Tonight (15 April 2014) was a ‘blood moon’. That is, there was a total eclipse of the moon (I dare you not to think of Bonnie Tyler!) that turned the moon a reddish colour for a short time. Unfortunately, here in Sydney it was overcast and raining, so I didn’t get to see it. However, I’ve seen images that others were able to take, and it’s quite a phenomenon to behold.
In Joel 2.31, we read these words:
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and awe-inspiring Day of Yahweh comes.
There has been a lot of talk about how the particular blood moon of today might be a fulfilment of this prophecy, especially since there seem to be more such celestial phenomena to come in the near future. Some see in this blood moon a sign of the imminent return of Jesus.
I beg to differ.
But not because I want to be a heretic, party-pooper, or a lover of novelty. I’m just taking my lead from the Apostle Peter.
In Acts 2, we read that the Apostle Peter preached to crowds of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God had just rushed upon Peter and the other Apostles, enabling them to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus in all the languages of the various pilgrims in Jerusalem at the time. This was such a groundbreaking event that Peter interpreted it as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. And he quoted directly the very passage that contains the ‘moon to blood’ quote. There was no astronomical phenomenon happening at the time. It was, rather, a bunch of people speaking in languages they didn’t natively know, proclaiming ‘the magnificent acts of God’ (Acts 2.11). Yet Peter saw the entire passage from Joel as appropriate for describing this linguistic phenomenon. He didn’t just quote the part from Joel that referred to various people prophesying, dreaming, and seeing visions—he chose to quote the whole passage, which included reference to signs of blood, fire, and smoke, the sun growing dark, and the moon turning to blood.
In other words, Peter did not see Joel’s image of celestial catastrophe as a sign in need of literal fulfilment. Rather, he interpreted Joel’s prophecy as fulfilled in a figurative manner by the apostles speaking in other languages on the Day of Pentecost. The motif of cataclysmic events is frequently seen in proto-apocalyptic and apocalyptic texts. It is not meant to be taken in a literal fashion. It is, rather, a vivid way of portraying something that is going to ‘rock the world’, so to speak.
We do this kind of thing today without batting an eyelid. When we talk about something being ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘earth-shattering’, we don’t actually mean that the earth under our feet has split open. We simply use it to refer to something new, exciting, and highly significant. The image of a blood moon in biblical literature is very similar to this.
What this means is that Peter viewed the events of his day, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus, as the most groundbreaking event of history. It was the Day of the Lord—the time in which God would act in such a significant way that nothing would ever be the same again.
Now, while I believe that Jesus will one day return, I don’t think we need to be looking for eclipses, blood moons, and celestial catastrophes before he can return. Many will point to other supposed signs that are meant to happen before Jesus returns (e.g. the re-emergence of modern Israel, or the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple), but I don’t think a rigorous and prophetically responsible reading of either the Old or New Testament supports any of these. There is only one substantive sign that the Bible gives as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus, and that is the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. And that occurred in AD 70.
In biblical thought, the Last Day is characterised by the resurrection from the dead. This day began when Jesus was raised from the dead. He was the first one to experience Judgement Day, when God declared the verdict of ‘righteous’ on his life. The rest of us will experience judgement at a later stage. But there is nothing more than need happen before this occurs, for it the day has already begun. And the return of Jesus as the judge of all humanity, which will wrap up Judgement Day, will occur at any time.
So what should we make of this blood moon today? Let it remind you of Peter’s speech in Acts 2. Let it remind you that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the most groundbreaking (or should that be ‘tomb-breaking’) event in all of history. But also marvel at the natural phenomena the Creator has put in place. Let the words of Psalm 8 resound:
Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth,
how you put your majesty over the heavens!
From the mouths of infants
you have established strength,
so that your rivals stop,
the enemy be avenged.
When I observe your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars,
which you have set in place,
what is humanity that you remember them,
the son of man that you look after him?
You made him less than gods,
yet crowned him with glory and splendour.
You have him rule the works of your hands,
everything have you put under his feet;
sheep and oxen all
even the animals in the wild;
the birds of heaven,
and the fish of the sea,
that which swims the paths of the seas.
Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!
In his recently published book, Paul and the Vocation of Israel (BZNW 205. Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), my good friend and colleague, Lionel Windsor, discusses how Paul viewed his own vocation as Apostle to the Gentiles within the larger picture of Israel’s vocation as the classic people of God. Lionel has recently blogged about one of Paul’s often misunderstood phrases: the ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6.16. You can read Lionel’s short summary here, and even download an electronic copy of chapter 3 from his book.
I recommend Lionel’s work highly.
A few days ago, Simcha Jacobovici made the claim that ‘there’s a dramatic scholarly breakthrough linking archeology to the Biblical Exodus.’ Jacobovici is best known for his TV specials, such as the one in which he claimed to have found the family tomb of Jesus—a claim that the vast majority of specialists in the field evaluated and rejected. In this most recent claim about ‘proof’ for the Exodus, Jacobovici points to the following article:
- Robert K. Ritner and Nadine Moeller, ‘The Ahmose ‘Tempest Stela’: Thera and Comparative Chronology,’ Journal of Near Eastern Studies (Vol. 73, No. 1 [April 2014], pp. 1–19).
In this article, Egyptologists Ritner and Moeller examine afresh an ancient Egyptian stela that has been known for some time: the ‘Tempest Stela’ of Ahmose I.
Previously, this stela was interpreted in one of two ways—either as a description of a localised natural disaster during the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose I (16th century BC—founder of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty), or as a metaphor for the oppression of Egyptians at the hands of the Asiatic Hyksos rulers. Ritner and Moeller re-examine the evidence and conclude the stela describes a real natural disaster, but on a much bigger scale than previously thought. This disaster consisted of unusual darkness and harsh storms, which affected the entirety of Egypt, not just a small area of it, wreaking widespread death and destruction. Their contention is that this storm was likely the aftermath of the cataclysmic explosion of Thera (Santorini)—the volcanic eruption that triggered the collapse of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.
Ritner and Moeller admit a chronological difficulty with their theory: the eruption of Thera can be dated with 95% accuracy to 1627–1600 BC, while Ahmose’s reign probably started sometime between 1570 and 1544 BC—that is, between 30 to 83 years later. But given the instability of absolute markers for certain periods of Egyptian chronology, and the stela’s detailed description of a cataclysmic event, Ritner and Moeller propose shifting Ahmose’s reign back a few decades to overlap with the eruption of Thera. This is a big move! While I can see the possibility of matching the disaster described on the stela to the Thera event, I will leave it to Egyptologists to work out whether it’s plausible.
But how does this relate to the Exodus?
Jacobovici asserts that this new interpretation proves the biblical Exodus because the natural disaster that the ‘Tempest Stela’ describes matches up with the plague of darkness described in the Exodus narrative (Exod 10.21–29). Jacobovici claimed back in 2006 that this stela was a key piece of evidence for finding the Exodus in the archaeological records of Egypt. And now, he says, here is the final proof.
Is he right? Has proof of the Exodus finally be found?
I wish it were true, but I highly doubt it.
Here are some of my reasons:
- The article by Ritner and Moeller is a follow up to a previous article from 1996. They acknowledge that the earlier article was used by some as tentative evidence for the Exodus, but seem dismissive or agnostic at best about this connection in their new article. In fact, in this new article, they make no connection between the events described on the stela and the Exodus at all.
- The ‘Tempest Stela’ makes no mention of slaves, Hebrews, or any other kinds of events that might be identified with any of the other plagues described in the Exodus narrative.
- Jacobovici claims that the storm described on the stela ‘displayed the “wrath” of a “great God”,’ and that ‘this God was “greater” than the “gods” of Egypt.’ However, Ritner and Moeller argue something quite different. They translate the relevant portion of the stela to say ‘Then His Majesty [i.e. Ahmose] said: ‘How much greater this is than the wrath of the great god, [than] the plans of the gods!’ (p.7) In other words, it reads as though Ahmose interprets the natural disaster as something even bigger than the mighty anger of any particular god.
- The stela mentions that darkness accompanied the disaster, such that ‘no torch could be lit in the Two Lands [i.e. Upper and Lower Egypt]‘. However, Ritner and Moeller demonstrate that the primary focus was not the darkness, but rather the abnormally harsh rain storm. The darkness ‘is noted secondarily to the rain’ (p.7). In other words, the natural disaster was not darkness, during which it rained, but rather a severe storm, during which it grew dark.
- Ahmose I was the founder of the 18th Dynasty—the period of the New Kingdom. He is credited with the overthrow of the Asiatic Hyksos people who ruled the Nile Delta for a couple of centuries. Jacobovici makes a direct link between the Hyksos and the Israelite slaves of the Exodus narrative. He is not the first to make this link, but it creates a series of other problems. For example, the Hyksos ruled a portion of Egypt, which contradicts the Exodus narrative that states the Israelites were slaves, not rulers. There are also chronological difficulties, including seeming clashes with the archaeological record of a settlement into Canaan.
- Jacobovici talks of Ritner and Moeller now providing ‘proof’ for the biblical Exodus. This seems a rather overstated definition of ‘proof’. When something provides ‘proof’, it means the evidence is so decisive that there is little to no contrary evidence, and little to no way of reading the data in a different way. In other words, ‘proof’ constitutes something being either categorically undeniable or at least beyond reasonable doubt. The analysis Ritner and Moeller provide for the ‘Tempest Stela’ does not, in my opinion, give us such confidence for a connection to the Exodus. In fact, I highly doubt Ritner and Moeller would see any such connection either. We must be careful here to distinguish between ‘evidence’, which is a piece of a puzzle, and ‘proof’ which is the decisive piece that solves the puzzle once for all. I can’t see how the ‘Tempest Stela’ brings us anywhere near ‘proof’ for the Exodus, or even that it provides good ‘evidence’ for it.
So have we found ‘proof’ of the Exodus? No. Have we found any suggestive evidence for it? Probably not.
I’ll be glad the day we do find evidence for the Exodus outside the Bible. But today is not that day.
For another similar opinion, check out Chris Heard’s blog piece.
One way to view modern biblical scholarship is as a big set of conversations. People join the conversations, ask lots of questions, raise new ideas, and challenge old ones. It can be quite daunting keeping up with everything people are saying, but it is exciting trading and testing ideas.
These conversations have been going a long time now, so many conversation partners have come and gone. Some of these are the giants in the field of Biblical Studies. Students usually encounter the names of these giants early on in their studies as they are just trying to pick up what has been said in conversations past. At that stage students are usually unaware of the profound effect these scholars have had. Their influence goes beyond the conversations these scholars had in their own day. They have left an indelible mark on all the conversations after them.
I’m grateful, therefore, to have received from Zondervan a review copy of Mark Gignilliat’s book, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism (Zondervan, 2012). One of the beauties of Gignilliat’s book is that it not only identifies and introduces some of these expert conservationalists in Biblical Studies; it also allows readers to begin detecting echoes of these scholars in subsequent scholarly conversations. Gignilliat works hard to frame an understanding of these seminal scholars within the social and philosophical currents of their own day. To this end, he supplies a brief biography of these scholars, concentrating on the influences that impacted them, and then sketches the particular contribution each person made to the conversation of Biblical Studies. The result is simple yet masterful! Gignilliat distils the essence of these innovative contributors for easy consumption, allowing us to hear their salient statements, understand how these fell on other ears of the day, and then perceive how theses statements still echo even in our day.
Gignilliat introduces us to seven master conversationalists in chronological order. They are:
- Benedict Spinoza
- W. M. L. de Wette
- Julius Wellhausen
- Herman Gunkel
- Gerhard von Rad
- William Foxwell Albright
- Brevard Childs
Of course this list raises questions as to why these seven were chosen over others. Gignilliat states three reasons for the shape of his list:
(1) I want the volume to remain small and accessible to students; (2) I believe the figures in this work represent the larger trends and tendencies of Old Testament criticism in the modern period; and (3) I wanted to finished. (loc 104)
Yet one thing these seven particular scholars have in common is they are no longer with us. Their respective legacies are, therefore, somewhat set. It would perhaps be preemptive to include on the list someone who is still contributing to current conversations in biblical studies. Thus, either Thomas L. Thompson or Philip R. Davies could feature on the list as critics of William Foxwell Albright. While this would provide good balance, both Tom and Philip are still with us actively contributing to ongoing conversations. Their inclusion would perhaps sell their contributions short before they were finished.
If, however, we are to apply departure from the conversation as a criterion for inclusion, then there are two particular names I am surprised are still not on the list. These are Martin Noth and James Barr. The contributions of Wellhausen and von Rad would surely have been enhanced if Noth’s contribution to tradition history in the Pentateuch and the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ had been included. James Barr’s work in comparative philology and his criticism of biblical theology were also highly influential. We could argue the toss on other names, but the legacy of these two scholars, I feel, has been overlooked and, by implication, unwittingly minimised.
Nonetheless, the discussion of these seven scholars is very well presented. It gives students a useful orientation to how these men were shaped by the conversations of their day, thus uncovering their assumptions, and their ideological and rational framework. It also equips the student to see how these men, in turn, shaped conversation after them. For example, we see how Descartes’ radical rationalism and deism influenced Spinoza’s separation of ‘theology’ and ‘morality’ from ‘philosophy’ and ‘truth’. We observe how Romanticism stood behind de Wette’s emphasis on mythicism over historicism. A similar observation is made for Gunkel in his analysis of the Psalms. We come to understand von Rad’s distinction between ancient Israel’s actual history and their account of it in their kerygmatic documents about their God. This notion stands behind many current conversation in biblical studies today, and has led many to abandon conversing about the Bible as ‘scripture’. Thus, we are helped to understand the response of Brevard Childs’ ‘canonical criticism’ as a critical confessional contribution.
Students wishing to understand why current conversations in Biblical Studies sound the way they do will find Gignilliat’s book an excellent tool. It gives some good ‘sound bites’ that will help train the ear. It also just might help students begin to understand how they themselves converse in Biblical Studies. It’s not until we hear someone else speak that we realise we have the same or different accent (i.e. assumptions and framework). Gignilliat’s clever book may guide students to discover from whom it was that they inherited their ‘accent’. Understanding the greats, therefore, is an important step in self-awareness.
Those who made the list:
Those I think should have made the list:
DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher (Zondervan)
So Mark Driscoll is in hot water over plagiarism in his books, and using church funds to artificially inflate sales figures to land his marriage book on the New York Times Bestseller List. A few quick observations and comments about this ‘BookGate’ controversy in light of the various reports out there:
- No one should be gleeful about this. That a leader of so many Christians is in trouble like this is no cause for rejoicing, even if you have major issues with Driscoll and his ministry. This is tragic on a personal level for Driscoll, on a communal level for the Mars Hill church, and also on the broader level for the cause of the gospel. There’s no room for Schadenfreude here.
- Protestant Christians believe in the priesthood of all believers, as together we work in mediating the gospel to each other and to the world. This does not mean plagiarism is permitted. We hate it when the media don’t cite sources in their reporting, so we shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing in Christian literature. Academic honesty is always the best policy.
- That Driscoll and/or Mars Hill hired a PR company to boost book sales is neither here nor there. In fact, it sounds like sensible strategy to me. It’s just plain old marketing.
- The use of church funds (or any funds for that matter) to artificially inflate sales and circumvent the ‘rules’ for the New York Times Bestseller List is just plain dishonest. If all this was done without the broad knowledge of those contributing financially to the church, then Driscoll and/or the leaders at Mars Hill have breached their trust and exceeded their mandate. If it was done with broad knowledge, then we have to question what kind of teaching and guidance they issued on the matter.
When Jesus sent out his disciples on public ministry, he told them to be ‘as shrewd as snakes’ (Matt 10.16). They were to use all their skill, wisdom, and cunning to get the message of the gospel out there.
But that’s not all he said. He also instructed them to be ‘as innocent as doves’.
Christians, pray that God would bring good out of this situation, so that the cause of the gospel would be enhanced, and not hindered. And let’s think good and hard about how we engage this world. ‘As shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’