Genesis 19: Has Lot Lost The Plot?

Have you ever been shocked by Lot’s suggestion to the mob at Sodom in Genesis 19? Have you ever been puzzled by why he would ever do such a thing? Well, it’s because the narrative has such a magnificent twist that even our modern translators have been fooled by it. All is not as it seems, folks!

I’ve written an article for Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, titled ‘Has Lot Lost the Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19.’ The article examines this plot twist. Here’s the abstract:

In Genesis 19, Lot tries to stave off the predatory mob of Sodom by offering his daughters for pack rape. Scholars treat this ‘shocking offer’ in various ways, but a common thread is an appeal to ancient Near Eastern codes of hospitality. This article examines some of these treatments of Lot’s proposal, both positive and negative. It then puts forward the case for a new understanding of the narrative on the basis of ‘unknown detail omission’, in which the narrator deliberately withholds information from the reader, only to reveal it at a later point in the narrative. The narrator of Genesis 19 exploits ambiguities in the narrative and a reaction of disgust at rape to fool the reader into viewing Lot’s words and actions a particular way. However, when the narrator reveals a key detail later in the narrative, the reader is surprised and forced to re-evaluate the entire episode. This then frames Lot’s shocking offer in a new light, and the reader comes to a new conclusion about Lot’s character.

Click HERE to read the article.

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What is a Covenant?

The word ‘covenant’ gets used frequently in discussion about biblical content and theology. However, the meaning of the word is often assumed rather than discussed.

Many people will offer what they think are synonyms, like ‘promise’, or ‘agreement’. But while a covenant might include such things, they don’t really define what a covenant is.

So what is a covenant?

A covenant is the formal initiation and regulation of a relationship that does not occur naturally. It stipulates who the parties in the relationship are, and what kind of relationship they are entering.

There are some relationships that occur naturally and, as such, don’t need covenants. These are largely biological. For example, the biological parents of a child don’t need a covenant to become the parents of their child. They don’t need to ‘sign on the dotted line’, because their child is by nature theirs and they are by nature the child’s parents. The child’s birth certificate doesn’t create the parent-child relationship. It simply acknowledges the existence of their naturally occurring relationship.

However, when a couple adopts a child that is not genetically their own, they do need to ‘sign on the dotted line’. They must go through a formal process that initiates the relationship, and then recognises it as specifically a parent-child relationship. Once the covenant is made, no one has the right to question the parent-child relationship, because it has been formalised and continues to be regulated, despite the relationship not occurring naturally.

In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people. It’s not enough to say that God makes certain promises or agreements with people, because that doesn’t necessarily define what kind of relationship God initiates and maintains with them.

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That’s also why we must say that there is more than one covenant in the Bible. God does not relate the same way to the various parties with whom he makes covenants. Each covenant creates a different kind of relationship. The covenants certainly relate to each other (excuse the pun!), because God is party to them all. And they also share some common themes and promises. But in each case, God initiates a different kind of relationship and, therefore, he regulates them in different ways that are appropriate to the kind of relationship that the covenant establishes.

That’s why, for example, God doesn’t give the Law to Abraham, but to Moses and the nation of Israel. God makes a covenant with Abraham to be his personal, household deity, with certain associated promises (land, descendants, name, blessing to others). So he relates to Abraham in a very personal way, usually with implications for Abraham’s family and where his household should be. Law would be an inappropriate way for God and Abraham to relate to each other within this covenant. But at Sinai, God creates a covenant with Israel to become the nation’s head of state—their patron deity. Law is an appropriate means of regulating a relationship with an entire nation as a socio-political entity located in a particular territory. And that’s why he gives the Law to Moses.

There is a positive and a negative side to a covenant. The positive side is that it brings two parties together. The negative side is that these two parties may not otherwise naturally have associated with each other. This is why stipulations are brought to bear on the relationship. They keep the relationship going and regulate it, for otherwise there is a danger of the relationship dissolving.

We can see this positive and negative side, for example, with the covenant that God forges with Israel at Sinai. It’s positive in that it reflects God’s gracious and loving initiative towards the Israelite nation. The negative side is that it implies God does not have a natural relationship with them. God has to enter the relationship with Israel to be their head of state in a conscious and deliberate manner. And he regulates it through the Law and the sending of prophets.

In the next instalment, we’ll look at whether there is a covenant at creation and what implications the answer might have.


This is a reproduction of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.

Does 1 Peter condone Domestic Violence?

In his first letter, the Apostle Peter directs the following words to wives:

In the same way, wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live, having observed your pure lives lived with respect. (1 Peter 3.1–2)

These words have sometimes been used to expect victims of domestic violence to remain within their abusive relationships. Women are seen to be encouraged to put up with suffering under domestic abuse for the sake of the salvation of their spouses.

First of all, let me say straight up that domestic violence is always wrong. Always. There is never a time that domestic violence should be condoned or encouraged. Never. Ever.

Second, I believe that using Peter’s words here to encourage victims of domestic violence to remain in abusive situations is a complete misunderstanding and misuse of Scripture. Let me explain why I believe that.

Peter, the author of this letter, is an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He was one of the Twelve—the inner circle whom Jesus handpicked. The Twelve were Jewish men—evocative of the twelve tribes of Israel. The symbolism of twelve Jewish men points specifically to the establishment of a new people of God. In other words, in appointing the Twelve, Jesus was deliberately starting a new movement that he defined as a new people of God, but with specifically Jewish roots. He was viewing the people that would grow around him and the Twelve as the faithful remnant of Israel.

It’s no wonder, then, that Peter was seen as an Apostle to Jews. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul, who was considered an Apostle to Gentiles, describes his encounter with the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem (who were all Jewish) as follows:

…they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised. For the one working through Peter for an apostleship to the circumcised also worked through me for the Gentiles. (Galatians 2.7–8)

Paul acknowledges that Peter was specifically commissioned to minister among Jewish people (the circumcised), while he, Paul, was commissioned to minister as an Apostle to the Gentiles.

Why is this important?

It’s important because Peter’s vocation as an Apostle to the Jews (i.e. the circumcised) is on display in the way he opens his letter. I’m offering my own translation of the Greek texts throughout this post, but here I’ll also quote the Greek text for those who are able to read it. That way I want to highlight something that is often passed over too quickly in translation:

Πέτρος ἀπόστολος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς Πόντου, Γαλατίας, Καππαδοκίας, Ἀσίας καὶ Βιθυνίας…

Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect migrants of the Diaspora of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia… (1 Peter 1.1)

When we understand Peter’s vocation as an Apostle to the Jews, we cannot help but recognise that he is writing his letter to the ‘Diaspora’—that is, to Jewish people living as migrants in the ancient countries of what we today know as Turkey. ‘Diaspora’ is the standard way of referring to all Jews who lived outside the ‘Promised Land’ (Judea, Samaria, and Galilee).

More specifically, Peter is writing to those whom he views as ‘elect’ among the Diaspora. This is his way of addressing Jewish people who have come to believe in Jesus as Israel’s messiah. In other words, Peter is not writing to all Christians—Jews and Gentiles—as is sometimes espoused. Rather, he is writing to the people to whom he ministered specifically as an Apostle to the Jews—that is, to Jews! To underscore this, he even says to them later:

Conduct yourselves well among the Gentiles… (1 Peter 2.12)

Evidently, then, Peter sees a distinction between his audience and Gentiles. They are very clearly Jews. Critically, though, they have come to believe that Jesus is Israel’s messiah, just as Peter himself has.

Now, let’s look at Peter’s words in chapter 3. There he addresses ‘wives’. Let’s read his words again:

In the same way, wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live, having observed your pure lives lived with respect. (1 Peter 3.1–2)

The wives Peter addresses are Jewish women who believe that Jesus is the messiah. Peter is not addressing each and every Christian woman in every age regardless of her cultural heritage or context. He is writing specifically to women who have grown up as Jews. These Jewish women would, in virtually all cases, have been married to Jewish men. We know that this was the standard case in the ancient world, since Jewish communities of the first century were endogamous—that is, they married within their own ethnic group. Thus, Jewish women were married to Jewish men. While it was possible for a Gentile man to marry a Jewish woman, it was most certainly not the norm. In fact, it was so exceptional that when it happened, it caught people’s attention and was worthy of specific mention (see Acts 16.1). The norm was that Jewish girls would marry Jewish boys and have Jewish babies. There is nothing here in Peter’s letter to indicate any exceptional circumstances that might call this into question. It is, therefore, logical to conclude that when he was addressing wives, Peter was thinking of Jewish women married to Jewish men.

So Peter is addressing Jewish women who believe that Jesus is the messiah. Amongst these women would be some whose Jewish husbands were not convinced that Jesus was actually the messiah. This would naturally have created a significant division within the family—a division that even Jesus appears to have expected within Jewish families:

“Do not think that I came to set up peace on the earth. I did not come to set up peace, but a sword. For I came to turn

a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and a man’s enemies will be
the members of his household.

The person who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. The person who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of Me.” (Matt 10.34–37)

Peter’s advice to Jewish wives who believe in Jesus is not to attempt to separate from their husbands who do not share their belief about Jesus, nor even to disparage their husbands. Rather, he encourages them to stay committed to their marriages, with the specific goal of convincing their husbands that Jesus is indeed the messiah.

In other words, Peter gives advice here to Jewish women who live in a household where there is a difference of opinion over who Jesus is. Women in that situation would be encouraged to continue observing Jewish customs, along with their Jewish husbands. This is something Paul even advises the Gentile Christians in Rome to do for the sake of commending the gospel of Jesus as messiah to Jewish people (see Rom 12.1; 15.7–12). After all, these customs were not incompatible with belief in Jesus. As Paul acknowledged, the Law is holy, just, and good (Rom 7.12). Indeed, the Apostles viewed their belief in Jesus as the logical endpoint of their Jewish faith. They believed that Israel’s whole history and culture had culminated in Jesus the messiah (see Hebrews). Therefore, Peter is urging women married to Jewish husbands who do not share their belief in Jesus to cling to their Jewishness as a means of demonstrating to their Jewish husbands that Jesus is indeed Israel’s messiah. To put it another way, Peter urges the wives here to find the common ground with their husbands and work constructively within that common ground to commend the gospel of Jesus to their husbands.

So that’s what Peter is saying. What, then, is he not saying?

Peter is not addressing every Christian woman in any possible context. And he is most certainly not encouraging women to submit to domestic violence. The logic of Peter’s argument critically involves common ground. Common Jewish ground in his particular letter. For Jewish women married to Jewish men, that common ground existed in their cultural heritage, expressed chiefly in observance of the Mosaic Law. But there is no such common ground in situations of domestic violence. Indeed, domestic violence sees one partner abusively using power and violence to deprive the other partner of wellbeing, safety, and options. In such situations, there is no common ground anymore. One partner simply dominates the other, abolishing any sense of commonality. To have commonality, you need two consenting adults. When there is only one consenting adult, the very notion of commonality has ceased to exist. Indeed, part of the reason domestic violence is such a terrible problem is that the victim feels so utterly trapped within the world of their partner.

To use Peter’s words in 1 Peter to encourage women (or men for that matter) to remain in situations of domestic violence is a misunderstanding of the context, logic, and intent of Peter’s words. It is a tragic misappropriation of Scripture.

More than that, the New Testament makes the point that belief in Jesus is something that God himself grants to people (Eph 2.8–10). To expect a victim of domestic violence to remain in the abusive situation for the sake of their spouse’s salvation is effectively expecting the victim to save their spouse—to do the work that only God himself does. In that case, not only is the person trapped within the violent situation, but the cruel chains of bad theology keep them there, entrapping them even further. It is a terrible situation! No one should be expected to do the work that only God himself does. So we should never expect a victim of domestic violence to continue suffering for the sake of their spouse’s salvation.

2 Peter 1.4 states that part of what it means to be a Christian is to escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. Not only should we think of this in terms of being freed from the sin we ourselves commit, but we should also think of it in terms of helping victims escape the terrible situations in which they suffer. We would never think of encouraging sex slaves to remain in their situation for the sake of saving their pimps or clients. That would be reprehensible. So we should never think of encouraging anyone in an abusive relationship to continue in that situation either. The gospel of Christ is meant to bring freedom and peace, and Christians should be brokers of that very freedom and peace.

Domestic violence is both tragic and wrong. There is no other way to view it. The New Testament never condones it. No one ever should.

What Is a Covenant?

I’ve written a brief piece for Bible Study and the Christian Life, asking ‘What is a covenant?’

The word “covenant” gets used frequently in discussion about biblical content and theology. However, the meaning of the word is often assumed rather than discussed.

Many people will offer what they think are synonyms, like “promise,” or “agreement.” But while a covenant might include such things, they don’t really define what a covenant is.

So what is a covenant?

Read the rest of the article here: What Is a Covenant?

New evidence for Jewish exiles found in clay tablets

Here’s a brief article by Mark Chavalas (University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse) about some clay tablets that reveal what life was like for Judeans exiled from their homeland by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC.

A snippet:

The texts were written by professional Babylonian scribes on behalf of their Jewish lower middle-class clients, who engaged in the cultivation of grains and date palms, bought and sold cattle, rented houses, loaned silver, sold slaves, and engaged in marriage alliances. Though some even prospered economically, most were settled in state-owned land in return for military service for Babylon, By a cursory study of the personal names in the tablets, it appears that at least three generations of Jews lived in Al-Yahudu and surrounding towns.

Read more here: Mark Chavalas: New evidence for Jewish exiles found in clay tablets.

You’ll even discover the origin of Zumba!

A clay tablet from 572 BCE, the earliest known text documenting the Judean exile in Babylonia, now on display at the Bible Lands Museum (photo credit: Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of The Bible Lands Museum, care of The Times of Israel)

Codex Vaticanus (B) Online

Great news! The Vatican Library has digitised Codex Vaticanus (also known by the siglum ‘B’). Vaticanus is one of the most important biblical manuscripts. It is an uncial manuscript that dates to the mid-fourth century and contains almost the entire Christian canon in Greek, including most of the Apocrypha.

The high quality digitised images of the whole codex can be found at the following URL:

http://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1209

This is a great resource for study of biblical texts. The Vatican Library and the University of Heidelberg, which also contributed to the project, are to be congratulated for bringing this project to fruition and making the resource freely available.

A page from Codex Vaticanus showing the end of 2 Thessalonians and the beginning of Hebrew.

Can Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible be the result of scribal updating?

A loanword is a word that originates in one language, but makes it into another language for common use.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with loanwords. These are interesting cases, because it makes us ask how and when these loanwords made it into Hebrew. They are often used as evidence for particular (usually late) dating of biblical texts.

I was recently asked whether it was possible for loanwords to have crept into biblical texts through editing. That is, could a later scribe, in the process of copying a text, have updated the language and replaced a Hebrew word in the early text with a loanword from another language? And if this is possible, what does this tell us about our methods of dating biblical texts?

Well, the scenario of later scribes inserting later loanwords into earlier texts is possible, but there is absolutely no way of verifying it without manuscript evidence of such a replacement occurring. If all we have is the text with the loanword, how are we supposed to know whether there was another word there originally?

Although the suggestion is possible, it is pure speculation.

This makes me ask three further questions.

First, why would we make this suggestion when it cannot be verified? Is it possible that we want a text to be dated early and a loanword is a ‘spanner in the works’, leading to a form of wishful thinking that perhaps the implication of a loanword can be sidelined if we introduce another reasonable-sounding variable? If this is the case, then it’s putting the cart before the horse in terms of reasoning.

The second question to ask is whether the suggestion of a loanword replacing an earlier Hebrew word is plausible.

The third question to ask is whether it’s probable.

Anything is possible. A few things might be plausible. But only one thing is probable.

It’s possible that the music I can hear in the distance is coming from a left-handed Albino midget from Tanzania who plays the fiddle every Tuesday in Buenos Aires each July and who is currently leading a mariachi band here in Sydney. It’s possible! But it’s not all that plausible. It probably is just someone’s iPod playing through speakers.

So, is it plausible, and even probable that a later scribe would update an earlier text with loanwords? I say it probably isn’t. Here’s why I say that.

There are certain principles by which to abide for appraising loanwords in a case like this. We need to give particular attention to:

  1. the language from which a word has come;
  2. the actual word itself; and
  3. the Hebrew word being replaced by the loanword

If the loanword is a common word that could come through ‘plebeian’ means, like trade or migration, then it’s possibly original and early. That is, the loanword entered Hebrew at a very early stage. But if that’s the case, then we’re no longer talking about a later scribe updating an early text. Also, loanwords of this sort are usually limited to the languages of wide-faring merchants. The Phoenicians were one such group, but their language is very close to Hebrew anyway, so we would be talking about cognates, rather than loanwords. The other wide-faring merchants were Greeks. So perhaps all the Greek loanwords in Hebrew are early?

Not so fast!

The second principle I mentioned above is important here. We need to consider the type of word represented by the loanword. If the word is an item that could be commonly traded or influenced, then yes, it might be a loanword. Words for luxury goods, musical terms, architectural terms, or names of exotic animals can all be loanwords. But if the word comes from the domain of authority and institution, then its entry into Hebrew is unlikely to pre-date the rise of the people who spoke the original language as a colonial power.

Persian loanwords are, in this particular case, quite telling. For example, the word דת (dat: ‘law’ or ‘directive’) reflects the mechanisms of rule. The word פרדס (pardes: ‘park’ or ‘botanical garden’—from which we get our word paradise) reflects the lifestyle and accomplishments of Persian royalty. Could such words have entered Hebrew before significant contact between Persians and Israelites/Judeans? This could only have happened once the Persians rose to imperial power in the mid to late sixth century BC and Hebrew speakers and writers came under their direct influence.

Furthermore, we need to ask what Hebrew word the loanword could have replaced. In the case of דת (‘law’), it could replace a number of Hebrew words, such as תורה (torah), חק (regulation), or מצוה (mitzwah). But then we need to ask, why would a scribe replace a Hebrew word that the original author thought perfectly adequate and which did the job admirably well for centuries? And in the case of biblical texts, these were texts that would have had some literary currency throughout these centuries. These aren’t the kind of words that would become obsolete.

In the case of פרדס, the closest words in Hebrew would have been גן (gan: ‘garden’ or ‘grove’) or כרם (kerem: ‘vineyard’ or ‘orchard’). If, for example, in Song of Songs, a later scribe took an earlier manuscript and inserted the Persian loanword פרדס (pardes: ‘park’ or ‘botanical garden’) at 4.13, why did he not replace the word גן (gan: ‘garden’ or ‘grove’) in the previous verse, and another seven times elsewhere in the book (4.15 [x2], 16; 5.1; 6.2 [x2]; and 8.13), or the nine occurrences of כרם (kerem: ‘vineyard’ or ‘orchard’; 1.6 [x2]; 2.15 [x2]; 7.13; 8.11 [x2], 12)?

It just doesn’t add up as probable, let alone plausible.

So we return to the original question: Could a scribe living at a late date have updated an earlier text with later loanwords? Without specific manuscript evidence to demonstrate it, probably not. But we do need to take each case on its own merits and ensure we apply sound reasoning to the analysis.