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.

sodom

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?

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.

BHS: Reader’s Edition—Obadiah Sample (free)

The BHS: Reader’s Edition, which Donald Vance, Yael Avrahami, and I produced (co-published by Hendrickson and the German Bible Society), is being launched officially at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego next week.

There is now a free sample from the Obadiah section of the Reader available for download. Click HERE to get it.

If you’re at the SBL conference, you can pick up a copy of the Reader for 50% off the normal price. That means you can get a copy at the conference for about US$30 (hardcover) or US$40 (imitation leather).

The Reader is also available for order from Amazon.com and Christianbook.com.

BHS Reader’s Edition

Since 2008, I’ve been working on a Reader’s Edition of BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) with Don Vance and Yael Avrahami. With Hendrickson and the German Bible Society we are set to launch the new publication at the upcoming annual congress of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego in just a few weeks.

The BHS Reader’s Edition uses the current BHS but replaces the text critical apparatus with a parsing and contextual vocabulary apparatus. It will be available in two formats.

  1. A standard hardcover edition, comparable to the Text Critical edition.
  2. A soft leather bound edition.

Jim West has recently reviewed the work, and included some photos. His verdict:

This is a really lovely book, both in terms of the quality of the physical components and the content of the editorial work.   I recommend it unreservedly.  It far surpasses its competitors in both of the areas just mentioned.

Hardcover

Soft Leather

A page from Zechariah. Photo by Jim West

More on Camels

Following on from the recent Camelgate saga, Mark Chavalas has an article relevant to the discussion. He briefly goes over some of the compelling evidence, to which I alluded, showing that camels were most likely domesticated before 930 BC around the Ancient Near East. His conclusion:

‘So, did Abraham ride a camel? Not only did he ride a camel, perhaps he drank from one, too.’

Abraham’s fridge

Related:

https://withmeagrepowers.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/did-the-camel-break-the-bibles-back/

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/02/27/3953856.htm

“A Man after God’s Own Heart”

I’ve written an article for the Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament (JESOT 2.2) titled, ‘“A Man after God’s Own Heart’: David and the Rhetoric of Election to Kingship’. Here’s the abstract:

The anticipation of David as a “man after Yahweh’s own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 is to be understood as a statement about Yahweh’s election of David to kingship, rather than about David’s own moral qualities. Comparison of similar phrases in Akkadian texts shows that the phrase is part of the rhetoric of divine election to kingship. The focus on divine election does not mean David has no positive attributes. On the contrary, he is depicted as a man with clear leadership qualities. The phrase serves the Davidic apologia in distinguishing David from Saul as Yahweh’s personal choice for king.

JESOT is a free online journal. Subscribe at the website for notifications of new issues.

One Scripture in Two Testaments

The Bible is made up of an Old and a New Testament. While that may seem like an obvious ‘Sunday School’ kind of thing to say, it is actually a profound theological statement. The authoritative word of God in its canonical form has come to us in two distinct portions with Jesus Christ standing at the critical divide. One of our tasks as Christians today is to figure out what each portion contributes to our knowledge of God, such that our faith in him is nourished and our love for him grows. We also need to work out what it means for the practice of our faith, such that our love for others is demonstrated in the world. In other words, we need to ask, “How does the fact that we have an Old and a New Testament inform our beliefs and practices as Christians?”

It has been said that the Bible is essentially made up of stories, stipulations, songs, and other people’s mail. It’s not a bad summary, really. One of the things this tells us is that the Bible was not written to us, but for us. That is, we as Christians living in the twenty-first century were not the intended audience of any of the literature in the Bible. However, we are its recipients, it preservers, and those over whom the Bible has an authoritative claim. The diverse material in the Bible was originally written by and for people living in different ages and cultures to our own. This means that it is a mistake to read ourselves directly into the biblical literature. Mind you, this is an easy mistake to make, and we do it often. For example, when the Law stipulates what ‘you’ must or must not do, we might be tempted to treat this as a direction to us, rather than to the ancient nation of Israel in its covenant relationship to God. Similarly, when the Apostle Peter writes that Jesus’ divine power has given ‘us’ everything for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called ‘us’ (2 Peter 1.3), we tend to think he is addressing us and all Christians, rather than describing the situation of the Apostles who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry. To an extent this kind of mistake is understandable, because as Christians we stand under the authority of God’s word and should let it impact us. However, the first thing we must do in letting it impact us is recognise that the words were written to and about others. Accordingly, one of our most important interpretive tasks is to understand to whom the stories, stipulations, songs, and mail were originally given. Only then can we ask what relationship we today have to those original audiences and thereby work out how any given passage of the Bible impacts us.

Another significant factor to bear in mind is that the Bible as a whole tells a unified story about God and his dealings with humanity. Thus, while we have two distinct testaments, they are still integrally related to each other.

Furthermore, stories unfold. They progress through stages, complications, twists and turns, before arriving at a resolution and then finally coming to an end. As Christians we acknowledge that the resolution to God’s dealings with humanity is found in Jesus. He is the climax of the whole storyline of history as we find it in the Bible. However, we have not yet reached the end of history. In other words, we live between the resolution of the story and its ending.

This is also important for understanding how the Old Testament fits into the scheme of things. In the Old Testament, which comes before Jesus, the storyline is still unfolding. Those who lived in the Old Testament era of history did not have the benefit of knowing the resolution to the story in which they were taking part. For them, God and his purposes were to some degree still unknowns, though he was revealing his unchangeable self and will to them bit by bit. Just as when the sun rises in the morning, it does not actually alter its shape, but simply comes into fuller view as it rises, affording us the light to see what would otherwise be dim landscapes, so God in the Old Testament was in the process of revealing himself and gradually giving to humanity the light we need to make sense of the world in which we live.

This is why the Old Testament goes through so many stages of history, and even has apparently dissonant voices in it. For example, Deuteronomy can affirm that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and yet the Teacher in Ecclesiastes can voice his utter befuddlement at why he sees so many righteous people suffering at the same time that so many wicked people prosper. Even today as we read these theological tensions, we may feel some of the discomfort of those who lived in the Old Testament era when revelation was still unfolding and the resolution to these issues had not yet come. But come it did. In Jesus, we see one who is supremely righteous suffering death at the hands of wicked people, at the same time as we see God passing judgement on humanity’s wickedness and raising Jesus to life for our justification. At the cross and empty tomb of Christ, we finally understand God and his purposes. Neither Deuteronomy nor Ecclesiastes were the end of the story. To pick up the sentiment of the writer to the Hebrews, God had spoken in the past at various times and in various ways, but he finally spoke through his Son, who is the radiance of his glory and the exact expression of his being (Heb 1.1–3).

Furthermore, in the Old Testament, God had not finished his dealings with humanity. Although he gave glimpses of where he was taking history, at no point in the Old Testament do we actually get to history’s destination. So while the Old Testament gives us a true picture of God and his purposes, it is still an incomplete picture. That should sound a caution to us in how we use the Old Testament: if we use it without the New, we may distort our understanding of God, which will in turn detrimentally affect our beliefs and practices.

So when we read the Old Testament, we mustn’t think that those who wrote it and who lived in that era knew God and his purposes as fully as we do. On the contrary, we have the blessed benefit of hindsight, having seen what they longed to see and heard what they longed to hear (cf. Matt 13.17). But with this blessed position comes much responsibility. We need to handle the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, properly.

As Christians, we want to do justice to all of Scripture. We affirm that the entire Bible is God’s authoritative word under which we sit, and rightly so, for it is all God-breathed and useful to us. However, this does not mean that we should treat all parts of Scripture in the same way. One danger we face is that of failing to see the Old Testament as the Old Testament—as that part of the unfolding storyline that comes before the resolution in Christ. We affirm that the Old Testament gives us a true picture of God, but we must at the same time affirm that it is an incomplete picture within the grander scheme of Scripture. If we do not, we risk absolutising the Old Testament in a legalistic kind of way.

For example, in light of Jesus, we must affirm with Paul that the Law served as a guardian or tutor for the people of Israel until the appointed time when Christ came and fulfilled it (see Gal 3.24 – 4.5). The Law has, therefore, served its purpose. The Law indeed is holy and just and good (Rom 7.12), but it no longer has authority over Christians as Law. Instead, it now serves us as witness to the unfolding character of God, guiding us as wisdom and as scripture, but not as Law. But we are not ancient Israel living in the land, and therefore we are not under the Law. We are under the Law of Christ, under a new covenant, under grace, in a time of fulfilment and fuller revelation. If, however, we fail to realise the provisionality of the Old Testament and treat it just like the New Testament, we may mistakenly think that we must still obey the Law as Law—that Christians must observe the Sabbath from Friday night to Saturday night. We might say that Christians should avoid eating pork as something detestable to God. We may declare that homosexuals should be ruthlessly put to death. We might pledge a blind allegiance to modern Israel because we conclude that it is the continuation of God’s chosen nation with a special claim over a particular slice of the Middle East, regardless of anyone else’s claim within the region or whether their policies are just. We may even say that God is not a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet to do any of these is to fail to appreciate the progressive nature of revelation in Scripture, or the resolution that specifically comes with Jesus. The Old Testament begins to show us God and his will, but as Christians, we live on this side of the cross and empty tomb, and should live by the light of God’s fuller revelation. Just as the writer of the Hebrews urged in his letter, we must acknowledge that with Jesus things have changed irrevocably. There is now no turning back. Jesus is the game changer.

Alternatively, we may swing the other way and end up treating the New Testament just like the Old. That is, we may think that the New Testament is also an unfinished story for which the ‘punch line’ has yet to be delivered. If we do this, we will tend to look for more revelation that takes us further away from Apostolic witness and New Testament theology. We may seek new experiences and depend on them for defining ourselves and our theology. We may seek new prophets who have new words to give us, and put our faith in them for determining what we should believe and practise. We will probably feel an inexorable pull from our culture to conform our beliefs and practices to its norms. We may feel the inclination to give up seemingly ‘old fashioned’ values in favour of more widely acceptable notions, especially on issues for which our society may ridicule the New Testament perspective, such as its views on men and women, sexuality, and the exclusivity of Jesus. All the while, because we are treating the New Testament in the same way as the Old, we will have convinced ourselves that we are still being biblically faithful, and yet we will have weighed anchor from Christ and drifted off on tides that take us away from the God who made himself known in Christ and inspired the Scriptures for our benefit.

Essentially, these pitfalls stem from the same error: not realising that Scripture is God’s unfolding revelation that culminates in Jesus. We cannot graduate the Old Testament to the position of the New, nor can we relegate the New Testament to the position of the Old. Rather, we must understand that Scripture has come to us in an Old and a New Testament, with Christ standing at the critical juncture of resolution between them. In Christ, God’s final word has been spoken and the faith has been once and for all delivered to the saints. While we wait for the end, we must let the word about the Christ dwell in us richly, for this is how we will be able to teach and admonish each other with all wisdom, to frame our words and practices faithfully, with heartfelt gratitude to God.

This piece is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in Southern Cross (the Sydney Anglican diocesan monthly magazine), November 2012.