Biblical Views of Time and Space

Lake and SkyChapter 5 of Mark Harris’s book The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science looks at the biblical framework of creation. The concern is not so much the act of creation, but the way in which the bible’s authors talk about the nature of creation, especially time and space and the theological significance of this discussion. The challenge is to try, as much as we are able, to project ourselves back some two to three or four thousand years and imagine how the ancient Near Eastern audience pictured creation and God’s relationship to creation. Harris starts with two ideas that should guide the approach to scientific topics – including time and space – in the Bible.

First, we need to move away from a neat division between natural and supernatural. The Israelites certainly knew that there were a range of normal, regular processes in the world. However, they did not draw a neat line between God’s action and these “natural” processes. The rising and setting of the sun, the downward flow of rivers, and the progression of seasons were known to be regular and “normal” – but they were not viewed apart from God.

In short, there is often no easy division between the natural and the supernatural in the texts of the Bible. Such a division stems from much later philosophical developments and is more at home in our modern scientific worldview. Let us take an example. Can we say that Yahweh’s creative work in making “springs gush forth in the valleys” (Ps 104:10) is of a different kind from that which miraculously stopped the river Jordan flowing so that Joshua and the people could cross (Jos. 3:16)?

The first is a normal occurrence, while the second had a specific purpose, but it isn’t clear that there is a theological difference between the two descriptions.

…the point of both is that the phenomena they describe occur because God is “Lord of all the earth” (Josh. 3:13). To distinguish God’s natural activity from God’s supernatural activity is thus to imply two mutually exclusive views of divine activity, which goes beyond what the biblical authors claim, at least in these two texts. (p. 84)

This isn’t to say that the biblical authors were ignorant of regular behavior and many workings of nature – including the science necessary for agricultural practice. They could and did distinguish between God’s normal activity and new or novel action. The description of the demise of those who belonged to Korah in Numbers 16, for example, makes a distinction between natural events and a miraculous event (a “new creation”). God’s activity, however isn’t viewed as confined to these miraculous events. Normal, “natural” processes are also given theological explanations “The people of the biblical world were capable of thinking in scientific ways not so far removed from ours in some respects, but also capable of expressing a thorough-going theistic theology when it came to literary expression.” (p. 86)

Second, we need to avoid thinking about the ancient authors and audience as “primitive.” This is more a problem for scholars than Christians, but nonetheless is important to point out. While there are difference in perspectives between the modern and ancient world, the divisions are not as clean as many would like to claim. The naturalistic point of view prevalent among scholars today carries much less weight among the wider population. Likewise there is evidence for skepticism in the past. Harris points out that Josephus realized that many would be skeptical of the Exodus account and tailored his argument accordingly. The modern scholarly stereotype of ancient ignorance and superstition is wrongheaded.

The differences in ancient and modern outlooks are more subtle than such terms as primitive and enlightened convey.

While our view of cosmic order is heavily influenced by the natural sciences, Israelite thinking sees creation in terms of distinctions between order and disorder which we barely recognize, especially between “clean” and “unclean” states of existence, prescribing social and ritual interactions, which foods can and cannot be eaten, and so on. It is not that the Israelites lived in a mystical world where myth was inseparable from reality … but in a world which was differently conceived from ours in terms of order and propriety. (p. 89)

One key point relates to the distinction between natural and supernatural described above. The distinction between deism and theism is a modern invention. The tendency to push God out of natural normal occurrences is deistic and “any tendency to towards Deism in our interpretations of the Bible should be carefully highlighted and evaluated.” We may, simply, be missing the point.

So how did the biblical authors and audience understand such “scientific” concepts as time and space?

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It is a Puzzle … Ḥērem Never Practiced?

Poussin_-_Joshua_and_the_Amorites_Moscow dsChapter 2 of Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture concludes with a section asking the question “What kind of law is the law of ḥērem?” The question arises for a variety of reasons. Many people read the passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua and wonder about the kind of God who would condemn children to death without mercy. It just doesn’t seem right. Scholars see another problem as well. Quite simply, there is no evidence that ḥērem was ever practiced in any significant manner. As Moberly puts it:

The puzzle relates to the scholarly consensus that, despite the specific way in which Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and 20:16-18 promote the practice of ḥērem, they in fact promote something that was not actually realized within Israel’s history. (p. 64)

The Canaanites were neither expelled nor exterminated. Ḥērem warfare was never carried out except possibly in limited military battles. Outsiders play important roles in Israel’s history, becoming insiders in the process. Uriah the Hittite is one such example – especially pertinent as the Hittites are one of the proscribed people in Deuteronomy 7. Rahab the Canaanite prostitute is another example (in the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew 1). Ruth the Moabite is brought in and exalted, becoming the great grandmother of David (and thus also an ancestor of Jesus).

Some scholars have suggested that the concept of ḥērembelongs more to theory than to practice” and that the law “was purely theoretical and never in effect“. There are many potential reasons suggested – that it was a way of explaining the disappearance of certain peoples, that it was imposed backwards at the time Deuteronomy was written because of “a fear of cultural and religious swamping in the time of exile.” The law was written in such a way that it could not be practiced, being confined to “mists of the past.”

Moberly doesn’t find these explanations convincing. The notion that ḥērem is specified only to show that it is inoperative is “more ingenious than persuasive.” He takes a slightly different view and suggests that ḥērem in Deuteronomy is metaphorical. The book of Deuteronomy was written down long after the events described, in the late monarchic or exilic context (presumably using older sources and oral traditions). This informs his interpretation.

My contention is that, although it appears there was once an actual practice of ḥērem on the battlefield, both in ancient Israel and among its near neighbors, Deuteronomy uses and indeed privileges the notion of ḥērem only because it was seen to lend itself to a particular metaphorical usage for practices appropriate to enabling Israel’s everyday allegiance to YHWH within a world of conflicting allegiances. (p. 68)

The use of military metaphors is fairly common … fight the good fight and the armor of God are examples (Ephesians 6). Perhaps the writer of Deuteronomy used this cultural language and concept to make a point.

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Of Gardens, Trees, and Serpents

Stone relief Nimrud ca 870BCE 2The next three propositions in John Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate deal with the imagery of Genesis 2-3 in its ancient Near Eastern context. The garden, the trees, and the serpent all conveyed a meaning in the ancient Near East that is lost on the modern reader. In fact scholars are only now uncovering some of the depth of this meaning.

First, The Garden. “[T]he image of fertile waters flowing from the sacred space of God’s presence is one of the most common in the iconography or the ancient Near East.” (p. 104) Both temples and palaces in the ancient Near East were accompanied by landscaped gardens with pools, fish, birds, animals, and exotic trees. Adam was not placed in the garden as a farmer to till the ground. He was placed in sacred space to serve a priestly function. He needs an ally to help him in this sacred space and Eve is that ally, Adam’s ontological equal in the image of God. This story has many resonances with ancient Near Eastern texts including the Gilgamesh epic. It isn’t that the text is derivative of, or copied from these texts, but that “Genesis is using common literary motifs to convey truths about humanity that are familiar topics of conversation in the ancient world.” (p. 110) Although we can understand the basic meaning without an appreciation for these literary and cultural motifs, we will miss the depth of meaning and significance the text conveyed to the original audience. Genesis turns many of the cultural ideas on their heads in its focus on the God of Israel. Divine objects become created objects, and the role and place of humanity is quite different. These distinctions drive home the message. “The role of Adam and Eve as priests in sacred space is what sets them apart, not their sacred role.” (p. 115)

Walton holds that Adam and Eve were unique historical individuals, as discussed in the last post (Consider Melchizedek … and Adam). The imagery of the text, does not, however, require that they were the only humans alive at the time.

In light of their specific role concerning access to God in sacred space and relationship with him, we might alternatively consider the possibility that the are the first significant humans. As with Abram, who was given a significant role as the ancestor of Israel (though not the first ancestor of Israel), Adam and Eve would be viewed as established as significant by their election. This would be true whether or not other people were around. Their election is to a priestly role,the first to be placed in sacred space. (pp. 114-115)

Stone relief Nimrud ca 870BCE 3Second, The Trees. Trees played an important role in the ancient Near Eastern imagery. The images at the top of this post and to the right are stone panels, now in the British Museum, from the Neo-Assyrian palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud ca. 870 BCE with a sacred tree. (I took the pictures when visiting the British Museum last summer – along with the others in the post.) According to the British Museum website referring to the tree in the image at the top of the post:

The stylized tree between the spirits is usually called a Sacred Tree or even, misleadingly, a Tree of Life. It bears some distant relationship to the palm-tree, having a palmette on top of the trunk and a trellis of smaller palmettes around it. The palmette is a distinctly Assyrian version of a symbol which had long been known in Mesopotamia and the Levant. Its exact meaning is not clear, but the flowing streams and vegetation could be taken as representing the fertility of the earth, or more specifically, Assyria itself. Though no two Sacred Trees were exactly alike, the arrangement of the branches on the two sides of each tree was always identical.

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A Possible Approach to ḥērem in Deuteronomy?

Poussin_-_Joshua_and_the_Amorites_Moscow dsIn the last post on Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture we considered the nature of Israel as a chosen people. One of the principle texts here is Deuteronomy 7:6

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the people on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Although the exclusive nature of Israel as the chosen people raises some important questions, it is the little word “for” here that really causes problems. The word is connects this statement to what came before. Because Israel is chosen as a treasured possession they are to utterly destroy the seven nations in Canaan.

When the Lord your God brings you to the land you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you – and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them [haḥărēm taḥărīm, the verb is an emphatic form of the root from which the noun ḥērem is derived]. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5, p. 54-55)

The war that Israel is to wage against the seven nations is a holy war, a conquest in which they are apparently called to utterly destroy their opponents. Moberly lays it on the line:

Here we face what may be the quintessential enigma and challenge of the Old Testament. One moment we are considering the mystery and wonder of divine love as fundamental to the calling and choosing of Israel; the next moment we are considering such choosing as a basis for apparent divinely sponsored genocide. One moment we see God as loving; the next moment we see a deity who apparently sponsors mass murder. How should this be approached and understood? (p. 56)

There is no simple answer to this question – but there are some promising directions. The acceptability of these directions may be related to one’s view of scripture. In certain views of inerrancy the violence is taken at face value and rationalized as deserved punishment, either for the specific sins of these peoples or for the general depravity of fallen humanity. We all deserve obliteration – the wonder is the mercy that God shows. Add to this the fact that it occurred so long ago, and the violence can be safely ignored.

This view troubles many Christians because it doesn’t seem consistent with the nature of God as love or with his justice and mercy. Moberly offers some ideas that he finds promising. These will not satisfy some literalists, but Moberly suggests that we should take the rhetoric of the text seriously without taking it woodenly.

First, the letter of the passage argues against a literalist reading. It clearly contains rhetorical idioms of the ancient Israelites. One of these is the symbolism of the number seven which Moberly points out “often functions to indicate ‘many’ rather than a precise number.” In other places the lists of occupants of Canaan vary in identity and number (five, six, or ten peoples in Genesis and Exodus for example).

[This] suggests that the function of the lists is more rhetorical than geographical. In other words, the seven nations are probably symbolic opponents who represent a threat to Israel within its home territory. (p. 59)

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Not a Scientific Hypothesis

ArizonaChapter four of Mark Harris’s book The Nature of Creation looks at creation according to the bible outside of Genesis 1-3 (Genesis 1-3 was covered in the previous chapter and our previous post Theologies of Creation?). The key point is that “God as Creator cannot straightforwardly be treated either as a scientific hypothesis to be reasoned about or an entirely objective other.” (p. 81) Creation as described in scripture is not a philosopher’s designer or a scientist’s cause. Creation is inherently relational and creation and redemption are tied together in an intertwined tangle. We know God in relationship, by his self-revelation, not by observation.

It is important to note here that revelation is not simply a code-word for Scripture. The Bible is an inspired record of God’s self-revelation to his people. This self-revelation is the essence of the story we learn through Scripture and in the ongoing witness of the Church. God was and is in relationship with his people. God revealed himself to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Deborah, Samuel, David, Huldah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, … even to Solomon, Jeroboam, and Ahab (through Elijah, revelation didn’t necessarily lead to obedience) … Mary, Peter, John, Mary, Paul, … and to many others in the pages of scripture.

The Bible tells a story of relationship that culminates in Christ and in the hope for the age to come.

To a Christian, any hypothesis is incomplete that puts forward arguments for or against the existence of God based on science or creation, and that does not also take into account the fact that through Christ’s life, death and resurrection God has entered into an intimate relationship with the universe and so also redeems it. (p. 81)

I’ve started with Harris’s conclusions to frame our discussion of the creation motif in the Bible. The creation motif in the Bible is focused on the nature of God. Harris builds on the ideas of Terrance Fretheim (God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation) that “Old Testament creation thought is relational; that is it sees the formation of relationships as basic to God’s nature and to God’s formation of creation. Everything exists in a state of interrelatedness, reflecting its maker.” (p. 59)

Creation and Narrative. The narrative texts of the Old Testament tell the “gigantic story from the beginnings of humankind to the beginnings of Israel, and then beyond to the effective end of Israel and Judah at the exile, and the tentative re-birth at the rebuilding of Jerusalem.” (p. 60) In the Pentateuch we see the creation of the cosmos, the creation of humans, recreation after the flood, the creation of Israel through Abraham, the creation of Israel as a nation at the Exodus, the creation of the tabernacle. Creation, redemption, and the law are closely tied together in this story. Like God’s creative action in Genesis 1, the law brings order out of chaos and forms a people.

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A Chosen People!?

Moberly OT TheologyThe second chapter of R. W. L. Moberly’s Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture turns to an issue that raises many questions about Judaism and Christianity – the status of Israel as a chosen people. Two related, but distinct, questions are raised in this chapter – the first is the exclusive nature of the chosen, and the second is the hērem warfare of Deuteronomy and Joshua. These are both important questions, but the first can (chosen) get lost in the second (war). We will look at the questions in two separate posts.

The claim that Israel is a chosen people runs through the Old and New Testaments, especially the Old Testament. But this claim of particularity is disturbing for many. To illustrate the tension Moberly quotes Walter Brueggemann from a conversation with Carolyn Sharp:

You know, deep in the night, I think about the whole scandal of particularity: about the chosenness of Israel and the chosenness of Jesus and the chosenness of the Church. It’s kind of chilling to think that that’s how we’ve made our faith claim. I’m haunted by that stuff. (p. 42)

The question of hell is a part of this scandal of particularity. The chosen go to heaven, the rest go to hell, even (according to some) the child enslaved, beaten, used and abused to death. As one not among the chosen hell is a deserved fate. Hell is primarily a New Testament concept, rather than an Old Testament concept, but the scandal or blessing of particularity runs deep through the story.

The election of Israel begins with Genesis 12 when God calls Abram and is made explicit in Deuteronomy 7:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

The election of Israel is grounded in a covenant with their ancestors and reflects a faithful love – as we hear in Deuteronomy 10.

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

Moberly reflects on this election of Israel by God and the sense of wonder and devotion to God that it should bring to the people. God’s election of Israel reflects his love of Israel and this is an end in itself. “It is justified in the way that love is justified – and love is its own justification. … Fundamentally, however, love transcends rationalizations.” (p. 46)

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Consider Melchizedek … and Adam

Lost World of Adam and EveThe next chapter of John Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve focuses directly on the question of historicity. Walton holds to Adam and Eve as historical individuals, although they are used primarily as archetypal examples in Scripture. Here he lays out his argument for historicity. But first … he considers Melchizedek. This example helps to highlight the complexity of the question and the nature of inspiration.

Melchizedek appears in three passages of Scripture – Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and Hebrews 5-7. If it were not for the last passage we, as Christians, would pay him little attention. First, in Genesis 14 in a rather enigmatic section he welcomes Abram back from a successful campaign to rescue Lot and his family who were taken in a raid on Sodom:

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High,and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

The reference in Psalm 110 is equally enigmatic:

The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek.”

Although the Torah restricts the priesthood to a specific family line in the tribe of Levi, the royal priesthood connecting king and priest – common in the ancient Near East – is invoked through the example of Melchizedek. These two references led to diverse speculation in Jewish thinking – which we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Philo, and other sources.

By the time we get to Hebrews 7, these Jewish traditions are mixed into the consideration of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews is not drawing his information on Melchizedek solely from the Old Testament; he is also interacting with the traditions known to his audience. It is the Jewish profile of Melchizedek, not just the canonical profile, that informs his comparison. He need not accept their beliefs, but he is demonstrating that Christ’s position is superior to the position in which they have placed others. He therefore relates not only to the Melchizedek of history, but to the Melchizedek of Jewish imagination. … The point for the author of Hebrews is not to argue the validity of his audience’s belief one way or another but to use their beliefs for a comparison to Christ. (p. 98)

Clearly there is far more involved here than a simple question of historicity. The argument doesn’t actually depend on the historicity of Melchizedek at all. Although some may argue that the giving of the tithe in 7:4-10 should have historical basis, not merely literary basis for the argument to work (and Walton appears to feel this way himself), I disagree. Melchizedek may well be a historical figure, but the strength of the argument in Hebrews doesn’t depend on this – or on the ancient understanding of reproduction that Levi was in the body of his ancestor.

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