Genesis 1-5 as Ancient Memory

I have recently discovered the work of Riane Eisler, and particularly her classic 1988 work The Chalice and the Blade. Eisler is a second-wave feminist who has specialized in cultural history. Her book is an overview of the apparently substantial archaeological evidence that human society during the Neolithic pre-historical period (that period that before written historical records, before the rise of the Egyptian empire) was radically peaceful, cooperative, and egalitarian.

It turns out, there is no evidence that Neolithic communities built fortifications or defenses around their towns, no evidence among what we can find of their metallurgy that they manufactured any weapons, and from what we can tell about their social lives, men and women lived in equalitarian peace, neither patriarchal or matriarchal.

Thus, Eisler distinguishes between two ultimate types of social structures, which she terms the “chalice” and the “blade.” Or, phrased differently, the cooperative and the dominator culture, each organized around the common cup or the power of the sword. It was not until the nomadic herdsmen swept down from the steppes to expand their grazing territories that weapons and defenses begin to be seen, and over a period of centuries the peaceful Neolithic communities were conquered by various nomadic warlords. The Minoan culture on the island of Crete was the last remaining peaceful, egalitarian society, finally conquered by the warring mainland Myceneans (Greeks) in 1420 BCE.

Her research is helpful for us in that it demonstrates that competition, violence, and domination are not inevitable for the human person or the human community.

As a Christian, I found her insights of prehistory and the emergence of patriarchy as a later “de-evolution” from a cooperative, peaceful community very interesting. I was thinking this week about how we might view the earliest portions of Genesis as the collective memory of the Hebrew people, living in and often part of the patriarchal model of human society, of a lost age of peaceful and unoppressive human community.

That is, Genesis was probably written or compiled during the Babylon exile, when Israel was in captivity and under the oppression of the dominator model of human community. While prior to this historical point, Israel had come into Canaan and settled there, eventually displacing the peaceful people that lived there and had desired a king like the dominator model (in 2 Samuel 8), by the time they began to collect the earliest stories of their people and culture, they were slaves and prisoners to this same system. Thus, the idea of a former age of peace and a tragic fall came into their yearning. In other words, because they were enslaved and suffering, they sought the hope that such a plight was not inevitable, but that there had once been an age without such oppression and suffering, and then a fall from such a human community.

To make this clearer, Genesis is a foundational mythic retelling of a cultural memory of a distant past. There are glimmers of a genuine lost historical age found under the mythical trappings of the story, much as there might well have been a real flood that gave rise to the flood account of Noah.

When we turn to Genesis 1-5, then, we see the remnants of their ancient memory of precisely this neolithic past, passed down in stories through the collective memory of the community, of a way of being human in community that had been lost (but might be recovered in some eschatological future). The story of Adam and Eve dwelling in harmony with each other, the creation, and God in the Garden of Eden is the expression of what the Hebrews called “shalom,” or peace, a comprehensive peace and harmony between all creation, where all relationships were properly ordered in equalitarian and healthy, nonviolent terms. (I am here assuming that Phyllis Trible and various eco-theologians are correct in seeing Genesis 1-2 as egalitarian and opposed to androarchy, mankind-rule and people-centrism.)

When the serpent turns up, it inserts disorder and disharmony into all of these relationships, humanity with itself, between the genders, between humanity and the animals and the creation. There is now “enmity” (Gen. 3:15) that interferes with shalom. This could well be, once again, the collective memory of an ancient neolithic past in which communities of shalom and cooperation and harmony were conquered by warlords, which would have plunged people into enmity with one another and with the world. Later, in Genesis 4, this enmity bursts into violent murder between agrarian Cain and herdsman Abel, the precise two kinds of communities that fought with each other in the later neolithic age. Cain, the violent one, then goes on to found the first city (and the implication of it, empire, domination, oppression).

In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, the word “enmity” in Gen. 3:15 is echthran. This is important for the gospel, as Ephesians 2:14-18 makes clear:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

In this passage, pseudo-Paul mentions “hostility” twice as something that Jesus killed. The Cross, then, was the ultimate act of violence of God’s part–the violence of enemy-love, to suffer rather than retaliate, and in that way execute hatred and violence forever. That word “hostility” is echthra, forging a close connection between the serpent-dominator who gets between healthy, harmonious relationships with its enmity [echthran], and the Christ-liberator, who finally killed enmity [echthra] itself in the human soul and in human community. By killing enmity, Jesus opens up new ways of being human and living together in community, restoring “peace,” shalom, that ancient human community based in cooperation, love, peace, and egalitarian life.

Sacrifice in the Garden?

I just received my monthly newsletter from Biblical Horizons, the ministry of theologian James B. Jordan. Jordan is a typologist and – while believing some funky things – is viewed by a number of people as an insightful interpreter.

One of his big claims is that when God killed the animal in the Garden and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins (Gen. 3:21), this was a foreshadowing of Israel’s sacrificial system, of course presumed to be penal substitutionary in nature. He’s not the only one to make this claim, but he puts a lot of weight on this reading of the passage. In the mail this month came a lengthy defense of this reading, which I found to be rather specious.

The first observation I make is that we’re not required to take this interpretation. That is, the text doesn’t require this reading and nothing is endangered by deciding that we don’t agree with it.

But let’s start with noting what the text itself says: “Yahweh God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them,” (Gen. 3:21). This is all the information the text itself gives us. After the fall, God killed an animal and gave the skins to Adam and Eve to replace the garments of leaves they had made for themselves.

That’s everything the text communicates, but efforts have been made by Jordan and others to fit this passage into a penal substitutionary atonement paradigm. Jordan explains the connection in this way:

God killed an animal and from it provided tunics for Adam and Eve. (“Skin” is singular, which at least implies only one animal for both tunics.) God had said that in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit they would die, and they did in the sense that the human race lived under the shadow of death until the resurrection of Jesus. God taught them that this half-life was possible because a substitute dies in their place.

I think this goes far beyond what we can say is the meaning of this action by God. It certainly is not the obvious meaning of the passage when looked at in the context of Genesis 2-3. There’s no reason that I’m aware to see the promise of death as anything other than physical death which was commuted by by God out of his forgiveness and mercy. The “dying you will die” is often taken by evangelicals to mean they did not die physically on that day, but they died spiritually. But the clearest reading of the passage is simply that God said, “If you eat of it, you will die that very day,” and then decided not to enforce His promise of the death penalty. Likewise, the curse of Genesis 3 can be interpreted either descriptively or prescriptively – that is, it can be understood to be a description of what is going to happen because Adam and Eve are enslaved to the Satan, or as a proscriptive curse which God puts upon them. The proscriptive is the side many evangelicals have embraced, and would make a substitutionary act in v. 21 more reasonable. But there aren’t really many compelling reasons to understand the curse prescriptively. The only two parts of the curse imposed by God is the enmity between the woman and the Serpent and the increase in travail during childbirth (Gen. 3:15-16).

So to say that God “taught them” that their life was spared because of a substitute that died in their place is to go far beyond the intended meaning of the text. The text simply indicates that God provided for them. He sent them out of His Garden-Presence, yes, but this was an act of mercy. What this passage teaches Adam and Eve is that no matter what they do, their loving and merciful Father will provide for their needs. This same mercy and provision is seen when God not only refuses to kill Cain for murder, but actively protects him from retaliation (Gen. 4:10-16). And Jesus frames this same mercy as the central characteristic of the Father as well: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matt. 5:45). “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” (Luke 6:35-36).

Jordan then says,

Only skin made from an animal’s death would be enough to make a wall between humanity and the wrath of their father.

It is at this point that the logic of Jordan’s essay starts coming apart, because this simply is not true. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Heb. 10:4). Far from being able to put up a wall (or covering, or cleansing or whatever term you’d like to apply to it) between humanity and the wrath of God, an animal’s death actually did nothing of the sort at all. We see this example in the very next story in Genesis. Cain kills Abel, a sin which (according to the penal substitutionary view) must require the blood of a substitutionary atonement is simply forgiven without any sacrifice at all. God does not need blood in order to remain in communion with humanity. The idea that God would run away from sin and brokenness is the attitude of Cain himself: “I will be hidden from your presence,” (Gen. 4:14). God’s answer is surprising under the penal view: “Not so!” (Gen. 4:15). God will not abandon the sinful.

Moreover, the making of the animal skins in Genesis 3:21 does not even match with the sacrificial system which penal substitution has developed. The PSA paradigm states that only the blood of a substitute can cleanse sin and restore us to fellowship with God. Jordan acknowledges this himself: the animal death here is “offered as a way to restore broken communion with God.” Under the sacrificial system this permitted the Israelite to come back into God’s presence in the Temple-Tabernacle. And, as Jordan has repeatedly pointed out, the Garden functions as a proto-Temple. Being clothed in the skins means that “Adam and Eve are allowed to begin again as priests.”

But if sacrifice restores communion and recommissions as priests, then why were Adam and Eve not permitted to re-enter the Garden? If they were indeed priests serving in the Garden-Temple, and their sin exiled them from serving in this way, and sacrifices restores them to that service, then they should have been free to reenter the Garden. But they aren’t. They’re sent away. To my mind this casts doubt upon the whole interpretive enterprise.

To recap, 1) the interpretation is not required, 2) it depends upon the penal substitutionary atonement paradigm, and 3) it doesn’t even fit the facts according to adherents’ own system. This indicates the whole business has overcomplicated a beautiful statement about God’s mercy and compassion and provision of those who have broken fellowship with Him.

Ham on Nye: Creation, Evolution, and Adventures in Missing the Point

No doubt most of us were aware of the highly promoted debate over origins at Answers in Genesis’s Creation Museum last night, even by those who had no intention of tuning in. Well, I did tune in, and here are a few thoughts about it.

The Debate. I’ve been concerned that Ken Ham would demolish Bill Nye since they announced the debate a few months ago. After all, Ham is an engaging speaker with a unique accent who has spent the last 30-odd years polishing his rhetoric regarding this issue, while Bill Nye, like most scientists, has been doing a lot of different things with his time instead of doggedly repeating the same information. My fears were confirmed when Ham basically trounced Nye. Debates are measured by rhetoric and argument, not by who is “right.” And in this case, Ham won. He was better organized, better spoken, and seemed on top of his game. Nye, on the other hand, seemed scatter-shot, at one point meandering his way through five complex scientific arguments in only two minutes, jumping from topic to topic without logic or clarity, and bringing up information that AiG has spent a lot of time and money providing detailed “answers” to (what about the Ark? The Missoula flood? The Grand Canyon? Mount St. Helens? Etc.). Nye also couldn’t resist the bait to jump into Biblical interpretation and expose his ignorance of theology even more, which accomplished little more than reinforce in the hostile audience’s mind that he wasn’t taking them or their Bible very seriously.

The Problem. I was really conflicted by the debate. I share a faith in common with Ken Ham and so I wanted to be loyal to the Christian debating the atheist. But at the same time, I share the scientific convictions of Bill Nye, and so I wanted him to do well enough to show the many Christians who blindly accept AiG’s teachings on Genesis that there are other choices, and to be open to new possibilities.

Of course, that was impossible. Bill Nye is an atheist, and he is in no position to offer alternative readings concerning Genesis. But I was at least hoping that Ham would be bested scientifically once or twice, enough to start cracking the invincible armor of fundamentalism in his audience. But ultimately that’s the problem with the creation vs. evolution debate. Both the atheist and the creationist depend upon Genesis being literal history – the creationist in order to feel secure, and the atheist in order to be free to reject it as ridiculous.

The Solution. This was a debate in which the vast majority of people were excluded. We had a debate between the relatively small group of atheists and the relatively fringe group of Christians who believe in a young earth, both of which are fighting over whether taking Genesis-as-history is insane or reasonable.

To me this misses the point entirely. Because the whole debate turns on whether Genesis is history, or at least history as defined by modernism. Once we realize there are other options, once we inject the conversation with other possibilities, the whole fight is seen for the silliness it is. What if Genesis isn’t history? What if ancient Hebraic writers in the Near East were inspired by God to record an origins account after the fashion and in the genre of ancient Near East cosmological world-pictures? Well, suddenly we’re in a whole new realm in which the opening of Genesis is written to conform to a well-known and well-researched ANE literary genre that is not intended to be taken as precise history, but is rather intended to set up a certain people for a certain task and a certain way of living. And there are strong indications that Genesis conforms to this kind of literature. The world model depicted in Genesis (heavens above, abyss below, earth in the middle, with the waters above and the waters below, etc.) is a world model that is common in the ANE, though there are also substantive differences in the Israelite version.

Once this is realized, we can ease off the “science vs. faith” confrontation. The atheist can’t use Genesis to excuse their disbelief if Genesis was never intended to be taken as factual history, and the Christian can no longer use Genesis to harm the cause of Christ by arguing insane things. Because we need the absolute faith of Ken Ham and the science of Bill Nye to work together for the glory of Christ, not work against each other. Those two impulses, redirected in harmony toward the world and for the good of the world, is a powerful thing that can move mountains.

God is an Activist Judge

There is a common notion abroad that the justice of God is neutral to man. That is, so long as due process is upheld, a man is guilty or innocent regardless of their station. And of course, that is partly true. But this is a mostly Western notion of justice that cannot (pardon the pun) do justice to how the Bible speaks of God’s justice.

“Righteousness” in Scripture, is far different. The root word sdq has two common forms, sedeq and sedaqa. There is probably little difference between the meaning of the words. Sedeq refers to an abstract ideal of justice to which one was to live up too, often personified as watching over the earth or man’s dealings (Psa. 85:12; Isa. 45:8). Sedaqa refers to the concrete act of living up to this standard, and “later it became the Hebrew word for giving alms to the poor (Dan. 4:24),” (Weinfeld, Social Justice, 34).

Thus, God’s call to give generously to those in need was actually, for the Hebrew language as well as the Jewish people, a form – if not the premiere example – of “doing justice.” This again contrasts with the Western view of justice, which can be abstract and often cruel in its merciless enforcement of the letter of the law. So long as due process is followed, we reason, true justice has been done no matter what the verdict. For God, as much as for Israel, justice, mercy, and righteousness are all caught up in one another. Schofield writes,

In justice, there was more mercy than we recognize, and in righteousness, justice and mercy were not opposed terms. So strong was this element of mercy or benevolence in “righteousness” that in later Hebrew the word becomes the usual term for almsgiving (cf. Matt. 6:11) – that is, for gifts to needy members of the group, which cannot be legally demanded, but are an obligation,” (Schofield, “‘Righteousness’ in the Old Testament,” 115).

The reason for the close connection between care for the poor and true righteousness is because these words are all highly relational, rather than legal and abstract as we understand them in our Western sense. Gossai notes that in order for one “to be saddiq [righteous], it means that of necessity he or she must exist and live in a manner which allows him or her to respond correctly to the values of the relationship,” meaning that “right judging, right governing, right worhshipping and gracious activity are all covenantal and righteous,” (Gossai, Justice, 55-56).

The other term used is spt, the verb of which (sapat) refers to judicial activity. Wright notes that “in its widest sense, it means ‘to put things right’, to intervene in a situation that is wrong, oppressive, or out of control and to ‘fix’ it. This may include confronting wrongdoers, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, vindicating and delivering those who have been wronged,” (Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 256). The other root, mispat, refers to

what needs to be done in a given situation if people and circumstances are to be restored to conformity with sedeq/sedaqa [righteousness]. Mispat is a qualitative set of actions – something you do. ‘As it is frequently used in biblical texts justice is a call for action more than a principle of evaluation. Justice as an appeal for a response means taking upon oneself the cause of those who are weak in their own defense [cf. Isa. 58:6; Job. 29:16; Jer. 21:12],’ (Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 257).

That is, to judge with justice in the Biblical sense, one is obligated to take up the cause (or be on the side of) those who cannot defend themselves. The “just” judge in Scripture is the one who takes proactive steps to aid those who cannot defend themselves and right the balances, “put things to right,” and this out of covenant loyalty and love.

To be a righteous judge, Scripturally speaking, one must be an activist judge, helping those who cannot defend themselves. God’s balanced scale and disregard of station in dispensing justice is to actively be on the side of the defenseless out of His covenantal love toward them. His disregard for persons is always primarily about discarding the trappings of power and influence of the rich. Certainly the law says a judge should not regard a poor man as much as a rich, but this does not undercut the central point. All it means is that if a poor man is truly guilty of a crime, he must be convicted of it. But most of the time God’s neutrality and righteousness is in refusing to be manipulated or cajoled by the power and wealth of the rich.

Conservative Christians pride themselves on resisting “judicial activism” in our national and state elections in our law courts. They claim to want merely “constitutional judges,” those who just read the document and apply what it says across the board without bias. This is a Western view of law, not a Biblical one. While there are abuses on the part of judicial activists that we must resist and be aware of, they are at least conscious of the fact that a righteous judge must redress balances and have mercy and compassion on those who cannot defend themselves or are not granted full legal protections under the law as they ought to be. God’s neutrality is actually biased, the bias of His own sedeq/sedaqa [righteousness], which He will preserve by way of mispat [justice – ‘putting the world to rights’].

Sabbath and Jubilee

As I return to the Scriptures again and again, one thing continues to impress itself upon me. Jubilee. In the circles I grew up around, nobody ever talked about the Jubilee. Part of this could have been cultural. In the 80s and 90s, almost nobody talked much about the Old Testament save for the bits which clearly prophesied about Jesus and the stories themselves; David, Samson, Elijah, Jeremiah, Moses, Joshua, all of it disjointed and out of order (God help you if you asked whether Abraham or Moses came first).

But the more I study the Old Testament, and especially the law – those supposedly boring and dry bits of the Old Testament found in Leviticus and Numbers and Exodus 21-23, all of which is handled dutifully with nose pinched between thumb and forefinger, and which we all naturally assume was abusive and barbaric – the more I find that you can’t understand anything God is doing in the Bible without understanding the Jubilee.

I’ll give you an example.

The exodus event was the foundational event for Israel. Release and deliverance from slavery in Egypt becomes a formative experience for God’s people, an event that is picked up by later biblical authors and becomes one of the central typological pictures in the rest of the Bible. God’s stated intention to deliver Israel from her labor before the Egyptian whips (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:8; 6:6) becomes the basis for Israel’s law-code (Ex. 20:2). That is, the whole sum of the law is borne from remembering God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery. The love of God and neighbor which Jesus tells us is the sum of the law is summed up in Jubilee.

For this reason, special care was given to the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the oppressed, the slave, the foreigner  and the laborer. We don’t have time in this post to get into the details of all the laws about these different classes of peoples, but suffice it for now to say that even at its harshest, the OT law is far kinder to these people than any of the surrounding nations at the time.

The Sabbath Day

In particular, the exodus becomes the core of the Sabbath observance.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex. 20:8-11).

We automatically think of this in individual, private terms concerning religious observance. And that aspect has much truth to it. But it ignores the other half of the passage, which is that it not just for you, but for your children, your bondservants (slaves), your animals and the stranger and non-citizen. When we ask why God made the Sabbath day, the answer is not primarily “So that we can go to church” or even “so we might worship God.” (Though, again, those things are vital.) Reading the text closely, we see that it is so the cycle of endless work might be broken so that the laborer, the slave, the creation, and the stranger and non-citizen might find rest and relief from their labor.

This reading becomes even clearer when we see for what purpose the Sabbath is declared at the end of the law, and elsewhere in the law.

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. (Ex. 23:12)

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5:12-15)

The Sabbath Year

Following the Sabbath Day observance was the Sabbath year observance, which is presented as a year-long Sabbath Day. What is the purpose of this sabbath year? To allow the creation to rest, and for the poor and the animals to eat and find rest.

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. (Ex. 23:10-11).

Though it is too long to quote in its entirety here, Deut. 15:1-18 expands this summary of the Sabbath Year by announcing the remission of debt (Deut. 15:1-6). The express reason for this remission of debt is so that “there will be no poor among you,” (Deut. 15:4). God also commands Israel to give generously to any who have become poor (Deut. 15:7-11). Any Hebrew slave must be released, and not empty handed, but given a generous amount of supplies for his life of freedom (Deut. 15:12-18), because “you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today,” (Deut. 15:15).

The Year of Jubilee

Finally, the Jubilee year is presented to us as an even-larger picture of the weekly Sabbath rest, and a super-sized Sabbath-year release. It takes place every fifty years, or the seventh seven year cycle, or a week of years, falling on the Sabbath day of that week of years.

The purpose of the Jubilee is the same as that of the Sabbath rest and Sabbath year:

in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food. (Lev. 25:4-7).

Once again, the purpose of the Jubilee is to provide rest and release for the creation and the laborers, that they might find comfort and freedom. It includes the restoration of property (Lev. 25:23-34), generosity to the poor (Lev. 25:35-46), and the slaves set free (Lev. 25:47-54). Though some have claimed the Jubilee does not include the cancellation of debts, it is clearly an increase and intensification of  the Sabbath day and Sabbath year releases, and therefore includes all their requirements, which includes the remission of debt (Deut. 15:1-6).

All of this is communal and economic in nature, and the attempts to spiritualize or hand-wave those implications away is nothing more than special pleading.

Jesus and Jubilee

When Jesus begins his earthly ministry, He does so by announcing the “year of Yahweh’s favor,” (Luke 4:16-21), a passage that comes from Isaiah 61, which declares the coming eschatological Jubilee when the Kingdom is finally established. Jesus says that Isaiah 61’s promise is fulfilled at His coming, in the time of His hearer’s (Luke 4:21). The eschatological Jubilee had arrived in the first century. The Kingdom is characterized as the fulfillment of Jubilee, and not a metaphorical or spiritual Jubilee, but an actual, eternal Jubilee that began in the first century and will continue until the final coming of Christ. Christian life, the life of the Church, is to be characterized by Jubilee living. Every day is a Jubilee day, every year a Jubilee year, in the Kingdom and among the Church. Driving this point home a bit further, we recall that the Jubilee year was announced by the blowing of the trumpets after the High Priest offered atonement for Israel on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9-10); Jesus’ death on the cross was, of course, the fulfillment of the shadows of the OT day of atonement, the reality to which it pointed. Jesus’ death and resurrection ushers us into this eschatological Jubilee, His death breaking the bonds not only of death, but of oppression and slavery and abuse forever.

When the Spirit finally moves upon the apostles and creates the Church in Acts 2, a significant gift which He brings is this Jubilee living to the first church in Jerusalem:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37).

This is Jubilee living, and it soon spread as the apostles carried the gospel out into the other cities and towns and the Spirit constituted the Church in those places. Paul even tells us,

We want you to know, brothers,[a] about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. … For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.'” (2 Cor. 8:1-5, 12-15).

The Heart of the Law

In Jesus’ climactic confrontation with the Pharisees, He tells them this:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt. 23:23-24)

We tend to think of the Pharisees as legal sticklers, demanding precise observance of the OT law. Nothing is further from the truth. The Pharisees had invented their own observances which they did in replacement of the requirements of the actual OT law. They used these invented observances to get around having to obey the law, all the while pretending to be righteous and faithful and holy people.

Jesus’ point: you can’t pay homage to the law or observe part of it (the ritual purity and worship parts) while ignoring the point of the law (justice, mercy, and faithfulness). The Pharisees were good at the purity laws; they were so concerned with purity they had added to God’s own requirements for religious purity and made the law a yoke for the people, using their legalistic obligations as a way to cheat and oppress the people of God.

I believe Jesus is talking about the Jubilee here. The Pharisees nitpicked about religious purity and holiness, but neglected the weighty matters of the law, the heart of the law, which Jesus has said is to love God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40). All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Matt. 22:40).

As we have seen, in the Jubilee, the core of the law is revealed. The law’s care for the slave and the poor and the oppressed comes because Israel was the slave, the poor and the oppressed in Egypt, and God’s concern is that they not turn into the sort of people they cried out against for deliverance. The purpose of the Sabbath was to love God in worship, and love one’s neighbor by caring for the poor, the oppressed, the slave, and the broken, by declaring them free, sending them out, giving generously to them, and allowing the laborer and the creation to find rest from their labors.

Insofar as we resist the truth of the Jubilee as the heart of the law and its implications for how we live today, how can we claim to be any different than the Pharisees?

Inspiration and Incarnation (2)

As I continue to read Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament), it occurs to me that he has allowed two key terms to go totally undefined and undiscussed which must be carefully defined before any meaningful progress on Genesis 1-11 can move forward.

1. The meaning of “myth.” Enns correctly points out that the popular connotation of “myth” is “something that isn’t true,” when many scholars use it in the more technical sense of “a foundational story which defined the praxis of a culture or nation.” This is helpful progress, but he does not discuss the manifold understandings of myth and what each dimension might mean when brought into contact with the narratives of early Genesis. A simple consultation of Myth: A Very Short Introduction displays over seven schools of thought on what ancient mythology was. No engagement of this sort is even attempted by him. This does not even include the understanding of myth given by literary critic Northrop Frye or famed scholar Rene Girard, both of which shed a great deal of light on how Genesis both participates in and is distinguished from myth in the wider sense.

2. The meaning of “history.” This subject he does not even breach in his book (thus far, and it seems unlikely that he will). Even a cursory glance at a dictionary will give many different definitions of history. He does not deal with the fact that most of the scholars who tell us that we can’t bring a modern viewpoint with us when we come to ancient texts like Genesis are themselves actually dependent on modernist categories of “myth” and “history.” The highly modernist views of Comte and Hegel were influential in the founding of the JEPD Hypothesis and the later form-critical method, and in the last fifty years the neo-Kantian split of “secular history” and “existential meaning” or “theological history” has been predominant in the assumptions of many scholars. The whole narrative of the development of religion from loose polytheism to monotheism and priesthoods is rooted in a Darwinian view of historical development from less to more complex. He does not discuss the fact that hermeneutical scholars actually know that, at least when it came to Hebraic understandings of their own Scriptures (typology), there was considered to be an essential unity between event and meaning. That an event was presented with theological meaning intact was a sign that the proper interpretation was being linked to the very real event it was intended to communicate and interpret. Beginning with the sacramental conflicts of the Middle Ages these two things, fact and meaning, began to be seen as separate categories, a division finalized by Spinoza during the Enlightenment.

Enns includes no examination of principles at all in this regard and how they might influence his reading. I think this is a pity, because they would greatly assist the discussion.

Inspiration and Incarnation (1)

Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament) writes primarily out of a noble concern: how does our growing knowledge of the Ancient Near East (ANE) impact how we look at the Bible and how can we preserve an understanding of the Bible as the word of God?

He is in particular concerned to address three questions that our knowledge of the ANE now presents us with:

1. Given that there are ancient pagan myths which share certain similarities to the OT, in what sense is the Bible still unique? What makes it special, that we listen to it as the Word of God, in contrast with these other documents?

2. Given that there appear to be disharmonious elements in the OT, in what sense can we say that the Bible has integrity? How can it be following a unified narrative when it seems to teach different things in different places?

3. Given that the NT writers seems to use the OT randomly and take it out of context to suit their own purposes, how does this impact our interpretation of the OT?

I am only neck-deep in chapter one yet, which has been interesting and compelling. I wholeheartedly endorse his effort to preserve the Bible as God’s Word, and think his “incarnational analogy” (on which more later) is perfectly square on the money. Yet his methodological approach leaves much to be desired, an approach which I would disagree with on a fairly wide margin. So I like his conclusion, but strongly take issue with the route he has chosen to get there as unnecessary and unhelpfully muddling the issue of the OT.

Once again, it is our foundational presuppositions which Enns refuses to analyze. I say “our,” but I really mean “his own.” He is presenting a certain, late scholarly tradition as though it presented “brute facts” to which we must now “face up.” It seems to me this sort of behavior is exactly what he accuses unbelieving liberal and fundamentalist/conservative scholars as exhibiting. Enns refuses (so far) to admit that his reading is a reading, itself an interpretation of which there are several strong competitors. Given how little we still know about the ANE, there is no more evidence for a late-Babylonian-Exile era of writing for the OT as there is for a reading which favors that God gave it to them at the time of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt or during the time of the Exodus.

What is ultimately frustrating about his approach is that it appears slightly disingenuous. That is to say, he presents is with difficulties and offers his solution to them. That is fine. But he doesn’t offer them as “his” solutions. He presents them as the only solutions. In fact, he presents them in such a way as to imply that the problem itself demands his solution as though by sheer virtue of pointing out that there are other ANE texts which have certain similarities to Biblical narratives, his answer of how those are to be understood must of necessity be correct. But I don’t know of anyone who is now unaware that there are certain pagan parallels to Biblical literature or difficult passages to reconcile in the OT. Yet he presents these things as if they were remarkable claims. Further, his answers are dependent upon a certain reading of the text, a reading that has its own problems. He doesn’t even suggest there could be other readings that might make equal sense of the text in a totally different way. Which is why I say that my key difficulty with him will be methodological and not directed toward what he’s ultimately trying to get at.

I hope to continue interacting with Enns’ book here. As I say, I’m only midway through chapter one.