Choosing a Hebrew Teaching & Learning Grammar

Who knew that there were so many options?

There’s a new first-year college-level Biblical Hebrew grammar published about every six months. There are so many to choose from! What are the main choices involved? I’ve figured out these differences in approach: Continue reading

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Not Too Small to be Noticed: What Jeremiah 34 Says About the Value of the Individual

The Story in Brief: Zedekiah’s manumission of the slaves in besieged Jerusalem (Jer 34:8-22):

Under pressure from besieging Babylonian (or, as my young daughter read it out last night, ‘Babylion’) forces around 588 BC, Zedekiah, last king of Judah, secured the agreement of community leaders to release “fellow Jews” who were enslaved: 34:8-10, 15, 18-19. If we were to guess at his motives, and plenty of scholars have had a go, I think the most likely is that this was an attempt to set the covenant relationship with Yahweh on a better footing by fixing a point of obvious neglect of the law.

Civil laws in Exod 21:2-6 and Deut 15:12-18 set a six-year limit to the permissible period of enslavement of a ‘fellow Hebrew’, which by the time of the later Deuteronomy law seems to have simply acted as a synonym for ‘fellow Israelite’, though it probably meant something different in Exodus 21. My sense is that the prescribed limit of six years had long been neglected, and Israelite slaves had been kept indefinitely. Perhaps this rested uneasily on the conscience of some in Jerusalem, and it seemed an obvious point at which a gesture of renewed obedience to God could be made. Verses 18-20 imply that the covenant ceremony, which was conducted in the temple itself (v. 15), involved a ceremony of passing between the parts of animals divided in half, in a gesture of “let this be done to me if I fail to uphold this agreement,” i.e., a rather graphic self-maledictory oath. (The same practice lies behind Abraham’s dream in Genesis 15.)

Presumably upon the withdrawal of the Babylonian army in the face of Egyptian army manouevres (34:21), the slaveowners reneged on their covenant and re-subjugated their released slaves (34:11, 16). The effect was to make their gesture look particularly empty and artificial. This double-take elicited a judgment prophecy from Jeremiah, who condemned this violation of the recent covenant as symptomatic of Israel’s general covenant infidelity, and predicted Babylonian forces’ return and successful destruction of Jerusalem: 34:12-22.

Jeremiah 34 Prezi ScreenshotScreenshot of recent presentation on the slave release story. (See it at http://prezi.com/nd26ypqgpu-u/jeremiah-348-22-fresh-life-from-ancient-roots-bilingual/)

God’s Awareness of the Individual

Reading this story, my eye was caught by little phrase ‘לְנַפְשָׁם’ (l’naphshām). Translated “as they desired” (NET, w. NRSV similar) or “where they wished” (NIV), I now think “to live their own lives” (New Jerusalem Bible)’ is closer to the Hebrew. The important point is that either the will, or at least the wellbeing, of the slave is taken into account in this little phrase, i.e. the slave is considered as a person and not just property.

The same safeguarding of the slave as a person is seen in OT slave law. Exod 21:5-6; Deut 15:16-17 say that the choice to become a bondslave, i.e. to renounce the right to freedom after the stipulated ownership period of six years, remains the slave’s own. Deut 15:18 implies that this is an exception and should not quietly become the default arrangement, though it is possible to imagine this bondslave provision being exploited as a loophole, and it is hard to tell whether torah slave laws were ever properly enforced (though Jeremiah 34 and Nehemiah 5 provide case studies).

Deuteronomy often connects the slave’s domestic situation with the Israelites’ national past, most famously in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments:

“But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant,…so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. (15) Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:14b-15a NIV)

This care of the rights even of an owned individual fits a theme we see at various points in Jeremiah. Though the outlook for the nation is grim, as the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem is destined to fall as the inevitable expression of Yahweh’s judgment for Judah’s sin, the individual who remains faithful to God can, maybe not thrive, but survive:

  • Jeremiah, who is so afraid of his calling and continues to suffer through it, is made “iron and bronze” by the LORD and outlasts all of his rivals.
  • Ebed-Melech, the African royal court staffer who rescues Jeremiah from the cistern (Jer 38:7-13), is rewarded for his faith and faithfulness with survival of the crisis (39:15-18).
  • Baruch, who feels the burden of the prophetic ministry as his master does (45:3), is urged to let go of ambitions inappropriate to such a dark and difficult time (45:5a), but is also granted survival (45:5b).

Hinted at here is a possible freedom both from the mastery of ego and the grinding burden of self-loathing. The work and plan of God, we might say the Kingdom, is bigger than you or me. Like little children in a large family, circumstances cannot be ordered around our personal preferences. But like little children in a large family, each of us remains inestimably precious to God. To use Paul’s image, like the various parts of the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-27), each of us who has been inducted into the family of God, a privilege anyone may claim who is so minded, has a role to play in the right functioning of that body as a whole. In a sense, while we’re not needed by God, the Bible’s witness is that we are wanted.

That makes me relax a little. The need to try to prove my right to breathe has passed. I don’t need to achieve anything on the sporting field or in the business world (or academically!) to show onlookers that I’m a worthy human being. I don’t need to publish a book to be someone. Just my being here shows that I’m wanted, if this is a world where God presides.

Hands up anyone who prefers it to be a world where God does not preside.

But What Do YOU Think about the Creation Week in Genesis???

So I’ve written my book.  And I’ve finished the doctorate.  And when I tell interested friends and acquaintances that the topic of each is, “A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week in Genesis 1:1-2:3,” (though buyer beware, it only goes up to the early 1860s!), if they ask any further about it (proving that they are indeed interested!), they say something like,

So what do you think about the creation week?

Continue reading

When Prophecy Was Meant to Fail

My title above is a spin on that of a book I long knew about but only read within the last 12 months, Robert Carroll’s When Prophecy Failed, published back in the 80s.  Carroll’s book pointed out a range of OT prophecies that look for all the world unfulfilled.  There are some celebrated examples where he is clearly right, such as the prediction in Ezekiel 26 where the word of God predicts Tyre’s utter destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, which was followed at a later date by the prophecy in the final verses of Ezekiel 29 (vv. 18-21) that offer King Neb Egypt as a consolation prize in place of the still-elusive Tyre, which he was unable to conquer despite a long campaign.

Carroll - When Prophecy Failed

I’ve just seen a reference to it in a fairly recent essay by a scholar I quite enjoy reading, Ronald Clements, ‘Prophecy Interpreted…A Case Study in Jeremiah 26:16-24,’ in Uprooting and Planting: Essays on Jeremiah for Leslie Allen, ed. John Goldingay (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2006), 32-44.  Here’s an apt comment about Carroll’s proposal in a footnote of Clements (p. 35 n. 3):

“When understood as a message of divine warning, prophecy would not be regarded as having “failed” if those who heard it responded in such a way that the threat could be…revoked.”

Here Clements picks up on a truth seen in prophecy throughout the Old Testament and fundamental to Jeremiah: The freedom of God to respond to human beings overrides considerations of the prophet’s predictive reliability.  That is, God is willing to let his prophet be wrong if a threat of doom He has given the prophet to proclaim achieves its main purpose.

That main purpose is not to predict the future.

It is to change the behaviour and attitudes of his people.

If the threat of trouble ahead brings about humility and practical repentance, then the predicted doom need not fall.  Check out this programmatic passage from Jeremiah:

 7  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed,
8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,
10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
11 “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’
(Jer 18:7-11 NIV)

An inevitable ramification of this is that the prophet will be left out in the cold, as far as being correct about the future!  But God will not bind himself to his forecast, hypothetical future, if that means being unable to change course in response to the very change the prophetic message he sent was intended to produce!  Theologically, we’re talking about the vital doctrine of the freedom of God.

Oh, and one other key theological issue is at stake: real relationship.  No-one who is utterly unable to respond to the opposite party is really in relationship with that other party.  The portrayed God of the Old Testament is, as our Jeremiah passage so clearly shows, really very willing to change his planned course of action in response to human changes in their relational stance toward him.

This is very profound and very important, and should be a key part of our personal theologies.

For other vivid OT examples of this principle at work, see:

  • The book of Jonah, whose prophetic content is limited to a single verse!  And whose single verse of prophecy turns out not to come true!  And that because it is warning, it is heeded, and the forecast doom is no longer needed!  All to Jonah’s profound displeasure, but let no-one fail to appreciate what a radical and profound little book this is!
  • 1 Sam. 2:30, where the LORD says of Eli’s priestly family:

“Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever. ‘ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” (NIV)

  • And Clements’ own example, Jeremiah 26:18-19, where the prophet Micah’s long-past prediction that Jerusalem would be so thoroughly destroyed that it would be like a ploughed rural hilltop is raised as an example of a prophetic word that did not come to pass because its hearers responded in repentance as intended.

There are many others.  The book of Jeremiah makes clear that prophetic prediction was not always meant to fail.  There comes a clear turning point in Jeremiah’s ministry where the forecast doom was no longer a warning, but an inevitability, and those who tried to avoid the sentence of God, e.g. by resisting the Babylonian advance, were just prolonging their own pain.  But this other side of the prophetic coin might just open our minds to the multifaceted purposes of OT prophecy, and to a neglected side of biblical theology.

A Note on the Name of God from 1 Kings 11:33

I have a long term interest in the meaning and use of the names and titles of God in the Old Testament (OT).  One thing that has puzzled me is how the plural Elohim can be used (very often!) for Israel’s one God.  Scholars offer several explanations for this, such as that it is an instance of the ‘majestic plural’, an honorific use of the plural for a singular referent.  Explanations such as this have never fully clarified the issue for me.

That Elohim can be used both ways is clear from a word play found in the OT.  Compare these verses:

This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshiped other gods…
(2 Kings 17:7 NRSV)

2 Kings 17.7

So the king [Jeroboam I] took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28 NRSV)

1 Kings 12.28

Exodus 32:4, 8 contain virtually identical statements to Jeroboam’s in the mouth of Aaron, brother of Moses.  In fact, the Ten Commandments open with nearly identical words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exod 20:2 NRSV).

The interesting thing is that the form of “your/their God” and “your gods” in these references is practically identical.  It is only the pronouns used in the context that determines whether the one God or many ‘gods’ are being referred to.  So there is in references like 1 Kings 12:28 and Exod 32 a word play going on, one that almost hints at how close syncretistic (blended) versions of true faith can look to the real thing.

But what has really interested me most recently, on reading 1 Kings 12, is the way elohim appears in 1 Kings 11:33:

This is because he has forsaken me, worshiped Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not walked in my ways… (1 Kings 11:33 NRSV)

1 Kings 11.33

The word ‘god’ here, used three times of non-Israelite (i.e. false) gods and goddess, is again elohim, that is, the plural form of the term.  I had never noticed this use before – the plural form describing not just Israel’s one God, but singular deities of other nations!  It only confirms how comfortably what looks like a plural word can be used of a singular being.

As for the use of Elohim v. Yahweh for Israel’s God, there’s more than a post in that, but more to come, I trust, on this fascinating topic.

The Three Kinds of Writing in Joshua and Their Purposes

The book of Joshua is a great example of a biblical book that contains different genres (kinds of writing) that predominate in different sections of the book, and each has its reason for being there.  I think that when the average reader tackles a book like Joshua, a narrative or history-telling book of the Old Testament (OT), s/he sets out reading it as narrative, the genre that tells a story.  And that is not wrong, because narrative provides the ‘matrix’ that holds the book together.  But embedded in the narrative is another genre that, as Robert Alter once pointed out in his essay, ‘Sacred History and Prose Fiction’ (in The Creation of Sacred Literature, ed. R. E. Friedman, p. 17), dialogue carries much of the meaning in OT narrative, and this is particularly true in a book like Joshua.  What appears within the speeches in Joshua, whether by God or by Joshua or even by others, is programmatic, of defining importance for the theological claims of the book, which determine how the narrated and recreated history is to be understood.  That is why dialogue predominates when counted by verse in the earliest and latest chapters of the book:

Genres of Joshua Chart

Notice also the other main genre in Joshua here, which is usually called (from memory) ‘boundary lists’.  We normally skip that section, or pay it little attention, but it could offer insights into what period that kind of detailed territorial information was in high demand, i.e. where in Israel’s history its first audience could be situated.  It seems to me that its relevance has to be pre-exilic.  That would tie into the significance of the famous (or notorious) ‘to this day’ statements that are so abundant in Joshua and tip the hand to the time period in which the book was written.  See Joshua 4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 10:27; 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 22:22; 23:9; 24:15.  Josh. 15:63 is a telling example; it reports the Jebusites of Jerusalem as not yet dislodged from there.  Since this was something achieved early in David’s reign according to 2 Sam. 5:6-10, we have a clue that the Joshua map lists or much, most or all of the book might have been produced as early as this, in the 10th century B.C.