History, Exegesis, & Hebrew

When I think about books of 9780825425592the Bible that automatically engage my imagination and senses, I & II Chronicles does not immediately jump to mind. Eugene H. Merrill’s commentary does not change that, but it does offer a thorough perspective with loads to appreciate. Another addition to the Kregel Exegetical Library, a series I have explored previously, Merrill’s work is expansive.

Merrill reminded me that these books are more than mere history, serving as “a theological or ‘sacred’ history, recounting not only Israel’s past, but in a truncated sense a history of the world since Adam,” (pg. 22). And this is the lens that Merrill proposes to understand the book and its place in the Christian tradition. Merrill deals honestly and forthrightly with issues of chronology and source material, but offers a traditional, orthodox perspective that is edifying.

A highlight of the commentary, for me, was the “Theology” sections at the end of each chapter. After a thorough analysis of the Hebrew for a given portion, Merrill sets aside space to wrestle with the implications of such linguistics. It is these sections that helped the book to be more than a bland exegetical book on a standard historical work. Merrill ties everything together in these sections, making the exegesis practical and pertinent.

Still, the book is not as cumbersome as other commentaries. It’s 640 pages do justice to the topic at hand, and would serve and pastor or student of the Bible well when digging deep into the historical part of the Old Testament. Kregel has produced excellent commentaries in this Exegetical series, and Merrill’s contribution is no exception.

Putting Marduk in the Right Perspective

517I9RrDE7L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Admitting I am a geek about certain things is a necessity up front. When given the opportunity, I thoroughly enjoy pouring over varying ancient religions, looking for comparisons with Christianity and deviations as well. So while the title may be off putting, excitement bubbled up in me like the waters of the deep when Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology arrived on my doorstep. The chance to expand my understanding of the Ancient Near East, particularly in light of religious texts and concepts? What is not to love?

I wasn’t overly familiar with Jeffrey Niehaus before this book, doing most of my exploring under the guides John Walton and Alexander Heidel. But I had encountered his name in a few articles and looked forward to his two cents on the matter. His book is laid out in a particular fashion, that I sometimes found distracting, unfortunately. His premise, however, I think is sound. Niehaus essentially asserts that most ANE religious texts follow a particular outline, as seen below (30):

NiehausSchemaHis primary argument is that this process occurs in numerous ANE texts, including the Bible. In fact, he suggests that this is inherent in the entire Biblical narrative, and that the ANE texts illustrate a fallen example of how this concept played out in the pagan world (32, 177-181). With this in mind, Niehaus structures each chapter around a single concept (Chapter 2, “God and the Royal Shepherd”), and then unpacks how each of the major cultures explored this idea. Throughout, he maintains his thesis, and constantly reminds the reader how God was the real fulfillment of each part of the ANE process.

Undoubtedly, the material he covers is vast and informative, and I would recommend this book at every college student or pastor who is likely to encounter this material. Universities are filled with people who choose to focus on the similarities of the Bible with its ANE parallels, and consequently ignore the drastic ways in which the texts differ. Niehaus brings this concept to the forefront in an expert way. I do wonder if the text would be better suited to be broken out by culture, with a concluding chapter drawing everything together. Boyd Seevers’s Warfare in the Old Testament is put in such a format, and I found it easier to follow.

Despite this complaint, this book is worth the time. It is a short introduction to some of the major themes that scholars debate, and is handled in a gracious way. The book has earned a permanent spot on my shelf, and I suggest any interested readers do the same.

 

Commenting on the Text(s)

9780825443404As a student of the Bible, it is difficult to have enough resources for study. And when it comes to studying the Biblical languages, the problem seems to multiply exponentially. There are so many options for studying Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic that an individual can be easy overwhelmed. Kregel Academic’s Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament is something different though. Rather than another Greek manuscript (of which editions are numerous) or an exegetical guide (which are sometimes redundant), this text is a commentary on the actual manuscripts.

Comfort’s work is to note accurately and thoroughly those pesky places in the texts of the Bible where variants create problems. Having recently completed 9 hours of Greek training, I can genuinely say I wish I had owned this book earlier. The notes on the variants or difficult to translate portions are outstanding. “Why are there brackets in my NASB copy of John 8?” Comfort’s Commentary delves into that. “So do other commentaries…” While it is true that you could pick up D.A. Carson’s tome in the Pillar series, you would have to wade through some dense prose and lengthy exposition to find the simply answer to the question. This Commentary cuts through such matters and takes you straight to challenging portion of the text with minimal critical notes. For pastors and students or Greek, I cannot imagine doing Bible study without this little tool.

The flipside of that benefit is that the average Christian probably has little need for this book. In a word, it is a specialized tool. If you are a preacher, or a student, or a motivated layman, then I cannot recommend this book enough. However, if those brackets in the text or those tiny footnotes don’t bother you, then a more traditional commentary is probably where I’d point you.

When Religion Looks Like Tires

the-ancient-path-talbotThe postmodern world is a confusing one. What are all these narratives people keep blathering on about? What does “power is knowledge” mean? For most folks, this flabbergasting effect creates a strain that results in doubt; doubt of all shapes and sizes and creeds. And for some, this leads to the past. How did people get on way back when? Its not a new question, although there may be a renewed interest in it of late. Enter John Michael Talbot’s The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.

Talbot’s book is a biographical account of his journey towards Catholicism, primarily through is own study of the earliest Church Fathers like Cyprian and Tertullian. It is a winsome story, that treads many of the paths familiar to modern evangelicals. References to characters like Francis Schaffer and Talbot’s time at L’Abri brim with all the ecumenical flavor one should expect from such a book. After all its in the title: we need old lessons. This postmodern world needs an old faith. The aimless 60s and 70s gave us revolution…but unto what? Talbot asserts that it was in Church Fathers (and subsequently older Christian manifestations like Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) that the solution to his angst was solved.

There are commendable aspects of Talbot’s book, but they are outweighed by the hackneyed concept. A story of how someone swam the Tiber? Been done (and then some). How many times can the same path be retread? In this regard, I’d even say the title is misleading. It is not a theological discourse on the Church Fathers, but rather a personal testimony about why you should get familiar with them. If one is looking a for a devotional book, or a study guide, you’d have to look elsewhere.

And all of this seems like so much white noise after the recent Pew Research study that demonstrated far fewer evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox branches than previously believed. Talbot’s efforts to point Christians back to ancient sources in Church history is a good goal, but I don’t think necessitates the kind of conversion-esque approach that his story lays out.

In the end, The Ancient Path is an interesting biographical journey told in a friendly prose. But that is about as far as it goes.

The Toughest Part of the Text

9780825443633I teach students how to read their Bibles, basic exegesis skills, and broad application of God’s Word. Despite this, I still have a hard time nailing down the Prophetic Books. Some of the smaller ones (e.g. Jonah, Nahum, Malachi) present less challenges than the major books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel). Trying to unpack the dense theological meaning and complicated historical contexts of these books is tough when you’re staring at fifteen seventh graders. They typically respond in one of two ways: 1) discouragement when reading the Prophets, or 2) refusal to understand them without some “hidden” meaning.[1] That’s why I was so excited when Kregel Academic put up Gary Smith’s Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Although the book is designed to be used in sermon creation, it has use in a number of educational settings.

The format of the book is perfectly laid out to maximize your engagement of the text. While each chapter deals with the individual prophets as they’re laid out in the Old Testament, the main chapters in Interpreting the Prophetic Books follows a different format. The first chapter is a brief (but excellent) engagement with the nature of prophecy. As one of the most easily misunderstood, and sometime abused, genres of Scriptural writing, this section is vital. Old Testament studies can be dry, but Smith writes winsomely so that the reader doesn’t come away feeling stuffy or dusty. His section on “Deciphering the Imagery” was the highlight of the chapter, making access to such a difficult aspect clear and concise. Smith goes on to deal with themes from each book (chapter 2) the context of each prophet (chapter 3). “Issues in the Prophetic Texts” is a wonderful exploration of the problems plaguing interpretations of the books, but Smith is careful not to alienate his readers here. Chapter 5 serves as a very brief advisory section on how to preach these texts, and while interesting, primarily is crafted for preachers of the Word. Chapter 6, “From Text to Application” is also designed for the preacher, but it has wonderful implications for the classroom. It is a sampling of the steps outlined in the previous chapters, using two specific passages from the OT. Seeing Smith’s process actually laid out reveals its import for settings beyond the pulpit. Specifically, his explanation of how to create a thematic outline for an individual lesson is one of the most lucid examples of teaching the Prophetic literature I have read.

I don’t think this is a book I would necessarily recommend to everyone, however. Teachers and preachers would benefit greatly from its insights, but because it is a brief exploration of some of the more complicated aspects, it will probably leave the laymen without any background knowledge still lacking for understanding the context and interpretive complications. It is without a book that I will be using in my own Bible classes in the future.

Questions Regarding Creation

429415_1_ftcI have read a number of book about science, faith, and the beginning of all things. I’ve read everything from Stephen Hawking’s A Briefer History of Time to Alvin Plantinga’s Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Faith, and Naturalism. One of the things I have to recognize is that every one of these books hinges upon a position of faith held by the author, whether they acknowledge it or not. Of course, when an author does recognize their faith position, and works out of it, the books tend to be more engaging (and convincing in my mind).

When it comes to Christians and science, this is a tough position to be in. For many Christians, the theory of where “it all began” is essential to the faith, with Theistic Evolutionists feeling slighted by Young Earth Creationists and those in the YEC camp feeling abandoned by the TE scientists. But every once in a while, a book comes along that speaks kindly of everyone involved and wrestles with the questions that such a subject touches upon. 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution is just such a work.

The book lays out the standard questions that a Christian (or skeptic) will have to wrestle with when it comes to the topic of Creation. Although there are divisions in the book, it is hard to say what can be found where. The authors do a great job of dealing with different theories in context, so OEC, YEC and TE all find treatment in each portion of the book. This necessitates that writers provide lots of secondary sources, which they do (including a great index of Ancient Sources on the topic starting on page 429). Overall, the book doesn’t push any new ideas in terms of Creation Science of Evolutionary Theory, but does an excellent job of summarizing the debate in a manner that any Christian could pick up and engage with.

While I don’t hold to the YEC or OEC (Old Earth Creationist) positions of the authors, I found their efforts enlightening and edifying. Keathley and Rooker approach the topic in a simple Q&A method, offering good insight and resources about the discussions in the book. While they don’t shy away from their own stance, both of the authors write charitably of Christians who hold to other positions. Perhaps the most valuable chapter in the whole book is Chapter 38, “Can a Christian Hold to Theistic Evolution?” Keathley and Rooker don’t acquiesce to the TE position, but they do acknowledge the adherents aren’t villains. They “[affirm] the Bible’s inspiration, inerrancy, and authority,” (384). In a book that might provide fodder for bashing those of different stripes, instead they exhorted those who hold to TE, “to formulate a model that fits well with the biblical text,” (385).

Christians need more books like this, which seek to amiably explore issues that are often divisive. Keathley and Rooker are to be commended for their candor and their caritas.

Exegeting Exodus

9780825425516Studying the Bible in Hebrew is not for the faint of heart. As a young man, I learned first-hand how having a working knowledge that allowed me to use a Hebrew Greek concordance could enhance my study of God’s Word. Of course, I also learned that I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous to others and myself. It is often easier to latch on to an obscure meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word in order to make some kind of argument that suits your own personal interpretation. I have had discussions regarding the word “σταυρός” in the Gospels, where my dialogue partner was adamant that the word always meant “pike or pole” and demonstrated how Christians frequently believed lies passed on through history (a largely irrelevant point, even if true). I have also been on the receiving end of teaching that said Psalm 100 makes explicit the command to lift your hands in praise, despite the word there (“תּוֹדָה”) rarely meaning “to lift your hands” and the word most likely not meaning that in this particular Psalm. These kinds of disagreements are common, and have taught me two things: the need for my own humility, and the need for wiser input. Enter Duane Garrett’s A Commentary on Exodus.

A Commentary on Exodus is a masterpiece of Scriptural study. Garrett teaches Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his experience in both realms shows. The 130 page “Introduction” weaves history and textual criticism and theological debates into a coherent tapestry that illuminates the grand story of the Israelite people as they left the Egyptian kingdom. Garrett addresses the various “problems” with the text, and walks through the orthodox (and not so orthodox) ideas related to interpreting Exodus. He lands pretty clearly in the historically orthodox position, but he is cautious about asserting things that, in fact, are not known for certain. “In short, we have ample reason to believe that the biblical account is true, but we do not have sufficient evidence to specify the details of when it all happened and of what pharaoh was present,” (103). This kind of confident reticence is prevalent throughout the book, and is one of its charms.

The two portions of the commentary that were the most profitable in my reading were Part III and the Appendix. Part III, the longest section of the book, concentrated on the twelve miracles of the exodus, beginning with the transformation of Moses’ staff into a serpent and concluding with the death of Pharaoh’s army. Garrett’s break down of the twelve events into four categorical levels of intensity provided an insight I had not previously explored: the movement from warning to death. This is only one of the multiple highlights of Garrett’s exegetical prowess, and he continued to be just and astute in his concluding exploration of “The Songs of Exodus.” Though the Appendix is the shortest section of the book, Garrett’s thesis that these songs perhaps served as Israel’s earliest hymnody, as well as his pointing out sections I had not previously noticed to be poetic, prompts the reader for further study of this fascinating topic (722).

While the exegetical nature of this commentary might scare some laymen from picking it up, I believe that would do them a disservice. Garrett’s academic, yet winsome style makes this book accessible to a wide audience. The entire line of Kregel Exegetical Library books would be a welcome addition to any library, but this contribution on Exodus is a premier complement to the Biblical text. If I could only pick one commentary to have on the topic, it would be this one.

The Whistle

This is an old vignette I wrote back in 2009. I’ve cleaned up some sloppy writing in it, and thought it worth sharing.

“Do you think it’s true?” The boy’s eyes glistened. He watched as the old man worked the oak in his hands.

“Do I think what is true?” The old man moved his knife from one end of the wood to the other, the shavings drifting to the floor around his stool.

“Is it true what they say about love? Can it really change everything?”

“Where did you hear that?” The old man carved as the boy’s body twitched as his thoughts ran their course.

“I heard some of the potters talking about it. They were saying it could be like magic. Love could change everything.”

“Heh. I suppose they said something about kings leaving all their riches behind? Poor men becoming rich?” The old man raised his eyebrow, the shape of a whistle emerging amidst the aroma of the fresh wood.

“That’s what they said.” The boy paused. “Have they said this before?”

“Many times.”

“So it’s not true, then? Love isn’t magic. It isn’t what the potters said? It isn’t strong?”

The old man put his creation down on the workman’s table. He turned to see tears forming in the corners of the boy’s eyes. The old man recalled the forest when he looked into those little windows. He put his calloused hands on the boy’s shoulders and waited.

“It’s just…I thought…well I hoped that love was something stronger, than, you know…”

The old man smiled. “August, you want to know what love is capable of?”

The boy wiped away a tear with the sleeve of his ragged coat.

“Well,” he said, reaching for his handkerchief, “that all depends on what you believe about love.”

Elders in the Life of Your Church

When it comes to church polity, there is no shortage of debate. Lectures abound on YouTube, books proliferate the internet, and blogs frequently highlight why their approach is better than yours. In reality, governing a church in the modern world is not quite as simple as, “well, what did they do in the New Testament?” This is how many people try to solve the tension, but even then, variety finds life. I have long held the opinion that the congregational model is the ideal, which is not surprising given my Baptist and Assembly of God roots. However, over the course of the last two years, my thinking has changed. One of the latest markers in this journey has been Elders in the Life of the Church by Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker. The book lays out a cogent argument for why churches should use an elder based model, and is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the topic.

The book was originally published as Elders in Congregational Life, but the folks over at 9Marks have sought to update that title to give the current book its format and perspective. 9Marks is known for offering practical advice to church leadership, and advocating against the CEO model of leadership prevalent in the United States. Thanks to Kregel Publications, and their high quality books, these ideas are clearly laid out in Elders in the Life of the Church. This book is very strong in its Biblical exposition and its accessible approach. Any Christian could pick this up, and interact with it on whatever level they inhabit. New Christian, life-long Christian, does not matter. ELC is intended for anyone to read it. The other place where the book is strongest is in their advice on transition. If a pastor or elder board finds they need to transition a congregation to the specific model laid out by Newton and Schmucker, this book provides real, tangible advice for how to accomplish that (the “evolution, not revolution” bit as my favorite).

That does not mean the book is without weaknesses, the chief among them being the authors’ conviction. I know that this is a strange complaint, but the argument about how to govern a church is not new, so to claim the “best” or “only Biblical” model always comes across pretentious. Schmucker and Newton are anything but pretentious, to be sure, but the argument tends that way. While I think they write graciously, one cannot avoid the claim of one-sided dogma the way the book is framed. I would appreciate it if books like this would offer more of a via media when it comes to church polity, as each of the three main models have weaknesses. Rather than landing in one spot and planting the flag of Christ, we should be landing in multiple places and plantings flags.

But do not misunderstand, Elders in the Life of the Church is worth your time. It is a short read, and serves as probably the most straightforward summation of the elder-led model I have ever encountered. If you have questions about how a church should be governed, or how to transition to an elder model, this is one of the best resources out there.

Jedis & Hobbits

So my posts on here have been sparse, to say the least, since starting seminary. I wish I could be one of those people who maintains a witty blog while juggling work and school and family, but I’m not. Oh well.

Still, I haven’t stopped writing (or reading) and so I have a few things in mind for the upcoming break. First out of the gate is a piece I’ve contributed over at Humane Pursuits. They’re hosting a symposium on the question, “Which universe is more morally complex: Star Wars or Lord of the Rings?” As a fan of both, I jumped on the opportunity, and they have graciously included my piece. Where do I come out on the issue, you ask? Well you’ll have to head on over to their website to see what I, and many others, have to say on the matter.

It’s worth it. Trust me.