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SmackDown Slam of the Week: Stark vs. Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?

29th April 2011

Some may be familiar with Paul Copan‘s recent book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker, 2011; Buy from | Buy from It is an attempt to address the criticisms leveled against the God of the Hebrew Bible by the New Atheists, among others. It’s an OK book, although I am ultimately unsatisfied with his attempts.

But it doesn’t matter what I think! Tony Thom Stark has donned his Iron Man suit and produced a 303-page review of Copan’s book! 303 pages! Talk about the SmackDown Slam of the Week! Copan’s book is only 252 pages to begin with! To say the review is scathing would be a bit of an overstatement, but I do like the advice Stark gives to the reader at the end of the review:

So what do we do now? How do we move on? Where do we go from here? I suggest two courses of action. First, email Paul Copan and ask for an apology for his apologetics. Moreover, challenge him to take his responsibilities, both to the biblical text and to the church, more seriously from now on. Tell him you’re not interested in easy answers; you want to know how to struggle.

Second, keep struggling, but don’t do it on your own. Find a community that will allow you to be honest with your doubts, a community that won’t force you to comply with phony definitions of faith that allow for no dissent and no despair. Find a community that will not only allow you to struggle openly, but one that will struggle with you, without the need to force easy answers onto questions that won’t allow for them. Find a community that knows how to argue, both with one another, and with the text. The Bible is an argument with itself. Find a community that knows that joining in that argument is exactly what it means to be a people of the book. Find a community that doesn’t let experts speak over the top of the ignorant. Find a community that holds those who doubt in high regard, and one that treats those with all the answers with the kind of care appropriate to the mentally ill.

If you’ve already found such a community, find someone who hasn’t. And if you haven’t found one yet, keep looking. They’re out there. I’ve found mine. You’ll find yours. Christian or not, we all need such communities; it’s what it means to be human. There may not be any answers forthcoming, but woe to the one who has questions and no one to throw them at.

“Email Paul Copan and ask for an apology for his apologetics” – I love it!  Now, to be fair, Stark’s review is written in a conversational tone, so that in part explains the length. And he isn’t mean spirited; in contrast he is truly concerned for the problems that Copan’s approach raises for the academic and Christian community.

Stark’s review, entitled, “Is God a Moral Compromiser? A Critical Review of Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?“, is available from his website here. If you have read Copan, or are planning to read Copan,  I encourage you to download it and read it alongside Copan.

[I should probably mention that my recommendation to read Copan and Stark together in no way implies that I agree with either of them!]

(HT to my buddy Randal Rauser for drawing my attention to Stark’s review)

Posted in Apologetics, Old Testament, Theology, Yahweh War | Comments Off

Yahweh’s (Inexplicable?) Response to Job

3rd March 2011

One of the most marvelous passages of Scripture in the Tanak is found at the end of the book of Job where Yahweh (surprisingly) responds to Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:1-42:6).  I’ve tended to understand Yahweh’s reply to Job as a series of unanswerable questions that put Job and his so-called friends in their place, so to speak. If Job doesn’t understand the workings of the world in which he finds himself, then how does he expect to understand the workings of God’s moral universe?  The questions are to humble Job and underscore human finititude. The questions should elicit epistemic humility in Job (and the reader). In my mind, they highlight that the theme of the book of Job is less about “suffering” or “theodicy” than it is about “Who is truly wise?”  That is, who understands the question of suffering?

The other day my theology colleague brought to my attention a short section on “Job and Inexplicability” in an essay by philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The essay is from the recently published volume edited by John Milbank, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Brazos, 2010; Buy from | In this section, Žižek understands God’s response to Job also highlights that God doesn’t even understand his own creation. He notes:

The rationalist points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. But this is the point that God’s reply explicitly opposes — if I may put it so — to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as people are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything.


Again, to startle humans, God becomes, for an instant, a blasphemer. One might almost say that God becomes, for an instant, an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things… The Maker of all things is astonished at the things he has himself made. Again, here the point is not that God knows the deeper meaning, but it is as if God himself is overwhelmed at the excess of his creation (pp. 177-78).

While Žižek’s notion is provocative, I’m not sure that it is borne out by the text itself.  I agree with the first paragraph above;  the world we find ourselves in is ultimately inexplicable from our vantage point. I am not so sure I agree with the second paragraph, that God himself also doesn’t “know the deeper meaning.” The force of the rhetorical questions is that while Job (and all humans) may not know, Yahweh does. While I believe this is implied throughout the entire passage, it is explicit in a number of places:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding” (Job 38:4)

“Have you penetrated the vaults of snow, Seen the vaults of hail, Which I have put aside for a time of adversity, For a day of war and battle?” (Job 38:22-23)

“Who sets the wild ass free? Who loosens the bonds of the onager, Whose home I have made the wilderness, The salt land his dwelling-place? He scoffs at the tumult of the city, Does not hear the shouts of the driver. He roams the hills for his pasture; He searches for any green thing” (Job 39:5-8).

That God knows and understands is even more clear in his second response to Job, IMHO. So while Žižek’s comments are intriguing, they are only partially correct. What do you think?

Posted in Job, Old Testament, The Book of Job, Theodicy, Theology | 8 Comments »

Saul: The King Who Should Have Never Been (The Kings of Chronicles)

27th February 2011

[Chronicles is another one of my research areas. This post was originally uploaded 10/2009]

King Saul is a tragic figure in the biblical narrative. According to the Deuteronomistic History (his reign is recorded in 1Samuel 9-31), it seems as soon as Saul is chosen by Yahweh as the first king of Israel (and yes, Saul is chosen by Yahweh, not the people; see 1Sam 9:16-17; 10:1-8, 23; 11:6-14; etc.), the monarchy is taken away because of his lack of obedience (see 1Sam 13 and 15). King Saul isn’t even afforded a proper regnal formula in 1Sam 13:1! (While some consider this a mere textual issue to be corrected through text criticism, I wonder if it is purposeful considering the abortive nature of Saul’s reign).

When we turn to the book of Chronicles, Saul’s fate is even worse! All that is left of Saul’s reign is a couple geneological notes (1Chron 8:33; 9:39) and a short chapter detailing his death on Mount Gilboa (1Chron 10:1-14).  Furthermore, while Saul enjoyed some victories and blessing by Yahweh in 1Samuel, in Chronicles his entire reign is written off and his death is understood as the direct intervention of Yahweh (1Chron 10:13-14).

Transition to David: The Death of Saul and His House (1 Chron 10:1-14)

The genealogy of Jerusalem’s inhabitants in chapter nine of 1Chronicles ends with the list of Saul’s descendants. Chapter ten only provides a very brief summary of the demise of Saul and his dynasty, though it seems to presuppose knowledge of other events in the life of Saul. Most significantly, the Chronicler provides his own theological assessment of Saul’s reign in the two verses at the end of the chapter.

Since this chapter is only fourteen verses long, let’s display the text as a whole (with the parallel text from 1Samuel; I have marked significant differences in the Hebrew texts in italics):

1 Chronicles 10:1-14 1 Samuel 31:1-13
(1) Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. (1) Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa
(2) The Philistines pursued closely (דבק) after Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. (2) The Philistines overtook (דבק) Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul.
(3) The battle pressed hard upon Saul; and the archers found him, and he was wounded by the archers. (3) The battle pressed hard on Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers.
(4) Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer was unwilling, for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. (4) Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.
(5) When his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon the sword and died. (5) When his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him.
(6) So Saul died; he and his three sons, and all his house, together they died. (6) So Saul died; he and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, also all his men on that day together.
(7) When all the men of Israel who were in the valley saw that they had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned the towns and fled; and the Philistines came and occupied them. (7) When the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their towns and fled; and the Philistines came and occupied them.
(8) The next day when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. (8) The next day when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.
(9) They stripped him and took his head and his armor, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to their idols and to the people. (9) They cut off his head, stripped off his armor, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the houses of their idols and to the people.
(10) They put his armor in the temple of their gods, and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon. (10) They put his armor in the temple of Astarte; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.
(11) But when all Jabesh-gilead heard all what the Philistines had done to Saul, (11) But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul,
(12) all the valiant warriors got up and took up the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh. Then they buried their bones under the oak in Jabesh, and fasted seven days. (12) all the valiant men got up and traveled all night long, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan. They came to Jabesh and burned them there. (13) Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
(13) So Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to Yahweh in that he did not keep the word of Yahweh; moreover, he had consulted a medium, seeking guidance, -
(14) and did not seek guidance from Yahweh. Therefore Yahweh put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse. -

Notes on the Text(s)

As can be seen from the table above, the material of this chapter is derived from 1 Samuel 31, though a number of scholars have argued that it is based on a shorter text than MT Samuel (see especially, Craig Y.S. Ho, “Conjectures and Refutations: Is 1 Samuel xxxi 1-13 Really the Source of 1 Chronicles x 1-12?” VT 45 [1995], 85-106).  While it is clear that the Chronicler’s text of Samuel and Kings is not identical with the MT, without textual evidence it is very difficult to determine where the Chronicler’s Vorlage may have been different. Each case needs to be evaluated on its own merit, and clear indications of the theological tendenz of the Chronicler may help us in this process.

The Chronicler’s account of Saul’s reign is divided into three main sections:

  1. The death of Saul and His House (vv. 1-10). This is largely based on 1Sam 31.
  2. The good works of the people of Jabesh Gilead (vv. 11-12). Again, largely based on 1Sam 31.
  3. Theological commentary on Saul’s reign and death (vv. 13-14). This is unique to the Chronicler; although it assumes knowledge of Saul’s inquiry of a medium in 1Sam 28.

1. The Death of Saul and his House (vv. 1-10)
1 There is no historical context provided for the battle with the Philistines (their only previous mention is found in 1Chr 1:12). The change from a participle (“were fighting” (1Sam 31:1) to a suffix verb form (“fought”) serves to disconnect the narrative from its larger context in 1Samuel. Indeed, in the context of the Chronicler, the “Philistines” may be best understood as representing the “heathen” in general.

2 Saul’s sons are previously mentioned in 1Chr 8:33 and 9:39, where his fourth son, Esh-Baal, is also noted. The abortive two-year reign of Esh-Baal, and his subsequent death, is not mentioned by the Chronicler (see 2 Sam 2:8-4:12).

4 It is interesting to note that Saul’s suicide probably did not have any negative moral connotations in the ancient Near East (see Knoppers), but would have been seen as honourable.

6 The Chroniclers appears to have modified the description of the death of Saul to include “all his house.” How to understand this reference is unclear. Ho argues that the shorter text in 1Chron 10:6 (and the reference to “all his house”) may in fact be a better reading, since 1Sam 14:49-51 presents Saul as only having three sons, and thus his “house” did die that fateful day on Mount Gilboa (Ho 86-87). While Ho may have a point, I tend to side with those scholars who understand the changes in the Chronicler’s text as a theological judgement about the end of Saul’s dynasty, despite the tension it creates with the Saulide genealogies in 1Chron 8:33-40 and 9:39-44.  Either way, it is crystal clear that Saul’s royal dynasty ended on Mount Gilboa for the Chronicler, and there is no further mention of Saul’s descendants in Chronicles (e.g., no mention of David’s dealing with Mephibosheth in 2Sam 9:1-13 or the death of Saul’s descendants in 2Sam 21:1-14).  The verse itself reflects a chiastic structure: Died (a) – Saul (b) – three sons and his whole house (b) – died (a)

9-10 The Chronicler’s lack of interest in Saul’s corpse is interesting (see Ho for a textual solution for the differences between the texts). Saul’s head and armour are sent throughout Philistine territory and end up displayed in their temples. Perhaps there is a parallel with David’s beheading of Goliath (1Sam 17:51) and his depositing of his head in Jerusalem (1Sam 17:54), which could either display the complete defeat of Israel (Williamson), or could be taken as a further polemic against Saul in that he himself is treated in the same manner as David treated the Philistine Goliath. (Ackroyd also suggests that the differences between the accounts should not be pressed as they may only indicate differing traditions surrounding the death of Saul.)

2. The Good Works of the People of Jabesh Gilead (vv. 11-12)
11-12 The kinds acts of the people of Jabesh-Gilead are repeated with minor alteration in Chronicles. The backstory to this verse is found in 1Sam 11, where Saul delivers the people of Jabesh-Gilead from Nahash the Ammonite (In addition, Saul’s descendants include those from Jabesh-Gilead, according to Judges 21).

3. Theological Commentary on Saul’s Reign and Death (vv. 13-14)

The Chronicler provides his own assessment of Saul’s reign and death in which he levels four charges against Saul: he was “unfaithful” (ma’al), he failed to keep “the word of Yahweh,” he sought a medium, and failed to seek Yahweh. Stylistically, the verses are organized in a nice chiasm:

A. Saul died (MT) because of his ma’al
B. He was ma’al and did not keep the word of Yahweh
B.’ He sought (drsh) a Medium (1 Sam 28) but did not seek (drsh) Yahweh
A.’ Saul was killed (MT) by Yahweh

He died because of his unfaithfulness (ma’al), which is one of the Chronicler’s favourite terms (see 2:7, etc.). Not keeping “the word of Yahweh” is likely a specific allusion to 1 Sam 13 and 16.  The Chronicler makes it clear that Saul died because of his unfaithfulness and that Yahweh turned His kingdom over to David.

The Purpose of the Chronicler’s Accout of Saul

As a whole, this chapter in Chronicles functions as a transition from the global focus of the genealogical section of Chronicles to the narrative account of the history the monarchy of Israel. The transition is made by a brief account of Saul’s reign; an account that focuses solely on his death and the end of his dynasty. This account in Chronicles is remarkable for its brevity; there is no mention of the events of Saul’s reign or the stories of his remaining heirs – only his death is important for the Chronicler, since it provides the bridge to the reign of the house of David. In this way, the account of the death of Israel’s first king, serves to place David in Israel’s history. “David is not a beginning ex nihilo but rather represents the continuation of a preexisting monarchy” (Trotter 300).

Furthermore, as Zalewski demonstrates, the account exonerates David from any complicity in Saul’s death and clearly establishes Yahweh as the one who removes Saul from the throne and gives it to David (1 Chron 10:14). Moreover, it is not only Saul’s reign that is cut short by Yahweh; Saul and “his entire house” (1Chron 10:6) died that fateful day on Mount Gilboa (see discussion below). David did not usurp Saul’s throne or end his dynasty; God himself orchestrated David’s rise to power. Significantly, this is the only place in the Chronicler’s history that Yahweh directly intervenes and deposes on monarch and replaces him with another (De Vries 119).

Rather than serving merely as a transition or foil to the reign of David, a number of scholars also see the reign of Saul as paradigmatic of the exilic situation (Ackroyd 3-9; Williamson 92-93; relying on Mosis).  Mosis, for instance, sees “Saul as the embodiment of many of the key flaws that brought disaster on Israel, and indeed he embodies the disaster himself” (Trotter 302). This understanding is reinforced by the typically Chronistic ways Saul’s death is described: he died for his unfaithfulness (מעל; ma’al) and did not seek (דרש; darash) Yahweh. This understanding of Saul’s reign as typifying judgment and exile is then complemented, in Mosis’s scheme, by David’s reign as a preparation for Solomon’s idealized reign standing for Israel’s eschatological future. While Saul’s reign may or may not be a prototype of the exile (I am not convinced by Mosis), he does serve as a warning to the unfaithful who do not seek Yahweh.

Select Bibliography

Simon John De Vries, 1 and 2 Chronicles (FOTL 11; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989); Raymond B. Dillard, 2 Chronicles (WBC 15; Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987); Gary Knoppers, I Chronicles 10-29 (AB; Doubleday, 2004);  Craig Y. S. Ho, “Conjectures and Refutations: Is 1 Samuel Xxxi 1-13 Really the Source of 1 Chronicles X 1-12?” VT 45 (1995): 82-106; Sara Japhet, I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (OTL; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993); Ralph W. Klein, 1 Chronicles (Hermeneia; Fortress, 2006);  Martin J. Selman, 2 Chronicles: A Commentary (TOTC; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994); James M. Trotter, “Reading, Readers and Reading Readers Reading the Account of Saul’s Death in 1 Chronicles 10,” in Chronicler as Author (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 294-310; H. G. M. Williamson, 1 and 2 Chronicles (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982); Saul Zalewski, “The Purpose of the Story of the Death of Saul in 1 Chronicles 10,” VT 39 (1989): 449-67.

Posted in 1Chronicles, Chronicles, Series, The Kings of Chronicles | 1 Comment »

Yahweh – a Moral Monster?

26th February 2011

[One day I will like to explore this issue more. Last year I taught a course on the Bible and violence and I know I raised more questions for the students than provided solutions! Originally posted 07/2008]

One of the biggest moral and theological challenges modern readers face when reading the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is the brutal violence found within its pages. And if the graphic descriptions of violence perpetrated by humans upon other humans was not enough (see Judges 19-21 for one startling example), you have the thornier issue of violence attributed  to and commanded by God. Perhaps the biggest and most troublesome example in this regard is the Canaanite genocide – Yahweh commanding Israel to “utterly destroy” all of the inhabitants – men, women, and children – of the promised land.

Prior to the conquest, Yahweh set out his expectations to Moses and the children of Israel as follows:

In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess (Num 33:50-53).

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you — the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you — and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy (Deut 7:1-2).

But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God (Deut 20:16-18).

Then, when the Israelites encountered the Canaanite king of Arad on the way to the promised land, they prayed to Yahweh and he “listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah” (Num 21:1-3). The Israelites later killed off a few other towns on their journey, Moses later reporting, “we utterly destroyed them… in each city utterly destroying men, women, and children (Deut 3:6).

Perhaps the most (in)famous example is the destruction of Jericho, where

they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys (Josh 6:21).

How do we respond to such texts?

Now, I recognize there are significant historical issues with these texts. Most (many?) critical scholars maintain that there was not really much of a conquest of Canaan, if at all. John Van Seters, for example, comments “the invasion of the land of Canaan by Israel under Joshua was an invention of [the Deuteronomistic Historian]. The conquest narrative is a good example of ancient historiography but it cannot pass for historical by any modern criteria of historical evaluation.” Even the biblical text, when read carefully, admits that the conquest was not quite as successful as the early chapters of Joshua suggest (see Josh 13:1‑7; 18:3; cf. Exod 23:29-30; Judg 1). That being said, even if there is little histiorical value in these texts (note I am not necessarily saying this), the biblical text still presents Yahweh as commanding the Canaanite genocide, and this picture fits into the larger ideological portrayal of Yahweh as warrior found throughout the Hebrew Bible.

So the question remains, How do we respond to such texts? How do we respond to such texts in a post-holocaust world? How do we respond in a world where terms such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are heard all too often in the news?

The so-called “new atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, among others) have responded to these and other biblical texts by rejecting Yahweh as a petty, jealous, violent deity.  Dawkins comments:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 51; thanks to Randal Rauser for this citation).

He further contends:

What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh-and even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us (The God Delusion, 248; cited in Copan).

While rejecting Yahweh may be a solution for some, I would argue that it really isn’t an option for Christians who want to adhere to the biblical canon. But what do we do with these texts? Paul Copan, professor of theology and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has recently published an article in Philosophia Christi that addresses this thorny problem. In his article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (available from the Evangelical Philosophical Society website here), Copan attempts to counter the claims of the new atheists, among others. Copan rehearses most of the typical responses Christians have given in the past, though I am not sure how satisfied I am by his answers.

Time permitting, I am planning on following up this post with at least one more where I will engage Copan’s article and provide some ways to understand this portrayal of Yahweh. That being said, I can’t say I am fully satisfied with my own answers (perhaps this is one of those issues where we should never be satisfied with any answers!).

What are your thoughts?

Posted in Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Old Testament, Theodicy, Theology, Yahweh War | 14 Comments »

What Was Wrong with Cain’s Offering? A Possible Hint from Hebrew Grammar

24th February 2011

[I post a lot about Old Testament/Hebrew Bible on this blog. This post explores one of the perennial problem passages in the early chapters of Genesis.  Originally posted 03/2009]

One of the many crux interpretums in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis surrounds Yahweh’s negative response to Cain’s offering. Why did Yahweh accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s? Some traditional — yet ultimately unsatisfying — answers include that God prefers animal sacrifices over grain offerings or that God prefers shepherds to farmers. Others have chalked it up to the mystery of Divine election. The New Testament author of Hebrews interprets Yahweh’s disapproval as a matter of faith: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s” (Heb 11:4).

The passage in Hebrew MT  is as follows:

‏ וַיְהִי־הֶבֶל רֹעֵה צֹאן וְקַיִן הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה‎
‏וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה מִנְחָה לַיהוָה‎
‏וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם־הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן
וַיִּשַׁע יְהוָה אֶל־הֶבֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוו‎
‏וְאֶל־קַיִן וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוֹ לֹא שָׁעָה‎

While the biblical text does not indicate explicitly why Yahweh approved of Abel’s offering and disapproved of Cain’s, I wonder if it gives us a hint based upon an under appreciated nuance of Hebrew grammar: the anterior construction. I made reference to Ziony Zevit’s volume, The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew (Scholar’s Press, 1998; buy from |, in a comment on a previous post. Zevit argues that when biblical authors wanted to indicate unambiguously that a given action in the past had commenced and concluded before another action in the past (a pluperfect) or had started but not necessarily finished in the past prior to the beginning of another action (preperfect), they would use the following construction:  vav + subject followed by a qatal verb (all preceded a past tense verb).  Taking this construction into consideration, here is my translation of the Cain and Abel passage:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
but Cain had been a worker of the ground.
And after many days, Cain brought to Yahweh a gift from the fruit of the ground,
But Abel, he had already brought from the first born of his flock, their fat portions.
Now Yahweh looked with favour to Abel and to his gift,
but to Cain, and to his gift, he did not look with favour.

The use of the anterior construction (indicated by italics) emphasizes that while Cain had started being a worker of the ground before Abel took up his farming (which would have been expected as the older brother), Abel was the first to bring a gift to Yahweh from the fruit of his labours. Moreover,  the parallel construction of these verses (as a chiasm, in fact) sets up a clear contrast between the gifts: Cain only brought from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought the fat portions from the first born of his flock. While we shouldn’t read later sacrificial law back into this account, the fact that Abel’s gift receives additional  descriptors suggests that he offered the first and the best.

So while the biblical text doesn’t spell out exactly why Yahweh favoured Abel’s gift, it seems clear from the grammar and syntax of the passage that not only did Abel beat his brother by bringing a gift to Yahweh before him (even though Cain started his career first), he also offered the first and the best of his flock to Yahweh. Perhaps that is why Yahweh looked with favour on Abel’s offering. This understanding comports well with interpretations that suggest the individual’s attitude (or faith) was the reason for Yahweh’s response. In fact, it provides some evidence within the text itself for the difference in attitudes between the brothers.

At any rate, I don’t have time to explore the pros and cons of the anterior construction (it makes some assumptions of the nature of the Hebrew verbal system), but thought I would highlight this one potential way it can shed some light on a difficult passage.

Posted in Bible, Biblical Teaching, Genesis, Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, Old Testament | 5 Comments »

The Problematic Portrayal of God in the Prologue to Job

18th February 2011

One of the reasons I am reluctant to translate or even understand (as a later theological move) “the Adversary” (‏השׂטן) in the prologue to the Book of Job as “Satan,” rather than as a prosecuting attorney figure (if you do not know what I am talking about, read my previous post “Satan in the book of Job? Nope!“), is that it would give the prologue a degree of reality that it should not have.

Think about it. If the prologue describes something that “actually happened”, i.e., that there actually was a deal struck between God and Satan to test Job’s faith and that resulted in the death of his children,  servants, and livestock, what would that say about God? While God may care enough about Job to “put a hedge” around his life, that same God shows callous disregard for the other lives affected by his wager with Satan. It doesn’t matter that Job had more kids after his trials or that he eventually regained his wealth and good name — God still allowed a significant amount of collateral damage in order to win a bet.  In regards to Job’s so-called restoration at the end of the book,  Allan Cooper notes,

it takes a callous commentator indeed to speak of Job’s latter-day prosperity as “reward” or “recovery”. Many victims of disaster have built new lives and prospered, but neither they nor Job can be said to have been “rewarded”, or to have “recovered” what they lost. As Elie Wiesel observes, “tragedies do not cancel each other out as they succeed one another”. What Job should have said at the end of the book, according to Wiesel, was ‘What about my dead children?” (“Reading and Misreading the Prologue to Job” JSOT 46 [1990] 71).

Norman Habel has also noted problems with the portrayal of God in the prologue to the book of Job:

The way in which God agrees to test Job’s integrity, however, raises serious doubts about God’s own integrity. He is apparently vulnerable to incitement by the Satan in his heavenly council. He succumbs to a wager — twice (1:6-12; 2:1-6). He afflicts Job without cause or provocation by Job, and his capacity to rule justly is thrown into question. (Habel, Job, 61)

And Habel doesn’t even note God’s callous disregard for Job’s children and servants in this context. Is this the God that you love and worship?

Now, if the book of Job is a fictional dialogue in the form of a frame narrative (and not a historical narrative), then while the Adversary in the prologue is part of the narrative world created by the author, he is not real, so to speak. I would argue that the book of Job is more akin to one of Jesus’ parables than a historical account of God’s dealings with an individual named Job.  And if the book of Job is like a literary parable, we shouldn’t push all of its details of how it portrays God and the heavenly realms too far.  Nor should we push its description of Job too far (see my post “Job as the “Poster Boy” for Retribution Theology“).

The book of Job is a wisdom text, a literary construct, written around a legendary character named Job in order to dismantle various ideas of retribution theology and how God interacts with this world. And in this literary construct the figure of the Adversary functions as a prosecuting attorney, and that’s all. We shouldn’t build our theology of the Devil from this text.  And translations that render the Hebrew as “Satan” are interpreting the text in a direction that is perhaps fraught with theological problems.

Or perhaps I am wrong. Either way, these are some of my thoughts on a Friday afternoon.

Posted in Biblical Teaching, The Book of Job | 6 Comments »

Satan in the book of Job? Nope!

16th February 2011

One of my pet peeves is when Bible translations seem to base their translations on tradition or theology rather than the biblical text. One glaring example of this is found in the prologue to the book of Job where virtually all English translations render “the satan” (‏השׂטן) as capital-s “Satan” (Job 1:6, 7 [2x], 8, 9, 12; 2:1, 2 [2x], 3, 4, 6, 7).  Despite some major problems with this translation, you will find it in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, NJB, among others.
No Satan

In the Hebrew text the term “satan” (‏שׂטן) has a definite article attached to it (i.e., it is “the satan”), and thus is not a personal name.  The actual word means “adversary” and is used to refer to human adversaries as well as celestial ones. For example, in 1Kings 11:14 it is used to refer to a human opponent: “Then Yahweh raised up a satan against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (see also 1Sam 29:4, 2Sam 19:22; 1Kgs 5:4, 11:23, 25; Ps 109:6). Now, in the book of Job, “the satan” is clearly a celestial adversary. He is, after all, portrayed as one of the “sons of elohim” (‏בני האלהים) in Yahweh’s heavenly court (Job 1:6; the notion of a divine assembly is found throughout the HB: 1Kgs 22:19-22; Psa 82; Isa 6:1-8; 14:13; Gen 1:26).  This does not, however, mean that this figure is the chief demon, aka the Devil, found in later Jewish and Christian theological traditions. You would search in vain in the Hebrew Bible to find a fully developed angelology or demonology.

In the book of Job, this figure fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. As such, a fitting translation would be “the Adversary” or the like. This, by the way, is what the NJPS translation has, and as such wins my coveted “Translation with Integrity Award”! (As an aside, the NJPS is a truly beautiful Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible that has the novelist Chaim Potok as its literary editor.)

The problem with rendering the Hebrew text with “Satan” is that the typical reader will read into the text all the theological and cultural meaning that it has come to signify in later times. But that is not what it means in the book of Job.   Even more problematic is that such a translation will likely obfuscate the legal metaphor that holds the book together (in this regard see Habel’s superb commentary; Buy from Amazon.caBuy from

So that is my pet peeve for today (or at least one of my many!).

Also of interest may be my previous post along the same lines: The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job

Posted in Hermeneutics, Job, The Book of Job | 11 Comments »

The Most Excellent of Songs (The Challenge of Translating Metaphors)

14th February 2011

Ah, Valentine’s Day has arrived and love is in the air. And when I think of love I think of the sexiest book in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs (perhaps better referred to as the Most Excellent of Songs, understanding ‏שׁיר השׁירים as a superlative construction).

Despite the long and proud history of allegorical interpretations of the Song as depicting the love between Yahweh and Israel or Christ and the church, virtually all modern commentators maintain that the Song of Songs is a book of poetry celebrating human erotic love (a variety of sub-genres have also been suggested, such as a marriage song, drama, or even a sacred marriage text). This interpretation is supported by discoveries of similar love poetry in the ancient Near East, particularly Egypt.

There are many challenges in translating the Song of Songs. There is an extraordinarily large number of hapax legomena (words that only occur once) in the Song as well as many other rare words and forms. But perhaps the most difficult challenge when translating the book is how to render the innumerable metaphors and smilies found within its verses (for a visual example of how not to understand the metaphorical language, see my post “Love Poetry for Biblical Literalists.”)

As I discussed in a previous post (“Dogs, Urine, and Bible Translations: On the Importance of Translating Connotative Meaning“), modern translations tend to be either “formal” (word for word) or “dynamic” (sense for sense). It is actually more accurate to say that modern translations will all fall somewhere on the continuum between the two translation options. The tension between the two translation methods can be especially noticed in the way translations render metaphors and smilies, since more dynamic translations will unpack the metaphors far more than formal translations.

Compare, for instance, the following two translations of Song of Songs 4:1-14, one from the New Revised Standard Translation (a formal translation) and the other from the New Living Translation (a more dynamic translation).

1How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
2Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
3Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like
halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
4Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
5Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.
6Until the day breathes and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
7You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.
1How beautiful you are, my beloved,
how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are like doves.
Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats
frisking down the slopes of Gilead.
2Your teeth are as white as sheep,
newly shorn and washed.
They are perfectly matched;
not one is missing.
3Your lips are like a ribbon of scarlet.
Oh, how beautiful your mouth!
Your cheeks behind your veil are like
pomegranate halves
– lovely and delicious.
4Your neck is as stately as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields
of a thousand heroes.
5Your breasts are like twin fawns of a gazelle,
feeding among the lilies.
6Before the dawn comes and the shadows flee away,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense.
7You are so beautiful, my beloved,
so perfect in every part.

Notice how the NLT tries to make the meaning of the metaphors more understandable. Thus, instead of her hair being simply compared to a flock of goats, the point of the comparison is elaborated: her hair “falls in waves, like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead” (4:1). Similarly, the point of the comparison between her teeth and the flock of newly washed ewes is made explicit: her teeth “are as white as sheep, newly shorn and washed” (4:2). The same stands true for the comparison between her neck and the tower of David: “Your neck is as stately as the tower of David” (4:4).

The problem with a more dynamic translation is that many more interpretive questions have to be answered before translating. Consequently, dynamic translations are by their very nature much more interpretive than formal ones. Some of the comparisons are straightforward enough, such as her lips being like a “scarlet thread” or the ordered whiteness of her teeth being compared to the rows of newly washed and shorn sheep. It is more of a problem, however, when the nature of the comparison — whether metaphor or simile — is not entirely clear. Take, for example, the comparison between the lover’s hair and the flock of goats. The NLT understands the comparison as primarily concerned with its flowing movement. But what if the metaphor is complex? Perhaps the comparison has in view both her hair’s flowing movement as well as its black colour? The NLT recognizes this at times and renders a two dimensional comparison accurately, such as the comparison between the woman’s cheeks (or temples?) and pomegranate slices: “Your cheeks behind your veil are like pomegranate halves — lovely and delicious” (4:3).

The NLT, however, is not consistent in following through on its translation method. Sometimes metaphors are left “untranslated.” While this may be due to the fact the point of the comparison is unclear and they feel more comfortable leaving it vague, or perhaps it could be because the translators want to leave some more explicit comparisons vague. For example, the comparison between the woman’s breasts and the fawns is left vague. Commentators disagree on what the precise nature of the comparison is. Some argue the comparison is between the softness, beauty, and grace of the dorcus gazelle which invites petting and affectionate touching. Others point out that gazelles were a delicacy served at Solomon’s table (1 Kings 4:23) and were delicious to eat. Othmar Keel, on the other hand, understands the comparison as a complex metaphor that relates to the beauty and grace of the gazelle as well as evoking iconographic images of gazelles and lotus plants, suggesting renewal and vitality — and especially emphasizing her breasts as “dispensers of life and joy” (The Song of Songs [CC; Fortress, 1994] 150-151).

Finally, translators also have to deal with euphemistic language in the Song. Most translations — whether formal or more dynamic — tend to leave the euphemistic language of the Song intact. For example, the references to her “garden” and “channels” in 4:12 and 13 are taken by many as referring to her vulva and vagina, as is her “navel” in 7:2. You don’t find that in many translations!

The question I have is whether it is better to offer a more interpretive dynamic translation when the meaning may be clear, or is it better to produce a more formal rendering and leave the questionable passage more vague? It would seem that more dynamic translations are not quite as consistent with their translation method as formal translations — and that is a good thing.

At any rate, have a great Valentine’s Day! Read through the Song of Songs with someone you love today — unless of course you are under 30 years of age!

(As an aside, I have often been puzzled by more conservative scholars who argue for Solomonic authorship of the Song and maintain that it is a celebration of human erotic love within the context of a monogamous marriage relationship. Was not Solomon known for his many wives and concubines (1Kings 11)? I don’t see how he could be held up as a modern paragon of monogamous love and faithfulness)

[Republished from 2006]

Posted in Song of Songs, Translation Theory, Valentine's Day | 3 Comments »

The Androgynous Adam: Sex and Sexuality in the Garden

13th February 2011

Claude Mariottini, over at his eponymous blog, drew our attention to a couple recent books on the Bible and Sex, Michael Coogan’s God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says (New York: The Hachette Book Group, 2010; buy from | and Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011; buy from | I have not had a chance to examine either book, so I’m not going to say anything about them. I did, however, want to comment on Mariottini’s quick dismissal of Knust’s notion that the first human was androgynous and only later sexually differentiated. He notes:

Her premise is that the story of creation of the first human person in Genesis 1 was a case of androgyny, that is, that the first person was both male and female and had the genitals of both sexes. Then, in the creation story of Genesis 2, the sexes were separated and this separation created sexual desire in human beings. This desire drives man and woman to have sex so that they can become one again.

This view that God’s original plan for his creation was that a human person would have two sexes in one body is the creation of a fertile mind that finds no support in the Bible. Knust bases her view on ancient Jewish interpreters who were trying to explain why there are two creation stories in Genesis.

Knust’s interpretation is so radical that she reinterprets what the Bible says in order to present a modern view of sex and sexuality that is a complete departure from what the Bible has to say and teach.

The notion that the original human was androgynous (or something similar) isn’t a new idea, nor perhaps is it so radical. Rashi, a 10th century Jewish interpreter, suggested the first human was male on one side and female on the other and that God had simply divided the creature in half (compare the similar idea of Aristophanes, brought to Mariottini’s attention by David Reimer). Perhaps the most well know biblical scholar to champion a similar notion recently is Phyllis Trible, who presented this idea in her masterful, God and Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1986; buy from | Using rhetorical analysis and a close reading of the text, Trible argues that God created the first human without gender, “the adam” [human] was formed from “the adamah” [humus]. Rather than a man, “the adam” was an “earth creature”  (as an aside, there is a great play on words in the biblical text: “Yahweh Elohim formed the earthling from the earth” or “the human from the humus”).  Not until the woman is built from the side of the earth creature does the original human being acquire gender. Now Trible’s interpretation has some basis in the biblical text. Despite most modern translations, the use of “adam” in Genesis 2 is not a personal name. The biblical text does not have “Adam”, but rather “the adam” (‏האדם), i.e., the human, or the like. And it is only in Gen 2:23 (after the building of the woman) that text text refers to humanity as “male” and “female” (‏אישׁ and ‏אשׁה).

Now, that being said, I don’t agree with Trible’s interpretation. It’s just that I don’t feel like I can dismiss it out of hand. The biggest problem with her interpretation is that throughout the entire narrative, “the human” is referred to as “the-adam” (‏האדם), Even after the creation of the woman in 2:23, the creature is still referred to as “the-adam.” It is only later that the human male is unambiguously referred to as “Adam” (i.e., as a proper name; without the definite article). So I guess I don’t really disagree with Mariottini’s ultimate conclusion, though I’m not sure I would be too dogmatic. When it comes right down to it, I’m not sure we should press the biblical text too much in this regard. The point of the narrative is not to comment on the original sexuality of the human, but rather to celebrate the creation of the woman as a suitable counterpart for the man.Richardson, Flame of Yahweh

While we are talking about the Bible and sex, I should note another fairly recent publication on sex and the Bible:  Richard M. Davidson‘s Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Hendrickson, 2007; Buy from |  This almost 850 page volume is the most extensive discussions of sexuality in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible available. Compared to  Coogan and Knust, this work is quite conservative, though it will probably remain unchallenged for a while in terms of comprehensiveness.  (In case you are wondering, the title of the volume is derived from Davidson’s somewhat unique understanding of Song of Songs 8:6).

You should check it out.

Posted in Bible, Creation, Genesis, History of Interpretation | Comments Off

Job as the “Poster Boy” for Retribution Theology

13th February 2011

“Once upon a time there was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” is the way I would translate the opening of the biblical book of Job. “There was a man…” (‏אישׁ היה) is a parabolic beginning to the story about someone called “Job” (iyyov; ‏איוב‎). The name is of unclear etymology (although definitely not an Israelite name) and the place is similarly obscure (could be an area south of Israel around Edom [Jer 25:20; Lam 4:21] or perhaps associated with the Arameans [Gen 10:23; 22:21]).

The opening description serves to conjure up notions of antiquity and mystery about this ancient sage. Interestingly, Ezekiel 14:14, 20; 28:3 mention Job alongside two other ancient heroes: Danel (‏דנאל‎) and Noah. These references are to ancient non-Israelite heroes whose righteousness was legendary (note that the reference to “Daniel” is not to the biblical Daniel (‏דניאל‎); he would have been a child at the time of Ezekiel. Rather, the reference is to Danel, a legendary hero who we learn about from Ugaritic myths. E.g., the Aqhat Legend [CTA 17, COS 1.103] talks of a hero called Dani’ilu/Danel [dnil] who is childless, and because of his own righteousness is given a son, Aqhat, by the gods).

No matter how one takes the opening of the book, what is highlighted from the very beginning is Job’s integrity. He is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1b). This hyperbolic fourfold description underscores Job’s superlative righteousness:

  • “blameless” (‏תם‎). Used particularly in wisdom lit. as integrity or perfection
  • “upright” (‏ישר‎). Lit. “straight”, often modifies “way”; used fig. for correct human conduct
  • “fears Elohim” and
  • “turns from evil” (see Prov 3:7, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear Yahweh, and turn away from evil”)

This fourfold description is suggestive as four is frequently used in the Bible to indicate completeness (cf. the fourfold destruction of all that Job has later in the chapter).  Job’s superlative righteousness is also indicated by the fact that God has clearly blessed him:

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east (Job 1:2-3).

The numbers symbolic significance, suggesting completeness and perfection:

  • Seven sons and three girls (= ten)
  • Seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels (= ten thousand)
  • Five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys (= one thousand)

The opening ends with the note that Job is “the greatest of all the people of the east.” And in biblical parlance, the east was know for its sages — and he’s the best there was!

Job Poster

The point of this introduction is to present the biblical character of Job from the very beginning as the ancient Near Eastern sage par excellence. He is the best there was and perhaps best there ever will be. He is even better than Noah who is only provided a threefold description by the biblical narrator (Gen 6:9). if anyone should be blessed and allowed to prosper, it is Job. And as such, Job is the perfect set-up for the story of Job. He is the ideal test case. He is, as I like to call him, the “Poster boy for Retribution Theology” (see my poster image above). If God blesses (in this lifetime) those who are faithful to him (as many ancient Israelites believed — and way too many people still continue to believe today), and if suffering is the result of God’s judgment on sin, then Job should be blessed. And when evil comes upon Job, it must have been because he did something wrong (as Job’s friends suggest). It is this notion of retribution theology that the book of Job dismantles.

Posted in Job, Wisdom | 6 Comments »