Archive for November, 2019

Apocrypha: Tobit

November 11, 2019

I’m staking my claim here and now: in the unlikely event I ever form a band, its name will be Tobit’s Dog.

The dog is one of the more fascinating elements of this apocryphal book, the more so because of the superfluousness of his presence.  He’s mentioned only twice in the book – as a journey is undertaken and then again as it is completed.  Some suggest the dog is an angel, an answer to a father’s prayer for angelic companionship and protection for his son and his fellow traveler (5:17).  If this is the intended meaning, it is not without irony that this angelic canine is all but ignored and invisible to everyone in the story but the reader/hearer.

Tobit is basically a story about a young man (Tobias) who undertakes a journey at his father’s (Tobit) request, to retrieve a sum of money Tobit entrusted to a friend earlier.  Tobias is accompanied on his journey by the angel Raphael, though Tobias and everyone else but the reader/hearer is unaware of this identity until towards the end of the story.   Along the way, Tobias acquires a wife, dispels a demon, and finally upon return provides a curative for Tobit’s blindness.

But frankly, the dog is the most curious part of the story.

This story is not well constructed or well told.  It lacks the tight narrative style of Ruth.  It is interspersed with moral exhortations clearly contradicted (in the temporal sense) by the actual story itself.  Tobit is a minor character with superhuman holiness – which is rewarded only by blindness, poverty, and suffering.  This despite repeated claims throughout the story that God rewards his faithful and preserves them from all harm.  And while this is shown to be true in the end, I doubt many people would consider eight years of blindness much of a divine reward.

Characters are perfunctory and one-dimensional.  Events are laid out in barebones fashion without any sense of real drama or uncertainty.  There is little to nothing in this story that links it to anything else in the Old Testament, and worse still, there are aspects to it that stand in contradiction to the rest of the Old Testament (such as Raphael’s ‘magical’ solution to driving a demon away).  As a moral tale, it is flat and uninteresting despite  the possibility of a great deal of good dramatic (or even darkly comedic) circumstances.

Frankly I don’t see the point in recommending this as reading to someone, let alone debating whether it should be a part of the Biblical canon.  While there’s the potential for  harm here (magical solutions, curious portrayals of angels and demons, etc.), it offers nothing not better conveyed by other books of the Old Testament.  It echoes Job and Ruth and other stories in Scripture but in a far reduced capacity and beauty.

This book was treated as canonical by Christians as early as the 4th century and confirmed in that status by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the 16th century.  However the Jewish people do not acknowledge it as part of their Scriptures (the Old Testament).  It is presumed to have been written not much earlier than the 3rd century BC, and perhaps as late as the close of the 2nd century BC.

But that dog.  That dog is a curiosity!

 

Reading Ramblings – November 17, 2019

November 10, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 17, 2019

Texts: Malachi 4:1-6; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-36

Context: The second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, and we hear yet more warnings about the coming of our Lord and the importance of watching and waiting.

Malachi 4:1-6 – Scholars argue about whether or not Malachi is really the prophet’s name. There is no indicator of the author in the book itself, possibly. 1:1 is usually translated with Malachi as a proper name, but the Hebrew could be less specific and refer only to messenger. It was written no earlier than 516 BC, since it references the rebuilt temple. Some time has likely elapsed since this terminal date, as there appears to be lethargy on the part of priests and those carrying out duties associated with the temple. The particular verses reference the day of the Lord, when the Lord will destroy evil and wickedness once and for all. The sureness of that day should not be doubted, but neither should it be feared by God’s faithful. While it will be a day of destruction for those committed to evil, God’s people shall be as innocent – and safe – as young livestock, oblivious in some ways to the destruction wreaked on evildoers. This passage also foretells the return of Elijah – or more specifically an Elijah-figure – as a forerunner of the Lord’s coming. As Jesus indicates John the Baptist is this figure (Matthew 11:13-14), we should be anticipating our Lord’s arrival and celebrating here and now the victory which is so assuredly his on that day.

Psalm 98 – The psalm is one of victory, accenting the celebration appropriate to God’s people as they anticipate and experience his victory, a victory chiefly expressed in providing salvation. While this might be appropriate on any number of small scales (deliverance from the Egyptians in the Exodus, God’s preservation of our lives in the midst of danger) it is accomplished fully and finally in the victorious return of our Lord Jesus. That day will be one of joy and celebration for God’s people, manifest in joyful singing and songmaking. The celebration will include nature herself, as all creation breaks forth in joy and relief at the final return of our Lord (Romans 8:19-23).

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 – One of the issues facing the young congregation in Thessalonica is that some of the converts to Christ were under the impression that because his return was expected soon, there was no need to trouble themselves with work. Free from the constraints of earning a living, they found uses for their time as busybodies. Paul addressed this in his first letter to them (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, 5:12-15), but the issue has apparently not disappeared yet. Paul referred in his first letter to the hard work he and Silas and Timothy engaged in soas not to be a burden financially to their new converts, but now Paul points to their hard work as an example to the Thessalonians that idleness is not appropriate. Here he states it very clearly – if you aren’t willing to work, you shouldn’t expect to eat. This does not address hardship issues for people who can’t work or can’t find work, but for those who could be working but simply don’t want to, there is a very real problem needing to be fixed. In verse 12 Paul addresses these people directly – this is not just Paul’s opinion, but the name of Jesus Christ is invoked to indicate the serious nature of this admonition. Butt out of other people’s business and earn your living.

In verses 13-15 he addresses the issue of idleness to the congregation – those around these idle busybodies who no doubt are more than a bit frustrated by this point. First, he exhorts them not to let this situation dissuade them from doing good and showing love. This is important, as it’s easy for a bad experience in the past to dictate our future attitudes and behaviors. We are to struggle against this and continue to do good. What the congregation can and should do, however, is coordinate. Since it was popular to celebrate a lunch or agape feast after worship, it would be easy for these idle persons to take advantage of the community’s food. Or perhaps they were accustomed to accepting dinner invitations to various people’s homes, thereby being fed without working. Now, the congregation as a whole needs to be aware together of what is going on, and take action together. A coordinated effort. This person refuses to work. We are all aware of this now, as well as the reality that any future idleness is in direct contradiction to the command of Jesus Christ (v.12). As such, we won’t enable this person in their sin. We will not extend invitations to dinners or lunches anymore. We are not being rude or unkind, but trying to show love by prompting these persons to recognize the inappropriateness of their continued idleness, feel shame in it, repent of it, and change from it. Paul’s last admonition is crucial – these people are not your enemies. They are confused brothers and sisters in Christ, and they may in the future be stubbornly disobedient brethren. But continue to work with them in love. Deny them the options that allow them to remain without work so that they are forced to return to work.

Luke 21:5-36 – Jesus prophesies to his disciples about things to come, both at the personal level (v.16) and on a local level (vs.20-24) and on a creation-wide scale (vs.10-18, 25-36). The people of God are not promised an easy life. In fact, we are warned ahead of time we will face persecution from even some who are closest to us (v.16). The world hates us for holding fast to Christ. American Christians find this hard to believe, having been insulated for so long from the suffering so pervasive and consistent throughout the world and history.

Christians for centuries have scanned the horizons of current events, struggling to anticipate their Lord’s arrival in the headlines and catastrophes of their day. We are to be similarly watchful, never forgetting that our Lord is returning, and that the signs He gives are general, but adequate. It isn’t as though we can say to ourselves the world is at peace, there are no struggles or disasters, so clearly the Lord isn’t showing up any time soon. Rather, we are blessed that we should be in a constant state of readiness, so clearly does the world appear ripe for our Lord’s return! We may live or we may die, in peace or in warfare or persecution. But we should not fear for our true lives, hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3). Those lives are secure in Christ (Luke 21:18-19).

Meme-able

November 8, 2019

Memes are arguably what runs  the Internet, or large portions of it.  A meme is something that spreads between people in a culture.  Internet memes are generally static images with text overlay, often humorous.  The picture reinforces or makes visual the text, or visa versa.  The word itself has anchors in Greek, where variations of it have to do with imitation, but the word as we know it was first coined by Richard Dawkins 40-some years ago in his seminal book, The Selfish Gene.

Memes are often human-based,  meaning the images used are of actual people.  Sometimes celebrities and other well-known figures.  But sometimes just photos from stock photo collections.  Models, in other words, from all walks of life.  But models are people, and people have stories aside from any one particular image of theirs.  So I found this brief essay by someone who has become a major Internet meme figure over the last decade to be fascinating.  A reminder that we are all more than just our image conveys, particularly a momentary image.

The Apocrypha: The Wisdom of Solomon

November 5, 2019

This  is generally understood not to have been written by Solomon, despite sections in Chapters 7 & 8 which imply this.  Rather, it is likely written by a Jewish person, perhaps from Alexandria, familiar with the political upheavals in Egypt as a result of the conquest of Alexander the Great and the generals who divided his kingdom up after his death.  Some of these political upheavals had very negative effects for the people of Judea.  Jerome credited Philo of Alexandria, who was an older contemporary of Jesus, with producing this work but there is no objective evidence by which to ascertain this is true.  It was written originally in Greek, not Hebrew, and owes a great deal to Hellenistic literary techniques and forms.  Luther didn’t see it as canonical but viewed it as worthwhile reading.

I have no doubt saying this work does not belong in the Biblical canon.   Frankly, it reads to me a lot like the Qur’an does – a whole lot of time spent telling you why you have to listen carefully to what it says, but very little substance communicated.  Warnings and threats to those who don’t heed, but then no real directives.  Much of it has nothing to do with wisdom at all, and rather is an extensive retelling of the Exodus from Egypt under Moses.

There are some things of note in this book.  It clearly teaches the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body (3:1-9).  Chapter 5 has echoes of Ephesians 6 and the armor of God.  There are also sections that echo Isaiah 44 and ridicule of those who make idols from the same materials they fashion plates out of.  There is an interesting reference to a Babylonian rabbinic tradition which stated the manna in the desert tasted different to each of the Israelites, depending on their particular tastes, so thorough was the love and provision of God (16:21).

Overall, this book doesn’t add anything to Scripture, and it repeats at length quite a bit of it.  It’s not necessarily a bad book, but I certainly don’t see it on par with the book of Proverbs or other wisdom literature within the canonical Old Testament.  I’d much sooner recommend someone read those books than this one.

 

 

More Thoughts on American Christianity

November 4, 2019

Thanks to Bernie (not Sanders!) for forwarding me this opinion article last month.  The author seeks to revisit the common notion of American Christianity’s drastic decline in the past decade and nuance that broad brushstroke description with some points that might alter the overall picture.  He makes three main points:

Lukewarm Christians are falling away in high numbers, but not more committed Christians.  I think this is very true, and I’ve seen other surveys indicating of those who worship at least once weekly, there has been practically no dropoff in numbers or activity over the years.  Hardly surprising.  Those willing to commit on a weekly basis to public worship clearly prioritize their faith and are willing to do so in tangible ways, such as their time allocation.  As Christianity (especially conservative Christianity) continues to become less and less compatible with cultural trends, there will be less and less incentive for nominal Christians to maintain their ties to the Church.

The decline in American Christianity has more to do with Baby Boomers than Millenials.  Also true.  The issues in the Church today began with the Baby Boomers.  They were the ones to first walk away from the faith or at least regular public worship in appreciable numbers, and this only made it easier for subsequent generations to either walk away or never affiliate in the first place.  I’m not sure I would agree with the author’s generalization that church attendance fluctuates by time-of-life.  Statistics seem to indicate that increasingly, those who leave the faith or regular worship as they leave home are not returning later in life.

The decline of American Christianity may be more of a Catholic issue than a Protestant one.  An interesting idea, and one that makes sense in light of the long-running abuses perpetrated, covered-up, revealed, denied, and now being called to account for in the Roman Catholic Church.  But whether or not the decline in affiliation and participation is more Roman Catholic than Protestant is unclear to me.  Definitely non-denominational and Evangelical churches have grown at the expense of more traditional denominational ones,  I still think there’s an overall decline in Protestantism as a whole.

Interesting also are his observations that there is still a strong enough Christian presence in America to forestall for the time being increasingly antagonistic anti-religious or anti-Christian movements and legislation.  Not an entirely optimistic observation, but something to be grateful for while it lasts!

 

Reading Rambling – November 10, 2019

November 3, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – November 10, 2019

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 148; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17; Luke 20:27-40

Context: The final three Sundays of the liturgical year form a kind of mini season of their own. Unofficially, but pointedly. The three Sundays end the Church year where it began – in anticipation of our Lord’s return. But while Advent leads us to such anticipation through the story of our Lord’s Incarnation, these last three Sundays talk more openly about his Second Coming, his return in glory to put sin, death, and Satan to flight eternally and inaugurate a new creation, a physical reconciliation of heaven and earth, as it were. This culminates in the final Sunday of the liturgical year, sometimes referred to as Christ the King Sunday.

Exodus 3:1-15 – We have here a theophany – the glory of God revealed somewhat directly to someone in creation, in this case as a bush on fire but not consumed by the fire. Elsewhere in in the Old Testament (Genesis & Exodus, particularly) the presence of God is also described as the angel of the Lord. Clearly based on the rest of this passage, this is not just a messenger but God himself (v.6). God chooses to engage Moses’ curiosity and then to reveal his identity to him, first in reference to Moses’ ancestors (v.6) and later by name (v.14). It is clear Moses knows of this God from his reaction of prostrating himself (v.6). Only after God tells Moses who He is does Moses become afraid. God’s purpose here is to let Moses know God’s plan for his people the Israelites, and the particular role Moses will play in this plan. It is a role Moses is reluctant to accept, but God is insistent upon. God will deliver his people from slavery and genocide, which is a foreshadowing of Jesus saving us from sin, death, and Satan. And just like the Israelites, we have seen God working out this plan through his Son, but we have not yet been brought fully out of captivity as the people of God were. We look forward to that day, when no mere Moses but rather the very Son of God returns in glory and splendor to usher us in to an even more perfect promised land.

Psalm 148 – Basically following the order of creation in Genesis 1, the psalmist exhorts to praise all the various creations of God. Everything and everyone God has made have been made for praise of him first and foremost. This is their proper and rightful function. The physical, material universe as well as the living creatures within it find their proper role in praising God. Verse 5 makes this explicit – it is by God’s command that they exist at all, they owe their entire being to him and so should give him praise. Verse 6 should probably be interpreted less as a dogmatic statement about the eternality of creation, but rather emphasizes God’s creative and sustaining power. That which He created, He sustains. Verses 11-12 designate the various segments of humanity from highest to lowest (at least according to cultural values of the time). Finally God’s chosen people are exhorted to praise him in the last two verses, acknowledging him not only as creator but also as savior, rescuing them over and over again from their enemies, and providing them with leaders from Moses and Aaron to the judges to King David who lead them and guide them as an embodiment of his saving works, the tools and means through which God protects and watches over his people. They above all people are exhorted to praise God because they have the deepest relationship with him.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17 – Now we hear the themes of the day more clearly. Paul writes to clarify confusion among the Thessalonians. In his first letter he wrote to comfort them and assure them their deceased friends and family in Christ would by no means miss out on the joyful moment of Christ’s triumphant return. But apparently confusion persists. Perhaps they have received a letter alleging to be from Paul telling them the Day of the Lord has already come (v.2). Certainly they’ve heard some contradictory information that Paul wants to clarify. As he does throughout 1 & 2 Thessalonians, his primary means of doing this is to remind them of what he’s taught them already. In v. 5 he reminds them of this – there are certain things that must precede our Lord’s return, and if we get panicked as to whether or not He has already come back, we need to think back on these things. The lawless one is not clearly defined by Paul – or any other Biblical book – but seems to point to a final, arch-enemy of the people of God and proclaims himself to be god. Interpretations to peg this man of lawlessness as some historical figure have the problem in that any historical figure, no matter how arrogant or evil, has disappeared into death without our Lord returning. While we know the source of this lawless one’s power (Satan, v.9), he has apparently not arisen yet, though undoubtedly there have been many prototypes. The net result, however, is not for God’s people to fear, but rather to cling to what they have been taught in Scripture, rather than allowing themselves to be led astray by falsehoods and delusions. So we wait, but we wait actively for our Lord’s return, concerning ourselves with his Word so we are not among those to be deceived through the shallowness or perfunctory nature of their faith in or knowledge of the Word of God. This is not to raise the false argument that faith is primarily cognitive, but to the best of our respective, God-given abilities, we should come to the Word of God joyfully and thankfully to hear of his love for us, and in so doing inoculate ourselves against false and erroneous beliefs and ideas.

Luke 20:27-40 – We look forward to our Lord’s return. We joke about looking forward to having better looking/younger/stronger bodies in the resurrection than we do now. Yet we have more questions than answers when we consider this topic. How will the resurrection and life in eternity as body and spirit together work? What we must be careful of doing is making assumptions based on how we know things to be now. In this case, we can’t assume marriage works (or perhaps even exists) in heaven as it does here. The key seems to be v.36 – we will not give or take or be given or taken in marriage in resurrection eternity because we will never die. Earthly marriage – or our conceptions of it as fallen creatures – is limited in nature because we die. When we no longer die, our earthly conceptions or practices of marriage will no longer work the same way. We will be sons (and daughters) of the resurrection, rather than sons and daughters of sin and brokenness. This will make us equal to angels in that we are eternally in the presence of God. It does not make us the same as angels, but brings an equality to bear, and equality perhaps best described as mutually enjoying the presence of God eternally. Perhaps this will be enough to fill and satisfy us completely.

I’ll admit I have a hard time with this teaching. The thought of not being married to my wife for eternity is a cause of sorrow to me (though perhaps less so to her!). Yet I ultimately have to trust the wisdom of God. I can’t know what eternity will be like, other than that it will be completely and totally good – something I have no ability to conceive of accurately. Thus I trust that if marriage does not exist in eternity, we will be fine with that when we reach there. In the meantime, I should not distrust the Word of God because it doesn’t make logical sense to me all the time. My logic is limited and flawed, affected just as much by sin as my mortal body. In faith I trust God to make these things known in their proper time and measure, and to appreciate his gifts to me here and now even in my fallen state.

The Apocrypha: Judith

November 1, 2019

It’s been on my list for a while to read through the apocryphal books – writings in a sort of limbo, neither uniformly recognized or accepted by the Jewish people, and not uniformly recognized or accepted by Christians.  These books were written in the four centuries between the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, and the time of Jesus and the Apostles.

I’m using this text –  The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition With Notes.  As noted in a recent exchange with Doug, a long-time reader, if this meant it was a translation of these books by exclusively Lutheran scholars, it would make me a tad nervous.  But the actual translation is the English Standard Version.  Rather than include these apocryphal books as part of the Lutheran Study Bible – also the ESV translation but with study notes from Lutheran scholars, theologians, and pastors – our publishing house (Concordia Publishing House) opted to publish them separately, in part because modern Lutherans are by and large unfamiliar with and skeptical of these books.

This particular edition includes those apocryphal writings included in the Latin Vulgate of the 4th century, plus three other books – 3 & 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151.  The Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament included  all of the books in this collection with the exception of 2 Esdras.  This collection of apocryphal writings also mirrors the books Luther included with his German translation of the Bible.  So, the apocryphal writings in this collection fall into some broad categories.

The CompositionsJudith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach), Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah

The Histories 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees

The AdditionsOld Greek Esther, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon

The Prayers and SongsThe Prayer of Azariah, The Song of the Three Holy Children, The Prayer of Manasseh

The Apocryphal Books in Other Christian Traditions1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika), 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151

This collection has some excellent preface sections which trace both the history of the apocryphal writings in relation to the Christian church, as well as the overall history of the Jewish people from the Persian period which started at the end of the 6th century BC and the Roman Empire which encompasses the New Testament period and beyond.  One thing I was surprised to learn was that the rejection of the apocrypha in Protestant circles is due in large part to the English translation societies of the 19th century.  Up until that point, it was not uncommon to have the apocryphal books published along with the Old and New Testaments.

Prior to this, the Church as a whole seemed to have difficulty deciding if these were inspired sacred texts or not.  The Jews translated them and included them with their Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) but did not count them as canonical – on equal footing with the other 39 books of the Old Testament as Christians know it.

But the apocryphal writings were widely known and even quoted and used by the early Church.  This was likely because the early Church – predominantly Jewish – used the Septuagint, which included the Apocrypha.  As such there are quotations from or allusions to apocryphal writings by many of the Early Church Fathers.  The Apocrypha is considered canonical by both the Eastern Orthodox Communion as well as the Roman Catholic church.  When Luther translated the Bible into German, he collected the Apocrypha into a single section between the Old and New Testaments, as did the King James Translation in 1611.

Confusion is just that, and so I’m skeptical as I begin reading these.  It’s very possible for a writing to be orthodox and helpful but still not the same thing as the inspired Word of God, something the Church has acknowledged since earliest times, but hasn’t always agreed on in application.

Judith is the first book in the collection.  It purports to be a historical account of the deliverance of the people of Judea thanks to the bravery of the woman Judith.  The problem is that it’s obvious from language and other issues that the work was composed (orally or otherwise) far later than this – after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the process of Hellenization which overtook much of the Middle East.  There are also challenges in the historical and other inaccuracies throughout the book (claiming Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Assyria rather than Babylon, claiming an army could travel over 300 miles in three days, etc.).  Also, it has the challenge of glorifying sexual seduction to accomplish the will of God.  Granted, the seduction is never consummated, but it is certainly aimed at as part of an overall deception.

I have a hard time accepting this as a divinely inspired work with these and other issues.  It seems more likely to be a well-intentioned fable, a morality play of sorts exhorting hearers/readers to trust in God rather than man.  As such, the moral of the story is good but don’t see how it is necessary.  It doesn’t add anything to Scripture, either the Old or New Testament.  The theme runs throughout many books in the Bible that are far more reliable in the details they provide. I don’t even find the style to be particularly impressive, and it borrows heavily on styles and motifs found elsewhere in Scripture.  Overall it strikes me as highly derivative.

I’ll review each of the included apocryphal works separately as I finish them.  While I don’t pretend my opinion is in any useful sense authoritative, I’m also not the first person to weigh in with my opinion and so I feel it’s fair game to do so without impugning the canonical books of the Bible, which I do wholeheartedly acknowledge as divinely inspired.