A Prezi related to Old Testament Ethics

Aid & Dev Prezi Screenshot

For those who are interested in Old Testament ethics, you might find this interesting.  Developed for a mid-year intensive session at MST in 2013, it is built on a word study of the term ‘ger‘, meaning something like ‘resident alien’, in the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch.  The rights enshrined in the laws of Deuteronomy protecting this class of people within the covenant society of Israel are quite striking – in a book that we sometimes think of as harsh!  Check it out: http://prezi.com/tkgwp1ekw_rf/aid-development-in-ot/

Excel-Based Hebrew Verb Drill for Hebrew Students

This Excel table is based on the forms listed in the back of the popular Basics of Biblical Hebrew, 2d edition, by Pratico & van Pelt:

Excel Hebrew Verb Drill Chart Image

The key cells are in columns B&C, #2-12, which generate new numbers every time you hit ‘calculate’.  The numbers correspond to row & column co-ordinates in the tables in the Pratico & van Pelt text, pages 416-437.

Using the Form Key, and the SBL Hebrew font (or similar), type in your attempt at the correct form in cells D2-D11, then check the tables in Pratico & van Pelt to mark your attempts.  I shade light orange for correct, grey for incorrect and leave the cell white for nonsense forms which can occur, e.g. passive participle forms for a stem that only has active ones.

Then record the stats toward the bottom of the page, have a chart generated from those stats to track your progress, and then do it all again!  See what you think.  Here’s the link.  Critique is welcome.


A Last Christmas Question?

I hope to resist temptation after this and return to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

But my last nativity story question is, do we know that they had ‘inns’ as such in Jesus’ time in Bethlehem?  The Greek word traditionally translated ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 is ‘katalyma‘, and only occurs otherwise in reference to the room Jesus expected to be prepared for the last supper (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11).  I can find 11 uses in the Septuagint (LXX), where the term can be used of places of residence that are impermanent, and might refer to God’s dwelling, i.e. the tabernacle as a non-permanent residence (2 Sam 7:6), a human lodging (Exod 4:24; Jer 40:12) or an animal lair (Jer 25:28 (Eng.)/32:38 (LXX)).  This doesn’t really help decide between ‘inn’ and ‘guest/spare room’ in Luke 2:7, but I am still wondering whether it is the guest accommodation in someone’s house in Bethlehem that was full, forcing Joseph and Mary into the final overflow accommodation, i.e. the animals’ area at the lower end of the house (see previous post on this).

Theological dictionaries have very limited information: Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich 4th ed. (1952) has a few lines, listing ‘inn’ for this reference alone.  Kittel’s Theological Dictionary 4:338 seems to settle rather meekly for this meaning too.  Brown, Dictionary of N.T. Theology, 3:189, says the word…

means generally lodging, but more particularly a guest room or dining room (Mk. 15:14; Lk. 2:7; 22:11).

Is this another case of the ‘traditional translation’, like ‘hallowed’ in the Lord’s Prayer, that has become too enshrined to touch or update?

Your comments are welcome.

Psalm 148 in All Its Glory

Having just completed an article on this psalm for our in-house journal here at Melbourne School of Theology (called Paradosis, and due out…sometime), I thought I’d sing its praises.  It is particularly carefully crafted in the Hebrew, with not a word out of place, and sound-plays (consonance and rhyme, etc.) interweaving with number symbolism, parallelism and careful ordering to produce one of the greatest psalms in the book of Psalms.  In my article I called it the ‘pinnacle’ of the Psalms, and if that stirs debate, well and good. It is as rich as a black forest cake.  Here is a synopsis of the psalm itself:

One of my favourite musical renditions of a biblical psalm is the version of Psalm 148 performed by our local Melbourne group, the Sons of Korah.  Its virtue is a good match of musical movement to the content of the psalm.  The song begins with calm dignity, “Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights above…”  It is stately, serene, taking its time.  This is appropriate: the early part of the psalm repeats the term we know in English as ‘hallelujah’ at the beginning of every poetic line, twice per verse.  Perhaps not surprisingly, besides the initial “praise the LORD,” there are seven more hallelujahs in the first block of the psalm, verses 1–4 concerning the heavenly realms.  Then in verses 5–6 they are offered a motivation for praise—their own creation and the sheer authority and permanence of the decree of God that they should be.

Verses 7–12 begin the same way, with a call to the earth, but then the pace quickens.  The ‘hallelujahs’ are left aside.  Earthly entities are called to praise in a sudden flood of names, twenty-three in all, beginning furthest from where humans live, in ocean depths and high in the atmosphere.  The following movement is towards the centres of human life, via landscape, plants and animals wild and domestic, humans in high authority, and then the common people of all kinds that we find nearby.  The Sons of Korah song captures these verses well with a sense of ascending tension achieved through an incremental ascent in pitch.  It’s striking, then, that this deliberate build-up, this list of the thirty praising entities of creation, ends in the child.

The psalm finishes in verses 13–14 by once again offering motivation for praise, but this time it is not for the reality of creation.  It is first for the sheer splendour of the name of the LORD, his innate majesty, and then for his redemptive work for Israel, “the people close to his heart.”

The Psalms never, to my knowledge, bid us (or nature!) to praise the LORD without offering us reasons why we should.  If our praise or prayer life is running out of steam, perhaps we can allow Psalms to remind us of why God is so worth it.  A good reason to begin would be his grace in allowing we “who once were far away” (Eph 2:13) to become, like Israel here, “the people close to his heart” through his mercy extended to us through Christ.

Book Review – David Parris, Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics

I won’t call this one a mini-review, because that proved false advertising on the last one.

However, I’ll try to be brief.  Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics, by David Paul Parris (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 107; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009) is a great introduction to the topic, clearly and engagingly written.  You could say that it is the only introduction to the topic, because I can’t think of another that covers the same ground.

What exactly is the topic, you might ask.  Reception theory is the theoretical background to the trend quite evident in biblical studies in recent decades towards taking account of subsequent interpretation of a biblical text as we seek to understand the text itself.  The trend itself, usually called reception history for English speakers, also asks about the impact that a given text has had in societies where it has been heeded and interpreted.  This is an apt theory-and-practice pairing for biblical texts, for which we often have quite a string of strategic interpretations by many of the leading minds of the church, and have in various ways had a profound impact on ideas, culture, theology and history.  Reception history seeks to be a little broader than ‘history of interpretation’ by paying attention to forms of interpretation that go beyond straight biblical commentary and even beyond written texts per se, perhaps beyond the Christian sphere, perhaps beyond intentional interpretation to more accidental effects.

Now the theoretical side of this, reception theory, dwells within the broader field called ‘literary theory’, and for the uninitiated, it’s pretty disorientating.  Try to enter without good guidance, and it can be utterly perplexing.  Pick up Derrida and read him and you’ll see what I mean.  Parris does an excellent job, I think, at orienting the reader, not towards every voice in the field of literary theory, but to the key players for reception theory, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Hans Robert Jauss, along with R. G. Collingwood and others.  This is as clear and interesting a read as I have seen in this area, and a great introduction to the meaning or philosophy of this push towards reception history.

But one proviso: I don’t know how you would find it if you’ve had no introduction to literary theory at all.  I came to this book with a fair bit of background, and so the terms and ideas were familiar.  With little or none it might be a challenge.  If you want the ‘reception theory lite’ version, Parris has written that too: it’s called Reading the Bible with Giants (London: Paternoster, 2006).  Same basic idea, but more approachable, and just a thinner book.  I should mention that Parris is a New Testament man, so his examples mostly relate to his areas of study in Matthew.  But he uses examples abundantly, so in either book you will have many opportunities to see the theory at work in actual biblical interpretation.

This is an important trend in modern biblical studies, really a rediscovery in some ways of what the church’s best interpreters have done for centuries, but it’s positive, and I’d encourage you to familiarize yourself with it.

Christmas Foray #3 – The Guiding Star

Lastly and most provocatively on this nativity theme – what about the guiding star?  Christmas plays always present the star as sitting over the stable (that wasn’t)… I have never understood this.  A star is a giant thermonuclear explosion going off in space.  You can’t let them get that close to your stable, they ignite the hay.  What are we talking about?  One in the sky?  Over a specific house in a specific town??  I challenge you to pick a star in the sky and walk to the exact house that is directly under that star, knock on the door and say howdy.  Good luck with that.

A shooting star?  I.e. a meteorite?  Effectiveness at picking out a single house is inversely proportional with safety.  I’m not sure it’s that, either.  If you saw the Russian meteorite strike not so long ago, you’ll know what I mean.

No, these were astrologers.  They saw stars as portents, and read their positions against the constellations they appeared in to find their significance.  We’re not talking ordinary stars here, because they are ‘fixed’ with reference to Earth and keep their constellation arrangements on the scale of human lifetimes.  The only ‘stars’ that move are the other planets of our solar system, which the ancients regarded as ‘movable stars’, and occasionally comets.  Some have suggested a nova. Here’s some help from a Bible Dictionary:

“To relate a newly rising star to a king in Israel, the star would have to appear in the constellation governing the “land of Israel” (Matt 2:20-21), that is, the Roman province of Syro-Palestine. This constellation was Aries, the springtime constellation, the first-created, celestial Lamb of God.”  (Bruce J. Malina, ‘Star of Bethlehem’, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 5.371-2)  I don’t know how certain that is, or whether we can choose between a planet or planetary alignment, a comet or a (super)nova, or whether God miraculously put something on display for the magi.  But I do know how they discovered signs.  It wasn’t that they followed the star through the desert.  It’s that the ‘star’ appeared in the right quadrant of the sky, the right constellation, that when it appeared above the horizon for the first time, they interpreted it to refer to the rise of a new king.  And evidently that’s exactly the message God wanted these otherwise (if I can be so bold) fairly deluded guys with a great knowledge of the stars to get.

What about the stopping of the star over the place where the child was (Matt. 2:9)?  This may not go down so easily, but the Greek word for ‘stopped’ is quite a common word, ‘histemi‘ (long ‘e’) that can mean ‘stand’.  I quote from John Walton now, from his article ‘Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds’, in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. K. Vanhoozer, p. 44:

“The Mesopotamian celestial omens use words like “wait,” “stand,” and “stop” to record the relative movements and positions of the celestial bodies.”  He is actually talking in that context about the ‘standing’ of the sun and moon in Joshua’s day in Joshua 10.  He understands it to refer to the rare event where the moon is still above the horizon in the west when the sun is just coming up in the east, called ‘opposition’, and probably understood as a portentous omen in that time.  He finds that “Josh. 10 operates in the world of omens, not physics.  We cannot ask what these terms mean to us; we must ask what they meant to an Israelite in their cultural context.”  Well, you may or may not like that, although I found it a breakthrough, and when you look at a map, it makes tremendous sense of the reference to the sun standing over Gibeon and the moon over the Valley of Aijalon – very plausibly the eastern and western horizons for the Israelite army in its position at the time!

The magi were in fact in the same part of the country in the time mentioned in Matthew 2.  Herod’s palace of the time, I understand, was Herodium, virtually an artificial palace in a hill that Herod had built, and you can still google it up for a look here.  From there Bethlehem is just a few kilometres to the NW and about 50m higher in elevation – a modest walk up the hill.  So I’m not positive how the ‘star’ could guide them to a particular spot, and there must be other clues out there for discovering.  But we probably are dealing once again with “the world of omens, not physics.”  We may not be comfortable with that yet.  But Matthew flagged it for us in nearly unmissable terms, when he told us these guys were magi, astrologers.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” said William Cowper!  All to lead some superstitious Gentiles to the Anointed.  ‘Kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) also to us.

Christmas Foray #2

Now the wise men.  We all know it doesn’t say anywhere that there were three.  I discovered in reading earlier today that the tradition that there were three wise men to match their three gifts (Matt. 2:11) goes back to one of our church fathers (was it Tertullian?), but can’t find that source again now.  More importantly, Matthew’s term for them is ‘μάγοι’, magoi, (Matt. 2:1, 7, 16), which is where we get our term ‘magician’, although that’s a potentially misleading connection.  But they weren’t just old guys with a lot of life experience, they were readers of the stars.  We call them ‘astrologers’.  The only other mention of such a role by name is when Elymas the Sorcerer whom Paul and Barnabas met on Cyprus is called a ‘magos‘ in Acts 13:6, 8.  I believe that tradition holds the Simon mentioned in Acts 8:9-13, 18-24 to have been a ‘magos‘; Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and other sources talk at length about the troublesome teaching of Simon Magus and his followers.  In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ‘magus‘ is used to describe the court conjurors that prove so ineffective in the Daniel stories.  In the Septuagint version of Daniel, the Greek term appears in 2:2, 10; then it is used more extensively in the Greek version that soon replaced the Septuagint version, attributed to Theodotion, who used it also in 1:20; 2:27; 4:7; 5:7, 11, 15, replacing the Septuagint’s ‘φαρμακος’ in some of these references (where we get the term ‘pharmacy’!).  The term isn’t exactly complementary in either Acts or Daniel, and Christian thinkers fought hard to exclude astrology from the church right down through church history.

So it isn’t talked about much, but some of the first people to acknowledge the infant Jesus were professionals at reading current events and their significance from the stars.  How do we reason this through theologically?  It seems inconsistent with a Bible that offers no encouragement elsewhere to seek truth about human life and destiny from the stars, birth signs, etc.  We may be looking at an example of God’s ‘accommodation’, an important term theologically, one that signifies that God (am I getting this from Calvin) knows how to use baby talk when he’s addressing infants in understanding.  Calvin certainly is famous for speaking about this principle, and other reputable Christian minds have articulated the same principle.  It’s fitting somehow, if Jesus is not just to benefit Israel, that right at the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry God should permit his significance to leach out into the Gentile media in a way these Gentiles at least innately understood.

Although one act of divine condescension does not a reliable medium make.