following” of Judaism. His answer is prong one of the oft-written “love God, love people” religious views answer you find on thousands of people’s Facebook profiles.

However, Jesus’s response to this Pharisee’s question couldn’t have been more Jewish. It actually came right out of Deuteronomy c6, which reads:

Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, the Lord is one. Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Jews name this command the Sh’mah—the Hebrew word for “hear”—and it is central to both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. Jews have been reciting the Sh’mah every morning and every night for thousands of years. They even begin their worship services with it. After all, immediately after the Sh’mah, they’re commanded to.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Christians and Jews to this day unite around the Sh’mah. Yet, for all its importance, for all its centrality, the Sh’mah is surprisingly mysterious in a way that you would never know from your English Bible. The Hebrew word translated in most Bibles strength is me’od, but me’od doesn’t mean strength at all. In fact, it’s not even a noun.

Me’od means “very.”

Which is grammatical nonsense.

Just think about what we have in our Bibles. The Sh’mah is universally recognized as the most important command of both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jews agree on this. Jesus agreed with this. Followers of Jesus agree on this. And yet, grammatically it doesn’t mean anything. Bonkers.

Which leads you to wonder.

If only there was a book of the Bible that illustrated what it looks like to love in a way that is as totally hysterical and nonsensical as this totally hysterical and nonsensical command. And since poetry often works so well to describe such non-formulaic, nonsensical things, if only there was perhaps some poetry—perhaps even erotic love poetry—that described the alternative universe of loving with all your . . . very.

Hi.

I’d like to reintroduce you to Song of Solomon.

More likely than not, it was written for exactly the purpose you see on the surface. But for some reason, the writing stuck around for centuries. And, as the second century rabbis of the Talmud struggled to imagine and articulate to their disciples loving Yahweh with all their very (it sounds awkward every time I type that), they saw in Song of Solomon a picture of exactly the kind of passionate nonsensical devotion demanded in the Sh’mah.

Yes, the poems are about sex. Which, for the record, is perfectly great. But what the Rabbis understood was that where there is sex there is also so much more than sex. Who could be surprised with how much we can learn about being human from the most quintessentially human activity there ever was? Second century rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, in one of my favorite rabbinic quotes of all time, put it like this: “He who sings the Song of Songs in wine taverns, treating it as if it were just some vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come.”

Haha. I guess in the 2nd century, they were getting drunk to songs from Song of Solomon.

So, what can we learn from it? First, let’s talk about fruit.

Fruit plays a major role in many of these poems. Fruit and gardens.

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. . . . .

I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, . . .

Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits. . . .

I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. . . .

My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies. . . .

Of course, these images are saturated in sensuality (I’ll leave the specifics to your imagination), but they were also meant to strike a chord with its ancient Jewish audience who would instantly connect these images to the garden and fruit in Genesis. The fruit is insatiable desire and curiosity.

It is all-consuming desire no matter the consequences. No matter what harm may come.

For many people today, this would be like chocolate, which suddenly you’re already thinking about, aren’t you? (“No, Chris, I’ve already been thinking about it.”) Desire is not some foreign thing to you. It’s something you know well, so let’s talk about it.

Costumes and Roleplay

We desire many things, but I think at the core of the human is the desire for deep passion. I think it is the engine of our souls. Think about the times when you felt most alive. You didn’t feel distant. Isolated. Passive. Or uninterested.

No.

Your pupils dilated. Your veins surged with oxygen. Your synapses fired. You gave a damn.

As ridiculous as Song of Solomon is and as terrible of a man as Solomon was, I actually think your life should look like the two lovers in Song of Solomon. No, I’m actually not talking about going to more church, or singing louder in church, or praying harder in church, or even reading the Bible more when you leave church. Most of you are probably doing this fine—and the prophet Amos was hardly impressed with any of it.

And neither am I talking about a life of indulgence—the kind I see in so many people I observe. The life of moving from one thing to the next out of boredom is not a life of passion. No matter how fun it may be at the time.

I’m talking about making the conscious choice that some things have more weight than others.

Have you ever randomly gotten emotional at something and your friends wondered what was wrong with you? And you struggled to explain yourself? That there is so much more going on than they could see? That it may seem like this silly little thing, but it’s actually connected to this thing and that thing and that thing? And all these things together mean so much to you? That the moment felt heavy? And the more you tried to explain it, the more overcome with emotion you became? And in the end you just sounded ridiculous?

The Hebrew word for weight is kavod. We usually translate it “glory.”

A life of passion begins with the acknowledgment that some things are full of kavod and other things are not. If you still need me to spell it out for you, your favorite football team is not the important thing you think it is. I love football like every other red-blooded American, but I’ve lost no joy from not knowing the quarterback ratings of each of the last year’s starting quarterbacks in the SEC.

Most people basically live this way. It may not be a football team, but your energy is probably going mostly to things of equal uselessness to yourself and other human beings. And your soul is dying a slow death. You were made for intimacy and passion, but the real you is safely hidden in a costume, playing out a role designed and scripted by a few very rich people who profit off of your life of nothingness. Your naked self was lost when you set your desire on the tree in the garden—the tree that promised safety and power. That you would be like God.

But when you find something worth giving yourself to, you give your whole self. You put yourself out there. You make yourself vulnerable. Risk things. Even when it’s lonely. Even when people don’t “get” you. When your body becomes weary.

“Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.”

You make the world better when you devote yourself to the things that have kavod. And you stick with those things through the best and the worst because they feel more important than you. Weightier than you. More prized. More jealously guarded. Meanwhile your friends think you’re obsessive. They start saying words like that’s nice but maybe you could tone it down and I think it’s important that we exercise moderation. You hear their words of wisdom, but you don’t care. Because you feel privileged to even have this thing. To sacrifice for it. You even feel unworthy of it, just as Solomon’s lover did. You study, learn, and observe everything about it, and even see it connect to the world around you in the most random ways (“Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim.”).

Further, when you’re away from it, it is the thing you think about. Where you long to be. You wonder whether it will come back or be gone forever.

“All night long on my bed
I looked for the one my heart loves;
I looked for him but did not find him.
I will get up now and go about the city,
through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
So I looked for him but did not find him.”

But despite all the energy it demands from you, satisfaction is always the end. This is the life of passion for things that have weight. This is loving God with all your very.

Because the most sexual things sometimes involve sex.

 

Why Isn’t the Old Testament Written In Egyptian?

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

The central driving force of the Old Testament is the exodus story. The phrase yatsa erets Mitzrayim (“out of the land of Egypt”) is written 142 times, and it is from this memory that the first command of the Torah begins.

According to the Old Testament book of Exodus, the Hebrews lived in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. But in light of that reading of the story, several odd things happen when they leave. First, you have to accept the fact that there is virtually no record of the Hebrews living in Egypt. That’s simply an archeological fact. Of course, I’ve heard Christians say that the pharaoh must have scrubbed any record of them in order to save his reputation, and I guess that’s a possibility. But there are plenty of things in the Egyptian record, so to speak, that memorialize bad things happening to Egypt. You can find plenty in the Egyptian record of lost battles and humiliating defeats. Further, no other nation records the Hebrews living in and escaping Egypt.

And let’s be clear about the scale we are talking about: The biblical account of the exodus describes a Hebrew community that was at a minimum one million people. That is a massive exodus. In light of the fact that the number of Egyptians living at the time was also about one million, I simply don’t find it plausible that there would be no record of the Hebrews ever living in Egypt. And if, when you read the Old Testament books of the Torah, you expect simply a videotaped version of history, there’s another problem with the exodus story.

The Hebrew slaves whom Moses delivered through the Red Sea didn’t leave Egypt speaking Egyptian.

Four centuries is a long time to live in a new place and not pick up a language. If that doesn’t mean much to you, consider that the Hebrews were captives in Babylon for only about fifty years, and yet they left Babylon speaking Aramaic. Further, not only did they leave Babylon as Aramaic speakers, but the language turned out to be durable. In fact, more than five centuries after the exile in Babylon, Aramaic was the primary language that Jesus spoke.

Genesis and Exodus are a great history of the Israelites if you want to understand their understanding of Yahweh and their neighbors when they came back from Babylon (which is when and why those books were written). They are a terrible history if you expect a literal reading to reveal their actual origins.

So if the Hebrews didn’t come out of Egypt, where did they come from?

The best theory on this question begins with the striking similarities of Judaism to Canaanite religion that was practiced in the coastal plain of Israel around 1400 BCE to 1100 BCE. This was also an area that Egypt sought to control, though never with complete success. Over time, as some Canaanites moved away from the coast and further inland toward the then largely unoccupied mountainous center of Israel, they began to establish a distinct identity from the coastal-dwelling Canaanites and Philistines. They became Hebrews. Further, to the extent that Egypt also sought control of that coastal region from which they came, you could say there was an “exodus” of sorts—though it wouldn’t have been anything of the scale you read in Exodus.

This, by the way, is called the “Canaanite Origins Theory”. There are other theories, but this is the dominant theory and the one I find more persuasive than the others.

How To Cook A Passover Lamb Without Ruining the Whole Bible

Exodus explains how to conduct a Passover.

And Deuteronomy explains how to conduct a Passover.

Which really sucks. First, this is the boring, hyper technical, and legal part of the Bible. Second, cooking a passover lamb isn’t very interesting to me or most people. And, finally, not only do you have to read how to conduct a Passover, but you have to read it twice.  And that’s to say nothing of the fact that, since the Bible is inerrant, we really need only one set of instructions, right? They’re both just going to say the same thing, right?

Anyway, Chris, I think you’re getting distracted . . . how does one cook a passover lamb?

Simple.

Here you go . . .

“You shall not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire.” — Exodus c12

“You shall boil it and eat it at the place that the Lord your God will choose.” — Deuteronomy c16

Okay.

Wait….

WHAT

WHAT?!?!?!

So you furiously open up your Bible right now to check, and … AHA! … smarty-pants McNeal is wrong! You read God’s command in Deuteronomy and it clearly reads, like Exodus, to “roast” a Passover lamb. Meaning, Chris obviously got this idea in some liberal tent meeting, but, like usual, he never bothered to read the Bible for himself.

Some of you have taken it a step further. You’ve gone to Google and searched “alleged Bible contradictions” or done a Strong’s search and read that the Hebrew word for boil is בָּשַׁל “bashal” and that bashal can mean “boil” or “roast.” And since the Bible can’t contradict itself, it obviously in this instance has to mean “roast”.

Case closed. Chris obviously got too excited to find the Bible contradict itself, and now he’s just stumbling over himself.

Actually, what’s going on in our concordances is an example of how our theology prevents us from reading the Bible for what’s really happening in it. Yes, your English translation of Deuteronomy probably says roast. Yes, your Strong’s concordance says that the Hebrew word בָּשַׁל “bashal” can mean “roast.”

But everyone outside of traditional evangelicalism instantly notices that Deuteronomy c16 is the only place in the whole Bible when Strong’s thinks Bashal means roast. And then you insert “bashal” in its place in the English text and notice the trouble that happens.

“You shall not eat the meat raw or bashal it in water, but roast it over a fire.” — Exodus c12

“You shall bashal it and eat it at the place that the Lord your God will choose.” — Deuteronomy c16

You must not bashal it in Exodus but you must bashal it in Deuteronomy. You can’t observe one command without violating the other.

And this was not lost in the 3rd century BCE book of 2nd Chronicles, which described a Passover preparation and kind of panicked. Really, if you come to the passage with the knowledge you now have, it’s actually quite telling:

They boiled (bashal) the passover lamb with fire according to the law and they boiled (bashal) the holy offerings in potsII Chronicles c35

The chronicler wasn’t sure whether to describe this as a roasting or a boiling, and after what I assume to be several sleepless nights, settled on describing it as “boiling with fire, according to the law.” This is funny, but also disingenuous.

So, getting back to our original question, how does one cook a Passover lamb without ruining the Bible?

Simple.

We change our expectations of what the Bible is.

We admit that these passages contradict each other rather than rush to keep them from contradicting each other. We ask why two passages contradict each other rather than go to war to explain how they don’t.

Even though Exodus presents itself in the Bible before Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy was written centuries before Exodus. We’re confident about this because of its remarkable similarity with the many treaties that Assyria imposed on nations it conquered (and Israel was one of those nations). So, when the Old Testament tells us that Josiah “found” a book of the law, we’re pretty confident that Deuteronomy was that book. However, by the time Exodus was written—this was after Assyria and the later Babylonian exile—Passover lambs were being roasted and not boiled, so Exodus simply reflects that change.

And, by this point, I’m sure they believed that God had instructed it this way all along.

Again, Jesus came to the Earth and taught about God through the language of the mythic national stories of the people living in Judea. This is no threat to the Christian faith. As I’ve argued at length, we need to understand the Old Testament to understand the teachings of Jesus, but we don’t have to accept the Old Testament to accept the teachings of Jesus.

About That Time Noah Got Drunk And Naked And Started Cursing People

The book of Genesis tells us that God saw the evil of humankind and decided to kill  everyone in a cataclysmic flood—everyone, that is, except Noah and his family. Then, after the flood, Noah gets off the boat, grows a wine vineyard, gets astoundingly drunk on his wine, and passes out naked in a tent. Finally, Noah wakes up, finds out that his son saw him naked, and curses his grandson. The end.

Haha, what?

Setting aside the disturbing fact that the God of all justice apparently decided to wipe out all of humanity (and then later declared that justice would never again require doing that—even if humankind became equally evil), there are still many bizarre things in this story.

First, if someone saw me naked—especially because I’d kicked back about ten or twenty too many the night before—l can imagine all kinds of reactions that I might have when I woke up.

But, no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine cursing that person’s child being one of them.

That said, let’s suspend all familiar. Let’s just pretend that I had no sense of direction or proportionality. Let’s pretend my reaction would be to curse a man’s child. Let’s say my waiter tonight spills a drink in my lap. And let’s say I immediately stand up, look him in the eye, and proclaim, “Cursed be your child! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”

Again, there would be all kinds of not normal in that situation.

But I can confidently say that God would not curse the man’s child.

So when God actually does grant Noah’s really odd curse on Ham’s child, I think it’s in bounds to ask all sorts of questions. Specifically, is there something happening below the surface that we don’t see?

This is not a story about why it’s bad to drink alcohol (yes, I’ve heard that many times).

What’s really going on here is much more dark.

And we need to talk about it.

It tells us a lot about the kind of thing we are reading when we are reading the Bible that I agree is inspired.

So, let’s go back to the story and look at it in detail. When Noah gets off the boat, we are told that his three sons got off the boat too. But the story begins with an interesting detail.

And it’s oddly specific.

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.)

Whoever Canaan is, he is not in this story, and Noah’s three children had lots of children. So this odd story only get more odd when it begins by the specific information that Ham was the father of Canaan. Perhaps that was just an accident (spoiler: I wrote this whole thing because it’s not), but let’s read on.

Next, we are told that Noah gets drunk on the wine from a vineyard that he planted (as a side note, as a former Californian I can confidently tell you that it takes a LONG time for a vineyard to become wine producing, but never mind), and Ham happens to see him passed out drunk and naked in his tent. But notice that the writer provides that same strange detail a second time:

When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.

Again, let me repeat: Canaan is still not in this story. In fact, there is not a single story in the whole Bible about a man named Canaan. Yet, here his name comes back for a second random appearance.

At this point, you would be in the right if you are beginning to suspect that whoever wrote this story might have been obsessed with Canaan. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who, no matter what the topic, always brings the conversation back to something about someone they used to date, I think you’ve experienced what’s happening here. This story isn’t about Noah or his sons or nakedness or wine.

But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

This story is about Canaan.

And why Canaan is different from his brothers.

Specifically, why his brothers are superior to Canaan.

And what that might mean to a people who have been exiled from the land that their traditions have long held came from Canaan.

And why Yahweh might not look so favorably on a people who took them away from the land that Yahweh took from those evil Canaanites.

BUT, is accidentally seeing Noah passed out naked in his tent . . . evil? No. But that’s probably not what happened. This part of the story is probably a euphemism for Ham sleeping with Noah’s wife. The Bible often tells whole stories as euphemisms like this. For example, when the book of Ruth tells us that Ruth went to the sound asleep Boaz and “uncovered his feet”, trust me she wasn’t uncovering his feet.

“Ah, yes,” I hear people thinking, “that’s what this story is about. This story is about why it’s bad to have sex with your father’s wife.”

But, haha, no. Ham sleeping with his father’s wife isn’t the point of this story either.

Later the Bible will tell us that God commanded the sons of Shem to wipe out the sons of Ham. But who are the sons of Shem? Why, they are the semitic people. Have you ever heard someone say that so-and-so was anti-semitic, and you knew that meant “anti-Jewish”, but wondered where that word came from? Well, here it is.

This story is about them.

And their land.

Which they took from the Canaanites.

And why they believed God gave it to them.

This is a story told centuries after a genocide, and by the people who committed it.

Notice what we are told at the very beginning of the story:

These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

First of all, it should be said that anthropologists are very confident that the spread of humanity throughout the earth did not happen the way Genesis describes (which is a comforting thing if you aren’t fond of following a God who orders genocides). But, as I have argued extensively, Genesis was written thousands of years after the events it describes. It was written a thousand years after Moses’s time, a time when the Semitic people had just returned after being exiled from their land. And since the writer is trying to explain why everything is the way it is now, he starts with a clean slate. He starts with three people from whom all humanity will come. It’s as if to say: If you want to understand why things are the way they are now, just compare us to the people from whom God gave us this land.

Notice everything Noah says when he wakes up:

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.

If you are wondering why Noah got so mad and decided to take his anger out on Canaan of all people, it’s because this story never happened. It’s a myth.

What did happen is that when this story was written the sons of Shem—that is, the Israelites—had just returned to the land they had lost and so constructed a narrative to support their never-ending claim to their land.

The Semite’s claim to their land is what you are reading when you read the entire book of Genesis.

Notice what happens immediately after this story in one of those “boring” genealogies.

This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.

….

The sons of Ham:

Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan.

….
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shiner. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.

….

Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites,  Hives, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.

Later the Canaanite clans scattered and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, as far as Lasha.

These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

If you’ve spent as little as an hour in the Bible, you would know that every virtually every single people group who would later become an enemy of Israel—not to mention the Canaanites—came from Ham. But, then notice who came from Shem:

Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.

The sons of Shem: Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.

The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshek.

Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber.

It is from Shem that we get Eber.

And who is Eber?

It is from Eber that we get the name, and the ethnic group, Hebrew.

Now, go back to the text and notice how prominently Eber and Canaan are placed in the genealogy. It’s not an accident. The drunk Noah story and the genealogy are all about them.

The entire Old Testament is the story of the Hamites against Semites. 

This is why I found it important to miss out on normal young, single adult life and spend six months writing a caution against Christians basing their whole faith on the inerrancy of the Bible. It’s easy today for me to say that God never really commanded the things you see written in Joshua and Judges. My reading of the Bible doesn’t force me into that position. And I feel bad for people who still live their lives trying to explain how the justice and wisdom of God required that the Israelites kill the newborn children of the people living in Jericho.

If you realize that the books of the Old Testament are nowhere close to telling what we today think of as “history”, you begin to see that these genealogies are less history and more ancient arguments in support of a claim to nice land.

Arguments that Jesus Christ would later come and kill on a Roman cross.

I certainly believe the Israelites looked from Babylon back at the land from which they were exiled and believed God had commanded this. That their land was their divine right.

But our faith in God doesn’t require that we believe this too.

Unless you are prepared to say that God gave the Israelites the right to kill people for land because Noah got drunk and his son happened to walk into a tent.

The Bible That Borrows Part 8: The Global Superpower Bible

I need to talk about a painting.

Have you ever heard anything as ironic as a nationalist politician enlisting a foreign government to win a domestic political battle? Even an autocratic one with a history of meddling in other countries? I sure have.

I’m talking about Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1937 until 1975.

(What? Who were you thinking about?)

From 1936 until 1939, Spain suffered a civil war between Franco’s nationalist party and Spain’s pro-democracy party, and, to win, Franco enlisted the help of the Nazi military.

On April 26, 1937, it was Monday Market Day in the Spanish city of Guernica, a day when more than ten thousand people were out buying and selling in a city that was well known not to be housing soldiers or military equipment.

Despite this, and without any warning, the Nazi Luftwaffe unleashed a blistering aerial bombardment that destroyed virtually all of the city. It was horrific. Barbaric. Unjustifiable. And we now know that the Nazis considered this humanitarian tragedy as nothing more than target practice.

This bombing deeply affected a Spanish man living at the time in Paris. His name was Pablo Picasso (you may have heard of him). Picasso was the pioneer of “cubism”, a modern art style that deconstructs an object and puts it back together in a way that explores meanings below what might appear on the surface. Because cubism isn’t limited by the strictures of visual realism, it expands the expressive choices available to an artist. Because sometimes the best way to express an idea is to make someone’s head . . . an upright phallic symbol?

By 1937, Picasso had already been perfecting his method for three decades, and after the bombing, he took all that passion and genius and poured it into one massive project. He named it simply Guernica.

guernica.jpg

First of all, Guernica is huge. My friend took this picture the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The painting is twenty-five feet from one end to the other.

8CF4D3C6-70A4-4058-A8A8-ECAA90F16801.jpg

Guernica certainly makes bold statements. Clearly depicted are civilians who have been distorted in ways that emphasize their suffering, defenselessness, and agony. Everything these people had invested into their city and into their lives was now gone thanks to a senseless and arbitrary German bombing round. “Didn’t I tell you that everything is meaningless?” you can hear Qohelet saying.

But, for every one statement Guernica might clearly make, it raises many more questions.

First, about the two animals: the horse and the bull. The horse near the center of the canvas appears in agony, but the bull to the left appears calm. In fact, the bull is the only calm-looking thing in the whole picture. Does the bull communicate hope for the Spanish people? Or does he represent the callousness and inhumanity of Franco? Or does he represent Picasso himself, who watched from Paris, but was powerless to do anything for his people? Is the bull the Spanish nation emotionlessly shocked? Does this bull have anything to do with any of the many previous Spanish bulls he had already painted?

(You could say there are a few bulls in Picasso paintings.)

Or is the bull just a bull?

As Picasso himself said (though no one believes him):

“…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

“For what they are” might strike you as an odd way to describe anything that might appear in a cubist painting. But that’s the point. This is Picasso’s snide way of rejecting the need to paint something with visual accuracy to convey the truth of what the thing is.

(And yes, Picasso was perfectly capable of realism)

Regardless of what was going through Picasso’s head, I can say for certain that he wasn’t interested in telling you what the painting is “about.”

If nothing else, that’s boring.

But more importantly, that’s a claim that rarely stands up to any scrutiny.

The same horse and the same bull and the same eye or sun or whatever it is at the top with a lightbulb in it (the art police just read that and are making an arrest right now) can be hundreds of things. And should be hundreds of things. Even simultaneously. That’s what makes a great work of art great. It inspires many more questions than it does answers. And it allows different people to be impacted in unique ways—ways that allow the piece to explore the depth and breadth of the whole human experience.

(which is why contemporary Christian art and music are so bad)

It’s been nearly a century since Picasso painted Guernica, and we’re still asking questions about it. It still impacts people, though oftentimes in very different ways.

I believe this has something to do with the Bible, and that’s how I want to conclude this series.

Human

You may have gotten the impression that I have a low view of the Bible. You may think I’m just trying to wiggle out of it. That I see no room for the Bible in our postmodern world. That hidden behind this big project is nothing more than a lame and long-winded attempt to do whatever I want. That I want comfortable and safe religion. That all ideas are equally valid.

Without question, that’s certainly where I fit within the theological constructs that billions of dollars have been spent propagating, but the real truth is nothing like that at all.

When I think about the Bible, only the most soaring words come to my mind.

Inspired.

Timeless.

Authoritative

Eternally relevant.

Essential.

Ingenius.

Most Biblical traditionalists probably share in this list, and it’s not here that we differ. We differ on one more word.

Human.

I think the Bible is human. Inspired, yes, but also human. Very human. I want to go back to the words I included earlier of Dr. Peter Enns, who wakes up every morning and asks questions about the Bible that I would never even think to ask:

Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low. Uh…actually…yes he would. God is all about stooping low—way low. That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.

If God became human and dwelt among us—specifically, if the Word took human form—then why is it so surprising that God would also allow his text to take on human form?

A God that allows himself to be written about this way is a God with a high view of humans and their thoughts. A God with a high view of human progression, even when it is less than perfect and has to evolve over thousands and thousands of years.

After all we’ve seen, I don’t find it plausible that God for hundreds of years inspired people  in the amazingly creative ways we’ve seen for weeks—only to end in the first century. I am in love with the text of the Bible, and I try to be faithful to it, but what I see in the text of the Bible is less a command to halt and more one to go. Less of a target and more of a trajectory.

Today, our idea of faithfulness to a text operates a lot like how a person would use an instruction manual to assemble a table. If you and I are faithful to the same instruction manual, your finished table will look the same as mine.

But what I’ve tried to explain over the last two months is this: That tribe whose name means “one who wrestles with God” understood faithfulness to the text to operate how art critics study Guernica. We treat the text like an instruction manual. They treated it like a painting. To the ancient Hebrews, the text was expansive and mysterious. Its meaning could drastically change depending on one’s perspective. Finding its meaning sometimes felt like wrestling. And it certainly could mean multiple and even contradictory things at the same time.

We often talk about the Bible as the place for “the answers”, and I agree.

Do you remember in Part 4 how Jesus would answer questions with more questions?

This is how the Bible answers questions too. It raises questions. Just like a Picasso painting, it raises questions, and that is the point.

That is the answer.

Answers support those at the top. Questions support those at the bottom.

And the Bible is not meant to comfort those at the top. In fact, this is one of the few things in the Bible on which you absolutely can rely.

Empire

If the Bible is unified on anything, from start to finish it denounces empire.

We miss this because we read the Bible from such a different place than did its writers. Brian Zahnd puts it really well.

I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…

I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.

That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.

One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that in it we find the narrative told from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the conquered, the occupied, the defeated. This is what makes it prophetic. We know that history is written by the winners. This is true — except in the case of the Bible it’s the opposite! This is the subversive genius of the Hebrew prophets. They wrote from a bottom-up perspective.

Imagine a history of colonial America written by Cherokee Indians and African slaves. That would be a different way of telling the story! And that’s what the Bible does. It’s the story of Egypt told by the slaves. The story of Babylon told by the exiles. The story of Rome told by the occupied. What about those brief moments when Israel appeared to be on top? In those cases the prophets told Israel’s story from the perspective of the peasant poor as a critique of the royal elite. Like when Amos denounced the wives of the Israelite aristocracy as “the fat cows of Bashan.”

The Old Testament really does take aim at Babylon and the New Testament really does take aim at Rome. I demonstrated this in Part 6 with Revelation, but you also see it strikingly in the Gospel of Mark. Virtually every word of the Bible was penned under the abuses of some global superpower, and its writers for hundreds of years focused on them like a laser beam.

However, while the Bible is concerned with Empire, the impulse of Empire takes many forms, and the word is much bigger than its most obvious one. The impulse is the same regardless of whether it is big and obvious or small and ordinary. You struggle with it in your own life.

Adam and Eve ate from the tree for power.

Cain killed Abel for power.

Nimrod built the Tower of Babel for power.

Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews for power.

Goliath challenged David for power.

Solomon married hundreds of women for power.

Solomon built thousands of chariots for power.

Jonah sought vengeance on Nineveh for power.

Nebuchadnezzar built his kingdom for power.

Alexander the Great build his kingdom for power.

And each time the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he tempted him with power—even empire by name.

When you use other people to further your own purposes, you are participating in Empire. 

One of the consequences of both believing that Jesus is God and that the scriptures are a human creation that borrows heavily from human ideas is that when you get past the noise of Jesus’s indulgences of Judaism, you find an attack on this way of life.

Control.

Manipulation.

Power.

Greed.

Envy.

Abuse.

Posturing.

Dominance.

Exploitation.

Revenge.

Insecurity.

Fear.

The seduction of Empire can be found wherever you find people. It is the worst in ourselves, and it brings out the worst in others. It never tires of destruction. Virtually everything you will ever regret for as long as you live will arise out of the impulse of Empire.

I’m thankful to live in such a time of enlightenment, but this is a mystery that has eluded so many of our great minds. When we lower others and raise ourselves, when we repay hurt with hurt, when we retaliate, when we hide all weakness, when we seek revenge, when we take an “eye for an eye”, when we do the right thing only when it’s safe to do so, when we hoard our resources, when we apologize only when they apologize, when we view people only through the lens of their usefulness to us, when we engage in the never-ending toil of controlling our own world, we perpetuate the cycle of Empire.

And it kills everything in sight.

It kills our friendships.

It kills our communities.

It kills our environment.

It kills our joy.

It kills our souls.

It is our burning hellfire and brimstone. Our weeping and gnashing of teeth. Our Gehenna.

Not somewhere distant and outside of this world, but right here.

So, what is the opposite of Empire?

Love.

Love is.

Love drives out all of the worst impulses of Empire.

What I’m about to say is a total cliche, but we’ve really ruined the word “love.” I use it to describe the long shadows in the late afternoon on a golf course. I use it to describe expensive Trappist beers. I use it to describe fancy tacos. Hippies since the 60s have used it to describe a world without responsibility or consequences. Elvis couldn’t help falling into it. It’s a booty call Drake used to get on his cell phone.

But love has nothing to do with any of that. Most people run far away from true love. Love is less seductive than Empire, and, while it might be the best thing, it’s also the hardest thing.

Nazareth got it right that love hurts. Haddaway got it wrong that it will no more.

What is love, but to care for someone else as if they were you? To treat all people as if they are equally important? To sacrifice things for the betterment of people who can never repay you? To forgive people for the worst they’ve done to you as you would hope others would forgive you for the worst you’ve done? To give them the dignity you wish they’d give you?

If there is anything in this world that requires faith, it is love.

In Empire, everyone is is given a rank and is trying to advance. Everyone is always in a kind of war.

But in love, we are all equal.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

I Corinthians c13

What Jesus commands us to do is to love. In so doing, we tear down every last vestige of Empire.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

When we see all people as equals—that is to say, when we learn to love—we become distinct among a people driven by the desire of Empire.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

John c17

Purity Culture

That said, most Christians think of Christianity primarily in terms of cleanliness and purity. Most Christians think of Heaven as somewhere else that requires being pure enough to enter, and that life on Earth is about positioning to be pure enough for Heaven.

No doubt, the literal words to support these ideas are found in the text of the Bible, but we have to decide why they are there. Is purity the thing, and love is just one part among many parts? 

Or is love the thing, and purity is the vocabulary that Jesus’s first disciples knew to talk about it?

Again, I concede that if you want to find purity culture in the Bible, the words are there for you. You’re not going to catch me off guard simply by quoting a Bible verse (as many have tried to do).

But let’s recall what led us to today:

  • The first five books of the Bible (and probably several more) are not historical, but were written to support the temple cult in Jerusalem.
  • We inherited baptism from the Essenes. The way the pesher writers took Old Testament texts way out of context to make new points was how the New Testaments writers also wrote.
  • Jesus indulged many of the ideas of the Pharisees while he taught on the Earth.
  • Jesus’s teachings on Gehenna (Hell) were based on the invention of Jewish rabbis who tried to find Socrates’s ideas in their text.
  • John’s vision in Revelation takes the form of Persian apocalyptic themes and describes Heaven and the battle in Heaven almost exclusively in terms of the propaganda images he had seen throughout the Roman empire.
  • The idea of the Holy Spirit was a theological construct of the Pharisees, who believed that wind was spiritual.

In light of everything we have seen, I don’t think purity culture is what Jesus came down to reinforce.

That he came to talk about new ways to sin.

That what was really needed was the Jewish Day of Atonement (which was already forgiving the sins of the Jewish people) being made permanent.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Read it carefully, and notice how Jewish ideas from the Torah and from the inter-testamentary period were used to talk about love.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

….

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgmentIn this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

For John, it was completely natural to weave the ideas of love and purity together. He could not help but read into Jesus’s teachings on love the Jewish convictions with which he grew up.

But, in light of the many times that Jesus would use Jewish ideas to actually stray from Judaism, I have strongly concluded that we as 21st century Christians are heirs to those to whom purity was the language they knew to talk about what was actually the real thing.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians c13

Paul’s conception of God was thoroughly grounded in his years of study under Gamaliel. His training was of a depth and sophistication that modern readers can scarcely comprehend. He would have memorized Leviticus by the time he was eight. By the age of fourteen, he would have answered questions using a Jewish technique called a remez, which is the use of an incomplete part of a text, assuming the audience’s knowledge of the whole text would allow them to deduce for themselves the fuller meaning of a statement. Students of the text like Paul were so grounded in the text that they would have entire conversations in remez. People don’t grow up under that kind of system and simply abandon it.

As much as I say my understandings have evolved, I will never completely abandon my upbringing.

Likewise, Jesus was a Jew and the first interpreters of his teachings were Jews. Jesus used the language they knew, and his first advocates filtered his teachings even further. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the first things people wrote down about following Jesus arose out of the language of Judaism. Our heritage is important, but our heritage is not the thing.

On the surface, it would be easy to assume that I read the Bible the traditional way (and that is how most non-believers classify me). I participate in many of the traditional rituals associated with Christianity. I’m part of a church congregation. I was baptized, and agree that we should baptize new believers. I believe in sin. I believe in punishment for sin. I take communion every Sunday. I pray enough to demonstrate that I think there’s something to it. And I even strongly prefer old church songs to new ones.

But I’m careful to avoid making Christianity about any of them. As Jesus once said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” We were meant to live in community, and “the church” was the counter-narrative to the cult of the Roman Empire. But Jesus Christ did not die and raise so we could replace old rituals with new ones.

Jesus died and rose again to show that the old understanding of power and dominance was going away, and that a new kingdom of equality was rushing in.

Shalom

In the last two months, I’ve done the best I can explain an understanding of the Bible that (1) I think is more true to what it actually is and (2) certainly is different than its traditional understanding. I’ve loved doing this, and I already miss it.

But, if what I’ve written has resonated with you, I want to offer a few parting words of shalom.

First, you are going to encounter resistance. I see a lot of “us-versus-them” in our churches, and, unfortunately, I often get placed into the category belonging to “them.” It is vital that you not become the very thing that you are working against.

It’s not unreasonable to interpret the Bible in the ways I’ve argued against. Don’t assume that people who do so are dishonest or less intelligent than you. The words to denounce what I’ve argued are in the Bible, and when we talk about translating the culture within which the words of the Bible were written, we’re not dealing with an exact science. Everything we do is always our best guess.

Engage with those who find you threatening. For the rest of your life, you can never stop listening. You must always assume that you are wrong about something. For one thing, people won’t listen to you until you’ve listened to them.

But also you are wrong about something!

Second, even if you radically change your idea of the Bible, I think you should consider maintaining the same fellowship you had before. I have, and I don’t regret it.

Of course, when you invest yourself in a congregation that views you as suspicious, a lot more is required of you. You will have to be on guard always. Anything you do wrong will be reduced to “that goes to show how everything he thinks about the Bible has been a sham this whole time.” It means constantly and actively listening to ideas you disagree with. When I listen to other people express their thoughts, I’m constantly converting them in my head so that I can agree with them.

If I’m being honest, this takes enormous amount of energy.

But, we as a society are too polarized. We spend far too little time around people who disagree with us. We’re not good at talking with people with different views. Remember, even when you don’t change an opinion, you frequently change a mind. When you give someone the dignity of listening to them and genuinely seek to understand them, and when you then intelligently and boldly explain your view, you create an impression in the other person’s mind that they should do more listening too. You sow mutual respect.

And, in a small way, you make the world a little better.

Finally, it’s important to remember that everything we do is about people. People will generally do what they believe they should do, and this means that our ideas require a lot of attention. I’m not impressed when people suggest that we should just spend our lives “doing instead of thinking.” But, nevertheless, we don’t live for ideas. Ideas are not the thing. People are the thing.

This means you need to shut up sometimes.

Don’t remain silent because you think your ideas will challenge people. Don’t remain silent because you think people won’t like you if you tell them what you think. Don’t remain silent because people might hurt you.

But some people aren’t in the right place for this whole thing. Sometimes it’s the right time even when it will cause you pain. Sometimes it’s the wrong time even when it will elevate you. It’s not about you, it’s always about them

As Jesus constantly demonstrated to his disciples, Jesus has great faith in your ability to discern how to love. Set your mind to it, and you’ll know what to do.

Peace be with you, friends.

New here? How about starting from the beginning?

The Bible That Borrows Part 7: The Inspired Bible

My vacation Bible school was like every other. I listened to sanitized versions of Bible stories that would otherwise be R-rated movies and sang songs that would otherwise be propaganda (“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me!”).

And I distinctly the day remember when my sixty-year-old teacher assigned eight-year-old me what was my first ever memory verse.

I remember this day for two reasons: (1) because to this day I would rather listen to Nickelback on repeat than learn a single damn memory verse, and (2) because—despite my best opposition—this verse became the foundation of my worldview for nearly twenty years. You’ve probably seen it. The NIV translates it like this:

 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy c3 v14–17

If you want to picture the scene, imagine there’s bomb about to go off, and you’re on the phone with a physicist who walks you step by step to deactivate it. Do you hear the seriousness in her voice? The urgency? That was the voice of my teacher, who walked us word by word along Paul’s careful and narrow path to salvation.

And I really can’t blame her. If billions of people at the end this life are going to Hell and the Bible is the instructions for not being one of them, it would be cruel not to copy her example.

And, truth be told, I did too for a long time.

Not only did I memorize the life out of those words, but they sunk deep into my bones. More than any other, the words all scripture is inspired by God forged themselves to every motivation, purpose, thought, argument, and guilty feeling that ever entered my young imagination. Had I been asked why I was doing or thinking just about anything I was ever doing or thinking, I could go down a train of thought that at some point would include the words, “all scripture is inspired by God.”

And, like I said, my experience was typical. Churches, vacation Bible schools, and summer camps use this verse to train children in essentially a ten-point line of reasoning, a series of points I’m going to call the “Wall of Assurance”. The Wall is built like this:

  1. When Paul uses the word “scripture”, he is talking about the Bible.
  2. Paul says that scripture is inspired by God.
  3. Therefore, every idea of the Bible can be relied on as a transmission from God (some take this as a word-for-word transmission; others allow for the writers express God’s ideas through their own choices of specific language).
  4. Therefore, since all of the Bible is transmitted from God, the Bible can be treated as a unified whole.
  5. The Bible says that God is perfect.
  6. Therefore, the Bible speaks with a single non-contradictory and inerrant voice.
  7. God is not given to the imperfect human fables and myths that you find in other literature.
  8. Therefore, God would not inspire the Bible’s writers to write fables and myths.
  9. Therefore, sorry Chris, but the Bible does NOT borrow from human ideas (dummy).
  10. And finally, therefore, it does not matter what modern scientists, philosophers, economists, psychologists, medical professionals, sociologists, or blood-sucking lawyers like Chris says if what any of them say contradicts the plain meaning of anything written in the Bible. To the contrary, opposing such contradictory voices demonstrates faithfulness to God’s word.

The Wall of Assurance is a strong wall, and people who call it into question are generally seen as arrogant and under the impression that their judgment is superior to God’s. That they are just trying to be fashionable, politically correct, and not offensive to modern life.

(I’m not imagining these statements; I heard them directed at many other people my whole life, and in just the last month I’ve received each one of them personally)

Before I talk about the foundations of the Wall of Assurance, I want to take a step back and make a few general observations about the effect of such a Wall. What I’m about to say is outside my train of thought, but I think it needs to be said anyway.

Even conservatives would agree that anything holding this much authority can be fashioned into a tool for just about anything. Walls of Assurance are dangerous because the same people who with enthusiasm agree that the Bible is the most influential book in their life, usually have read little of it.

The implication is that manipulating people with the Bible is not dependent on what is in the Bible so much as what people can be made to believe is in the Bible.

But, even for those people who have spent a lot of honest time in the actual text, most have been exposed to few viable and well-explained interpretations of it. Every text must be interpreted, but most people are not aware of the interpretive choices they reject when they make the interpretive choices they accept. Specifically, I was trained to read the Bible in ways that naturally filtered out those voices who argued in favor of anything like what I’ve described in the last seven weeks.

And everything I have said was true even before evangelicalism became the multi-multi-multi-mega-multi-billion-dollar industrial complex it is today.

Before that industry could saturate your television and Facebook newsfeed with a mix of a little scripture and with whatever was the agenda of the day: Why God’s promise to Noah protects us against global warming, why God would not allow children to be born gay, why poor people just need to work harder, and with a host of antediluvian ideas on women.

(Confession: I’ve defend every one of these positions and used scripture to do it)

All this to say, for those of you who grew up the way I did, the Wall of Assurance is probably the biggest barrier between where you are and where I am (and, frankly, between my twenty-year-old self and my thirty-year-old self).

So let’s talk about the Wall of Assurance. How strong is that thing, really?

Borrowing Inspiration

Like I said earlier, much of the appeal the Wall of Assurance arises from the assumption that we need a Bible upon which we can rely because the dominant concern of this life is to not go to Hell. It’s an idea that begins with a questionable assumption and finds a memory verse to support it.

Or an interpretation of a memory verse.

Scholars of ancient Greek  agree that there are basically two logical ways to translate 2nd Timothy c3 v16.

One way requires more addition to the Greek text, flows less well with the previous sentence, and makes less sense in light of everything we’ve seen in the last several weeks. Which all sounds bad, except this is the translation that most Bibles adopt and that I quoted for twenty years.

Unrelated I’m sure, but it’s also the translation that will most naturally sell the most Bibles.

I think (and others have too) that a better way to translate that verse goes like this: “Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

If you go back and read the verse in its context (which I provided above), you will probably notice how this translation flows so much better with the function of the prior sentence. This is essentially how the American Standard Version and New English Bible translates it, and the New Revised Standard Version includes it in its footnotes as a possible translation.

Why is this important?

What we today call the “Old Testament” took some time before it reached its final form. Not only was the question of which books to include not settled for centuries, but we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the internal composition of many of the Old Testament books themselves was in a state of flux for centuries.

However, by the time of Paul, most of the Old Testament had reached its final form. And we know from rabbinical sources that, by the time of Paul, Jews were already referring to their text as “God breathed”—as inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. In other words, the Pharisees were already referring to the Hebrew Bible the same way Paul did in 2nd Timothy.

In other words, Paul simply borrowing a phrase that was already in use.

Had Paul wrote to Timothy (remember 2nd Timothy is a personal letter), “Hey, Timothy, the scriptures were inspired by God,” Timothy would have written back, “Thanks, Paul, but I already know this. Are you okay, man? Are you starting to lose your memory?”

I have no doubt Paul believed that God was the originator of all the scriptures, but that wasn’t his purpose in writing 2 Timothy c3 v16. His purpose was simply to say that they were still useful. If I could paraphrase Paul, I hear his message to Timothy was simply, “I know that we are moving away from Judaism, but the texts of Judaism should not be abandoned.” Which would have been a relevant and useful message in this weird and confusing time of transition.

And a message with which I totally agree!

Also, keep in mind, there was no “New Testament” at this point. There was no MatthewMarkLuke, or John. There was no Bible. Most people didn’t have access to the scrolls of all the Old Testament works, let alone the ability to read them. What we call the “canon” wouldn’t be agreed upon for centuries after his death.

In light of the history surrounding Paul’s statement, the idea that we can use his words to argue for a unified Bible is an idea I simply don’t find plausible.

Yet.

I can already hear certain people saying that I’m just another soft liberal who makes comfortable generalizations, but ignores hard details. They will quote two passages from 2nd Peter, which I provide below, and claim that they negate my whole understanding of the Bible.

So, let’s talk about the hard details of their hard details. Here’s 2nd Peter:

We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

….

Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

2nd Peter c1 v19–21 and c3 v15–16

On the face of these verses, I concede that my argument is totally undercut. These statements make an undeniable case that (1) the Old Testament did not borrow from human ideas and (2) that Paul’s writings are on par with the rest of scripture. Many people will want to embrace what I’ve said these last weeks, but won’t be able to because of these two passages.

Here’s the problem.

I’m willing for all eternity to bet my soul and the souls of every person who will ever live that Peter didn’t write the book we call 2nd Peter.

You read that correctly.

Peter did not write 2nd Peter. I don’t know who did. But it wasn’t Peter.

The author of 2nd Peter strains the text repeatedly and kind of awkwardly to insist that the author is Peter. Yet,

  • Simon Peter’s name is misspelled in the very first line;
  • The Greek grammar in 1st Peter is very good, but in 2nd Peter it’s distinctly poor;
  • 2nd Peter is dependent on Jude, which was written after Peter’s death (as one example of a few, notice how 2nd Peter c2 v11 only makes sense if you’ve already read Jude 9–10);
  • Not a single 2nd century Christian writer makes reference to 2nd Peter;
  • Several 3rd century Christian writers explicitly did not believe Peter wrote 2nd Peter; and
  • 2nd Peter in the 4th century was accepted into the New Testament canon only reluctantly.

I’m not saying there isn’t anything useful in 2nd Peter. It just wasn’t written by Peter, nor was it written in the first century. It’s the opinion of someone writing probably about a century after Peter’s death at the hand of Emperor Nero.

So, that’s my first issue with the Wall of Assurance. It’s an issue that, like I said, is very dry and mechanical. It’s not the way I enjoy talking about the Bible, but, because the details matter, it is necessary. It’s the way I used to talk about the Bible, like it was an instruction manual for a kitchen appliance.

I kind of hated writing it just now.

Especially because this next part is so much more interesting.

Wind

In spite of everything I just said—in spite of all the effort I put in to talk about translations and canons and other boring but essential things—I want to be clear that I absolutely affirm that God inspired scripture. I affirm the breath of God in every page of that library we call the Bible (even 2nd Peter!). But, to say that God inspired scripture raises all kinds of sophisticated questions.

Like, huh? 

And…

What does that mean?

And…

Could the God of all past and future—the God who formed every quark, supernova, and ostrich—not have just written the Bible himself?

And if God wanted humans to write scripture, should that tell us anything?

And if the Bible is inspired, then what is it inspired to do?

And does God inspire people to write or say other things?

We’ve talked about the Bible for seven weeks now. We’ve talked about Babylon, Qumran, the rabbis, Greece, Persia and Rome. I’ve pointed out the pattern of the Bible’s authors taking audacious liberties to creatively and daringly borrow from their culture and tell new and amazing things about God and life and death and what it all means.

And that brings me to a Hebrew word.

Ruah.

(the h makes a guttural sound, which I bet you’re making right now)

The word Ruah means “wind.”

We understand wind to be simply the movement of matter in its gaseous state. But put yourself in a time when people had no way of knowing this. You might have noticed that while people are alive, breath circulates in and out of them. That when people die, their breath leaves them and doesn’t come back. That the same invisible air that gives people life moves all around and causes things to move. You might associate wind with life itself.

You might see the wind as something spiritual.

In Genesis c1, the Ruah of Elohim hovers over the face of the waters and Elohim speaks creation into existence. In Genesis c2, God makes the adam out of the adama and breathes into his nostrils the Ruah of life. In Exodus c31Elohim fills a man named Bezalel with his Ruah so that Bezalel would have the artistic abilities necessary to fashion the Tabernacle.

Ruah is a rich and vibrant word of power, creation, movement, animation, connection with the divine, change, and mystery.

Today, we think of wind as just that—wind.

But, like most ancient people, the ancient Hebrews saw wind as part of something much more, a spiritual thing—a connection with the divine. In fact, the same Hebrew word we translate “wind”, we also translate “spirit”. And the ancients were as creative with this word as the word itself is a dynamic creative force.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the ancients saw Ruah as one of God’s tools in controlling human destiny.

God sent his Ruah to recede the waters of the flood.

God sent his Ruah to bring locusts to Egypt.

God sent his Ruah to send those locusts away.

And when God parted the Red Sea, he sent his Ruah.

Elijah—in one of the most profoundly spiritual moments of the entire Bible—went on a mountain where he witnessed a dramatic Ruah, which “tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks”.

But the writer had to clarify for the reader that God was not in this Ruah.

Ruah is constantly shaping. Constantly breaking. Constantly on the move. In the Old Testament Ruah “fills,” “rests on“, “envelops”, “carries” and “guides“. God even sends an evil Ruah that is said to “torment.”

Later on, the Hebrews became Greek speakers and adopted the word pneuma for each time the Old Testament used the word Ruah. Like, It too means “wind”, “breath”, and “spirit”. They began to conceptualize God’s Holy Ruah, and they attributed their brilliant text to the same wind of God that split seas, crushed rocks, and brought out  humans.

And it is on this background that we get to Paul, who used the word theopneustos (“God-breathed”) to describe this same dynamic, creative, brilliant, driving forward of humanity and the understanding of God that the Jewish sages conceptualized.

The more I go into their ancient world, the more I see the brilliance of these writers. The more I see their brilliance, the more I see and affirm this Ruah at work.

The humans who wrote the Bible weren’t automatons. They wrote in their times as people wrote in their times as people thought in their time to advance new ideas for their times. And the Ruah of God animated them to do that.

The Bible’s Inspired Arguments With Itself

But if the Ruah of God animated people to write, the question is what? Did God push people beyond their mortal limits to write what God could have written for himself? I guess it’s possible, but the Bible itself points to a different conclusion.

I want to introduce you to a grouchy old man named Qohelet, a man in the Bible you’ve long known, though you probably didn’t know it.

Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, is famous for being depicted as the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs argues that seeking wisdom was the key the good life on this Earth. Here’s an excerpt that is representative of most of Proverbs:

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs c3

“Wisdom,” says Solomon, “is the key to everything good.” – McNeal Revised and Extremely Abridged Version.

Of course, life was good in Solomon’s time; Israel was rich and at peace. And, when things go well—as they did in America during the housing bubble—we tend to feel brilliant.

We get in a groove.

We feel insulated from risk.

We credit ourselves for having uncommon wisdom.

With discovering “the formula.”

The “secret sauce.”

It happened in King Solomon’s time, and the hundreds of books authored by people who were in the right place at the right time—we call these people “business gurus” and “self help gurus”—bear me out that it happens today.

Centuries later, however, Israel’s fortunes began fleeting rapidly. Assyria had starved out the Northern Kingdom. Babylon had barreled down Jerusalem’s wall and temple in the Southern Kingdom. The throne that God promised would remain with the line of David forever was now like a disappearing fog.

And man named Qohelet could take it no more.

Havelhavel! Utterly havel! Everything is havel!” he began writing.

Havel is the Hebrew word for fog. We translate it “meaningless.”

If you were raised like me, you were probably taught that Solomon wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and that Ecclesiastes is the writing of Solomon much later in his life. And your Bible class at some point engaged in the gravity-defying exercise of figuring out what Solomon must have learned over his lifetime.

I have news for you.

Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes.

Qohelet did.

Proverbs begins, “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel.” Ecclesiastes begins almost identically, “The words of Qohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Qohelet wants you to be thinking about Proverbs as you begin reading.

Because he’s about to argue that Solomon’s cute little self-help book was a sham.

“For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

“What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?”

“Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.” (haha, my favorite line)

“Do not be too righteous, neither be too wise—why destroy yourself?”

A sampling of Ecclesiastes (which in the Jewish Bible is actually called “Qohelet“) 

Seriously—Do not be too righteous!?!?!?!

The inspired word of God tells you to not be too righteous? You should highlight it. After all, it’s in your Bible.

If you let your Bible simply say what it says, these statements are clear and unmistakeable attacks on Solomon’s. If Ecclesiastes is right, then Proverbs is wrong.

Your Bible’s authors are arguing with themselves.

And they do this a lot.

The second half of Daniel, which was written during the high-water mark of apocalyptic literature during the 2nd century BCE, exemplifies the strain of Judaism that harbored a pessimistic view of foreigners.

But the writer of Jonah depicts literally every foreigner as having a righteous fear of God that Jonah lacks. The heroes in Jonah are the gentiles on the boat and the Assyrians.

And a fish.

You may not think of the book of Ruth as incredibly consequential, aside from being a nice story about a faithful friendship. But Ruth is probably the most dangerous book in the whole Bible.

The book of Ezra unambiguously commands Israelites not to marry foreigners, and Deuteronomy tells us, “No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.”

But something odd happens in the book of Ruth. The hero in Ruth is a Moabite woman, and she marries an Israelite. Despite what is written in Ezra and Deuteronomy, Ruth isn’t depicted as a law-breaker, but fantastically as a woman of noble character. Then, after all the law-breaking, the author of Ruth tells us that it is from her line that came the great King David.

Ruth was written in a time of disagreement about the law, and its author was making a loud statement. He is disagreeing with Ezra.

These books, and others, reflect deep, complex divisions in Jewish thought that developed as reactions to centuries of foreign domination. Yet the sages who assembled the final Hebrew canon saw no reason to hide from the public the arguments that the authors of these books were having with each other. They just left them right out there.

And this is important: It is this literature that Jesus used to point to himself as the incarnate son of God.

If we are listening, God has inspired the Bible’s authors to tell our conflict-averse generation something remarkable.

Disagreement is a good thing.

Differing perspectives are an essential part of the human experience. We were never meant to agree on everything. We were never meant to expect or make it our goal to agree on everything. We were meant to converse. To engage. To argue. To listen. To never have it all figured out. Even to be wrong.

Because when we engage with each other this way, we move the ball forward. We move the needle. We advance the whole world.

The writers of the Bible were creative. They were passionate. They were polemical. They said amazing things. Great things. And horrendous things. They were inspired not to write an inerrant text, but to engage creatively with their time and so push the human race forward as best as they knew how. I find it hard to believe that God would use the Bible’s writers to push so many boundaries and limits, and to engage in so much creativity—only so that God could one day keep us all within an unchanging Wall. paris-1706910_1920

I find it hard to believe that we don’t continue to be inspired. When people push the human race forward, when they honestly and passionately drive themselves to the best of what we can be, you find in those people the breath of God.

God didn’t inspire humans to write the Bible because he was too busy and needed a scribe. The book we carry to church every Sunday is not some my-way-or-the-highway-because-this-is-the-word-of-God thing. It’s not some your-argument-isn’t-with-me-it’s-with-God thing.

It is not a threat to your soul when other people read it differently than you—when people disagree with some of the many voices within the Bible.

This is why we shouldn’t strain so hard to keep the Bible from disagreeing with itself. When we see the Bible disagree with itself, we learn what God wants for us. We learn that disagreement is good. Engagement is good. Debate is good. Diversity is good.

What I learn from our holy Bible is that disagreement is holy.

Which should be no surprise given how much destruction has come in the name of conformity.

The Bible was written by humans who were inspired by God’s Ruah Ha-kadesh (the Holy Spirit). It represents the best of people at any given time who, over time, wrestled with God, life, death, and with each other. It is an on-going conversation, and the conversation continues today.

God inspired humans to write the Bible because God values human diversity, creativity, and engagement with each other’s differences.

When I affirm that God inspired the writers of the Bible, this is what I affirm.

Part 1 Part 8

The Bible That Borrows Part 6: The Roman Bible

Last week I told you what I think the New Testament phrase, “the Good News,” is not. Over the final installments of this series, I’m going to tell you what I think it is.

But first I need to tell you about three sentences I read in a newspaper.

Few people subscribe to these things anymore. If you are one of those few who actually pay money so that professional journalists can keep our most powerful people and institutions accountable to you, then hats off. That said, among the few people who read newspapers, even fewer take the time to contribute to them.

But, on February 13, 2015, Boyd Thomas left this world behind and took the Letters to the Editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette up multiple levels.

10268657_10100385990249951_5105338316363541258_n.jpg

Boyd Thomas not only apparently reads the paper, not only did he take the time to submit a letter to the editor, but the man noticed an error and submitted a correction.

We are not worthy of Boyd Thomas.

And I can’t blame him for his passion. If the book of Revelation was about President Barack Obama, that would be news I would want to know.

But here’s the thing.

To this day I feel so bad for him.

Boyd Thomas was off.

Like, deep space levels of off.

And it was not his fault. There is an enormous amount of material in books, on the internet, and in sermons that connects the book of Revelation to people and events of the last century.

I decided that morning, February 13, 2015, that I needed to figure out how to talk about the Bible, and that’s roughly what I spent the next year doing. What you are reading today is Part 6 of an idea that started mostly because of Boyd.

Today’s discussion is about John’s really weird final book of the Bible called Revelation.

No literary creation has been the subject of more empty, wasted, and toxic speculation. But I find that even people who are skeptical of readings like Mr. Thomas’s struggle to articulate viable alternatives.

To understand Revelation, you have to understand that it is one big league, colossal borrower. It is by a country mile the borrowingest (yes, borrowingest) book of the Bible. In the last five weeks, I’ve shown you all kinds of ways that the Bible borrows. Revelation is a great big stew of all of the Bible’s borrowing.

The Gospel of Augustus, the Son of God

If your Bible-reading mind hasn’t been trained to read the Bible as a thing that borrows from and speaks principally to its ancient settings, you will miss John’s message and plunge into the abyss of fire, brimstone, weeping, and gnashing of teeth where people for eternity are consigned to debate whether Barack Obama is the antichrist or the dragon or the beast of the Earth or the Beast of the Sea or Wormwood or Apollyon or  . . . or the seventh king after the Antichrist.

You will miss the fact that all the weirdness of Revelation is actually a powerful and heroic story about real people in the Roman Empire.

I’m going to spend a lot of time on Rome’s starring role in Revelation, but first I need to take a step back. Even as Jesus instructed his disciples to submit to the emperor, the whole New Testament was a kind of direct assault on the Roman Empire. To explain how, I have to introduce you to an important cast of characters.

We begin in the year 49 BCE.

In this year, Rome is a Republic. Julius Caesar is the general of an army on the edge of the Roman Republic in Gaul. His military campaign has been successful, and the Roman Senate has ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. The Roman people—perhaps with a mind to the failed democracy in Greece—instinctively fear their republic descending into dictatorship, and thus it is illegal for a general on campaign to enter Italy at the head of an army.

49 BCE was the fateful year when Julius did just that. In that year, he “crossed the Rubicon” with his army and started a civil war. A war he won. The Roman Republic ended, the Roman Empire began, and Julius Caesar installed himself as “dictator for life” (today, that is a pejorative thing to say, but that was his literal title).

Only, Julius didn’t live very long: 44 BCE was the year that Brutus and the rest of the recently emasculated Roman Senate collectively stabbed him to death. A new civil war broke out, this time with three warring factions:

  • The first faction included those who wished to bring back the Roman Republic and be governed by the Senate. This included Brutus and the rest of the Roman Senate.
  • The second faction was that of Marc Antony, who was loyal to Julius Caesar, and who sought to rule as successor emperor. He is portrayed brilliantly in the 1953 rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (seriously, if you haven’t watched his funeral speech, fix that right now).
  • The third faction was that of Julius’s adopted son, Octavian (later called “Augustus”), who also sought to rule as successor emperor.

In the end, Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide as a Roman army surrounded them in Alexandria, Egypt, and Augustus won the civil war.

Augustus’s victory came in no small part from a propaganda campaign he used to drum up support for his side. Coinciding with Julius Caesar’s assassination was an unusually bright comet, which remained in the sky for a week. Augustus seized on this and systematically propagated the idea that the comet was in fact his father ascending as a god to join the gods in Heaven.

In the days before politicians had Twitter accounts, they had to be more creative.

Augustus’s method was kind of genius: coins. In addition to the fact that coins, by their very nature, spread so quickly, the emperor has a monopoly on their production, design, and message.

320px-S0484.4.jpg

This coin minted by Augustus is one example. The front depicts Augustus. The back depicts Julius Caesar ascending as a comet into the heavens. Thanks to that comet, Augustus could (and frequently did) call himself “the son of god”.

Heard that phrase?

Augustus also minted and popularized the phrase, “I saw the son of God ascend to the right hand of god the father.”

Heard that?

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts c7

Augustus also minted and popularized the phrase, “There is no name, except Augustus, by which men can be saved.” What about that?

There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. Acts c4

You can see that, as Augustus employed this propaganda campaign as a weapon in his scorched-earth battle for the throne of Rome, the New Testament authors freely employed his propaganda devices to describe a different kind of throne. Where have you heard me say that before?

But there’s more.

Each time Augustus conquered some new territory, he sent a proclamation throughout the cities of the empire announcing his new conquest. Each official announcement that his military had made a new conquest was called a “euengelion” (ἐυαγγέλιον), the word from which we get “evangelical” or “good news”.

The followers of the first-century Jesus movement took this phrase—a phrase that had been used to announce military conquest—to announce a new kind of power that was forcing its way into the world. A power that had no need for a military.

But there’s more.

If the governing authorities of a city in the Roman Empire confessed “Caesar is Lord”, that city would officially be designated an “ecclesia” (ἐκκλησία).

This is the word we translate “church.”

“Jesus is Lord.”

“Evangelical.”

“Good news.”

“Church.”

These words and phrases, which have been in the Christian lexicon for two thousand years, didn’t come out of nowhere. We have Augustus to thank for letting us borrow them (actually, he didn’t let us borrow them, but he’s dead, and I’m betting he can’t stop us now).

Domitian, the Beast

It’s important to see how the New Testament borrowed from Augustus because, long after Augustus, the New Testament continued to borrow from the Roman Empire. To show you how, I need to fast forward about half a century and introduce you to a few more characters.

After Emperor Nero (more on him later) committed suicide, a competent general named Vespasian assumed the Roman throne. Vespasian had two sons, Titus and Domitian, and he seems to have considered Titus superior to Domitian both intellectually and morally. As such, he favored Titus for government offices with actual responsibilities, and—perhaps not to offend his other son—bestowed on Domitian various honors that carried with them little authority or responsibility.

Vespasian appointed Titus as commander of an army that would absolutely demolish the city of Jerusalem when Israel revolted against Rome in 66 CE. And when Vespasian died, Titus assumed the throne as emperor.

Meanwhile, Domitian grew up on the sidelines—jealous, insecure, and vindictive.

If you’ve seen the movie Gladiator, you have a picture of what the relationship between Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian probably looked like. Even though that movie is a fictionalized story of Marcus Aurelius and his son, Commodus, the family dynamics you saw in the movie probably looked about the same.

So, when Titus (mysteriously!) died and Domitian assumed the throne, you could be certain that Domitian wouldn’t manifest any symptoms of long-held, deep insecurity.

(haha, right)

Domitian made his wife refer to him as “My Lord and Master.” He issued an imperial edict that all statues of him be made of solid gold. His letters began “Our Lord and Our God commands you.” When Lucius Saturninus staged a small rebellion on the edge of the empire in Germania superior, Domitian quickly put down the rebellion and paraded the head of Saturninus around Rome.

Thank goodness this man never have a Twitter account.

Pay attention to what I’m about to say next, because understanding Domitian’s official displays of power is the first of two keys to understanding the whole book of Revelation.

So let’s talk about them.

Domitian’s hallmark was his arena games. In 86 CE he founded the Capitoline Games, a kind of Olympic contest comprising athletic displays, chariot racing, and competitions for oratory, music, and acting. Everybody who went to them was required to wear white togas.

The games would begin with twenty-four priests who would take off their crowns, bow down before Domitian and recite, “Great are you, our lord and God. Worthy are you to receive honor and power and glory. Worthy are you, lord of the Earth, to inherit the Kingdom. Lord of Lords, highest of the high. Lord of the earth, God of all things. Lord God and Savior for eternity.” Actually, these same twenty-four singers generally followed Domitian everywhere while reciting the words, “Our Lord and our God, you are worthy to receive honor, glory, and power.” At the games, these priests would lead the whole white-robed crowd in a singing worship service and a waiving of palm branches.

After the priests finished leading the crowd in worship, Domitian would summon the leaders of each of the provinces of the Empire. In front of the thousands of spectators, he would tell them what things he approved of and what things they needed to change—lest he march his great big army into their province and wipe them out. Once these public displays of power were complete, the games would begin.

domitian-scroll.jpgWe’ll get back to the games shortly, but there were other displays of power that are important for our purposes.

That’s Domitian depicted with a scroll in his hand. The scrolls in the hand of Roman emperors were another display of their power. They were said to contain all the authority of the emperor. A popular saying of the time was that only the emperor was “worthy to open the scroll.” So, not surprisingly, scrolls show up in many statues of Roman emperors.

Sometime between 77 and 81 CE, Domitian’s infant son died. Domitian, never one to miss an opportunity to buttress his power from the heavens, fashioned the legacy of his deceased son into a god. And, like Augustus, he used coins for this purpose. These coins portrayed his son as sitting on the earth and holding seven stars in his hands. Also, like Augustus, Domitian got some mileage out of the “son of god” idea—only this time he was the father and his son was the “son of god.”aureusglobestarsbabydomitia.jpg

Domitian established the city of Ephesus as his “Neokoros”, or worshipping center. Again, Domitian desired to be worshipped as god, literally as Jupiter. As you would enter the port of Ephesus, you would be greeted by a massive twenty-five foot statue of Domitian. Next, you would see a massive temple with each of the columns depicting the gods of the Roman pantheon. Of course, on top of those columns was a statue of, who else, but Domitian. Below is a depiction of the temple in Ephesus.Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 3.50.43 PM.png

Next to the temple was the “agora”, a marketplace where people in various trades—seamstresses, stone masons, metalworkers, traders of silks, spices, and produce—made their living and depended on for their survival. Domitian understood their dependence on the agora, and so exploited that dependence to set up yet another display of power. Domitian declared that any person wanting to do any kind of business in the agora first had to acknowledge Domitian as god and then make an incense offering to him.

Once you had made an acceptable display of worship, you would receive a mark—probably some kind of ink stain—and only then could you sell your goods in the agora.

In spite of all these displays of power, Domitian had one distinct problem. A small and relatively poor group in the shadows of the Empire refused to make the offering.

And it is with this group that Domitian went to war.

The Apocalypse of John

As I said earlier, this is where John’s Revelation comes in.

Around 90 CE, John was a pastor of the church of Ephesus—that neokoros and pride of Domitian—when Domitian exiled him to the island of Patmos.

To explain why John wrote Revelation, I need you to see how so much in John’s Revelation  so strikingly looks like Domitian’s trademarked displays of power.

Remember Domitian’s twenty-four priests who would lay their crowns before Domitian?

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power.

Revelation c4 v9–11

Remember Domitian’s deceased son who was depicted on coins with seven stars in his hands?

And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

Revelation c1 v16

Remember how Domitian would summon the leaders of the various provinces and publicly evaluate their service to the empire?

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Revelation c2 v1–7

Remember the saying that only the emperor was worthy to open the scroll?

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

Revelation c5 v1–10

Remember how everyone at Domitian’s games were required to wear white robes?

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'”

Revelation c7 9–17 (note: this “elder” is quoting Isaiah 49)

Remember from Part 3 when I showed you how the Qumran community insisted that Habakuk’s references to Babylon were really about Rome? John also treats Babylon as if it were Rome.

A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great,’ which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”

Revelation c14 v8

With a mighty voice he shouted: “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit.”

Revelation c18 v2

Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: “Woe! Woe to you, great city, you mighty city of Babylon! In one hour your doom has come!”

Revelation c18 v10

I often hear people describe what Heaven and Hell will be like by reading Revelation. As I think you are probably beginning to see, that’s probably misguided—unless God needed ideas for designing Heaven and decided to model it after Domitian’s empire.

And speaking of “misguided”, it’s time we talk about one of history’s biggest head scratchers.

666

Revelation is famous for the “number of the beast”, 666, and people have wasted more brain cells on this enigmatic number. You, however, will no longer be one of these people because you now know how the Bible borrows.

Read the text below. I emphasize the parts you really need to not miss.

The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.

Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet livedThe second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.

Revelation c13 v2–3, 11–18

Most people agree that when John refers to the “dragon”, he was referring to Satan. I think that’s correct.

So what about the “beasts”?

I mentioned Nero earlier, an emperor who crucified Christians and lit them on fire to give light to his outdoor dinner parties. Nero killed himself by having his servant stab him in the head with a sword. Nero is John’s “first beast.”

The “second beast” is the one who made people worship him in the agora before they could engage in commerce. This is obviously Domitian.

So, we have the “first beast” and the “second beast”, but who is “the beast”? The one whose number is 666?

666 is brilliant. If I may, it is a wickedly smart number.

The beast is not Hitler. Not Stalin. Not Barack Obama (in the time I spent writing that sentence, I feel like I aged multiple years).

The text tells us it is a person, and you have to add up some numbers to identify his name.

The Hebrews used their alphabet to add just as the Romans used their alphabet. 666 is both (1) the number you get when you add up the Hebrew numerical values of Nero’s imperial name and (2) is the number you get when you add up the Hebrew numerical values to the standard abbreviation of Domitian’s name.

The fact that the letters of Nero and Domitian can add up to 666 has caused scholars for centuries to debate which of them to which John was referring.

So, which is it?

Remember, there are two beasts, but John doesn’t specifically tell you the one to which “666” applies.

And that’s because it’s both of them.

John is telling his readers—those residents of Asia minor who had already lived through Nero’s reign of terror and who still proclaimed “Jesus is Lord”—that Nero got his power from Satan, that the spirit of Nero is back, and his spirit is now living within Domitian. From the perspective of those helpless followers of Jesus Christ who had survived Nero’s reign of terror, and whose trades were dependent on access to the agora, Nero’s “fatal head wound” was healed.

Nero was back, and his name was Domitian.

This is brilliant, inspired writing.

But also heartbreaking and terrifying writing.

When people heard the Apocalypse of John read aloud for the first time, they didn’t wonder if his letter could be adapted into some crappy novels.

Or whether his letter had anything to do with Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

The first hearers of his letter got to contemplate the fact that many of them were either going to worship Domitian in the agora or die.

I think they wept.

The Battle in Heaven

I mentioned that there are two keys to understanding Revelation. Let’s talk about the second key.

In Part 2, I introduced some of the Babylonian literature with which the conquered Israelites came into contact. In Part 5, I introduced Greek literature. But between the rule of the Babylonians and the Greeks were the Persians. In this time, Israel would have come in contact with a Persian literary genre called apocalyptic. Several features distinguish virtually all apocalyptic literature:

  • A revealing of either (a) what is happening in the Heaven now or (b) what will happen on Earth in the future;
  • A dream or vision guided by some heavenly being, such as an angel;
  • Pseudonymity (that is, the author claims to be some well-known ancient person, but is actually someone in the present who merely uses their voice for authority);
  • Wild and highly symbolic imagery;
  • A dualism in which everything in the present and in all of history of the world falls into good or evil, and the two are locked in a cosmic battle;
  • Pessimism that evil in the present age cannot and will not improve until an age to come;
  • Some great deity that in the future will to intervene in history and overthrow the forces of evil; and
  • An imminent transition to the coming new age.

Here’s a short, but representative excerpt from Persian apocalyptic literature if you still don’t want to just take my word for all this.

“O Ormazd, I ask you concerning the present and future
How shall the righteous be dealt with,
And how shall the wicked be dealt with,
At the last judgement?”

Ormazd, the Wise Lord answers: “There will be three saviors sent to earth by the Wise Lord before the final, inevitable battle that will result in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, the Last Judgement, and the resurrection of the dead. First will come a period called the Period of Iron, in which demons will attack the earth relentlessly, sparing no one. They will be more interested in causing the faithful to suffer than in killing them. the darkness will be so pervasive that the light of even the sun and moon will be dimmed. At that time a shower of stars will occur to herald the birth of the first saviour, the champion of the faithful, named Anshedar.”

It is Saoshyant who will preside over the last judgment. The wicked humans and Ahriman, the Evil One, will be consigned to hell forever, even as the Wise Lord rules uncontested over the universe. All death, disease, and suffering shall cease forever. The earth will be re-created and the blessed will enjoy immortality in new Paradise.

Can you see each of the features I identified? And are you seeing the points of contact with John’s Revelation?

Remember, all of the concerns found in the Torah have to do with this life. The Torah is optimistic about Yahweh’s creation. But as time went on, the Jews looked around and if things were ever good, they weren’t anymore. For several centuries, their land—which itself is an integral part of ancient Jewish theology—had been the subject of a kind of hot potato game among the world’s great empires. For a short time, Israel got back its land and independence, but its religious institutions increasingly were seen as corrupted by gentile influence.

To the Jews, the present world had become irredeemable, and a new world was what was needed. And, if you can believe it, the Jews got to the result they wanted by borrowing from Persian literature like that which I just showed you.

The second century BCE and onward was a hotbed of Jewish apocalyptic literature.

The following are just some examples of apocalyptic literature that was produced in this time; in each of these works, some author of the then-present time would purport to speak as some ancient character.

  • The Book of Enoch
  • Apocalypse of Abraham
  • Apocalypse of Adam
  • Apocalypse of Baruch
  • Apocalypse of Daniel
  • Apocalypse of Elijah
  • Apocalypse of Ezra
  • Gabriel’s Revelation
  • Apocalypse of Lamech
  • Apocalypse of Metatron
  • Apocalypse of Moses
  • Apocalypse of Sedrach
  • Apocalypse of Zephaniah
  • Apocalypse of Zerubbabel

A great example from the Qumran community I mentioned in Part 3 was its so-called War Scroll. The Qumran community and John the Baptist unsurprisingly were distinctly apocalyptic.

The book of Daniel, especially its second half, is the most prominent apocalyptic in the Old Testament. Conservatives—whose flat way of reading the Bible I’ve been combatting for the last six weeks—generally claim that Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE and presents a future prophecy of Greece conquering Persia. But Daniel is so much like the rest of the long list of apocalyptic literature that most scholars have concluded that it too was probably written in the 2nd century BCE. At least with respect to the apocalyptic second half of Daniel, that’s my view as well.

There is a good if not great chance that John the apostle was intimately familiar with this genre of literature. He probably grew up with and had the book of Daniel memorized by the time he was thirteen. He was almost certainly familiar with the War Scroll, with the Book of Enoch, and with the rest of the apocalyptic library I referenced above.

And when Domitian imprisoned him on the island of Patmos, he wanted to write a message of encouragement to those Christians in Ephesus and the rest of Asia minor whom Domitian was presently slaughtering or about to slaughter. It was a seemingly hopeless time when good and evil, light and darkness, righteousness and wickedness were uniquely discernible.

So he borrowed.

He wrote an apocalypse.

He borrowed from Judaism, he borrowed from Babylon, he borrowed from Persia, he borrowed from Greece, he borrowed from Rome.

He wrote of the Great Babylon, a global military super power that was ruled by a mighty beast. He wrote of a vulnerable, white-robed people who would face impossible odds. He used Domitian’s displays of power to describe a new and better kingdom, a kingdom not of force and aggression, but of mercy, equality, love, and compassion. He wrote about a war between the armies of both kingdoms. He wrote of the throne of the universe and loudly proclaimed that Domitian and his military might did not sit on that throne.

As Brian Zahnd was inspired to write just hours before this installment posted:

Instead of an insecure power hoarder, on the throne of the universe sat a slaughtered lamb. And, instead of the power-granting, mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil from the mythological Genesis, at the end of empire was its opposite—the tree of life.

And this is what happened.

Within one generation of John’s apocalypse, Ephesus had become almost entirely Christian.

For all the borrowing that can be found in Genesis, it was prophetic after all.

Domitian lost.

Part 1 Part 7