Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Structure of Romans

The Structure of Romans

Romans: Letter or Letter-Essay?

The Structure of Romans by Paul B. Fowler is available at Fortress Press and Amazon USA / UK
The Structure of Romans by Paul B. Fowler is available at Fortress Press and Amazon USA / UK

Once in awhile a book comes along that revolutionizes your understanding of a particular subject. Such is the case with The Structure of Romans by Paul B. Fowler. Fowler’s thesis is that Romans is a letter, not a letter-essay as is commonly assumed. The difference lies in the interactive nature of the correspondence. Simply put, a letter-essay is an essay framed as a letter. While the outer material may interact with the readers circumstances (chs. 1 and 15-16), the body of the material is believed to conform to ancient rules of rhetoric which often are less interactive with the reader. The effect of such rhetoric resembles an essay more than a letter.

An example of such rhetoric is the use of diatribe. Diatribe involves an author arguing with an imaginary questioner (interlocutor). The purpose is to convince or instruct the listener through argumentation. Most commentators on Romans believe that Paul used this rhetorical method. Fowler states, “Whether he [Paul] used a diatribal style at times is not at issue. He did. But to what degree does his style conform to its use in Hellenism? (p. 101). Fowler notes that, “Objections focus on opponents and create a tone of tension and argumentation, intended or not” (p. 114). He believes that Paul is using a question-and-answer method. The questions interact directly with his audience and guide the flow of the letter. Thus, Paul is not engaging an imaginary objector, but directly addressing his audience. Fowler contends, “We are caught up in the idea that. . .diatribal rhetoric. . . serves only to defend Paul’s gospel against an imaginary Jewish objector. Quite the opposite is the case. The question-and-answer in Paul, rather than answering criticisms, is providing answers; rather than confronting an imaginary interlocutor, the question-and-answer is informing and exhorting believers” (pp. 113-114).

The Structure of Romans: Purposes and Content

The following presents the big picture of The Structure of Romans. Fowler begins by giving 7 purposes for his book.

  1. To provide a fresh look at Romans and help those studying it to understand its nature.
  2. Pulling together arguments which demonstrate that Romans is a letter addressing major circumstances in Rome.
  3. Challenging the consensus that Romans is a letter-essay.
  4. Correcting misunderstandings about Paul’s use of the question-and-answer method employed in Romans. The understanding that Paul is using diatribe to debate objections is wrong. Such an approach leads to viewing Romans more as a theological argument rather than an interactive discourse.
  5. Paul is not debating Jews in Romans (i.e., the imaginary Jewish objector).
  6. Paul is primarily addressing circumstances in Rome. In particular, he is addressing the division between Jewish and Gentile believers.
  7. The letter’s rhetoric and grammar is essential for interpretation. It is the key to the organization of the letter. (the above purposes are found on pp. vii-ix).

Fowler organizes the content of his book as follows:

Chapter 1, Assumptions of This Study–Fowler’s thesis is: “Romans is a carefully constructed letter from Paul to the church in Rome, written to address a specific set of circumstances in Rome” (p. 1). He begins by addressing the purposes of Romans. He deals with what he considers to be false assumptions and concludes that there was a two-fold purpose for Romans: 1) To secure a mission base (for a future trip to Spain); and 2) to deal with issues involving Jews and gentiles in the Roman church. Fowler then deals with the audience of Romans. Although the letter is addressed to both Jew and gentile, its primary focus is to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles” (Rom. 1:5).

Chapter 2, The Structure of Romans–This helpful chapter looks at the outlines of other major Romans commentators. Fowler points out that most of these outlines of Romans are thematic. Even those commentators who stress the importance of ancient rhetoric use the same basic thematic outline and simply plug in ancient rhetorical terms (e.g., exordium or propositio). Fowler argues that if Romans is a letter “there will of necessity be interaction with” the readers (p.29). The thematic approach fails in this regard as it approaches the body of Romans like an essay.

Chapter 3, The Rhetoric of Romans–By examining various rhetorical features, Fowler demonstrates that the body of Romans is filled with more epistolary features than is normally recognized. He argues that it is important to pay attention the questions and grammar of Romans in order to determine its structure. Since Romans was primarily “heard” by its initial audience, it is the questions and grammar that guide the hearers through the letter.

Chapter 4, The Surface Structure of Romans–According to Fowler’s count, there are eighty-two specific questions in Romans (p. 55). By examining the function and purpose of these questions, he presents the reader with a skeletal outline of Romans. He contends that the key set of questions which introduces the body of the letter are found in Romans 3:1-9a. He argues that these questions are not a digression, as some commentators view them, but rather set the table for the body of the letter. which ends with chapter 11. The questions in 3:1-9a are answered in reverse order forming a chiasm around chapters 3-11. I will not “spill the beans” here by giving his outline. I suggest purchasing the book for this and other details.

Chapter 5, Issues to Be Resolved–This chapter deals with 3 main issues. Fowler discusses the relationship of Romans 5 with the surrounding material. Many connect Romans 5 with chapters 6-8, seeing an inclusio between Romans 5:1-11 and Romans 8. Fowler agrees with a minority of modern commentators in seeing chapter 5 as a continuation of chapters 1-4. His argument is based on linguistic and grammatical grounds. He contends that the transition to the next segment of the letter occurs in 5:19-20. Next, he tackles the issue of diatribe with which I began this post. This is followed by the closely related topic of whether Paul is debating the Jews in Romans (the imaginary interlocutor).

Chapter 6, The Circumstances of Romans–Here Fowler draws together all the historical background related to Romans. His discussion is similar to that found in many commentaries. He notes the Jewish expulsion from Rome due to the dispute over “Chrestus,” as well as the socialogical factors contributing to Jew/gentile hostility. While there is nothing new here, this chapter is helpful in two ways.  First, it draws together the background information into one clear and succinct chapter. Second, Fowler does an excellent job emphasizing gentile hostility toward Jews. This is important for his thesis which involves admonishing gentile Christians for their arrogance toward their Jewish brothers and sisters. Although other commentaries note this hostility, Fowler’s treatment is especially clear and enlightening. Fowler also believes that persecution (previous, present, and future) is an important ingredient in understanding the historical situation of the Roman churches. He takes Paul’s words in Romans 8:18-39 as suggestive of persecution, not simply sickness and other life difficulties. This observation also includes Romans 5:1-11 and 12:17-13:14.

Chapter 7, The Coherence of Romans–In this final chapter, Fowler brings everything together and presents a complete outline of Romans. In this chapter, Fowler explains how Romans 1-2 function as the introduction to the letter. He also notes that the ending exhortations are particularly applicable to the circumstances in Rome. In other words, the exhortations in Romans 12:1-15:13 are not general, as some have suggested. In conclusion Fowler reiterates that Romans was a letter and the questions are not a diatribe to “transform” students or “answer” Jewish critics. Instead, the questions serve “to guide the narrative and to point to the issues  that were driving the narrative” (p. 186). The main question of Romans is “What advantage has the Jew?” Fowler concludes by stating, “If one really wants to know the answer to that question, then read Romans!” (p. 187).

Appendixes–Finally, The Structure of Romans concludes with 4 helpful appendixes. These include: “Epistolary Formulas within the Body of the Letter”; “Rhetorical Devices in Romans”; “The Question-and-Answer of Romans 3:27-31”; and “The Question-and-Answer of Romans 3:1-9”.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Fowler confesses that his approach is not new and that he has relied heavily on others, especially William Campbell (p. 85). It’s somewhat comforting to know that Fowler is not coming up with a completely new way of looking at Romans. One always has to wonder about the legitimacy of an approach that no one else in 2000 years of scholarship has recognized.

Nonetheless, Fowler’s view is certainly not the approach of the majority. A few features definitely divert from the norm. For example, Fowler argues that Romans 1:8-18 composes a section. Normally, 1:16-17 are set apart as the theme (or propositio) of the letter while verse 18 is seen as the beginning of the next section (1:18-32). Fowler argues convincingly, from a close inspection of the grammar, that 1:13-18 is the propositio and verse 19 begins the next section. I have already mentioned that he connects chapter 5 with chapters 1-4, which is a minority position among recent scholars. Once again, grammar guides his decision. The most significant difference of course is Fowler’s insistence that Romans 3:1-9a operates as a guide for the rest of the letter. Most would not consent to breaking up 1:18-3:20 as a major section. These are all excellent examples of how Fowler avoids the usual thematic approach.

I find Fowler’s overall structure convincing. For one thing, it solves the nagging problem of 3:1-9a and trying to determine its purpose. In my teaching of Romans I have frequently noted how Paul seems to return to previous discussions. Fowler’s chiastic outline not only  makes sense of this repetition, it reveals Paul’s purposeful structuring so that his hearers could follow his reasoning.

The Structure of Romans is most suited for one who has spent time studying Romans. The more familiar one is with the background, themes and rhetoric of Romans, the more one will appreciate Fowler’s insights (even if you disagree!). I highly recommend The Structure of Romans and it will certainly impact my teaching of the Epistle to the Romans in the future.

Thanks to Fortress Press for sending a copy of The Structure of Romans, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Structure of Romans is available at Fortress Press, Amazon USA / UK, and other outlets.

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel
Available at

The 1&2 Samuel Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) is the final work of beloved and renowned scholar Harry A. Hoffner Jr. Hoffner, before his recent death in March 2015, was John A. Wilson Professor of Hittitology Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He was an expert on the ancient Near East and, as the above title suggests, specialized in the language, history and civilization of the Hittite empire. One of his greatest achievements was co-editing The Hittite Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Hoffner’s ancient Near Eastern expertise is one of the great strengths of the Evangelical Exegetical Commenatry on 1&2 Samuel. Nearly every page offers some parallel or insight from his extensive knowledge of Hittite, and ancient Mesopotamian literature. Such a statement might frighten off those less experienced in the study of the Old Testament, and indeed, it is not a commentary for beginners. However, the pastor, the graduate student, the professor, and the more advanced learner will benefit greatly from Hoffner’s exposition. Knowledge of Hebrew is presupposed as the commentary utilizes Hebrew in both its normal alphabetic and transliterated forms.

Before commenting further on Hoffner’s commentary on 1&2 Samuel, let me share the purpose behind the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series in the words of its creators. “The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary is a brand new, 44-volume commentary series which incorporates the latest critical biblical scholarship and is written from a distinctly evangelical perspective. Published by Lexham Press, the EEC is the next standard commentary on the entire Bible for evangelicals. . . .The publication of the EEC by Lexham Press marks the first time a major Bible commentary series has been published in digital form before its print counterpart—and the first time it has been published with a digital format in mind.” The purpose behind the creation of a digital commentary, in the words of one of the editors of the series H. Wayne House, is so that a commentary can be easily updated. If a new understanding of a word is discovered or some new archaeological information comes to light, it can be added immediately. This is indeed an extremely attractive feature of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series! (For a short video explaining the nature and purpose of the series click HERE).

The Introduction to the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Author of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Harry A. Hoffner, Jr.
Author of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Harry A. Hoffner, Jr.

The editors of the ECC have apparently put no restrictions on commentary length (another plus of a digital edition!) and Hoffner takes advantage of this by producing a voluminous commentary. Logos has yet to add page numbers to this particular volume (which makes citation challenging!) and so I can only hazard a guess on its size. It is certainly well over 1,000 pages, but how far over I can not tell. With no space limitations, Hoffner begins the commentary by launching into a thorough and lengthy Introduction. The Introduction includes the usual topics of title, authorship, date, historical context and scope, and structure, but it includes much more. Some of the other areas addressed (and there are too many to name them all) include genre, theme, sources, literary analysis (including a lengthy section that summarizes and evaluates many of the characters of 1&2 Samuel), and extrabiblical parallels (which, given Hoffner’s expertise, comes as no surprise).

There are two things that I would like to note from this introductory material that bear on a commentator’s interpretation of 1&2 Samuel. First, Hoffner is not a fan of using the term “Deuteronomistic History,” to describe the books of Joshua-Kings, noting that such language overlooks the many parallels and allusions to the other books of the Torah (Genesis-Numbers) found throughout Joshua-Kings. While he believes that much of the material regarding David and Saul could have been written and preserved in the palace archives, he has no difficulty in seeing a final author or editor putting 1&2 Samuel in its final form during the exilic period. Rather than state firm conclusions on this matter, Hoffner is content to make general observations. Second, Hoffner is not a fan of “the hermeneutic of suspicion.” In his comments on the characterization of Abner and how scholars frequently conclude that David was responsible for Abner’s death, Hoffner remarks, “Typical of this “Damned if you do—damned if you don’t” hermeneutic of suspicion is Paul Ash’s statement: “Although the text does not implicate David in Abner’s murder, some scholars believe that he may have ordered it since 2 Samuel tries so hard to say otherwise.” Obviously, the narrator denies David’s complicity in order to dispel rumors to the contrary—rumors spread by David’s Saulide opponents. Should not the text record this?” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 2015. 1 & 2 Samuel. H. W. House & W. Barrick, Eds. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press). Later on in his exposition of 2 Samuel 12:22-23, he takes another stab at the skeptics when he writes, “In the end, as is often the case, the scenarios of skeptics require more leaps of faith than belief in the tooth fairy. If one is permitted to simply ignore large chunks of the tradition and make up others, one can “prove” anything! . . . .We are wise not to second-guess the text.” Any who have read my reviews on 1&2 Samuel commentaries are aware of my own disdain for the hermeneutic of suspicion. I couldn’t be more pleased with these comments by Hoffner because they demonstrate that he takes the text seriously.

The Layout of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Sample page from the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel
Sample page from the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Hoffner breaks the commentary down into literary sections. Each section begins with an overall summary and introduction. This is followed by a more detailed outline of the section which provides the basis for the verse-by-verse commentary. A bibliography accompanies the detailed outline and is then followed by the Hebrew text itself with Hoffner’s accompanying notes on the text. Since the Hebrew text is noticeably absent from the Esther volume in this series (although there are notes on the text), it appears that it is up to the authors to determine the format of their commentary, at least to some extent. Hoffner’s english translation follows the textual notes which then leads to the verse-by-verse exposition. There is always a short summary of the portion of the text under examination followed by a discussion of the verses themselves. The commentary is frequently punctuated with other features such as sections entitled: “Exegetical note,” or charts comparing features of the text, gray panels that set apart a special discussion (e.g., one on siege warfare at the beginning of 1 Sam. 11), and from time to time a concluding section entitled, “Application and Devotional Implications.” Following each smaller section of exposition is yet another bibliography. One of the strengths of this commentary is its prolific bibliography, which of course can be updated as new works appear. The screen shot above shows a sample page of the commentary in which you can see the selected bibliography, Hebrew text, and textual notes features.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Lexham Press is the publisher of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary Series
Lexham Press is the publisher of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary Series

Among the many strengths of this commentary, I have already noted Hoffner’s knowledge of the ancient Near East (besides the many parallels he introduces, I would also include his fresh translation of the Hebrew text), the bibliographic resources, the comprehensive nature of the commentary, and its update-ability. Although the commentary may not suit a novice, I am also impressed with the attention that Hoffner pays to character development in 1&2 Samuel and his attempts at sharing application and devotional thoughts. Some examples of his devotional application include his comment on 1 Samuel 24:7-8 (David’s men are encouraging him to kill Saul), where he notes that we should not interpret things in our favor when they violate God’s law. Another timely example (considering the upcoming US election) are Hoffner’s introductory comments on 2 Samuel 13:39-14:33. He states, “As readers, we are invited to consider the full weight of sin, to see the social and public consequences of David’s personal adultery and murder.” This dimension is often lost sight of when media arguments are made against considering the personal sins of leaders in political debates. It is unwise to keep the personal and the public lives of leaders separate” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, 2 Sa 13:39–14:33). These types of applicational interpretation will certainly be welcome material for a pastor or Bible-study leader. The fact that this commentary series is published by Lexham Press and is available on Logos is yet another bonus. The ability to quickly read Scripture references, or footnotes by simply hovering over them with the mouse, or to pull up other commentaries or Bible Dictionary articles referred to by the author which are automatically linked to the resources in your Logos library, are just some of the wonderful benefits available to Logos users. As with any book, you can highlight important comments, take notes, or paste quotes into a folder for future use. Logos users will be familiar with all of these advantages, and many others, which make study easier and more profitable.

The entire series of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary will consist of 44 volumes including both Old and New Testament. Many volumes are now available. See this link at

As with any commentary, there are going to be questions over particular interpretations. Some of my disagreements include the significance of Eli’s chair, which Hoffner sees as a sign of Eli’s old age, rather than (what I would interpret as) a clear allusion to royalty.  At times I quibble with his estimation of a character. For example, like many scholars Hoffner is aware of Joab’s brutality, but insists on his complete loyalty to David. I have written extensively elsewhere on my disagreement with this assessment of Joab (see Family Portraits, pp. 258-300). One shortcoming I note is that Hoffner sometimes seems reluctant to let the reader know where he stands on ambiguous or difficult passages. For example, he states that the longer text of 1 Samuel 11 (found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX) suggests “a long period of brutal oppression.” But his only comment is “if we accept the longer text.” There is no further discussion as to whether he accepts or rejects the longer text or what his reasons might be. The story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17) introduces an even more thorny textual issue (the LXX version is much shorter than MT) which Hoffner dismisses by stating that Chisholm has convinced him that the MT makes sense as it stands and is not hopelessly contradictory. Granted, not every textual issue can be discussed ad nauseam, but given the length of this commentary, and Hoffner’s expertise, it is surprising how frequently he opts for no discussion. Furthermore, he does not offer anything new on the interpretive difficulties of 1 Samuel 17:51-53, 55-58 and, in fact, dismisses these difficulties by simply stating, “There is no lack of competing explanations for what appears to be a jarring contradiction between this present passage and what has preceded” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Sa 17:55–58). Finally, once in awhile, Hoffner appears to contradict himself. For example, in 1 Samuel 13:3-4 Hoffner states that it is unlikely that Saul is stealing the glory from Jonathan by claiming victory over the Philistines. Yet in 1 Samuel 17:38 he states, “Previously, Saul had claimed some of the glory due to his son Jonathan’s courageous attack on the Philistine outpost.” Another example may be found in the commentary on 1 Samuel 25. In his introductory comments Hoffner disagrees with the theory of some that the Abigail mentioned here may be his sister by the same name. However, later (in the commentary on 25:3) he notes others who hold this view and quotes Youngblood at length. By not restating his disagreement with this view, one could get the impression he is agreeing.

The above may seem like quite a laundry list of “weaknesses” and yet, given the size of this volume, they are not serious threats to the value of this commentary. In fact, I have to admit I am being quite picky. For those desiring an in-depth look at the books of Samuel, Hoffner’s commentary offers plenty to chew on. The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel will be an indispensable resource for years to come for those who desire to delve deeply into the message of these books. I heartily recommend it for your library.

Purchase the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel at Logos/FaithLife

(Thanks to Logos for supplying a copy of this commentary in exchange for an unbiased review)

Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

maxresdefaultThe more I study Genesis, the more I am convinced that we often come to the Creation story (and other biblical texts) with the wrong questions. How one answers the question, “Are the seven days of Creation literal?”, can determine in some people’s minds whether a person is orthodox or not. To some it is a question of believing or not believing in the authority of the Bible. Perhaps “wrong” is too strong a word in my above statement. Given our 21st century mindset, and the Creation-Science debate, the question of whether Creation took place in seven days seems to be perfectly logical. My point is that we often fail to examine the presuppositions that lie behind some of the questions we ask. If we fail to examine the presuppositions behind our questions, we are in danger of bringing our own agenda to the biblical text and expecting answers that the text may not be addressing. In other words, since the age of Enlightenment we are predisposed to ask questions about the material origins of things. Where did this come from and how did it happen? These are perfectly good questions but we mustn’t assume that they are the same questions people in the ancient world would ask. I am of the mindset that we should first seek to understand what the Bible means in its ancient context. I have written elsewhere on the importance of biblical backgrounds and understanding the culture of the ancient world (see here. You can also click on “Bible backgrounds” for other articles). Just as most people need the ancient Hebrew translated into a modern language they can understand, so it is important to translate (as much as is possible based on our current state of knowledge) an understanding of ancient Near Eastern culture (the culture in which the Bible was birthed). Once we can determine the ancient context and what a story would have meant to the original audience, it becomes an easier task to see what it is saying to us today. After all, if we come with our own agenda and seek to place an artificial grid over the text through which it must be interpreted, we can make the Bible say anything we like. My purpose in this article is to first examine what Genesis 1 meant in its ancient Israelite (Near Eastern) context, and then to return to the question of whether Genesis is teaching that Creation took place in a literal 7-day period.

The Connection Between Creation Stories and Building Temples

Walton's book explores the connection between Creation and the Cosmos with Temples and their importance. His book is available at Amazon USA / UK and Logos/Faithlife.
Walton’s book explores the connection between Creation and the Cosmos with Temples and their importance. His book is available at Amazon USA / UK and Logos/Faithlife.

Ancient Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian literature all share the common trait of viewing the temples of their various gods as being the hub of the cosmos (the world as they knew it). John Walton states, “Throughout the ancient world, the temple was a significant part of the cosmic landscape. It was considered to be at the center of the cosmos, the place from which the cosmos was controlled, and a small model of the cosmos—a microcosm” (Walton, J. H. (2011). Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (p. 100). Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns). The building of ancient temples are described in cosmic terms with their tops in the heavens and their roots in the world below (the netherworld). Temples were viewed as the foundation of the cosmos and the bond that held everything together. Temples were pictured as sources of life-giving water and thus were providers of the fertility of the land. From the temple the god controlled the fertility of the land. Most importantly for our purposes here Walton notes that, “The interrelationship between cosmos and temple is also evidenced by the fact that accounts of origins often include accounts of temple building, with temple building at times being at the climax of the origin account or even serving as the purpose for creation” (Walton, J. H., Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology p. 107). Walton not only makes these observations, but gives plenty of evidence by quoting from ancient sources. Check out his book if you’re interested in reading the actual sources. Another way of summing up the importance of the connection between creation and temple building is the quote cited by Walton from Coote and Ord which states,  “The temple is the focal point of creation in nearly every account available to us“(p. 107, emphasis mine).

Temples, Resting, and 7 Days

Stories about Creation have connections with stories about building temples. This not only includes pagan temples, but the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon as well.
Stories about Creation have connections with stories about building temples. This not only includes pagan temples, but the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon as well.

Two other features are significant regarding the temples in the ancient world. First a temple is the resting place of the god. Although rest can imply different things since ancient gods had many human qualities, most importantly rest communicates the concept of rule. As when a god rests on his throne in the temple. This is not for the purpose of taking a nap, but for ruling. The other significant feature is that several accounts of ancient temple building relate it to a seven day inauguration period at the end of which the god comes to dwell in the temple.

To this point we have noted connections between Creation and temple building and the concepts of rest (meaning rule) and seven days. However, all of this has been in reference to literature of the ancient Near East. The evidence referred to is not to say that the Bible has borrowed from the Creation myths or temple building stories of the nations around them, as much as it is to note that these things are part of the culture of the times. These ideas are in the “atmosphere” of the ancient world and as such Israel partakes of similar ideas (though distinct in other ways). This is where some, especially those who think of themselves as Bible fundamentalists, become uncomfortable. Before moving to the biblical evidence (which will hopefully satisfy those who are skeptical), I think it’s important to take a short rabbit trail and talk about the importance of understanding another culture.

Although people today have different beliefs about various things, they share certain cultural language and understandings. If I say I have taken a flight from Paris to Atlanta, everyone knows that I booked a flight on an airline and flew in a plane to Atlanta. I don’t have to explain myself in detail. I don’t have to mention that I had to go through a security check. Everyone knows that is part of the procedure. If I talk about my laptop or texting someone, or say I have taken a “selfie,” everyone knows what I mean without further explanation. However, if someone from the past could come and visit our 21st century culture (even from as short a time as 150 years ago), they would have no idea what I meant by any of these things. Our culture, our history, our language, would all need explaining. If I told someone from the past that I flew from Paris to Atlanta they might think I’m lying or claiming to be a god (because who can fly?), and they may not have any idea what Paris and Atlanta are. The same is true of the ancient world as we try and understand their culture and language. There are many concepts taken for granted because they were understood and didn’t need further explanation. Ancients understood the connection between Creation accounts and building temples. It was as much a part of their culture as selfies and laptops are a part of ours…no additional explanations were needed. This is why when we read Genesis 1:1-2:3 we do not automatically see that the Creation story is talking about God taking up residence in His temple. And if we preoccupy ourselves with questions from our own cultural standpoint (Are the seven days of Creation literal?), we will never hear the original message. We need “ears to hear” and it begins with understanding the culture and the signals that are in the language of the text that communicates its meaning.

The Ain Dara temple in Syria has many features similar to Solomon's temple.
The Ain Dara temple in Syria has many features similar to Solomon’s temple.

Before presenting the biblical side of this argument I’d like to illustrate what I have just stated above. God authorized Moses to build a tabernacle, a dwelling place that would symbolize His presence with His people (Exod. 25-27). We are told that the plans were given to Moses on the mount and he was to see that everything was made according to that pattern (Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5). Therefore the plan of the tabernacle came from God. When Solomon’s temple was constructed, it was built by following the plan of the tabernacle, except that it was twice as large. However, we know from Scripture that Solomon was aided by Hiram, King of Phoenecia, and his craftsmen (1 Kgs. 5:18; 1 Chron. 2:7). We also have evidence of temples built before the time of Solomon that resemble the plan of Solomon’s temple (see the picture at the left from Ain Dara). An article from Bible History Daily entitled “Searching for the Temple of King Solomon,” states, “the closest known parallel to the Temple of King Solomon is the ’Ain Dara temple in northern Syria. Nearly every aspect of the ’Ain Dara temple—its age, its size, its plan, its decoration—parallels the vivid description of the Temple of King Solomon in the Bible. In fact, Monson identified more than 30 architectural and decorative elements shared by the ’Ain Dara structure and the Jerusalem Temple described by the Biblical writers.” My point is that in some important ways, the Temple of Solomon was unique. However, in many other ways it resembled other temples that were part of the cultural heritage of the ancient Near East.  Similarly, the Creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is unique (and it certainly proclaims a very unique theology), however, it also shares commonalities with the culture of its time in the way the story is told.

The Bible and Creation, Temple Building, 7 Days, and Rest

Although this is a humorous picture, it is an excellent illustration of how modern ideas can confuse the biblical message. God's rest does not indicate He was tired, but that He began to rule!
Although this is a humorous picture, it is an excellent illustration of how modern ideas can confuse the biblical message. God’s rest does not indicate He was tired, but that He began to rule!

Although I admittedly went on a bit of a rabbit trail above, I hope I have demonstrated that it is important to consider evidence presented to us from the ancient Near East when seeking to understand the culture in which the Bible was written. What I would now like to demonstrate is that the Bible makes the same equation between Creation, temple building, seven days and rest. Isaiah 66:1 connects several of these ideas. In this verse, Heaven is said to be God’s throne, while the earth is His footstool. The next question concerns building God a temple: “Where is the house that you will build for Me?” In other words, if the heavens and the earth are God’s temple, how can He be contained in a building? The final question in this verse connects the idea of rest with a temple when God asks: “And where is the place of My rest?” The image of throne mentioned earlier in this verse helps us to understand that God’s rest involves his rule over Creation (the heavens and the earth). Psalm 132:7-8 speaks about God’s tabernacle, which is referred to as His “footstool” (just as the earth was called God’s footstool in Isa. 66:1). The psalm goes on to picture the ark of the covenant being taken up to be put in the tabernacle with the words, “Arise O Lord, to Your resting place.” Later in the psalm we learn that “The Lord has chosen Zion.” Zion is His dwelling place and God declares, “This is my resting place forever” (Ps. 132:13-14). These passages from Isaiah and Psalms clearly connect the ideas of God’s temple being His creation (heaven and earth), along with the tabernacle and temple which are only copies of the reality. These passages also assert that God rules from his Temple (that’s where His throne is) and it is His resting place.

We have still not mentioned how the idea of seven days fits in. Above, we noted that in other ancient Near Eastern accounts of temple building the time period of 7 days was significant for the inauguration of the temple and its occupation by deity. The same understanding can be found in the account of the building and consecrating of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6-8. In 1 Kings 6:38 were are told that it took Solomon seven years to build the Temple. In chapter 8, the Temple is inaugurated during the Feast of Booths which occurs in the seventh month. This feast, according to Deuteronomy 16:13-15 lasts seven days. Solomon actually extends the seven day feast for an additional seven days (1 Kgs. 8:65). Note the emphasis on temple building and the number seven in this passage: 7 years, the 7th month, a 7 day feast, followed by another 7 days.

When Genesis 1:1-2:3 relates that God created the world in seven days and then rested, what it is seeking to communicate is that God created the earth as His Temple. God’s desire is to dwell with human beings. That’s what a temple or tabernacle is all about. God’s rest on the seventh day means that He has taken up the task of ruling over what He has created. This truth is communicated very effectively by John Walton and N.T. Wright in a couple of short videos. Here are the links: John Walton: Interpreting the Creation Story; and NT Wright and Peter Enns: What Do You Mean By Literal?

Conclusion: So Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

After looking at the above argument and watching the video by NT Wright and Peter Enns, my hope is that we might rethink our question. My question would be, “Why does the inspired author structure the Creation story according to seven days?” One answer could be, “Because it really happened in seven days.” But based on the evidence presented here, we might say that a more important observation is what those seven days communicate. If the Creation story is seeking to tell us something about God’s desire to dwell and rule among his creation, that seems like a far more important truth than simply saying seven days means He created the world in seven days. The modern question and answer doesn’t leave us much to chew on. But the intent of the story in its original context gives us a lot to think about! The debate about whether the days of Creation in Genesis 1 are 24 hour days has good arguments both for and against. For example, the sun, moon, and stars are not created until Day 4 (Gen. 1:14-19). Since we are told they were created “for signs and seasons, and for days and years,” we might conclude that it is impossible to tell how long the first three days were. We measure days, months, and years by the sun and moon, so how do we know that days 1-3 were literal 24 hour days if there was no sun or moon? Another unusual feature of the Creation story is that every day ends with the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning.” Every day, that is, except day 7 which has no ending whatsoever. Now that’s a long day! This clearly suggests that the focus is not on a 24 hour period. However, the 24-hour-side might come back and point out that Israel is commanded to keep the Sabbath because, “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh” (Exod. 20:11). This now sounds like literal 24 hour days. More arguments can be mounted in favor of both positions. To me the sad point in all of this is while we argue which position is the correct one, or the most orthodox one, we are missing the true beauty of the Creation narrative and the real significance behind the meaning of the seven days! In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me whether God created the world in 7 literal 24 hour days or in a longer (or even shorter!) span of time. I want to know why He created this world,  and what Genesis 1:1-2:3 has to say to my life.

Symbolic Numbers in the Old Testament

Symbolic Numbers in the Bible

Is 7 and other numbers like 3, 10, or 40 purposely used as symbolic numbers by Old Testament writers?
Is 7 and other numbers like 3, 10, or 40 purposely used as symbolic numbers by Old Testament writers?

Does the number 3 represent the Trinity whenever it is found in Scripture? How about the number 40? Does it represent judgment because it conjures up images of the Flood (40 days and nights) or the Wilderness Wanderings (40 years)? Where do we get the notion that the number 7 represents completeness or perfection? These are important questions because we sometimes hear Bible teachers and preachers speak about biblical numbers with the assumption that particular numbers carry certain inherent ideas or meanings in them. In this article we will look at the question of whether the Bible contains symbolic numbers, and if so, how we determine their symbolic meaning. This post is the third in a series on biblical numerology (for the other two posts click here and here) and is mostly based on the insights of John J. Davis’s book of the same title.

Where Did Symbolic Numbers Originate From?

Biblical Numerology is available at Amazon USA / UK
Biblical Numerology is available at Amazon USA / UK

As Davis notes, “. . . nowhere in Scripture is any number given any specific theological or mystical meaning” (p. 119). Since we cannot turn to a passage in Scripture which states, “the number 3, or 10, means such and such,” it’s important to ask, “Where do these assigned meanings for numbers come from? Although there is some evidence of numerical symbolism among the ancient Mesopotamians, a true systematic treatment of numbers begins with the sixth century B.C. Greek philosopher Pythagoras.  Pythagoras developed this numerical mysticism in Greece and Italy and it then spread to Palestine (pp. 108-109). Thus Davis concludes that, “. . . the development of number symbolism and mysticism with regard to theological precepts must be traced to Pythagoras and not to the writers of the Old Testament” (p. 109). If Davis is correct, then we should not look for any numerical symbolism in the Old Testament. The one exception to this is the use of the number 7. Literature from Mesopotamia, as well as Ugarit, provide abundant evidence that the number 7 was used in a symbolic way to represent totality or completeness. The use of the number 7 and its multiples (e.g., 70) in the Old Testament seem to substantiate that this number did (at times) carry symbolic value in the Scripture. To cite two examples, the number 70 in relation to the Map of Nations in Genesis 10 and the descendants of Jacob in Genesis 46:26-27 is clearly not an exact literal number but seems to carry symbolic meaning (see any modern commentary on Genesis for a discussion of this matter).

Symbolic Numbers in the New Testament?

According to Davis, biblical numerology does not solve the mystery of the symbolic number 666.
According to Davis, biblical numerology does not solve the mystery of the symbolic number 666.

Davis notes that during the intertestamental period there was “a significant period in the development of symbolic numbers” (p. 109). He also notes evidence for this among various books of this period, as well as literature from Qumran. This being the case, it certainly opens the door to the question of whether symbolic numbers might be found in the New Testament. Davis remains conservative in his assessment, however, assigning only the use of the number 7 as symbolic. Although the number 666 in Revelation 13:18 is said to stand for the name of the Anti-christ, and thus many see this as evidence of Gematria, Davis remains cautious here noting the many unsuccessful attempts at identifying the Anti-christ. He is also skeptical about coming up with a meaning for the 153 fish in John 21:11, noting that there are at least eighteen different interpretations that have been offered for the meaning of this number (p. 147).

Although I am in large agreement with Davis regarding symbolic numbers, his conclusions seem overly conservative. The number 12 being an example that he overlooks.
Although I am in large agreement with Davis regarding symbolic numbers, his conclusions seem overly conservative. The number 12 being an example that he overlooks.

Davis’s study has gone a long way in convincing me of the arbitrariness of much of what is passed off as biblical numerology (see more on this below). Still, I wonder if his assessment is overly cautious. For example, he makes no mention of the number 12 and its possible symbolic significance. Are the number of elders around the throne mentioned in various passages in Revelation (Rev. 4:4, 6, 10; 19:4) an accidental combination of 12 + 12? One also wonders about the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 14:1ff. Although some interpret this number literally, the fact that this number includes a factor of 12 x 12 (x 1000) at least opens up the possibility that it is more than literal. There would also seem to be good biblical precedent for a symbolic meaning of the number 12 (the tribes of Israel, the apostles). Davis seems most comfortable with symbolic numbers being present in Apocalyptic literature, while he is much more cautious with other types of biblical literature. Again, the use of multiples of the number 12 in Revelation seem more than coincidental.

Where Does the Use of Numerical Symbolism in the Church Originate?

The influential theologian Augustine developed a system of meaning for certain numbers.
The influential theologian Augustine developed a system of meaning for certain numbers.

Finally we must ask, “Where do the interpretations of symbolic numbers, often considered infallible in the Church today, come from?” The short answer is, the Jews received it from the Greeks (the Hellenizing influence which was so prevalent from the 3rd century B.C. onwards). It was later adopted by Gnostic groups, and while the early church rejected gnostic teaching, many of the early Church Fathers were impressed with the value of numerology as an apologetic tool (p. 129). According to Davis, “It was Augustine who gave the final stamp of approval to number symbolism” (p. 113). On the Jewish side of things, the use of symbolic numbers became an important aspect to Medieval Kabbalistic literature (a feature inherited from the Talmudic and Midrashic literature–p. 115). Thus many of the interpretive schemes utilized today have their origins, not from Scripture, but from the Greeks, gnostics, and early Church Fathers. One could argue that the number 7 also takes its symbolic interpretation from Ancient Near Eastern literature,  not from Scripture. The difference is that the number 7 had this meaning within the cultural milieu in which the Bible was composed, whereas the New Testament writings were completed before the gnostic and early Church Fathers’ use of symbolic numbers. In other words, a common cultural understanding of the number 7 could have influenced the biblical writers of both Old and New Testaments, but such would not be the case with today’s symbolic interpretations that come from either gnostic, Church Fathers, or Kabbalistic interpretation.

How Reliable Are the Symbolic Interpretations of Numbers Today?

Books, such as this popular one by E.W. Bullinger, set forth interpretations of biblical numbers that are arbitrary.
Books, such as this popular one by E.W. Bullinger, set forth interpretations of biblical numbers that are arbitrary.

The first problem with the symbolic interpretations of biblical numbers is that no one seems to agree on their meaning. Davis gives the following example regarding the number 3. “J. Edwin Hartill, for example, says that three is the number of . . . union, approval, approbation, co-ordination, completeness, and perfection. He provides only thirty to forty proofs for this conclusion which is interesting in the [sic] light of the fact that the number three occurs over 450 times in the Bible. Terry, on the other hand, feels that the number means ‘Divine fulness in unity, the number of God.’ Lange, after study of the number, concludes that it signifies ‘Life, spirit, new life, resurrection, unclean spirits, etc.'” (p. 121). Not only does each author come up with their own understanding of the number 3 which differs from others, but even their own definitions include many different ideas. How is one to choose between all of the choices? (For further examples of this confused interpretation, see Davis’s charts on pp. 122-123).

A second problem, well illustrated by Davis, is the arbitrariness of the “facts” selected in “proving” various truths about the Bible. One example cited by Davis is the supposition that people who are really important, or ideas that are significant, occur in the Bible as multiples of the number 7. For example, the name Moses occurs 847 times in the Bible (7 x 121). To show the arbitrariness of this observation, Davis notes some other facts. Aaron’s name occurs 351 times in the Bible, since this is not a multiple of 7 does this mean Aaron is unimportant? The Canaanite god Baal occurs 63 times in the Bible (7 x 9) does this make him more important than others whose names are not mentioned as a multiple of 7? For example, Elijah’s name occurs 69 times, only 6 more than Baal and not a multiple of 7! (p. 138). Davis provides other examples demonstrating that it is the selectivity of the evidence that often provides the “stunning” results. He rightly concludes, “There is no objective basis for controlling this methodology. The interpreter selects his words, and the combinations of numbers that he wishes” (pp. 148-149). If one observation doesn’t reveal the hoped for result, it is ignored or the data is slightly adjusted, as for example, if the numbers don’t add up, but the “neighboring numbers” do, then this is considered further proof for the interpretation being set forth. As Davis notes, anything can be proven with such subjectivity. One humorous example points out that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. This must be Divine happenstance because, after all, there are two 7s in this number, plus the other numbers 6+1 add up to a third 7!

Conclusion: Symbolic Numbers in the Bible

There is much to learn from Davis’s book Biblical Numerology. He presents important information concerning where our current interpretations of biblical numbers derive from. He also demonstrates the contradictory nature of many so-called numerical systems. Rather than unlocking some secret key to biblical interpretation, they are built on suppositions, selected “facts,” and outright misinterpretations.

However, this is not to say that there is no use of symbolic numbers in the Bible. Davis presents clear evidence for the use of the number 7 as symbolic. I would add that Davis is a little over cautious and suggest that the number 12 is also (at times) used symbolically in the Scripture. The same may be true of other numbers, but it is important to substantiate any symbolic use by both cultural and biblical context. There should be clear evidence within the cultural world of the biblical author that a number was used in a symbolic way, and there should be evidence within the context of the biblical passage itself that a symbolic usage is being employed.

Large Numbers in the Old Testament

Large Numbers in the Old Testament

Biblical Numerology is available at Amazon USA / UK
Biblical Numerology is available at Amazon USA / UK

The use of numbers in the Bible is both fascinating and problematical. In the first post of this series “Biblical Numbers or Numerology,” we examined John J. Davis’s book Biblical Numerology and learned how biblical numbers were written and what can be learned from this observation. Another important issue concerns the use of large numbers in the Old Testament. For some, the numbers found in the account of the Exodus, or certain battle accounts or census figures, seem impossibly high. David M. Fouts summarizes the problem like this: “The presence of enormous numbers in the military accounts of the Historical Books has been considered by some as a serious threat to the veracity of those accounts” (Fouts, D. M. (2005). Numbers, Large Numbers. In B. T. Arnold & H. G. M. Williamson (Eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: historical books (p. 750). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). Do the large numbers in the Old Testament render those accounts untrustworthy, as some scholars claim? If not (and I fall into this camp), how are we to understand these large numbers? Should we take them literally, or is there another way that the ancients intended them to be understood? This post will examine these questions using the insights provided by Davis and Fouts.

Surveying Some Problem Passages Involving Large Numbers in the Old Testament

Fouts's article on large numbers in the Old Testament can be found in The IVP Dictionary of Old Testament Historical Books.
Fouts’s article on large numbers in the Old Testament can be found in The IVP Dictionary of Old Testament Historical Books.

The following is a sample of problem passages in the Old Testament due to the size of the numbers involved:

  1. The ages of the antediluvian (preflood) patriarchs in Genesis 5 has caused some to regard the account as mythical.
  2. The censuses in Numbers 1 and 26 of the fighting men of Israel (603,550 and 601,730 respectively) suggests an overall population between 2 and 3 million.  Some believe this is impossibly large for reasons we will enumerate below.
  3. Judges 12:6 states that Jephthah slaughtered 42,000 from the tribe of Ephraim. The tribe of Ephraim only numbered 32,500 (see Num. 26) upon entering Canaan. Even allowing a couple of centuries for growth, some scholars think this number is too large.
  4. 1 Kgs. 20:30 states that 27,000 Syrians fled to Aphek and were killed when a wall fell on them. This is a mighty big wall, of which no evidence has as yet been found!
  5. The Census by David recorded in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. Even though the numbers are large, they are not impossible. The problem here is that the numbers are different, even though they speak of the same census!

The above is only a sampling of the problems caused by large numbers in the Old Testament. For other examples I would refer you to Fouts, A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Large Numbers in the Old Testament, along with Davis’s book, and Fouts’s article in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, cited above. It is not possible to comment on each of the texts above but in the rest of this post I will note both Davis’s and Fouts’s arguments, as well as presenting my own thoughts on how some of the problems of large numbers might be resolved.

Davis and the Literal Approach to Large Numbers

Davis argues that it is possible for a large number of Israelites (i.e., 2 million) to cross the Red Sea
Davis argues that it is possible for a large number of Israelites (i.e., 2 million) to cross the Red Sea

The biggest question involves the meaning of the Hebrew word ʾelep. While this word normally means “one thousand,” it can also be translated “family” or “group” (e.g., Judg. 6:15). Other translations offered by scholars include “captains,” or “tents.” The rationale behind these translations is that if a passage mentions 3 ʾeleps of soldiers, this could mean “3 contingents” of soldiers (maybe consisting of 10-50 men), or “3 captains plus the soldiers,” as opposed to “3 thousand” soldiers. This would be an interesting solution, but Davis, as well as other scholars, has shown that this suggestion has a number of inconsistencies. For example, Davis notes, that to say Gideon’s army started with 32 captains, was whittled down to 10 captains when 22 left out of fear, makes nonsense of the passage, especially when Judges 7:6 indicates that 300 remained after the test designed by God (Davis, p. 71). Clearly ʾelep means “thousand,” not “captain.” The same is true regarding the idea of ʾelep meaning a contingent of soldiers. For example, the censuses in Numbers 1 and 26 breaks the count down not only into thousands, but also into hundreds. If “hundred” is literal, then it only makes sense that “thousand” is as well. However, that hasn’t stopped some from coming up with other creative suggestions, none of which has received the support of scholars (see Davis, pp. 67-73 for more info).

Due to space, I will only look at Davis’s treatment of one of the above numerical problems–the censuses in Numbers. Davis states, “It is the view of this writer that numbers presented in the historical narratives describing the exodus from Egypt are both reliable and credible” (p. 74). He notes four arguments made by those who are skeptical of the miraculous in regards to the exodus.

  1. It would be impossible for that many people to cross the Red Sea in the short time indicated. Davis responds that Robinson (Researches in Palestine) has showed that such a crossing was possible, even if it involved two million people.  Robinson reasons that if the Israelites walked 1000 abreast (a width of 1/2 mile would be required) and were at least 2000 in depth (a length at least two miles long), there was sufficient time for the entire group to cross (for the full argument see p. 59).
  2. The Sinai peninsula would have been incapable of supporting that many people. Davis responds that, “This argument completely overlooks the supernatural provisions of food and water” (p. 60). He suggests that God may also have provided extra rainfall, using Psalm 68:7-9 as possible evidence of this. He notes that according to Albright, the Israelites developed the art of cistern construction in the land. He suggests they may have learned this ability in the wilderness and used it to collect rainwater. Although some of his arguments are speculative, they are possible.
  3. It would have been impossible for Moses to judge two million people. Davis notes that the Scripture itself debunks this objection (Exod. 18:13-22).
  4. If Israel was a large nation, the Edomites could not have prevented them from entering Edom, and the Israelites would not have had difficulty conquering Canaan. Davis quotes John Rea who observes that “the Edomites were a fairly numerous and strong people at the time,” and that God had commanded Israel not to contend with the Edomites (pp. 62-63). Regarding the conquest of Canaan, Davis’s argument is more involved. He offers 3 arguments: 1) It is statistically possible for a large number of Israelites and Canaanites to occupy the land, and one should not depend on modern day density statistics as a guideline for ancient populations (pp. 64-65). 2)”It does not follow that because Israel numbered some two million people they were militarily superior” (p. 65). 3) Just because Israel had a fighting force of 600,000 “does not mean that all the men would or could have been used in a given battle” (p. 66).

Except for a passage such as 1 Sam. 6:19, where a textual error has crept in, Davis is convinced that the large Old Testament numbers are not only realistic, but they reflect the size of other ancient armies of the time. Therefore he concludes, “In most cases the context provides sufficient data to demonstrate the reality of such numbers” (p. 91).

Fouts and the Hyperbolic Approach to Large Numbers

Fouts, who did his doctoral dissertation on large numbers in the Old Testament, is convinced that hyperbole best explains some of the uses of large numbers, while not discounting its literal use in some passages. Fouts view is based on several observations:

  1. Deuteronomy 7:1, 7 states that Israel was the least of all peoples, numerically speaking. He argues that if the number of Israelites was literally two-three million, and one includes the seven Canaanite nations mentioned here, it would put the population of Canaan somewhere around 21 million–a figure which is clearly absurd.
  2. Referring to archaeological data, Fouts contends that, “Demographic analysis of the land of Palestine over three millennia has determined that at no time did the land contain a population necessary to sustain taking the census figures of Numbers 1, 26 and 2 Samuel 24/1 Chronicles 21 at face value” (A Defense of Hyperbolic Interpretation, p. 383).
  3. This view, “has the support of numerous ancient Near Eastern parallels of material of similar genre that exhibit the same numerical hyperbole. It also has the benefit of allowing the texts to continue to bear witness to actual historical events, albeit couched in literary terms intended to convey to the reader the greatness and glory of God” (Fouts, Numbers, Large Numbers, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books p. 752).
  4. “Scripture is similar to other annalistic inscriptional literature in that the historical narratives of the OT often employ figurative language in the near environment of the large numbers, a fact that may support the thesis that the large numbers themselves are hyperbolic” (A Defense of Hyperbolic Interpretation, p. 386).
  5. The purpose for the hyperbole is to exalt the Lord, or king, mentioned in the context. This same purpose is visible in other ANE documents.

Fouts conclusion is: “…the large numbers have often been a stumbling block for accepting the Biblical accounts as legitimate records of history. If the numbers are simply reflective of a rhetorical device common in ancient Near Eastern literature, however, one may no longer question the integrity of the record by use of this argument. The large numbers are often simply figures of speech employed to magnify King Yahweh, King David, or others in a theologically-based historiographical narrative” (A Defense of Hyperbolic Interpretation, p. 387).

My Thoughts On Large Numbers in the Old Testament

I believe that both scholars have points worth considering. On the one hand, we need to become more sensitive to the fact that the Old Testament writers used hyperbole. Hyperbole is a natural function of language and it can involve the use of numbers as well. “I’ve said this a hundred times,” would not be taken literally if I made this statement to my friends. They would automatically understand that I am emphasizing how often I have made a certain statement. Fouts demonstrates that this was a common practice in the ANE. He also notes that figurative statements such as “the sand on the shore,” sometimes stand in the same context with large numbers. This should at least give us pause when interpreting large numbers.

Dr. Sarah Parcak's satellite method may transform the field of archaeology.
Dr. Sarah Parcak’s satellite method may transform the field of archaeology.

On the other hand, archaeology is still in its infancy and to take its conclusions as irrefutable dogma is unwise. Until recently, it has seemed impossible to consider that large numbers of populations or armies could be taken literally when occurring in the context of the ANE. However, the research of Dr. Sarah Parcak in what is becoming known as “Space Archaeology,” is changing our concept of the ancient world. Dr. Parcak uses infrared satellite technology to discover ancient cities, pyramids, and neighborhoods, still buried below the surface of the ground. To watch a brief video of Dr. Parcak speaking about her research click here and here. In a full length documentary entitled “Egypt’s Lost Cities,” the narrator notes that Dr. Parcak’s research has led to the discovery of 1250 new sites in Egypt. She states that this discovery “suggests populations far larger than previously imagined” (view Egypt’s Lost Cities, to find this statement click to 1:07:20). If ancient Egypt’s population is far greater than previously imagined, might this also be the case for ancient Canaan, and the Israelites? Parcak’s findings may mean that Davis’s literal approach to the large numbers in the Old Testament will receive a new legitimation.

I am also open to the fact that certain numbers may be stock numbers with perhaps a certain symbolism behind them. For example, in Judges 12:6 Jephthah is said to kill 42,000 Ephraimites. While this number could be literal, it is worth noting that the number 42 occurs several times in contexts of death (2 Kgs. 2:24; 2 Kgs. 10:14). 42 months is also the number given for the period of tribulation in Revelation 11:2; 13:5). In other words, literal meaning, the use of hyperbole, and the use of symbolism, may all prove to be correct ways of approaching large numbers in the Bible. The question that remains is, “Which interpretation is correct with each passage?”

God’s First King: The Story of Saul

God’s First King: The Story of Saul

God's First King by Shaul Bar is available through Cascade Books and Amazon. See the links below.
“God’s First King” by Shaul Bar is available through Cascade Books and Amazon. See the links below.

In God’s First King: The Story of Saul, author Shaul Bar, seeks to “rediscover Saul,” and “to have a better understanding of his achievements and failures as the first king of Israel” (p. xvii). Being a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Memphis, one of the unique features of Bar’s approach is “to look at the subject from additional perspectives including those of the Talmud and the Midrashim [ancient Jewish commentaries] and the Jewish medieval commentators” (p. xvi). Of course Bar is also conversant with the modern scholarly literature on Saul and frequently interacts with it. His study of Saul’s kingship utilizes various approaches including literary, historical, and archaeological.

Since Bar’s ultimate goal is to rediscover the historical Saul, he takes a topical approach in God’s First King. His treatment is divided into the following chapters:

  1. The Search for a King–looks at the events of 1 Samuel 8-11 which includes Israel’s demand for a king, Samuel’s denunciation of kingship, and the story of how Saul becomes anointed as the first king.
  2. Saul’s Wars–focuses on Saul’s battles with the Philistines (including the Valley of Elah–1 Sam. 17), the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15), and his wars in the Trans-Jordan including especially the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11).
  3. Saul versus David–examines Saul’s troubled relationship with the future king of Israel. This chapter looks at various events from 1 Samuel 16-26.
  4. Feuds in the King’s Court–looks at Saul’s troubled relationship with other individuals including Samuel, Jonathan, his courtiers, and his daughters.
  5. Saul a State Builder–presents a convincing argument that the transformation from tribal confederation to state, legitimately began with Saul (others would argue it began with David).
  6. Saul and the Witch of En-dor–examines 1 Samuel 28
  7. The Last Battle–not only looks at the chapters describing Saul’s death (1 Sam. 31; 2 Sam. 1), it also examines the establishment of David’s kingship by looking at the fate of Saul’s house as recorded in 2 Samuel 2-4, and 9 (i.e., stories about Ish-bosheth, Michal, Abner, and Mephibosheth).
  8. Conclusion–provides a brief summary of Bar’s study on Saul.

God’s First King: Strengths

The author of "God's First King," Shaul Bar holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature from New York University, and serves as Director of the Bornblum Judaic Studies program.
The author of “God’s First King,” Shaul Bar holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature from New York University, and serves as Director of the Bornblum Judaic Studies program at the University of Memphis.

Bar’s familiarity with other Ancient Near Eastern sources, often provides parallels to the biblical account, or insights into it. For example, the statement that Saul was “head and shoulders” above everyone else in Israel (1 Sam. 10:23) suggests that height was an important consideration for kingship in the ancient world. Bar cites the story of Athtar who sits in “Balu’s seat.” Athtar’s problem is that his feet do not reach the footstool and his head does not reach the top of the seat. “Thus because he is too short, he was rejected as king” (p. 17, n. 65). In another example, Bar notes that Nahash’s action of gouging out the right eye of the Israelites (1 Sam. 11) “is attested to in the  Ugaritic literature, where it is classified as a curse” (p. 36). One final example is Saul’s statement to his courtiers that he had supplied them with fields and vineyards (1 Sam. 22:7). Ancient documents from both Ugarit and the Hittite empire demonstrate “that a king gave estates and land property to his officials as a reward for services or for ensuring their loyalty” (p. 101).

The comments from the Jewish sages are at times amusing. For example, when the women meet Saul and inform him how to find Samuel their comments are quite verbose (1 Sam. 9:11-13). Bar states, “The Gemara comments: ‘Because women are talkers’” (p. 12–apologies to the ladies reading this post. Remember the Gemara said it, I didn’t!).

My favorite chapter in God’s First King is chapter 5 entitled, “Saul a State Builder.” Some scholars argue that Saul’s kingdom was no more than a minor fiefdom. However, Bar argues convincingly that Saul was responsible for many of the elements necessary for establishing a kingdom. He looks at several words, easily overlooked by a less-informed reader, that demonstrate an organized military and political system. The expression, “servant of the king,” frequently appears in Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian sources, as well as Saul’s court, as a reference to officials and functionaries at court (p. 93). Doeg is not only a mercenary soldier who slaughters the Lord’s priests, he is also Saul’s “chief herdsman,” which designates an official who is in charge of the king’s property and herds (p. 94-95). The Hebrew word for “lad” in political contexts can be translated as “steward,” and this is its meaning when David calls Ziba “Saul’s steward” (p. 95).

Bar also notes that, “Taxation is one of the first signs of a monarchy,” and examines several words demonstrating that Saul collected taxes from the Israelites (e.g., 1 Sam. 10:27; 17:9, pp. 95-97). Special terms for the military, plus mention of payment for soldiers (1 Sam. 22:7), demonstrate that Saul had a professional army (“chosen ones,” “those who obey, who answer the call,” and “runners” [who go before king’s chariots], are all technical military terms–pp. 97-103). Bar has an interesting discussion of Saul’s capital Gibeah. He notes that the establishment of a capital is a sign of monarchy and talks about the archaeological excavations that have uncovered a palace from Saul’s time there (pp. 103-106). Bar concludes that, “Saul was indeed a state builder. He transformed Israel from a loose federation of tribes into a state with a capital, religious center, army, and taxes.Saul laid the foundation for the monarchy that would ultimately be fully developed under David and Solomon” (p. 109).

God’s First King: Disagreements and Weaknesses

Saul's visit to the witch of En-dor
Saul’s visit to the witch of En-dor

While it is very interesting to see what the ancient Jewish sages, rabbis, and medieval commentators taught on a given passage, it is difficult to determine Bar’s stance toward many of these observations. Does he quote them for the purpose of agreement or disagreement, because they are traditional, or just because they are interesting? In a number of instances, it is hard to tell. For example, in the chapter on Saul’s visit to the Witch of En-dor, readers are often curious why the woman only recognizes Saul once Samuel appears (1 Sam. 28:12). Bar notes that, “According to the talmudic sages and traditional commentators, including Rashi and David Kim[c]hi, the dead rise feet first. Samuel, however, arose in the normal upright posture, out of respect for the king. Seeing this, the woman realized the identity of her visitor” (p. 111). This is certainly an imaginative interpretation! But Bar does not commit himself as to whether he agrees or disagrees. He continues by citing the view of Josephus and then a more modern German scholar, but we never learn whether Bar agrees with any of these interpretations. In another instance,  commenting on Michal’s possession of idols (1 Sam. 19:11-17), Bar notes that Rabbi Joseph Kara, says that it is alright to consult the teraphim when one’s life is in danger! (p. 80). This is a clear violation of the Scriptural injunction against idolatry, but Bar does not offer any disagreement with the statement.

My biggest disagreement with Bar is his utilization of the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Bar believes that since the author is sympathetic to David, his portrayal of certain circumstances cannot be trusted. He writes, “It is unlikely that David was behind the death of Saul as some scholars posit, since he could have accomplished this much earlier [so far, so good in my opinion]. Yet, he was behind the death of Abner and Ish-bosheth. . . .The sense is that the author wanted to whitewash David’s actions” (p. 139). Again, I refer readers to other posts on my blog (e.g., here, and here, or see my book Family Portraits, p. 265) for my disagreement on this issue (perhaps in the future I will devote a post to it).

In the “Conclusion” Bar drops the biggest bomb of all: “We believe that it was the hand of a sympathetic author from the Davidic circle that was responsible for all the negativity surrounding Saul’s portrayal” (p. 141). Really? All the negativity in Saul’s life can be attributed to a Davidic author? Apparently Saul was a paragon of virtue until that crafty author got ahold of his story! In the end, it seems that Bar agrees with some of the Jewish sages who sought to turn Saul’s negative qualities into positive ones. For example, Bar notes that the sages “changed their interpretation concerning his sin in the war against Amalek so that the sin is portrayed favorably” (p. xv). In another instance he points out that they portrayed Saul in a favorable light by giving a different interpretation to the murdering of the priests of Nob (p. 77). Again, it is not clear whether Bar accepts this interpretation or not. Based on his concluding statement, it appears that he sides more with the sages than with the biblical account. If he does, I am in strong disagreement. Even if he doesn’t I can’t agree with his interpretation of Saul’s (and David’s) story.

Conclusion and Evaluation

In spite of a number of disagreements, there is much to be learned from God’s First King. If one is aware of Bar’s presuppositions (and like myself disagrees with them), the fish can be enjoyed while spitting out the bones. If one is looking for a historical approach that utilizes insights from other ANE cultures to illuminate Israel’s history, Bar’s book provides some interesting insights. If one is more interested in getting at the message of how Saul is portrayed in 1 (&2) Samuel, then there are commentaries and other studies that would prove more beneficial.

Many thanks to Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock, for providing a review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.

God’s First King: The Story of Saul is available at Cascade Books and Amazon USA / UK

ISBN: 9781620324912
Pages: 180
Publication Date: 6/27/2013

Biblical Numbers or Numerology

Biblical Numbers or Numerology

Biblical Numerology is available at Amazon USA / UK
To learn more about the use of biblical numbers, purchase Biblical Numerology at Amazon USA / UK

Does the Bible contain a secret code using numbers? If we count up numbers of words in a sentence, or add together the numerical values of a word or sentence, is there a hidden message contained in it? No doubt you have heard a pastor or Bible teacher say that the number 7 represents completion or perfection, or perhaps that the number 40 represents judgment (e.g., the Flood, the Wilderness wanderings). Where do such interpretations come from? Do biblical numbers such as 7, 10, 12, and 40, as well as others, have symbolic meaning or should they always be understood literally? What about the large numbers in the Old Testament? Some archaeologists and Bible scholars say that some of the numbers in the Old Testament are impossibly large. For example, are we to take the census numbers in the Book of Numbers literally? If so, is it realistic to believe that the Israelites who left Egypt and wandered in the Wilderness for forty years numbered between 2-3 million? These are some of the interesting questions dealt with by John J. Davis in his book entitled Biblical Numerology. Because this topic has so many interesting facets to it, I will spend several posts dealing with the various issues raised in the use of biblical numbers. In this post (utilizing Davis’s insights), I will look at the various ways in which numbers were written in the ancient world and how an understanding of that impacts the use and understanding of biblical numbers.

How Numbers Were Written in the Ancient World and in the Bible

This chart shows an example of how Babylonian numerals were written using symbols.
This chart shows an example of how Babylonian numerals were written using symbols.

To be honest, I had never given any thought as to how ancient peoples wrote numbers. I assumed that they used numerical symbols like we do. “Why does it matter?”, you might ask. Good question, read on! Davis points out that there were three different ways that numbers were written in the ancient world.

  1. The number could be spelled out (as in “seven”).
  2. Numerical symbols might be used like our number “56,” however the use of numerical symbols was much more complicated in the ancient world. For example, the number 4 might be written with 4 straight lines like this: ||||. Writing larger numbers could become very complex (see the photo on the right).
  3. A third way was to assign a value to various letters of the alphabet. We are most familiar with this system through the use of Roman numerals (e.g., IV = 4, L = 50).
Although the Mesha Stele is Moabite, not Israelite, the two languages were very similar. The Mesha Stele uses numbers, but they are spelled out, not written with symbols.
Although the Mesha Stele is Moabite, not Israelite, the two languages were very similar. Like biblical numbers, the numbers used on this Stele are also spelled out.

What about biblical numbers? Does the Bible use all three ways of writing numbers? Interestingly, the answer is “no.” The only method employed by the Bible is to write the number by spelling it out. Davis believes that ancient Israelite scribes probably “would also have used symbols since their neighbors did” (p. 34). However, not only does the Bible never use such symbols, we have yet to discover any Israelite document or inscription that uses numeric symbols! Even such discoveries as the inscription in Hezekiah’s tunnel known as the “Siloam Inscription,” or the Mesha/Moabite Stone, which employ the use of numbers, do not use numeric symbols, but instead spell out the numbers.

What about the alphabetic system of writing numbers? The earliest evidence for the Jewish use of this system (employing Hebrew letters to represent numbers) dates from the Maccabean period, to the reign of Simon where it has been found on coins dating to 143-135 B.C. (p. 38). Davis notes that, “the idea of alphabetic numbering was probably a fifth or fourth century B.C. development,” which originated with the Greeks (p. 44). It was Greek influence, following Alexander the Great’s conquests, which brought this system to the Jewish people (p. 45). Therefore, while this system could possibly have been employed by writers of the New Testament (e.g., Rev. 13:18–“666”!), it is much too late to have been used by Old Testament writers.

This means those who try to demonstrate some type of hidden code by totalling up the value of Hebrew letters  (known as “gematria”) have a lot of explaining to do. If such a system was developed by the Greeks and only borrowed by the Jews sometime after Alexander (4th century), then it is difficult to sustain the theory of the use of gematria in the Old Testament. Having said that, Davis does acknowledge that the ancient Babylonians (not the “Neo-Babylonians”), as well as Greeks from the time of Homer (900 B.C.), seem to have some knowledge of gematria. This admission leaves the door slightly ajar, although Davis affirms that it was really with Pythagoras (6th-5th century B.C.) that “the real organization and development of the system of mystical numbers” began (p. 126). In a future post we will explore the origins and use of mystical numbers in more depth.

In our next installment of biblical numbers, we will look at some of the large numbers in the Old Testament and ask whether they are reliable.

Brazos Theological Commentary: 2 Samuel

Brazos Theological Commentary: 2 Samuel

The Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK
The Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK

The Brazos Theological Commentary Series takes a different approach from most Bible Commentaries. Commentators are chosen on the basis of their knowledge and acquaintance with Church Doctrine over the past two thousand years. They are theologians (hence the title of the series), not necessarily historians or language experts, as is frequently the case with other commentary series. This does not mean that authors in this series are unfamiliar with the ancient languages or history, only that their expertise lies in the realm of theology. As such, they are expected to interact with the text through the medium of historical theology. Thus, in the Brazos series one will frequently see references to the great theologians and philosophers throughout the history of the Church. People like Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and a host of others frequent the pages of this series of commentaries.

This approach has its pluses and minuses. It’s fascinating, and quite often informative, to hear the reflections of these ancient theologians, as the Brazos commentator seeks to integrate their thoughts into an interpretation of the text. Depending on the commentator, however, it can at times be quite abstruse and esoteric (like the words I am using here!). With some of the commentaries in the Brazos series, I have found myself in deep water, wondering how I got there and if I would ever make it back safely to the land of biblical understanding. I must confess that with a few commentaries in this series it has been necessary to jettison them overboard because of the heavy, mind-bewildering theological freight they carry. Thankfully, that is not the case with the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel by Robert Barron. Although Barron engages with the great theological thinkers of the ages, his commentary is clear and easy to read, while often full of wonderful and surprising insights. As I noted in a previous post (Is King David a New Adam?), Barron’s typological/analogical approach to the David story provides some interesting food for thought.

Strengths of the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel

As noted in a previous post (NIV Application Commentary:1&2 Samuel), I have a mental checklist of things that I look for when reading any commentary on 1&2 Samuel. One of these items includes the commentator’s assessment of the various characters in Samuel, especially those whose character traits are somewhat ambiguous. I list here a sample of Barron’s thoughts on various characters:


  1. There are some who are preoccupied with power but not necessarily with honor, and Abner seems to be such” (p. 25).
  2. Abner evidently is not particularly interested in being king himself, but he is, like many behind-the-scenes players across the ages, deeply interested in holding the reins of power” (p. 32).


  1. Joab is speaking in the cadences and tones of the serpent (notice the allusion to the Garden of Eden, see my previous post), unduly planting suspicion and stirring up dissension without cause” (in reference to Joab’s negative response toward Abner’s peace proposal in 2 Sam. 3, p. 35).
  2. He is decidedly not someone who should be in a position of political leadership. He functions therefore as a symbol of the lethal violence that would plague Israel for centuries following the time of David” (p. 175).
  3. Regarding Joab’s protestations to the woman at Abel in 2 Samuel 20 that it is against his nature to destroy, Barron quotes Joab’s words and adds the response which follows. “‘Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up and destroy! That is not the case!’ (2 Sam. 20:20-21). As even the most inattententive reader of this story knows, it is indeed the case” (p. 176).

Ziba & Mephibosheth

  1. Commenting on Ziba’s words in 2 Samuel 16:1-4: “What becomes clear just a few chapters later is that this little speech by Mephibosheth’s slave amounts to Ziba’s rather pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself with the vulnerable king and to denigrate any potential rivals” (p. 148).
  2. Regarding Mephibosheth’s response to David in 2 Samuel 19:30: “It would be hard to construe this intervention as anything other than a sincere acknowledgment of joy and gratitude on the part of Mephibosheth and thus as a fairly clear indication that Ziba was lying” (p. 170).

In my opinion, these are astute character observations on the part of Barron. Bible commentators are not always as discerning in making these finer judgments on ambiguous characters, which demonstrates his careful reading of the text.

David’s Attitude Toward Saul According to Barron

Robert Barron is the author of the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel
Robert Barron is the author of the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel

As any who have read anything I’ve written on 1&2 Samuel will be aware, I am not a fan of the school of interpretation known as “the hermeneutic of suspicion” (see  e.g., my book, Family Portraits, p. 265, n. 22) which suggests that the author’s insistence on David’s innocence regarding Saul and his family is all a carefully orchestrated ruse. I am glad to see that Barron does not fall into this camp of interpretation. Regarding David’s actions toward Saul Barron states, “A somewhat cynical reading would suggest that David wanted to advertise as far as possible his warm feelings toward the house of Saul so as to hold off the suspicion that he had been actively involved in causing the death of the king. Though attractive to postmodern interpreters, such a reading, in my view, does not shed the most light. Yes, Saul relentlessly pursued David, but nothing in a straightforward reading of 1 Samuel would justify the claim that David was harboring a hidden grudge against the king” (p. 18).

Weaknesses of The Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel

Barron’s outline of 2 Samuel is based on a thematic approach which doesn’t always take the structure of the text into consideration. The outline of his commentary is as follows:

  1. David Comes to Power (2 Samuel 1-2)
  2. Priest and King (2 Samuel 3-10)
  3. David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
  4. A Sword Will Never Leave Your House (2 Samuel 12-20)
  5. Toward the Temple (2 Samuel 21-24)

There are several problems with this division, no matter how convenient it might be for purposes of the commentary.

  1. It separates 2 Samuel 2 from chapters 3-4. 2 Samuel 2-4 is a unit held together by David’s kingship in Hebron, the civil war between David and Ish-bosheth, and the prominent place in the narrative given to Abner and Joab.
  2. 2 Samuel 5 clearly begins a new unit with David being anointed king of all Israel and his conquest of Jerusalem. This unit seems to end with a summary of David’s righteous rule and a list of David’s cabinet members in 2 Samuel 8:15-18
  3. Almost all scholars take 2 Samuel 9-20 as a unit. A second list of David’s cabinet members at the end of 2 Samuel 20:23-26 forms an inclusio with the list at the end of chapter 8, while the intervening material (chs. 9-20) is all about the circumstances that lead to various crises in David’s kingdom. (Barron seems to be aware of all of this. For example, even though he separates the story of David and Bathsheba by itself, he notes its intimate connection with chapter 12–p. 107).
  4. While all recognize that chapters 21-24 form the close of 2 Samuel, Barron’s title for this section seems a bit overstated. “Toward the Temple” may describe chapter 24, but I’m not sure how it fits with the other sections in the conclusion of the book.

In spite of my criticisms here, Barron’s divisions of the text (no doubt to emphasize the theological points he sees as most important), are not detrimental to his overall treatment of 2 Samuel.

In my opinion, the more serious weakness of this commentary lies in Barron’s acceptance of the judgments of critical scholarship regarding certain troublesome passages. For example, concerning whether Absalom had sons or not Barron states, “These irreconcilable accounts are the result, no doubt, of different traditions that the editor carelessly conflated” (p. 134). I have suggested elsewhere that there are good reasons for the seeming contradictory accounts of how many son’s Absalom had (see my articles here and here). My point is not that Barron should have checked with me (!), but that scholars are all too frequently ready to throw in the towel with textual problems such as this, by simply saying, “Oh well, that clumsy editor did it again!”

Another example is in regards to the infamous Elhanan passage in 2 Samuel 21:19. Throughout the commentary, Barron speaks as if David was the champion who killed Goliath. For example, speaking of David, Barron states, “We see here the typical cleverness of the one who had outmaneuvered Goliath” (p. 49). However, when commenting on the Elhanan passage, Barron states, “What seems most plausible in point of fact is that the account in the present chapter is the correct one, and that it was later associated with the young David and retold with particular literary flare by the final editor of the Samuel literature” (p. 185). There are two problems here in my opinion. First, Barron is contradicting himself. If David did not in fact slay Goliath, then he did not “outmaneuver” him as Barron claims on page 49. Second, I have a problem with claims that biblical authors or editors embellished stories and attributed them to others. This means that facts were deliberately distorted, which doesn’t jive with a conservative (and I would argue more biblical) understanding of inspiration.


Every fish has its bones, and in spite of my disagreements with some of Barron’s viewpoints, I found his commentary to be very helpful and insightful. I would recommend it, not only to pastors and teachers, but also to the mature Christian seeking to grow in his or her understanding of the books of Samuel. This is one Brazos commentary that doesn’t leave you lost at sea.

Is King David A New Adam?

Is King David A New Adam?

In his recent commentary on 2 Samuel, Robert Barron suggests that David is a new Adam.
In his recent commentary on 2 Samuel, Robert Barron suggests that David is a new Adam.

David is indeed a cagey and capable new Adam, both tending and defending the new Eden,” so Robert Barron contends in his recent commentary on 2 Samuel (2 Samuel, Brazos Theological Commentary, p. 24). According to Barron, David is a new Adam, Israel is the Garden of Eden, and David’s enemies (e.g., the Amalekites, and even Absalom) represent the serpent. This typological approach is an interesting perspective from which to view 2 Samuel. It definitely causes one to think outside of the box.  While this might seem like an eccentric approach at first, scholars have noted for years the connections between Genesis and 1&2 Samuel. In fact, Barron’s approach is indebted to G.K. Beale who makes similar comparisons (A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New). Although Barron’s overall approach has an element of typology in it, it would be unfair to characterize the entire commentary this way. In this post I will explore the connections he makes between King David’s kingdom and Genesis and in a future post I will review and evaluate his commentary on 2 Samuel.

How Does David Function as a New Adam in 1&2 Samuel?

According to Genesis 1:28, Adam was created to rule over creation.
According to Genesis 1:28, Adam was created to rule over creation.

Barron notes that the dominant theme of 2 Samuel is the “contrast between the kingly path taken by Saul and that taken by David” (p. 3). This contrast introduces such questions as: “Does Israel require a king? What makes a king good or bad? How does the kingship of Yahweh relate to human kingship?” (p. 3). To answer these questions, Barron asserts that it is necessary “to return to the very beginning of the Bible, to the accounts of creation and the garden of Eden” (p. 3). Therefore, Barron’s typological approach is borne out of the necessity of understanding the fundamental problems encountered in the initial episodes of Genesis. He notes, as do many commentators on Genesis, the original couple was created to rule over creation. They were given “dominion” (Gen. 1:28). Thus Adam was the first king. Through “tilling” the soil and “keeping” the garden, Adam functioned as a good king. His rule, like that of the God whose image he was created in (Gen. 1:27), was to be benevolent, not oppressive (pp. 4-5).

Saul's rejection of God's word equates him with the old Adam rather than the new Adam.
Saul’s rejection of God’s word equates him with the old Adam rather than the new Adam.

Unfortunately, the rule of the first king and queen ended in failure, a “consequence of bad leadership” (p. 5). The reason for expulsion from the garden is a result of rejecting God’s word and seeking to “rule without reference to God” (p. 5). At this point, the typological parallels with 2 Samuel become significant. As Barron notes, the theme of 2 Samuel (and we could also include 1 Samuel) is the difference between Saul’s and David’s kingship. Like rebellious Adam, Saul’s offense is a rejection of the word of God (1 Sam. 15:23). Saul is noted throughout 1 Samuel for making his own decisions without reference to God. This insight is very important in understanding the message of 1&2 Samuel correctly. Scholars such as Gunn and Jobling seek to excuse Saul on the basis of misinterpreting God’s/Samuel’s commands. In the view of these scholars, God (and Samuel) becomes a malevolent presence intent on dooming Saul no matter what he does. However, the parallels with Adam, which Barron draws upon, act as a biblical aid in clearing up this scholarly misinterpretation of the story.

PianoIn a helpful analogy, Barron compares God and his law to someone seeking to learn piano or golf. The instructor lays down certain rules, if followed, these rules lead to a person finding the freedom to become an excellent piano player or golfer. “The lawgiving instructor is therefore not the enemy of the student’s freedom but rather the condition for its possibility” (p. 14). Similarly, Saul’s rejection of God’s commandments is what makes him a failure as king, just as Adam’s rule in the garden failed because of his disobedience. In contrast, as a new Adam, David is the man after God’s heart. One illustration of this is his treatment of Saul. Barron notes that, “David’s stubborn unwillingness to do violence to Saul is another sign of his kingly worthiness, for it indicates that his actions were predicated not primarily on self-interest but rather on an attentive listening to the voice of God” (p. 15).

jacobs-prophetic-blessing-4-638Barron also seeks to demonstrate a connection between Adam and David by tracing this connection through biblical history. Following the history of sin in Genesis 1-11, God makes a new start with Abram. Barron states, “Abram will be a new Adam, cultivating a new Eden and expanding the boundaries of that ordered garden to include all the peoples of the world” (p. 6). The promise to Abram of numerous descendants recalls the original command to Adam to “be fruitful and multiply.” “The royal promise is extended to Abram’s grandson” (i.e. Jacob, p. 7). Through Jacob, the nation of Israel is birthed whom Barron sees as a “‘corporate Adam’ endowed with the privileges and bearing the responsibilities of the first tender of the garden” (p. 7). It is through Jacob’s deathbed blessing that, “the kingly task will be passed on to and through Judah and his tribe” (p. 7).  Barron continues tracing the theme of kingship by noting, “Throughout these opening books of the Bible, Yahweh has not yet found the king in whom his own divine purposes can become utterly incarnate. Hence Israel’s identity remains compromised and its mission unfulfilled.  It is against this rich and complex background that the emergence of Saul and David in the first book of Samuel has to be interpreted” (p. 7). Therefore, “from Adam on, Israel is marked by both good and bad kingship. God (and Samuel) stand opposed to those forms of kingship that mimic the style and substance of the kings of the surrounding nations, but they ardently desire a form of kingship in accord with God’s designs” (p. 8).

In 1 Samuel 12, Samuel exhorts the king and people to obey God.
In 1 Samuel 12, Samuel exhorts the king and people to obey God.

Tracing the theme of kingship from Creation to David, not only substantiates Barron’s approach, it also helps to explain what many scholars see as a contradictory view of kingship in 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel 8-12, scholars frequently note the interplay between positive and negative statements about the kingship. Some are at a loss to explain these seemingly contradictory views, while others see it as the result of a clumsy editor. Barron’s approach demonstrates that kingship has always been a part of God’s plan and purpose. However, it is not simply kingship per se that God seeks to bestow–that is, kingship as defined by the world–but rather a king that would honor and obey God. This is the point of Samuel’s speech in 1 Samuel 12: “If you fear the Lord and serve Him and obey His voice, and do not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then both you and the king who reigns over you will continue following the Lord your God. However, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you, as it was against your fathers” (vv. 14-15).

While the old Adam (Saul) does not deal a decisive blow to the Amalekites, the new Adam (David) deals with all of Israel's enemies.
While the old Adam (Saul) does not deal a decisive blow to the Amalekites, the new Adam (David) deals with all of Israel’s enemies.

Barron also sees his approach as a helpful way of characterizing Israel’s (David’s) enemies. For example, he is hard pressed to understand God’s command to utterly destroy the Amalekites. “Why in the world would God decree that this beleaguered little people should be ruthlessly and relentlessly attacked?” His answer is to see Origen’s allegorical approach as helpful in this case. “Origen argues that, throughout the Bible, Israel stands for the ways and purposes of God, and the enemies of Israel stand for those powers that are opposed to God” (p. 9). He continues, “These various peoples are symbolically akin both to the tohu wabohu [formlessness and void] (Gen. 1:2) from which God brought the ordered world and to the serpent that Adam rather unsuccessfully managed in the garden. Though it is not entirely clear why this should be the case, the biblical authors seem to isolate Amalek as particularly expressive of this ‘nothing’ that militates against Israel” (p. 10). Although I’m not so sure that “beleaguered” is a correct designation for the Amalekites, nonetheless, I believe he (and Origen!) are correct in seeing these enemy peoples as a manifestation of the “seed of the serpent” (Gen. 3:15). As a result of Saul’s disobedience, Barron asks the following provocative questions: “Might Saul’s unwillingness to slaughter the herds of the Amalekites and to put to death their king symbolically represent the sort of confusion in regard to intrinsically evil acts that undermines God’s purposes? And therefore might one come to sympathize with Samuel’s conviction that Saul has, by this act, effectively forfeited his kingship?” (p. 10). In other words, a king who doesn’t protect his people against their enemies, is no king at all. And just as certainly, a king who does not wage war with God’s enemies, cannot be God’s  (or a godly) king.

Conclusion: King David is a New Adam

While there were times in my reading of Barron’s commentary on 2 Samuel, that I thought he was perhaps carrying the analogy of David as the new Adam too far, I must admit that I always found his interpretations challenging me to think of this narrative in new ways. The above examples I have given are not an exhaustive catalogue by any means of the comparisons made between David and Adam, but they are enough to demonstrate that such an approach is indeed fruitful. I also believe it proves helpful in getting at the significant theme(s) of 1&2 Samuel which modern scholarly efforts sometimes cloud. Like all typological/allegorical approaches, each interpretation must be questioned and validated. But, as I have written elsewhere (Typology: A Key to Interpreting the Bible), typology is an important method that allows Scripture to interpret Scripture. Barron’s commentary is an excellent contribution on Samuel studies and in my next post I will review it as a whole.

NIV Application Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

NIV Application Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK
The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK

The NIV Application Commentary series is aimed at providing the best scholarly insights into the text, while also providing contemporary application. To accomplish its purpose, The NIV Application Commentary series divides comment on the text into three parts: 1) Original Meaning (“All the elements of traditional exegesis–in concise form–are discussed here,” p. 9); 2) Bridging Contexts (distinguishing the timeless message(s) of the Bible from the time-bound text); and 3) Contemporary Significance (do I need to explain this one?) Arnold’s 1&2 Commentary begins, like others, with a brief 20-page introduction. The introduction includes topics such as how to read the historical books, authorship, an overview of the contents of 1&2 Samuel, theological themes, etc.

Central Themes of 1&2 Samuel According to the NIV Application Commentary

Arnold understands the overall theme of 1&2 Samuel to center around two questions:

1) “What is the acceptable nature of the Israelite monarchy?”

2)”Who can serve suitably as king?”

The first question is primarily addressed in 1 Samuel 1-15, while the second question occupies the material in 1 Samuel 16 — 2 Samuel 24 (p. 32). I found the second question concerning who is suitable as king to be a very insightful way of understanding the contrast between the kingships of Saul and David.

In the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Bill Arnold notes the key place that repentance plays in the overall storyline.
In the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Bill Arnold notes the key place that repentance plays in the overall storyline creating what I call a “repentance sandwich.”.

Arnold notes three main theological themes in 1&2 Samuel. The first concerns the  above question of who is suitable to be Israel’s king, or the messianic theme. Arnold states, “The concept of an ideal anointed one arises gradually and is sustained in the narrative” (p. 36). Another theme which grows out of the two main questions concerns the use and abuse of power. Arnold sees the messianic and power themes bound together by a third theme dealing with the nature of repentance. He insightfully points out that, “The books of Samuel . . . contribute graphic illustration to the Bible’s teaching on the precise nature of confession and repentance through the three portraits of Samuel, Saul, and David” (p. 38). The key passages are 1 Sam. 7:2-6; 1 Sam. 15; and 2 Sam. 12.

Through Samuel, the first story illustrates “the nature of true confession and repentance.” In the second account, Saul, “acknowledges wrongdoing instead of repudiating it; [He] regrets his actions because they leave him vulnerable, not because they were self-destructive and offensive to God” (p. 39, author’s emphasis). The third narrative concerning repentance involves David’s straightforward confession which illustrates true repentance, the kind of repentance that Samuel had urged upon Israel so many years before. The book also concludes with a fourth story of repentance (2 Sam. 24). On this occasion, David does not even need a prophet to convict him of wrongdoing, but confesses on his own, demonstrating growth in his relationship with God. Thus, these three characters form a “repentance sandwich” (my expression). The outer layers (Samuel and David) show what true repentance is, while the inner layer (Saul) demonstrates what it is not.

Agreements and Disagreements with the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

agree-or-disagree-1-638One way to evaluate a commentary is to examine how it treats important topics or controversial passages. I have a mental checklist that I go through when reading a commentary on Samuel. Some of the items on my checklist are important, others are a matter of curiosity (how is the commentator going to deal with this?). Below I have listed a few of the items on my mental checklist. This is not an exhaustive list, nor will I have space in this post to reflect on how Arnold deals with each of these. However, after sharing the list, I will examine Arnold’s interactions with some of the items on my list.

  1. How does the commentator approach the authorship of 1&2 Samuel? (How one perceives “Deuteronomistic authorship” often colors one’s interpretation of the text).
  2. Does the commentator consider Samuel to be a positive or negative influence on the narrative?
  3. Is Saul responsible for his sin, or is he a victim of a capricious God who decided from the outset that Saul would be condemned?
  4. Which reading does the author prefer concerning Goliath’s height? (this is just a matter of curiosity, but see my article Goliath’s Height).
  5. How does the author treat the problem of Saul not knowing who David’s father is in 1 Samuel 17:55-58? (Another matter of curiosity over a notoriously difficult passage).
  6. Is the commentator’s view of David wholly positive until his sin with Bathsheba, or does he see the narrative as reflecting faults earlier in David’s life?
  7. Does the commentator use a “hermeneutic of suspicion?” Which means, does he see the biblical author trying to defend a cunning David who manipulates circumstances regarding the deaths of Saul’s family members, or does he accept the author’s statements that David is innocent?
  8. Does the commentator view David and Jonathan’s relationship as homosexual?
  9. How does the commentator resolve the problem in 2 Sam. 21:19 which states that Elhanan killed Goliath?
  10. What is the commentator’s evaluation of certain characters whose actions are, at times, ambiguous? (e.g., Abner, Joab, Mephibosheth, or Ziba).

Concerning whether Saul is a victim or a free moral agent (#3 above), I believe Arnold is correct in stating, “[Saul] fails to accept the structure of authority established for him by Yahweh and his prophet Samuel at the time of his appointment (1 Sam. 13:14). . . .Thus, Saul’s guilt derives from his determination to usurp power rightly belonging only to Yahweh and his servant Samuel” (pp. 200-201). This is an important point in understanding the kind of person Yahweh is looking for as Israel’s king, and it is a point missed by those who accuse God of being either arbitrary in his forgiveness (Brueggemann), or showing his “dark side” (Gunn).

Contrary to Arnold's interpretation in the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, I believe David's request for a sword demonstrates a lack of faith.
Contrary to Arnold’s interpretation in the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, I believe David’s request for a sword demonstrates a lack of faith.

One point of disagreement I have with Arnold is his interpretation of certain stories of David’s flight from Saul (#6 above). For example, when David is fleeing from Saul, he goes to the high priest Ahimelech where he receives bread and Goliath’s sword (1 Sam. 21). Arnold’s take is that the sword reminds David of the victories of his youth while his contact with the priests show him turning to the faith of his childhood (p. 310). I believe that David is much more like Abraham. Both men show faith in God, but they have their ups and downs as they experience doubt and fear and occasionally step out in the flesh. I think that David’s lie to Ahimelech, along with his request for a sword (which contradicts his statement of faith in 1 Sam. 17:47), demonstrate a lack of faith on this occasion.

One of the things I appreciate about the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is that Arnold listens to the voice of the narrator and takes his message seriously. In other words, Arnold does not get caught up in a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (#7 above). When David mourns over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1), or puts to death the men who murder Ish-bosheth (2 Sam. 4), or shows kindness to Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 9), the narrator seeks to show that this is all in agreement with David’s stance toward not lifting a hand against the Lord’s anointed and honoring his covenant promises to the house of Saul. Arnold sees clearly that 1&2 Samuel is earnestly seeking to demonstrate David’s character and integrity. For example he states, “The narrator has been clear from the outset: This anointed one, unlike Saul, is driven only by the promises of Yahweh and takes action under Yahweh’s leadership” (p. 422). Furthermore, Arnold states, “David is celebrated in these texts as the ideal king, who willingly submits to God’s timing and direction and consistently repudiates the way of power politics and force” (pp. 445-446). A hermeneutic of suspicion destroys this key teaching of 1&2 Samuel, therefore, I believe that Arnold has done us a service by helping us to hear the text more clearly.

Evaluation of The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

There are many other areas of both agreement and disagreement I could cite, but the disagreements are minor and overall I have found Arnold’s commentary on 1&2 Samuel to be very informative and a delightful read. The NIV Application Commentary Series is designed for the teacher, pastor, and serious student. Someone new to the books of Samuel or to the study of the Old Testament might find themselves in deep water at times, but it’s well worth the effort. Thanks to Arnold, I discovered many new insights and perspectives on 1&2 Samuel and would highly recommend this commentary to anyone interested in an in-depth study of these books.

The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon (see links above) and Zondervan

The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK

Hardcover: 688 pages
Publisher: Zondervan; First Edition edition (February 1, 2003)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310210860
ISBN-13: 978-0310210863