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.
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.
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. 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.
 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.
 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
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
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 Christ, 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!
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)