Slides of the Noah Class Available

noah-movie-posterYou can download the slides here.

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Selfish Charity

selfish-or-selflessThere will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land (Deut 15:11)

Here’s a great article about how to give charitably. It’s an interview, actually, with Father Sirico (of the Acton Institute) about selfish charity.

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God and Suffering

sumatra_tsunami

David Hart has something to say about God and suffering, especially suffering brought about by devastations of this kind. In this excerpt he recounts the horrors of man-made evil, not natural disasters as was experienced in the wake of the tsunami in the picture above. Nevertheless, suffering is suffering. His is a tough read, but give it a go…

“For all its power, however, Voltaire’s poem is a very feeble thing compared to the case for “rebellion” against “the will of God” in human suffering placed in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov by that fervently Christian novelist Dostoevsky; for, while the evils Ivan recounts to his brother Alexey are acts not of impersonal nature but of men, Dostoevsky’s treatment of innocent suffering possesses a profundity of which Voltaire was never even remotely capable. Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression”. 

How do we deal with this stuff? Well, to begin read his entire essay —  Tsunami and Theodicy and then come to SHLC’s Theodicy class.

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Theodicy Class Announcement

book-cover-god-forsakenBeginning Wednesday, January 29th Sammamish Hills Lutheran Church will be sponsoring a series of classes led by Pr. John LaMunyon that will deal with the the existence of evil in the presence of a good and gracious God.  As our guide, we will follow Dinesh D’Souza’s book, God Forsaken: Is There a God Who Cares.

I[1] will be joining Pastor LaMunyon, who will offer insights from the book of Job and other relevant texts from the Holy Scriptures.  Each session will begin with a discussion taken from Mr. D’Souza’s book and then will be followed by a reading and discussion of some applicable biblical texts — but especially focusing on the book of Job. The discussions which ensue are sure to be rich and broad reaching. For example,

  • In 1970 500,000 lives were lost in Bangladesh as a result of the Bhola cyclone. One half of one million people wiped from the face of the earth. What was God thinking?tsunami-destruction
  • Betty lost her husband to a slow death from a horrible disease, all the while trying to be faithful, but, in the end, wondering, “How could my God allow this to happen?”
  • Joe grew up in a household which lacked nothing, went on a mission trip to a developing country where he encountered true poverty, disease, filth, malnutrition, and homelessness for the first time in his life.  Although some in his group came home energized in their faith and eager to do more, Joe was left with a pit in his stomach and many questions of God’s justice.
  • holocaustSix million Jews lost their lives under Hitler’s anti-Semitic genocide. The Jews were God’s chosen people. How could He have let this happen?

The existence of tragedy and moral evil in the presence of loving God is one that is as old and puzzling as the book of Job.  Many answers have been given, but even more questions remain.  In his book, “God Forsaken,” Dinesh D’Souza elegantly answers these questions in a compelling and refreshingly non-technical way.

TIMES  9:30am (Fellowship Hall); 7:00pm (Sanctuary Basement)
READING Schedule is up on the church website: www.shlc.org and the weekly worship bulletin. Additional, supplementary reading is provided below
QUESTIONS OR REQUESTS FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION?  Contact Pr. John, Lead Pastor or Michael Peterson

Sponsored by:

SAMMAMISH HILLS LUTHERAN CHURCH
22818 SE 8th Street, Sammamish, WA 98074
(425) 392-7799 Fax (425) 392-7897
WEB:  http://www.shlc.org

Contacts:

Pastor John LaMunyon
Member Michael Peterson

Supplementary Reading

Dennis Prager on Reason

Can Reason Alone Lead Us To Goodness and a Good World?

Dennis Prager on Theodicy

Here, Mr. Prager discusses the problem of evil and suffering in the presence of a good and gracious God. Mr. Prager has a radio show that, every Tuesday at 11:00 AM, called the “Ultimate Issues Hour”. Below is an hour dealing with the ultimate issue of why God permits evil to exist. It’s about 35 minutes in length and contains some very interesting discussions between Dennis and his callers.

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV

Leibniz on Theodicy

Here’s an interesting and brief and highly summarized description of how Leibniz, the famed mathematical philosopher, responded to theodical arguments.

Leibniz’s Theodicy

From David B. Hart,

Tsunami and Theodicy

Some Relevant Scripture for Reflection

Isaiah 45:7 (my translation)

Forming light and creating darkness
making peace and creating calamity
I am the LORD making all these things

Amos 3:6 (my translation)

If a horn sounds in a city,
will its people not tremble?
If a calamity [befalls] a city,
is the LORD not the cause?

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  1. [1] Editor of this website, Michael is fluent in biblical Hebrew and is the author of the forthcoming book, THE BEGINNING: Genesis 1 Read as Literary Art.
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Women in the Bible: What the Bible Really Says

Women in the Bible have long been thought, incorrectly, as playing a role subordinate to than of men. In this podcast, I argue that the biblical witness when rightly understood, reveals that the degree to which human cultures flourish depends directly on the extent to which it values women as something other than servants or companions to the man.

This post begins with a more accurate translation of Genesis 2:20 – perhaps the most frequently cited verse when issues of male-female relationships are in view. In the podcast below, I discuss the translation in largely non-technical terms. The podcast closes with examples from the biblical narratives illustrating the feminine ideal of the salvific roles played by women.

Genesis 2:20

And the man called out names to all the beasts, and to all the flying creatures of the sky, and to each living thing of the field. But for the man a savior was not found for him

Women and the Flourishing of Mankind (9 minutes)

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Is God a Moral Monster

The content of this post is largely taken from Paul Copan‘s new book, “Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament“. This post was motivated by a question posed to me this morning, “How do I reconcile ethics with the genocidal Yahweh?”

Here’s my short answer: I do not see a conflict between what I understand are biblical ethics and the stories of God’s interactions with the Israelites specifically, and humanity in generally.the-conquest-of-canaan

But, to understand my answer we will first need to have a common understanding of the term ethics and second, we need to make sure we’re reading the Bible with the same set of assumptions. To get started, let’s see if we can agree on the meaning of ethics.

Assuming we’re speaking of biblical ethics, I operate from the view that they are…

… a set of rules by which a person or a people express biblical values. For example, if a culture values human life above that of other animals, then I would expect to see rules instantiated that protect human life more than animal life. Staying with this example, this culture might impose capital punishment on a person who murders another human. However, a man who murders a dog, may be fined, imprisoned, or both, but not executed.

In simple terms, biblical ethics are the rules that express the values God wishes us for us to adopt.  Put another way, they are the means by which we are to order our lives to God’s values, not our own.

As for how we read the Bible, I try to understand the Bible as a person of the Ancient Near East (ANE) would have. So, for example, to understand the role of history and its expression was understood in those days. Reflect on this description by Prof. David Lose (rhymes with rose) in his book, Making Sense of Scripture:

In [pre-enlightenment] times, historical narrative was intended to educate, to enrich, and to ennoble, not primarily to capture some supposedly neutral record of events. That doesn’t mean histories written during that time had no relation to actual events, like some kind of fiction. But it does mean that when you wrote a history you were trying to get the truth of what happened across-that is, its meaning and significance. So when we imagine the biblical writers having the same concerns as a 21st-century journalist, we’re not only imposing our categories on their writing but we also risk missing the point of what they are trying to achieve in the first place

To be more specific, Professor Lose is speaking of biblical interpretation and he argues that in order to engage the deeper truths of the biblical text we must read the text in the context of a person living in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

And, after all this, let’s now examine what is arguably the most famous of the biblical genocide stories, the slaughter of the Canaanites. This particular story is probably the one most often used by the secular community to point out that, far from being a just and merciful God, the God of the Christians and Jews is a cruel, bloodthirsty monster.

Read correctly, however, the genocide of Canaan (and according to the biblical description it was, by anyone’s definition, a genocide of monstrous proportions) teaches a profound (and politically incorrect) moral lesson; but it also offers us an opportunity to understand the importance of historical-cultural context. Consider that when the book of Joshua ends, the land of Canaan is described as bereft of human life (as a result of the putative genocide). However, in the very next book, Judges, written immediately following Joshua’s conquest, the land of Canaan is highly populated with both Israelites and Canaanites! What’s going on here? How did the Canaanites repopulate so fast?

They didn’t. They were never exterminated in the first place. The genocide never occurred. Rather, the biblical author was engaging in typical ANE myth making. The written records of all battles when written by the winners, no matter what culture – biblical or otherwise, were always and universally described as slaughters of triumphal proportions. Women, children were brutalized, animals and crops utterly destroyed, the conquered soldiers put to the sword or horribly tortured. This was simply the style and intent of ancient writing and our biblical authors were no different from their pagan counterparts.

So, if this is just an exaggeration, what’s the point? Happily, there is a very, very good answer. In Deuteronomy (see chapters 12 and 20) God reveals that the Canaanites were engaged in child sacrifice (in which their first-born were burned alive) and they had been doing so for centuries. Now, child sacrifice is a manifest evil as the biblical authors attest throughout the Old Testament. So, the question that arises is this: if God thought child sacrifice was so evil, why did He wait for the Israelites to come along? Why didn’t He just kill ‘em then and there?

The answer is that the Israelites were NOT to be the means by which God was to exercise His wrath and punish the Canaanites.  Instead, the biblical text reveals that God’s concern was not the evil committed by the Canaanites, but that the Israelites might adopt this horrific practice (Deut  12:31 and 20:18). In other words, God’s concern was that His chosen people would adopt child sacrifice.

This is not the end of the story, however. We learn in Joshua (chapter 11) that Joshua offered to spare each city if they would give up child sacrifice. All but one rejected his offer. The one that agreed to Joshua’s terms was spared while the rest, according to the biblical author, were put to the sword.

There are many lessons here, but the main three are:

  1. The existence of evil (e.g., child sacrifice, the Jewish Holocaust) while detestable in God’s eyes, is concerning only when/if it threatens to corrupt the people of His covenant.
  2. Doing God’s will is more important than following the letter of God’s law. Joshua “disobeyed” God by offering to spare those who would give up child sacrifice. Joshua’s offer if accepted would have achieved God’s ends and this is why Joshua was not punished (or so argue the ancient commentators).
  3. There are some things God’s people are not to tolerate – child sacrifice being one of them. God understands that toleration begets acceptance and acceptance begets adoption (see #1, above).

The answer, then, to my interlocutor’s question is that the story of the Canaanite genocide, rightly understood, is perfectly consistent with God’s moral values and the ethical behavior that expresses those values.

 

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Was the Universe Created from Nothing?

This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, THE BEGINNING: a new translation and commentary for Genesis 1. Specifically, it is the technical description of my translation of the first two verses.

As we’ll see, it’s pretty clear from the grammar that the author did not have creatio ex nihilo in mind. Rather, he assumed the existence of some sort of dark primordial substrate prior to the creation of light, God’s first act of creation[1].

Let’s begin with a translation that reflects the underlying Hebrew grammar:

When Elohim first created the skies and the land, the earth had been formless and void; and darkness covered the face of the Deep[2] but the spirit of Elohim hovered above the surface of the waters (Gen 1:1-2)

Since this claim stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, I want to take some time to dig into the details of the actual Hebrew text. Essentially, I will show that the verbal structure of the first two verses express a past perfect verbal clause (also called a pluperfect). 

Let’s begin with a literal translation of the Hebrew. In the verse below, both the English and the Hebrew are to be read from right to left:

אֱלֹהִים

בָּרָא

רֵאשִׁית

בְּ

Elohim

bara

reishit

God

created

{first, began, beginning}

{in, when}

NOTE: The words enclosed in braces {} reflect reasonable alternatives according to a number of authoritative Hebrew lexicons.

For example, in the text above, ‘when’ and ‘in’ are offered as translation options for the Hebrew preposition בְּ ()[3]

In Hebrew, some prepositions are inseparable from their object and always occur as a prefix. In this case, the word, bəreishit is a compound word formed by prefixing the preposition bə to the noun, reishit ( + reishit = bəreishit). Likewise, ‘first’ and ‘beginning’ are reasonable alternatives for the Hebrew noun, reishit. Also note that in Hebrew, subjects and verbs are usually ordered verb-first (unlike English in which the subject is written first). If the verb and subject of this verse are reordered according to natural English grammar  we read:

{In, When} {first, beginning} Elohim created…

bə: We now have to decide which of the alternatives to use – ‘in’ or ‘when’? This preposition can have a wide range of meanings, but by far the most common is ‘in’. Based on frequency alone, ‘in’ would be the obvious rendering. However, bə can also be translated as ‘when’, especially where the context involves the passage of time. This is manifestly the case in vv 1:1-2, suggesting that bə is reasonably (if not preferably) translated using ‘when’ (see, for example, Gen 2:4 and 4:8). As will be discussed below, the meaning of vv 1:1-2 centers on the question of the temporal order of the two verses. Time is manifestly in view here and therefore  ‘when’ is arguably the better choice in this particular case to express the meaning of the preposition, .

reishit: The noun, reishit, has as its root the letters, ראש (Resh -Aleph-Shin). Words derived from this root often cannote a meaning of ‘primary’, ‘chief’, ‘begin’, ‘first’ or “first-in-line”, “head of”, and so forth. Harris’s Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) is more specific, namely, reishit means

“…first, beginning, choicest, first or best of a group. [Reishit is] a feminine noun derived from the root [Resh-Aleph-Shin], it appears fifty times in nearly all parts of the [Old Testament]. [Its] primary meaning is “first” or “beginning” of a series.”

Accordingly, we can now retranslate bəreishit bara Elohim as “When first created Elohim”, or as we would render in English:

When Elohim first created…

And the earth had been: As mentioned previously, the Hebrew text of this phrase, וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה (vəhaaretz haytah), has been traditionally rendered as, “The earth was” (e.g., RSV, NIV, JPS, KJV,NAS, TNK, and many others). These older translations, however, fail to reflect what scholars have recently learned about the verbal system in biblical Hebrew and its underlying grammar – especially concerning the manner in which Hebrew expresses two or more actions that occur in the past in time-relative order.

In English this is easily handled by the past perfect tense (also called the pluperfect or the “flashback” tense[4]). For example, consider the following sentence:

When Alex began writing his first novel, he had been in London for over eight years.

In this sentence we learn that Alex did not begin writing his novel until he had been in Longon for eight years. Likewise, if haytah in v 1:2 is translated as a past perfect verb, then verses 1:1-2 would read,

When Elohim first created the skies and the land, the land had been

In this translation some sort of substrate was in existence when God executed His first creative act, the creation of light.

But how do we know that  hayta should be translated as a past perfect verb? It is to this question we now turn.

Until recently, the grammar of biblical Hebrew was thought to be unable to express explicitly a past perfect construction. Whether a verb was past perfect was to be inferred from its context. Recently, scholars[5] have been able to show that, in addition to context, Hebrew verbs can express the past perfect by the way in which the author structures his verbal clauses.

In vv 1:1-2, the key observation is that the ordering of the verbal clauses in these two verses demonstrate that the verb in the second clause of 1:1, (hayta), is in the past perfect.

Here’s how: in English the past perfect is formed using the auxiliary verb “had” with the main verb’s past participle. For the verb “to be”, the past perfect is “had been”.  In Hebrew, unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Three conditions must be met:

  1. The preceding verbal clause must contain a verb in the perfect aspect (similar to the English past tense).
  2. The subject of the verb in question must be prefixed with the Hebrew letter ו (waw).
  3. The subject in the second clause must precede the verb (non-standard verbal ordering in Hebrew).

Let’s examine the sequence of verbal clauses using  haytah as a reference.

  1. The preceding verb, bara, is a perfect verb.
  2. The subject of the second verse is preceded by a ו (waw).
  3. The subject (vəhaaretz – the earth or land) of the second verse precedes its verb (haytah).

All three requirements are met! I argue that that grammar rather definitively advances the idea that God’s first creative act was light and that it was performed in the presence of a preexistent substrate.

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  1. [1] The opposite view, Creatio Ex Materia (creation from something), was the position taken by Philo and a number of the early Church fathers. I go into some detail on the history of the development of Christian development of ex nihilo creation in my book, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece
  2. [2] The Hebrew word from which Deep is translated, Tehom, occurs as a proper name, i.e., the name of something. Within the last fifty years or so, Tehom has been philologically related to the name of the sea goddess, Tiamet, in the creation epic Enuma Elish. Scholars theorize that the ancient author meant to demythologize Tehom.
  3. [3] In Hebrew, some prepositions are inseparable from their object and always occur as a prefix. In this case, the word, bəreishit is a compound word formed by prefixing the preposition bə to the noun, reishit (bə + reishit = bəreishit).
  4. [4] For the sake of simplicity, I use the word ‘tense’ to note when a verbal action takes (took) place – past, present, or future. In Hebrew, the concept of tense does not exist. Rather, Hebrew verbs are categorized according to their ‘aspect’, i.e., when (or if) their action has completed. If a verbal action is completed, the verb is referred to as a ‘perfect’ verb. If the verb has yet to complete, the verb is referred to as ‘imperfect’. In this document, the English past tense is treated as equivalent to the Hebrew perfect aspect.
  5. [5] More formally known as The Anterior Construction. Recently, its grammar has been thoroughly described by Zion Zevit, “The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew”, SBL Monograph Series No. 50.
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