What does Isaiah mean about the Suffering Servant receiving a “portion” and “spoils”?

Q. What do these lines in Isaiah mean: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong?”

The specific meaning of those lines is that this person will get a share in the plunder from a battle. The “great” and “strong” are the victorious warriors, and the “portion” and “spoils” are the plunder that the victors divide up among themselves.

There is a paradox, however. Those two lines are paired with the two lines that follow:

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

So somehow, even though this person died in the battle, and seems to have done something wrong, he will still get the rewards of the victory. How can that be?

Those four lines continue a paradoxical theme in one of the passages where Isaiah talks about the “Suffering Servant.” In that passage, the servant suffers to the point of death for the sake of others, but then seems to live again: “he was cut off from the land of the living,” but “he will see his offspring and prolong his days.” “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”

Christians who read this passage see in it a prediction of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They believe that Jesus not only suffered for the sins of the world, he was considered a sinner so that he could represent guilty humanity. “He poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.” But because he gave his life to become the Savior of the world, in a supreme example of sacrificial love, as the Bible says elsewhere, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

In other words, God gave Jesus the rewards of victory, because even though his death seemed to be a loss and a defeat, it was really the culmination of all of God’s work to bring salvation to the world. “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong.”

What are the two great wings in Revelation?

Q. The book of Revelation says, “The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle.” What are these two wings?

I personally don’t believe that these wings are individually symbolic. That is, one wing doesn’t stand for something, and the other wing for something else. Rather, I think this is an allusion to a statement that God makes to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, right after bringing them out of Egypt and just before giving them the Ten Commandments: “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

The book of Revelation is full of quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. It uses these to portray the experiences of Jesus’ faithful followers as continuous with the experiences of God’s people down through history to that point. I believe that the passage in Revelation where these wings are mentioned is, in its initial application, a description of an experience that the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem had in the middle of the First Century. As I say in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

“Many interpreters believe that the story of the woman’s escape from
the dragon recapitulates how Jewish followers of Jesus escaped from
Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman war of AD 66–70. In the
spring of ad 68, they fled across the Jordan River. It was swollen with spring
floods, but it unexpectedly subsided enough to permit them to cross. This
was like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to escape from Egypt, when, as
Moses said, God carried them ‘on eagles’ wings.’ On the other side of the
Jordan, these Jewish followers of Jesus reached the city of Pella, where Gentile Christians from Galilee provided for them throughout the period of danger.”

(You can download a free copy of this study guide at this link.)

It is possible that this passage will have a further fulfillment sometime in the future, when faithful followers of Jesus experience a similar deliverance. But I believe that we need to start by understanding such passages in their initial historical setting, and then think about further applications by analogy.

An illustration of the woman of the Apocalypse in Hortus deliciarum (redrawing of an illustration dated c. 1180), depicting various events from the narrative in Revelations 12 in a single image. Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Why doesn’t Luke tell about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt?

Q. Why doesn’t the book of Luke mention anything about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt?

None of the gospel writers are attempting to present a comprehensive account of Jesus’ life, like a modern biography. Rather, they are all selecting and arranging episodes from his life in order to accomplish particular purposes of their own.

Matthew, for example, wants to give particular emphasis to the way that the good news about Jesus is for people of every nation. And so, for example, he includes the account of the Magi coming from “the East” to worship Jesus, while the other writers do not. It makes sense that he would also include a description of how Jesus actually lived in another nation for a time.

Luke, for his part, is writing for educated Greeks within the Roman Empire, and so he includes a long account of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem during which one person after another comes up to Jesus to ask a question or pose a problem, and Jesus responds with divine wisdom. Most of the material that is unique to Luke is found within this journey section, and most of the material within the section is unique to Luke. So we can tell that he has included it with a particular purpose in mind, that of introducing Jesus to wisdom-seeking Greeks.

Luke may well have known about the journey to Egypt. Some of his material seems as if it could only have come from Mary, or at least from people who knew her and passed along her recollections. Those would of course have included the time in Egypt. But as I said, Luke is selecting and arranging his material for a particular purpose, and apparently he did not feel that it was  necessary for him to tell the story of the journey to Egypt to achieve that purpose.

Why did Jesus talk so much about the kingdom of God?

Q. Jesus seemed to talk a lot about the kingdom of God. Most biblical teachers seem to talk more about salvation and redemption. What is the difference and why does it matter?

You’re right that the kingdom of God was the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching. When the gospel writers summarize his teaching, they say that Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” Jesus typically began his parables by saying, “This is what the kingdom of God is like,” or, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” He described choosing to follow him as “entering the kingdom.” And so forth.

So what exactly is the kingdom of God? I believe that Jesus gave us a definition of it in the Lord’s Prayer when he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is, God’s kingdom is present on earth whenever and wherever God’s will is done as it is in heaven—without resistance. What I like to call “circles of warmth and light” emerge at various places and times as the followers of Jesus commit together to do God’s will eagerly and freely. This applies primarily to relationships: There is a shared commitment to treat others with the compassion, generosity, mercy, and love that Jesus taught us to have. This strengthens the bonds within the circle and draws others in.

Note, then, that in our day, the kingdom of God is primarily a community. Gordon Fee has described it as “the community that lives the life of the future in the present.” Followers of Jesus are called to live now in the way that one day everyone will live when Jesus’ reign is extended over the whole earth. Note as well how this contrasts with the emphases you mentioned, on “salvation” and “redemption.” Those things are typically envisioned in individual terms: You will go and live forever in God’s presence when you die; your sins have been forgiven; you can be set free from old patterns of life.

So how do these two approaches relate to one another? I’d say that Jesus is envisioning and teaching that people receive all of those individual benefits as a result of their participation in the new community. It welcomes and accepts them as an expression of how God has forgiven them. Together the followers of Jesus grow into maturity, stirring one another up to love and good works. Life in God’s presence begins within that “circle of warmth and light,” and it continues from there into all eternity.

We see, then, that Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is larger than the emphases on individual salvation and redemption and that it encompasses them. So it should really be our starting point. The individual benefits are wonderful, but we don’t want to miss out on a recognition and appreciation of the larger community within which we actually receive those benefits and they become real in our lives.

Why did Jesus tell Mary not to hug him after his resurrection?

Q. Why did Jesus tell Mary not to hug him after his resurrection because he hadn’t yet returned to the Father? Why would Jesus object to Mary clinging to him … that is really puzzling. You would think he would have reciprocated with a bear hug for about an hour, if only for her sake. What’s the connection between the return to the Father and not clinging to him?

Fra Angelico, ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (c. 1438–50)

This is indeed a puzzling matter, and interpreters have offered many different explanations for it. Personally I like the way that Raymond Brown explains it in his commentary on the Gospel of John.

Brown suggests, first of all, that when Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” we should not think he is speaking of the ascension that Luke describes as taking place forty days after the resurrection. Brown feels that that particular event, in which Jesus was seen ascending on the clouds into heaven, was intended to indicate evocatively that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus had come to an end. Brown believes that Jesus also went to be with the Father in less visible ways in between his appearances to the disciples. The first of those times would have been right after the resurrection, and Mary would have seen him, in effect, on his way there.

As Brown understands it, this timing is actually crucial to the point John is making. At the Last Supper, Jesus had said, “I will come back to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me.” Brown says that when Mary sees Jesus, “she thinks that he has returned as he promised and now he will stay with her and his other followers, resuming former relationships.” Jesus had also said, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Brown says that Mary is “trying to hold on to the source of her joy, since she mistakes an appearance of the risen Jesus for his permanent presence with his disciples.” But instead, by “telling her not to hold on to him, Jesus indicates that his permanent presence is not by way of appearances but by way of the gift of the Spirit that can only come after he has ascended to the Father.” (Jesus had also told his followers at the Last Supper, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”)

So Jesus is basically saying to Mary, “I’m not on my way back from the Father” (this is not what my continuing presence with you will be like), “I’m on my way to the Father” (so that I can send the Spirit, who will be my continuing presence with you). So this would be yet another place in the Gospel of John where a person mistakes a physical reality for a spiritual one and Jesus needs to explain otherwise (as in the case of Nicodemus misunderstanding what it means to be “born again,” for example, or the woman at the well misunderstanding what Jesus meant by “living water,” and so forth).

Brown argues convincingly that the present imperative used here means “don’t cling to me” or “don’t hold on to me” rather than “don’t touch me.” So this isn’t an issue of what Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension body was like and how it could or couldn’t interact with earthly bodies. Rather, the issue is that Jesus’ followers are not to “cling to” him as they knew him on this earth, but rather experience his continuing presence through the Spirit he has sent from the Father.

How many wise men came to see Jesus?

Q. How many wise men were there that came looking for Jesus?

The Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were. Matthew says in his account simply that “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” and asked where the newborn king was. After that he just calls them “the wise men” or refers to them as “they” and “them.”

Traditionally it has been considered that there were three wise men because the Bible describes how they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s possible that there were three and that each one brought one of these gifts separately. But it’s also possible that there were more than three and that each one brought one or more of the gifts listed.

The names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior attributed to the “three wise men” reflect later tradition. As I said, the Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were, and it doesn’t tell us any of their names.

Why does Isaac refer to Jacob’s “brothers” if he only had one?

Q. Did Jacob and Esau have siblings? When Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he is blessing Esau), he says, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.” This leads me to believe there were siblings, even though they are not mentioned anywhere else in the story.

This is a very perceptive question. I have to admit that even thoudh I’d read this episode many times before, I never noticed the issue.

I think it is unlikely that there were siblings. We learn earlier in Genesis that for a long time Isaac and Rebekah were unable to have children. Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, but he was sixty years old when Esau and Jacob were born, after “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife,” and “the Lord answered his prayer.” (As a side note, I don’t think Isaac waited twenty years before he started praying for Rebekah. Rather, I think this is an example of someone who persevered in prayer over a long time and finally had his request granted. It illustrates, as Jesus said, that we should continue in prayer and not give up.) But given these circumstances, it does seem unlikely that Isaac and Rebekah had further children, and indeed the Bible doesn’t describe them having any more.

So what, then, does Isaac mean by “your brothers” and “the sons of your mother”? Interpreters who do address the issue tend to take these phrases as referring to all related tribes. Ellicott says in his commentary, for example, that they would “include all nations sprung from Abraham, and all possible offshoots from Isaac’s own descendants” (in other words, all of the tribes and clans that eventually came from Esau). Keil and Delitzsch observe that Isaac’s entire blessing first envisions present agricultural prosperity (“an abundance of grain and new wine“), but it then looks forward to the “future pre-eminence of his son”: not only over “kindred tribes,” but also over foreign “nations and peoples.” In fact, “The blessing rises to the idea of universal dominion, which was to be realized in the fact that, according to the attitude assumed by the people towards him as their lord, it would secure to them either a blessing or a curse.”

Ironically, Isaac doesn’t realize that he is conferring all of these blessings on Jacob rather than Esau. But as events unfold and God works out His plan through the choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, Jacob becomes a transformed man, he is renamed Israel, and he becomes the ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. As a result, as Paul writes in Galatians, “the blessing given to Abraham” (and repeated to Isaac, and passed on here by Isaac to Jacob) “came to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.” And so it is no longer a matter of being one of Jacob’s “brethren” (a member of a kindred tribe), but of assuming an attitude of loyalty and obedience to his greatest descendant Jesus as Lord, that enables a person to share in the blessings that are embodied in Isaac’s words.

 

What is the Bible trying to say at the end of Hebrews 11?

Q. Hebrews 11:39,40: Please help me understand what God is telling us as the summation of this chapter. Appreciate this site so much. Thank you. Just ordered The Books of the Bible NT.

Thank you very much for your kind words about this blog. I’m  glad you’re finding it helpful. I trust you’ll have a great experience with The Books of the Bible.

To respond to your question, Hebrews 11 ends this way: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” What God is trying to tell us through this becomes clear at the beginning of the next chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In other words, we would expect that all the heroes described in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith” would already have been richly rewarded by God. Instead, we discover that they have not yet received their rewards. This might not seem fair to us, and so we ask why they haven’t been rewarded. The reason, we learn in these concluding words of the chapter, is that God wants all the faithful people down through the ages to receive their rewards together—perhaps as a single company united across time by their devotion to God through uncertainty, difficulty, and persecution. And that is supposed to inspire us to live up to the example of these faithful and courageous people ourselves. And just in case we need any more inspiration, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus in the same terms as the heroes of the faith who came before him, but also explaining that he is the one who  set the entire company in motion and who is the ultimate example of its character (“the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”).

So once we finish reading about all these faithful people, we’re not supposed to say, “Well, good for them.” We’re supposed to say, “God is counting on me to be like them!” And with the same kind of faith, we can be.

I can’t resist noting that this is a place where the traditional chapter divisions of the Bible, which were added many hundreds of years after its books were written, do us a real disservice in understanding its meaning. There’s not supposed to be any gap or break between “God is waiting to reward them and us together” and, “Therefore, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As you experienced, it’s hard to understand the first part without the second part. But the way we typically approach the Bible (a chapter at a time in sermons, study groups, or private devotions), we might not hear the second part until a day or a week later. In fact, we might never hear it at all if we’re in a topical study that has chosen Hebrews 11 for “faith” and will move on next to 1 Corinthians 13 for “love.”

So I commend you for puzzling over what really is a puzzle without what comes next, and for reaching out to ask about it. I also commend you for ordering a copy of the New Testament that doesn’t have any chapters or verses!

Why wasn’t Daniel’s name changed like that of his three friends?

Q. Why was Daniel’s name allowed to remain ‘Daniel’? His trio of friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had their names changed to ones in the Babylonian language. Curious to learn. Thank you.

Actually, Daniel was given a Babylonian name himself at the same time as his friends. The book of Daniel tells us that when these four  were brought to Babylon and enrolled in training to become servants at the royal court, the official responsible for them “gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.”

However, the book of Daniel does treat its central figure differently in this regard from his three friends, and that’s probably what has struck you. It continues to call him Daniel in its own narrative, though it does note in three places that he was “also called Belteshazzar“; the Babylonian characters in the book also address him by that name. By contrast, the book calls his three friends by their Hebrew names only in the first episode and at the beginning of the second one; after that, even in its own narrative it uses their Babylonian names.

It’s not clear why this is the case. It’s possible that the third episode, in which the three friends are the central characters (it’s also the last one in which they appear), is based on a Babylonian source, which would have used their Babylonian names, and they have simply been carried over. While the second episode does use their Hebrew names at the beginning, it uses their Babylonian names at the end; this might be to help create continuity leading into the next episode. Daniel, on the other hand, might have been known so well by that name by the book’s intended audience that the authors or compilers might have supplied his Hebrew name when their sources said Belteshazzar, but kept the Babylonian name in an “also known as” parenthesis. However, this is speculative; we don’t know for sure.

Whatever the case, these names are not just a matter of historical curiosity. They have something to teach us about faithfully following God in our own day. As I observe in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

– – – – –

Daniel and his friends had to decide how much of the Babylonian
culture they could adopt without fatally compromising their faith. They
didn’t take an all-or-nothing approach. They didn’t say, “You’ve got to go
along if you want to get along,” and agree to everything the Babylonians
expected. They also didn’t say that everything Babylonian was evil and had
to be rejected. They diligently studied the “language and literature of the
Babylonians,” even though this literature centered around the exploits of
foreign gods. They also accepted new names that praised these gods instead
of their own God:

• Daniel (“God is my judge/vindicator”) became Belteshazzar (a
name that invoked the Babylonian god Bel);
• Hananiah (“Yahweh is gracious”) became Shadrach (“companion
of Aku”);
• Mishael (“Who is like God?”) became Meshach (again invoking
Aku); and
• Azariah (“Yahweh is my help”) became Abednego (“servant of
Nebo”).

Somehow these young men determined that what they were studying,
and the new names they were given, didn’t compromise the essentials of their faith. But they drew the line when it came to eating foods that God had told the Israelites, in the law of Moses, not to eat, because they had a distinct identity as his people.

– – – – –

After those observations, I pose the following questions for reflection and application in the study guide:

What kinds of situations might a person encounter today that
would challenge them to compromise their values and beliefs?

How can a person know where to draw the line in these situations,
so that they cooperate where possible but never compromise
essentials?

I hope these questions are of interest and use to you, and I thank you for your own question.

Daniel and his friends refusing to eat the King’s food, “early 1900s Bible illustration,” courtesy Wikipedia

Two questions from starting to read through the Bible in a year

Q. I just started reading through the Bible in a year with my church. There are things that have stuck out that I am needing to have answered. It’s like God is having me answer harder questions or address them.

1. At the beginning of Genesis, it says that the earth was formless and void and the waters … wait … the earth was there? Formless and void, and there was already water? Can you talk to me about this?

2. And what about when Jacob was fighting with the angel or God, and he couldn’t win, and then he wrenched his hip?

First, I commend you for going on the adventure, with others in your church, of reading through the Bible. I’ve heard other people say similar things when they’ve started reading continuously in the Bible: They notice all kinds of things they never saw before when they were taking a verse-at-a-time or chapter-at-a-time approach, and this has raised all kinds of new and challenging questions. But these are the kinds of questions that really help us go deep in our knowledge of God and his word.

In fact, my motto on this blog is, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” (That’s why I call it Good Question.) So thank you for asking your questions here. Let me refer you to some other posts I’ve written that offer some thoughts in response to similar questions that others have raised.

1. Regarding your question about the water in the opening creation account in Genesis, please see this post:

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

In that post I suggest that we need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.” Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos. It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves. “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness. So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.

As for your question about the earth, let me refer you to a post on one of my other blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage:

Day 1 according to ancient cosmology

There I suggest that saying that the land had no shape or contents is equivalent to saying that it had not yet been differentiated from the waters. It’s a kind of verbal shorthand, in which something the listener already knows to exist is described before it existed. It’s like saying, “The New York Yankees were called the Highlanders for the first few years of their franchise.” The “Yankees” were not really called the “Highlanders” then, because there were no “Yankees,” and never had been. What is intended is this: “The team that eventually became known as the Yankees was at first called the Highlanders.” In the same way, the Genesis account begins by explaining that what would eventually become the land had not yet been differentiated or populated. The case is the same with the sky, which will eventually separate the “waters above” from the “waters below.” Right now it’s just “waters” – “the deep,” covered in darkness But the Spirit of God is hovering over it all, sizing up the possibilities and making a plan.

2. Regarding Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (who in some way seems to embody a manifestation of God on earth), please see this post:

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

In that post I suggest that God was trying to demonstrate something in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers. When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.

The thoughts I’ve shared in summary here are developed at more length in the posts I’ve provided links to.

Once again, I commend you for stepping up to the challenge and adventure of reading through the Bible. Hang in there, keep reading, keep asking your questions, and keep looking for the answers to them!