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Chronicles and the Church: Lessons from a Kingdom Ecclesiology

“There has never been a better time to embark on a study of Chronicles.” In this opening line of his 2004 commentary, Steven McKenzie has in mind some of the developments in biblical studies which have brought a new era to Chronicles research, illustrating the capacity of biblical scholarship to correct itself (as I discuss in my article “Bullying Chronicles”).

For other reasons as well, reasons having to do with the state of the Church and with God’s work in the world today, there has never been a better time to study Chronicles. This is because Christians always need to work at aligning their understanding of the Church with the scriptural vision for the people of God as the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth–a kingdom characterized by worship and prayer and repentance and forgiveness and unity and obedience and sacrifice and song and joyful hearts, all of which characterized the Davidic kingdom as it is idealized and sometimes realized in the “kingdom ecclesiology” (S. Hahn) of Chronicles. There are reasons why Walter Brueggemann considers Chronicles “the most consistently ecclesiological presentation of Davidic hope in the Old Testament,” and Raymond Brown regards its depiction of Israel as “the closest parallel to the Church.” Hahn explains:

For the Chronicler, Israel is fundamentally a qāhāl, a kingdom of priests, a liturgical empire. Israel is not primarily a national entity organized for military, political, or economic purposes; in Israel all those ordinary rationales for government are to be ordered to the singular overriding reason of giving worship to God. This is what Israel exists for, and this is Israel’s mission as God’s firstborn among the nations.

What gives this conviction exceptional cogency is the fact that Chronicles comes last in the Hebrew Bible, where it “stands apart in its attempt to interpret the Old Testament from beginning to end . . . as that book . . . which sums up the rest” (M. Selman). Chronicles, we could say, gives us the clearest and fullest depiction of what Israel is supposed to be–a qāhāl, an assembly of God’s people bound together in worship at YHWH’s designated altar and in loyalty to his chosen king. In this connection, it is not incidental that the Greek translators almost always rendered qāhāl (c. 40x in Chronicles) as ekklesia, the term used by Jesus and the apostles to refer to the ‘Church’. The Church is, of course, the new worshiping community, the new Temple, bound together in loyalty to Jesus, the Davidic Son promised in Chronicles.

Expanding on just one point (unity), it is noteworthy that the phrase ‘all Israel’ occurs more often in Chronicles than in any other Old Testament book (c. 46x). Most striking in this connection is that while the southern and northern tribes could refer to each other as ‘brothers’ (cf. 2 Chron 11:4; 13:12; 28:8, 11, 15), doing so did not legitimate the north’s schism from the south or render the breakaway tribes equally ‘the kingdom’ or ‘the nation’. For the Chronicler, true Israel was present in Judah; and “the only genuine basis for unity involved a fresh approach to the worship of the Lord, when north and south could join together before God’s altar” (Selman). Chronicles is unmistakable on this point: God chose the Jerusalem Temple and the Davidic dynasty as the defining locus of his kingdom on earth (1 Chron 17:1-27; 28:4; 2 Chron 6:1-11; 13:5, 8-12). And so it remained, even when some of the southern kings did not conduct themselves in a manner worthy of their calling, and even when, through covenant infidelity, the scandalous religious situation in Judah rivaled anything said elsewhere about the northern tribes (as it did, for example, under kings Jehoram [2 Chron 21:1-20], Ahaz [28:1-27] and Manasseh [33:1-9]). It is everywhere clear in Chronicles that the Lord never abandoned his program on account of Judah’s shortcomings, even when the northern tribes seemed to outshine their brothers to the south. Chronicles, in other words, gives no hint that schism is justified on any grounds at all, certainly not as an acceptable expedient necessitated by a nation “gone south.” The only right response for wayward Judah, as with dislocated Israel, is to repent and return to the worship of YHWH centered in the Jerusalem Temple and ordered to the ideals of David and his dynastic successors. To adapt a later apostolic formula: There is one kingdom and one Temple of the Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope of your calling–one David, one Torah, one circumcision, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (cf. Eph 4:4-6).

These observations are shared by representative household names in Chronicles research, as reflected in the following comments:

Actually, the Chronicler’s understanding of Israel is quite inclusive and seeks to revitalize the ancient ideal of the twelve tribes by regularly depicting the enthusiastic and unanimous participation of ‘all Israel’ at major turning points in the narrative. . . . Consequently, the Chronicler sees the division of the kingdom into north and south as a tragic severing of God’s people. . . . His hope is that ‘all Israel’, north as well as south, will again be one. To that end, there are frequent calls for the people to return to common worship in Jerusalem, most notably, those of Abijah and Hezekiah that frame the period of the divided monarchy (13:4-12; 30:6-9) (M. Throntveit).

In this respect the chronicler steered a middle course between separatist and assimilationist parties in Jerusalem. He rigorously maintained the unique role of the Jerusalem Temple in Israel’s worship. The well-established traditions of a united Israel laid on Judah the obligation to attempt to win back Israelites still in the north to allegiance to the God of the Temple. Hezekiah is presented as a model for this obligation (2 Chronicles 30) (L. Allen).

In this sense then, it is incorrect to say that the Chronicler was not interested in the north following its fall, or that the separation between north and south was viewed as either desirable or permanent. Rather the repeated thrust is that north and south, ‘all Israel,’ ought to be one, but their unity was to be based on their common worship of Yahweh centered in the Jerusalem temple (R. Braun).

For the Chronicler, the northern kingdom is politically and religiously illegitimate and therefore does not merit a separate record. But the citizens of the north are not entirely omitted from Chronicles, nor are they regarded as no longer having a heritage in Israel. To the contrary, the vision of “all Israel” united under the Davidic king is part of the Chronicler’s ideal for restoration. . . . But the Chronicler shows that the division of the kingdom did not remove the north from Israel. They are still the people of Yahweh and the brothers and sisters of Judah (2 Chr 13:12). True Israel is those descendants of Jacob who remain faithful to the God of Israel and the institutions in Jerusalem that he established (2 Chr 13:10-11). Even though the Israelites have abandoned Yahweh, they can still repent and return, just as the people of Judah forsake God but then repent at several points in their history. Thus, the Chronicler invites the northerners to return, not only through the speech of Abijah in 2 Chr 13 but also through accounts of their participation in the reforms of other kings of Judah, especially Hezekiah (2 Chr 34:6, 9, 21), who is the first king since Solomon to restore worship on the part of united Israel in Jerusalem (2 Chr 30:1, 25-26; 31:1) (S. McKenzie).

The point seems to be that the north as a kingdom is illegitimate, which means that, to be precise, the situation is not really that of a ‘divided kingdom’ or a ‘divided monarchy’, much less ‘two kingdoms’, with north and south representing equally legitimate claims. There is one kingdom, imperfect but intact, and the north represents a schism from that kingdom, with implications for its own identity. To be sure, the citizens of the north are still considered brother Israelites inasmuch as they recognize YHWH as Israel’s God; but they are separated brethren, and so are not properly ‘the kingdom’. The ‘kingdom’, in other words, does not exist wherever people make a profession of faith in YHWH and choose to assemble with others of like mind, led by kings and priests whom they appoint to promote the community ethos. All of these could be said of the northern tribes. The kingdom exists wherever YHWH establishes it, which means, according to Chronicles, wherever people are united under the Davidic king and bound together in common worship of YHWH, centered at the altar in the Jerusalem Temple. The only way for the estranged northern tribes to legitimate their status as kingdom is for them to be faithful to the institution YHWH had established, which means being restored and reunited with the divinely chosen place (the Jerusalem Temple) and personnel (David and his successors) they had repudiated (2 Chron 10, esp. vv. 16, 19).

To whatever extent Chronicles’ depiction of Israel establishes a typology for the Church, these books invite Christians to reconsider their present state of division and to inquire what the pursuit of restoration and reunification might look like, including appropriate repentance for how far we have strayed from the ideal of both Chronicles (“all Israel”) and Christ (“that they may all be one”; Jn 17:21, cf. vv. 11, 22, 23). To my mind, it will not do simply to dismiss a discussion about Israel as irrelevant to the Church; or to extrapolate that the divine sovereignty which mysteriously allows schism (cf. 2 Chron 10:15; 11:4) thereby sanctions it or its continuation; or to delay any necessary concerns for the eschaton, when God will make his people one in his time, with no worries for us in the present; or to divorce spiritual, mystical, or invisible unity from physical, institutional, or visible unity (definitely not in Chronicles!); or to pound the table in defense of assumed doctrinal rightness as grounds for necessary and inevitable division. If God founded one Israel and Jesus established one Church, schism from the one for any reason at all constitutes grounds for repentance; and a determined identity of division is not an option for the faithful. Nor, according to our Lord’s prayer, could the stakes be higher in our getting this right: “. . . that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (Jn 17:23, italics mine; cf. v. 21).

David, Model of a Repentant Sinner, and Other Christian Reflections on 1 Chronicles 21

Readers of Chronicles are often puzzled that a book which seems everywhere to idealize David, editing his faults and portraying him in the most positive light—there’s no mention of the Bathsheba affair and the Uriah cover-up (2 Sam 11-12), for example—includes the account of David’s census (1 Chron 21) as a major blemish in an otherwise glorious career. What’s more, “the Chronicler omits . . . all of the explicitly critical material about Solomon in Kings from his work. . . . The comparison with the sanitized Solomon of 2 Chr 1–9 makes the errant David of 1 Chr 21 all the more striking” (G. Knoppers).

One might reason that the author tolerates some unsavory details about David simply because this story plays a part in the way Ornan’s threshing floor came to be validated as the future site of the Temple, as we discover later on in the narrative (1 Chron 21:18ff.). This is probably the majority view. But this leaves unaccounted for the fact that the Chronicler actually keys on David, even underscoring his sin and folly.

In my mind, the issue of David’s blemished character has been misconstrued as a problem, as if the inclusion of the census story somehow undercuts David’s role as an exemplary king. I believe this assumption needs to be reexamined. As Knoppers explains:

David’s acknowledged culpability does not disqualify him from serving as a paradigmatic figure to the Chronicler’s audience. The portrayal of David is more complex. The stress on royal responsibility may be understood in the context of a larger movement characterized by wrongdoing, confession, intercession, renewed obedience, and divine blessing. The story of the census, plague, and establishment of a permanent altar underscores the rightly positive consequences of David’s ability to confront and manage his own failure. David’s unequivocal admission of guilt, his mediation on behalf of Israel, his diligent observance of divine instructions, and his securing a site for the future Temple contribute positively to his legacy.

Knoppers’ thesis is that we approach David as “the model of a repentant sinner,” and that this view in fact “elucidates prominent features of the story,” especially in how it accentuates both royal responsibility and the positive outcome of intercession and obedience. He continues:

The image of David as the model of a repentant sinner is a constituent element in the depiction of this king. The David of the census story is a person of confession and supplication par excellence, a human sinner who repents, seeks forgiveness, intercedes on behalf of his people, and ultimately secures the site of the future Temple. Precisely because David is a pivotal figure, David’s repentance and intercession are paradigmatic. The Chronicler’s conviction that errant Israelites have both the opportunity to reform and the potential to make new contributions to their nation is . . . formatively and preeminently at work in David’s career. In the context of a national disaster of his own making, David is able to turn a catastrophe into the occasion for a permanent divine blessing upon Israel. First Chronicles 21 is an example of, rather than the exception to, the Chronicler’s idealization of David.

Ralph Klein concurs: “In 1 Chronicles 21, it is not that David is sinless that makes him a model, but rather that this great sinner, who trusted in the exceedingly great mercies of God, confessed his sins and followed through on divinely prescribed repentance obligations. The Chronicler’s fallen but repentant David is a model for his own time–and our time.” Here is an example of one who sinned, but who confessed his sin and threw himself on God’s mercy.

Related, it is required of leaders not that they be perfectly sinless, but that they handle their sin perfectly, which is precisely what God’s people need, in the post exile, among the Chronicler’s personal contemporaries, and in every age. Scott Hahn develops the point:

     In this episode David is portrayed as both a repentant sinner seeking forgiveness and as a royal high priest interceding on behalf of his people with petitionary prayer, burnt offerings, and peace offerings. The intersection of these two portraits is highly significant for the Chronicler’s theology of liturgy. David fails his covenant test, but from this disaster God brings about the establishment of the central sanctuary promised in Deut. 12. More than that, through this incident, God teaches his covenant son, the king, an essential lesson about what it means to be the shepherd of God’s people. A true shepherd, David comes to learn, must intercede for and even be willing to lay down his life for his flock. . . (1 Chr. 21:17). The shepherd offers his own life for his sheep, recognizing that the people are not his own but God’s. This is a dramatic turning point in Chronicles. The king performs public penance so that all can see the subordination of the earthly realm to the heavenly, the kingship to the priesthood, the leader of armies to the Lord of hosts. . . .

This brings me to a second major point. It might seem incongruous at first that the Temple site is discovered as a result of David’s sinful act. Yet it is precisely this association of human sin with the Temple, so much at the heart of Chronicles, that turns out to be crucial for the Chronicler’s concept of spirituality, inasmuch as “he wanted to establish from the outset its grounding in divine grace, the ‘mercy’ of God, which is ‘very great’ (21:13)” (L. Allen). This chapter then is not primarily about David’s sin in numbering the people; it is about “God’s forgiving grace (vv. 15-27), . . . and it is this to which the temple becomes a permanent witness (21:28–22:1). . . . The temple stood at the actual place where David’s sin had brought Jerusalem to the brink of destruction, and where God alone had delivered his people. It was above all a place of forgiveness, where sin and all its consequences could be removed” (M. Selman)–not only for David, but for all people.

In other words, “This event points forward to the Temple to be built in Jerusalem as the divinely intended place at which Israel would seek the Lord. The Temple was to be dedicated especially to bringing repentant sinners, like David, back to God. The divinely nominated place is associated with a theology of grace, as 2 Chr 7:14 will explain. David serves as a model for every backslider” (Allen). Again, “the altar David is commanded to build is, for the chronicler, a monument to God’s forgiving grace.”

For Christians, of course, the Temple, as the place of grace and forgiveness, is now permanently associated with Jesus Christ, whom all the Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed and through whom a way is opened into the heavenly Temple, which is superior to Solomon’s (Heb 6; 9-10).

But there is more, and it centers on the precise location of the Temple. In the introduction to his description of Solomon’s construction of the Temple, the Chronicler goes on to inform us in 2 Chronicles 3:1:

Then Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

It turns out that the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite is located on “Mount Moriah, where [the LORD] had appeared to David.” The mention of Moriah brings to mind its only other mention in the Bible–the story of Abraham’s offering up his son Isaac there (Gen 22). In other words, Chronicles draws a connection between the choice of this site as the location of the Temple and the place where Abraham offered up Isaac.

What makes this association particularly striking is that Moriah as a word form, in the context of Genesis 22, is actually a Hebrew acronym signifying, “The place where YHWH provides (the sacrificial lamb), is the place where YHWH appears.” Thus the Genesis story concludes: “As it is said to this day, ‘On the mountain of the LORD it shall be provided’,” or ‘On the mountain, the LORD himself shall appear’ (Gen 22:14). These are in fact identical Hebrew constructions, and the rich possibilities are almost certainly intended. This verse is saying: “On the very mount of the LORD where the sacrificial lamb is provided, that is the place where the LORD himself appears!” If one wants to see the LORD in all his glory, one has to go to the altar, to the place where the LORD provides his lamb.

Hahn draws out these connections between Genesis 22 and 1 Chronicles 21 more fully:  

     The scenes have marked similarities. Both David and Abraham are said to “lift up their eyes to see” visions of divine import. In Chronicles, the angel stands between heaven and earth, his sword unsheathed and raised above Jerusalem, as Abraham put forth his hand and raised his knife above Isaac. By divine command, the hands of both the killer and Abraham are stayed. In place of both the firstborn people of Israel and the beloved firstborn Isaac, burnt offerings are made instead. Both stories end with an apparent allusion to the temple: David recognizes that this is to be the site of the house of God and Israel’s altar of burnt offerings; Abraham names the site “the LORD will provide/see” because, as he had hoped, God had seen to it to provide the lamb for the sacrifice instead of Isaac. Thus the Genesis account concludes with an apparent anticipation of the temple: “As it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it/he shall be provided/seen’” (22:14). . . .
     The Chronicler sees the establishment of the temple as the fulfillment of the Abraham story. . . . Nowhere else in scripture is it recorded that the temple was built on the place where Abraham offered Isaac. The Chronicler, however, wants his readers to see the temple in profound continuity with this foundational moment in salvation history– when God swore an oath to Abraham to bless all the nations through his seed [Gen 22:17-18]. . . .
     In Chronicles the holy “place” (māqôm) where God provided the sacrifice that spared Abraham’s firstborn and triggered the swearing of his oath of blessing has now become the holy ground where sacrifice will be offered to spare the lives of the children of Abraham. As God accepted the burnt offerings of Abraham in this place, on this same site, God in the future will accept the offerings of his people and grant them his mercy. [And quoting Dillard]: ". . . at the same site where Abraham once held a knife over his son (Gen. 22:1-19), David sees the angel of the LORD with sword ready to plunge into Jerusalem. In both cases death is averted by sacrifice. The Temple is established there as the place where Israel was perpetually reminded that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Heb. 9:22)."

Christian readers will, of course, make the connections and draw the intended conclusions!

It is little wonder that David’s last public act in Chronicles is to lead the whole worshiping assembly (kōl-haqqāhāl; 29:1, 10, 20) in an extravagant liturgy of sacrifice, “offer[ing] burnt offerings to the LORD, 1,000 bulls, 1,000 rams, and 1,000 lambs, with their drink offerings, and sacrifices in abundance for all Israel” (1 Chron 29:21), on which occasion “David blessed the LORD in the presence of all the assembly” in these breathtaking lines:

“Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name” (1 Chron 29:10-13).

Amen.

Pondering the Theology of Jonah: Reflections from a Recent Seminar

Over the years I have had many occasions to spend time in the Book of Jonah–first preaching a series of sermons that highlighted its compelling story and convicting message, then introducing class after class of Elementary Hebrew students to its relatively simple vocabulary and grammar, and finally producing a Hebrew Exegesis manual that explores its finer linguistic and literary features. Until recently, most of my attention has been taken up with the book’s textual details, almost to the neglect of its deep theological reservoir and rich typological resonances. Gradually I have come to understand why “Jonah was one of the principal books of exegesis for the church fathers,” whose main interest was “to see Christ as the new Jonah who fulfilled and transcended the old covenant” (ACCS XIV, 128).

This latter interest is what motivated my most recent venture into Jonah, in connection with the seminar conducted here at MIQRA on April 28. There, under the title “The Story of Jonah and the Logic of Redemption: A Narrative-Theological Reading,” I attempted to highlight some of the theological treasures of this magnificent book, especially when it is read in conversation with the rest of Scripture, most notably the Gospel of our Lord (Jonah appears in Matt 12:38-42; Matt 16:1-4; and Lk 11:29-32; cf. Matt 16:17). And with help from some of the Church’s earliest interpreters, I was able to gain a fresh appreciation for the contribution Jonah makes to the Bible’s story of salvation.

Let me cite a few examples from my recent quest:

“For even as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” [Matt 12:40]. Now when we study the story of Jonah the force of the resemblance becomes striking. Jesus was sent to preach repentance. So was Jonah. Though Jonah fled, not knowing what was to come, Jesus came willingly, to grant repentance for salvation. Jonah slumbered in the ship and was fast asleep amid the stormy sea; while Jesus by God’s will was sleeping, the sea was stirred up, for the purpose of manifesting thereafter the power of him who slept. They said to Jonah, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God, that God may save us,” but the apostles say, “Lord, save us!” [Matt 8:25] In the first instance they said, Call upon your God, and in the second, save us. In the first Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you”; in the other Christ himself “rebuked the wind and the sea, and there came a great calm” [Matt 8:26]. Jonah was cast into the belly of a great fish, but Christ of his own will descended to the abode of the invisible fish of death. He went down of his own will to make death disgorge those it had swallowed up, according to the Scripture: “I shall deliver them from the power of the nether world, and I shall redeem them from death” [Hos 13:14]. (Cyril of Jerusalem, c. 313-386; Catechetical Lecture 14.7)

What happened in the case of blessed Jonah the prophet was similar: when Jews were unbelieving and reluctant to heed his prophecies, God had him go instead to the nations. Then, after remarkably keeping him safe inside the sea monster for three days and nights, he brought him to the city that was full of countless vices and caused him to preach repentance and become a source of salvation for all in that place, so that from the comparison we might not lack faith in Christ the Lord, who was kept incorrupt for the same number of days, rising from the dead and providing all nations in general with salvation by way of repentance and enjoying immortal life. (Theodore of Mopsuestia, c. 350-428; Commentary on Jonah)

Why, then, are we asked what was prefigured by the prophet being swallowed by that monster and restored alive on the third day? Christ explained it when he said an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. . . . So then, as Jonah went from the ship into the belly of the whale, so Christ went from the tree into the tomb, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah was sacrificed for those endangered by the storm, so Christ was offered for those who are drowning in the storm of this world. And as Jonah was first commanded to preach to the Ninevites but his prophecy did not come to them until after the whale had vomited him out, so the prophecy made to the Gentiles did not come to them until after the resurrection of Christ. (St. Augustine, c. 354-430; Letter 102.6)

And here’s a more recent example that draws out the “logic of redemption” as we encounter it in Jonah 1:

       There at the bottom of the boat he becomes as it were the unknown secret at its core, the hidden meaning of its disaster–like Israel among the nations, the chosen ones who give meaning to the world and its history. Unknown to the terrified Gentiles on deck, the Israelite unconscious in the inner part of the ship is the clue to the real story of their lives. Even the violence of the sea is determined by his hidden presence. It is no comfort to them now, but it all means something.
       And it may be, despite all appearances, that they are not really in danger so long as Jonah is with them. Would the LORD really sink the vessel that contains the apple of his eye? Jonah is the representative of Israel among the nations, God’s beloved among the peoples. Of course we are reminded of a yet more representative Israelite who also slept in a boat threatened by a great storm that terrified everyone else aboard–who were all nonetheless quite safe because he was with them (Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). We must wonder if in this episode too Jesus deliberately identifies with Jonah, the obedient prophet identifying with the disobedient. Of course Jonah is unlike Jesus in that he has no power of his own to still the waves. Yet when push comes to shove he does still the waves. He accomplishes this by giving himself up to death, . . . freeing everyone else from the threat of harm. We would all be doing well if we were as effective as Jonah, this prophet who in spite of himself anticipates Christ in so many ways.
       And of course in many ways we do resemble disobedient Jonah without really noticing, being quite capable of sleeping through disasters and unconscious of the ruin we bring upon our neighbors. The church should consider identifying with Jonah, but with less innocent confidence than our Lord Jesus. The number of ways we have run away from the word of our Lord, descended among the nations, and fallen asleep among the disasters for which we are responsible are no doubt beyond counting. But perhaps we could consider first of all the great disaster of the dissolution of Christendom, which leaves the West full of wealth and contrivance, commerce and technology, pleasures of all sorts to be bought and consumed, but no meaning of life worth living for. It would be worth hurling it all overboard if we could find who slumbers at the bottom of it all. (Phillip Cary, Jonah, 50)

And again, with reference to Jonah’s willingly placing himself into the hands of the sailors:

       . . . in handling himself over to God in this way, Jonah is at his most Christlike. He gives up his life so that others might live. . . . We would all be doing well if we were as much like Christ as Jonah is. Though Jonah may give himself up in despair, he does have his priorities straight: he treats the lives of these good sailors as more valuable than his own. . . .
       The prophet instructs the sailors how to propitiate the wrath of God [a phrase not used here]; you do it by getting rid of the prophet who instructs you. This would not be the first time people killed the messenger, even a messenger from God. Jesus tells a parable about this just a few days before his crucifixion (Matt. 21:33-46). This turns out to be the fundamental shape of redemption: we kill the ultimate messenger–God’s own Son–and that is the propitiation to end all propitiations. (Cary, 66)

Obviously, those who ponder the story of Jonah will find a richer and deeper message here than simply a tale about a disobedient prophet who learns the hard way that you can’t run from God and get by with it (If that were the case, why does the book not end with ch. 1?), or a drowning prophet who gets swallowed by a submarine-like fish and lives to tell about it (If ‘Monstro’ is such a key figure in the story, why is he mentioned in only three verses?), or a disgruntled prophet who reluctantly fulfills a mission and so provides a moral for missionary speakers who need an illustration and a clincher for their next motivational talk (If the main teaching point centers on being a willing and obedient  missionary, why does the book end the way it does?).

On that last question, let me propose that the book ends the way it does for a definite reason. In the final verses of chapter 4, YHWH presses home the lesson of the gourd and the grub by asking Jonah why he (YHWH) should not be as concerned about a great city full of people and animals as Jonah is about a comparatively valueless plant with which he had nothing to do. The end. The fact that Jonah is not even given a chance to respond suggests that the purpose of the book is not finally to give us a biography of Jonah, much less to criticize him, but to leave us pondering as readers: Does God have the freedom to distribute his sovereign and saving mercy as he wills, or does he owe us a consultation on that matter? Jonah is given no space to respond because after all, by his own earlier declaration, which he shouted exuberantly in response to his own deliverance, “Salvation belongs to YHWH!” (2:9). The lesson of the gourd and the grub is simply to register the more sharply how far off the mark our own theology, like Jonah’s, sometimes gets when it comes to how God dispenses his mercy and grace. Jonah is pathetic, as are we–pleased with God’s compassion toward us and our comforts, but displeased when he extends that same compassion to those we consider less deserving. No answer is recorded at the end of 4:11 because it remains open for the reader to respond–in humility and repentance.

In other words, by the end of the story we are to see that the real joke is not on Jonah, but on us. And we are to let it hit us between the eyes, as we sit silently with Jonah at the end of the story, considering our own “Ninevehs”–evildoers, whether individuals or people groups, we would rather see getting what they deserve than being transformed and ultimately saved. Where Jonah got it wrong, and where we sometimes get it wrong, is not in his expectation that the people of Nineveh deserved God’s judgment (they did), but in his presumption that he did not, and in his wishing that YHWH, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Jon 4:2; cf. Exod 34:6-7), would be more that way with Jonah and his people and less that way with others.

And so, we could all be both a little more like Jonah, as Jesus was–naming the true God and giving his own life so that a boatload of desperate sailors from many nations could know that “salvation belongs to YHWH”–and a little less like Jonah–peeved that YHWH’s mercy, grace, patience, steadfast love, and faithfulness are generously offered to all the unworthy, including those we dislike, since “salvation belongs to YHWH.”

In the mercy, grace, patience, steadfast love, and faithfulness supremely displayed in Christ our Lord,

Vern Steiner

Engaging the Old Testament Prophets

Visitors to our website will have noticed the featured articles on Obadiah and Jonah. In recent weeks, and in the ongoing interest of making our materials available to a wider readership, I have posted six additional articles on the Old Testament Prophets formerly published in various issues of the MIQRA Journal between 2003 and 2010.

In “Judges among the Prophets: Messianic Secrets in Unexpected Places” (Spring 2003), I explore the prophetic message of Judges by attending to the book’s location within the Former Prophets in the Hebrew canon and especially to its own literary and thematic strategies, in the light of which this “historical” book in fact reveals an unmistakable messianic orientation.

“Samuel, Leadership, and the Church: A Few Disquieting Reflections” (Spring 2004) takes a careful look at 1 Samuel 8 and seeks to listen to its convicting cautions on how leadership is popularly conceived in the Church today.

In “Jeremiah’s Counterworld: The Subversion of Misguided Values and Misplaced Securities” (Spring 2007), I expound and explore the implications of Jeremiah 9:23-26, where we are treated to one of the Bible’s clearest statements on the kinds of things God deplores in his people and on the values and virtues God most desires in his people.

“Ezekiel, the ‘Spiritual’ Prophet: Reflections on the Spirit in Ezekiel” (Spring 2008) examines all the references to the Spirit in Ezekiel (arguably the most Spirit-rich book in the Old Testament), and shows how Ezekiel informs the New Testament understanding of the person and ministries of the Holy Spirit.

In “Hosea and The Twelve: A Short Introduction to the Minor Prophets” (Spring 2009), I discuss the evidence for and the significance of respecting the long Hebrew tradition of reading Hosea through Malachi not as twelve free-standing little books, but as member parts (“chapters”) of a single composition with an internal structure and a cohesive theme.

“On Proclaiming the Prophets: Joel as the Church’s Scripture” (Spring 2010) tackles a challenging and immensely practical issue that faces almost everyone who reads the Bible’s Prophetic books: What is this saying (or how does this apply) to us?

I offer these pieces for the blessing of God’s people, the health of the Church, and the promotion of God’s kingdom and glory through his Son. As always, I welcome engagement and interaction among those who find these discussions stimulating and valuable, including suggestions for further consideration.

In the love, grace, and peace of Christ our Lord,

Vern Steiner

Summer Hebrew and Greek Reading Groups!

Stay tuned for details, but the buzz in the office is that we will indeed be continuing the Hebrew and Greek Reading Groups throughout the summer, not least to welcome the fresh crop just now graduating from their first-year grammar courses. For details about the general format of the reading groups, see here and here.

Can anyone decipher either of the texts above, or at least discern the biblical books in which they're located?

The Authorship of the Pentateuch: An Age-Old Critical Issue that Refuses to Expire

0. PREFACE

The comparison is an unfortunate one, but taking up this topic reminds me of how a mortician might feel upon discovering that a cadaver in the advanced stages of rigor mortis continues to show signs of life. About the time one thinks all critical discussions on the history and authorship of the Pentateuch have died a long-overdue death, the topic suddenly sits up again as an interesting point of inquiry or even as a test of critical orthodoxy (on the one hand) or of Christian piety (on the other). This was brought to my attention again recently, in a conversation the details of which I shall not divulge here, except to say that the discussion reminded me of a course I endured early on in my graduate studies. That was in a previous millennium, at a time when the authorship of the Pentateuch was identified in conservative circles as one of four critical issues in the study of the Old Testament by which one’s commitment to the authority of Scripture could be measured (alongside the dating of the exodus, the authorship of Isaiah, and the dating of Daniel). The present piece, which my students have seen in one version or another over the decades, represents a kind of belated peace offering to my recent interlocutor and my seminary professor.

The following sketch attempts to outline where the discussion has wandered over the centuries and where it presently stands, in the genuine interest of highlighting the importance of the journey and of respecting those who have traveled it. In presenting things this way I have in view the serious but nonspecialist reader who wants to listen in on the discussion without getting buried by it. I am not writing for the advanced scholar, nor is it my intent to replace or to duplicate any of the works cited at the end. My purpose further is not to convince anyone of anything, but to trace the contours of an important, albeit tired, discussion. In the end it will be clear that my sentiments resonate with those of T. D. Alexander, who concludes:

At this stage there is no telling how Pentateuchal studies will develop. Without new evidence, . . . it is highly unlikely that biblical scholars will be able to uncover with any certainty the process by which the Pentateuch was created. For the present we can but hope that contemporary scholars will learn from the shortcomings of their predecessors, and be more willing to acknowledge the tentative nature of their theories regarding how the Pentateuch came into being. . . . Although human curiosity will undoubtedly prompt scholars to ask how the Pentateuch was composed, it is vitally important that we should not lose sight of the question, why was the Pentateuch composed? While the ‘how’ question is never likely to be answered with complete certainty, the ‘why’ question directs us to the one who is the source of all knowledge (From Paradise to the Promised Land, 80, 93-94; italics mine).

To Alexander’s ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, I would add a third–the ‘what’ question: What exactly does the Pentateuch say? We will not attempt to answer that question in this short survey, but it should not go unnoticed that a critical inquiry of this sort can point in a direction where an answer might be found, as I will attempt to highlight in the final section.

1. INTRODUCTION

1.1. Let’s begin with a definition or two. Broadly defined, the term ‘biblical criticism’ refers to the use of rational judgment in understanding the various features of the Bible, or in other words, to the pursuit of reasonable answers to questions that arise from the existence and nature of Scripture. In this sense, biblical criticism plays a part in all biblical interpretation. More narrowly and until recently, the expression ‘biblical criticism’ was virtually synonymous with ‘historical criticism’–the post-Enlightenment project that fixated on “the world behind the text” (the details of its origin) in order to anchor the Bible’s original meaning by more “neutral” or “objective” (read: “scientific” or “historical”) canons of judgment than by the theological or “faith” confessions of Judaism and the Church. ‘Pentateuchal criticism’ encompasses the various approaches to the study of the Pentateuch that derive from its investigation along these lines.

1.2. At least some appreciation of Pentateuchal criticism is valuable to any reader or student of the Pentateuch (and of the whole Bible), and this is true for several reasons:

1.2.1. Pentateuchal criticism sets the agenda for the entire modern enterprise of biblical introduction and criticism. Here is where the various methodologies that continue to influence biblical study were birthed. For this reason, a knowledge of the kinds of questions which critical approaches to the Pentateuch seek to address and of the way they go about addressing them is valuable for entering responsibly into thoughtful discussion about all such matters and evaluating the output of these discussions and debates (including their influence on commentaries, sermons, university classrooms, popular Bible studies, even personal reading habits).

1.2.2. Pentateuchal criticism illustrates how deeply indebted all interpretive approaches and decisions–including our own–are to prior philosophical and theological assumptions about the nature of the material being studied and the purpose for its existence. This is as true of those who affirm the Bible’s authority as it is of those who deny that authority, of those who naively think they take the Bible at face value (who claim to “read it straight”) as those who knowingly and intentionally read the Bible inhospitably or “against the grain.” In this way, by reflecting thoughtfully on the concerns of Pentateuchal criticism, we are reminded that interpretive virtue does not consist in denying the assumptions that influence our study or in pretending they do not exist (the myth of presuppositionlessness), but in honestly identifying what our assumptions are, humbly interacting with those who have different ones, and willingly exposing our own to revision as the data require. Or as N. T. Wright puts it:

To affirm “the authority of scripture” is precisely not to say, “We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.” It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions (The Last Word, 91).

1.2.3. Pentateuchal criticism aids the interpretive enterprise by bringing to light many of the real complexities presented to us in the scriptural text that call for responsible attention. It is important to understand that biblical criticism, of the Pentateuch and elsewhere, did not arise in a vacuum, among those who had nothing better to do with their time than to think up problems with the Bible. It is not much ado about nothing. Whatever the interpreter’s methodological stance, there is nothing to lose (or fear) and a great deal to gain in harvesting the fruit of critical observations on the biblical text. (On this note, it is worth reminding ourselves that ignorance of the Bible’s difficulties has never been a prerequisite to or a mark of true spirituality; and pretending that difficulties do not exist, especially when we suspect otherwise, says more about our unbelief and disingenuousness, even our deception, than it does about our piety. “Ignorance,” we are reminded by D. A. Carson, “may be bliss, but it is not a virtue.”) Moreover, in the face of deeply perplexing features in the biblical material, interpreters are cautioned to avoid premature dogmatic foreclosure on thoughtful proposals and to dissent where necessary with appropriate grace and humility (unlike one triumphal seminarian: “If Wellhausen had known Hebrew, he would not have said the things he did.”). We are further reminded that, here as elsewhere, responding to real issues does not consist merely in dismissing the critical data or simply in disagreeing with someone else’s proposal concerning it (or even in showing the proposal’s deficiencies), but in offering a better account of the relevant factors.

2. THE TRADITIONAL VIEW OF PENTATEUCHAL AUTHORSHIP AND EARLY DEPARTURES

2.1. Put simply, the traditional Jewish and Christian view up to the 17th century affirmed the divine origin and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and so its complete infallibility and essential unity. This presentation of the matter should not be mistaken as naively uncritical, as if no one up to that time was aware of any problems when it came to defending such a view. But defending was not at the top of their agenda. Until the 17th century, most people read the Bible, including the Pentateuch, with different motives and values in mind–as theological Scripture, revelatory of God and of God’s plan and program. To most interpreters in Church or Synagogue, the Pentateuch was “Mosaic” in the sense that its teachings were anchored in the antiquity and authority of Israel’s first and greatest prophet. But they were more interested in hearing God speak through Scripture than in demonstrating and defending who actually wrote the books. The concerns that would come to dominate subsequent critical discussions were not their concerns, and so they were not often debated. Accordingly, we might call them “pre-critical,” but only in the narrower sense of ‘biblical criticism’ noted in 1.1. above.

2.2. Very early on, and certainly by the latter middle ages, doubts began to arise about the adequacy of this position. These centered especially on: (a) dogmatic and ethical objections: Could Moses have authored such offensive material as the stories of Noah’s drunkenness (Gen 9), Abraham’s “lies” (Gen 12; 20), patriarchal polygamy (Gen 29ff.), and his own murdering of an Egyptian (Exod 2)? and (b) dating objections: Did Moses write the many pieces of the Pentateuch which reflect a later date than his own lifetime, including his own obituary (Deut 34:5-12)? In due course inquiries of these kinds would result in a situation that was characterized by many stalwart advocates of Mosaic authorship, by some outright denials, and by a few attempts at seeking alternative explanations. The Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, with its interest in the humanities, together with the Reformation of the 16th century and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries–all helped provide a climate in which traditional views would be tested. Why was this so?

2.3. Today it is not uncommon for Protestants to herald the Reformation and its perceived achievements as untarnished victory for the cause of Christian faith. What escapes notice in this presentation, among other illusions, is the extent to which das protestantische Schriftprinzip (“the Protestant Scripture-Principle”) of sola scriptura, whereby biblical study would ultimately be untethered from Church dogma and Scripture would stand alone as the only unquestioned religious authority, actually helped pave the way toward biblical criticism. Whatever the finer nuances of its application, this formal principle to which all the Reformers held rendered inevitable that certain traditional claims about the Bible (claims about authorship, for example) would in due course come under review and possible revision, even rejection. The case for the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, for example, would be weakened by the observation that the Pentateuch is, properly, an anonymous work; and since the Book of Joshua never actually names Joshua as its author, that traditional view might have to be abandoned as well; and so on. The Reformers, it turns out, were biblical “critics,” whose insistence on the primacy of the biblical text in its own right, emancipated from churchly dogma (whether they actually put matters this way is a question for another day), would continue to pave the way to what would emerge as biblical criticism.

2.4. These factors, together with certain philosophical winds in the “enlightened” European climate of 17th and 18th centuries–most notably a growing confidence in the critical powers of human reason (rationalism) to sort out claims to truth, religious or otherwise, and to test all matters at the bar of human reason–would ultimately result in the birth of historical criticism and its almost exclusive focus on the Bible’s human elements, including the Bible’s long and complex history of growth. Prominent names from this period include L. Cappellus, B. Spinoza, R. Simon, H. Grotius, T. Hobbes, J. Le Clerc, and I. de la Peyrere, who brought challenges to everything from the integrity of the Hebrew text (Cappellus), to the traditional Jewish view of biblical composition and authorship (Spinoza; Simon), to the question of whether Adam and Eve were actually the first humans (la Peyrere). As a result, the Bible came to be treated like any other book and subjected to the same canons of criticism. As for the Pentateuch, it would soon be viewed as the product of a long and complex developing history, with a date of completion much later than Moses.

3. THE FULL FLOWERING OF PENTATEUCHAL CRITICISM (18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES)

3.1. The hallmark of Enlightenment influence was, as we have noted, the enthronement of human reason. Proceeding confidently on that platform, critical thinkers set about to engage and answer questions related to various indications of the Pentateuch’s apparent complexity. These included:

  • The variable use and relative preponderance of the divine name YHWH (LORD) and title Elohim (God) (also El Elyon, El Shaddai, and others)–Would the same author have used different names/titles by which to refer to the Deity (as in Gen 1:1–2:3 and 2:4ff.)?
  • Repetition (doublet and triplicate accounts)–Would a single author have told the same story more than once, with variations or deviations in the accounts (as in Gen 1:1–2:3 and 2:4-25; or Gen 12, 20, and 26)?
  • Stylistic differences–Would the same author have written in such dramatically different styles and forms (as in vivid narrative, detailed law codes, tedious genealogies, hortatory material, and narratively inset poetry)?
  • Internal discrepancies or contradictions–Would the same author have permitted tensions and conflicts in the details of his material without buffing them out (as in Gen 1:24-26 and  2:15-20; Gen 6:19-20, 7:14-16a and 7:2-3; Gen 28:9 and 36:3; Gen 4:26 and Exod 6:2-3)?
  • Anachronistic glosses–Would Moses, writing in his own day, have mentioned places and events and perspectives from later times (as in Gen 14:14; 36:31; Exod 6:26-27; 16:35; Num 12:3; Deut 2:12; 34:5-12)?

These indications of textual complexity–indications not dreamed up, but presented by the material itself, “straight off the page”–called for reasonable and more satisfactory explanations, it was felt, than those supplied in the traditional view of compositional unity associated with Moses. Perhaps Moses did not write the Pentateuch “from scratch” or from beginning to end after all. Maybe the Pentateuch is a composite text best explained by a theory of various and divergent source documents of written and/or oral tradition coming together to form the text at hand. In that case, the study of the Pentateuch might best be undertaken by isolating these various “strands” and focusing interpretive attention on their individual character and peculiar emphases–getting into “the world behind the text” and examining the “original” bits of the Pentateuch before it became the Pentateuch. And so the hypotheses developed.

3.2. The Older Documentary Hypothesis–According to this proposal, the Pentateuch consists in two discrete strands of narrative which have been interwoven, a composite text that can be dissected with considerable confidence. Here lie the beginnings of that brand of biblical criticism known as Source Criticism, the attempt to isolate and to identify and, if possible, to date the various (hypothetical) written documents (sources) which lie behind and provide the component elements of the present apparently composite text. Prominent proponents: H. B. Witter (1711), J. Astruc (1753, 1756), J. G. Eichhorn (1780).

3.3. The Fragmentary Hypothesis–This modification of the older documentary hypothesis proposed that rather than complete parallel strands, the Pentateuch consists in a large number of relatively short sources (fragments), independent of one another and without continuity, which an editor pieced together, adding his own comments, to form the long narrative that constitutes the present Pentateuch. Prominent proponents: A. Geddes (1792, 1800), J. S. Vater (1802, 1805).

3.4. The Supplementary Hypothesis–This revision of the older hypothesis contended that underlying our Pentateuch is a work completely or relatively unified (a so-called “E document” which favored the title Elohim for Israel’s God), which was subsequently expanded by one or several hands, rather like the growth of a snowball, as extra materials were added to the original source from other traditions or from the editor’s own imagination. Prominent proponents: W. de Wette (1807), H. Ewald (1831).

3.5. The Newer Documentary Hypothesis–The epoch-making element here is the almost exclusive interest in the dating and relative historical arranging of the various hypothetical sources, together with a corresponding evolutionary rewriting of Israel’s history. Prominent proponents: W. Vatke (1835), H. Hupfeld (1853), K. H. Graf (1869), A. Kuenen (1885), J. Wellhausen (1844-1918).

3.6. The End Result

3.6.1. The Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen proposal–better known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) or the JEDP hypothesis (see next)–ultimately prevailed as the majority view, with a virtual consensus that this general presentation of the matter satisfactorily answered all or most of the questions. Although widely debated in the particulars and continually revised to the present (Smend, Eissfeldt, Vriezen, Thompson, Van Seters), it is safe to say that the DH remains at least the starting point for almost every critical discussion concerning the origin of the Pentateuch.

3.6.2. According to this proposal in its broadest strokes, the Pentateuch as we know it is the product of the bringing together of four independent, identifiable, datable strands or sources that can be arranged in a clear historical sequence as follows:

  J = Jahwist (c. 950 B.C.)–narrative; refers to God as YHWH (German, Jahweh); about 1/2 the material of Genesis 2 to Exodus 24 and fragments of Numbers
  E = Elohist (c. 850 B.C.)–narrative; refers to God as Elohim; about 1/3 the material of Genesis 15 to Exodus 24
  D = Deuteronomist (622/621 B.C.)–sermons; the book of Deuteronomy
  P = Priestly (c. 450 B.C.)–lists, genealogies, laws on worship; about 1/6 the material of Genesis; most of Exodus 25 through Numbers

“Simply put, Wellhausen argued that two original sources, J(ahwist) and E(lohist), were combined to make one document, which he labeled JE. D(euteronomy) was later attached; and, finally, the P(riestly Document) was added in the post-exilic period to JE + D to create our Pentateuch” (W. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book, 10).

3.6.3. The real focus and resultant innovation of the DH is its reconstructing of Israel’s history and religious development along evolutionary lines. In this rewritten history of Israel’s religion, (a) the complexities of cultic and priestly regulations presupposed by the P stratum (much of Exod-Num) do not lie at the beginning but at end of the development (Israelite religion evolved from the primitivism of animal worship and polytheism to a more refined monotheism, for which latter development the prophets are to be credited); (b) the bulk of the Mosaic Law is postexilic, and so also post-prophetic (i.e., Pentateuchal laws come later than, and reflect the influence of, the prophets, not the other way around); and (c) Deuteronomy is assumed to be the lawbook of Josiah’s reform, and so dates from about 622/621 B.C. (cf. 2 Kgs 22–23).

3.6.4. It is important to understand that Wellhausen, who was responsible for the most definitive formulation of the DH, actually intended to develop an instrument for the deeper understanding of the Old Testament, a methodologically superior exegesis to the pre-enlightened canons of biblical and ecclesial “fundamentalism.” But the evolutionary Zeitgeist, German intellectual domination, almost uncritical (!) acceptance of certain presuppositions, and thoroughgoing application to the entire Old Testament–all led to the widespread endorsement of his essential program, even if it came at a price. (At one point Wellhausen was forced from his post as professor of theology and had to teach Arabic instead. And reportedly, he was to have conceded just before his death in 1918 that “the rationalism which he had embraced so avidly in earlier years had made havoc of his own faith in the authority and authenticity of the Old Testament” [cited in R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 26]).

3.6.5. Today, while few scholars or churchmen actually devote time and energy to arguing the case for the DH or the JEDP hypothesis, it is fair to say that most critical scholars, university religion departments, and mainstream Protestant denominations operate on the assumed premise of its essential correctness, this despite the absence of any firm evidence in its support. No one has ever seen an actual J strand, and no E document has ever appeared–other than those constructed by the ingenuity of critical scholars, of course. In other words, none of these four hypothetical sources, or others added in more recent years, has a known existence apart from the construct itself. We have a mature Pentateuch, fully formed, and nothing at all resembling an embryonic stage in its earlier development. Sternberg puts it more sharply:

Rarely has there been such a futile expense of spirit in a noble cause; rarely have such grandiose theories of origination been built and revised and pitted against one another on the evidential equivalent of the head of a pin; rarely have so many worked so long and so hard with so little to show for their trouble. Not even the widely accepted constructs of geneticism, like the Deuteronomist, lead an existence other than speculative (M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 13).

4. TWENTIETH-CENTURY DEVELOPMENTS AND REACTIONS

4.1. By the end of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th (to about 1975), interest had shifted from a preoccupation with the sources themselves to the religious ideas and oral traditions which supposedly lay behind these sources and to the stages of transmission that led from these traditions to written texts. This change in focus did not represent an abandoning of the basic premises set forth in the DH but a reaction against source criticism’s too narrow fixation on literary matters (the source documents that make up the Old Testament) and insufficient attention to oral and cultural factors (the pre-literary origins of these source documents and their path of transmission en route to the Old Testament). This shift away from literary atomization (breaking up the present text along lines of hypothetical source strata) to the prior stages of oral development and transmission was accompanied by increased interest in ancient Near Eastern studies and the observation that written texts were the product of oral cultures which gave rise to stereotypic speech forms that came in due course to literary expression. Alas, the various kinds of material we have in the Pentateuch (e.g., creation and flood narratives, genealogies, laws) had analogies in the world around Israel. An analysis of the various life settings which gave rise to those forms might shed light on the Old Testament material and its meaning. And so we arrive at Form Criticism and Tradition Criticism and their assessment of the Pentateuch.

4.2. Form Criticism and Tradition Criticism

4.2.1. Form Criticism attempts to analyze and interpret the biblical literature through a study of its literary forms or types (genres), with a view to determining the initial “life setting” (Sitz im Leben) out of which these forms developed in oral, pre-literary tradition. It draws on the insights of comparative literature and religion to help reconstruct the oral history which shaped the various kinds of materials that make up the biblical text. The basic methodology of Form Criticism is fourfold: (a) define the form-critical unit; (b) describe the literary genre; (c) determine the social setting; and (d) delineate the function in that original setting. The principal underlying assumptions of Form Criticism are obvious: (a) literary materials have formal features; (b) formal features reflect social settings of use; (c) social settings are assumed to be common to ancient Israel and her neighbors. In this way the creation and flood stories of Genesis, for example, are understood to have emerged from the ancient Near Eastern culture in which Israel found herself, where such stories were generated and shaped, eventually making their way into Israel’s own writings where they had an analogous function. Prominent names: H. Gunkel (1895) and his followers, H. Gressmann (1913, 1921), A. Alt (1929/34).

4.2.2. Tradition Criticism goes one step further. It attempts to trace the history of an oral tradition from its initial existence through the stages of its transmission en route to its functioning, together with other such oral traditions, as documentary sources of the Pentateuch. Prominent names: G. von Rad (1938), M. Noth (1943/1948).

4.3. Reactions to the Historical-Critical Approaches to the Pentateuch

4.3.1. To be sure, not all Jewish and Christian scholars bought into the standard critical program represented in source, form, and tradition criticism. Reservation and sometimes wholesale rejection have come from various quarters and have targeted a number of perceived deficiencies.

4.3.2. Some problems with Source Criticism:

  • The problem of logical fallacy (circularity)–The conclusion is built into the premise; the theory produces the sources.
  • The problem of inadequate criteria–Do such criteria as divine name/titles, stylistic variations, and doublets substantiate a composite text? What if repetition, for example, occurs within one of the hypothetical source documents (which it does)?
  • The problem of evolutionary presuppositions concerning Israel’s religious growth–Did Israel develop from polytheism to monotheism by influence of the prophets, or does a different picture entirely better account for the historical and theological data–the picture preserved in the Bible’s own narrative of Israel’s religious development?
  • The problem of textual atomization–How does fragmenting the present text into hypothetical sources explain the meaningful features of the resultant, remarkably coherent narrative?

4.3.3. Some problems with Form and Tradition Criticism:

  • The problem of basic assumptions–Are all written documents necessarily preceded by an oral stage of development? Does a necessary connection exist between oral and literary communication? Do common formal features indicate analogous social settings or direct borrowing? Do ethics and spiritual awareness actually evolve from simple and primitive to complex and sophisticated as the theory maintains in its analysis of oral cultures?
  • The problem of confusing form and content–Does the form control the content, so that the Pentateuch’s use of a literary form that resembles a document in the library of one of Israel’s ancient neighbors means that the content is therefore analogous? Should the formal tail wag the theological dog, or the conventional cart drive the hermeneutical horse?
  • The problem of accounting for partial and altered forms–How shall we explain the adaptations of conventional forms and the special purposes to which they are put in the biblical account?
  • The problem of textual atomization–How does a miscellany of isolated genres and disconnected subunits within those genres, each with its own reconstructed Sitz im Leben, explain the meaningful features of the resultant, remarkably coherent narrative in its present, final shape?

4.3.4. Some of the dissenting voices on one point or another include, among many others, W. Albright, G. Archer, A. Berlin, E. Blum, J. Bright, U. Cassuto, C. Gordon, R. Harrison, Y. Kaufmann, G. Keil and F. Delitzsch, K. Kitchen, J. McConville, R. Rendtorff, S. Sandmel, M. Sternberg, G. Wenham, R. Whybray, and E. Young.

5. THE PRESENT STATE OF THE PENTATEUCHAL DEBATE

5.1. Regarding the Shift in Focus

5.1.1. Although here and there discussions linger on one point or another from the old critical agendas (e.g., J. Blenkinsopp, H. Bloom, R. Friedman, A. Rofé, T. Thompson, J. Van Seters), it is completely fair and safe to say that the final decades of the 20th century witnessed a considerable straining and cracking in the walls of the earlier critical consensus–if not in the essential premises themselves, then certainly in the fact that few actually care much about those discussions any longer. Attention has shifted toward other interests. It is also fair and safe to say that this ground shift has almost nothing to do with a return to the traditional and conservative insistence on Mosaic authorship, since this view hardly accounts for the real complexities and other data of which we spoke earlier (and on which see further below).

5.1.2. What most characterizes the current climate of Pentateuchal (and most biblical) research is a renewed focus on the present text (as opposed to the details of its origin) and its defining function as confessed Scripture for the community of faith past and present (as opposed, say, to harvesting whatever historical light it might be able to shed, together with other ancient sources, on reconstructing Israel’s religious development). This shift in focus is variously captured in a number of related but non-synonymous expressions: text-centered (as opposed to author-centered), synchronic (“at the same time” as opposed to diachronic, “through time”), literary (as opposed to historical), the world within and in front of the text (as opposed to the world behind the text), confessional/theological interpretation (as opposed to merely descriptive interpretation), canonical (as opposed to historical-critical), exegetical (as opposed to apologetic).

5.1.3. The list of contributors to one aspect or another of these movements as they affect especially Pentateuchal studies includes, among many others, T. Alexander, W. Brueggemann, A. Berlin, B. Childs, D. Clines, T. Fretheim, T. Mann, D. Olson, R. Polzin, R. Rendtorff, J. Sailhamer, C. Seitz, M. Sternberg, R. Whybray.

5.2. Regarding the Scope of the Material: Is it a Pentateuch, a Hexateuch, a Tetrateuch, or an Enneateuch?

5.2.1. ‘Hexateuch’ (six-volume book; Genesis-Joshua)–virtually replaced ‘Pentateuch’ during the height of the critical period of the 19th and early 20th centuries; associated with H. Ewald, A. Kuenen, J. Wellhausen, R. Smend, O. Eissfeldt.

5.2.2. ‘Tetrateuch’ (four-volume book; Genesis-Numbers)–especially associated with M. Noth (1943) and his proposal of a “deuteronomic/deuteronomistic history” (Joshua-Kings), with Deuteronomy as the introduction to this larger literary work

5.2.3. ‘Enneateuch’ (nine-volume book; Genesis-Kings)–never really threatened ‘Pentateuch’ as an alternate title for the corpus; associated with H.-C Schmitt, D. Freedman

5.2.4. The discernible preference in recent scholarship is ‘Pentateuch,’ on the basis of various compositional, linguistic, and thematic considerations, but with thoughtful appreciation for the manner in which Genesis-Kings form a continuous narrative, a seamless account from creation to the exile, with Deuteronomy as the hinge between Pentateuch and Prophets.

5.3. An Additional Note on Deuteronomy

5.3.1. Among the special issues raised by Deuteronomy, the critical discussion has focused most intensely on its association with the Josianic reform of 2 Kings 22–23. The identification of the “Book of the Law” found by Hilkiah the high priest (22:8-20) has roots as early as the Church Fathers, who regarded the torah book as Deuteronomy, compiled by Moses but now simply rediscovered after its long neglect in Israel.

5.3.2. But de Wette (1805) proposed otherwise. He claimed that Deuteronomy, which differs from the rest of the Pentateuch in various ways, was previously unknown, that it was produced by a later author shortly before its discovery in 622/621 B.C. as recorded in 2 Kings. Not without its opponents, this view gained wide currency in the heyday of Pentateuchal criticism, later to be challenged by 20th-century scholars (e.g., von Rad, Kline).

5.3.3. There continues to be widespread agreement that the torah book which underlay Josiah’s reform is preserved in our Deuteronomy, but many doubts have been raised about the book’s coming into existence at that time. “[T]he fact that a book can be shown to be relevant to a certain age does not require that it was composed then” (J. G. McConville, Grace in the End, 98; cf. C. Wright, Deuteronomy, 6-8).

6. THE PENTATEUCH AS CANONICAL COMPOSITION

6.1. In response to the textual data actually presented us in the Pentateuch and the perceived shortcomings of both the traditional and the critical views in accounting for those data, it is both possible and prudent to propose a “post-critical alternative” and a “very different approach” (Childs) to the study of the Pentateuch, one that proceeds from a different point of orientation, with different interests in mind, toward a different goal from the dominant critical programs. If anything should be clear from the foregoing survey it is that the primary focus and concern of the standard critical agendas has never been the explanation of the Pentateuch as it is, in its present shape, as we have it.

6.2. What I am here calling a Canonical-Compositional approach focuses on the present (final, canonical) shape of the Pentateuch as a composition, not in order to explain its prehistory (i.e., how it came into being, the world behind the text), but to observe its intended meaning/message as Scripture by fixing undistracted attention on the wording and structure given it by its author(s) (composition) and finally received (as canon) by the believing community of Israel, Jesus, the apostles, and the Church (the world within and in front of the text). To summarize:

6.2.1. Whatever its precise oral and literary history, much of which we are not told, the Pentateuch comes to us as a fivefold composition or a book in five parts as a coherent literary work which reflects a purposeful, theological, comprehensive shaping with ideological integrity and interpretive direction. (See my fuller discussion and development in “Literary Structure of the Pentateuch,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch [InterVarsity, 2003], 544-56.)

6.2.2. The most appropriate and methodologically sound approach to studying the Pentateuch is to study it in its present shape, as a final (canonical) text–irrespective of the long history by which it might have reached its present shape–in which form we discover the intended meaning/message of the inspired composition.

6.2.3. The primary hermeneutical focus concerns the present text and the disposition of the invited and listening reader who sits humbly before it. The biblical text is itself the real object of interpretive reflection, with a theological function that far exceeds its role as a window through which to look at ancient events, persons, and places in the interest of defending Scripture’s reliability or reconstructing the history of Israel’s religious growth. This is not to deny a legitimate role for the apologetic and historical-reconstructive enterprises in their own right, but to stress that construing the meaning of Scripture as Scripture is a fundamentally different undertaking from either of those disciplines, with many methodological implications hanging on that difference.

6.2.4. Since these writings were regarded as canonical Scripture by the community of faith who produced and received them and who defined themselves accordingly, they are best interpreted and understood in the light of that historical (!) and theological function, as one standing within and overtaken by the community of faith.

6.2.5. Prominent names (with considerable variation on the particulars), among many others: T. Alexander, B. Childs, T. Fretheim, J. McConville, R. Rendtorff, J. Sailhamer, C. Seitz

6.2.6. Postscript: When the above considerations are factored, the titles to arguably the two most influential works on the Old Testament in the 19th and 20th centuries present a study in contrast for deep and sustained reflection:

  J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Prolegomena to the History of Israel) (1878/1885)
  B. S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979)

To perceive the difference here is to be well on the way to understanding where Old Testament study, and biblical study generally, has been over the past two or three centuries.

6.3. Pentateuchal Authorship and the Canonical-Compositional Approach

6.3.1. The issue of authorship: In what sense then is the present or final composition of the Pentateuch–the Pentateuch as we have it–Mosaic?

6.3.2. Strictly speaking, the Pentateuch is an anonymous literary work. While it does claim that Moses wrote down certain passages (e.g., Exod 17:14; 24:4, 7; 34:27; Num 33:2; Deut 31:9, 24), a claim corroborated by preexilic, exilic, postexilic, New Testament, and traditional references, the fact remains that nowhere does the author of the full and finished composition identify himself. According to Schniedewind:

. . . [T]he Book of Deuteronomy . . . is framed as a third-person report of a speech by Moses and not as something that Moses himself wrote, “These are the things Moses said to all Israel . . .” (Deut 1:1). In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, Moses is a character, not an author. Genesis does not mention Moses in any capacity. In spite of this, Deuteronomy, along with the other four books of the Torah, has usually been ascribed to the pen of Moses rather than being understood as traditions passed down from Moses or more generally as traditions of the Israelite people (8).

Moreover, none of the references to Moses in the Prophets, or the Writings, or the New Testament requires that Moses was himself the author of record for the final production (e.g., Josh 1:7-8; 1 Kgs 2:3; 2 Kgs 14:6; 23:21, 25; Ezra 3:2; 6:18; Neh 8:1; 13:1; 2 Chron 8:13; 34:14; 35:12; Matt 8:4; 19:8; Lk 2:22; 16:29, 31; 24:27, 44; Jn 5:46; 7:19-23; Acts 3:22; Rom 10:5, 19; 1 Cor 9:9; Heb 7:14). Clearly Moses is responsible for much of the material contained in the Pentateuch, but to every observant reader the style of presentation in the Pentateuch is more biographical (3rd person; e.g., “YHWH spoke to Moses”) than autobiographical (1st person; e.g., “YHWH spoke to me”). Still, since there is no compelling literary, historical, or theological reason to rule out Moses’ role in the early composition and formation of the Pentateuch and many reasons to affirm the same, we may confidently regard the Pentateuch as essentially Mosaic in authorship.

6.3.3. Having said that, it is important to underscore that the Pentateuch, like most of the Old Testament books, “shows a distressing disinterest in who wrote it” (Schniedewind, 9; “Ironically, for the authors of the [Old Testament], authorship seems unimportant”, 11). The preoccupation with authorship, and certainly the attachment of authority to a knowable author–these concerns reflect later interests and developments in Hellenistic rather than Semitic civilization (Schniedewind, 7-9). And, of course, that the authorship of the Pentateuch (or the authorship of Isaiah to use another famous example)–where ‘authorship’ is understood in the modern sense of who wrote it–has been made in some circles a test of orthodoxy reflects the extent to which post-Enlightened modernity rather than the actual scriptural claims and concerns has come to define the battle lines, even piety itself.

6.3.4. The undeniable complexities of the text point to an apparently complex literary history, superintended, our confession would maintain, by the same Spirit who spoke through and guided Moses in the first place (“Version 1.0.”), until the Pentateuch reached its final form some centuries later (“Version 2.0.”), to which form the final divine imprimatur or stamp of inspiration attaches. In this way an authoritative and relevant word of the Lord through his prophet Moses mediated the person and will of the selfsame Lord to his people throughout their history, with abiding authority and intrinsic relevance. The tensions and upheavals and stylistic shifts and other difficulties noted by earlier generations of careful scholars–in the pointing out of which, we should add, critical study offers its best service–should not be conveniently explained away by positing variant sources or divergent Sitze im Leben in pre-literary cultures, much less should they be buffed out or varnished over or lightly dismissed by obscurant impulses (obscurantists are those who pretend that such difficulties do not exist–the proverbial ostrich comes to mind, with its head in inauspicious places–and who blame those “liberal” scholars for trying to make havoc of our faith in the Bible’s integrity and simplicity). In fact, textual complexities invite studied attention for the contribution they make to an overall presentation that means to say something more or other than pleasant uniformity, whether theological, ethical, political, or otherwise.

6.3.5. Whatever the literary complexity and compositional history of the Pentateuch in arriving at its present form, the authored production in that final (canonical) form is the absorbing concern of the interpreter, whose loyalty is to the Lord who engineered the whole literary creation. Moses and subsequent editors probably did use multiple sources, but dwelling on the identity of these editors or on the identification and dates of their sources is as misdirected as it is subjective. We have a text–one that is worthy of Jesus’ full endorsement. To study the Pentateuch is to take our place under his lordship in the study of this text and its reception as witnessed in the Former and Latter Prophets, the Writings, and the New Testament and continued in faithful Judaism and the Church.

6.3.6. To cite just one intriguing implication, what this means is that the interpretive question will not be captured in “What did Moses mean when he said or wrote such and such?” but “What does the Pentateuch mean to say by this statement or this passage as a constituent part of the whole?” For all we know the Pentateuch as a canonical composition might contain meanings that exceed or modify what Moses first conceived; it might even comment upon the man Moses as an object of discussion, from a perspective that long postdates him. Or here’s an intriguing possibility: The Pentateuch might cast a different light on the Law from that which Moses and his contemporaries experienced; and if perchance it does, then it is precisely that Pentateuchal perspective which we are called upon to hear in conversation with the New Testament and to proclaim as part of the Church’s gospel. Alas, it might turn out to be the case that both of the following statements are true: (a) Christians today are not under the law as ancient Israel was under the law; (b) Christians today are under the Pentateuch as the Torah of YHWH. (To show my honest hermeneutical hand here, I happen to believe that Moses already understood things this way, and that it is the function of Deuteronomy to tell us so.) Related, while Moses obviously was addressing his contemporaries in various speeches that now comprise the Pentateuch, it is equally obvious that the Pentateuch in its present shape addresses a different audience entirely, namely, biblical readersChristian readers included. Those who listen will discern a message no less authoritative or relevant than anything the New Testament has to say. In this light it will not be surprising that those who bypass the Pentateuch and go straight to Paul (or Matthew or Peter or James or John or . . .) not only misinterpret most of what they have to say, they also sadly miss it. It turns out then that an age-old critical issue does have implications for how we read and hear the Pentateuch, whether we read and hear it on its own wavelength and in its own idiom.


I am aware that a large number of published studies have influenced this survey. Those of which I am most conscious include works by: W. Abraham, T. Alexander, G. Archer, C. Bartholomew, J. Barton, A. Berlin, U. Cassuto, B. Childs, R. Clements, O. Eissfeldt, H. Frei, T. Fretheim, R. Harrison, R. Harrisville/ W. Sundberg, C. Houtman, K. Kitchen, G. Klingbeil, W. Lasor/D. Hubbard/F. Bush, G. Maier, J. McConville, J. Miller/J. Hayes, J. Ratzinger, R. Rendtorff, J. Rogerson, J. Sailhamer, W. Schniedewind, M. Sternberg, C. Seitz, R. Soulen, J. Van Seters, J. Wellhausen, and G. Wenham.

The Story of Cain and Abel and the Problem of Divine Inequality

 A good friend who was unable to attend our recent Genesis seminar suggested that I post a summary of what I had presented. It seemed like a good idea, at first. But then the challenge: How does one compress 28 pages of lecture material into a blog post, of a size anyone cares to read? A future article perhaps, but not something I wish to attempt here. So I limit my comment to one of the contemporary anxieties in relation to the Bible and especially in relation to our focus on the Cain and Abel narrative. I refer to the view intoned in our society with increasing virulence that belief in one God is a bad thing since, as the charge goes, it leads people into brutality toward others. It’s the view that religion, as the late Christopher Hitchens insisted in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is the “main source of hatred in the world,” that monotheism entails violence and is the root of homophobia, abuse of women and children, and most of the other social evils.

University of Chicago professor Regina Schwartz is equally shrill in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, where she blames practically everything on the way the Bible has been put to the service of “violent identity formation,” with the result that people find ways on biblical grounds to demonize or Canaanize whomever they wish to loathe (Blacks, Jews, gays, women, pagans, the poor). “But why the violence?” asks Schwartz. “Why is claiming a distinctive collective identity important enough to spawn violence?” Schwartz finds her answer in what she calls “a principle of scarcity,” by which she means that since everything is in short supply (land, prosperity, power, favor), everything is competed for and someone always inherits at another’s expense. Here’s where Genesis 4 comes in. For Schwartz the miseries of the world do not trace ultimately to the original sin of disobedience in the Garden, but to the “foundational myth” involving the first sibling rivalry, the story of Cain and Abel, where “the violence that rends our world” had its start in the fact that both brothers offered a sacrifice, but for whatever reason only one was accepted. Here’s Schwartz in her own words:

        Why did God condemn Cain’s sacrifice? What would have happened if he had accepted both Cain’s and Abel’s offerings instead of choosing one, and had thereby promoted cooperation between the sower and the shepherd instead of their competition and violence? What kind of God is this who chooses one sacrifice over the other? This God who excludes some and prefers others, who casts some out, is a monotheistic God–monotheistic not only because he demands allegiance to himself alone but because he confers his favor on one alone. . . . Cain kills in the rage of his exclusion. And the circle is vicious: because Cain is outcast, Abel is murdered and Cain is cast out. We are the descendants of Cain because we too live in a world where some are cast out, a world in which whatever law of scarcity made that ancient story describe only one sacrifice as acceptable . . . still prevails to dictate the terms of a ferocious and fatal competition. Some lose.
        When Cain’s tale is retold in the Bible with another set of brothers, that uncomfortable rule of scarcity appears again. There is not enough divine favor, not enough blessing, for both Jacob and Esau. One can prosper only at the other’s expense. When Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, there are no blessings left for Esau: “Esau pleaded with his father, ‘Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!’” (Gen 27:38). The terrible cost of this scarcity of blessing is another Outcast: “your home shall be far from the earth’s riches.” And again the Outcast becomes murderous: “Esau harbored a grudge against his brother Jacob on account of the blessing that his father had given him. And Esau said to himself, “As soon as the time to mourn my father is at hand, I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). In the Bible, these brothers are the eponymous ancestors of peoples: peoples whose enmity grows and is nurtured for centuries, peoples who define themselves and their prosperity in that close atmosphere of scarcity, peoples who conceive of the Other as cursed and murderous outcasts.

Does she have a point? Does scarcity sometimes lead to exclusion, and exclusion to competition, and competition to violence? Who can doubt. This is one reading, but is it the reading invited by the biblical text on its own wavelength, in its own idiom? Is it a sympathetic, charitable, and hospitable reading, or, applying Schwartz’s own terms to the hermeneutical question, is it a reading that might be more aptly characterized as hostile and violent? For myself, as I tried to show in a detailed study of Genesis 4:1-16, I think Schwartz’ reading represents a profound and tragic counter-reading of the actual biblical narrative and a sharp contrast indeed from Cyril of Jerusalem, who, in his 4th-century instructions to catechumens, cited the story of Cain and Abel as a premier example of the loving kindness of God!

Here is a story of grace upon grace, an illustration–as apt and rich as any in Scripture–of the Pauline theme “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). It is true, of course, that the story begins on a note of near equality (two brothers, each with his means of subsistence, recognize the same Giver in their gifts of worship) and moves abruptly to inequality: YHWH looks favorably on Abel and his offering but rejects Cain and his. Despite all attempts to rationalize, ancient and modern, this inequality remains inexplicable. Acting neither capriciously nor arbitrarily (at least the story itself gives no hint of these), YHWH does act mysteriously, according to an expectation built into the nature of living in the Creator’s world, where creatures are not owed an audience as his counselor. And that is the point. This is not finally a story about offerings and offerers, but about human response to the way God chooses to do things. And so, YHWH addresses Cain’s indignation, without so much as a hint of any defect in his offering or any deficiency in his manner of bringing it. In this light, the so-called “curse on Cain” did not follow on from God’s rejecting his offering, but from Cain’s negative reaction to the blessing of another and to God’s manner of distributing his intended blessing, namely, through the chosen agent whom Cain eliminates through fratricide.

To put this differently, this story is all about acknowledging that (a) the Creator is a God of decisions, of elective choices, which are his prerogative to make without input from us; and (b) participation in the Creator’s blessing-plan requires seeing/doing things God’s way. Here is a reminder that God’s blessing is a matter of sovereign, inscrutable grace; it is not as humans think. Specifically, in this story God chooses to regard the younger and his offering rather than the older and his, introducing a theme which will run through Genesis and beyond: Divine decisions do not always follow the rule of primogeniture (i.e., the right of the firstborn; so Isaac rather than Ishmael, Jacob rather than Esau, Ephraim rather than Manasseh, eventually David rather than his older brothers). Moreover, God’s blessing is for those who don’t get confused about who is God. They aren’t! In fact, as will become a prominent theme in ch. 12 onward, “the attitude of those who stand initially outside the blessing will determine, in part, whether they themselves will eventually participate in the blessing or not” (Mann). But to do so they must submit to God’s divine decision on the medium of that blessing. Cain, although not the chosen line of blessing (vv. 4-5), will shortly be given an opportunity to respond submissively to God and in that way to get in on the blessing (vv. 6-7). Obviously God’s acceptance of Abel and his offering and not Cain and his is not finally a matter of Schwartz’ “principle of scarcity” at all, for God extends to Cain the very possibility of acceptance and blessing.

It is precisely in the missing of this point that our world takes offense at the gospel, a message of salvation offered in terms the world, by its criteria, considers unequal or unfair. The biblical gospel is particularized to elected Israel and Israel’s Messiah and universalized to the world through elected Israel and Israel’s Messiah and through no other. These things are not ours to control or to comprehend, but to accept in submissive faith. Refusal to do so represents a posture of protest against God’s way of doing things and, accordingly, a forfeiture of what God extends in grace since it is not on our terms. What it does not represent is an alternative better way. Cain and his offering are not subsequently accepted by God now that Abel has been disposed of and is out of the way. “Cain’s elimination of God’s elect does not leave him occupying that role. Instead it results in Cain’s being alienated from God and from the soil from which he earned his livelihood (vv. 11-12)” (Kaminsky). This story, in other words, is another chapter in the story of the Fall itself, which centers not on God’s unfair restriction–indeed, God’s freedoms are many and his restrictions few (cf. the disproportionate trees in the Garden!)–but on the first humans’ determination that they rather than God would define the way to blessing, which of course, results in their forfeiting the blessing that could be theirs. Divine inequality or unfairness provides an occasion for the exposing of human rebellion, it is not the cause of human rebellion (contra Schwartz).

But back to the many ways in which this story highlights the grace of God. It is not just that YHWH offers Cain the possibility of acceptance and blessing, it is that YHWH speaks to him in the first place, that YHWH converses with him! (vv. 6-7). This is the first display of grace, anticipating the second: YHWH gives the non-elected brother the opportunity to get in on the blessing of acceptance (this will have to be factored into any doctrine of election for it to be considered properly biblical)–clear indication that God’s mysterious and unpredictable acts of choosing are neither arbitrary, whimsical, nor compromising of his justice. Third, as with Cain’s parents in the previous story, YHWH comes looking for repentance by way of rhetorical interrogation (vv. 9-10). Fourth, Cain’s murderous act results in the judgment of banishment, as it did for his parents; but he receives exile instead of death, including the divine provision of a sign of protection (vv. 11-16). Alas, the apparent “arbitrariness of God has its positive side,” and “divine inequality” ends up working in Cain’s favor, as “the symmetry of ‘life for life’ yields to the gracious asymmetry of exile as the penalty for murder.” Cain, it turns out, “survives, despite the atrocity he has committed. . . . [H]e survives by the grace of God–ironically, the very principle that evoked his murderous impulse in the first place” Indeed, “The irony is pungent: The man who could not tolerate God’s inscrutable grace now benefits from it” (Levenson). “In such a simple way, the narrative articulates the two-sidedness of human life, in jeopardy for disobedience and yet safe. The acknowledgment of guilt and the reality of grace come together in this presentation” (Brueggemann).

Returning once more to Schwartz and her protest, should we lay the blame for the first murder (and all subsequent ones) on the Lord and his “favoritism”? Is this a story about scarcity, or about particularity in the interest of universality? (See on this theme especially Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World.) Is it the case that God has only one blessing, so to speak, or is it that God has only one path or agency through which he chooses to dispense his blessing generously to all those who receive it in submission to his way of doing things? In short, is this a story about divine shortage or about divine sovereignty, about my world in which God comes to live or God’s world in which I am invited to live? Related, did Cain actually kill in the rage of his exclusion, or did he kill in the rejection of YHWH’s grace, generously available to him through faith and submission? Even if YHWH’s choice of Abel explains the occasion for Cain’s anger and his drooping countenance, does it explain his violence? Must scarcity lead to exclusion and exclusion to competition and competition to violence? Perhaps in a world minus God, but hardly in a world of God’s own making, where submission to God’s way of doing things defines existence. To my reading, the stories of Cain and Abel and of Jacob and Esau do not express “a conception of identity as something won in a competition, at someone else’s loss, an identity born in the rivalry and violence that unravel from scarcity” (Schwartz), but something else entirely, namely, the possibility of a conception of identity anchored to God’s sovereign election and inscrutable grace.

And as for the matter of divine inequality, is it not the case that God’s blessings flow in and through the world in mysterious ways? R. W. L. Moberly captures it this way:

        [M]uch of what happens in life happens unpredictably and apparently randomly. One person enjoys robust good health, another gets cancer or multiple sclerosis. One person, born in prosperity and/or a time of peace, lives long; another, born in poverty and/or time of war, dies young. One falls in love, and the love is reciprocated; another suffers unrequited love. Deadly accidents, from drunken driver to earthquake, can strike out of the blue. And so on. It is hardly necessary to recount the endless ways in which . . . some are less favored in life than others, for reasons irrespective of their merits.
        In situations of being “unfavored,” people often display an instinctive tendency to try to rationalize: “Why me?” “What have I/we/you done to deserve it?” Yet such backward-looking questions are incapable of receiving a good answer, for it is intrinsic to the situation that what has happened to them has not been because they deserved it. The only questions that can be fruitful are questions that look forward rather than back: What is to be made of the situation? What can I/we/you yet hope for [cf. Jn 9:2-3!]. . . . [T]his is precisely the focus of YHWH’s all-important admonition to Cain (Gen 4:6-7).

Let’s face it, so much of what Schwartz and others find problematic is simply and mysteriously intrinsic to life in the world. I have long been puzzled by those who reason that getting rid of the Bible and talk of God will somehow solve these problems or lessen the pain of coping with their reality. Perhaps it is the case that, as “children of Cain” (or of Jonah), people project an image of God in whose world distributive justice is the highest principle, a world in which mysterious and inequitable acts of divine choosing are not permissible. Of course, that would be a world in which grace would not then be extended generously to Cain, or to us; and neither he nor we would want that either. In the end, Moberly’s counsel seems best–to ask questions “that look forward rather than back: What is to be made of the situation? What can I/we/you yet hope for. . . ?” and to be grateful that in God’s grace these are ours, as they were Cain’s, to ask.

This little discussion touches on about one-seventh of just one of our seminar sessions, not to mention an entire second session on “The Problem of Patriarchal Polygamy in Genesis and Its Effects in Salvation History” led by guest presenter Dr. Sebastian Carnazzo.

Is Christ Divided?

The photo above shows Pope Benedict XVI (on the left), supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, listening to Patriarch Bartholomew (on the right), ecumenical patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Communion. The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox separated in 1054, in what is traditionally called 'The Great Schism'. Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew are friends, and they are mutually committed to the reunification of East and West.

The following lengthy quote is an excerpt from Dr. Ephraim Radner's Palmer Lecture, 'Is Christ Divided?: Locating the Possibility of the True Church', delivered at Seattle Pacific University, March 10, 2009:

[T]he relation . . . of division and unity in the light of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior and to whom we are joined by baptism and confession is in fact a very, very strange relationship. For instance, on the one hand, consider that Jesus tells his disciples (this is his disciples he is talking to, not the world at large), "Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For hence forth in one house there will be five divided. Three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother," and so on. Well, we say, this is the world in which he is speaking, not the Church. Although, whom do we really recognize here? Not our own image in a mirror? Or again, when he says, “Who is my mother and my brother and my sister?”

In any case, here comes the Lord to do this work of division, because "that is why I have come." Yet he prays, as we do not cease pointing out in ecumenical conferences, "that they all may be one even as thou Father are in me and I in thee so that the world may believe thou has sent me." I, in other words, would unify the very world I divide! That they may see the oneness I bring. That is rather paradoxical isn’t it? And when Paul asks, “Is Christ divided?”, we might assume the answer is already given. “No, of course not!” we shout. But is there not a part of us, after a pause, who has to say, "Well, yes and no." In any case Jesus also tells us that a kingdom divided against itself is laid waste. And a divided household falls. And a great falling it will be, he says. A great falling. But, that falling is literally a falling such as Jesus Himself performs upon the ground at Gethsemane. Such as Jesus Himself embodies by falling and dying like a grain of wheat, as he tells his disciples. Such as do all those in the presence of the falling and dying one, worshiping Him in dazzled and blinded awe, like Saul on the road to Damascus. They all fall down before the Lord, who has fallen down for them.

'Division brings a fall with it, yet the fall is that of the Savior’s epiphany. Is Christ divided? Yes and no. The point is that division seems, at least according to Scripture, to be bound to the Lord of Life himself. Bound to his very coming, bound to his very presence among us. “Behold,” says the aged Simeon to Mary as she brings the baby Jesus into the temple. “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel.”

We originally posted this excerpt on our facebook page on April 13, 2010, and the questions it raises have continued to resonate all throughout our experiences from that day to the present:

1. Is Christ himself (or his body itself, i.e. the Church) actually 'divided', or is 'schism' a better word for the present denominational disarray?

2. Another way of asking the same question: Is 'the denominated Church' an oxymoron?

3. Does Radner handle as carefully as necessary the distinction between the Church's division from the world on the one hand, and the Church's alleged division from itself on the other?

If we answer 'Yes' to the first part of the first question, or 'No' the second part, we're quickly beset with the problem of ecclesial deism, as developed in this article, and the corresponding issues developed in this one.

The Bible Reader’s Tool Shop

Below is an excerpt from Vernon J. Steiner's article, “The Bible Reader’s Tool Shop. Part 1: A Tool Shop and Its ShelvesWho Needs Them?” The internal quote is from D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 13-14.

Now for the really crucial point that needs to be stressed: It is one thing to warn against ecclesial and theological error that afflicted the church during some of its darker days and quite another to imagine that we can free and guard ourselves from such error by privatizing and domesticating the interpretive activity.

. . . The Reformation theme of sola scriptura has never—not then, not now—actually resulted in a situation where the Bible is truly the only authority (even the most ardent anti-traditionalists have their own authoritative traditions, which they conveniently call biblical). Moreover, as D. H. Williams observes, “appealing to the Bible alone and the personal enabling of the Holy Spirit, however central these are, do not insure orthodoxy (they never have!), since these cannot function in isolation from their reception and development within the ongoing life of the church."

While it is true that in response to the article’s claims quoted above, the Protestant position would rejoin that the Bible—even if it can be shown not to be the sole authority—is at least the preeminent authority, there are still two revealing sets of questions to be considered:

1. Is there a principled difference between Sola Scriptura, and Solo Scriptura? That is, what is the objective component that prevents an appeal to Sola Scriptura from reducing to the individual interpreter’s own authority when it comes to interpretive claims about the Bible (thereby contradicting the claim that the Bible functions as the preeminent authority)?

Put another way: Does what we regard as ‘true’ about the Bible and its statements depend on whether such truth coincides with what we already believe to be true, or with an authority apart from us? And if the latter, how might we demonstrate that we are in fact dependent upon an authority apart from us (and on what grounds might it rightly be considered a legitimate source of authority)?

2. Has Christ left no infallible authority for adjudicating between conflicting interpretive claims—or at least between conflicting claims about the essentials of the faith? Are we left simply to keep disagreeing, and so dividing and subdividing Christians from each other, in a continual downward spiral into doubt and gnosticism (the mystical religious philosophy that regards any given faith position as essentially interior, with no actual, on-the-ground manifestation)?

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