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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 Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), 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 »

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 Amazon.ca | Amazon.com) and Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). 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 Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). 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 Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).  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

Adam’s Premature Ejection

11th February 2011

One of the challenges we face with interpreting some biblical stories is the problem of familiarity. We don’t really read the text carefully because we already know what it means. This is the case for many of us when we come to the stories of the man and the woman in Genesis 2-3.  It’s interesting to try to read it again for the first time.

The account of the forming of the man and the building of the woman and their subsequent eating of the fruit and expulsion from the garden in Genesis 2-3 brings many additional challenges to the interpreter. One such crux interpretum in the significance of the tree of “the knowledge of good and evil” עץ הדעת טוב ורע (Gen 2:9). This particular tree is only found here in the entire Bible. While it is difficult to understand, it is clearly a key phrase in the narrative, occurring four times (Gen 2:9, 17; 3:5, 22).

Most take “good and evil” as a merism, a figure of speech where the whole is expressed by contrasting parts. Thus, “good and evil” means a whole range of knowledge, not two isolated things. Some, such as Karl Barth, take the phrase to refer to omniscience:

To know good and evil, to be able to distinguish and therefore judge between what ought to be and ought not to be, between Yea and No, between salvation and perdition, between life and death, is to be like God, to be oneself the Creator and Lord of the creature. (Barth CD III/1 258)

It is much more likely that it doesn’t refer to all knowledge in general, i.e., omniscience (especially considering that after eating of the tree, the first couple doesn’t appear to be omniscient!), but knowledge related to “good and evil.”

Significantly, the expression “good and evil” (טוב ורע) is used elsewhere in the Bible of the human ability to be discriminating, something that is lacking in children (Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15-16), the elderly (2Sam 19:35), and the inexperienced (1Kings 3:9). This discerning and discriminating wisdom is a faculty normally experienced in the “prime of life”; it is a mark of maturity in a person.

The fact that the knowledge of good and evil is actually something good to have when one is an adult, may suggest that the man and the woman are presented in the garden as innocent preadolescent children. Think about it: they are naked and not ashamed (2:25), which is a child-like trait (this is not a recent idea, some early church fathers also suggested this). So the prohibition related to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:15-16) may be more an issue of timing and obedience, rather than there being something inherently wrong with eating of it. “When the time was right, the first couple would be able to eat from it” (Walton, 205). In eating the fruit they prematurely mature, they gain autonomy and sexual awareness. “God has prohibited the tree because autonomy and sexuality should come only at the end of an appropriate process” (Walton, Genesis, 216).

The narrative also seems to suggest that the first couple’s stay in the garden was meant to be temporary. The state of the earth at the beginning of the account was desolate and “there was no human (אדם) to work/serve/cultivate (עבד) the ground (אדמה).” This may suggest that the goal of the human was outside of Eden.

The fact that God, rather than the human creature, planted the garden suggests that the garden was not intended to be the dwelling place of humans. After all, the garden of Eden is the garden of God. Humans were created to till the ground and in this manner bring life to the sterile desert. This is their destiny, and the earth outside the garden will be their dwelling. But just as children must remain in the house of their parents until they reach maturity so also the human creature is placed temporarily in the garden of God (Ronald Simkins, Creator & Creation, p. 180).

So perhaps we don’t know these opening chapters as Genesis as well as we think we might. The man and the woman getting kicked out of the garden was perhaps more an issue of “premature ejection” rather than than something entirely unforeseen.


Posted in Bible, Creation, Genesis | 2 Comments »

Disturbing Divine Behaviour

6th November 2009

As a follow up to my last post, I wanted to put a plug in for a recently published book that also explores the difficult issue of the violent portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament — a book which I am using as one of the texts for one of the courses I am teaching next semester:

Disturbing_Divine_BehaviorDisturbing Divine Behavior:
Troubling Old Testament Images of God

by Eric A. Seibert
Fortress Press, 2009
Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com

In this work Seibert examines the disturbing narrative portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible and explores some ways in which we may (as Christians) read these narratives in a responsible and faithful manner today. I am not necessarily convinced by Seibert’s solution to the problem, but he does a great job focusing the issue and helping us understand the function of biblical narrative and its relation to history. I only wish that he would have expanded his coverage to at least include the negative images of God found in the prophetic literature. Moreover, I really wish he expanded his work to cover the entire Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments), so the issue isn’t even framed as an “Angry God of the Old Testament versus the Loving God of the New Testament” debate.

Another book that deals with the same problem by focusing on the book of Joshua and the conquest/Canaanite genocide is Walter Brueggemann‘s recently published, Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua (Cascade, 2009; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Joshua, Old Testament, Theodicy | 7 Comments »

My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Violent Portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible

6th November 2009

There was a fascinating conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion at the beginning of September. The title of the conference was, “My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible.”

The conference examined the troubling portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible — something which I am very interested in since that will be the focus of one of my courses I am teaching next semester. Here is the write up for the conference:

Adherents of the Abrahamic religious traditions contend that human beings are made in the image of God and that modeling the character of God in one’s life represents the pinnacle of human flourishing and moral perfection. Defenders of this tradition commonly point to passages in the canonical texts of the Jewish and Christian faiths that portray God as loving, merciful, patient, etc. in support of such a position. Since the seventeenth century, however, numerous critics of these Abrahamic traditions have argued that God, especially in the Hebrew Bible, is often portrayed as anything but a moral role model. On the one hand, historical narratives in these texts describe God apparently committing, ordering, or commending genocide, slavery, and rape among other moral atrocities. On the other hand, a number of commands purportedly issued by God seem to commend bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia. In recent days, similar criticisms of the Abrahamic traditions have been raised by philosophers (Daniel Dennett), scientists (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris), social commentators (Christopher Hitchens), and others.

Are these apparent commendations and commands of the Hebrew Bible consistent with the claim that the Abrahamic God is perfectly good and loving? Those defending this tradition have two avenues of response open to them. The first response would be to argue that the aforementioned troubling narratives or commands should simply be rejected. Those taking this approach would have to explain how they think such passages could be rejected without placing in peril the Abrahamic religions, which have traditionally claimed that the Hebrew Bible is, represents, or contains the inspired word of God. The second response would offer explanations aiming to show that the apparently untoward consequences can be avoided without rejecting the narratives or commands. Those taking this approach must explain either why the untoward consequences do not follow, or why they are not, in the end untoward.

However, while defenders of this tradition have both routes available to them, few of these defenders seem to have taken the challenge to heart. Despite these recent, forthright criticisms, only a handful of theologians or philosophers in these traditions have sought to respond to the criticisms.

The present conference aims to remedy this deficiency, taking as its focus the charge that the Abrahamic tradition should be rejected because of its foundation in the Hebrew Bible, which portrays God as immoral and vicious. The presenters and commentators include philosophers—both theistic and nontheistic—as well as Biblical scholars.

The conference had an impressive list of speakers, including Christopher Seitz, Nicholas Wolterstorff, James L. Crenshaw, among others. And if you were not able to attend the conference (as I), we can still enjoy the papers and interaction via the web!

Here is the program with links to the videos:

Thursday, September 10, 2009:

Friday, September 11, 2009:

Saturday, September 12, 2009:

I encourage you to check out the papers!


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Conferences, Old Testament, Theodicy, Theology | 3 Comments »

Christian Carnival CCXCIV (#294 for those who don’t do Roman)

16th September 2009

CCWelcome to the 294th installment of the Christian Carnival, a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere.

Biblical Studies

First up are some posts relating to biblical studies. Jeremy over at Parableman has a post reconciling of two verses concerning those pesky Canaanites mentioned at the beginning of Judges 3.  While the verses at first blush appear to be contradictory, he resolves it in his post, “Apparent Contradiction in Judges 3.”

Over at ReturningKing.Com, Jeff posts the ninth installment of a series entitled, “A Pastoral Soteriology” with his post on “Atonement in the Old Testament Law” where he demonstrates how its view of penal substitution foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

While not expressly on the Bible per se, William Green also reflects on the atonement in his post, “Why God can’t just forgive sin.” You can find this and more at his Weblog of a Christian Philosophy Student.

Now back to the Old Testament.  e-Mom presents a Christian viewpoint on one of annual feasts prescribed by Jewish law in her post, The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), over at Chrysalis.

Moving into the New Testament, NCSue has written a reflection on Jesus bearing our burdens (Matthew 11:28-30) in her post, “Thoughts from the ‘in box’,” over at her blog, IN HIM WE LIVE AND MOVE AND HAVE OUR BEING.

Annette presents some reflections on Hebrews 11 in her post, “Faith is….” You can read this and more over at her blog, Fish and Cans.

Henry Neufeld takes on Paul Helm’s views on translation theory in his post, Dynamic and Cognitive Equivalence, over at Participatory Bible Study Blog (Methinks I agree with Neufeld on this one).

While not technically a post on a passage from the Bible, Ketan Rindani posts “10 Bible Facts You Must Know” over at JESUS IS LORD!. (Hmmm… I’m not sure that you “must” know that the Bible contains 31,071 verses — an interesting fact perhaps, but not essential)

Christian Life and Thought

Diane, over at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet, continues to report on articles and books that help us help the poor. Her latest installment is entitled, “More on How to REALLY Help the Poor,” which highlights a story about some women in the Philippines who meet for prayer and working out sound business plans. Her post made me think of the great website http://www.kiva.org, where you can make microloans to people in the two-thirds world.

Ridge Burns, over at at his Blog, asks readers how attached they are to God’s call on their lives in his post dealing with major life Transitions. As someone who just went through a major work transition, I appreciated his candor.

Over at Thoughts and Confessions of a Girl Who Loves Jesus…, michelle shares how God is restoring her life in an emotional post simply titled, “09.09.09.”

Shannon Christman, a.k.a. the Minority Thinker , reflects on the importance of intergenerational fellowship in the body of Christ in her brief post, “Generational Segregation.”

Barry Wallace challenges us to walk the fine line between sloth and proper rest and asks us if we know ourselves in this regard in his musing, “2 little sleep + 2 much caffeine = headed 4 disaster,” posted at his blog who am i?

Since we are on the topic of rest, it seems appropriate to mention Andrea‘s post, “Listening for the Voice of God” where she underscores the importance of quieting our hearts and attending to the voice of God. Her blog is Unfailingly Loved.

Rick Schiano has a reflection on how our lives can impact others based on his reading of 1 Thessalonians 1:2-9 in his post, “Our Lives Make a Difference,” over at Ricks Victory Blog.

Finally, Tom Gilson, the Thinking Christian, wants to get the word out about the National Conference on Christian Apologetics. So if you are going to be in Charlotte, NC, in mid-November you may want to check it out.

Next Up…

The 295th Christian Carnival will be going green as it will be hosted next Wednesday, September 23, 2009, over at The Evangelical Ecologist.  To submit a post for the next Christian Carnival, go to the Blog Carnival submission form, or send your submission to christiancarnivalsubmissions shift-2 gmail dotte com. For more instructions on submitting posts you can go here, and for  examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.



Posted in Bible, Biblical Teaching, Blogging, Christian Carnival, Theology | 6 Comments »

Friday Fun: The Tithe Rap

20th February 2009

I found this video lame and funny at the same time:

I actually will be preaching on stewardship in the next month; perhaps I should show this video. Of course, the problem I have with the video is that I don’t think that Christians are technically called to” tithe.” The NT never mentions the tithe as an expectation, but instead Jesus calls us to sacrificial giving (see Matthew 5:42; 6:2-3; etc.) and Paul instructs us that “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7; see also 1Cor 16:1-3; Eph 4:28).  This may be 1% for some people and 75% for others.  Perhaps 10% is a good place to start of an intermediate goal, but once you’ve given the 10% it isn’t that you are off the hook for the rest!

It is also crucial that you think about where you give. Obviously if you are part of a local church, you should be supporting its ministry with your gifts (both abilities and finances), but there are also many other great causes which need support. And watch out for charlatans!

(HT Cliff Kvidahl)


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Humour | Comments Off

What Does Harmonizing Genesis 1 and 2 Really Accomplish?

18th February 2009

I am teaching an undergraduate course on the book of Genesis this semester and have been reflecting on how to best read the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. Many of my students have been brought up to read them literalistically as depictions of what actually happened some 6,000 years ago. While I don’t want to get into the question of how these accounts are best understood today in this post, what I do want to question is the tendency to read these accounts in such a way that harmonizes (or at least tries to) the apparent differences between the two accounts, rather than respecting the integrity of each as different yet complementary accounts of creation.

There are many differences in vocabulary, style, and theology that distinguish the two accounts. What I want to focus on is more basic: the order of the creation of the animals in relation to the human(s), as well as the order of the creation (or “building”) of the woman in relation to the human.

In Genesis 1 the living creatures in the sea and the birds of the air are created on day five, while the “living creatures” (נפש חיה) of the land are created on the sixth day. Only after the creation of the myriad of animals is humanity created in Genesis 1:26-27. In the first creation account the creation of humanity is the pinnacle of all of the creative acts of God:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Gen 1:26-27).

While much ink has been spilled on the interpretation of these two verses, I only want to point out that according to verse 27, humanity was created “male and female” at this time. The clear and straightforward way of reading this is that Elohim created humans (plural) on day six, after the various types of animals. (This, by the way, accords well with many of the ancient Near Eastern accounts where the gods create a plurality of humans at a time, not just one or a pair; see my posts on ANE Creation accounts).

When we come to Genesis 2 we see a drastically different picture. In Genesis 2:7, “ha’adam” is formed from the dust of the earth by Yahweh Elohim first. Then Yahweh Elohim plants a garden and then puts the human in the garden. Then after a brief description of the garden (2:10-14), the action picks up again with Yahweh Elohim forming the land animals and birds (referred to as נפש חיה “living creatures” in 2:19) and brought them to the human to be named. It’s only after a suitable companion wasn’t found among the animals that Yahweh Elohim “builds” (בנה) the woman out of the side of the human.

One way some ideologically motivated translations attempt to reconcile the differences between the accounts is to translate some of the vayyiqtol verbs in chapter two as pluperfect (i.e., as describing an action  completed before another past action). Look for example at how the NIV translates this passage:

The LORD God formed [vayyiqtol] the man from the dust of the ground and breathed [vayyiqtol] into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became [vayyiqtol] a living being.

Now the LORD God had planted [vayyiqtol] a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put [vayyiqtol] the man he had formed. And the LORD God made [vayyiqtol] all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.…

The LORD God took [vayyiqtol] the man and put him [vayyiqtol] in the Garden of Eden to work it  and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded [vayyiqtol] the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

The LORD God said [vayyiqtol], “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the LORD God had formed [vayyiqtol] out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought [vayyiqtol] them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave [vayyiqtol] names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall [vayyiqtol] into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping [vayyiqtol], he took [vayyiqtol] one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made [vayyiqtol] a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought [vayyiqtol] her to the man.

The problem with this translation involves the two pluperfects (which I bolded and italicized) found in the NIV translation.  In both of those cases the translators of the NIV ignored the normal use of the vayyiqtol verb form (which is to narrate a sequence of events) and render them as pluperfects (“had planted” and “had formed”). I assume their motivation was to harmonize the account with Genesis 1 where the plants and animals were created before the humans. But from a syntactical point of view to translate the verb forms as pluperfects is very problematic. Virtually all grammars agree that it is very rare for the vayyiqtol verb form to have pluperfect value (see Jouon-Muraoka 118d, BHRG 21.2; but WO’C 33.2.3 and others do note a pluperfect sense is possible in certain circumstances, although it is rare), and there is nothing in this passage that supports a pluperfect sense. If anything, the sense of the passage requires a normal sequential meaning of the verb forms since the animals were formed (2:19) in direct response to Yahweh Elohim’s declaration that “it is not good for the human to be alone” (2:18).

Of course, perhaps the more basic question is that how can Elohim create humans male and female by divine fiat (as in Gen 1:27) and also form the human from the dust of the ground and then build a woman from the side of a human (as in Genesis 2), and say these two accounts are referring to the same events? What, if anything, is recorded as happening in 1:27, 2:7, 2:18, 2:22?

I recognize that hamonizing these accounts has a long history. I also recognize and agree with the need to read these accounts in tandem as part of the canonical book of Genesis, no matter what their independent histories may have been. That being said, I don’t think we should blur the distinctions between the accounts and engage in hermeneutical gymnastics in order to harmonize their details. Instead, we should revel in their theological depth and the different ways they teach the unique place and significance of humanity — male and female — in God’s creation.


Posted in Bible, Biblical Teaching, Creation, Genesis, Old Testament | 4 Comments »

Jehovah, Adonai, LORD, Yahweh: What’s In a Name?

12th September 2008

The Vatican made the news recently with the barring of the pronunciation of the name “Yahweh” — the proper name used for Israel’s God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament — in Catholic worship. It appears that the use of the name Yahweh has been creeping into the Catholic churches liturgy of late, as it has been in the Protestant tradition as well. Here are some excerpts from the Catholic News Service report:

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, announced the new Vatican “directives on the use of ‘the name of God’ in the sacred liturgy” in an Aug. 8 letter to his fellow bishops.
….
His letter to bishops came with a two-page letter from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, dated June 29 and addressed to episcopal conferences around the world.

“By directive of the Holy Father, in accord with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this congregation … deems it convenient to communicate to the bishops’ conferences … as regards the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the divine name signified in the sacred Tetragrammaton,” said the letter signed by Cardinal Francis Arinze and Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, congregation prefect and secretary, respectively.

The Tetragrammaton is YHWH, the four consonants of the ancient Hebrew name for God.

“As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: ‘Adonai,’ which means ‘Lord,’” the Vatican letter said. Similarly, Greek translations of the Bible used the word “Kyrios” and Latin scholars translated it to “Dominus”; both also mean Lord.

“Avoiding pronouncing the Tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the church has therefore its own grounds,” the letter said. “Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.”

This story was also picked up today by Christianity Today. The CT article surveyed a variety of opinions by evangelical leaders, some who agree with the Vatican ban and others who disagreed. Carol Bechtel, professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan is quoted as saying:

It’s always left me baffled and perplexed and embarrassed that we sprinkle our hymns with that name. Whether or not there are Jewish brothers and sisters in earshot, the most obvious reason to avoid using the proper and more personal name of God in the Old Testament is simply respect for God.

I’m not  sure if I entirely agree. I do agree that we should not use the name if it is going to offend someone. When I teach Hebrew at the University of Alberta we discuss this issue in one of the first classes. I explain a bit about the name and how it has been preserved in the various textual traditions and versions, the early practice of avoiding the pronouncing the name, and current practices. Then we decide as a class what we want to do. Typically there are some Jews in the class who are uncomfortable pronouncing the name and we decide to read either “Adonai” or “haShem” (“the Name”) when we encounter the Tetragram (i.e., the four-letter name for God, YHWH or יהוה).  At Taylor, however, where my students are all Christians, no one typically has any strong opinions either way.

Part of me wants to assert that if God didn’t want us to use the name, he wouldn’t have given it to the ancient Israelites. And I’m not sure if it is a matter of respecting God. I don’t like the practice of substituting a title (e.g., LORD) for a proper name, since it makes God rather impersonal.

On the other hand, the tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of the name is ancient. The Greek translators of the Septuagint — with some exceptions such as P. Fouad 266 (Rahlfs 848) — used the Greek word for “Lord,” kyrios (κυριος) to represent the divine name. While there are some scholars who maintain the original Septuagint (LXX) wrote out the Tetragram in Aramaic or paleoHebrew letters akin to the the Minor Prophets scroll (8 HevXIIgr), these manuscripts represent more of an archaizing tendency than anything original (see Al Pietersma’s 1984 article “Kyrios or Tetragram: A Renewed Quest for the Original LXX”). Thus as early as the third century BCE, a surrogate was used for the Tetragram.

Setting the divine name apart was also reflected in the practice of some Dead Sea Scrolls writing the Tetragram with paleoHebrew letters. And the early Christians continued the tradition started in the LXX of substituting kyrios (κυριος) for Yahweh. Thus, this practice is found in early Christian tradition as well as most of the versions and translations throughout Christian history — which the exception of the KJV employing “Jehovah” in a handful of passages. Speaking of Jehovah… and yes, this is one of my pet peeves… I think it should be stricken from all hymn books and choruses! While we may not know exactly how the Tetragram was pronounced in antiquity (in this regard “Yahweh” is the best scholarly guess), we know for sure that it was NOT pronounced as “Jehovah”!

Jewish tradition is also pretty clear: pronouncing the divine name was avoided in order to ensure it is never misused (putting a hedge around the Torah) and also for respect. Manuscripts in the Masoretic tradition  point the Tetragram with the vowels of title like Adonai as a perpetual ketiv-qere (interestingly, the Leningrad Codex is not consistent with what vowels are found with YHWH).

So when it comes right down to it, there is a long tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of the Tetragram, so perhaps we should follow suit.

What do you think? And what do you think is an appropriate surrogate?


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Hebrew, History of Interpretation, News, Old Testament | 8 Comments »