Teach the Text Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Teach the Text Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

1&2 Samuel Teach the Text Commentary Series
1&2 Samuel Teach the Text Commentary Series

Robert B. Chisholm Jr., 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013).

General Observations on the Teach the Text Commentary Series

The “Teach the Text Commentary Series” was commissioned to help the busy pastor and to fill a void in commentaries that are both scholarly, and yet practical. The aim is to present the “big picture” of a biblical book by dividing it “into carefully selected preaching units, each covered in six pages” (p. ix). There are 5 main areas of focus within these 6 pages: 1) Big Idea; 2) Key Themes; 3) Understanding the Text (this is the longest section including such subjects as context, outline, historical and cultural background, interpretive insights, and theology); 4) Teaching the Text; and 5) Illustrating the Text (pp. xi-xii). It is important to keep this structure and the necessary restrictions in mind when evaluating each commentary in this series.

Such an approach is clearly not intended to be exhaustive. So is there room for a commentary series with this more generalized approach? I believe there is. My own classroom teaching experience has demonstrated to me the need for students to gain the “big picture” of a biblical book. It is important to be able to summarize the main themes and key ideas of a book. Oftentimes people read or study a biblical book and have no idea of how to summarize its main message(s). The “Big Idea” and “Key Themes” features of this series go a long way in aiding the reader to achieve this goal. Therefore, the structure of the Teach the Text Commentary series is not only helpful to the pastor, who may be consulting it for his weekly sermon, it is also beneficial for the beginning student.

Before making specific remarks on Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary, I would also like to add that the “Teach the Text Commentary Series” is attractively presented. Each hardback volume is printed on heavy-duty paper which is ideal for the many helpful maps, photos, and illustrations contained in each commentary.

Comments on 1&2 Samuel Commentary

Chisholm begins his commentary on 1&2 Samuel with a brief 7-page introduction. He summarizes these books by noting the three main characters (Samuel, Saul, and David) and by stating, “David is the focal point of the story” (p.1). Saul acts as a foil to David, while “Samuel’s support of David becomes foundational to the narrator’s defense of David” (pp. 1-2). The high point of the book is the Lord’s covenant with David, securing his dynasty and proving faithful even in the midst of David’s sin. Chisholm divides 1&2 Samuel into 7 sections based on “its major plot movements, revolving around the theme of kingship” (p. 4). His outline is as follows: 1) Prelude to Kingship (1 Sam. 1-7); 2) Kingship inaugurated (1 Sam. 8-12); 3) Kingship Fails (1 Sam. 13-15); 4) Kingship in Limbo (1 Sam. 16-31); 5) Kingship Revived (2 Sam. 1-10); 6) Kingship Threatened and Preserved (2 Sam. 11-20); and 7) Epilogue (2 Sam. 21-24). One potential weakness is that this outline is not clearly delineated in the commentary that follows. Perhaps Chisholm’s reason for ignoring this is because he does not find “clear-cut structural markers” in the text (p. 4), but sees the divisions above as related to plot development.

Chisholm packs a lot of information and insight into each 6-page unit of commentary. The information provided on historical and cultural background, though not found in every section, is very helpful for the beginning reader and student. Topics include foreign gods such as Baal or Dagon, divination, the Amalekites, or documents of the ancient Near East that have parallels with biblical material. This information enriches the presentation, as do the color photos that frequently accompany them. At times Chisholm includes side boxes that deal with special issues such as “The Problem of Genocide” or “The Legal Background of Tamar’s Request.”

Two characteristics of Chisholm’s exegesis that I found particularly helpful include his attention to certain words, and parallels and/or contrasts between biblical characters. Chisholm does an excellent job of paying attention to words or phrases found in 1&2 Samuel and demonstrating their connection with another incident in 1&2 Samuel (or the Former Prophets, meaning Joshua-2 Kings). For example, he notes that the expression “terror filled his heart” in 1 Samuel 28:5, in reference to Saul, only occurs one other time in 1-2 Samuel. It is found in the story of Eli’s demise as his “heart trembled over the fate of the ark of God” (p. 184). This kind of verbal connection suggests the author is comparing the circumstances of Saul and Eli. Similarly, Chisholm frequently points out similarities between incidents or characters in 1&2 Samuel with other biblical characters or incidents. One example is the similarities between the actions of Absalom in 2 Samuel 13-14 with Abimelech in Judges 9 (p. 252). This attention to biblical typology is extremely helpful when interpreting a narrative text (see my discussion in Family Portraits, p. 11).

Considering the constraints placed upon him by the commentary’s design (6 pages per literary unit), Chisholm’s overall treatment of the text of 1&2 Samuel is excellent. There is, however, one exception. Although 2 Samuel 2:1-5:5 can legitimately be viewed as a structural unit, treating it in the 6-page format does it a great injustice. This material is too important and too theologically rich to be skimmed over so briefly. Dividing this section by episodes, or even by chapters, would have been a better approach. This imbalance is all the more noticeable when the following section (2 Sam. 5:6-25), arguably less “meaty” than 2 Samuel 2-4, is given the full 6-page treatment. (For Chisholm’s reasoning on this see my interview with him which was conducted after this review.)

Perhaps the greatest challenge in writing a commentary of this kind is providing illustrations for the text. This is certainly a subjective task. Certain illustrations will ring true with some, while others will find them unhelpful. While I would not endorse the use of every illustration suggested in this commentary (and I’m sure the author would not expect me to! ), I do believe that Chisholm has done an admirable job in handling a difficult task (Another insight I learned from the interview with Chisholm was that he wasn’t responsible for any of this material). The editors themselves point out that this section of the commentary is intended to provide “general ideas” and to “serve as a catalyst for effectively illustrating the text” (p. xii).

In conclusion, Chisholm’s commentary achieves the aims of this series admirably. He is a scholar of high caliber and is a well-established expert on the entire corpus of the Former Prophets. Pastors, students, and others wanting to become grounded in the message of 1&2 Samuel will benefit greatly from this commentary. I used it for my own 1&2 Samuel class this past semester and will continue to do so in the future. I heartily recommend it to others.

(I am grateful to Baker Books for providing this copy of 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary Series, in exchange for a balanced review).

Grace in 3D

Grace in 3D

Did you know that there is a depth of meaning to the word “grace” which is frequently overlooked by the modern church? In my last article, we noticed the connection between obedience and grace and I promised that we would further investigate the meaning of grace. Grace is often defined as “unmerited favor,” or “getting what I don’t deserve.” Although these are accurate definitions, they only communicate one aspect of the Greek word charis (grace).
We often find that a 3-dimensional representation of something is much more effective than simply seeing it in 2-dimensional form. Hence the popularity of new 3D movies and televisions. Similarly, it is disturbing to hear Christians speak of grace 1-dimensionally (the definition noted above), when in fact the New Testament authors’ usage encompasses more. Grace has been put on a diet by many well-meaning Christians and has lost its well-rounded meaning in favor of a more slimmed-down version. This is not done intentionally; it is usually the result of a lack of knowledge of the 1st century cultural context in which this word occurs. Recovering this context reveals that there are two other important aspects to the meaning of grace. Recapturing the 3-dimensional nature of this word, strengthens what is quickly becoming an anaemic theology of grace within the evangelical church, and, most importantly, allows us to walk more fully in the grace that God has bestowed.

Grace and Patronage

The Roman world of the 1st century was a world of limited goods. This means that a lot of things necessary for existence were in short supply. There were no shopping malls, large department stores, and there certainly was no eBay. This meant that people had to depend on others who could supply whatever their need might be. These people were called “patrons.”

Patronage (picture taken from http://www.coopertoons.com/merryhistory/martial/valeriusmartial.html)
Patronage (picture taken from http://www.coopertoons.com/merryhistory/martial/valeriusmartial.html)

Patronage was a way of life in the Roman world; everyone had one or more. Much can be learned from examining the concept of patronage, but, for our purposes, the most important thing is that the word “grace” was part of the everyday vocabulary. A patron was able to supply what I could never obtain on my own. This was called an act of grace, and it is the definition that we are most familiar with. For example, Paul talks about the “grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2) which we have received through God’s act of love in sending His Son to die for us “while we were still sinners” and “when we were [His] enemies” (Rom. 5:8, 10). Because of my sin, reconciliation with God is beyond my grasp. I don’t have the necessary resources in and of myself to make reconciliation possible, but Jesus, who lived a perfect life, does (Rom. 5:18-19). In Christ’s act on the cross I receive a forgiveness that I could never obtain on my own. That is grace, and it is the good news that was preached by the early church!
However, in the world of patronage, grace was much more than the act of giving what could never be earned, it was also the gift itself. Whether the gift was food, legal help, paying off debts, etc., it was called “grace.” There are a number of examples of this usage in the NT. For instance, when Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23), the word “gift” in Greek is charisma––grace. When Paul is speaking of the “gifts” of the Spirit given to the church in Romans 12:6, the word he uses is charismata, from which we get our word “charismatic,” as in charismatic gifts. Therefore, grace is not only the act of giving; it is the gift itself.
Third, and most important for our discussion, the word grace includes the meaning of giving thanks. We still use it this way today. When we ask someone to “say grace” we mean, “Will you give thanks for the food?”

Grace and giving thanks
Grace and giving thanks

Our English word “grace” comes from the Latin gratia and has entered Spanish and Italian in the forms of gracias and gratze which mean “thanks.” All these words are derived from the Greek verb eucharisto (notice the word charis––see e.g., Rom. 1:8). The important point here, is that everyone in the Roman world who received “grace” (meaning both the undeserved act, as well as the gift) would expect to give “grace” (meaning “thanks”) in return. The Roman philosopher Seneca pictured grace as a dance between 3 sisters which consisted of the act of giving (grace), the gift received (grace), and the recipient giving thanks (grace) for the gift. As long as each one of these ingredients was present, the dance of grace continued in a flowing unbroken way. No honorable person (see my article on honor under “Cross-Examination”) would ever consider not returning thanks for the gift received. This means that, although a person could never pay for the grace given, they were expected to respond with gratitude. Grace begets grace!
If a person could never repay their patron for the grace they had received, then what did giving of thanks consist of? In the Roman world, gratitude was expressed in several different ways: 1) The recipient of grace would freely proclaim the name of his benefactor and tell everyone he came into contact with about the generosity of his patron. This increased the honor of his patron. 2) Each morning a person would appear before his patron and find out if there was anything he could do for him or her that day. 3) One would always be loyal to their patron, defending them against accusations, and even going to battle with them if necessary. These, and other actions, were ways in which an individual could express thanks (grace) for a gift (grace) they could never repay (grace).

The Complete Circle of Grace

Hopefully it is not hard to see the parallels for the Christian. The Christian has received a gift (grace), they don’t deserve and could never repay (grace). This is where modern conversations about grace frequently end, but biblically speaking it is not the end of the grace-conversation. Just because we can never repay what God has done for us in Christ, doesn’t mean that there is nothing for us to do! Like the people of the ancient world, we should continually give thanks to our Patron (God). We give thanks by praising His name, and by telling others about Him (this is worship and evangelism). We seek Him out each day to see what He would have us to do, and we defend His name and even go to battle with Him, if necessary. All of these responses are ways of saying “thank you” for a gift we can never repay. Notice that all of these responses involve acts of obedience! This is why a life lived “under grace” is an obedient life (Rom. 6:14-23––see last week’s article). Why settle for a 1 or 2-dimensional view of grace when we can, and should, have it in 3D! For the doctrinal health of the church we need to restore this biblical 3D portrait of grace to our modern theology. Like love and marriage, grace and obedience go hand in hand.

Many of my insights on patronage and grace are indebted to David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Please check out his book on this link from amazon.

The Difference Between Legalism and Obedience (Romans 5-8)

The Difference Between Legalism and Obedience (Romans 5-8)

Did you know that Christians are called to be slaves of obedience? Many today resist this notion. It sounds too legalistic or works oriented. In fact, at first glance, it doesn’t sound appealing at all. Slavery suggests domination and control. We in the western world desire to promote freedom and don’t want to be enslaved to anyone or anything. Even Christians will quickly point to Paul’s admonition: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1–ESV). We will also point out, and rightly so, that Christians are “saved by grace through faith…not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). The Bible’s affirmation that we are saved by grace through faith, is an important teaching that sets Christianity apart from other world religions which often emphasize earning God’s favor through good works. However, this important distinction, along with a fear of sounding “legalistic” has caused some to shy away from the important biblical teaching on obedience. This article examines the difference between legalism and obedience.

Slaves of Obedience

The same apostle (Paul) who told the Galatians to stand firm in their freedom and not submit to a yoke of slavery, also tells the Romans that those who have come to Christ have become slaves of obedience and righteousness (Rom. 6:16, 18). In fact, the context in which Paul uses these phrases concerns his discussion that Christians are under grace, not under the law (Rom. 6:14-15). However, Paul maintains that the grace that we as Christians are under was achieved by one Man’s (Jesus’) righteous act (Rom. 5:18). Paul describes this act as an act of obedience that will make many righteous (Rom. 5:19). This obedient act that brings righteousness to many is the death of Jesus on the cross (Rom. 6:3-10). But Jesus did not stay dead; he was resurrected by the Father (Rom. 6:5, 9, 10). The example left by Jesus is therefore one of obedience through death which brings righteousness and life (Rom. 5:21).

obedience
Paul connects these same key words (obedience, death, righteousness, and life) with what happens to people who give their lives to Christ. First, we die with Christ and our old man is crucified (Rom. 6:3-6). Therefore, we are to reckon ourselves as dead (Rom. 6:11). Sin no longer has control over a dead person (Rom. 6:14). By this death, we are not only set free from sin, we are also imitating the obedience of Jesus who obediently went to the cross (Phil. 2:8). By grace we are transferred from the reign of sin to the reign of obedience leading to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). This is not to infer that our obedience makes us righteous; rather, it is the obedience of Jesus (his death) that makes us righteous (Rom. 5:18). But our decision to die with Christ is a form of obedience which produces the fruit of righteousness (Rom. 6:22). Thus, our lives become a mirror image of our Savior and of the gospel message! It would be a supreme contradiction if those who were delivered from sin continued to let sin reign (Rom. 6:1-2), and those who gave their lives to the Obedient One, refused to be obedient! Therefore, obedience is a natural outcome of grace and this is also why Paul speaks of “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26–ESV). This grace is enhanced through the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us to live obediently so “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4–NKJV).

Legalism and Obedience Contrasted

On the other hand, Paul contrasts the obedient life of righteousness produced by grace with the life of sin under the law. This is because the law arouses sinful passions which lead to death (7:5). Although the law itself is good (7:12), sin takes advantage of the law through the weakness of our flesh and produces disobedience (7:8-15). This often comes in the form of hypocrisy by judging others while we practice the same things (Rom. 2:1-5; 21-24). This is why Paul can state that those under the law are lawless (6:19)! Legalism1This is the difference between legalism and true obedience. Legalism is proud and self-righteous (10:3), and results in robbing God of His glory (1:21). Obedience demonstrates humility through dying to self and surrendering control to God, which gives Him the glory. Simply put: legalism is the result of a hard heart, while obedience is the result of a humble heart.
In conclusion, the word “reign” is used frequently by Paul in Romans 5:12-6:23. Paul indicates that we will be ruled by something (much as Bob Dylan said years ago, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). We will either be ruled by sin, or by obedience and righteousness––there are no other options. The problem is that we are not stronger than our desires. If we try to maintain our autonomy, we will become the pawn of sin. But if, on the other hand, we surrender our lives and die with Christ, we will find true freedom through a life of obedience. In the end, what we are ruled by determines our eternal outcome (5:21; 6:23), and that is the difference between legalism and obedience.
In our next article, I will look more closely at the meaning of grace.

Important or Impotent: How Many Sons Did Absalom Have?

Important or Impotent: How Many Sons Did Absalom Have?

Did you know that 2 Samuel 14:27 states that Absalom had 3 sons, but in 2 Samuel 18:18 Absalom says that he has no son? In the previous article on Absalom’s hair I pointed out this apparent contradiction and promised to offer an explanation. The easiest way of explaining away the contradiction (frequently suggested by commentators) is that Absalom’s sons must have died prematurely. I believe this whitewashes the problem (the text gives no hint that the sons died) and obscures what the biblical author is seeking to accomplish.

Writing Technique in 1&2 Samuel

The author(s) of 1&2 Samuel seems to be fond of using inconsistencies in the story as a literary technique that causes the reader to pause and reconsider something stated earlier in the narrative. There are numerous examples of this, but perhaps the best is when Saul was commanded to wipe out Israel’s enemy, the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:1-3).

Samuel slays Agag
Samuel slays Agag

Although the story makes clear that Saul is disobedient in sparing the king of the Amalekites, Agag (15:9), he appears to be the only human survivor. Subsequently, he is put to death by Samuel (15:33), which seems to put an end to all of the Amalekites. However, in the chapters surrounding the death of Saul, we are not only reminded that he was disobedient by not wiping out the Amalekites (1 Sam. 28:18), but Amalekites appear all over the place! (1 Sam. 27:8; 30:1-18; 2 Sam. 1:8, 13). This often puzzles readers, and may appear contradictory. In fact, it is a masterful way of surprising the reader and driving home the message that Saul was far more disobedient than we realized!
This same writing technique is at work in the two statements about Absalom’s sons (or lack thereof). The first important observation is to notice where these statements occur. The author uses the two statements about Absalom’s children (2 Sam. 14:27; 18:18) to bracket the account of Absalom’s rebellion. As discussed in the last article, the notice about Absalom’s hair and children, is a statement of power and virility. It causes the reader to think of him as a mighty warrior and a formidable foe. The second statement (“I have no son”) occurs immediately after Absalom’s death and burial, and metaphorically reveals the truth of the matter: Absalom was not a mighty warrior, nor a real threat to the kingdom. He was not as important as he appeared; in fact, he was impotent.

Isn’t There Still a Contradiction About How Many Sons Absalom Had?

While this might seem like a plausible explanation as far as the literary technique goes, it still leaves the obvious questions: so exactly how many sons did Absalom have, and aren’t the two passages still contradictory? The answer to these questions is found in examining the two texts carefully. 2 Sam. 14:27 is an objective statement by the biblical narrator that Absalom had 3 sons and 1 daughter. A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation is: you can trust the biblical narrator because he always tells the truth (see my book Family Portraits, p. 9 for a brief discussion on this point). Therefore, we can be confident that Absalom did indeed have 3 sons and 1 daughter.
Notice, however, that the statement about having no son in 2 Sam. 18:18 is not made by the narrator, but by Absalom himself. Could Absalom be wrong? This hardly seems likely. Absalom would surely know how many sons he has, and so would all who know him, therefore, this too must be an accurate statement. But if the narrator and Absalom contradict each other, how can they both be right? I suggest we are asking the wrong question. The important question is not “how many sons,” but rather, at what time in his life did Absalom make this assertion? Although the narrator puts this statement after Absalom’s death and burial, it is clear that it happened  at some point in Absalom’s past. The author is merely reporting it posthumously. 2 Sam. 18:18 is actually very vague about when Absalom uttered these words. It simply says, “in his lifetime.” In other words, Absalom’s statement is taken from some unspecified time in his life. The statement should not be viewed chronologically, as if it had to have occurred after the observation in 2 Sam. 14:27. This can mean that when Absalom initially uttered it, it was true. In fact, it is obvious from this statement that Absalom used having no son as a justification for erecting a monument to himself. Later on, however, he fathers 3 sons and a daughter. So Absalom ends up with the best of both worlds: He gets a monument to himself plus, later on, 3 sons and a daughter!

Absalom appears important by having 50 men run alongside his chariot
Absalom appears important by having 50 men run alongside his chariot

This recognition reveals the hypocrisy of Absalom. A character study demonstrates that he is a master at making things appear other than they really are (see chapter 24 in Family Portraits).
The biblical author cleverly captures this by taking Absalom’s statement about not having a son out of its chronological context (which he tells us he is doing by the statement, “in his lifetime”) and putting it at the end of his life. The reader notices the contradiction between 14:27 and 18:18 and, by carefully examining the passages, concludes that Absalom is not what he appears to be. Absalom’s humiliating death and burial become conclusive proof of this fact, and all those who were beguiled by his charm and good looks now appear foolish. The message is sobering: we may be able to mask who we really are for awhile, but at some point, whether in life or in death, the truth will ultimately be revealed. Better to be honest and real while we live. Better to live with integrity, than to allow death to unmask the ugly truth about us. Thank heaven for a God who sees and accepts us just as we are, if we are only willing to remove the mask and let Him in.

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom's hair caught in a tree
Although the biblical text says that Absalom caught his head in the tree, it is probably a reference to Absalom’s hair.

Did you know that in the ancient Near East long hair was frequently a picture of a warrior’s prowess and strength? The most obvious example from the Bible is Samson whose long hair is explicitly connected with his strength (Judges 16:17). Samson’s long hair symbolized his separation to God (the true source of his strength––Judges 13:5) and when his hair disappeared, so did the Lord’s presence (Judges 16:20). But Samson is not the only long-haired warrior mentioned in Scripture. In fact, the man I have in mind is very Samson-like in some respects. He is spoiled, likes to burn other people’s fields (Judges 15:4-5; 2 Sam. 14:30), and is well-known for his long luxuriant hair (2 Sam. 14:26). His name is Absalom, one of David’s sons. Absalom had so much hair that when he cut it each year it was said to weigh between 4-5 pounds! (2 Sam. 14:26). We are familiar with Samson’s connection to hair, but why does the biblical author draw so much attention to Absalom’s hair? There are probably several reasons.

The Significance of Absalom’s Hair

The mention of Absalom’s hair prefaces the story of his rebellion against David. Since long hair was associated with strength, this could be considered an ominous sign, suggesting that Absalom will be successful in overthrowing his father. However, Absalom not only has a fertile head of hair, he is also quite fertile in other ways, having fathered 3 sons and 1 daughter (14:27). Earlier in the story, David’s potency as a father is also connected with the strength of his rule (see 2 Sam. 3:1-5). Therefore, the long-haired, and virile Absalom appears to pose a real threat to the kingdom of David. Add to this his good-looks and charming ways (2 Sam. 14:25; 15:2-6), and Absalom appears to be a winning candidate for the kingship. This is often the basis for choosing today’s politicians. If they look good, and have the ability to schmooze the people, then they are surely the right person for the job!

Looks Can Be Deceiving!

Absalom’s story is just one of many recounted in 1&2 Samuel that teaches us “looks can be deceiving.” In reality, Absalom is none of the things he appears to be. His desire to destroy his father tarnishes his good-looking image. In fact,  Absalom’s hair conspires with the branches of a tree to do him in (2 Sam. 18:9-10–the text reads “head” which in this case is another way of speaking of his hair). Far from being a strong warrior, Absalom proves to be quite inept. Even Absalom’s potency as a father is challenged at his death when we are told that he set up a monument for himself because he had no son (2 Sam. 18:18). Wait a minute! I thought Absalom had 3 sons? I will offer an explanation of this apparent contradiction in my next article, or, for a full treatment of this problem you can read the chapter on Absalom in my book Family Portraits (especially pages 364-365 and 379-380). Meanwhile, we should take the Bible’s advice seriously and not believe everything we see. Patience and discernment are important ingredients of wisdom, and time is a great revealer of the truth!

My Book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press and other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

Envy and the Cross (Mark 15:10)

Envy and the Cross (Mark 15:10)

Mark says that because of envy, the chief priests sought to kill Jesus.
Mark says that because of envy, the chief priests sought to kill Jesus.

Did you know that, biblically speaking, there is a difference between envy and jealousy? In fact, envy was considered one of the great evils of the ancient world, while jealousy, in the proper context, was considered a natural and proper response. Many people use these words interchangeably today. So what is the difference and what does this have to do with the Cross as our title suggests? First, we will look at the biblical meanings of the words jealousy and envy, and then, in honor of Passion Week, we will notice the connection between envy and the Cross.

The Greek word for jealousy in the NT is “zelos” from which we also get our word “zealous.” One can be jealous of something or jealous for something. In other words, context determines whether the jealousy spoken of is a positive or negative quality. Jealousy for something speaks of the positive quality of protecting and nurturing what naturally belongs to us. If a husband or wife doesn’t care about their spouse having other lovers, we would (rightly) consider this bizarre. After all, when two people have committed themselves in marriage to belong only to each other, then a husband or wife has the right to be jealous for that special relationship they share. Similarly, we are jealous for our children. If we wanted a baby-sitter for the evening, we would not consider just asking any stranger off of the street to watch them. Our jealousy for our children demands that we find someone we can trust. When the Scriptures speak of God being a jealous God (e.g., Exod. 20:5), it is this positive kind of jealousy that is in mind. The relationship between God and His people is often described as a marriage relationship in both the Old and New Testaments, and God has gone to extreme measures (i.e., the sacrifice of His Only Son), to make that special relationship possible. Therefore, God is jealous for us, a perfectly natural expression of His deep love and concern for us.

The Negative and Dangerous Emotion of Envy

On the other hand, the word “zelos” can also be used in the negative sense of “to be jealous of,” or in other words, “to envy.” As mentioned above, context is the determining factor. So what exactly is envy? A popular definition of envy is, “my pain at your gain.” Envy involves a grudging feeling toward another person that desires to take what is theirs, or, at the very least, to see them stripped of what they have and to perversely enjoy their being deprived of it (“If I can’t have it, no one should” kind of attitude). Besides the word “zelos” sometimes carrying this meaning in the NT, another Greek word “phthonos,” (translated “envy”) always carries a negative connotation.[1]

Not only is envy a negative emotion, more importantly, it leads to destructive behavior. In particular, there are at least six harmful ways that envy came to expression in the ancient world: 1) ostracism; 2) gossip and slander; 3) feuding; 4) litigation; 5) the evil eye (placing a curse on someone); and 6) homicide.[2] The danger with envy is that it is not simply an internal emotion; it has a way of finding expression in harmful behavior, and this is why it is considered such a great evil. Thus, envy always seems to find a place among those NT passages that list a catalogue of the worst sins (e.g., Rom. 1:29; Gal. 5:21).

Sketched against this background, Mark’s statement, concerning the trial of Jesus before Pilate, takes on even more sinister overtones as he writes, “For he [Pilate] knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy” (Mark 15:10). This declaration, easily overlooked by moderns, is a resounding condemnation of the Jewish leaders’ intentions and motives. It was not a concern for holiness or righteousness that motivated these men, according to Mark, but one of the baser qualities of human nature: envy.

This story can challenge us to check our motives. These religious leaders could put on a false facade of spirituality. They could pretend to act for God and for the good of the community, but in reality their actions were motivated by the flesh. God sees through our actions to the heart of the matter. As Hannah sang long ago: “For the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by Him actions are weighed” (1 Sam. 2:3b).



[1] One possible exception to this is James 4:5 which is a notoriously difficult passage to translate. But see, for example, the NET, which is probably the correct way to translate this passage.

[2] This information is taken from Anselm C. Hagedorn and Jerome H. Neyrey, “It was out of envy they handed Jesus over’ (Mark 15:10): The anatomy of envy and the Gospel of Mark,” JSNT, 69, 1968 (p. 32).

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel
Available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and other sites

The following interview on my book “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel” was conducted by my friend and colleague Lindsay Kennedy who is a teacher at Calvary Chapel Bible College York, and an active blogger of all things biblical. You can find his blogs and book reviews, as well as other information, at http://www.mydigitalseminary.com

1. You (almost) exclusively teach OT history (Genesis, Josh-Kings) at CCBCY (Calvary Chapel Bible College York). What first sparked your interest in the Old Testament?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree in biblical studies, a man by the name of Gerald Vinther came to teach during my junior and senior years at the bible college I was attending. He taught OT and the Hebrew language. His classes totally revolutionized my view of God and of the OT. Whether looking at Genesis or the Prophets, he demonstrated the consistency of God’s character between the Old and New Testaments. I discovered a God of grace and love in the OT who desired to have a relationship with His people, just like the God of the NT. My particular church tradition had emphasized the judgmental nature of the God of the OT and de-emphasized the significance of the OT. When we saw the character of God revealed in the pages of the OT, one of my classmates described it as being born-again…again! Since then I have fallen in love with the study of the OT and the God revealed in its pages. Because many Christians don’t know the OT and often have misconceptions about it, and the God revealed in its pages, I have found great joy in assisting others in seeing its beauty and truth, much like I was introduced to it years ago. By the way, this is why I give a special “thank you” in the preface of Family Portraits to Gerald Vinther, and also to my graduate professor in OT, John T. Willis who also had an important influence on me.

2. For as long as I’ve known you, you have been working on this book. What drove you to write Family Portraits?

I was drawn to the books of Samuel in graduate school and have continued to study them for many years. One of the things I noticed in my study was the theme of family and the prominence of four families within 1&2 Samuel (Samuel’s, Eli’s, Saul’s, and David’s). None of the studies or commentaries I have read bring out the significance of this particular theme.  Also, although many character studies have been done on David, Saul, and Samuel, few have been done on the other members of their family, and no book has sought to tackle them all as I do in Family Portraits.

I was also intrigued by the fact that character studies, if done correctly, can assist the student of 1&2 Samuel in understanding its characters in a way that a commentary approach can’t. The sustained reflection on a certain character, noting all the places where they appear in the text, often reveals insights that can be overlooked in a commentary. This approach actually modified my understanding of certain characters like Abner and Joab.

3. This is a book of character studies in 1&2 Samuel, yet surprisingly you have omitted sections on Samuel, Saul, and David. What can we learn from investigating the supporting cast in this story?

As I mentioned in the last question, a number of studies have been done on these three major characters, but very little has been done on other members of the “supporting cast”. In the Preface to Family Portraits, I compare character studies with an artist who paints a portrait. Although the artist may seek to focus attention on a certain person or object within the painting in order to convey his or her message, the person or object is enhanced by everything else in the painting, which might include various colors, shapes, objects, or people. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, is an example of this. While Christ is the focal point of the painting, the expressions and actions of the 12 disciples surrounding him add depth and detail to the portrait and meaning of the painting.

One of the techniques that the author(s) of 1&2 Samuel uses is contrasting various characters with other characters. For example, Hannah is contrasted with Peninnah as well as Eli. Samuel is contrasted with Eli and his sons. Jonathan is contrasted with Saul, and David is contrasted with Saul and Absalom. These are only a few examples of the many comparisons and contrasts made between characters in 1&2 Samuel. By studying the lesser known characters and their interaction with God and the major characters, we are able to discern some of the important messages that the author(s) was seeking to convey to his readers.

4. Family Portraits is unique because it incorporates both academic and devotional material in one place. Who did you have in mind when writing this book?

First let me say that I believe it is extremely important to combine an academic and devotional approach (by which I mean making practical application to our daily lives). I am glad to see that this approach is beginning to catch on in evangelical circles. Far too often books are either academic in nature with no application, or devotional with no solid scholarly foundation. The academic approach runs the risk of being irrelevant and a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, while at the same time making the Bible appear irrelevant to a modern reader. The devotional/applicational approach can run the risk of a passage meaning whatever a particular author wants or thinks it means, if not backed up with solid research and exegesis.

To answer your question more directly, Family Portraits is written for the pastor, teacher, Bible College or seminary student, and Christian who is interested in a more in-depth treatment of 1&2 Samuel. While some pastors and Bible college students may be familiar with Hebrew and some of the more technical aspects of Bible study, I have tried to be aware of those who don’t have this expertise.  I seek to explain unfamiliar terms and methods and refer to the Hebrew only when it illuminates an important point in the text. Admittedly this can, at times, be a delicate balancing act. Part of my desire is to introduce ideas and methods that the average layperson is unfamiliar with, in hopes that they will be challenged to go to the next level in their own study of the Bible.

5. What do you hope your readers will take away from Family Portraits?

First, and foremost, I hope that Family Portraits helps people to develop a closer relationship with, and greater understanding of, the God of the Bible. Character studies are an excellent vehicle for helping us to see ourselves and how the Word of God applies to our lives. In the characters of 1&2 Samuel we find traits that we admire and abhor, and hopefully learning (or being reminded of) these truths causes us to examine our own lives and seek God’s help in becoming the people He desires us to be.

Second, there are a lot of great books that deal with various aspects of 1&2 Samuel that the average Christian layperson will never to exposed to. In fact, the average layperson may never even know that these resources exist! Some of these Bible study methods and scholars provide wonderful insights into God’s Word. I hope that Family Portraits, in some small way, introduces them to these resources and scholars and encourages them to pursue a deeper study of the Scripture.

Finally, I am hopeful that Family Portraits helps to provide a model for studying Scripture with an academic rigor, but at the same time, with a pastoral heart. As I mentioned in the previous question, and also emphasize in my Preface and Introduction, I believe it is imperative that academic research and devotional application go together. Having said this, I admit my own inadequacy in combining these approaches and don’t pretend to have achieved complete success. I certainly need to continue to grow in both of these areas. Yet it is my hope that Family Portraits is at least an attempt that demonstrates the fruitfulness of this kind of approach.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and various internet outlets.

 

Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World

Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World

Did you know that those who study the history and culture of the Roman world of the first century affirm that the Roman Empire (consisting of Romans, Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, etc.) was founded on the cultural values of honor and shame? To quote David deSilva, “A person born into [this] culture was led from childhood to seek honor and to avoid disgrace. Honor comes from the affirmation of a person’s worth by peers and society, awarded on the basis of the individual’s ability to embody the virtues and attributes his or her society values” (An Introduction to the New Testament, IVP, 2004, p. 125). Words such as “honor,” “glory,” “praise,” and other synonyms, as well as “shame,” “reproach,” “mock,” and their synonyms, are part of the daily vocabulary of people who live in such a society. One can hardly turn a page of the Bible without finding one of these words, which suggests how an understanding of honor and shame might impact our understanding of Scripture. These articles are meant to be short and so I will not delve into the many ways in which our Bible reading can be enriched by understanding this cultural dynamic. Instead, I want to focus on how our understanding of crucifixion and the cross of Christ is enhanced when seen against this cultural background.

Shame and the Cross of Christ

Although none of us in the western world are exposed to crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, we are aware of the slow and horribly painful death experienced by its victims. But in the Roman world, a painful death was only one reason, and probably not the most important reason, for crucifixion. In a society built on honor, the cross was the most shameful death possible. The cross was not only intended to torture its victim, but to shame them so that no one would want to be affiliated with them. This is why a person was crucified naked, was beaten, mocked, and spit upon (e.g., Matt. 27:29-30, 39-44). If the Jewish leaders had only wanted Jesus dead, they could have sent someone into the throngs that surrounded him to stab him. Jesus’ death, however, was not enough; that would simply make a martyr of him. The Jewish leaders realized that he must die the most shameful death possible so that all of his followers would scatter and it would put an end to his influence. This idea of the shame of the cross is the backdrop for all of the passion narratives in the gospels and for passages such as Acts 18:32; 1 Cor. 1:18; and Heb. 12:2, to name only a few.

The Cross: A Sign of Victory

The fact is, Roman crucifixion was so effective that it quelled every rebellion in the ancient world. Whether we are talking about the slave rebellion under Spartacus, which saw the crucifixion of 6000 men, or the uprisings of would-be deliverers and messiahs, every movement was put down and silenced by the use of the cross. Every movement that is…except for one! The fact that the early disciples went about preaching “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is an astonishing fact, given the cultural dynamics of honor and shame. No one in this society would think, “I believe I’ll start a new religion and base it on a man who was crucified.” Everyone wanted to stay as far away from the shame of crucifixion as possible. Even if, one person was crazy enough to imagine such an idea, it would never have gained a following. To identify with the cross was to guaranty a life of persecution and shame. This is why Paul said the “message of the cross [was] foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). How then do we explain the fact that the cross of ChristChrist-on-the-Cross-Painting-by-Eugene-Delacroix, not only transformed many lives, but ultimately conquered the Roman Empire itself? The only logical explanation for this phenomenon is that there was a power behind the cross of Jesus that was not of this world; a power that went far beyond human intellect, social mores, and cultural norms. It was in fact, as Paul affirms, the power of God!

For a further explanation of honor and shame and how it impacts our understanding of the books of 1&2 Samuel, please see my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, especially chapters 4 and 18.

My Review of Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes

misreading scriptureMisreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand The Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012.

As an American, I thought I knew England. After all, I had visited the UK on three occasions. However, when my wife and I moved to England a little over ten years ago, we realized that we had settled into a very different culture. Many have had the experience of being offended or bewildered by the words or actions of a person from a different culture. This is not because that person intentionally sought to offend or bewilder us, but because two people with different culturally conditioned mindsets viewed the same words or actions differently. Our experience with Scripture can be similar. Richards and O’Brien, the authors of, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, state, “We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience” (p. 11). One of their stated goals is “to remind (or convince!), [us] of the cross-cultural nature of biblical interpretation” (p. 12). The authors note that we all carry cultural assumptions which we may not even be aware of––in their words things that “go without being said.” The result can be, “When we miss what went without being said for them [i.e., the biblical authors] and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture” (authors’ emphasis, p. 13).

Using the illustration of an iceberg, Richards and O’Brien break their book down into three parts as they explore nine differences between Western and non-Western cultures (3 differences in each section). Part One, the tip of the iceberg represents the cultural differences that are most obvious. Part Two involves cultural assumptions which are just below the surface––they “are visible once you know to look for them” (p. 16). Part Three examines the bottom of the iceberg. These are “cultural issues that are not obvious to all” (p. 16). Readers of New Testament Background material will be familiar with some of these topics such as Individualism and Collectivism (chap. 4), or Honor and Shame (chap. 5). Having previously read Bruce Malina’s The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, and David deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, I wondered if I was simply going to go over familiar territory on these topics, but Richards’ and O’Brien’s approach is fresh and insightful, frequently suggesting a new route for understanding and applying a difficult verse or passage.

The authors frequently bring their own cross-cultural knowledge to bear. Richards was a missionary to Indonesia and shares some of his experiences there, demonstrating how an eastern culture often has a different perspective on an action or a biblical verse. O’Brien’s wife grew up in southeast Asia and he confesses to drawing on her understandings as a “third-culture kid” (his expression, p. 219), as well as the understandings of friends from other cultures. He also brings his knowledge of Church history to the topic. O’Brien does not mention any experience living in an eastern cultural setting however, and even with Richards’ experience in Indonesia, one can question if everything in Indonesian culture transfers directly to biblical culture.

Many chapters do offer valuable insights and interesting anecdotes. One example of this is chapter 6 entitled, “Sand Through the Hourglass.” This chapter looks at the different perspective on time between eastern and western cultures. Although people may be aware that different cultures view time differently, it may never have occurred to the average Bible reader just how their concept of time affects their interpretation of what they read. The authors point out that our concept of time affects everything from our understanding of the use of wisdom and the interpretation of proverbs, to our understanding of how biblical books were composed. For example, the western reader usually comes with the supposition that a narrative will follow chronological order. It is often confusing when we find things in Scripture that do not follow our preconceived ideas of time. The authors note that eastern cultures do not have the same preoccupation with chronology that westerners do. Richards point out “that telling stories for Indonesians is often more like making a soup: some ingredients had a specific timing, but the other elements just needed to be added in sometime” (pp. 147-148). This different understanding of time also attaches itself to the meaning of the word “soon.” When a man told friends he was having a banquet “soon,” it carried a different meaning for someone in antiquity, than it does for a modern westerner.  This made me think of Jesus’ statement, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20), and how we as westerners can attach a different meaning to the idea of “quickly.”

There are, however, a few things to quibble with in this book. One example is the author’s discussion of honor and shame in chapter 5. There is no doubt that honor and shame is a major cultural difference between western culture and the cultures reflected in Scripture. Understanding this dynamic has opened my eyes to many things recorded in Scripture. However, the authors maintain that in an honor and shame culture all actions are predicated on what is acceptable or not acceptable to that culture. Guilt plays no part; it is all about losing or saving face (p. 118). Their interpretation of the David and Bathsheba story, which they give as an illustration, raises certain questions which the authors do not satisfactorily address. According to their understanding, once Uriah was killed and David took Bathsheba as his wife, he would have considered the matter resolved and “it is likely that David never gave it another thought” (p. 125). My question is, “Isn’t the king supposed to know God’s law? (Deut. 17:18-20). Wouldn’t David be familiar with commandments like, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery?” (Exod. 20:13-14). In other words, does it really take a prophet (Nathan) to come and tell David these things are shameful when God has already spelled out that certain actions are displeasing to Him? Similarly, how does Nathan come to this conclusion if society is saying it’s alright for kings to act this way, as the authors maintain? The Bible clearly demonstrates that God’s law informs what is honorable and what is shameful in Israelite society. All one has to do is read any of the prophets to see that they constantly take their society to task for violations of God’s law. If the group was the measure of honor and shame, this wouldn’t be the case. Richards and O’Brien have made a serious error by ignoring this aspect of Scripture.

For readers unfamiliar with the cultural values of the ancient Mediterranean world, it might be helpful to read some introductory material such as that provided by David A. deSilva in his An Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 111-144), but Richards’ and O’Brien’s book is imminently readable, and therefore suitable for the beginning student of a New Testament Backgrounds course, or a course on Hermeneutics. As noted above, this book is not perfect, but it certainly provides food for thought. Pastors and teachers of the Bible would do well to familiarize themselves with the material in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, as we have all too frequently made some of the mistakes recorded in this book. Ultimately, the authors’ purpose is more laudable than simply saying, “look at the way you’ve misrepresented Scripture,” their desire is to make us aware of the presuppositions that we approach Scripture with. Particularly those presuppositions which are culturally conditioned and, therefore, easily overlooked. As the authors state, “We are not implying that all our Western reading habits are wrong….We want to unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a cross-cultural experience and to help you become aware of what you take for granted when you read” (pp. 21-22). No matter where you may have travelled, the authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes will take you on a journey that’s worth the trip.

(This copy was provided free of charge by IVP Press in exchange for an unbiased review)

Buy Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes from Amazon

Anger: The Bible says, “The Nose Knows”

Anger: The Bible says, “The Nose Knows”

Does anger make your nose flare?
Does anger make your nose flare?

Did you know that the word “nose” is a common way of expressing anger in the Old Testament?  The psalmist speaks of the Lord’s anger by saying, “Smoke went up from His nostrils (Ps. 18:8–NKJV).  In Ezekiel 38:18 when Gog comes against the land of Israel, the Lord says, “my anger will rise up in my nose” (translation by E. Johnson, TDOT, vol.1, p. 351). In Hebrew thought, there is a connection between the nose and anger.

Elkanah’s Gift Reveals Hannah’s Anger

This observation can help us understand a phrase that has frequently puzzled Bible commentators.  In 1 Samuel 1:5 Elkanah is said to give Hannah “a portion for the nostrils.”  Our translations usually read something like “a double portion” (NKJV, NIV), indicating that Elkanah is giving Hannah an extra portion of the sacrificial meat.  However, the context makes clear that Hannah is very upset because Peninnah (the other woman!) provokes Hannah about her barrenness (1 Sam. 1:6).  Elkanah’s “portion for the nostrils” is to calm Hannah down and turn her frown into a happy face.  However, an ongoing problem like Hannah’s needs more than a superficial solution.  It is only when Hannah turns her problem completely over to the Lord, that “her face [becomes] no longer sad (1 Sam. 1:18).

The same is true for us.  Superficial human solutions never resolve deep needs.  Only the Lord can provide the permanent cure.  By the way, another expression used of the Lord is that He is “long of nose” (e.g., Exod. 34:6).  In English this is translated as “longsuffering” or “slow to anger.”  When your nose gets “short” or “out of joint” seek the Lord for a solution because He is “long of nose!”

For a deeper discussion of this issue and the lives of Elkanah and Hannah, check out my book––Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.