A good wordplay catches the eye and often communicates an effective message with wit and humor. The names of companies such as “Cane and Able Mobility Healthcare,” or “Curl Up and Dye,” the name of a beauty salon in London, capture people’s attention, while at the same time effectively communicating what their business is about. This particular type of wordplay is known as paronomasia. Puns are also favorite devices for communicating ideas with wit and humor. Among the better known puns, at least among musicians, is Douglas Adams’s statement, “You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.” For those of a more philosophical bent, Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Immanuel doesn’t pun, he Kant.”
The Use of Wordplay in Samson’s Riddle
Some may not be aware that the Old Testament is also filled with various kinds of wordplay. Of course the wordplay occurs in Hebrew and, therefore, it is not usually possible to communicate it in our English Bibles, but translators give it their best shot when possible. For example, Samson’s riddle to his wedding guests in Judges 14:14, comes through quite well in most English translations. Based on his exploit of killing a lion and later discovering honey in its carcass, which he proceeds to eat, Samson poses the following riddle: “From-the-eater out-came eat[s] and from-the-strong out-came sweet[s]” (translation from Daniel Block, Judges, New American Commentary, p. 433). Although the Hebrew version of the riddle doesn’t rhyme (as Block’s and other English translations do), Samson does use assonance (the use of similar vowel sounds), alliteration (the use of same sounding consonants), and word repetition.
Fun With Names: Paronomasia in the Book of Judges
Although the Book of Judges is not the only book in the Old Testament to play with people’s names, it does have some particularly amusing examples of paronomasia. One of these is found in Judges 3:8, 10. In this short story the Israelite judge, Othniel, battles Cushan Rishathaim from Aram Naharaim. Even in English we can pick up the obvious rhyme between Rishathaim and Naharaim. The NKJV spoils this rhyme by translating Aram Naharaim (which means “Aram/Syria between the 2 rivers”) as Mesopotamia. Besides the obvious rhyme which is a lot of fun to say (try repeating “Cushan Rishathaim from Aram Naharaim” about 5 times!), the name Cushan Rishathaim also is a clever wordplay. The word “Rishathaim” means “doubly wicked.” Cushan may also mean “dark,” and so Cushan Rishathaim means, “the dark doubly wicked one!” Clearly this is not the name that Cushan’s parents gave him! Rather, it is a clever twisting or substituting of vowels to produce a pun that mocks their adversary. The Israelites, and their later Jewish descendants, were famous for making a pun on a name simply by changing a vowel or two. Such a device is similar to modern political cartoons that poke fun at a rival by exagerrating some characteristic of their opponent. Another example of this can be found in Judges 9 when a man named Gaal Ben Ebed strolls into the city of Shechem. Gaal Ben Ebed means “Loathesome son of a slave,” hardly the man’s real name. In cases like this, we will never know the real name of the individual, but we can take an educated guess. For example, by changing a couple of vowels, Gaal becomes “Goel” which means “redeemer.” Were the Israelites making fun of this man whose name may have meant “Redeemer” by calling him “Loathesome?” Remember that when writing ancient Hebrew (much like modern Hebrew) only consonants were used. Therefore, Gaal and Goel would look the same when written out. These examples demonstrate that making fun of a person’s name is not a modern phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon dating back many millennia. While these name changes are not easily detected in English, a good Bible commentary will help identify this use of wordplay.
Words That Look and/or Sound the Same
The technical terms for this kind of wordplay are homographs (words that look the same–“graph” meaning “to write”), homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently) and homonyms (words that look and/or sound the same but have different meanings–e.g., “right” and “write”). The prophets were well-known for using this type of wordplay. For example, when Jeremiah was called to be a prophet God says to him in Jeremiah 1:11, “What do you see Jeremiah?” The young prophet responds, “I see a branch of an almondtree.” The Lord responds, “I am watching over my word to perform it” (Jer. 1:12). In Hebrew the word for almond tree is shaqed, while the word for watching is shoqed. Since the almond tree was the first tree to bud in spring, the point of the wordplay is that God’s word will soon come to pass. Once again, only a good commentary will help the English reader, since this wordplay is not obvious in English. In this case, the words are homographs–they look the same–but they are pronounced slightly differently.
My favorite wordplay of this kind occurs in the story of Eli found in 1 Samuel chapters 1-4. We are told on two occasions that Eli has a weight problem. In 1 Samuel 2:29 the Lord accuses Eli and his sons of making themselves “fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel.” Later when Eli dies, the narrator tells us that Eli broke his neck when he fell backwards off his seat because he was old and heavy. The word heavy in Hebrew is kabed. It is from the same root as the Hebrew word for honor which is kabod. The story of Eli emphasizes that he has not honored the Lord (1 Sam. 2:30). Eli’s heaviness is directly related to the lack of honor that he has shown for God because it is his consumption of the stolen meat from the sacrifices that has contributed to his weight problem. The wordplay between kabed and kabod emphasizes the correspondence between the stolen sacrificial meat and the lack of honor given to God. But there is still more to this story. The word kabod which means honor, can also be translated glory in English. After Eli’s death, his daughter-in-law gives birth to a child that she names Ichabod (notice the word chabod, or kabod–it can be spelt either way—in this name). Ichabod means either “no glory,” or “where is the glory?” The child is named Ichabod because, as Eli’s daughter-in-law states, “the glory has departed from Israel” (1 Sam. 4:21-22). When we follow the wordplay through, we come to realize that the story is telling us that because Eli made himself heavy (kabed) and did not honor (kabod) the Lord, the glory (kabod) departed from Israel. I explore this wordplay in more depth in my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.
These are just a few examples of the different ways that the Old Testament uses wordplay. The discovery of wordplay in the Old Testament not only enhances our appreciation for its artistry, more importantly, it helps us to connect with the theology and messages in the biblical text that we might otherwise overlook. For those of you who enjoy a good wordplay, I would love for you to share some of your favorites from the Bible in the comment section below.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities
Anyone interested in the Old Testament, especially those difficult passages and concepts found in it, cannot help but be drawn in by the title of this book. In This Strange and Sacred Scripture, Matthew Richard Schlimm tackles some of the most difficult questions regarding the Old Testament. While some Christians treat the Old Testament like an alien source from another planet, and while a number of atheists have used its “oddities” (as Schlimm puts it) to argue against belief in God or religion, Schlimm chooses to see the Old Testament as “our friend in faith” (p. 6). The friendship metaphor is applied throughout This Strange and Sacred Scripture and allows Schlimm to explore the Old Testament from a number of different angles. At the outset Schlimm argues that seeing the Old Testament as a faithful friend has several benefits: 1) friendship dispels loneliness and the Old Testament “reminds us that people of faith are not alone” (p. 7); 2) friends are fun to be around. Although there are difficult parts of the Old Testament, it is also a resource of great stories that bring joy (e.g., the story of Joseph); 3) friends are useful to have around. “They provide valuable information and ideas that allow us to navigate life more easily” (p. 8); 4) the best friends make us better people. Schlimm argues that “When the Old Testament is our friend, we become more holy, more aware of God’s presence in the world, and more concerned with justice and righteousness” (p. 8). Throughout the book Schlimm argues for other ways in which the friendship metaphor is a helpful way of viewing the Old Testament. For example, at times we disagree with friends, they can even make us feel uncomfortable, but we don’t give up on the friendship. At times our friends challenge our views which causes us to grow as people. Schlimm argues that the Old Testament has this same effect, as well as other effects, on people who befriend it.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Contents
After an opening chapter which explores whether the Old Testament should be viewed as an enemy (aka, Marcion and his children), a stranger (the way many in the church today treat the Old Testament), or a friend (the author’s proposal), Schlimm tackles the following subjects:
Chapter 2: Our Fleeting Moments in Paradise (Should Genesis 2:4-4:16 be read as literal history or as a poetic story?).
Chapter 3: Darkness Over the Face of the Deep (How should we read and understand Genesis 1? Is there a conflict with science?).
Chapter 4: The R-rated Bible (Schlimm looks at some of the troubling stories of the Old Testament such as Jacob’s unethical behavior).
Chapter 5: Killing All That Breathes (a look at violence in the Old Testament).
Chapter 6: Male and Female God Created Them (What does the Old Testament say about Gender equality and how should we approach difficult passages that seem to treat women as less than equal?).
Chapter 7: God Commands Us to Do What? (a discussion of some of the strange and obscure laws found in the Old Testament).
Chapter 8: Is the Law Engraved in Stone? (an examination of laws in the Old Testament that seem to contradict each other).
Chapter 9: Truth Is Many Sided (this chapter continues the discussion introduced in the previous chapter, but extends it beyond a discussion of laws in the Old Testament).
Chapter 10: Drowning in Tears and Raging at God (a look at difficult statements in the Book of Psalms).
Chapter 11: Great and Terrible is the Wrath of the Lord (a discussion of passages dealing with God’s judgment).
Chapter 12: The Old Testament’s Authority (in this final chapter, Schlimm discusses various approaches to the Old Testament’s authority and proposes his own).
Selections from This Strange and Sacred Scripture
Since it is impossible in this review to discuss every chapter of Schlimm’s book, I have selected a few points that I found either provocative, helpful, or in need of further treatment by the author. Hopefully this selection will whet the reader’s appetite to read This Strange and Sacred Scripture for him or herself.
The Story of the Garden Historical or Symbolic?
Some readers will find Schlimm provocative from the start as he suggests in chapter 2, “Our Fleeting Moments in Paradise,” that Genesis 2:4-4:16 should be read as symbolic rather than historical. Schlimm presents the following arguments. First, the Hebrew names in the text suggest a symbolic reading. Adam (human), Eve (life), Eden (delight), Cain (a word that sounds like other Hebrew words, especially the word “spear”), and Abel (fleeting breath), “begin to look much more like names of characters in John Bunyan’s allegorical story than the names of actual historical people” (p. 19). Second, talking snakes and trees that provide life or “the knowledge of good and evil,” suggest symbolism (pp. 20-22). 3) Third, the location of Eden which is geographically impossible to locate suggests a more symbolic locale (pp. 22-23). Fourth, and finally, the use of parallelism, repetition, wordplay and symbolic language suggest a poetic story (p. 23).
I must admit that I have also wondered at times if the account in Genesis 2-4 was to be taken as history or as symbolism. Talking snakes and special trees do seem to lean in that direction. In spite of Schlimm’s arguments however, I still find myself in the historical camp for several reasons. First, while it is true that the names have great meaning to the story, this is no less true of other stories in the Old Testament (Abraham, Moses, Hannah, etc.). The significance of certain names does not mean the text is not historical. Second, the use of parallelism, repetition, wordplay, and symbolic language also occurs frequently in Old Testament texts that are historical. Third, if the story in Genesis 2:4-4:16 is to be taken symbolically, then what are we to make of the genealogies of Cain (Gen. 4:17-24) and Adam (Gen. 5)? In other words, at what point does Genesis transition from symbolic story to history, and how is that indicated in the text? Fourth, although Schlimm argues otherwise, I find Paul’s statements in the New Testament regarding Adam and Eve (e.g., Rom. 5; 1 Tim. 2:13-14) to refer to real historical people. Romans 5 is particularly important along this line. Paul compares Christ (a historical person) to Adam and says that what was done in Adam was undone through Christ. I would like to hear more from Schlimm on how he would reconcile a symbolic reading of Genesis 2-4 with the genealogies of Genesis and the New Testament references to Adam and Eve.
Violence in the Old Testament
Because violence in the Old Testament is a topic I am concerned about (see my series on Violence in the Old Testament here), I was especially interested to see what insight Schlimm might offer. Schlimm divides his answers into 5 different responses. Response 1: Description is not Prescription (p. 64). In other words, just because a violent act is described in the Bible doesn’t mean we are to imitate it. Response 2: We are not God, and therefore we don’t have the authority to act as God does in certain situations (such as executing judgment on sinners). In conjunction with this argument, Schlimm also points out that sometimes God fights, so that his people don’t have to. Further, he notes that the biblical perspective is not one-sided. God isn’t always pictured as being on the side of his people. Instead, God is on the side of righteousness, justice, and holiness. Schlimm’s third response is based on “The Problem of Application” (p. 70). Not every biblical text applies to our individual lives. “We are not its only audience. It speaks to people in many cultures, times, and places” (p. 71). In the midst of this discussion, Schlimm looks at Psalm 137:9 and under what circumstances it may speak to a believer. I found his explanation of this difficult passage very helpful. Response 4: “The Right Word for the Right Situation,” deals with the fact that the Bible presents different perspectives on various topics (like violence). Schlimm provides some helpful questions to ask of the text. Rather than simply asking, “How should we live out a particular text in our individual lives, we should also ask questions like: “How do different biblical texts provide a conversation with one another?” “Which texts speak most directly to us in our context?” And, “Where do we most closely align with the biblical text? Where do we diverge? Why?” (p. 74). Schlimm’s fifth response is an honest one: “We Don’t Have All the Answers.” Here he calls for humility and prayerful questions when approaching difficult texts (pp. 76-79).
Schlimm ends the chapter with a brief discussion of the herem texts (this word is frequently translated to “utterly destroy” and refers to God’s command concerning the Canaanites and Amalekites). He provides the following arguments: First, this practice was directed toward the Canaanites to uproot idolatry from the land (Exod. 22:20; Deut. 7:1-4). Second, “this practice of herem ensures that people don’t go to war for personal gain” (this is because the spoil is devoted to God). “Third, this practice recognizes God as the military victor of Israel’s battles.” He also points out that some texts in the Bible describe one-time events. Ultimately, Schlimm states, “these passage nevertheless should always leave us uncomfortable” (p. 80).
Truth Is Many Sided
Chapter 9 begins with the question, “Does the Old Testament contradict itself?” (p. 139). Schlimm does not gloss over the issues with a defensive “no” or a glib “yes,” instead he takes a constructive approach by looking at the complex nature of the Old Testament and the theological and ethical tensions within it. Three analogies guide his approach. He contends that the Old Testament does not offer a sales pitch, but rather a conversation. He states, “The Old Testament refuses to act like a half-honest sales rep. It doesn’t give readers just one perspective. It shows things from different lights and from different angles. It doesn’t present every viewpoint under the sun but, it does recognize the complexity of truth ” (p. 141). One example of this complexity is the difference between the Deuteronomic teaching that the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be cursed, and the Book of Job (or some of the psalms) which reflect that the opposite can also be true. Schlimm observes that, “While it’s possible to see the Old Testament’s teachings on this topic as contradictory, it’s also possible to see them as ongoing dialogue about complex truths” (p. 143).
The second analogy Schlimm uses is the difference between math problems and artwork. He argues that the Old Testament is more than a math problem with a fixed solution that never changes. It is more like an artist that “captures truths that are far more complicated than any math equation” (p. 148). This analogy of course has its limits. God is a God who never changes and there are eternal truths contained in the Old Testament (e.g., one God, God’s holiness, etc.). Schlimm is in agreement with me on this as the next metaphor demonstrates. The final analogy contrasts a “one-size-fits-all” garment (like a hospital gown) with tailor-made clothes. Schlimm admits that in some respects the Old Testament reflects some truths that are “one-size-fits-all” such as, loving God with all that we are or our neighbors as ourselves. However, he cautions against the attitude that the entire Old Testament can be viewed this way. By “tailor-made” Schlimm means that some truths “work for certain people in certain situations” (p. 151). He illustrates this with the verses from Proverbs 26:4-5 which appear contradictory unless it is realized that wisdom must be applied to know which advice to follow (v. 4 or v. 5). He concludes the chapter with a hypothetical conversation between Ruth and Ezra over whether God’s people can marry foreigners and the contrasting perspectives represented by the books that bear their names.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Conclusion
Schlimm concludes this book with a look at the various kinds of authority and how we should approach the Old Testament. He notes those who would say the Old Testament should have no or limited authority in our lives and it is clear he disagrees with this position. Next he points to those who treat the Old Testament like a drill-sergeant. “It tells us what to do and we do it. No questions asked” (p. 200). He notes at least 3 problems with this approach. 1) It gives an incorrect impression of God. If God loves us, why would the Bible address us as a drill-sergeant as opposed to a loving teacher? 2) New Testament Christians didn’t follow the Old Testament this way. For example, they didn’t observe certain laws such as circumcision and food laws. 3) The drill-sergeant model is susceptible to misuse and can portray unhealthy images of dominance and submission.
Schlimm then examines the “Inerrant-Infallible” Model. He writes, “Many have found the language of inerrancy and infallibility appealing. Insofar as their main concern is to say that the Bible as a whole is reliable when it comes to thinking about God, humanity, and creation, I don’t have a bone to pick with them” (p. 201, author’s emphasis). However, he continues by stating that words like “inerrant” can cause various problems to arise. His objections include: 1) it suggests we are dealing with sentences that can have a true or false value; 2) it causes readers to focus on the wrong things; 3) it means we need to wrestle with “odd ancient expressions like ‘the four corners of the earth’…and whether such expressions are error free” (p. 201); 4) infallibility can suggest the Bible will never let people down yet we know the devil can quote it and that we need the Holy Spirit and other people to make adequate sense of it; 5) the only writings which can be considered error-free are boring. Clearly some of these arguments are not as compelling as others. Although he finds argument 5 the “most damning” (p. 202), I find it the least convincing. Similarly, argument 4 is based more on the devil’s wickedness and people’s sinfulness than it is on any inherent problem with the Bible.
After examining the view that the Bible is a “way of becoming closer to God” and noting that all of these ways of looking at the Bible fall short, he proposes “A Better Model;” the one he has utilized throughout the book: the Old Testament as friend. Schlimm argues that, “Seeing the Old Testament as our friend in faith explains how we can be firmly committed to Scripture, even as we express questions, doubts, and possible disagreements with it. He notes that some may find this a weak model of biblical authority but asks the question: “Yet who has more power over us than our closest friends?” (p. 205).
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Evaluation
Schilmm has provided a very stimulating look at the Old Testament. I admire his desire to share its value with those who are willing to read this book. I share his commitment to the Old Testament and his conviction that there is much there to enrich our faith. Schlimm doesn’t duck any of the difficulties with the Old Testament. He faces the problems squarely and provides some good answers and food for thought. Certainly each chapter could be a book in itself and so the treatment here is only a beginning. At times one can feel the incompleteness of the treatment, but such is the case with a book this size. Schlimm’s arguments regarding the potential problems of viewing the Bible as inerrant will certainly rankle some evangelicals (at times I felt the discomfort), but his reverence for God and his respect for the Old Testament is clear on every page. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, Schlimm has written a stimulating book that provides some answers to perplexing difficulties, while at the same time challenging the reader to view the Old Testament in new ways. This Strange and Sacred Scripture is written in a very accessible style. I not only recommend it, it is my hope that it will stimulate many to a deeper appreciation and study of the Old Testament.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities is available at Baker Academic and Amazon USA / UK
(Special thanks to Baker Academic for a copy of This Strange and Sacred Scripture, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review).
Everyone who loves the Bible has favorite passages. Some people even have what they refer to as “life verses.” When I’m asked what my favorite passage in the Bible is, I struggle because I have a hard time coming up with just one. Recently I read an article entitled, “10 Old Testament Passages that Shape How I Think About God,” by Peter Enns. I do not always agree with what Enns writes, but I found his choice of passages interesting and was encouraged by reading them. I also gained two other benefits: 1) I learned something about Peter Enns; what is important to him and why; and 2) it challenged me to think of my ten favourite Old Testament passages. So the idea for this post is not original, I owe it to Enns, but the passages are my own. I hope you will enjoy reading them. Hopefully, they will encourage you. No doubt, they will teach you something about me, and most of all, I hope you will be inspired to draw up your own list of favorite passages.
1. Genesis 15:6–“And he believed the Lord and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” This passage refers to Abram’s trust in God’s word, when the Lord told him he would have a son. That faith was simply based on God showing Abram the stars of the heavens and declaring “So shall your descendants be.” Of course, Paul’s treatment of this text in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 has greatly influenced my life. As a young man, I frequently depended on my own righteousness, which was nothing but a “self-righteousness.” I’m grateful for the truth that I am “justified by faith apart from deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
2. Genesis 50:20–“But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” I am greatly encouraged by Joseph’s ability to see the “bigger picture,” and to know that whatever happens in this life is under the control of an all-powerful God whose plans are good. His willingness to forgive rather than hold a grudge is liberating. Since the elected are always rejected in Scripture for the sake of others’ salvation, I know that God’s plan for my life is a good one in spite of the hardships I may face. In fact, God is so gracious that He will use my suffering in order to bring blessing to others. This is the path of the cross that my Savior walked and the path that He bids me to follow (Mark 8:34).
3. Numbers 6:24-26–“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” This passage, and one other below (1 Sam. 16:7), are also on Enn’s list (sorry Peter, hopefully you won’t mind, after all, it’s nice to have favourite verses in common with others. I’ll bet some of you really like this verse too!). This verse has been a favorite Old Testament passage ever since I used to sing it with my youth group growing up. In the Calvary Chapel church tradition, these are the verses that Pastor Chuck Smith always used to end the morning service with. Lately I have had a desire to meditate more deeply on this passage and to find out exactly what is meant but each expression. It is certainly a deep, rich, and beautiful blessing.
4. Deuteronomy 6:4-5–“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” How do you not include “the greatest commandment” on a list of favorite Old Testament passages? Actually, this is a verse I have spent about 7 years (off and on) meditating on. I have preached on it a number of times. Perhaps one day I will explore it in more depth on this website. Most importantly, these verses should guide our every thought, word, and action.
5. Joshua 24:15–“And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I find this to be a very contemporary verse. It is as if Joshua is still challenging us. We live in a pluralistic society. If we are not politically correct, we are not tolerated. There seems to be tolerance for all, except those who commit to the biblical standard of one God. If we quote Jesus and say the way is narrow that leads to life (Matt. 7:14), or insist that no one comes to the Father but by Jesus (John 14:6), we can be assured that our viewpoint will not be welcomed. A world that calls for a tolerance of all beliefs is, ironically, not tolerant of those who express their belief in the one true God. Joshua’s statement takes courage and faith. It also returns us to the truth that the elected will be rejected!
6. 1 Samuel 2:30–“Therefore the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I said indeed that your house and the house of your father would walk before Me forever.’ But now the Lord says: ‘Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed.” When forced to name a favorite Old Testament passage, this is the one that most readily comes to my mind. It may seem like an odd verse to have as a favorite, but my love for this passage stems from my understanding of 1&2 Samuel and the integral part this verse plays in its theology. If it is true as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” then honouring God is our primary objective in life. Paul puts it this way: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). This verse, however, is an explanation of how God responds to our actions of honouring or dishonouring Him, and why some are “lifted up” by the Lord, while others are “brought low” (see Hannah’s words, 1 Sam. 2:6; my post on Sovereignty and Free Will in 1&2 Samuel, or my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, which explores this idea in more depth).
7. 1 Samuel 16:7–“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This passage is a constant reminder not to judge by the outer cover–something that I, and every other human being I know, does! The new students I meet each semester are a reminder of this truth. It is interesting how quickly I can form an opinion based on an initial meeting. By the end of the semester, however, my understanding of certain students is totally transformed by the frequent interaction and fellowship that we have shared.
8. 2 Samuel 24:24–“Then the king said to Araunah, ‘No but I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God with that which costs me nothing.” I know, this is my third passage from 1&2 Samuel, but if I’m choosing my favorite Old Testament passages and 1&2 Samuel are my favorite books, then what can you expect? I am actually restraining myself, as I could easily add a few more! I often think of this verse during worship when I find myself mouthing the words of a song without singing them from the heart. It is easy to “go through the motions” or to allow tiredness to keep me from giving my all. This is also true of my work, my Bible study, or whatever I do. God is worthy and He deserves my best. If I am going to “honor Him” as 1 Sam. 2:30 reminds me that I should, then I should not be seeking to take the easy way out. In fact, I should find pleasure when my devotion to God costs me something. It certainly cost Jesus something to purchase my salvation.
9. Jeremiah 20:9–“Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.’ But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.” When I was in Bible college, and also as a young pastor, Jeremiah was my favorite Old Testament book. I was fascinated by his story and the power of his preaching. Jeremiah reminded me that I had received a holy calling. That calling is not always easy because it inevitably brings conflict. I suppose that this was my introduction to what is becoming the theme of this post, “we are elected to be rejected.” Not that I had it as bad as Jeremiah, but there are always times in ministry when it is tempting to “throw in the towel.” Even though Jeremiah had times when he wanted to give up, yet he was faithful for over 40 years to proclaim God’s word in the most difficult of circumstances.
10. Hosea 6:6–“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” The word translated “mercy” in this passage is hard to translate with one English word. It carries the meanings of loyalty, faithfulness, and stedfast love. Like 1 Sam. 16:7, this passage reminds me that life with God is never about externals alone. Ritual only has significance in the context of a relationship. If two people are not committed to each other, they can go through the ritual of a wedding ceremony, but only in developing a relationship will they have a true marriage. When I was a young Bible College student, I read a book by J. I. Packer entitled “Knowing God.” That book transformed my relationship with God as I learned what it really meant to “know Him” in a biblical sense. Prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah have a lot to say about knowing God and this was another reason that I was drawn to them and their message.
What Are Your Favorite Old Testament Passages?
Perhaps now that you have patiently waded through my top ten favorite Old Testament passages, you will consider what yours are. If you do, I want to invite you to leave one or two of them in the comment section below with a short note on why this particular Old Testament passage is a favorite of yours. In the future I will do a post on my 10 Favorite New Testament passages and will look forward to hearing yours as well.
The Moral Failure of Biblical Characters: Violence in the Old Testament Part 7
Another area of the Old Testament that frequently comes under attack by the new atheists is the moral failure of biblical characters. For example, Dawkins calls attention to Lot’s drunken incest with his daughters (Gen. 19:32-36), Abraham’s lies about his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:11-15; 20:2), and Jephthah’s vow which results in offering his daughter as a burnt offering (Judg. 11:30-31, 35-40). To be honest, these stories, and others like them, disturb Christians as well as atheists. These actions by supposed “biblical heroes” are among the reasons that Christians are uncomfortable with the Old Testament. Why does the Old Testament include stories like these, and what response can Christians offer when confronted about them?
Moral Failure and False Assumptions
First, let’s begin by observing the false assumptions made by those who charge God and the Old Testament with promoting moral failure. This accusation of the new atheists gives the erroneous impression that because the Bible declares the moral failure of an individual, it must be countenancing that person’s behavior. This wrong assumption, and not the Old Testament stories themselves, is the real problem. I wonder if a similar accusation would be made about an author, whether writing a biography or novel, who included negative stories of moral failure and violence? Does that mean the author is condoning the bad behavior? We intuitively recognize that stories about violent or immoral behavior are not normally an author’s way of saying, “Here’s an example to pattern your life after!” The author does not tell the story so that we will imitate the behavior, but for some other purpose integral to the plot. The same is true with these kinds of stories in the Old Testament. They are not told so that we might imitate them, but so we might learn about the nature of sin and, hopefully, turn to God and not make the same mistakes. One Bible scholar refers to such stories as “negative example stories.”
He writes, “Negative example stories present a character in a negative light as an example to avoid” (Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Interpreting the Historical Books, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006, p. 34). Some (nonbiblical) books go to great lengths to portray the hero in a positive light and the villain in a bad light. This, of course, is a distortion of reality. One difference between the Bible and other literature is that it is honest in its portrayal of people. Whether hero or villain, good traits and bad are laid bare for all to see. In fact, the consistent testimony of Scripture is that everyone, even people of faith, have faults. The greatest saints can be guilty of the most despicable sins. The reason these stories are told reflects the overall plot of Scripture which is to declare, “Everyone is in need of a Savior.”
Moral Failure and the Importance of Context
This observation points to the next response, a response we have talked about before: context! Once again, the new atheists are guilty of lifting a story from its context and holding it up as an example of God’s and the Old Testament’s depravity. Let’s take a closer look at some of these stories in context and see if there is any credibility to the new atheists’ claims. For a test case we will examine the Book of Judges, which is (in)famous for its stories of brutality. In fact, it is the Book of Judges that records Jephthah’s sacrificing of his daughter (noted above), not to mention the gang rape of a Levite’s concubine by the men of Gibeah, probably one of the most horrifying stories in all of the Old Testament. If any stories could sustain the new atheists’ claims, it would certainly be these.
The Book of Judges is historically located following the events of the Conquest in the Book of Joshua (we have previously looked at the Conquest, see articles three and four of this series). The Book of Joshua ends with a commitment by the Israelites to follow their God Yahweh (Josh. 24:24). Although the people are far from perfect, they follow the Lord all the days of Joshua and the elders that outlive Joshua (Josh. 24:31; Judg. 2:7). Based on what we learned in lessons five and six of this series, we know that a choice for the Lord is a choice for life (e.g., Deut. 30:19-20). Therefore we are not surprised that, at this point in their history, Israel is blessed. Things change, however, at the beginning of the period of the Judges. We learn that Israel forsakes the Lord and begins to worship the gods of the Canaanites. Judges 2:11-19 is recognized as a summary statement of the book. These verses state that Israel falls into a pattern which consists of: 1) falling away from the Lord; 2) experiencing punishment (see article six in this series); 3) crying out to the Lord; 4) the Lord raising up a deliverer; and 5) the people falling back into sin after the death of the deliverer (judge) which starts the cycle all over again.
It is not enough, however, to say that Israel falls into a deadly cycle. This cycle is actually a downward spiral that becomes worse with every generation of apostasy. Through this downward spiral, the Book of Judges comments on the powerful negative effects of sin if left unchecked generation after generation. This pattern is evidenced through the lives of the judges. As we follow this downward spiral through the book, the judges themselves begin to show symptoms of the same degenerative qualities that have infected the people of Israel. A number of Bible commentators note that this degeneration becomes particularly evident with Gideon. After a rough start, Gideon does well, but by the end of his judgeship, he has led the people back into idolatry (Judg. 8:26-27). The story of Gideon’s son Abimelech (Judg. 9) is an interlude in the story of the Judges showing how association with the Canaanites and their gods is adversely affecting Israel (just as God had warned–Deut. 7:1-4). By the time Jephthah and Samson arrive on the scene, they are as depraved as the people they are supposed to rescue. Jephthah’s offering of his daughter as a sacrifice is not told as an example of piety, but as an example of what happens when God’s people allow themselves to be affected by the idolatrous culture around them. It is not accidental that the enemies Jephthah fought against were the Ammonites (Judg. 11:6) and (apparently) the Moabites (Judg. 11:15-18). Child sacrifice was a feature of the worship of Milcom (sometimes called “Molech”) the god of the Ammonites (IVP Bible Background Commentary, pp. 132-133, 365). The Moabites were also known for practicing child sacrifice (2 Kgs. 3:26-27) and their chief god Chemosh is specifically mentioned by Jepthah (Judg. 11:24). Through Jephthah’s rash (and unprovoked) vow, the story makes a negative comment on him and other Israelites who have allowed themselves to become infected by the culture of their enemies. As Bible commentator Daniel I. Block states, “Far from being agents of spiritual change, the deliverers demonstrated repeatedly that they were a part of the problem rather than a solution” (Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary, p. 40).
Another way in which the Book of Judges describes this degeneration is through the increase of violence in Israelite society. This is particularly evident in the portrayal of women. The beginning of the Book of Judges depicts several strong independent women. One (Achsah) is a landowner confidently asserting her rights before her father (Judg. 1:13-15), another (Deborah) is a prophetess and Judge (Judg. 4:4-5) who inspires even the men to be courageous (Judg. 4:8), while a third (Jael) is a heroine aiding Israel in the defeat of a feared enemy (Judg. 5:24-27). By the end of the book, however, the image of the strong independent woman is replaced by the image of woman as victim. Women are raped, kidnapped, and treated as chattel (Judg. 19:25-29; 21:20-23). Far from condoning violence and the mistreatment of women, the Book of Judges graphically portrays what happens when a society abandons God so that everyone can do what is “right in their own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25).
Moral Failure Exemplified: The Canaanization of Israel
If readers are shocked at this kind of behavior, then the Book of Judges has achieved at least one of its purposes. Atheists and unbelievers are up in arms about these stories, as they should be, but what they fail to realize (or ignore) is that: “The theme of the book is the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of the settlement” (Block, p. 58). In other words, it is ironic that the atheists who want to protect the poor Canaanites from the wrath of Israel’s God, become indignant when faced with Canaanite-like actions! What we see at the end of the Book of Judges is not the way God has instructed His people to live. What we see are the effects of Canaanite culture on Israel! The atheists cannot have it both ways. If they want to defend the lifestyle of the Canaanites, then they must defend the rape of the Levite’s concubine as perfectly permissible; otherwise, they must recognize the justice of God in seeking to eliminate such behavior. By the way, this is why Israel, as well as Canaan, gets a taste of God’s judgment in the Book of Judges. Once again, far from being xenophobic (as the new atheists insist), God shows Himself to be no respecter of persons.
In the end, we must marvel that the justice of God leaves anyone standing! This is a testimony to God’s incredible longsuffering and kindness, desiring all to repent and come to life. This is the other amazing message in the Book of Judges, and once again we see another Old Testament book whose stories are bathed in the context of God’s grace.
Did you know that one way in which the biblical authors sought to communicate God’s truth was by comparing and contrasting various characters and situations? This may seem obvious to a regular Bible-reader, but people are often surprised how frequently this occurs in Scripture and how helpful it can be in interpreting the Bible. This practice has come to be known as “typology” from the Greek word typos.
The Greek word means “pattern” or “example.” It is used 14 times in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 7:44; Phil. 3:17; 1 Tim. 4:12; Heb. 8:5). Most important for our purpose is that Paul and Peter use examples from the past as a way of paralleling or contrasting current situations of their day. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 Paul uses the word typos to warn the Corinthian believers not to imitate the Israelites in the wilderness (see also 1 Cor. 10:11). 1 Peter 3:20-21 calls baptism an “antitype,” corresponding to the waters which saved Noah and his family. These passages form the basis for what has become known as a “typological” approach or interpretation.
Old Testament authors often employed a similar approach to that of Paul and Peter although the word typos (or its Hebrew equivalent) was not used. In fact, there can be little doubt that Paul and Peter learned this method from their Old Testament counterparts. Have you ever read a story in the Old Testament and thought, “That reminds me of another story I read in the Bible”? There is a reason for that! Biblical authors intentionally recall earlier stories, characters, and events as a way of commenting on the story, character, or event they are relating. The student of the Bible is being invited to compare the stories or characters in order to notice these similarities and differences. Through this comparison, the reader gains insight into what the biblical author is communicating. This is especially helpful when one is trying to understand a particular biblical character. The reader should not only look to the immediate context to understand a character (or event), but also the wider context of Scripture where echos of the present story occur.
Typology in the Story of Abigail
The author(s) of 1&2 Samuel was a master of this technique, and as a way of illustrating my point I am using a small excerpt from my book “Family Portraits (USA link).” Abigail is introduced to the reader in 1 Samuel 25. Although the story provides a lot of information in forming a character portrait of Abigail, typology is also very helpful. In fact, it’s amazing how many characters in the Old Testament can be called upon to help us in constructing a portrait of Abigail. However, I will only focus on one example. One way in which the character of Abigail is enhanced is by noting the similarities she shares with Hannah (and vice versa).
The following is an excerpt from my book “Family Portraits (UK link)” in the chapter entitled, “Abigail: The Peacemaker” (pp. 226-227):
One of the greatest connections, as far as the books of Samuel are concerned, is between Abigail and Hannah….First, both Hannah and Abigail find themselves in desperate situations. Although these situations are different, the future of a household is at stake in each case. Second, both women make supplication to a superior, using the term “maidservant” to describe themselves (1 Sam. 1:11; 25:24ff.). Third, in making their supplications both ask to be “remembered” (1 Sam. 1:11; 25:31). Fourth, Hannah makes a vow (1 Sam. 1:11), while Abigail swears an oath (1 Sam. 25:26). Fifth, the Lord causes Hannah’s face to be sad no longer (1 Sam. 1:18), while David lifts up Abigail’s face (1 Sam. 25:35). Sixth, both share the theme of “strength through weakness” because of their dependence on the Lord. Seventh, words from Hannah’s prayer are reflected in the story of Abigail and Nabal. Abigail assumes a lowly position and is lifted up (1 Sam. 2:7; 25:23–24, 35), while arrogance proceeds from Nabal’s mouth (1 Sam. 2:3; 25:10–11) resulting in the Lord striking him (1 Sam. 2:6; 25:38). Eighth, and perhaps most important, both adopt a prophetic role that has significance for the future kingship (1 Sam. 2:1–10; 25:26, 28–31). It was Hannah who first proclaimed, “He will give strength to His king and exalt the horn of His anointed” (2:10); and it was Abigail who first announced the “sure house” that the Lord would give to David. The books of Samuel testify that these women were the first to foresee and utter these great truths, which would change the course of Israel’s history. The stories of Hannah and Abigail thus highlight the important role that women played in inaugurating the monarchy. Although Israel, like the nations around it, was a patriarchal society, clearly Israel’s God “shows no partiality” (Acts 11:34).
Typology: Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture
Hopefully this brief example demonstrates the value of comparing biblical stories with similar themes or characters. By comparing Hannah and Abigail, we come to know them both better and we see the common themes being emphasized in their stories. This, in turn, helps us to better understand the message of 1&2 Samuel. The use of typology also allows us to interpret Scripture with Scripture. Although we always approach the text with a certain amount of subjectivity (our background, presuppositions, church tradition, etc.), the similarities (or contrasts) made between Bible characters or events through the use of typology, helps us to better hear the message(s) that the inspired author intended us to hear.