What “sea creatures” had been “tamed” in New Testament times?

Q. I am doing the James sessions from your wisdom literature study guide in my Sunday School class and this question came up: When James is talking about taming the tongue, he says, “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind.” What “sea creatures” had been tamed by the time of the early church?  (Dolphins??) Or does “tamed” means subdued or mastered rather than domesticated?

Rather than having specific “sea creatures” in mind that humans had trained and domesticated, I think James here is using another one of those “marvelous Hebrew expressions for totality” that I also discuss in this post.  In effect, he means that “every creature” can be at least subdued, if not tamed, by humans.  (The verb is damazō and in this context, as you suspect, it more likely means “subdued” or “controlled” than “tamed” or “domesticated.”)

One way the biblical authors speak of every creature is to refer to “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,” as Hosea does, echoing the three-part division of the creation in Genesis into land, sky, and sea.  But sometimes the land creatures are subdivided, as when Zephaniah speaks of “man and beast . . . the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.”

Another distinction among land creatures is between those that go on all fours and those that creep on the ground.  In the Genesis creation account, on the sixth day God makes “the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds.”  Significantly, the word used in the Septuagint or Greek New Testament for creeping creatures is herpetos, the same word that’s translated “reptiles” in James.  It should probably be understood with this broader meaning there.

This allows for a fourfold division of all creatures, such as appears in God’s words to Noah after the flood in Genesis:  “The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea.”  (In this case, the Septuagint uses the Greek word for “moving” rather than herpetos, but the same distinction is in view.)

In the story of Peter’s vision in Acts, the narrator says similarly that the sheet he saw lowered from heaven “contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles [herpeta] and birds.”  When Peter himself describes this vision later in the book, he divides the land animals even further into “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles [herpeta] and birds,” arriving at the characteristic four-fold division meaning “all creatures” even without citing sea creatures.  Paul does something similar in Romans when he speaks of “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

So we should recognize James’ phrase about “animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures” as his own version of the variable three-fold or four-fold formula meaning “all-creatures.”  It’s important not to think the Bible is providing specifics when it’s speaking generally this way.  Otherwise we get into questions like the one asked in your class that can needlessly call the accuracy and thus the truth of the Bible into question.

More importantly, we might misunderstand James means when he says that “no human being can tame the tongue.”  That’s the whole point he wants to make by drawing his comparison to the taming of creatures.  If we believe he’s making a universal statement, rather than a general one, then we’ll conclude it’s pointless to try to tame our own tongues.  But that is precisely what James is encouraging us to do here.  He says, holding up an ideal standard we should aspire to, “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”  More is at stake than just our understanding of the Bible in cases like this; our obedience depends on it.

Henry Davenport Northrop, “Peter’s vision of a sheet with animals,” 1894.

Why does the Bible say that the moon could hurt us?

Q.  I’m reading Psalm 121 and I’m puzzled that it says, “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”  I can see the dangers of things like sunstroke and heat exhaustion, but how can the moon hurt us?

As I explain in my study guide to the Psalms, Psalm 121 is one of the “songs of ascents” that were composed to reassure the Israelites of God’s protection as they went up to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage festivals.

One approach to answering your question is to try to argue that the moon actually can hurt us (for example, by observing that there are more car accidents when the moon is full, etc.), on the premise that the Bible’s authority is somehow at risk if it suggests the moon could hurt us when it really can’t.

Another approach is to say that in statements like this, the Bible is preserving a popular belief that has since proved unscientific, but this doesn’t put the Bible’s authority at risk; rather, the preservation of such ancient beliefs is part of the Bible’s human witness to God’s deeds and character.

I personally wouldn’t have a problem with that second approach, but in this case I don’t think it’s necessary, because there’s a third approach that’s actually more in keeping with Hebrew thought and language.

We need to hear the statement that “the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night” in light of the understanding, articulated in the Genesis creation account, that God established the “sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night.”  Psalm 121 is saying, “Not even the ruler of the day will hurt you; how much less any of the servants of the ruler of the day (that is, anything else during the day).  Not even the ruler of the night will hurt you; how much less anything else during the night.”

In other words, this is one of those marvelous Hebrew expressions for totality that we find so often in the Scriptures (which include others such as “from the least to the greatest,” “from the heaven above to the earth beneath,” etc.).  In fact, in Moses’ blessing on the tribe of Joseph at the end of Deuteronomy, there’s a very similar statement to the one in Psalm 121, which illustrates this point: “May the Lord bless his land with . . . the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield.”

Obviously crops grow from the light and warmth of the sun, not from anything that comes from the moon.  But this is simply another expression for totality:  May God bless you with everything that day and night can yield, that is, everything, all the time.

I hope this perspective helps explain the statement in Psalm 121.

For a discussion of another expression for totality, see this post.

How could Melchizedek have had no father or mother?

Q.  How can the book of Hebrews say that Melchizedek, the priest who blessed Abraham, was “without father or mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life”?  Wasn’t he human?

Byzantine icon of Melchizedek

Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, where I note that the author of Hebrews talks about Melchizedek in the third of the four messages or sermons that make up the book:

* * * * *

This message is based primarily on Psalm 110, but in it the author characteristically draws on other Scriptures for support, in this case the story in Genesis that describes who Melchizedek was.

The author first translates the word Melchizedek, explaining that it means “King of Righteousness.” Melchizedek was most likely not a given name, but an honorary title of the Jebusite kings who formerly ruled in Jerusalem, including the one in the Genesis story who greeted Abraham. (A similar example of an honorary title is the name Pharaoh that was given to all the rulers of Egypt.)

After the Israelites conquered Jerusalem, their own kings took over the title Melchizedek. Since the Jebusite kings had been priests, the Israelite kings also assumed an honorary role as priests and interceded for the nation in prayer. But they were not allowed to offer sacrifices; this was reserved for the descendants of Aaron under the law of Moses.

The author next explains that King of Salem (that is, of Jerusalem) means “King of Peace.” By translating these two terms, the author identifies Jesus, who is a priest in the order of Melchizedek by virtue of being the Messianic king of Jerusalem, as someone who helps people become righteous before God and so find peace with God.

Now come some more significant details—or rather, a significant lack of them. The Hebrew Scriptures usually introduce a new figure into their narratives by describing the person’s parentage and ancestry. They usually also report when a figure dies. But the book of Genesis doesn’t do either of these things in the case of Melchizedek.

This allows the author of Hebrews to observe that, when considered only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, Melchizedek seems to have no origin or ending. He appears to “remain a priest forever.” In this way he “resembles the Son of God,” and this allows him to serve as an earthly representation of the Messiah. This is why the Lord chose to name him as the head of the order of priests to which the Messiah (represented in Psalm 110 by the Davidic king) would belong.

This is a classic example of the author’s typological method, which is based on the understanding that transcendent spiritual realities are reflected in earthly replicas. A little later in this message the author makes the basis of this method explicit, noting how the earthly tabernacle had to be modeled after the heavenly pattern Moses was shown. The Greek word is typos, the source of the English word type, and so this interpretive method is known as typology.

* * * * *

To summarize what I say in the guide, the author of Hebrews is able to establish a connection between Melchizedek and Jesus by considering Melchizedek in light of what the Scriptures say about him (that his title means “king of righteousness” and that he was king of Salem = “peace“), but only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, not what they don’t say.  Since the details of his parentage, birth, and death aren’t reported, this allows an even stronger typological connection to Jesus, who has a permanent priesthood “on the basis of an indestructible life.”

In other words, the key to understanding how the Bible could say that Melchizedek was “without father and mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life” lies in appreciating the distinctive typological method of the book of Hebrews.

Is the story of the woman caught in adultery a later addition, and if so, what are we supposed to do with it?

Q. In your John study guide, you have a note at the end of Session 8 that says the story of the woman who was caught in adultery “was most likely not an original part of the gospel of John.”  Sure enough, in my Bible the passage is in italics and there’s a note that says, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”  If that’s true, then who added stuff like this that wan’t there in the first place?  And what are we supposed to do when we get to these parts? Ignore them?

The gospels were all written about a generation after Jesus lived.  They’re based on a stream of oral tradition coming down from his day about what he said and did.  Not everything in this tradition was put to use by the gospel writers.  But in the case of the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, it seems that something more from this oral tradition found its way into the gospels after they were written.

This story appears at John 7:53-8:11 in some later manuscripts; it’s also found in different places in other manuscripts:  after Luke 21:38, after Luke 24:53, after John 7:36, and after John 21:25.  With so much attestation, it’s likely that this story is part of the genuine tradition coming down from Jesus.

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

None of the gospel writers included it, perhaps because it could be misunderstood to condone adultery.  But it’s such a powerful episode when rightly understood (“let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”) that people who knew about it added it to the gospels later.  This may originally have been as a “gloss” or marginal note, which later got added to the text itself.  In several manuscripts it’s marked as an addition by asterisks or other symbols.

Bruce Metzger, who was of the leading textual critics of our day, writes in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament that while “the case against … Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive” (that is, it’s pretty clear that John didn’t include this story in his gospel originally), the account “has all the earmarks of historical veracity.  It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.”

So even if we can make a good judgment that something probably wasn’t in the original manuscripts, we still need to ask whether it might be part of the tradition coming down from Jesus.  In this case, the story probably is. That’s why I do encourage groups to discuss the story, just not as part of their regular meeting.  In the study guide I say that the story “probably preserves a genuine episode from the life of Jesus” and I suggest that groups discuss it over dinner before doing the next session.  (Even if a group didn’t usually have a meal together first, this would provide a good occasion to do that at least once.)

Where can I get more information on the Bible’s historical and cultural background?

~  I love the concise explanations and the historical information you include in the study guides. Now I want to learn more! Are there particular materials you’d recommend to delve a bit deeper into understanding the texts?

~  My group has been going through the Genesis study.  One woman who grew up in the Middle East has commented in a couple of places on how the stories reflect that culture, especially in regard to bartering and protecting one’s sense of honor.  A good example is when Abraham buys the cave as a burial plot for Sarah.  Our group was reflecting on this “bartering” tradition when we read through the story of Abraham bargaining with God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  I think we would be really interested in learning more about the cultural aspects of these stories.  Where might we go to learn more?

~ Where can I find reference materials on the background information given in these books? Is there a reference list online, or reliable sources that we can use as supplemental readings?

Let me say to all three of you that I’m really glad to hear your experience with the study guides has made you want to dig deeper into the Bible and its background.

The place to go next is a biblical commentary. Commentaries give you extensive information about the historical and literary context of particular books of the Bible.  They allow you to listen in on the scholarly conversation about passages that are difficult to interpret.  And they provide details about the various ways that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words and phrases can be translated.

The study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series do as many of these things as possible, but they’re limited in length and they also need to save room for reading suggestions and discussion questions.  So you’ll want to find a good full-length commentary (or two, or three) on the biblical book you’re interested in.

There are lots of really great commentaries out there these days.  Some series I like in particular are The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, and the Word Biblical Commentary.  All of volumes in these series show respect for the Bible as the inspired and authoritative word of God and at the same time make full use of the findings of biblical scholarship.

I hope you enjoy your further explorations!

Are the stories in Genesis really true?

Q. The small group at my church is going through the Genesis study guide right now. There seems to be a wide variety of opinions in the group about whether these stories actually happened or not.  Are the stories of Genesis historically true, or are they just stories?  No one in our group seems to know the answer.  If they’re not true, then why are they in the Bible?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel

Faithful followers of Jesus who are equally committed to the divine inspiration and entire trustworthiness of the Bible have long given different answers to the question you’re asking about Genesis.

Some believe in what is known as the scientific and historical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that all the events happened exactly as they are described. But even this view makes some allowances for the observational perspective from which the stories are told, for example, the apparent understanding that the sun revolves around the earth.

Others believe in the doctrinal and practical inerrancy of the Bible, meaning that through the stories it relates, the Bible primarily teaches us what we should believe about God and how we should live in order to please God. This view acknowledges that the stories in Genesis have been passed down faithfully over the centuries through the community of believers. But this view sees those stories as potentially more affected by the limits of the human perspective than the other view does.

Either way, because the Bible is the word of God mediated through human authors, these stories have a legitimate place in the Bible, whether or not we can verify every detail historically and scientifically.

It’s easy for any discussion of Genesis to be completely taken over by the debate between these two views. That’s why the study guide you’re using invites group members, at a couple of key places, simply to share their views (about the age of the earth, session 2, and about Adam and Eve, session 3) and then hold those views confidently and humbly and join the others for a profitable discussion of the Genesis stories on their own terms. I trust you’ve been able to do that in your group.