Corporate Guilt and Corporate Redemption

One of the reasons I love reading the Old Testament in Hebrew is because it forces me to slow down (at least at this point, since I am not yet fluent) and pay closer attention to what the text is saying. When you are more deliberate about every word, you see things you may not otherwise see.

In this case, I was reading Genesis 26 this morning and noticed something I had never noticed before. The very brief context is that Isaac, like his dad, takes refuge in the land of the Philistines because of a famine in the land. And, like his dad, he claims that his beautiful wife is his sister. But the truth comes out, and when King Abimelech discovers it, he is obviously distraught. And his words to Isaac are revealing of the ancient Near Eastern worldview (shared by God’s people). “One of the people might soon have lain with your wife,” Abimelech says, “and you would have brought guilt on us” (v. 10).

The Hebrew is clear: if someone had slept with Rebekah, he would not only have incurred guilt upon himself, but all the people would have also shared in that guilt.

This is because the ancient Near Eastern worldview thought corporately first. The group was the primary point of focus, rather than the individual. The success and failure of the group had greater significance than the success or failure of its individual members. And thus, if one person sinned, everyone sinned (we see this in the story of Achan, of course, in Joshua 7).

What Abimelech goes on to say in verse 11 is just as significant. He thus tells his people that whoever “touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.” This is not simply an attempt to punish an individual for wrongdoing, however; it would have been an act of expiation on behalf of the corporate body. To not punish the individual would have produced a continued guilt on the entire group; so one had to die for the sake of all – a thought we see still in place in the days of Jesus, when Caiaphas encouraged the Jews that “it was expedient that one man should die for the people” (John 18:14). Christ’s death, it was thought, served to expunge the guilt of all of Israel.

There are many implications of this corporate concept – an idea we, who are individualistic, have a hard time wrapping our minds around. Those implications range from how we understand our corporate responsibility toward one another, to how we understand what happened at the cross, to how we experience community together, to how we understand so-called “genocide” or mass destruction in the Old Testament, to how we relate to church discipline, to how we relate to church history. But those implications will have to be explored another day.

But I will point out what Joel Kaminsky has written in his work, Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible. It’s food for thought.

Corporate responsibility is . . .  a fundamental theological principle in ancient Israel that God relates not just to autonomous Israelites, but to the nation as a whole. Inasmuch as God relates to the community as a whole, he holds each member of the nation to some level of responsibility for the errors of any other member of that community. (12, 13)

Just as tellingly, Kaminsky posits:

Israel’s fundamental insight into the fact that we are all our ‘brother’s keeper’ could provide a corrective to many of our current philosophical and political tendencies that inform us only of our rights as individuals, but rarely of our responsibilities as members of larger communities” (13-14).

I Asked For Wonder . . .

I started reading Abraham Heschel’s classic book God In Search of Man a few weeks ago and have been captivated by the prevailing thread that is woven throughout the first pages of the book. The thread is wonder, awe, amazement – something I’ve not thought a lot about and probably taken for granted. “Life without wonder,” Heschel writes, “is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder” (p. 46). “Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin,” he adds (p. 43).

It just so happens that my reading of this book has coincided with an event that has given me opportunity to exercise that wonder and amazement of late. We welcomed our third child into the world at 3:11 AM on Wednesday morning, March 26. And though I was tired, I was overwhelmed again with awe.

The whole sublime experience elicits this wonder. The birth itself, even as messy as it is, is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring events a person can ever experience. It’s all the more surreal when you are one of the two individuals responsible for bringing the child into the world. Truly, the miracle of life never ceases to amaze me. I said it to Camille a couple times as we sat alone in the delivery room, waiting for her contractions to get closer together, with the baby’s heart monitor echoing throughout the room at 130 beats per minute: that short journey from the womb to the doctor’s hands is truly the longest journey in life. All that time, effort, blood, tears – just to get an eight pound baby to take that six inch journey from where she’s resided for the last nine months. It’s astounding.

And yet, the awe doesn’t cease after the birth is over. I had forgotten just how amazing it is to have a newborn – to hold her in your arms and look into her little eyes and sense the helplessness, dependence, innocence, and inarticulatable trust. But not just this: to see the potential – the blank page that is a little baby. She has her whole life before her. Her story is just beginning, and it could go a thousand different ways. And yet we, her parents, have incredible influence over how the chapters are written – a thought not to be taken lightly.

Of course, it also goes beyond this. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” the Psalmist declares (Psalm 139:14). I don’t know how anyone can witness birth, or look into the eyes of a newborn, and deny the existence of God. Sure, there are scientific explanations for how it all happens, how our body works together in unison to keep our hearts beating. But such explanations don’t eliminate the awe; they simply reinforce it. The physiological and biological complexity, all working together in concert, inspires the utmost reverence.

So I thank God for this wonder, this awe, this amazement – all elicited by a tiny little 21 1/2 inch baby named Winslow Eve that I need as much as she needs me.

And like Heschel, I want my story to be: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and He gave it to me.”

Two Percent: On Sex and Celibacy

Here’s a little perspective:

According to research, the average American male thinks about sex approximately 18 times a day. For women, it’s about half that. And yet, research also shows that, on average, Americans have sex about twice a week. This means that males think about sex approximately 60 times more than they have it (which means that 98% of the time they’re thinking about sex, they’re not having it), while women think about it approximately 30 times more than they have it.*

So why does this matter?

It’s very simple: celibacy is something that everyone on earth experiences on a regular basis. It does not belong to any single class. There is not a single person on the planet who doesn’t have to deny his or her sexual urges and desires with regularity. Neither is there a single person who finds his or her sexual desires always fulfilled.

Or, put another way: there is not a person who exists that has sex as much as he or she would like. This applies to married people as much as single people.

All this adds up to the reality that celibacy – denying one’s sexual desires and urges – has not been designed for a single class or demographic, or even a handful of ones. It’s not simply for unmarried teenagers, or those attracted to others of the same sex. It’s not simply urged upon a few; it’s urged upon all – when circumstances dictate it.

I know this is probably a hard sell for people who aren’t presently living in an exclusive, monogamous marriage with someone from the opposite sex – a model that the Bible clearly prescribes as God’s design (both before and after sin – see Matthew 19:4-6). And I’m fully cognizant of the fact that I would have been bewildered by such a thought if a married person had presented it to me when I was single.

This is not to be dismissive of anyone who has, because of various circumstances, been called to experience a longer celibacy – perhaps even for a lifetime. It’s simply to say that gratifying one’s sexual desires all the time - or even the vast majority of the time – is enjoyed by no one, and the only difference between me, as a married man, and the single man who, attracted to other men, has been urged to choose life-long celibacy, is a mere two percent. In any given week, statistically speaking, a married man’s desires might be fulfilled two percent of the time more than his – to say nothing of the times when a husband is away from his wife for a longer period of time (a week or two – or months) and has to practice full-fledged celibacy.

Again, I don’t want to be dismissive. Sex is, of course, so much more than merely fulfilling a desire or an impulse or a whim. At its best, it is a union between two people that goes far beyond the physical act. It is, indeed, a wonderful gift from God – the expression of two lives that are joined on every level.

And yet, of course, it is, to a large extent, nothing more than merely fulfilling a desire or impulse or whim if it is pursued outside the framework of God’s original design (which, by the way, a married person can also violate, even in the very act of having sex with his or her spouse).

All this is to simply raise awareness to the fact that all of us are called to practice sexual purity – which is frequently expressed in celibacy for various lengths of time. This “yoke” is not the exclusive domain of any single person or group. We’re all in this together.

Thankfully, wonderfully, all of us also have a big God who has a lot of grace in those moments when our sexuality is being tested.

And thankfully, wonderfully, we also have a big God who has a lot of grace for those moments when we fall.

*The research I am citing was technically done with college students – who, I would presume, probably think about sex more than the average married adult. Then again, maybe my presumption is wrong! Either way, I feel fully comfortable saying that everyone thinks about sex more than he or she experiences it. And, thus, everyone has had to – and continues to have to – deny his/her sexual desires at some point.

The Jewish Idea of Vindication

I’ve been reading quite a few Jewish authors lately. Among other delightful insights I’ve been gleaning, one of the things that has jumped out at me is their willingness – in fact, eagerness – to place God in a position of greater dependence on humankind than Christians seem willing to allow.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. The modern Christian is on the wrong end of 2500 years of dependence on Plato, Augustine, and Calvin. These three, each one progressively building on the one before, has presented a God whose chiefly characterized by immutability, sovereignty, and complete independence. God is the “unmoved Mover” who cannot ultimately be affected by anyone other than Himself. What’s more, to say that God has chosen to be dependent on others implies that there is a deficiency or weakness in His character.

Though there are certainly plenty of Jewish expositors – reaching all the way back to Philo – who haven’t escaped the tentacles of Greek philosophical thinking, the ones I am reading seem to have avoided its pitfalls in this arena, allowing the worldview of Israel to have a greater impact on their thinking than the worldview of Greece; indeed, Jerusalem holds greater sway than Athens. Thus, Abraham Heschel provocatively offers, “For the accomplishment of His grand design, the Lord waits for the help of man” (The Prophets, p. 198). He echoes this sentiment frequently throughout his book on the prophets. Similarly, writing in Man Is Not Alone, he shares this: “Man can rely on God, if God can rely on man. We may trust in Him because He trusts in us. To have faith means to justify God’s faith in man. It is as essential that God believe in man as that man should believe in God” (p. 174).

Just let that sink in for a minute!

For his part, Harvard professor Jon D. Levenson, in his book Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, writes about how we are involved in a “cosmogonic-soteriological drama” in which we are not merely “passive beneficiaries” of God’s favor, but also called to be “junior partners” in God’s ordering of the universe. Perhaps most stunning of all, however, Levenson posits that “the actualization of the full potential of God requires the testimony of his special people” (pp. xxvi, 139).

These Jews know their own Scriptures. They know how God lamented through Ezekiel, for example, that His name had been “profaned among the nations” (36:21) because of the house of Israel. Yet they also know that God would ultimately “vindicate the holiness of my great name . . . when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (v. 23, RSV).

They also know how Moses reminded God, in Numbers 14, that He couldn’t simply start over with a new people, instead of bringing Israel into the Promised Land, because “the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying, ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness” (vv. 15-16).

Just think: God’s reputation was tied into Israel’s ability – through God’s grace, of course – to get into the Promised Land. His destiny was tied into theirs!

These are largely foreign concepts to the average Christian. That’s because we are under the impression that this whole thing is largely about getting us into heaven. As N.T. Wright puts it, “It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity” (Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, p. 23).

What’s more, most Christians think that if God faces any problems at all, those problems are solved exclusively by Himself, without any cooperation from us. As the sovereign and omnipotent God of the universe, He doesn’t need help from anyone else – and any hint of Him relying on others is borderline blasphemy.

Indeed, not only is the idea that we have a work of cooperation to do in “ordering the universe,” or vindicating God, considered blasphemy by some, it’s also legalism in their eyes.

And yet, to say that we have a part to play in vindicating God has no more to do with legalism than saying we still need to keep the Sabbath – which is to say, they can both be legalistic if framed improperly. If God’s acceptance of and love for me is contingent upon my vindicating Him, or my Sabbath-keeping; or if my salvation is dependent on either – then, yes, it is legalism. Yet, if either are placed within the context of a response to Calvary’s love, as the natural response of faith, then they are anything but legalistic.

What may surprise many, from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective, is that Ellen White fully understood this Jewish idea. Though she certainly placed great emphasis on Christ vindicating God, there was also a place in her thinking for us to have a part in that. “If there was ever a people in need of constantly increasing light from heaven,” she wrote, “it is the people that, in this time of peril, God has called to be the depositories of His holy law and to vindicate His character before the world. Those to whom has been committed a trust so sacred must be spiritualized, elevated, vitalized, by the truths they profess to believe” (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 746).

Again, writing of Job, she said that “by his patient endurance he vindicated his own character, and thus the character of Him whose representative he was” (Education, p. 156).

Indeed, Ellen White wrote like a good Jew!

So let us embrace this awesome thought – not as a legalistic prison-sentence, or an idea to be feared. Let us view it for the privilege it is: an opportunity to glorify the Person who’s supposed to be the object of our deepest affections, praise, and love.

Though not himself a Jew, N.T. Wright is certainly steeped in the worldview of Hebraic thinking far more than most other contemporary Christian thinkers. So let’s allow him to have the final word: “God made humans for a purpose,” he writes, “not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with [God], but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful, order to the world” (Justification, p. 24).

We Need Another 1888

1888 GC MinneapolisIf you’ve been paying any attention at all to the present landscape of Adventism, you’ve noticed that there are various movements vying for our attention – especially the attention of our youth. These movements present their own version of what Adventism looks like at its best. There is much about these movements that can be commended – not the least of which is because they have all seemed to instill a deeper belief that Adventism can be better than its current iteration.

And yet, I want more for my church. Instead of – to use a C.S. Lewis analogy – settling for making mud pies in the slums (which can be fun), I want to enjoy a holiday at sea.

Adventism doesn’t need this conference or that conference, this project or that project; we don’t need to become more conservative or less conservative; we don’t need to become more liberal or less liberal; we don’t need more interpretive dancing or less interpretive dancing; we don’t need more Spiritual Formation or less Spiritual Formation.

The solution to what ails us is very simple.

What Adventism needs is another 1888 - the standard by which all other movements within Adventistism should be judged against; the standard that, according to Ellen White, was the “loud cry” message of Revelation that was to go to every church and the whole world; a standard that has not been equaled in the last 125 years.

Sadly, I have discovered that most Adventists don’t have the slightest clue about what is meant by “1888″ – and those who do have some sense have been misinformed. To put it simply, according to Ellen White, back in 1888,

The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. (Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91, 92)

Ellen White said that “this is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.” And, indeed, anywhere this message was given an audience over the next few years, it was attended with great power – to the point that, on one occasion, Ellen White said “we seemed to breathe in the very atmosphere of heaven” (The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 268).

Unfortunately, the movement was not to last. Writing in 1896, Ellen White tragically commented how the “light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted, and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world” (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 235).

Though many would eagerly label me a simpleton, I am completely at ease with saying that everything since then within Adventism has been merely a footnote.

It thus behoves us to saturate ourselves in this “most precious message,” since it is the solution to what ails Adventism and what ails the world. And our eternal success will be in proportion to the degree that we emulate the blueprint that Ellen White, A.T. Jones, and E.J. Waggoner set forth in 1888 and the few years that followed.

And to the extent that any or all of these current movements within Adventism are passionately and singularly pursuing this goal, we can and must applaud them.

And, if so, I say: keep moving forward!

If you want to acquaint yourself with this “most precious message,” (which, in my opinion, isn’t optional) there are a few resources I would suggest. First is an article my dad and I wrote for the Adventist Review recently, which you can access here. I also highly recommend this dynamite sermon by my good friend, Ty Gibsonat the 2012 General Conference Annual Council meetings.

For a more in-depth – yet important - explanation of this subject, I highly recommend The Return of the Latter Rain, by Ron Duffield, which you can find here

Weak Gospel; Strong Gospel

Here are a few observations on preaching that is either strong or weak in the gospel. This stems from a Twitter conversation I got into yesterday in which my friend David Asscherick commented how in our worship of God, we should ditch the fog lights, strobes, and American-idol aspirations, and just worship. My comment was: when we preach a weak gospel, we have to dim the lights and turn up the music.

That resulted in some questions from a few people. And it led me to realize that I have, perhaps to some degree, a differing view on what constitutes preaching that is “strong in the gospel” (since the gospel has only one “strength” – ie., powerful [see Romans 1:16] – it is not entirely accurate to speak of a “weak” or “strong” gospel, but of preaching that is either weak or strong in the gospel).

As I’ve listened to a lot of sermons over the years, I have encountered a lot of sermons – too many – that were weak on the gospel and left me empty. Fortunately, I’ve also enjoyed a lot of sermons – though far fewer than the former – that were strong on the gospel, and left my heart feeling “strangely warmed.” These are thus the elements of each type of sermon. They are just one man’s subjective opinion and you may find yourself in complete disagreement. That’s fine. But what we should all agree upon is that the gospel – Christ and Him crucified – must be front-and-center of every sermon (Ellen White says that Christ is the great “center of attraction”). It thus behooves all of us to grapple with how we might pursue a richer and more cross-centered presentation of truth.

So, here goes.

Preaching that is strong in the gospel:

  • Presents everything within the context of the motivating power of the gospel
  • Presents everything within the context of God, searching for man – seeking him, initiating relationship with him, pursuing him
  • Presents everything within the context of the “everlasting covenant” – God’s whole-souled commitment to humankind, no matter the cost
  • Presents everything in the context of man’s utter inability to save himself, or keep the law – any of its facets – himself
  • Emphasizes Christ’s nearness to humankind and how He, as the “Son of Man,” can identify with us
  • Explores the multi-dimensional reality of Christ’s great self-sacrificial love as seen on Calvary – including His experience of the “second death,” and His unilateral forgiveness of all humankind
  • Describes (as opposed to prescribes) the obedience that naturally flows from a heart that encounters the gospel

This is not to say that every sermon needs to be an explicit expose on all these themes. It’s simply to say that every sermon needs to be preached “within the context” of these important realities. Thus, a sermon on the Sabbath or tithing or evangelism can – and must – be presented within this context.

Sermons that are “weak in the gospel,” are legion, and their characteristics are infinite, to a large degree; but these are some typical characteristics that I have found in sermons that are “weak in the gospel” (note that just because a sermon may be “weak in the gospel,” doesn’t mean that an attempt is not made to lift up the gospel, or that it is explicitly legalistic in tone and content):

  • Presents God’s love in very vague terms, not giving much content or explanation as to what that exactly means (e.g., “God loves all of us unconditionally,” is about as deep as it goes)
  • Detaches the gospel from doctrine or obedience (e.g., “If we are truly Christians, then we should be loving,” as opposed to a sermon that is strong in the gospel saying, “When we see God’s love as displayed on Calvary, we will love others”)
  • Relies heavily on funny anecdotes or jokes (none of these are bad in-and-of-themselves, but the gospel can be cheapened – or completely buried – if we make funniness the main thing. See this post for further thoughts on this)
  • Does not emphasize the all-consuming nature of “Christ and Him crucified”
  • Uses carrots or sticks to urge a response to Christ
  • May present a more sophisticated legalism (replaces some of the old hobby horses in former days which are anathema to this generation – e.g., entertainment choices, diet, etc. – with more trendy hobby horses – e.g., social justice and equality, openness to other faiths, etc. None of these new emphases may be bad, in-and-of-themselves, but, again, the point is that they are still subtly presented as a list of “do’s and don’ts,” instead of being presented within the context of the motivating power of the gospel)
  • May present victory over sin as the main thing – though this emphasis is not typical for most of the venues that I’m assuming David was originally talking about (fog lights and preaching about victory over sin don’t typically find themselves showing up at the same programs)

As I said, those are just a few examples.

I think, what would be most helpful, is to give you a tangible example of a sermon that is “strong” in the gospel, and one that is weak.

For the former, I have chosen a sermon by my good friend, Ty Gibson. It’s called “Get Yourself a New Husband.” Ty does a great job of combining all the powerful features of a gospel-strong presentation. You can hear it here.

For the sermon that is “weak” in the gospel, I have chosen a sermon that I have actually preached. It’s called “Silent Christians?” You can listen to it here.

The God of Motherly Love

Acadia Camille
The title for my sermon this last Sabbath was “A Severe Mercy” (you can listen to it here). Focusing on Hosea 1:3-2:1, I shared some reflections on how God, though full of mercy and love, had to say “no more” to Israel at one point (illustrating this to them, among other ways, in having Hosea name his daughter “Lo-Ruhamah,” or “no mercy”), only to still promise them a glorious future.

What I somehow overlooked last week, while preparing the sermon, was the profound etymological significance of the Hebrew word that Hosea uses to explain God’s withholding of mercy. While going through my daily reading of the Hebrew Bible this morning, I noticed an interesting word that pops up in Genesis 20:18 where it is said that God had “closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” The word for “womb” is rechem - the noun from which the word “mercy” or “compassion” (rachum) derives.

There is no disputing the etymological connection. Scholars are seemingly unanimous in their opinion that “compassion” and “mercy” are directly related to “womb” in the ancient Near Eastern way of thinking. In fact, all cognate languages also demonstrate this connection. Thus, mercy and compassion are inextricably linked to the emotional connection a mother has for a child in the ancient Near Eastern worldview (which, I do not believe it can be disputed, far exceeds the connection a father has to his children). As one person has noted, mercy and compassion “would have been directly related to the maternal instincts of a mother for the child from her womb, or the kind of feelings one has for that which is totally helpless.”

What I find so remarkable, however, is that the very first attribute that God ascribes to Himself when revealing to Moses His glory is this rachum: “And the Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful [rachum] and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth . . . ” (Exod 34:6). Though word order doesn’t necessarily equal primacy when it comes to God’s attributes, I still find it intriguing that the very first attribute God ascribes to Himself is a characteristic that is spawned in a woman’s womb.

This gives Hosea’s message all the greater profundity. God announces to Israel that they have become so depraved and rebellious that He is being forced to finally turn His back on the instinctive love of a mother – indeed, a very instinctive love and mercy and compassion that God Himself possesses.

All this reminds me of the late Carsten Johnsen’s daring thesis that God’s love is most closely resembled by the love of a mother. Writing in his book Agape and Eros, he explains the basis for this thought:

The commanding reality behind a woman’s greater alterocentricity [other-centeredness] is evident enough. Her biological assignment is to bear children, and to care for them in such a way that they may become fully developed human beings. Those maternal tasks, so naturally assigned to her, help her – or in a way, they constrain her – to be other-centered; that is, to find her main values outsider herself – in ‘the others.’ . . . God’s basic trend is that of turning outward – like the natural mother does, to use the best illustration we could ever find in an imperfect world. This simply means – on any plane of living personalism – the fact of seeking, and finding, the center of one’s life outside oneself, rather than in oneself; that is, looking to the objective world, the world around one, the world of the ‘objects,’ as the place where one comes across one’s dearest values. (pp. 16, 163).

Let us, therefore, appreciate the great motherly love and compassion that God possesses – and applaud its reenactment that naturally takes place in the heart of mothers.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back?

For the second time in a week, I find myself writing about the book of Genesis, addressing yet another concern about its historicity. This time, the world of biblical scholarship is abuzz with the news that two archaeologists from Tel Aviv used radiocarbon dating to “prove” that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the 10th century BC – nearly a millennia after Genesis alleges that Abraham gallivanted around the Middle East on camels.

The news has been a coup for those who mock the validity of the biblical record, as well as for those who have insisted that the biblical accounts were written far later than conservative believers have insisted. The latter group doesn’t necessarily say that the Bible has been invalidated by this discovery, but that, indeed, the Genesis stories were written far after they were alleged to have taken place. The later authors, it is postulated, then anachronistically projected back into the stories details that were true of their own contemporary time, but would be out of place when the stories supposedly took place. Thus, though Genesis may be trustworthy in broad strokes, and for the purposes for which it was written, the actual historical details can’t be relied upon.

So what are we to make of these allegedly misplaced camels? For those of us who maintain a “high view” of Scripture, how do we reconcile what the Bible maintains, over-against what archaeology has unearthed?

First of all, let’s make something clear: our faith does not rest upon whether Abraham rode a camel. If we were to discover that Abraham rode kangaroos rather than camels, it would not be enough to destroy our faith in God – or the Bible. As a Christian, my foundation is Christ and Him crucified, not the accuracy of every little detail the Bible proposes.

At the same time, as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian I am not a verbal inerrantist. I do not believe that every single word of the Bible was meticulously chosen by God, and the biblical authors were simply machines that churned out what God insisted they write. Though the Bible is God’s word, it was also written by humans.

Of course, there is a balance. Though it was written by humans, I am not in the position to be able to differentiate between the God-parts and the man-parts. And I do also bear a concern for the historical validity of its claims. After all, if we start pecking away at its historical accuracy, how can we trust its accuracy of any other claim?

Yet with all this said, my main reason for writing this post is not necessarily to defend the Bible’s historical accuracy against all other evidence, but simply to examine the confounding logic that is being employed by those who are proclaiming the death of the Bible’s historical claims.

The logic that has been used is, in a word, mind-boggling.

It goes something like this: archaeologists dug up some camel bones in Israel and Jordan, did radiocarbon dating on them, and came to the conclusion that camels were not domesticated until the 10th century BC. Or, in the words of the New York Times article that broke the story here in the United States:

For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. . . . The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible.

Note, first of all, that the archaeologists were motivated by an a priori belief that the camels mentioned in Genesis were an anachronism. This is because a number of biblical scholars and archaeologists for centuries have been of the belief that camels don’t belong in Genesis. So this recent news is not a new attempt, or a new claim. They’ve been trying to disprove the Bible’s accuracy on this point for a long time. And thus, these two archaeologists were motivated by this agenda.

But here’s the real stupendous part: the article says that these archaeologists dug up camel bones from the “Aravah Valley in Israel” and the “Wadi Finan in Jordan” which is enough, apparently, to draw conclusions about the history of camels in the entire Middle East for its entire history.

Did I miss something?

Apparently, these archaeologists haven’t found the bones of every camel that has ever lived in the Middle East? (In fairness, the New York Times article uses a pregnant qualifier when it says that they were trying to pinpoint the “earliest known domesticated camels.” This is a passing acknowledgement that there may indeed be camels that are still as of yet unknown, which may be incredibly surprising to some people [tongue, firmly planted in cheek].)

Such conclusions, based upon very limited data, would be akin to concluding that there are no McDonald’s in the state of Vermont, since its capital, Montpelier, does not have one. It reminds me of this classic quote from Mark Twain: “There is something fascinating about science,” he wrote, “One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Of course, these archaeologists would say that their research into the camel problem is not insignificant. They have made a great investment in the problem, concluding for decades that the best evidence they have unearthed indicates that there were no domesticated camels in the Middle East as far back as the Bible alleges.

And yet, this is certainly not a unanimous opinion – which is the other issue. Much like my previous discussion of the alleged contradictions of Genesis 1 and 2, which critical scholars and popular media outlets would have us believe is an already-settled fact, the historical accuracy of the Bible is not as fraught with scientific inaccuracy as these aforementioned people would have us believe. And it is thus not a case of naive Christians having to choose between our holy book, which is scientifically inaccurate, or science, which is biblically inaccurate. We can have our cake and eat it too; we can have both.

For example, note the observations of Randall Younker, professor of Old Testament and Archaeology at Andrews University, about the presence of domesticated camels in that region and at that time:

My own research, however, and that of several other scholars, has shown that there is actually plenty of evidence for domesticated camels from the second millennium BC.  Some of this evidence includes a bronze figurine of a camel in a kneeling position found at Byblos and dated to the 19th/18th centuries BE; a gold camel figurine in a kneeling position from the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (2070-1960 BC); a petroglyph at Aswan in Egypt which shows a man leading a camel by a rope (writing next to the picture suggests its dates to 2423-2263 BC); and a figurine from Aabussir el Melek, Egypt showing a recumbent camel carrying a load (dated to the 3rd millennium BC).  To these examples, I can take pride in adding another that was discovered by myself (Younker 1997), along with colleagues, Dick and JoAnn Davidson (our children), William Shea and David Merling during an excursion into the Wadi Nasib in the Sinai during the month of July 1998.  There I noticed a petroglyph of a camel being led by a man not far from a stele of Ammenemes III and some famous proto-Sinaitic inscriptions discovered by Georg Gerster in 1961.  Based on the patina of the petroglyphs, the dates of the accompanying inscriptions and nearby archaeological remains it would seem that this camel petroglyph dates to the Late Bronze Age, probably not later than 1500 BC.  Clearly, scholars who have denied the presence of domesticated camels in the 2nd millennium BC have been committing the fallacy of arguing from silence.  This approach should not be allowed to cast doubt upon the veracity of any historical document, let alone Scripture.

Younker goes on to make this critical observation:

It is interesting to note how, once an idea gets into the literature, it can become entrenched in conventional scholarly thinking.  I remember doing research on the ancient site of Hama in Syria.  As I was reading through the excavation reports (published in French), I came across a reference to a figurine from the 2nd millennium which the excavator thought must be a horse, but the strange hump in the middle of its back made one think of a camel.  I looked at the photograph and the figurine was obviously that of a camel!  This scholar was so influenced by the idea that camels were not used until the 1st millennium, that when he found a figurine of one in the second millennium, he felt compelled to call it a horse!  This is a classic example of circular reasoning.

And that’s the great irony in all this: though I am not an archaeologist, it would seem to me that out of all disciplines, an archaeologist would be the least likely person to draw sweeping conclusions about what didn’t or couldn’t have taken place. After all, there is always more to dig up, isn’t there? Today’s conclusions can often be tomorrow’s fodder. So perhaps humility is in order (much to the chagrin of TimeNational Geographic, CNN, et. al, who have been eager to proclaim the death of biblical accuracy in light of this recent “discovery”).

Do Genesis 1 and 2 Contradict?

I found myself in a stimulating Twitter conversation last evening with Dr. Joel Baden, who is associate professor of Old Testament at Yale University, about whether the first two chapters of Genesis contradicted each other. Someone I follow on Twitter had re-tweeted a post Dr. Baden had written for Huffington Post, in which he discussed the creation-evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. In this post, Dr. Baden claims that the way to challenge a creationist is on his or her own terms: the Bible itself does not support a literal, recent six-day creation account. And the main bulk of his argument centered around the idea that Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other, thus calling into question the “historicity” of a literal creation story.

After all, if they contradict, which one is correct?

Before delving more deeply into a brief response (which, contrary to my typical direction for this blog, may seem a little more technical and arcane), let me just unequivocally state that Dr. Baden’s pedigree and command of the Old Testament and Hebrew is vastly superior to mine. He’s been trained in three of the most prestigious institutions in the world (Yale, University of Chicago, and Harvard), and teaches at one of them. My four semesters of Biblical Hebrew – though supplemented by a fair amount of personal study since then – pales in comparison to how saturated he’s been in it (especially considering the fact that, according to his bio on the Yale website, he, himself, is Jewish). So I don’t want to come across as someone who thinks I know more than he does – or that I’m presenting an entirely original argument that has never been considered before.

At the same time, the neat thing about looking at data or literature – especially in this day and age – is that everyone has access to it. Furthermore, an argument is not won simply because one person has more education than the other (though, again, I do approach this with a significant amount of deference)!

So with all this said: do Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other, as Dr. Baden proposes (an idea, it should be stated, that is by no means unique to him)? I want to very briefly address one of Dr. Baden’s reasons for claiming they do.

One of the reasons Dr. Baden gives for postulating that they do is that, while Genesis 1-2:3 seems to indicate that all of creation – including plant life – came to completion within seven days, Genesis 2:5 then states that when God set forth to create man, it was “before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown.”

The objection is obvious: how can Genesis 2:5 claim that there were no “plants” or “herbs” when God made man, yet Genesis 1:11 claim that God created plant life on the third day, a few days before man was supposedly created?

It is tempting to be agitated by such an objection, but a close reading of the text reveals there’s more going on than may meet the eye (which is betrayed even by examining various English translations). This is because the Hebrew words and terms that are employed are not the same. In Genesis 2:5, the author introduces a Hebrew word for plant – siyach - that is not previously employed in Genesis. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, siyach means “bush, shrub, plant.” It occurs only three other times in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 21:15; Job 30:4, 7), thus indicating its unique place in the Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew. (It should go without saying that when a word is used only a handful of times in the Bible, we should stop short of definitively saying we know exactly what it means, including all its nuances.)

Coupled with siyach, Genesis 2:5 says that no “herb of the field” had yet grown before man was created. The term “herb of the field” (‘esev ha-sadeh) does contain a Hebrew word (‘esev) that is employed in chapter 1, but the two usages are distinguished in that they are different constructs. In 1:11, the specific herb that has been created is the “herb that yields seed” (‘esev maz-ria’ zera’), while in 2:5 it is an “herb of the field” (‘esev ha-sadeh). Must these two constructs mean the same thing? If they do mean the same thing, why give them different labels?

The easy answer to the latter question that the critical scholar is quick to reach for is that Genesis 1-2:3 was written by a so-called “Priestly” author(s), while Genesis 2:4ff was written by a so-called “Jahwist” author(s). Thus, each author employed his favorite term to describe the same thing.

But isn’t this “begging the question”? In order to demonstrate multiple authorship, critical scholars point to the varied language as proof; but then the explanation for the varied language is that there were multiple authors. Each argument is contingent on the validity of the other variable, thus rendering such proof as circuitous.

There is, in fact, a better explanation for this distinction that moves beyond speculation that two different authors are present. As Randall Younker, professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology at Andrews University (who, for what it’s worth, earned his PhD from the University of Arizona), proposes, Genesis 2:5 introduces four conditions that do not appear before sin, but do show up after Genesis 3. There is not (1) siyach, (2) ‘esev ha-sadeh, (3) rain, or a (4) ground-tilling (literally “serving the ground”) man. All these came as a result of the fall of man.

In fact, the construct, ‘esev ha-sadeh is used only one other time in the Hebrew Bible, and that is in Genesis 3:18, where God informs Adam that because of his sin, the ground would be cursed and he would be forced to eat the ‘esev ha-sadeh. Though the word siyach doesn’t again appear here, it seems likely that, just as it appears in parallel in 2:5 with ‘esev ha-sadeh, the parallel to ‘esev ha-sadeh in this instance (“thorns and thistles”) is a synonym that the author employs.

Thus, this ‘esev ha-sadeh, whatever it exactly is, is a cultivated herb that isn’t around in the perfect world because, as 2:5 says, “there was no man to serve the ground” (that is, it’s not that there wasn’t yet a man, but that there wasn’t a ground-serving man). There is no ground-serving man yet because God had not yet given man this task before sin entered the world (though he was given the task to serve the “garden,” according to 2:15, which is not the same thing as serving the “ground”). It is not until Genesis 3:17, after man has sinned, that God tells Adam he would have to “toil” and “sweat” over the “cursed ground” in order to “eat of it.”

As Younker points out, when Genesis 2:5 is understood in this way (it goes without saying, by the way, that rain doesn’t show up until chapter 7 when man’s wickedness had matured too much for God), it demonstrates that Genesis 2 does not serve as a contradictory account to Genesis 1, but as a bridge between the perfect creation in chapter 1, and the marred and devastated creation that chapter 3 introduces. It’s as if the author(s) is saying, “This is how creation originally was in chapter 1, and this is where it ended up in chapter 3, and this is how it got there in chapter 2.” (The reader should be reminded that our chapter divisions are somewhat arbitrary, modern constructions. That chapter 2 doesn’t end with man sinning does not contradict this overall thrust of this argument.)

Thus, 2:5 is simply setting the table for what the reader anticipates will soon appear in chapter 3. It’s as if the author(s) was saying, “You know this stuff that sinful man now eats as a result of the fall – the ‘herb of the field’? This isn’t yet a part of man’s diet in 2:5, but this is how it became a part of his diet by 3:18.” (It bears mentioning, by the way, that when God instructs Adam about what he can eat in 1:29, there is mention of every “herb that yields seed,” but there is no mention of the “herb of the field.”)

Of course, such arguments could appear to be grasping at straws or exaggerating the significance of different word choices and constructs; but, living at least 2500 years after the material was written, how else are we to make sense of what the author(s) intended to communicate? How are ideas conveyed if not through words? The interpreter of any piece of literature – especially literature that is deemed sacred by a large segment of the world’s population – must approach it with a willingness to hear whatever the author(s) intended to convey.

There is more to say in relation to this subject (including a response to some of the other alleged contradictions, as well as the overarching question as to why it matters and what relevance it has to the average Bible-reader), but that will have to wait for another time! All this is to say is that most critical scholars try to pile up all these alleged contradictions and overwhelm the reader with the idea that the Bible doesn’t really mean what we’ve always thought it meant. Sometimes, they’re right. Sometimes, they’re wrong.

But each “contradiction” needs to be carefully examined based on its own merits, realizing that we all bring to the Bible our own assumptions, preconceptions, and commitments. And, in this case, the plant life that does or doesn’t exist in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis doesn’t really seem to lend support to the theory that the two chapters stand in contradiction to one another – that is, if one pursues a close reading of the text.

Postscript: I was thrilled to discover that, like me, Dr. Baden is a native of Massachusetts, who seems to have a love for all the same Boston sports teams. And, again, I am grateful for the cordial Twitter “conversation” we were able to enjoy.

The Richard Sherman In All of Us

(Photo: USA Today)

First, let’s make something clear: Richard Sherman is not a thug (ie., “a cruel or vicious ruffian, robber, or murderer”).

By now, even if you’re a nominal sports fan, you’ve probably seen the interview heard ’round the world in which Richard Sherman, who is a defensive back for the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks, proclaimed himself “the best corner in the game” (which is true), calling San Francisco 49ers Wide Receiver Michael Crabtree a “sorry receiver.” You can see the short interview below.

Pretty much as soon as Sherman’s interview hit the airwaves (which was cut short because Fox didn’t know what to do with a man who was being so authentic), people were taking to the internet to call him out for his silly antics. That his antics were silly cannot be denied; yet it seems that many people wanted to take it beyond that, with the harshest refrain proclaiming that Richard Sherman is an ignorant thug.

Let’s call this label for what it is, however: a loud, black man with dreadlocks can only be a thug in many people’s minds (which is a discussion for another time). Nevermind the fact that Sherman is actually a very intelligent man, who graduated from his high school as the Salutatorian of his class (with a 4.2 GPA), with a degree – and already working towards another – from Stanford University, who has never committed a crime. I believe the outrage stems from a more foundational – yet subtle – reality (and it’s not racism, though that is certainly in play).

I believe the outrage is because Richard Sherman said to the world what we would only dare say to ourselves. At the core, there is a Richard Sherman in all of us. We are all selfish, proud, arrogant, self-centered creatures who think more highly of ourselves than others. And yet when we see it on full display on television, we are embarrassed for him – not because his sentiments are so outlandish but because they are so familiar.

The irony is that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that Richard Sherman’s behavior is the antithesis to what it means to be a good “sport.” We think his antics contradict competitive sports at their foundational level. Yet competitive sports at their most basic level are predicated upon exerting one’s self in mastery over another; of striving to be better than one’s opponent, often achieved by believing that you are, in fact, better than your opponent.

We don’t watch because sports are the bastion of cooperation and other-centeredness. We are attracted to them because we get to experience – vicariously – one side conquering another, exerting one’s interests over another’s. That football, in particular, uses physical – and, let’s call it for what it is: “violent” – force to achieve this makes it all the more irresistible (there’s a reason why flag-football does not have the same appeal that tackle-football does). It follows selfishness and the craving for domination to its logical conclusion.

And yet, when Richard Sherman expresses sentiments that epitomize the essence of sports, we all cry “foul.” We do so because we want our barbarians to be more subtle in their egotism; more sophisticated in their self-centeredness. After all, we’ve mastered the way of masking our own selfishness and pride; we have learned how to hide what resides deep down within our hearts. And Richard Sherman should do the same.

But I applaud Richard Sherman for being publicly who we all are privately: sinful, selfish, arrogant creatures (and for revealing the true essence of competitive sports). I applaud him not because there’s any virtue in being these things, but because in him we are able to see ourselves and thus perhaps turn to the Divine Physician who can cure what ails us.

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:3-8).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 81 other followers