Achan, Ananias, Saphira and 1 Corinthians 5:13

The thought occurred to me the other day that the New Testament contains a number of passages dealing with just who not to include in the church and the appropriate measures for dealing with such ‘evil’ (to use the language of Scripture) persons. I thought of two cases: Achan, and Ananias and Saphira (sp?). A third case was pointed on to me, that of 1 Corinthians 5:13. Here’s a few of my thoughts:

– Achan and Ananias/Saphira (A/S) both commit crimes against God

– Both crimes are committed against the people of God as well – Israel and the early church. Both crimes can be said to hinder the spreading of the people of God, and both crimes are punished by death.

– A possible angle I haven’t really explored: perhaps it could be argued that Achan/A/S were opposing the righteousness/promises of God to his people?

– While both cases involve death, there are some interesting differences. Achan is firstly investigated, after Joshua has it revealed to via casting lots that Achan is the perpetrator. Joshua then brings a fairly ‘official’ punishment against Achan. The severity of the punishment is warranted by closely noting Achan’s crime, which was to effectively bring Israel under ‘the ban’, or the order of extermination, by bringing items under the ban into the camp – in effect, Achan contaminated Israel.

– A/S is a much quicker and much less official (at least much less official sounding) case: they lie, Peter knows, God strikes them dead, almost on Peter’s command. No lots, no nothing. Bam. Dead.

– 1 Corinthians 5:13 exhorts the church to purge the evil from among them (specifically regarding instances of perverse sexual sin – this is important), and it appears that both cases are instances of this happening. 1 Cor 5:13 is a quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7, which is a fairly detailed set of instructions on how to approach ‘capital’ cases where the death penalty could be applied. Instructions on witnesses, priests, etc are all detailed.

– What’s very interesting is the just a few verses prior to Deuteronomy 17:7, verse 17:2 places the offences to be punished in the context of ‘crossing the covenant’ – the offence isn’t just a random criminal act, it’s an offence against the covenant. Given the fact that quotations of Old Testament verses in the New Testament generally refer to entire passages from which they are taken, it’s safe to say that Paul in the Corinthian passage is grounding church discipline in the context of the covenant as well. This implicitly sets the Corinthian passage within the context of creation as well, which is significant for the issue of sexual sin.

– Paul effectively says the following: put the evil person outside the church for God to judge, because the church judges those inside the church (presumably referring to practicing and confessing Christians), not those outside the church – that’s God’s job. The ethical standards of the church can’t be taken and held to those outside the church.

– There are similarities here to an earlier statement of church discipline in the same letter, where Paul says to hand over an immoral man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that his spirit may be saved. Another angle I haven’t explored: perhaps this is saying that the immoral man must die and be raised to life?

– The ultimate purpose of this discipline, as noted above, is so that the spirit may be raised to life, and not to simply police the boundaries of the church though there is an element of that. All three of these cases demonstrate the importance of the radical separation of the people of God, a people called to be holy, because the people of God are to embody God’s saving covenant faithfulness/righteousness. This includes standards of moral purity that are to be upheld.

– What Achan’s story can serve as a kind of case study to show is the seriousness with which God takes His holy people. Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7, a passage concerned with the application of the death penalty, shows that the separation and holiness of God’s people is a matter of life and death, as it were.

Thoughts On the Bible As Story

– The first thing to note when thinking of the Bible as story is that, by modern standards, it bears little to no resemblance to a story. Caution is in order, since it is very easy to simply relegate Scripture to the status of ‘story’ and thereby make it that much easier to be held at arms length.

– For example, there is little focus on the emotional/psychological states of the characters – the texts tend to focus on the external actions of the characters and the consequences of said actions. There isn’t a linear plot – while there are indeed large trajectories present in Scripture, these don’t really take the form of dramatic plots (exceptions do exist, of course), they don’t really take the form of a story with a centralized plot.

– In fact, a good deal of Scripture isn’t really narrative in any sense – one would be hard-pressed to fit Leviticus or Paul’s epistles into the category of narrative. Other parts are more easily seen as story – Esther, Ruth and a good deal of the Old Testament definitely fit into some kind of story category.

– It may actually be a bit more productive to think in terms of ‘trajectory’ rather than ‘story’, considering that Scripture has its telos in Christ, a fact which is seen by reading the Bible backwards, as it were.

– This seems to make a good deal of sense to me, since there are multiple trajectories which can be traced in the Scriptures. The Messianic themes, for example, seem better explained as trajectories, paths towards an end, than as stories.

– This raises the issue of the role of canon, which isn’t something I’m really informed enough about to comment on other than I see it being fairly significant.

Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

I started reading Bruggemann’s massive ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, and finally made it through the first 2 sections, which form a ‘lay of the land’ of Old Testament theology and scholarship. As a work of scholarship in its own right, it’s brilliant – well-researched, heavily footnoted, calm, carefully reasoned – in other words, a great academic book. I do, however, have a few cautious and open criticisms/questions, regarding the viewpoint and methodology Bruggemann holds to. I’ll confine my comments here to a few specific instances so as not to be distracted by meta-questions of history, postmodernism and literary theory.

The discussion of the inadequate-ness of thin, positivst/pseudo-objective historical methods is very good – there is a good amount of time spent dismantling the ‘assured results of higher criticism’, and establishing the fact that presupposition-less exegesis/history is impossible.

I do, however detect a certain inconsistency with Bruggemann’s insistence that we should not import claims and categories foreign to the text to help us understand text or the ‘behind the text.’ He resists, for examples, what he terms ‘essentialism’, which seems to be the idea that there is a kind of ‘essence’ behind the text or to the ideas which the texts talk about (in this case, God). He also argues against ontologies foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking – ‘Greek’ ontologies, as he terms them, that focus on abstract concepts of ‘being’ which are incompatible with Jewish modes of thought and discourse (as an aside, I don’t find the dichotomy between Greek/Hebrew thinking terribly helpful, and think that on closer examination, such an objection loses a lot of force).

‘A student of Old Testament theology must be alert to the problem of conventional thinking about ontology, thinking that is essentially alien to the Old Testament testimony.’ (p 118)

The inconsistency arises when Bruggemann seeks to impose modern categories of literary thinking onto Scripture – ranging from conceptions of drama and narrative to Bakhtin-esque ‘many voices’ theory. For example:

‘…the characters, the plot and the subplots must be recognizable in order to sustain the plot. This means that the characters must have consistency and constancy. It also requires however, that the characters must change, grow, or develop, in order that successive scenes are not simply a reiteration of the first scene.’ (p. 69)

For someone so opposed to importing foreign categories onto Scripture, Bruggemann seems to foist very modern categories of drama and narrative onto the text – categories that draw from an understanding of drama that is more at home with the modern novel than with ancient narrative. Such an imposition, while seeking to do justice to the dynamic, rhetorical, dramatic and ambiguous aspects of the text, seems to be rather inconsistent in light of Bruggemann’s opposition to imposing metaphysical and theological categories onto the text to help us understand it.

Bruggemann also places a fair amount of weight on the ‘polyphonic’ character of Scripture – that is, the many voices within the text:

‘The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon a narrative which at times is disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. The Bible is no easy read.’ (Mark Coleridge, ‘Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies’, quoted in ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, p. 89)

It is fairly obvious that the story of Scripture is made up of many smaller stories – any story is. However, the claims of disjointed-ness aren’t quite so clear cut – the Biblical text shows a remarkable unity (in spite of, or perhaps despite the ‘many voices’) in its narrative. That a narrative is composed of smaller stories is hardly grounds for disconnected-ness – if that were the case, no narrative could be said to have any unity (this is leaving aside the support that the extrabiblical and extratextual evidence offers to the idea of a unified narrative of Scripture. Perhaps a little more attention to facts and less attention to poorly-defined existentialist literary theory would serve a bit better here).

As I said, these are more open questions and criticisms rather than decisive refutations. Bruggemann’s insistence on the reality of the dynamics of the Old Testament text, as opposed to a more static positivistic conception is one with which I very much agree – simply click on the ‘philosophy of language’ category/tag to the right to see that my own ideas aren’t too terribly far from Bruggemann’s. At any rate, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ is an outstanding book so far, and I very much look forward to being continually challenged by Bruggemann.

Camels, Minimalism, Anachronism, and Kenneth Kitchen

‘Camels were last and least of Abraham’s possessions (Gen. 12:16), and in his time were used solely for the long-distance, desert-edge trip to Harran and back by his servant to obtain Isaac’s bride (24:10-64 passim). They were among the last named in Jacob’s wealth (30:43; 32:7, 15) and again were used solely for the long trip from Harran back to Canaan (31:17, 34). The desert-traveling Midianites used them (37:25). This is remarkably little. Then, at the time of the exodus and after (thirteenth century at the latest), they occur once among Pharaoh’s transport animals (Exod. 9:3) and twice in lists of creatures not to be eaten (Lev. 11:4; Deut. 14:7). Not much of a presence at all!

What about external sources between circa 2000 and 1200? We first consider the early second millennium (vaguely patriarchal), for which we have the following: from Egypt, a camel skull from the Fayum, “Pottery A” stage of occupation, within circa 2000-1400; from Byblos, a figurine of a kneeling camel, hump and load now missing (originally fixed by a tenon), about nineteenth/eighteenth century; from Canaan, a camel jaw from a Middle Bronze tomb at Tell el-Far’ah North, circa 1900/1550; from north Syria, a cylinder seal of the eighteenth century (of deities on a camel), in the Walters Art Gallery; and from mentions of the camel in the Sumerian lexical work HAR.ra-hubullu, going back in origin to the early second millennium….

[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100.’ ( Kenneth Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 338-339)

‘Abraham did not want his son to marry a Canaanite, so he sent his servant to Paddan Aram (as the Haran region of north Mesopotamia is called) to secure a bride for Isaac. With ten camels and adequate personnel, the servant heads the caravan towards his master’s Aramean kinsmen. The mention of camels here and elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives often is considered anachronistic. However, the correctness of the Bible is supported by the representation of camel riding on seal cylinders of precisely this period from northern Mesopotamia”

“It is often asserted that the mention of camels and of their use is an anachronism in Genesis. This charge is simply not true, as there is both philological and archaeological evidence for knowledge and use of this animal in the early second millenium BC and even earlier. While a possible reference to camels in a fodder-list from Alalakh (c. eighteenth century BC) has been disputed, the great Mesopotamian lexical lists that originated in the Old Babylonian period show a knowledge of the camel c. 2000/17000 BC, including its domestication. Furthermore, a Sumerian text from Nippur from the same early period gives clear evidence of domestication of the camel by then, by its allusions to camel’s milk…For the early and middle second millennium BC, only limited use is presupposed by either the biblical or external evidence until the twelfth century BC.’ (Kenneth Kitchen, full source here.

Holiness, Uzzah and Death by the Ark

‘The quality of being holy can be spread. Coming into contact with the ark, which is in a state of holiness, renders one holy as well. The condition of impurity may be spread by contact, too. (This will be a concern in Leviticus.) The Torah involved a belief that there are certain conditions which are invisible but which have an effect on persons and objects. The spreading of holiness by contact also confirms that the word ‘holy’ does not refer to just being ‘apart’ or ‘separate’, as we have often been taught in the past. Holiness is a powerful condition related to closeness to the divine.’ (Richard Elliot Friedman, ‘Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text, p. 273)

My own comment: the closer one is to the divine, the more set apart one is. However, there are passages in the OT which tell how Uzzah was killed for coming into contact with the Ark, and yet the above passage refers to Exodus 29:37, which is detailing the procedure for making sacrifices upon the brazen altar, which seems to be a part of the Ark (I’m not sure if they’re two separate objects from my initial reading of the text. I’m in a hurry.) So what gives? You can touch the altar and be made holy, but touch the Ark and get zapped?

My own thought: the Ark is so concentrated, so loaded with God’s power, presence, and holiness, that touching it would be akin to touching a damaged electrical cable, which shocks you. Uzzah, as far as we can tell from the text, had no ill intentions – he wanted to keep the Ark from falling to the ground. Bam. Dead. So perhaps that’s just a consequence of coming into full physical contact with such an amazingly concentrated amount of God’s holiness.

On Scripture Speaking

What does it mean when someone says that Scripture ‘speaks’ to them? That verse really spoke to me. That kind of thing. In the normal sense, it means that Scripture X disclosed a meaning to the hearer or reader. The text has a meaning which was made known to the hearer. Now this assumes that there is a kind of fixed meaning for Scripture – it has a meaning independent of whatever we happen to think/believe about the text. This verse means that, not that.

Does Scripture in fact have a fixed meaning? Lots of people have said lots of different things about what Scripture means. There are lots of interpretations of Scripture out there – minimalist, maximalist, reductionist, existential, analytic, and a million others. Broadly speaking, though, I think one can confidently say that Scripture is, in fact, about certain things. There is, in some sense, a kind of fixed meaning. Redemption, forgiveness, salvation, holiness, etc, are all things that Scripture is about – there may be various interpretations of this but one would be hard-pressed to argue that Scripture isn’t about these things in a fixed sense.

An essential aspect of Christian belief is that the spiritual truths of Scripture are revealed, not plain and available for all to see as if Scripture were any other kind of textbook. It is only through illumination by the Holy Spirit that the true Word within the words is revealed – prayerful abiding in the Holy Spirit is the key to grasping the true Word, which is Jesus Christ.

This is the second way the Scripture speaks to us – or, to be a bit more technically correct, the Holy Spirit revealing the Word in Scripture. The Holy Spirit can illuminate a certain text and reveal a meaning which may be specific and applicable to a certain time and place for a certain individual – perhaps one is reading a familiar text and suddenly sees it in a whole new light, and is able to draw a fresh application from a familiar text.

This, then, is the more dynamic way of Scripture speaking – in prayer, abiding in the Spirit. Now, one can study the text of Scripture in a non-spiritual way and still come away better for it. Even if one isn’t explicitly doing spiritual study, the Spirit is still working the hearts of all men. Perhaps someone engaged in a non-spiritual study of the text of Scripture will have an encounter with the Spirit and come away changed or transformed in some way.

Roughly then, truth about the Scriptural text can still be found through purely academic study. Historical, cultural, sociological truths can all be grasped on the basis of the Biblical data. But to truly grasp the Word, the Truth of Scripture, which is Jesus, one must abide in the spirit – as it says in the Psalms, our eyes must be opened so we can behold the wonderful things in the Law.