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!

How can honestly seeking Christians come to different answers on important questions?

Q. How can two Christians honestly seeking God’s will come to two contradictory answers to questions about things like the age of the earth or whether women can be pastors?

Followers of Jesus who are people of good will and who have equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures may still come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches if they have different interpretive presuppositions or if they follow different interpretive methods.

For example, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literally, this may lead them to conclude that the earth is much younger than the scientific consensus suggests. On the other hand, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literarily, this may lead them to believe that an earth that is billions of years old can be accommodated within a belief that God created the world as described in the Bible. (Full disclosure: I am of the latter persuasion, as is clear from various posts on this blog and from all of my other blog Paradigms on Pilgrimage.)

Similarly, if a reader of the Bible believes that the propositional statements within it have universal force, then they may see Paul’s comment to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” to be definitive on the question of whether women can be pastors. On the other hand, if a reader of the Bible believes that propositional statements should be understood and interpreted within their historical contexts, they may consider that such statements apply directly only to their original audiences, and that they must be applied to other contexts by inference and analogy. They would be read on a par with narrative and other genres, and not privileged because they are propositional. (Once again in the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I personally do not believe there should be any limitations on what women can do within the community of Jesus’ followers, simply because they are women. See the series of posts that begins here.)

So is there any hope that followers of Jesus who hold divergent interpretive presuppositions or who follow different interpretive methods can ever be brought to agree? Stated briefly, yes, I think that can happen. Specifically, I believe that over time our experience of God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others can make us uncomfortable with some of our previous conclusions, and this can challenge us to re-examine the presuppositions and methods that led us to them. In such a case we will ideally realize that it was not so much the Bible itself, but the way we were interpreting it, that led us to these conclusions, and we will continue to look to the Bible as a source of divine instruction, but we will do so in a new way. This has happened to me many times myself, and I’ve seen it happen for many others as well. Once this has happened, we not only come to see some things differently than we did before, we are also more accommodating of others who see things differently than we do now, and we can recognize more common ground between once seemed like contradictory views.

And while all of us are in this process, I think a good motto—found earliest in the writings of Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominisis: “In essential things, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; in all things, charity.” (And if two interpreters disagree over whether something is essential or uncertain, well, that’s where charity comes in.)

Can’t you make the Bible say whatever you want?

Q. Over the last couple of years of reading different Bible interpretations it seems to me that there are 2 major distinct views. 1. Although Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants have slightly differing opinions, they are basically are the same. 2. The other group, those that consider the Sabbath to be Saturday, that there is no immortal soul thus no eternal Hell, that the whole above Church Hierarchy is actually a fake Christianity + more. Now I have been reading some of your views about how you can reconcile the differences within the #1 group, which I can understand, but how would you reconcile the #2 group when they basically are saying that the larger group you belong to, #1, is Satan’s false Church. Like you they also quote the Bible to back up their claims. I am not a Christian of any group so I find the whole thing very confusing as it seems to me that really you can make the Bible say whatever you want, it is just a matter of interpretation. I look forward to your reply.

Thank you for your question. Yes, you can make the Bible say whatever you want—if you take individual statements out of context and select and arrange them to support your prior commitments. But this is not a responsible way to read or teach the Bible. We would not handle any other book that way, and we shouldn’t accept it when people do it with the Bible.

As I have shown in my books The Beauty Behind the Mask and After Chapters and Verses, unfortunately the division of the Bible into chapters and especially verses, which happened many centuries after it was written, allows and even encourages this disintegrative approach. That is why I have helped to develop editions of the Bible that do not have the chapter and verse numbers in the text.

The proper way to understand and interpret any work of literature (and that is ultimately what the Bible is, a collection of literary works of different types) is to understand first what it was saying to its original audience. That requires an appreciation for the historical context in which the work was written and what issues it was intended to address (circumstances and occasion of composition); what kind of literature it is (literary genre); how it is put together on its own terms (literary structure); and what strong ideas run all the way through it (thematic development).

Interestingly, the large Christian communions that you describe as Group #1 essentially reflect a formation that took place before the Bible was divided into verses. Almost of necessity, their understanding of the Bible and its teaching was grounded in the disciplines I have just described. And I am fascinated and grateful to hear someone who is not a Christian say that they find the three main branches (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) to be “basically the same.” That is certainly what we believe about one another: that we agree on the essentials, and differ only on discretionary matters.

So when it comes to understanding and teaching the Bible, the difference between Group #1 and Group #2 is not a matter of interpretation, but of method. Of course someone who is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant could also follow the “pick and choose” method, but if they did that, they would likely soon start to have differences with the large, historic tradition to which they belong, and hopefully that tradition would help correct the mistakes that are nearly inevitable with that method. Group #2, I should note, actually got its start within the broad Christian tradition, but when its method led it to have different views, it went off on its own and declared the whole broad tradition wrong, instead of trusting in the consensus that Christian believers have had down through the centuries.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that I have Bible study guides available for free download. They approach the Bible as a collection of literary works, without chapters and verses, in terms of their circumstances of composition, literary genre and structure, and thematic development. Have a look at this page and see if there is a guide you might want to look at. (I’d particularly recommend the one to John for someone who is trying to find out more about the Christian faith.)

Thanks again for your question, and I hope this response has been helpful.

 

Are we not supposed to call anyone pastor, teacher or father?

Q. Does the Bible say we shouldn’t call anyone pastor, teacher or father? I heard a man on YouTube state this but he gave no scriptures to reference. Thanks in advance.

The passage this man was likely referring to is Matthew 23:1-11:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I think this a situation, however, where it is not so much the thing in itself that must be avoided, but the misuse of that thing. We can see that by analogy to the other things Jesus mentions. We wouldn’t say, for example, that there should never be places of honor at banquets, such as a “head table” for the bridal party at a wedding. Rather, people shouldn’t desire to have the best places as a matter of worldly prestige; instead, we should cultivate the mature spiritual quality of humility. That’s what Jesus was getting at.

Similarly, I think there is a valid place for titles of honor in many contexts. It’s respectful, for example, for a college student to address the person who’s teaching their class as “professor” when asking a question. It’s certainly respectful for children to address their parents as “mother” and “father” (or Mom and Dad, or something similar) rather than calling them by their first names.

So the point is actually not to desire “status symbols” that confer social prestige. Rather, we should be humble and seek our praise from God alone, through loyal obedience, not from other people. I hope this helps answer your question.

 

 

What approach does your study guide take to Daniel and Revelation?

Q. I see you have a book on Daniel/Revelation. My interest lies with how you approach these two books. Are you one or more of the following:
– Preterist, Idealist, Historicist, Futurist
– Postmillennial, Amillennial, Premillennial
– Pre-tribulational, Mid-tribulational, Post-tribulational
Thanks!

Thank you for your interest in the Daniel-Revelation study guide. Let me mention first that the guide is available for free download at this link.

In answer to your question about the interpretive approach, let me quote from the guide itself, which says this on pp. 69–70 about its own approach to Revelation (the same applies for Daniel):

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways. The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history. (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.) The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world. The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view. The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in—western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century. This study guide will consistently pursue a preterist interpretation. If this is new for you, and you’re used to hearing the book treated differently, just try to keep an open mind and look for the potential benefits of this approach as you and your group do the sessions together.

As for views about the millennium, when the guide gets to the passage in Revelation that depicts a thousand-year reign of Christ, it doesn’t promote one view over the others; rather, on p. 125 it offers groups the following discussion question. (The three views described are postmillennialism, premillennialism,and amillennialism, respectively.)

The idea of a “millennium” or thousand-year reign of Christ has been an inspiration to followers of Jesus throughout the ages. Many have expected a period of universal peace and justice to arrive on earth through social reform, education, and reconciliation efforts spearheaded by Jesus’ followers. (This expectation fueled crusades for the abolition of slavery, public education, the vote for women, temperance, pacifism, an end to child labor, etc.) Others have held that only the Second Coming of Christ could definitively bring about such a period. And still others have understood the millennium spiritually, as a picture of Christ’s reign in heaven and in the hearts of believers. Which of these views is closest to your understanding? (If you’ve never thought about this before, take some time to decide.) What positive value do you see in the other views? What “action steps” does each of these views call for?

Finally, to answer the third part of your question, on pp. 91–92 the guide says the following about the “tribulation”:

When the fifth seal is opened, those who have given their lives for Jesus appear “under the altar,” since they’ve given their lives as a sacrifice. They’re told to “wait a little longer,” not for the full number of those who will believe, but for the full number of those who will be killed. John is warning that soon anyone who chooses to follow Jesus will need to be prepared to give their life for him: Everyone in the “great multitude” is wearing a white robe, showing that they’re all martyrs, or they’re willing to be. Here Revelation describes the coming period of deadly persecution as “the great tribulation,” meaning a time of severe trial. Followers of Jesus in other times and places have also experienced their own “great tribulations,” when many of them have been killed for their faith. Many interpreters believe that there will be a climactic conflict between good and evil at the end of human history, and at that time, followers of Jesus all over the world will experience the same kind of “great tribulation.”

The guide does not address the issue of a rapture either before, during, or after the tribulation; rather, it offers the following two discussion questions for groups to work through together:

• Why do you think God allows so many of his followers to be killed by those who oppose him? Does God see some positive value in their deaths?

• Would you want to be a follower of Jesus if you knew it could cost you your life? If your answer is yes, why would it be worth it to die for him?

Thank you again for your interest, and I hope you’ll have a look at the guide.

The original cover of the Daniel-Revelation study guide

 

Are we literally supposed to be able to move mountains by faith?

Q. Something Jesus said has always been a bit troubling to me. He told his disciples once that they hadn’t been able to cast out a demon “because you have so little faith.” Then he added, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” I have to say I certainly believe I have faith and strive for it, but I’ve never quite been able to make a mountain jump. That said, I have not noticed anyone else making mountains jump either. Are we to assume that no one currently on earth has the kind of faith needed, or was this a parable not to be taken literally?

I believe that Jesus’ comment about moving a mountain is the kind of hyperbole (rhetorical exaggeration to make a point) that we also see him using elsewhere. (This was a favored device of rabbis at the time.) For example: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven”; “When you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”; “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.”

This device was attention-grabbing, and I think one thing that made it memorable and effective was that listeners were indeed left wondering whether to take it literally, and if not, what it actually meant. I think the main point here is the contrast between small faith and a great mountain.

At this point in Matthew, Jesus has just come down from the Mountain of Transfiguration, so he may well be gesturing towards that mountain, which would be looming above him and his audience. But he made the same point on another occasion, apparently in a different location, by saying, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

So no one should feel that if they can’t imagine themselves literally making a mountain move, they must not have enough faith. Instead, I think we’re meant to apply the image metaphorically and ask, “What is the ‘mountain’ in my life that seems impossible to move? That must be possible for God, because even if I have the tiniest bit of faith, so long as it’s in an infinitely powerful God, this situation can be addressed.”

That last thought relates to the question of why Jesus told the disciples they couldn’t cast out the demon because of their little faith, when only the tiniest bit of faith is required. Did the disciples really not have even a minuscule amount of faith? No, I think we’re supposed to ponder this issue that the statement raises as well and realize that the question isn’t how much faith we have, but how much power God has, who is the object of our faith. We can then put our faith to work and trust God to address any situation where his great power is needed to advance his purposes.

Are the heavenly beings in conflict with one another?

This is the third and final post in a series in response to a multi-part question.

Part 3 of the question: It seems as if at one time the “sons of God” were united, but then there was some sort of strong disagreement between them. I wonder if this was because of something that happened. For instance, Genesis 6 mentions the sons of God sleeping with the daughters of men (which seems very odd).  Another event, mentioned in the book of Daniel, also shows a conflict. After Daniel prays, a radiant figure comes to him and says that his prayers were heard but the answer was delayed for twenty-one days because the prince of the kingdom of Persia was resisting. Is this also referring to the sons of God? What does all of this have to do with the talking snake in the garden of Eden? Is that somehow linked, is that part of the story, or is it just something unrelated?

The first and second posts in this series explain the ancient Near Eastern background to the idea of a “divine council” made up of “sons of God.” With that background, we now can appreciate that the image in the book of Revelation (which draws heavily on the heritage of Judaism for its symbolism) of a dragon whose tail “swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth” is indeed depicting conflict between heavenly beings. And since Revelation identifies this dragon as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan,” we see that there is indeed a connection between this and the talking snake in the garden of Eden.

We saw last time that Yahweh is acknowledged in the Bible as incomparable. No one, therefore, can successfully challenge his rulership over the divine council. But it appears that somehow, at some time, one of the heavenly beings tried to challenge it anyway. While this figure succeeded in enlisting many of the other “sons of God,” he was defeated and they all “lost their place in heaven,” as Revelation goes on to say.

The Bible doesn’t give us very many specifics about this, although we do get recurring hints about it in other places such as the one you mentioned about a radiant figure being able to come to Daniel only after being delayed by an opposing spirit being. One thing we are told is that the forces now in opposition to God are trying to recruit human beings to resist God with them. These forces have been trying to tempt and corrupt humanity ever since the beginning, in fact, and the devil even tried to tempt Jesus to disobey God and worship him instead. So we do need to recognize that we are living in the midst of a battlefield on which powerful spiritual forces are contenting. The Bible assures us that God will unquestionably  be victorious in the end. But in the meantime we must be careful all the time and remain scrupulously loyal to God.

We might wonder how a heavenly being could dare to challenge God, or even have the capacity to do that. It appears that the “sons of God” are endowed with freedom to make moral choices, just as people are. This freedom allows them to serve God not out of compulsion but out of love, as God would have it. But it necessarily also allows them to make unfortunate bad choices, and that is what we may conclude has happened.

As for the episode in which the “sons of God” marry the “daughters of men,” I invite you to read this post, in which I discuss that episode in detail.

Finally, let me return to Psalm 82, the passage you began by asking about, and suggest that there might be some connection between it and the place in Deuteronomy where Moses talks about how God “divided mankind” and “fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” The elohim or “sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82 are being judged for some kind of failure in their duty. They have “judged unjustly and shown partiality to the wicked,” rather than maintaining justice and rescuing the weak and needy. If these figures are indeed supernatural beings in the spiritual realm, rather than human judges on earth, then one possible occasion for this failure could be in connection with their role overseeing particular groups of people on earth. If, instead of maintaining justice as they were entrusted to do, they tried to aggrandize their own power and get people to worship them, and in the process they led entire societies and cultures to be distorted by the quest for power so that the weak and vulnerable were oppressed, then the punishment of losing their immortality seems to be one that fits the crime. They were “sons of God,” created spirit beings, but they were made “like mere mortals” when they tried to be worshiped as if they were self-existent gods themselves.

I admit that this is very speculative. In each of these posts I have cautioned about going beyond the little that the Bible actually tells us about these things. Perhaps we really have no idea what specific occasion Psalm 82 is addressing; perhaps we simply need to take its general teaching to heart and resolve to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute; rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” That would be something excellent for all of us to pursue. But in the process, we do need to remember, as I’ve just said, that we are on a spiritual battlefield, and so we need to call upon all the resources of faith and spiritual power as we work towards this worthy goal.

Peiter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”