Old Testament

Confusion is Good

Confusion, for lack of a better word, is good. At least that’s what we see in several passages in the Bible.  Why would God want to intentionally confuse people?  Great question. When God called the prophet Isaiah, he gave him confusing message .

When God called Isaiah to be his messenger this is what God told him to say:
“Go and say to this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; 
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull
and their ears heavy
and blind their eyes:
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with the ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

What’s Isaiah’s message? Don’t understand, don’t perceive, don’t see, don’t hear, don’t turn, don’t be healed. What? It sounds like God wants the Israelites to remain confused. It’s confusing that God would want people to be confused.  I guess God gets what he wants.

While many of us avoid or ignore weird texts like this one, Jesus didn’t. In each of the four gospels Jesus quotes these verses from Isaiah 6 (Matt. 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40). There are very few Old Testament texts quoted from the mouth of Jesus that appear in all four of the gospels. Jesus thought this confusing text was important, that sometimes it’s good to be confused.

Those of us who teach the Bible often like to put the cookie on the lowest shelf, to make it really simple, to help people understand. But there is a problem from always making things simple and easy to understand.  That’s not how God does it in the Bible most of the time.  The Bible is often confusing. Many of Jesus’ parables are confusing. God makes his word confusing intentionally.

We need to not remain in a perpetual state of confusion. But sometimes, confusion is good. If we are never challenging, provoking, and even confusing people, we aren’t teaching like Jesus.

What purpose does confusion serve?  I see three.

First, confusion makes us humble.  We have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. We are finite. We may not like it, but we are dependent. Do we really expect that we could fully comprehend a gloriously mysterious God? Confusion keeps us humble before an infinite, sovereign, power God.

Second, confusion causes us to ask questions.  In his confusion about this confusing passage Isaiah asks a question, “How long, O Lord” (Isa. 6:11).  Jesus quoted this passage to the disciples when they asked him a question about the parables.  When we’re confused we should ask questions.  People ask questions about things they care about. Care enough about the Bible to ask questions.

Third, confusion leads us to God. What does Isaiah do with his question? He goes directly to God with it.  “How long, O Lord” is one of the psalmist’s favorite questions (Psa. 4:2; 6:3; 13:1, 2; 35:17; 62:3; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 82:2; 90:13; 94:3; 119:84). In the midst of our confusion, our humility and our questions should take us to God who may or may not answer them.  But if our confusion leads us into a deeper relationship with God, it serves a great purpose.

Sinai and the Saints

IVP has just come out with a new book which could be very helpful to people trying to figure out how to understand the laws of the Old Testament, Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community by James M. Todd III.

IVP asked me to give an endorsement, and the first half of it ended up on the back cover.  So, I thought I’d include my full endorsement here, for any one who’s interested.

“Many readers of the Old Testament struggle to understand all those random, bizarre, strict, and oppressive laws.  What’s a Christian to do?  Start by reading James Todd’s Sinai and the Saints.  Todd offers his readers engaging stories, provocative insights, and a compelling interpretation that offers a way forward, one that makes sense of the Law, and helps people understand it in light of Jesus and the rest of Scripture.”

Here are the other endorsements that appeared on the back cover:

“The failure to understand the relationships of the old covenant to the new is probably one of the most important areas where Christians need good help–and they will receive good help here.”  – Peter Gentry, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Anyone grappling with how to approach the laws of Exodus to Deuteronomy from a Christian perspective will find this book an invaluable introduction.” – T. Desmond Alexander, Union Theological College.

I hope you can check it out.

 

Encounter with an Ark

nate-note-dave-arkOn New Years Eve Eve, I dragged my family to see the Ark Encounter in Grant County, Kentucky, as part of a visit to my father in Lexington. The Ark Encounter opened to great fanfare and controversy in July 2016.

The organization behind this ark, Answers in Genesis, also created the Creation Museum, and their perspective on creation was a major theme of the Ark Encounter. While I believe God created the cosmos, I don’t share the views of the makers of this ark that creation took place over six literal days of 24 hours, but more on that topic below.

But let’s start with three positives things I saw.  

  1. The Ark itself is impressive.  It’s huge, based on the dimensions from Genesis 6 (we’re not exactly sure how long a cubit is, but it was roughly 18 inches).  It’s great to walk up next to it and experience the overwhelming size.  It’s hard to imagine how practically Noah would have been able to build it, but the organizers worked hard to explain how he might have done it.
  2. The experience is well-designed.  The organizers run a tight ship, so to speak.  They aren’t fully done developing the entire grounds, but it was very attractive overall. The Christmas lights were beautiful at night (we went at night because it was 1/2-price).
  3. The exhibits are engaging.  I was surprised that our 2 hours-plus wasn’t really enough time.   They worked hard to explain how feeding, watering, and waste may have been handled on the ark.  I’ll mention two exhibits that I particularly appreciated. The first: “Was the Bible Used to Promote Racism?” They acknowledge that the answer is “sadly” yes, which was really good to admit.  They go on to point out that humans are created by God, are made in God’s image (Gen. 1-2), are all loved by God (John 3:16), and are all descended from Noah, thus all member of the same human race.  Great points overall (see also my chapter on Racism in God Behaving Badly).  The second exhibit I’ll mention was “Help Me Understand” which speculated about some of the possible questions Noah’s daughter-in-law Rayneh, wife of Japheth, may have asked concerning the ethical problems associated with judgment, suffering, and death.  I didn’t love their answers, but the fact that they were asking these questions was really good.

Because of these positives, I’m really glad we visited it.  But now, I’ll share three negative things I saw.

  1. The scientific arguments presented in the exhibits were based on essentially anecdotal evidence proving that the earth was only about 6000 years old. They created straw man arguments that they could then easily shoot down. The reality is that the vast majority of reputable scientists around the world in a variety of fields (geologists, biologists, astrophysicists, etc.) believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old. To explain the fossil record, the Ark Encounter exhibits had to theorize that all those fossil layers were laid down after the flood, a view which doesn’t take seriously the amount of time, pressure and energy it takes to create a fossil.
  2. The biblical arguments presented in the exhibits don’t take the Bible seriously, despite their claims to the contrary.  Their interpretation of a “day” (yom in Hebrew) as literal 24 hour period of time from Genesis 1 doesn’t even make sense in Genesis 1-2.  In the context of creation the word yom is used as a 24 hour period (Gen. 1:5b), a 12 hour period (Gen. 1:5a), and a week long period (Gen. 2:4b).  The genre of Genesis 1 is not narrative, but poetic, formulaic prose which does not require a literal interpretation.
  3. The view presented in the exhibits of other Christians was not respectful or gracious. Believers who didn’t share the hyper-literal views of the organizers of the exhibit were made to appear either as ridiculous or not as genuine Christians.  While I strongly disagree with their interpretations, I respect how hard they are working to honor the biblical text.

ark-does-bible-promote-racismIn spite of the criticisms I have of it, I firmly believe that the designers, builders, and organizers of the Ark Encounter are my brothers- and sisters-in-Christ and therefore are worthy of my upmost respect.

The King and the Land by Stephen Russell

Stephen Russell’s new book, The King and the Land: A Geography of Royal Power in the Biblical World (Oxford, 2016), discusses the various ways the rulers of Israel and Judah used geographic spaces to assert their power.   It’s an interesting look at an under-studied topic in the realm of Old Testament research.

Russell begins by examining how Solomon built his temple in a Phoenician style (see 1 Kings 5:21-28; 7:13-45), which was consistent with his pattern of expanding his power base by engaging his neighbors through intermarriage and trade.

In chapter two, he observes how Solomon’s father, David, used the purchase of the land of Araunah (2 Sam. 24) to emphasize his special relationship to YHWH, which was a common pattern among ancient Near Eastern rulers.

His third chapter looks at Jehu (near and dear to my heart–the subject of my doctoral dissertation) and his decommissioning of the temple of Baal (2 Kings 10:18-28). Russell concludes that, while Jehu’s pious deed was celebrated in the biblical record, his power was limited in comparison to ancient Near Eastern rulers.

His fourth and fifth chapters discusses how Absalom (in the gate; 2 Sam. 15:1-16) and Hezekiah (with his tunnel; 2 Kgs. 20:20) helped legitimate their power within their social contexts.

Baruch Halpern says, “Well worth reading.”  Thomas Romer declares, “A must read for everybody interested in the question of kingship in the Bible and the ancient Near East.”

Particularly for those of you who share my interests in these issues, I hope you’ll check out The King and the Land.

(I have known Stephen Russell since he was a student at Penn in the early 1990’s.)