Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam

Gerrit de Wet - The Adoration of the Golden Calf - first half of 17th century

No scene in the Old Testament characterizes the Israelites’ frequent apostasy more vividly than the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. Like so many other biblical stories, however, this tale reveals a complicated history of development and other problems that render its intent ambiguous.

The Golden Calf story does not stand in isolation, for 1 Kings tells a very similar story about the creation of two golden calves by king Jeroboam, and there are additional references to the golden calves in Hosea, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere. The two incidents appear to be related, but how exactly?

The situation becomes more complicated still when we bringing historical and archaeological evidence. Having skimmed several dozen books and articles that discuss the golden calves of Exodus and 1 Kings, I will attempt to summarize the most widespread academic views. Continue reading “Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam”

Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?

De rijke man en de arme Lazarus by Jacopo da Ponte, 16th century

Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is remarkable for several reasons. It is the only Gospel parable in which a character is named. It seemingly has no parallel in the other Synoptics. It is often thought to be based on a pagan folktale. And it presents a view of the afterlife that is utterly unique in the Bible.

Figuring out the author’s intent with this parable has been a challenge, and many differing opinions have been offered. I’d like to look at some of the sources Luke may have drawn upon, and what message I think the parable is intended to convey. There are also some connections with the other Gospels that might get overlooked by most readers. Continue reading “Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?”

The Origins of Yahweh and the Revived Kenite Hypothesis

Moses and the Burning Bush (Byzantine Mosaic) Cropped

The God of Israel is referred to by a number of names in the Old Testament. The two most significant are “El” (with its variants) and “Yahweh”. Thanks in large part to the religious libraries uncovered among the ruins of Ugarit, a Bronze Age city-state to the north of Israel, we now know a great deal about El as a distinct Canaanite deity who was regarded as the most high god in Ugarit, as he would be later in Israel.

It is generally understood that the cults dedicated to Yahweh and El originated independently of each other before their eventual merger — a process still not completed when much of the Old Testament was written. But determining how Yahweh came to be the patron deity of Israel and Judah is not so simple. The lack of archaeological evidence has required Bible scholars to rely mostly on the text of the Bible itself.

The theory known as the Kenite hypothesis is one that has been around since the 19th century, initially proposed by the theologian F. W. Ghillany in 1862. According to this view, Yahweh was originally the God of the Kenite tribe prior to the Israelite settlement of Canaan. The Kenite hypothesis lost momentum as modern biblical studies undermined some of its key premises, but it seems to be making a comeback thanks to newer findings and a reassessment of the biblical texts. Continue reading “The Origins of Yahweh and the Revived Kenite Hypothesis”

Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

Govert Flinck, Aankondiging aan de herders (Angels announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds), 1639

The nativity of Jesus is such a beloved tale, it’s hard to read it critically without feeling a twinge of guilt, as though I am betraying something sacred and magical in my desire to see where the story comes from and how it’s put together. And yet, it’s not the text itself I defy by scrutinizing the Bible, so much as the myth our culture has created in place of what the text actually says.

When I wrote about Matthew’s nativity story a year ago, I tried to emphasize that, despite its reverence for the Bible, Christianity shows remarkable disregard for the actual details as written. Whether we admit it or not, it is clear from our actions that we understand the Christmas story as a malleable, adaptable legend and not as a fixed historical event.

Purely by coincidence, the nearby preschool my two boys attend here in Japan is a Christian institution, and their annual Christmas recital always includes a nativity play, acted out by the oldest class. This year’s performance was a blend of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, with elements freely modified or omitted as the director saw fit. King Herod — played by my six-year-old, who wore a golden crown obviously modeled after the British crown jewels, Anglican cross included (what a wonderful anachronism!) — heard about the messiah’s birth before the magi ever arrived. No slaughter of innocents was shown, and the family of Jesus had no need to flee to Egypt. The angels sang, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, the Bible tells no story resembling this or any other church nativity play I’ve ever seen. Matthew’s story of the star, the magi, and the flight to Egypt is entirely different from Luke’s tale, which I’m looking at in detail today. Once again, I am indebted to the writings of David Friedrich Strauss — one of the first Protestant theologians to read the Gospels critically — and the renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown. Continue reading “Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery

Mosaic of the Drunkenness of Noah, Basilica di San Marco, Venice, 1215-35 (cropped)

One of many puzzling passages that anyone reading the Bible from the beginning is soon confronted with is a story in which the flood hero Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked—and which concludes with Noah placing a curse on his grandson Canaan. Since this passage was brought up by a commenter recently, I thought I’d look into it more closely.

Part of the reason, no doubt, for the impression of strangeness it leaves on readers is that it is (understandably) almost never preached on in church and may surprise those who remember the tale of Noah in children’s storybook terms, full of cuddly animals and pretty rainbows. When Aronofsky’s film Noah came out in 2014, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show aired a segment poking fun at religious viewers who were irked by the inclusion of a scene in which the titular character got drunk—and who were apparently oblivious to the existence of that very story in Genesis 9. In fact, during pre-release screenings of Noah to Christian audiences, viewers who didn’t realize the story was biblical reacted so negatively to the drunkenness scene that Paramount Pictures considered cutting it.

There was, however, a time when churchgoers might have been more familiar with Noah’s wine-imbibing ways, since the so-called “curse of Ham” that resulted was often invoked to show that enslavement and marginalization of Africans had been God’s divine will from the dawn of humanity. But more on that later. Let’s see what the text itself has to say. Continue reading “The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery”

The Development of the Lord’s Prayer

Pater Noster (15th century French Book of Hours) 2

It’s time for another look at the Synoptic Problem. This time I’m interested in a very well-known piece of text called the Lord’s Prayer or Pater Noster, which is how it begins in the liturgical Latin version.

Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer from the King James Bible was a daily ritual at my childhood school, so it is something I know by heart like perhaps the majority of Christians over the past two thousand years. It is precisely this familiarity that makes the textual development of the prayer difficult to analyze, since scribes had a strong tendency to correct the version in front of them with the version they knew from memory. Thus, the version we find in Luke 11 of the late Greek Textus Receptus — and in English versions that are based on this text, like the King James — is nearly identical to that found in Matthew 6. But it was not always so. Continue reading “The Development of the Lord’s Prayer”

A Few Remarks on the Problem of Psalm 22:16

Psalm 22

In the comments section of my page on mistranslation in the NIV, frequent contributor John Kesler recently suggested that the NIV’s translation of Psalm 22:16 (Hebrew 17) and its associated footnote were incorrect. Dr. David Instone-Brewer, a member of the NIV translation committee, replied with a comment of his own defending the NIV against some of John’s remarks.

A copious amount of literature has been written on this very verse, not only because it is apparently corrupt and uncertain in meaning, but also because of its importance in Christian interpretation. I have by no means read all this literature, but after perusing most (if not all) of the articles published in the last decade, I believe I can summarize the problem and provide some suggestions on what might be an acceptable English translation approach. Continue reading “A Few Remarks on the Problem of Psalm 22:16”

Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites in History and the Bible

Autumn by Nicholas Poussin, painted between 1660 and 1664

The Old Testament is full of names used to describe various ethnic groups of the Promised Land and the lands they occupy. Some of these names are well-attested from other archaeological and historical sources; others are obscure and remain a mystery to this day.

Throughout the Pentateuch and historical books, the Promised Land is frequently referred to as Canaan, and its non-Israelite inhabitants as Canaanites. Other terms used fairly often for the land’s indigenous inhabitants, though less frequently than “Canaanite”, are “Amorite” and “Hittite”.

What, in historical terms, was a Canaanite, a Hittite, an Amorite? How did ancient sources outside the Bible use these labels, and what comparisons can we draw with the Bible? The answers may help us to understand the times and places in which the biblical authors wrote, as well as the idealogical framework they were working from. Continue reading “Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites in History and the Bible”

Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel

Westfälischer Meister (John)

German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in his famous and still widely cited commentary on John, wrote many decades ago:

The thesis has been represented, occasionally even in very early times but strongly from the beginning of this century, that the original order of the text [of John] has been disturbed, through an interchange of leaves or by some other means. …it must be presumed that the present order of our Gospel is not derived from the author. …It is not enough to reckon with a simple exchange of the pages of a loose codex, for the sections that appear to demand a change of position are of unequal length. The assumption lies closest to hand that the Gospel of John was edited from the author’s literary remains on the basis of separate manuscript pages, left without order. In any case, the present form of our Gospel is due to the work of a redactor. (pp. 11–12)

Bulfmann’s observations on the incongruities of the Gospel have been made and expanded on by many biblical scholars since then. Some agree that the Gospel seems to be out of sequence, as though an early manuscript were dropped and the pages put back in the wrong order. Others have proposed complicated source theories or stages of redaction, whether by the same author or an authorial community. Still others have simply ignored the problem altogether.

Regardless of which (if any) of these hypotheses is correct, the passages in John that have prompted this debate are worth having a look at. Continue reading “Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel”

The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10

John Martin (British, 1789 - 1854 ), Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon, 1816, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Fund

Joshua 10 has one of the most remarkable miracle stories in the whole of the Old Testament  outside the opening chapters of Genesis. Fresh off of victories at Jericho and Ai, Joshua’s Israelite army faces down a coalition of five Amorite kings; victory is swift, and with the enemy on the run, Joshua commands the sun and moon to stop moving, apparently in order to give the Israelites more time to pursue and slaughter the Amorites. So great is this feat that the narrator exuberantly declares, “there has been no day like it before or since!” and the chapter eventually ends with Israel in firm control of the Judahite heartland.

This passage, sometimes referred to as Joshua’s Long Day, is a puzzler. Exactly what kind of miracle is supposed to have occurred here? What traditions is the author working with? Answering these questions has proven quite difficult, since voluminous books and papers have been written on Joshua 10, and there is a remarkable diversity of opinions on every facet of the story among biblical scholars.

The passage is also interesting for its role in the debate between science and religion that has embroiled theologians, church authorities, and other interested parties since the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Even today, the interpretations given by those with a more conservative perspective reveal much about the thinking of modern biblical literalists. Continue reading “The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10”