Q. I read the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman the other day and I have no idea what Jesus is talking about in the parable when he references crumbs and dogs eating the crumbs. Can you shed some light on this passage?
This story is confusing and sometimes upsetting to readers of the gospels because it appears that Jesus is not only rebuffing someone who comes to him for help, he’s actually insulting her in the process.
A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to deliver her daughter, who’s suffering at the hands of a demon, but he won’t even speak to her. When his disciples urge him to help, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (The woman is a non-Israelite.) And when she appeals to Jesus personally, he responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
So Jesus seems to have a very callous and insulting attitude. However, I think something different is actually going on here.
This was an oral culture whose ways were embodied in popular sayings. These were often cited in support of a particular course of action. When two people had different courses in mind, they would pit different sayings against each other until one person had to admit, “Okay, you’ve got me there.”
This kind of thing can happen in our own culture. For example, two friends might visit a new part of town on a weekend, looking for a restaurant where they can have dinner. The first place they consider says it can seat them immediately. One of them might say, “Maybe we should eat here. After all, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'” But if the other thinks there could be a better restaurant down the street that would be worth the wait, he might reply, “Yes, but ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.'”
Similarly, I think Jesus is actually quoting a popular saying to the woman: “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” This saying probably had a general application meaning something like, “Don’t use something expensive or valuable for a common purpose.” Jesus is applying it to the mandate he has, during his limited time on earth, to concentrate his efforts on ministry to the people of Israel, as their Messiah. (After his resurrection, his message will spread to all the people of the world from that starting point.)
The woman, however, comes up with what I think is an original saying of her own in response: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus responds, in effect, “You’ve got me there,” and he heals her daughter.
But this was not merely a battle of wits that the woman won by her cleverness and quick thinking. Rather, I believe Jesus evaluated every situation he encountered in order to discern how God might be at work in it. In the gospel of John he’s quoted as saying, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” So Jesus was always on the lookout for when his Father might be doing something that he could join in with.
I believe, for example, that when his mother Mary came to him at the wedding in Cana and told him that the hosts had run out of wine, while Jesus thought initially that the time hadn’t come yet for him to do “signs” in public, he ultimately recognized that Mary’s persistent and trusting faith was an indication that God was at work in the situation. And so he did his first miracle there, turning water into wine.
I believe that Jesus similarly recognized the Canaanite woman’s bold request and audacious persistence as indications that God was giving her the faith to believe her daughter could be delivered if she sought help from Jesus. It was in response to that recognition, inspired by the woman’s reply to his challenge, that Jesus acted to heal the daughter, giving an advance glimpse of how his influence would soon extend beyond the borders of Israel.
Q. Peter writes in his first letter, “As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” What is a “living stone”? What does that mean?
The references to Jesus as a living stone, and to us his followers as living stones, actually look forward to the quotation from Isaiah that Peter offers shortly afterwards. In the original context in Isaiah, the “cornerstone” is a figure for justice. The correct lines for a stone building (i.e. the placement of all the other blocks) were all derived from a perfectly squared-off cornerstone that was laid down first. In the same way, God says, He will establish justice so that all of the Judeans can know whether their actions are “within the lines” or not. (“I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line.”)
As often happens when New Testament authors see a Messianic meaning in an Old Testament prophecy, Peter is “escalating” the language so that the cornerstone (justice) becomes personified in Jesus. That’s what “living” means: An abstraction, justice, is now embodied in a person, Jesus the Messiah. He is, in effect, the “first block laid down,” and we who are “being built into a spiritual house” (that is, into a new kind of temple, as other New Testament writers also say) need to take our bearings and find our placement from Jesus. Not in a physical sense, but in the sense of moral purpose: “How can my life and actions fit in with what God has already started doing in the world through Jesus?”
We today probably aren’t very familiar with the approach to construction that involves first laying down a cornerstone. So let me offer a modern analogy. When a baseball field is laid out, the first thing put down is home plate. The foul lines are drawn out from the back of it. And those foul lines tell you whether a batted ball is “in” or “out.” The life, teachings, and example of Jesus establish the lines in our lives of what’s “in” and “out,” not just morally, but also in keeping with God’s expanding purposes in the world. He is, in effect, a “living home plate,” and we are a “living infield” and a “living outfield.”
Q. It seems that one could end up with any number of Biblical interpretations depending on the prior choice of which hermeneutics (the interpretive axioms from which everything else is derived) to follow. So how does one decide which hermeneutical method to use when interpreting the Bible? Are biblical hermeneutics largely based upon what the Bible says of itself? Or are they chosen based on broadly accepted methods of textual criticism? If they are based on methods that apply to any text generally, how does one account for the unique status of the Bible in its interpretation and not essentially reduce it to merely human literature?
You’re absolutely right that the message we get out of the Bible is dependent on the method we use to understand it and apply it to our lives. And nowhere in the Bible is there a specific set of instructions for what method we should use. Nevertheless, people who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired generally agree about what the appropriate method is.
The character of the Bible is understood by such people according to a Christological analogy. That is, just as Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so the Bible is the word of God coming to us through the writings of human authors. The books of the Bible need to be fully human literature, or the Christological analogy does not hold. This means that, as Rudolph Bultmann aptly put it in his essay on “The Problem of Hermeneutics,” “The interpretation of biblical writings is not subject to conditions different from those applying to all other kinds of literature.” (Bultmann’s theory of inspiration was different from the one familiar to many of us today, but he still considered the Bible to be divinely inspired.)
And this view corresponds to the character of the biblical writings themselves. They are composed in ordinary languages and follow the conventions of recognizable literary genres. It is only by faith, strengthened by the testimony of the Christian community throughout the ages and our own experience of the Bible as “living and active” in our own lives, that we recognize it to be the word of God.
But if someone does accept the Bible as God’s word to us, coming through human words that are spoken about and even to God, then they can be confident in responsibly interpreting it “based on methods that apply to any text generally,” as you put it. This is actually very freeing, because it means that we don’t have to worry about finding some secret code or esoteric method that will really disclose the Bible’s message to us.
If we learn how to read well, we will read the Bible well.
One “good question” I’ve explored in recent years, working with Bible publishers and translators, is this: How can we illustrate the structure and composition of the biblical writings by the way we lay out the text on the page? My most recent layout experiment has been with the episode in the book of Samuel-Kings that tells how Adonijah tried to claim the throne when his father David was dying.
As a rule, such episodes are the basic building blocks of that book—its “atoms,” if you will. This particular episode is one of several that make up the succession narrative that describes how Solomon followed David on the throne of ancient Israel. (Readers find out shortly afterwards how Solomon dealt definitively with the threat of Adonijah.) This narrative, in turn, is part of the long history of the Israelite monarchy in Samuel-Kings. But we can sometimes get a glimpse of literary “sub-atomic particles,” that is, even smaller pre-existing literary units that have been drawn into the composition to provide the structure and framework of an individual episode. I believe that’s the case here.
David swore an oath to Bathsheba that her son Solomon would succeed him. As was common in this culture, David made this a solemn pronouncement by speaking it in poetry. (I discuss that practice in this post.) David’s original poetic couplet is quoted five times over the course of this episode, guiding the narrative flow as the words move from the mouth of one character to another. The oath is quoted:
– By Nathan to Bathsheba;
– By Bathsheba to David;
– By Nathan to David (with a delightful ironic twist);
– By David to Bathsheba, reasserted in slightly lengthened form;
– By David to his officials, as a fresh assertion in renewed language, embedded in a series of instructions that will actually make Solomon king.
When we see the episode through this lens, we recognize that the concern is not just “Who will be king?” but “Will the king’s word be upheld?” This thematic perspective connects the episode to one of the largest concerns running all through the Bible, the memory of God’s sovereign words and the hope of their ultimate fulfillment.
To highlight the function of this oath within the narrative, in the layout below I’ve set it off as poetry in each case. Have a read through and see what you think. Particularly if you’ve read this episode before, does seeing the oath set off as poetry help you “catch the flow” any better?
(This is how the episode comes out in the WordPress template. A typesetter might decide to use different line spacing for a printed version, but I personally think this works well for online reading. Also, I’ve used the ESV translation because it presents the oath as a direct quotation in the first four cases. The Hebrew original could also be rendered as an indirect quotation in certain of these cases, as in other translations.)
– – – – –
Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, “Why have you done thus and so?” He was also a very handsome man, and he was born next after Absalom. He conferred with Joab the son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest. And they followed Adonijah and helped him. But Zadok the priest and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and Nathan the prophet and Shimei and Rei and David’s mighty men were not with Adonijah.
Adonijah sacrificed sheep, oxen, and fattened cattle by the Serpent’s Stone, which is beside En-rogel, and he invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah, but he did not invite Nathan the prophet or Benaiah or the mighty men or Solomon his brother.
Then Nathan said to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon, “Have you not heard that Adonijah the son of Haggith has become king and David our lord does not know it? Now therefore come, let me give you advice, that you may save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in at once to King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying,
“Solomon your son shall reign after me, He shall sit on my throne”?
Why then is Adonijah king?’ Then while you are still speaking with the king, I also will come in after you and confirm your words.”
So Bathsheba went to the king in his chamber (now the king was very old, and Abishag the Shunammite was attending to the king). Bathsheba bowed and paid homage to the king, and the king said, “What do you desire?” She said to him, “My lord, you swore to your servant by the Lord your God, saying,
‘Solomon your son shall reign after me, He shall sit on my throne’?
And now, behold, Adonijah is king, although you, my lord the king, do not know it. He has sacrificed oxen, fattened cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the sons of the king, Abiathar the priest, and Joab the commander of the army, but Solomon your servant he has not invited. And now, my lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are on you, to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him. Otherwise it will come to pass, when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers, that I and my son Solomon will be counted offenders.”
While she was still speaking with the king, Nathan the prophet came in. And they told the king, “Here is Nathan the prophet.” And when he came in before the king, he bowed before the king, with his face to the ground. And Nathan said, “My lord the king, have you said,
‘Adonijah shall reign after me, He shall sit on my throne’?
For he has gone down this day and has sacrificed oxen, fattened cattle, and sheep in abundance, and has invited all the king’s sons, the commanders of the army, and Abiathar the priest. And behold, they are eating and drinking before him, and saying, ‘Long live King Adonijah!’ But me, your servant, and Zadok the priest, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and your servant Solomon he has not invited. Has this thing been brought about by my lord the king and you have not told your servants who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?”
Then King David answered, “Call Bathsheba to me.” So she came into the king’s presence and stood before the king. And the king swore, saying, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my soul out of every adversity, as I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, saying,
‘Solomon your son shall reign after me, He shall sit on my throne in my place,’
even so will I do this day.” Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the ground and paid homage to the king and said, “May my lord King David live forever!”
King David said, “Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada.” So they came before the king. And the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel. Then blow the trumpet and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ You shall then come up after him,
And he shall come and sit on my throne, For he shall be king in my place.
And I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah.” And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada answered the king, “Amen! May the Lord, the God of my lord the king, say so. As the Lord has been with my lord the king, even so may he be with Solomon, and make his throne greater than the throne of my lord King David.”
So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.
Adonijah and all the guests who were with him heard it as they finished feasting. And when Joab heard the sound of the trumpet, he said, “What does this uproar in the city mean?” While he was still speaking, behold, Jonathan the son of Abiathar the priest came. And Adonijah said, “Come in, for you are a worthy man and bring good news.” Jonathan answered Adonijah, “No, for our lord King David has made Solomon king, and the king has sent with him Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites. And they had him ride on the king’s mule. And Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet have anointed him king at Gihon, and they have gone up from there rejoicing, so that the city is in an uproar. This is the noise that you have heard. Solomon sits on the royal throne. Moreover, the king’s servants came to congratulate our lord King David, saying, ‘May your God make the name of Solomon more famous than yours, and make his throne greater than your throne.’ And the king bowed himself on the bed. And the king also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day, my own eyes seeing it.’”
Then all the guests of Adonijah trembled and rose, and each went his own way. And Adonijah feared Solomon. So he arose and went and took hold of the horns of the altar. Then it was told Solomon, “Behold, Adonijah fears King Solomon, for behold, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not put his servant to death with the sword.’” And Solomon said, “If he will show himself a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the earth, but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” So King Solomon sent, and they brought him down from the altar. And he came and paid homage to King Solomon, and Solomon said to him, “Go to your house.”
Q. Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Are we supposed to take him literally?
It’s often claimed that when Jesus said this, he was engaging in “hyperbole” or intentional overstatement (exaggeration, if you will), a device that rabbis often used in his time. We do see Jesus employing hyperbole in other instances, for example, when he said. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” If that is the case here, then Jesus would be saying, “Okay, I don’t literally mean for you to go all the way and pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, just try to keep them under better control.”
But I wonder whether we shouldn’t take him a bit more literally. The key is in the word “if.” I think Jesus might be calling the bluff of people who say, “I just can’t help it, my body responds automatically and there’s nothing I can do about it.” For example—“I just had to look at that pornography, it came up when I was searching for something else (really, really), and once my eye locked onto it, I just couldn’t look away.”
What if a person who made that claim took Jesus literally? They’d have to admit that even if this truly were the case, they could still keep from sinning by plucking out their eyes—if they really wanted not to sin. But taking Jesus literally actually would force them to admit, “All right, it’s not my eye that’s causing me to sin, it’s my heart, which needs to change.”
Similarly for a person who said something like, “I just had to take that money, it was left right there on the table with no one watching it, and before I knew it my hand had scooped it up.” If that really were the case, the person could still keep from sinning by cutting off the offending hand—but of course the hand is not to blame, and taking Jesus literally forces us to admit this.
So perhaps this is not just an overstatement or exaggeration that we are supposed to dial back a few degrees, but an astute and literal observation designed to make us look at our hearts and wills rather than blaming our bodies for the wrong things we do—since, as Jesus observes, we actually could do something about our eyes or hands if they really were responsible.
That is why Boaz, who is introduced from the start as a godly man, takes special measures to protect Ruth, who would otherwise be at great risk as a defenseless foreigner. He tells Ruth not to glean in anyone else’s field (where the owner or foreman might not be godly) and even to stay in the part of his own field where his female servants are working. He also says, for everyone to hear, that he has warned all the men not to lay a hand on her. As a “man of standing,” Boaz has the power to enforce this order of protection.
Similarly, when Ruth returns home and tells the story of her day, Naomi observes ominously, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.” (The Hebrew is more explicit: “and they will not molest you in another field.”)
We see here the great courage and faith of Ruth, who was willing to do the only thing she could to support herself and her mother-in-law: go out and ask if she could glean in someone’s field, even though this meant exposing herself to the danger of potential rape.
We also see that the godly character of Boaz led him to take active measures to protect women like Ruth from sexual abuse and exploitation. In this way Boaz provides a biblical model for all men today who aspire to lead a godly life: they, too, should protect women from sexual abuse and exploitation, and not participate in anything that degrades or exploits them, such as on-line pornography, actual prostitution, or anything similar.
Q. In the handwriting on the wall in the book of Daniel, why do you think God wrote “mene, mene” twice instead of just “mene, tekel, upharsin”? Does the repetition mean something?
For one thing, “mene” might be repeated to fill out the poetic line, so that it will have two parts with four syllables and two stresses each: mené, mené; tekél, parsín. (The “u” is barely pronounced and simply means “and”; it’s a variation on the usual “w,” when it comes before “p.”) As I note in this post, solemn pronouncements, including judgments like this one, are often spoken in poetry in the Old Testament. Repeating “mene” allows the line to have a memorable poetic cadence.
The inscription is a play on words. In one sense, it lists the names of three coins of decreasing value: the minah (worth many shekels), the tekel (the Aramaic form of the word shekel itself), and the peres (half-shekel; parsin is the plural). This duplicates the image in the statue dream of materials of decreasing value, underscoring God’s purposes to replace the Babylonian empire with later ones. (The narrator echoes this image by describing how the goblets from Jerusalem were gold and silver, while the gods of Babylon were gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone.)
But the meaning of the inscription also rests on the derivation of the names of these coins. Minah comes from a verb meaning “to count” or “to number”; tekel comes from the verb “to weigh”; and peres from a verb meaning “to divide.” Daniel explains how all of these meanings apply to Belshazzar and his doomed empire. (Peres is also a play on the word “Persian.”)
So this was a very dense puzzle; the last term actually has a triple meaning, disclosing the identity of the empire that would soon conquer Babylon. Even though the repetition of “mene” might have offered a slight clue to its interpretation, “all the king’s wise men . . . could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.” But Daniel showed both his divine gifting and the certain fate of Babylon when he interpreted the puzzle.