Pentateuch or Torah

The first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, are often referred to as the Pentateuch, literally five books or five scrolls. More importantly, however, they are referred to as the Torah or the law. Michael LeFebvre outlines the importance of this designation in chapter six of his book, The Liturgy of Creation. It is not that the books contain the law, as though the designation torah was restricted to the specific regulations laid down (you shall not murder, you shall not steal etc.). Rather the five books in all their complexity as a whole comprise the law.

This is important. Although the books of the Pentateuch relate a history, the purpose is legal rather than historical. LeFebvre explains:

Normally, a historical narrative is written to tell us what happened in the past. But as part of Israel’s Torah, the narratives of the Pentateuch have an anticipatory purpose. They are histories bout the past told in a manner to instruct audiences in the present and the future. Every historical narrative in the Bible has instructional value (1 Cor 10:11), but the narratives in the Pentateuch – as Torah narratives – provide a more precise, technical kind of instruction. They participate in the legal guidance of ancient Israel, by which we mean instruction in the rituals, institutions, and regulations that defined Israel as an ordered kingdom. The historical narratives of the Torah are more than models of faith (though they certainly are that; see Heb 11:1-31). They are legal definitions of the various institutions and regulations of ancient Israel in story form. (p. 96)

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Reading Job

The book of Job is a truly amazing part of Scripture. The book strikes me as one of the most significant, misunderstood, and under appreciated, books in the entire Bible. I’ve turned to it many times over the last 8 or 9  years, since I first read the book through in its entirety – both the boring speeches and the more exciting parts. Quite frankly, it overturned many of my preconceptions about God and about the nature of Scripture as the word of God. Although it has been offered as a guide to those in the midst of suffering, it doesn’t really work well for one who is actually suffering. It is a bit too cerebral and detached. It works better as a preparation for the times of suffering that come inevitably to all of us sooner or later.

Lately I’ve been drawn to the book once again, thinking about everything that is going on in our world. Uncertainty rules as we don’t really know what tomorrow will bring. For a guide to Job, I generally turn to two commentaries, one by Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)) and one by John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) as well as a much shorter popular book they teamed up to write How to Read Job. This time through I have yet a third commentary, The entry on Job by August H. Konkel in Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary).

Today we will turn to the introduction to the book provided by Walton and Longman in Part One of How to Read Job. I’ve posted on this before and what follows is an edited version of that post. The book of Job is not history and it is not, actually, about Job. Both Walton and Longman agree that the book of Job is about God and the way God runs the world. They argue that two major questions drive the book. First: Is it good policy for God to bless the righteous? Blessing the righteous just buys pseudo-loyalty doesn’t it? And second, Is it it just when God allows righteous people to suffer?

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Science and Faith in Pandemic Times

Francis Collins had a conversation Monday night with Jim Stump and Deb Haarsma of BioLogos. For those who don’t know, Francis Collins is the Director of the National Institutes of Health, following on a successful career as head of the human genome project at NIH, and before that as a professor at the University of Michigan where he and his team identified the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis as well as a number of other genes responsible for a range of diseases. He was appointed director of NIH by Barack Obama in 2009 and selected to continue in this role by Donald Trump in 2017. His experience and leadership is a true blessing in this current crisis.

Francis Collins is also a Christian, convinced that science and Christian faith are fully compatible. His 2006 book The Language of God outlining his story of coming to faith and his approach to science and faith (especially evolution) helped many Christians and encouraged others  others to take a more outspoken stand in the discussion of science and faith.  I read his book straight through within a day of purchase and very shortly after the initial release. Of course, one book was not sufficient to answer all the questions people had, and Collins started to receive regular requests for more. With Karl Giberson, Collins published a followup The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions to address some of the most commonly asked questions. BioLogos was founded in 2009, shortly before Collins was selected to head the NIH, to explore the answers to questions of science and Christian faith and to invite “the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith.” It is an ongoing task.

For those who missed the live stream interview, the whole was recorded and is available at YouTube (https://youtu.be/EZ3JzHCsPp8). I encourage you to watch, it is well worth the time.

In the interview Francis refers to the NIH Director’s Blog he writes on a regular basis. This is also a great source of information on COVID-19 and the ongoing scientific efforts to tackle the problem, identifying treatments and preventative measures as well as developing safe and effective vaccines. This is a wartime effort. Among other things, Collins has addressed conspiracy theories and the suggestion that the virus was designed through human intervention. Study of the RNA code demonstrates a natural origin (Genomic Study Points to Natural Origin of COVID-19). But he also gets down to a personal level at times – both in the interview above and in the blog. His post on April 7 addresses the stress, anxiety and grief that many of us experience in this time of rapid change and isolation.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. Josh. 1:9

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

This post is also visible at Jesus Creed now at Christianity Today.

I welcome comments that enlighten us on the topic or ask questions. Expressions of disagreement, agreement, and elaboration are also welcome. Comments are moderated and comments that are excessively long, are abusive or aggressive, or are off-topic will not appear. Imagine that you are holding a conversation over coffee with a friend and you want to remain friends. Your first comment will be held for moderation – subsequent comments will usually appear automatically.

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Dates and Numbers

We expect dates and numbers to fit – to work – with mathematical precision. We know our ages and dates of birth. The age of our country, dated to the Declaration of Independence, officially July 4 1776  (for those of us in the US of course, other countries have other significant dates). I remember the bicentennial celebrations back when I was in high school. In 6 years we will celebrate 250 year. We expect to be able to date things precisely. We expect accurate dates and numbers in our literature and our histories. When the numbers don’t work we notice.

It was an expectation of mathematical precision that led Bishop Ussher in the 1600’s to date creation to the entrance of the night preceding the 23rd day of October 4004 BC. This expectation of precision has become ingrained in our culture over the last 400+ years. But the closer we look at the oldest parts of the Old Testament, the clearer it becomes that the dates and numbers don’t work this way. They don’t, as Michael LeFebvre (The Liturgy of Creation) puts it, “rhyme”. As a scientist, an experimentalist who works with data and numbers every day, looking for the patterns and themes, I find this realization inescapable. In science, when the data don’t fit (after extensive examination) we attribute it to error – or worse, to fabrication. Experiments need to be redone. Occasionally (but rarely) it is our understanding of the underlying physical phenomena that needs to be revised. More often the error or duplicity is uncovered. In our modern era, we expect coherence, we expect the numbers to “rhyme.”

Many in our modern world have looked at these consistency issues in the Old Testament and concluded that the Bible is simply full of errors and thus untrustworthy. Christianity, then, is just an ancient myth among many others. Some Christians have proposed rather farfetched scenarios to make the numbers work. Others simply turn a blind eye and choose not to think about it.

But is this the right way to think about these chapters in the Bible?

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An Instrument of God

We continue our walk through Isaiah with Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) as our guide. Today we focus on Isaiah 44:24-45:13, an oracle that names an historical figure, Cyrus, and calls him God’s anointed. The image to the right is of a monument to Cyrus. An abbreviated version of Isaiah 44-45 emphasizing Cyrus as an instrument of God is below:

“This is what the Lord says—
your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb:

who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd
and will accomplish all that I please;
he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,”
and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:

For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,

“This is what the Lord says—
the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker:

I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness:
I will make all his ways straight.
He will rebuild my city
and set my exiles free,
but not for a price or reward,
says the Lord Almighty.”

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With Science and With Prayer

Francis Collins was interviewed on the Focus on the Family Broadcast last Thursday.  The whole is worth listening to, and the prayer near the end especially (25:20 in the video).


If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

This post is also visible at Jesus Creed now at Christianity Today.

I welcome comments that enlighten us on the topic or ask questions. Expressions of disagreement, agreement, and elaboration are also welcome. Comments are moderated and comments that are excessively long, are abusive or aggressive, or are off-topic will not appear. Imagine that you are holding a conversation over coffee with a friend and you want to remain friends. Your first comment will be held for moderation – subsequent comments will usually appear automatically.

Posted in Science and Faith

A Text for Worshipers

Michael LeFebvre (The Liturgy of Creation) argues that the Pentateuch is a text for worshipers, not for historians. The difference is significant. A modern historian is charged with uncovering facts, who, what, when, where, how, and why.  A worshiper is concerned with only a few of these – specifically why and who as they pertain to worship. Precise dates, so important to our modern mind, were not all that important to the ancient author and audience. Dates, when given, have more symbolic than historical significance.

There are only a handful of dates events in the Pentateuch – connected with the exodus or with the story of Noah. In chapter 4 of The Liturgy of Creation Lefebvre runs through all of these. The dates are connected to the major festivals of Israel and serve to anchor these to both events in the story of Israel and to the agricultural year.

Dates link a historical memory to the specific festivals that later Israel observed. The dates of the festivals are set by the heavenly lights and naturally occurring seasons and harvests of Canaan (as we saw in chapters one through three). The timing of the festivals are not based on the historical events they commemorate.  Rather, the reverse is the case.  The historical events are ascribed with the dates of Israel’s festivals in order to associate those memories with later Israel’s progress through each year’s calendar. (p. 60)

This is not a concept we should find entirely foreign. We do something similar as Christians when we celebrate the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. But it teaches us how to read and consider the dates given in the Genesis (connected with the flood) and in the exodus story.

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His Grace is Sufficient

As we all know by now, the current move to “social distancing” is designed to “flatten the curve.” While the problems will last longer, the human toll should be smaller. The number of critical cases will remain closer to the capacity of our health care systems. If the spread is slowed more people survive.  There may even be time to develop and disseminate more effective treatment plans.  At our University all research, except research related to COVID-19, is pretty much on hold – or will be soon.  This is pretty typical. Many relevant laboratories around the world have refocused their efforts onto this problem. The internet, and the capacity to share information around the world, will also help. Fortunately this kind of virus doesn’t travel through the net.

We can also pray that warmer weather will help to slow the spread.

As is well known to many of us, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health for the last decade, is an eminent scientist, an effective leader, and a devout Christian. Peter Wehner recently interviewed Dr. Collins on both the coronavirus and his Christian faith. The interview is published in the Atlantic, and currently available on the site with or without subscription. NIH Director: ‘We’re on an Exponential Curve’ Francis Collins speaks about the coronavirus, his faith, and an unusual friendship. The article starts:

There are estimates that if nothing goes right and if we fail to flatten the curve and if health systems are overwhelmed, we might see the deaths of as many as a million and a half people in the United States.”

That’s what Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told me on Saturday. Collins is one of the most widely respected physician-geneticists in the world, who is deeply involved in containing the coronavirus pandemic. (Anthony Fauci, arguably the world’s leading infectious-disease specialist, works for Collins at the NIH and is a close friend.)

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Forward and Backward

These are interesting times. Last Monday and Tuesday I was out of town, part of a departmental review committee at another University. Wednesday, seeing the writing on the wall, I spent half of my class introducing my students to our video conferencing software. By Thursday classes were canceled and effective yesterday everything at our University was moved online. I even gave my regularly scheduled midterm last night – but in a somewhat different format, with my students scattered across the country. (We were asked to stick with the regular schedules as much as possible so students wouldn’t have scheduling conflicts.)

We are not the only ones affected, of course. Churches look to online services, which seemed to work relatively well last weekend. It is strange to lecture or to preach to cameras instead of faces.

It is probably no surprise that I haven’t had time to dig deeper into Ben Witherington’s book (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) for a new post today. Instead I though I’d repeat a post from several years ago from Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture, his chapter on Jesus and Isaiah.

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_Emaus dsLuke 24 relates a story immediately following the resurrection account (image):

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them … He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (v. 13-15, 25-27)

The Scriptures Jesus explained were in the writings we refer to as the Old Testament. The Old Testament Scriptures provide the context for understanding Jesus as Messiah. The disciples needed to be able to read these Scriptures in a new light. But what does this mean? What did Jesus tell his disciples? Walter Moberly digs into this issue focusing on Isaiah, but touching on other prophets as well.

The nature of prophecy. Many (most?) Christians have a rather distorted view of the role of prophecy in the Old Testament. There is no “Bible code” with messages foretelling specific events in the future. Prophetic speech in the Old Testament takes several forms – but this isn’t one.

Classical prophetic speech is a “moral and spiritual challenge that seeks response.” The prophet is focused on the present situation. “Correspondingly, the future is seen to be contingent in relation to the response given: God can take into account people’s responsiveness and not carry out the prophet’s warning or promise if the circumstances have changed.” (p. 147) Although Christians often take Deuteronomy 18:22 and Jeremiah 28:9 as proof texts for the accuracy of prophecy, these do not undercut this contingency. Jeremiah is facing a specific situation: As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet. Moses speaks of the future of Israel, but the curses and blessings of Moses himself were contingent on the responsiveness of the people.

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A Chosen Servant

We continue our walk through Isaiah with Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) as our guide. Today we focus on Isaiah 42, the first of the servant oracles – presented as lyric poetry or “songs.” Witherington emphasizes, however, that they are prophetic oracles. Isaiah 42:1-7 is a well known text.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (42:1-7)

The Lord’s servant will bring forth justice for the nations – including, but not only, Israel.  The Hebrew word behind our translation “servant” is a general term not necessarily defined by a specific role … “More to the point in a context where Yahweh is speaking, it refers to a relationship someone, or some group, has with God.” (p. 201) God’s servant, whom he has chosen, on whom his Spirit rests, will bring forth justice. Although “servant” is, at times, applied to Israel (e.g. Is 41:8 “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend“), in chapter 42 it appears to reference a specific individual, perhaps with multiple levels of fulfillment. The servant is made a covenant, i.e. embodies a covenant, for all peoples. The servant himself is central.

Whether the intent of the original human author was to identify an individual or the Jewish people as the servant, there is no doubt how it was interpreted in the early church. Jesus is the faithful servant, the faithful Israelite. Jesus does what Israel never could accomplish. Matthew quotes the first part of this passage explicitly, and applies it to Jesus as predictive prophecy. (12:17-21)

This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Witherington points out that Matthew has not tailored this quote to fit fit his immediate context. Rather, he is quite clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy. In fact, “Matthew is quite clear that Isaiah prophesied this oracle, and prophesied it quite specifically about Jesus.” (p. 205) This doesn’t mean that it had to be the historical Isaiah living in the time of Hezekiah, but it surely means the original author of this portion of the book – long before the first century birth of Jesus. Matthew also emphasizes that this was spoken through the prophet – these are the words of God spoken through his prophet. Only with the advent of Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, and the establishment of the church was their meaning more fully understood.

Matthew does make one clear change to the text – following the Greek rather than the Hebrew text of Isaiah. The nations will put their hope in his name not in his teaching. It is Jesus himself, not the law, that brings hope.


If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

I welcome comments that enlighten us on the topic or ask questions. Expressions of disagreement, agreement, and elaboration are also welcome. Comments are moderated and comments that are excessively long, are abusive or aggressive, or are off-topic will not appear. Imagine that you are holding a conversation over coffee with a friend and you want to remain friends. Your first comment will be held for moderation – subsequent comments will usually appear automatically.

The link to the book above is a commissioned link. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

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