The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format.
He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.
Q. The non-believer goes to various secular sources for help in areas like drugs and alcohol, anger management, eating disorders, etc. The believer goes to the Lord trusting the Holy Spirit for power to help because he’s powerless. My question is, “What is the advantage for the believer?” He sees the non-believer progressing in these areas without the Spirit’s help, doesn’t he? Are there some domains of sin where the believer can say, “I received victory in these areas only by the power of God?”
I think it’s actually inaccurate to draw a contrast between non-believers getting help from community resources without God and believers getting help from God all on their own.
On the one hand, classic Christian theology holds that those who have not yet benefited from the “special grace” of God that leads us to salvation in Jesus Christ nevertheless still benefit from the “common grace” of God that is in the world because it is God’s good creation and because God is actively exerting a redemptive influence throughout the earth. So the non-believer is not necessarily making progress in finding freedom from destructive patterns of life “without the Spirit’s help.” This is particularly true if he or she is participating in a group whose members are all working together to overcome a common problem. Human community, when it is cooperative and directed towards a positive end, reflects the character of God and can be a powerful channel of common grace.
On the other hand, the biblical portrayal of salvation is not that we are saved in isolation and need to work out our sanctification (progress towards Christ-like character and life) all alone, just between ourselves and God. Paul writes to the Corinthians, for example, regarding our entrance into the Christian life, that “we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit.” We are saved into community, not into individual self-reliance. (That’s the American individualistic version of “salvation” instead.)
So it’s not a matter of vindicating the need for faith by identifying certain areas of life where destructive patterns can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit’s help. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that we live out the model of life that God intended for us humans when the take part in a community whose members offer one another mutual support and encouragement. This is so powerful that it can have many beneficial effects for members even when the community is not built on a shared faith commitment. (Although many “secular” groups actually do talk about the need to rely on a “higher power.”) But I honestly believe that when followers of Jesus form close communities in which members can share their struggles honestly and receive help from people who do not judge them, but rather support and help them, even more powerful things can and do happen. That’s the kind of community I wish for you and for all of my readers.
Q. What is “noble character”? How is formulated? How can we recognize it? What are a few virtues within character—the heavy hitters, let’s say. Thank you.
There are some masterful descriptions in the New Testament of the components of mature, Christ-like character. One of the best known is Paul’s description in Galatians of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control.”
Another description of the qualities of noble character is Peter’s account of how we should progress into maturity: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Anyone would do well to meditate on these qualities and aspire to the ideal that these New Testament passages hold up for us of mature character in Christ. This may be enough to answer your question. However, let me also describe one more aspect of noble character that’s identified by that specific term in the Old Testament.
At a key point in the story of Ruth, Boaz says to her, “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.” He has already explained, a little earlier in the story, why she has this reputation: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.”
It seems to me that Ruth is considered a woman of noble character (literally a “woman of valor,” chayil) because she has honored the implicit obligations of her relationship to Naomi. At great cost and danger to herself, she has worked hard to ensure that her mother-in-law will be provided for.
Every relationship brings with it certain responsibilities towards another person. These may be things that we promise explicitly to honor when we enter the relationship (as, for example, in wedding vows), or they may be things that are implicit: When you bring a child into the world, for example, you’re accepting an implicit obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and raise that child.
The word chayil is used most often in the Old Testament to describe men who go out to war to protect their homes and families when these are threatened by enemies. It often has the sense of being brave in battle, but I think there’s also an overtone of fulfilling an obligation. Someone who could fight to protect loved ones but didn’t do this wouldn’t be considered a person of noble character.
But there are a couple of other interesting places in the Old Testament where chayil is applied to women, as it is to Ruth, apart from the context of fighting against invading enemies. One of Solomon’s proverbs says, “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a wife who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.” We’re not told specifically in what way the second kind of wife might cause shame, but in the cultural context of Proverbs, I believe it would have more to do with failing in relational obligations than with going off and doing some scandalous thing. Another proverb says, for example, “He who hurts his father and puts his mother out of the house is a son who causes much shame.” (By contrast, the one specific example that Jesus gave of what it meant to “honor father and mother” was to care for them as they got older.) The idea is that the community is looking on and that it’s aware of who is faithfully helping their family and friends (like Ruth) and who isn’t.
The other place where chayil is used to describe a woman is at the end of Proverbs:
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
This passage then goes on to describe how this woman faithfully and busily carries out all of her responsibilities, so that “the affairs of her household” are well-managed. She fulfills her obligations not only to her husband, but also to her children and servants, and to her neighbors in the community: “She opens her arms to the poorand extends her hands to the needy.” (She would not have had to ask Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” as the teacher of the law did whom Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan!)
It seems to me, then, that the starting point for becoming a person of noble character is to honor and fulfill such relational obligations consistently. Unfortunately some people do not do this, and they fail those they should be protecting and providing for.
This might not sound like being a “heavy hitter,” just being faithful day by day in fundamental tasks. But that’s actually what baseball teams always start with in spring training: the fundamentals. Those who practice them well become the heavy hitters of the later season.
A reader of another of my blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, has asked how the interpretation offered there of the Genesis creation account compares with the one in John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. In response, I have offered a review of Walton’s book in a series of posts that begins here. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to read the review as well, since it deals with many “good questions” about the Bible.
Q. I appreciated your post on “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wresting match?” but I have another question. This one has been disturbing me for quite a long time. Why did God allow Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing and get away with it? Why did God continue to bless Jacob? I expected that at some point, because we are dealing with an omnipotent being, God was going to reverse the blessings, but that doesn’t happen. Please answer.
Let me respond by offering a series of observations. First, the blessing that Jacob stole from Esau was specifically the blessing of primogeniture, that is, the blessing Esau would have been given so that he could fulfill his responsibilities as the first-born son of Isaac.
Primogeniture (which simply means “first born”) was one of the existing cultural institutions that God incorporated into the Law of Moses to promote order and provide for those in need. The book of Deuteronomy commands that when a father dies and his inheritance is divided, the firstborn son is to be given a “double portion,” that is, twice as much as the other sons. In this culture women didn’t own property and so they were dependent on male relatives, typically their fathers and then their husbands. But any unmarried sisters, or widowed sisters without children, would have to depend on this oldest brother after the father’s death. That’s why he was given a double portion, so he could care both for his own immediate family and for his extended family in his late father’s stead.
It was customary for a father, on his deathbed, to bless the firstborn son, asking God to give him material abundance so that he could care for the extended family, and to make his brothers come under his authority so that order would be preserved within the clan. Accordingly, when Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he’s Esau his firstborn), he says, “May God give you heaven’s dewand earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine,” and, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”
A further observation I’d like to make is that, paradoxically, God repeatedly did not follow the custom of primogeniture as He carried out His program of redemption. The Old Testament is full of examples of God choosing younger brothers over older ones: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau (even before they were born, God told their mother, “the older will serve the younger“); Judah over his three older brothers as the ancestor of the royal line; David over his seven older brothers as king; and so forth. It seems that God simply looks for the person who can best fulfill his purposes, regardless of that person’s social standing. And so the judges, for example, include both men and women (Deborah), even though this was a patriarchal society that privileged men, and they also include an illegitimate son (Jephthah) and a youngest son (Gideon).
My next observation is that God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. We get an indication of this when Joseph tells his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God does not take away our free will; God lets us choose, and God is always able to work with our choices to advance his own positive purposes, although there can also be negative consequences for people who makes bad choices.
Genesis tells us that “Esau despised his birthright,” that is, his responsibilities as the firstborn son weren’t important to him and he was likely to neglect them. Jacob, on the other hand, was hard-working and ambitious—a real hustler. He was much better suited to assume the leadership of the Israelite family as it began growing rapidly into a group of tribes that would become a nation. Ideally, Esau would have recognized Jacob’s abilities, and his own disinclination, and offered Jacob the role of family leader voluntarily. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
Jacob was a “hustler” in another sense—a con artist. He took advantage of a weakness in Esau’s character to defraud him. The book of Hebrews describes Esau as “profane,” meaning literally that “nothing was sacred to him.” (Clearly these were two young men who both needed some character development!) One day Esau came home famished at the end of a day of hunting and saw that Jacob had made stew. He pleaded for some, and Jacob “sold” it to him in exchange for his birthright, which he knew meant nothing to Esau.
But Jacob still had to get the blessing that went with the birthright, and so he also deceived his father Isaac, pretending to be Esau once his father’s eyesight had grown so dim that he couldn’t tell the difference. (Though smooth-skinned Jacob also had to put on Esau’s clothes and wrap his arms and neck in goatskins, so that he would smell and feel like his hairy older brother!) As a result of this deception, Jacob received his father’s blessing, in God’s name, of both material abundance and family leadership.
So why did God honor this blessing, when it was obtained under such fraudulent circumstances? As I said earlier, God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. Unfortunately we often don’t give God good choices to work with, and that seems to be what happened in this case. There were plenty of negative consequences for Jacob: He had to flee from his brother’s anger at this deception, leaving with nothing but a staff and spending twenty years in exile. But through the hardships of those years, his character was shaped and he became a man who could lead the tribes of Israel into their future. The same thing could have been accomplished much more positively, but I think that everyone involved (not just Esau and Jacob, but their parents Isaac and Rebekah, who each showed favoritism towards a different son) didn’t give God enough good choices to work with to allow things to happen any better. As I said, God doesn’t take away our free will.
One final observation I’d like to offer is that when Jacob returns from exile a wealthy man, rich in flocks and herds, he does make some restitution to Esau for the material abundance he stole from him when he took his firstborn blessing. Jacob sends Esau hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, and donkeys, and when they meet in person, he says to him, “Accept the gift I have brought you.” This is literally, “Please accept my blessing that has been brought to you.” Jacob is making restitution by providing Esau with a “blessing” in place of the one he stole. Jacob also bows down to Esau and calls him “My lord,” even though Isaac’s blessing to Jacob had been, “Be lord over your brothers,and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”
These actions on Jacob’s part don’t undo Esau’s surrender of his birthright; that was an permanent transaction between the two of them, even though it wasn’t concluded under the best of circumstances. But it does seem that Jacob, now that he is more mature, at least tries to return some of the benefits of their father’s blessing to Esau.
Sometimes this kind of thing is best we can hope for. It’s a messy world, even with an omnipotent God actively working to bring about its renewal.
Q. I noticed in the Genesis account of the Fall that God didn’t clothe Adam and Eve with animal skins until they said, “I did eat the fruit.” This reminded me of what John wrote in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Can we conclude that Adam and Eve repented, and that God forgave them?
To be honest, as least I read the account of the Fall and its aftermath, I don’t see Adam and Eve really making the kind of “confession” that John seems to be talking about. Rather, they each try to blame somebody else for what they did. God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” He replies, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Adam is practically blaming God for what he did!) And Eve, for her part, says, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” These are confessions of a sort, but they’re definitely trying to spread the blame around.
We would want to see people take much more responsibility for their own actions if they expected to be forgiven.* Nevertheless, after explaining what the consequences of their actions would be, God clothes Adam and Eve in animal skins. Many Christian interpreters note that this required the animals to be slaughtered, that is, sacrificed. They hold that this sacrifice, like others in the Old Testament, looked forward to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which would have been the ultimate basis on which Adam and Eve were forgiven for their sin. But how could they be forgiven if they didn’t really repent and confess, but instead tried to blame somebody else?
I think there’s a clue in the passage. God had told them earlier, “You shall not eatof the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” But they didn’t actually die on this same “day.”
Many interpreters account for this by explaining that the Hebrew phrase “in the day” can refer to a period of time beginning with a named event. For example, after Jacob returns safely to Canaan after twenty years of exile, he dedicates an altar at Bethel, where he encountered God as he was first fleeing. He wants to do this, he says, because God “answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.” The “day of my distress” isn’t just the one day on which he had to flee; it’s the whole twenty years that began with that event, “the way which I went.” Similarly, for Adam and Eve, “the day that you eat of it” could mean “the period of time beginning with when you eat the fruit.” (Accordingly, some versions translate the command, “When you eat from it you will certainly die.”) Since part of Adam’s curse was that he would be expelled from the Garden of Eden and have to work himself to death just to survive, that could be the meaning.
However, there’s another possibility. God may simply have shown mercy to Adam and Eve by sparing their lives on this day. And the passage tells us that right after God announced the consequences of their disobedience without including immediate death as one of those consequences, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” Previously he had named her ishshah, “wife,” and at the same time given himself a new name, ish, “husband,” when he recognized a new aspect of his own identity in relationship to her. But now, by giving her this proper name, Adam may be expressing the realization, “We’re not going to die—at least not right now—we’re going to live on! We’re even going to have many generations of descendants!”
In other words, Adam (and presumably Eve with him) was accepting God’s mercy, which ought to mean that he was also accepting the judgment that was tempered by this mercy, and thereby acknowledging his own fault. And right after this, the passage tells us, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” This would be forgiveness—what some traditions call “assurance of pardon”—on the basis of their repentance.
Now I admit that the passage doesn’t say this explicitly, and that other interpretations are possible. Celebrating receiving mercy may not always be the same thing as accepting the judgment that may come with that mercy. This may simply be a description of Adam and Eve being spared, rather than forgiven upon repentance and confession. Still, I think that all the specific details in the passage are important and potentially significant, and so I believe we do have a basis, in the naming and the clothing, on which we could conclude that Adam and Eve did repent and were forgiven—even if their verbal “confessions” were not all that one might hope for.
*I’m speaking here of forgiveness in the sense of reconciliation, that is, the wrongdoer admitting fault and taking responsibility, so that it’s safe to begin rebuilding and restoring the relationship. However, as I explain in this post, it’s actually possible for someone to forgive another person internally, and so be set free from anger and bitterness, even if that person doesn’t admit their fault.
Actually, Isaiah’s vision would not be considered a theophany. That term means literally an “appearance of God” and it refers to those instances in the Old Testament when God, initially seeming to be human, appears to people and visits with them. The Bible often describes this human-like figure as the “angel of the Lord,” but sometimes the narrative shifts and it calls the figure “the Lord” (i.e. Yahweh, God Himself).
For example, in the story where Hagar flees from Sarah’s mistreatment, the text depicts the “angel of the Lord” speaking with Hagar. But at the end of the episode, it describes Hagar giving the name El-Roeh (“the God who sees”) to “the Lord who spoke to her.” Similarly, at the start of the story of the burning bush, the “angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in the flames. But the text then describes “the Lord” or “God” speaking to Moses from the bush.
When the angel of the Lord first appears to the future mother of Samson, she thinks he is a “man of God” (a prophet). When he returns, her husband asks him, “Are you the man who talked to my wife?” But eventually they both realize that he’s actually the the “angel of the Lord“—when he ascends to heaven on the flames of a fire they make to offer a sacrifice! Then the husband says, “We have seen God!”
So a theophany is an appearance of God on earth in human form, interacting with people who only eventually realize that He’s really God. Many Christian interpreters believe that these are actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ, that is, of Jesus in the human form that he would eventually have when he took on human flesh by being born to a human mother.
Isaiah’s vision in the temple is different. For one thing, there’s no question, right from the beginning, that Isaiah is seeing God. He says: “I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” So this is not a case in which God appears in human form. Rather, it’s a vision of the divine throne room, as Daniel would later have when he saw “thrones set in place,and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” John reports a similar vision of the heavenly throne room in the book of Revelation.
In addition, while the Lord interacts with Isaiah during the course of the vision (He asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replies, “Send me!”), this isn’t a case where God actually comes to earth to visit and speak with a particular person. Other biblical figures interact similarly with characters in their own visions, but this is not the same thing as a theophany. And so we should conclude that Isaiah saw not the pre-incarnate Jesus, but the “Ancient of Days,” identified with God the Father, on the heavenly throne.
Q. Paul writes in Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.” Can this statement be used in support the idea that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead?
For this particular statement to be used that way, it would have to refer to “the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead” rather than “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.” However, there’s another interesting statement in Romans that suggests that the Holy Spirit might indeed have had a role in raising Jesus from the dead. Paul says something a little earlier in the letter that’s parallel to this later statement: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Here Jesus’ resurrection is not attributed directly to the Father, but to something (or someone?) associated with the Father.
We may observe more generally that all of the activities of the Trinity involve all of its persons, so it would have been uncharacteristic for the Father alone to have raised the Son, without the involvement of the Spirit. As Christian thinkers in the first few centuries after Jesus tried to wrap their minds around the Trinity, one thing they agreed on was that it would be inaccurate to distinguish between the persons of the Trinity by appealing to their roles or responsibilities. That is, we shouldn’t say, “The Father does this while the Son does that and the Spirit does this other thing,” or, “The Father is responsible for this, and the Son for something else, and the Spirit for yet another area.”
We have some vivid pictures in the Bible of the persons of the Trinity all working together to accomplish important things. For example, in the Genesis creation account, God the Father creates through the Word while the Spirit hovers over the waters. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens open and the Father speaks while the Spirit descends like a dove. While he was on earth, Jesus himself said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also.” I think we can legitimately expand this to say, “Whatever the Father and the Son do, the Spirit does also.”
So in some way the Spirit must have been involved in the resurrection of Jesus. I picture it as being something like the way the “two witnesses” in the book of Revelation are raised from the dead: “The Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet.” (Many English translations say “breath of life” or “spirit of life” instead, but I think the text could well be referring to the Holy Spirit.)
This raises another very interesting question: If all three persons of the Trinity work together in every one of their activities, was Jesus involved in his own resurrection? The book of Hebrews makes this interesting statement: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” Jesus actually did die an earthly death, on the cross, and so this statement that his prayers to be saved from death were heard seems to be describing his resurrection. In that case, Jesus was involved in his own resurrection through his prayers and submission, that is, his trust in God.
Hebrews goes on to say, “Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he was perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” This, too, would suggest that the Second Person of the Trinity was involved in his own resurrection through his trusting obedience, and in that way he contributed to the achievement of salvation for humanity that the whole Trinity was working for together.