Friday, June 30, 2017

You are only seeing 1/3 the story

I believe that this text [Exodus 17; Israel vs. Amalek] offers a biblical corrective to what often looks from the outside as though the “Joshuas” of this world (that is, politicians, pastors, missionaries, and so on) do all the work. This account reveals where the true power to win comes from. In very memorable form, this story illustrates how the three parties that are always involved in biblical intercessory prayer (God, intercessor, and the party that is being interceded for) relate to each other.—Standing in the Breach, page 59

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Magic bullet? Not so much

[W]e also read in Gen 19:29 that God remembered Abraham when He destroyed the cities of the plain and sent Lot out of their midst. Lot’s wife, however, disobeyed and was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26). In other words, although God saved Lot for the sake of Abraham’s prayer, Lot’s wife was cut off from the effect of Abraham’s intercession because she did not turn away from her sins. Fretheim notes, “Choices people make can adversely affect the power of intercession and the divine engagement in their lives.”—Standing in the Breach, page 55

<idle musing>
Indeed! That's a theme that will come up repeatedly in this book. Intercession isn't a magic trick; People are still free to continue on in sin and unrighteousness. That's the tight rope that the intercessor must walk—pleading for mercy for the unrepentant, but also letting the unrepentant know about the consequences of their continued behavior and attitudes.
</idle musing>

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A little leaven…

Preserving even a tiny number of innocent humans is more important to God’s eyes than bringing deserved judgment on the guilty. Thus, this account underlines the biblical teaching that God’s will to save clearly dominates over His will to punish. This insight into the divine nature foreshadows the proportion of keeping steadfast love to the 1000th generation but visiting in judgment the guilty up to the fourth generation (Exod 34:6–7). Abraham’s prayer assures us that even a minority of righteous people suffice to avert God’s just punishment. This is not only a clear demonstration of YHWH’s grace and mercy but also an indication that in God’s economy a faithful minority can make a significant difference. This has of course important implications for the people of God today, who live in a primarily secular society. They have the capacity to function as agents of salvation and renewal.—Standing in the Breach, page 54

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How about your prayers?

Abraham mediates between God and the pagan cities thereby foreshadowing also Israel’s priestly function among the nations (cf. Exod 19:6). According to Genesis 18, Abraham blesses Sodom by interceding for the city. Even though Sodom and Gomorrah had sinned themselves beyond the possibility of blessing, it is amazing that Abraham was pleading for them to be spared from the divine judgment. Abraham intercedes for the corrupt pagans whom he did not even know. Wright compares Abraham’s response to YHWH’s judgment over Sodom with that of Jonah’s and remarks that many Christians’ attitude toward the wickedness of the world resembles more that of Jonah than that of Abraham [Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2006) 362]. Prayers are frequently made for people we approve of, or for projects that we endorse. The community of faith, however, does not often pray for the Sodoms and Gomorrahs of this world. Jeremiah encourages exiled Israel to pray for the welfare of their captors (Jer 29:7). Also Jesus endorses Abraham’s prayer by the hard dictum: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44–47).—Standing in the Breach, page 53

<idle musing>
Ouch! I suspect he is far too correct in that assessment. May God grant us mercy and may we embrace the way of Abraham!
</idle musing>

Monday, June 26, 2017

Prayer as theology

From Abraham’s dialogue with God we learn not only that prayer has its origin in the movement of God toward humans but also that the divine response to prayers should lead to a fuller and deeper understanding of God and His ways with the world. With regard to the former, we noticed that the enabling initiative for this great intercession came from God (“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do”; Gen 18:17). After YHWH’s invitation to pray, God waited for Abraham’s response (Gen 18:22). With regard to the latter, we noticed that God, not Abraham, emerges as the theological teacher from this prayer. I shall argue at some length in the context of our treatment of Exodus 32–34 that prayer and theology are intrinsically linked. Possibly the greatest of all the features of Abraham’s prayer is precisely the way in which it calls on us, when we pray, to develop a theology. Clements observes: “Prayer and the act of praying involve us in theology—the thinking out of the true nature and character of the supreme Ruler of the Universe.” Not only must we think about who God is and how He relates to the world but also we must learn to listen to God. Abraham’s “theology” was taught by God Himself in a prayer. As Abraham wrestles with the divine will, which was not fully manifest at the outset of the prayer, he penetrates deeper into God’s character and will.—Standing in the Breach, page 52

Friday, June 23, 2017

The school of intercession

God is teaching Abraham about His attributes, about grace and righteousness. We have noted in our exegesis that God is seeking to impart His grace and justice to Israel’s first intercessor, something that YHWH does in an even clearer way to Moses (cf. Exod 33:17–34:7). … [I]t is about a gracious accommodation of Abraham’s audacious explorations. It is in Abraham’s exploration of YHWH’s character and His ways that Israel’s patriarch grows in his understanding of his God.—Standing in the Breach, page 51

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Charles Halton has a delightful read on the first known poet over at LitHub. Here's a snippet to whet your appetite:
Have you met a professor of Mesopotamian studies? There are only a couple dozen or so of us scattered around the world, but we are very strange individuals. Meet one of us in person, and you may discover that we can hardly string together a coherent sentence. We stare at our hands and speak a German-English patois that neither the Germans nor the English can decipher. Our social problems must have begun in grad school; holing up by ourselves in small, windowless library carrels for hours on end reading the teeny tiny wedges the Mesopotamians etched into clay does something to our brains. In any case, we have an almost divine-like ability to take ultra-fascinating ideas and make them slightly less exciting than a traffic ticket. This is not the skill you need when trying to present the results of your research to a Netflix-addled public.
<idle musing>
I love it! And the worst of it is that he's correct!
</idle musing>

That pinch of salt

Does Abraham, by stopping at 10, implicitly admit that YHWH’s judgment is justified? Perhaps Abraham is now assured that God would act justly indeed and that he could leave the fate of the few righteous in God’s care. This does, however, not necessarily indicate that Abraham thought that the few righteous inhabitants may now “fare as the wicked” (Gen 18:25). Gen 19:29 seems to suggest that God, for the sake of Abraham’s intercessory prayer, dealt with Lot and his family separately. Thus, the bottom line seems to be that Abraham arrived at a point at which he was absolutely convinced that God is a righteous judge. It became evident that God does not want to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah merely on a whim. The patriarch learns that even a small minority of righteous people have the capacity to save an entire city that is dominated by wicked people.—Standing in the Breach, page 45

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Boldly humble

Given Abraham’s humility, it is amazing that his courage seems to grow during his conversation with God. God, in His grace, seems to encourage Abraham in his prayer by allowing him to stretch the capacity of divine grace and righteousness (cf. Exod 33:12–19). Thus, we clearly recognize here at the outset of Israel’s history, embodied in the patriarch, an important element which will come to characterize Israel’s spirituality: a bold and yet humble “I-Thou” relationship with God. The characteristic mix of boldness and humility anticipates the audacious intercessory prayers of a Moses and Jeremiah.—Standing in the Breach, pages 44–45

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Maybe Abraham should have tried one more time?

It is important to note that it is Abraham and not God who decides to conclude the discussion at 10. “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more.” Abraham seems aware that he might be stretching the limit of God’s grace. He is cautious and apologetic in his final request. God, however, is as neutral and determined to forgive/to endure (נסא [ns’]) the wicked city for the sake of 10 as He was for the sake of 50 at the outset of their dialogue (v. 32).—Standing in the Breach, page 43

Monday, June 19, 2017

Which is worse?

Interestingly, Abraham prays that God would “forgive” (NRSV), or perhaps the Hebrew (נסא) [ns’] should be rendered with “bear” with the wicked, for the sake of the innocent, and not for the removal of the innocent few from the sphere of judgment. Thus, Abraham seems to imply that there is greater injustice in the death of the innocent than in the life of the wicked. By praying that God should “endure” (נסא [ns’]) the wickedness of the majority for the sake of a minority of righteous, Abraham appeals no longer to justice, but to the mercy of God. The righteous ones do not exercise an atoning function for the others, but the effect is comparable.—Standing in the Breach, page 41

<idle musing>
An interesting idea, isn't it? Worth pondering...
</idle musing>

Friday, June 16, 2017

Privy to the divine council

It seems to me more significant that God is considering granting Abraham the privilege of access and participation in the divine committee that is to characterize YHWH’s prophets. Indeed, it is notable that two chapters later, in the context of Abraham’s prayer for Abimelech, Abraham is explicitly called a prophet (נִָביא [nby’]; Gen 20:7, 17). Jacob infers: “Abraham is the first prophet and confidant of God.” In the context of Israel’s later intercessors, it is characteristic of the true prophet that he is made privy to the divine secrets (cf. Jer 23:18). Indeed, Amos 3:7 is quite instructive: “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (נביאים [nbi’im]). In the following chapters, it will become evident that the divine foretelling is an expression of God’s grace and mercy for His people and the world. In doing so, God not only invites prayers on behalf of the people from his prophets but also gives his servants a chance to warn the sinful party of an impending judgment (cf. Exod 32–34, 1 Sam 12, Amos 7).—Standing in the Breach, page 35

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Follow their example

There are notable intertextual links between the dynamics of Abraham’s dialogue with God (Genesis 18) and of Moses’ intercessory role, especially as portrayed in Psalm 103. In both passages, we find reference to God’s concern for (righteousness and) justice (Gen 18:19, 25, Ps 103:6). What is significant is that God does not want to exercise this justice on His own. For this reason, both Abraham and Moses are made privy to YHWH’s intention to judge and punish (cf. Gen 18:17–33, Exod 32:7–10). God does not hide from Abraham His intention to judge the sins of Sodom, nor does YHWH withhold His destructive plans from Moses after the golden calf apostasy. “He made known his ways to Moses” (Ps 103:7). Throughout the Old Testament, God revealed to His prophets His perspective on the situation and informed them in advance of His plans, so that they could communicate God’s will to the people and pray accordingly (cf. Amos 3:7) .—Standing in the Breach, page 33

<idle musing>
This view of the role of the prophet resonates far more with me than the popular Charismatic/Pentecostal "personal prophecy" peddler model. I believe it is far more biblical—and infinitely harder! And as Chesterton reminds us, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." The same can be said for this model of prophecy. You certainly won't get rich and invited many places to speak if you stand in the gap!
</idle musing>

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Smyth strikes again

Interesting tidbit I picked up today from Smyth:
966. The verb may agree with the nearest or most important of two or more subjects. The verb may be placed

a. Before both subjects: ““ἧκε μὲν ὁ Θερσαγόρα_ς καὶ ὁ Ἐξήκεστος εἰς Λέσβον καὶ ᾤκουν ἐκεῖ” Thersagoras and Execestus came to Lesbos and settled there” D. 23.143.

b. After the first subject: ““ὅ τε Πολέμαρχος ἧκε καὶ Ἀδείμαντος καὶ Νικήρατος καὶ ἄλλοι τινές” Polemarchus came and Adimantus and Niceratus and certain others” P. R. 327b, ““Φαλῖνος ᾤχετο καὶ οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ” Phalinus and his companions departed” X. A. 2.2.1.

c. After both subjects: ““τὸ βουλευτήριον καὶ ὁ δῆμος παρορᾶται” the senate and the people are disregarded” Aes. 3.250. (Cp. Shakesp. “my mistress and her sister stays.”)

Turning it on its head

We find not only the biblical roots of prophetic intercessory prayer in Abraham but also the beginnings of what came to characterize the Judeo-Christian understanding and experience of the divine-human relationship. It is a dynamic that the community of faith takes often for granted: the intimate “I-Thou” dialogue between God and His people. The commentators often refer to Abraham’s audacious bargaining prayer style with which he questions God’s justice. Therefore, one easily neglects or mishears God’s voice and teaching. Is Abraham really emerging as someone who through “haggling” seeks to persuade or even teach God to be more merciful? I shall argue that the point of the prayer dialogue in question is not so much about pressing the judge of the world to be more just and merciful, but rather the entire prayer dialogue, is about God inviting Abraham to participate in the outworking of the divine purposes. Therefore, YHWH is accommodating Abraham’s concerns and at the same time teaching Israel’s patriarch a major lesson about the divine character and how God envisages His people to engage in the divine economy, especially with regard to the nations.—Standing in the Breach, page 31

<idle musing>
We're back into this book again after a run through the Hurtado one. Isn't that a fascinating concept? God is calling us to be a part of who he is, what his heartthrob is. He develops this idea further in the coming pages; stay tuned!
</idle musing>

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I learn something new all the time

Did you know this? The LSJ in the entry “γαστήρ” remarks that ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχειν indicates pregnancy, whereas ἐν γαστρὶ λαμβάνειν refers to conception.

Old-time religion?

The early Christian emphasis on, and teaching about, everyday behavior as central to Christian commitment is yet another distinctive feature that has had a profound subsequent impact. In the ancient Roman period and down through human history, what we call “religion” tended to focus more on honoring, appeasing, and seeking the goodwill of deities through such actions as sacrifices and the performance of related rituals. “Religion” did not typically have much to say about what we call “ethics,” how to behave toward others, how to conduct family or business, and the formation of character.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 188

<idle musing>
For some reason, I don't think that's what people have in mind when they say, "Give me that old-time religion." : )

That's the final excerpt from this book. I hope you find it intriguing enough to read it all. And no, I don't get anything for endorsing it, not even a free copy of the book; I bought my copy at the Annual AAR/SBL meeting last November. But it was definitely worth the price of the book. In the immortal words of Augustine, "Tolle! Lege!" Pick it up and read it!
</idle musing>

Monday, June 12, 2017

Those blasted atheists!

When considered as a religion in that time, the most obvious oddity was Christianity’s “atheism”—that is, the refusal to worship the traditional gods. Yes, of course, as we have observed, Christians shared this exclusivist stance with Judaism. But pagans could write off the well-known Jewish refusal to worship the gods as an ethnic peculiarity. The aggressively transethnic appeal and spread of early Christianity, however, gave it no such character and made Christianity seem much more “in your face.” Other religious movements of the time had their oddities too. But early Christianity was not simply odd; it was deemed dangerous to traditional notions of religion and, so it was feared, also for reasons of social stability.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 184

<idle musing>
I always cast about for a good comparison—and I always come up empty. Perhaps the way we view an anarchist? But that's not quite accurate, either. But rest assured, the idea of Christianity was not readily welcomed by the ruling elites. It was unsettling. Chaos was at the door, and Christianity was letting it in—at least that was their opinion. Remember, the gods kept Chaos at bay. You served the gods to keep the status quo—it didn't really matter what you believed or how you acted, just as long as you placated the gods with the appropriate honors.

But along comes Christianity. It says that not only are the gods not to be worshiped with sacrifices, but indeed, those "gods" were actually evil demons! That idea isn't going to get a good hearing! Especially to those who have the most to lose. It is similar to the reaction that you get when you tell people that as a Christian you really should think twice about saying the pledge of allegiance...
</idle musing>

Verse for the day

I think this is an appropriate passage from Isaiah for our current status:
The earth dries up and wilts; the world withers and wilts; the heavens wither away with the earth. 5 The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have disobeyed instruction, swept aside law, and broken the ancient covenant. 6 Therefore, a curse devours the earth; its inhabitants suffer for their guilt. Therefore, the earth’s inhabitants dwindle; very few are left. 7 The wine dries up; the vine withers; all the merry-hearted groan. 8 The joyous tambourines have ceased; the roar of partyers has stopped; the joyous harp has ceased. 9 No one drinks wine or sings; beer is bitter to its drinkers. 10 The town is in chaos, broken; every house is shut, without entrance. 11 There is a cry for wine in the streets. All joy has reached its dusk; happiness is exiled from the earth. 12 Ruin remains in the city, and the gate is battered to wreckage. 13 It will be like this in the central part of the land and among the peoples, like an olive tree that has been shaken, like remains from the grape harvest. Isa 24:4–13

Friday, June 09, 2017

Marcus Aurelius and tolerance

Sophisticated pagans such as Celsus and Marcus Aurelius apparently regarded Christianity as not simply unbelievable but, it appears, utterly incompatible with religion as they knew it. For them, Christianity was, we may say, “a clear and present danger” that had to be opposed.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 183–84

<idle musing>
I always find it interesting that Marcus Aurelius, generally considered one of the most enlightened of the Roman Emperors, was so adamantly against Christianity. Could it be that he saw more clearly than most today what the natural implications of Christianity are? I suspect so. Read a bit about him and I suspect you'll discover why...and it has ramifications for today, too.
</idle musing>

Thursday, June 08, 2017

You just don't fit in!

Granted, the early Christian household-code texts give general directions to the various categories of believers addressed, and their actual day-to-day situations likely would often have required adaptation, careful negotiation of relationships, and perhaps compromises, some of which may have been uncomfortable or even distasteful. For example, slaves ere often expected to provide sexual services for those who owned them, male and/or female. So any such demands would have produced intense moral tensions for Christian slaves, for whom such sexual service would be porneia. Christian wives married to non-Christians, and Christian children under the rule of non-Christian parents likewise, would have had particular tensions to deal with and difficulties in their efforts to live out their faith while avoiding some activities that they regarded as idolatry. For example, they would have had to deal with the typical expectation of all members of a household to take part in reverencing the household gods. But, all such difficulties and compromises included, the various behavioral exhortations and the particular efforts to actualize them in life comprise a major way in which early Christianity was distinctive in the ancient Roman-era setting.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 180

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Do ethics matter?

The notion that any treatment of slaves could be unjust suffering was a rather unusual one in the Roman period.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 179

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Shame-based behavior or God-based behavior?

[T]he early Christian texts reflect a rather strong effort to promote widely in circles of believers a collective commitment to the strict behavior that these texts advocate. That commitment was laid upon adherents immediately upon their baptism, whatever may have been their consistency in observing it thereafter. These texts, therefore, which come from various locations and across the early Christian centuries, represent a historically noteworthy social project. It was probably novel in its time, comprising the formation of groups of believers translocally in the collective observance of certain behavior that was held to be essential to their distinctive group identity. Even though the total numbers involved were initially small, there is an evident seriousness and ambition to promote this project reflected in the Christian texts. And this effort obviously succeeded measurably, both in terms of the growth in numbers of Christian adherents and, apparently, in general effects on their behavior.

Furthermore, early Christian discourse proffered a different basis for the behavioral aims advocated. As noted already, Musonius and philosophical traditions in general appealed to the individual’s sense of honor and the avoidance of personal shame, shame in the eyes of others and so also internally, as the basis for the demands of living by their principles. But early Christian texts typically invoked divine commands, appealed to the divine calling laid upon believers to exhibit holiness, and notably, invoked the mutual responsibility of believers to one another in their behavioral efforts, reflecting a emphasis placed on the formation of a group ethos. That is, early Christian teaching made everyday behavior central in one’s religious responsibility to the Christian life. In place of worries about possible embarrassment socially, Christians posited the judgment of God. The difference was profound. Indeed, it is fair to judge that the impact of the distinctive stance of early Christian teaching involved “a transformation in the logic of sexual morality.”— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 170–71 (emphasis original)

Monday, June 05, 2017

Molding behavior

These distinctive terms that were developed to express condemnation of child sexual abuse appear also in text of other early Christian writers such as Justin, Tatian, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, all from the second and third centuries AD. Sometimes they serve to illustrate “Gentile/pagan” depravity, and they form “a part of the apologetical battery thrown up at the Greco-Roman opponents of the Christians.” But the earliest uses in Didache and Barnabus show that the originating purposes in relabeling “pederasty” as “child (sexual) corruption” included also the concern to discourage the practice among Christians. In short, the terms are not simply ancient Christian propaganda against outsiders. They also reflect a collective effort to shape Christian behavior over against the practices tolerated in the wider culture, an effort that even included innovations in the vocabulary of sexual behavior.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 168

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Early Christianity vs. Roman views on adultery

I emphasize again that, more typically in the Roman era, sex with prostitutes and courtesans, and with young boys as well, was not only tolerated but even affirmed as a hedge against adultery—specifically, sex with another man’s wife or with a freeborn virgin. It is noteworthy, therefore, that Paul, with some other ancient Jewish voices, condemns a far wider spectrum of sexual activities, labeling them as porneias, and that he posits marital sex as a hedge against these various temptations to extramarital sex of any kind. In short, Paul reflects a broadening of prohibited sex well beyond adultery. This alone represented a major shift in comparison to the attitudes of the larger Roman world.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 165 (emphasis original)

<idle musing>
Again, the attempts to rewrite biblical morality leave me unconvinced, largely because of this background. To argue that we know more about sexuality than they did is a bit hard to take when you actually dig into the Greco-Roman history. By the way, William Loader, who probably knows more about ancient sexuality than anyone alive, agrees that the Bible is unequivocally against any kind of sex outside of heterosexual monogamous marriage. But he just says that the Bible is wrong.

He's an honest man. You can't have it both ways. Either you agree that scripture is correct or you agree with Loader that scripture is wrong. You can't claim scripture is correct by reinterpreting it on this issue.
</idle musing>

Thursday, June 01, 2017

A different standard

The bottom line in the passage [1 Cor 6] is that the diverse sexual activities covered in Paul’s use of porneia, though they may have been approved in the wider culture and even among some Corinthian believers, are to be completely off-limits for them.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 163

<idle musing>
How much more now! All these attempts to rewrite scripture and loosen the standards just don't cut it. The sooner the church decides to become the church of God—and that means not just in the area of sexual standards, but also in the area of pandering to the political powers (right and left!)—the sooner there will be a revival in their midst. How can the church hope for a revival in the land when there is so much sin in our midst?
</idle musing>