“Honey” in the Bible is not date paste (and why this matters)

Is this not where “honey” comes from in the Bible?

Several times now I’ve heard the claim that the “honey” mentioned in the Bible is not actually the sweet food produced by bees from flower nectar, but rather a paste or syrup made from dates or grapes.  (To give just one example, an online recipe for a [great-looking] Date Honey Nut Cake says, “Biblical scholars believe that the honey repeatedly mentioned in the Torah likely came from dates and other fruits, not bees.”)  Ancient Palestine was not conducive to bee hives or beekeeping, this interpretation holds, so we should actually think of something like date paste when we come across biblical statements such as Jacob’s instructions to his sons as they were returning to buy food from Joseph in Egypt:  “Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.”

This interpretation should not be difficult to check against the biblical text.  If we find references to things like bees and honeycombs in connection with honey, then it is not correct.  Biblical honey does come from bees.  But if we find no such references, just mentions of “honey” along with dried goods such as nuts, as in the case above, then maybe the interpretation is correct.  What do we find?

•  When Samson walked past the carcass of a lion he had killed earlier, “in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. He scooped out the honey with his hands and ate as he went along.”

•  When Saul was leading the Israelites against the Philistines, his “entire army entered the woods, and there was honey on the ground. . . . Jonathan . . . reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb.”

• In Psalm 19, David says that the decrees of the Lord are “sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.”

•  The bridegroom in Song of Songs says, “I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey.”

References such as these show that the “honey” described in the Bible can indeed be the sweet food produced by bees.

Now it is not necessarily the case that every single reference to honey in the Bible is to this food.  There are other references to “honey” in association with agricultural produce that suggest that something more like date paste or grape syrup may be in view, even though the Hebrew word is the same.  These include the episode in Numbers where the spies sent into Canaan bring back a huge grape cluster and exclaim, “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.”  Similarly, when Moses speaks in Deuteronomy of Canaan as “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey,” or when Chronicles describes the Israelites giving “the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, olive oil and honey and all that the fields produced,” this sounds more like agriculture than beekeeping.

But many obvious references in the biblical text such as the ones cited above certainly rule out the claim that ancient Palestine was not conducive to bee hives. And so whenever we see “honey” mentioned in the Bible, we do not need to consider this to be a reference to something like date paste or grape syrup. It is most likely honey from bees that is meant.

Now why does this matter?  Simply because the mileage this claim has been getting is another marker of the decline of biblical literacy in our day.  Only a generation or two ago, anyone who tried to advance this claim would have been immediately answered by crowds of knowledgeable Bible readers—ordinary readers, not even pastors or seminary professors—who would have recalled the Bible’s many references to bees and honeycombs and recognized that at least some of the honey described in the Scriptures does indeed come from bees.  But in our day many are accepting this claim uncritically, not knowing any better because they simply haven’t read or remembered that much of the Bible.

This makes me wonder:  what other claims are being successfully advanced these days that a basic familiarity with the Bible would lead us to question?  And is something much more significant than the nature of honey at stake in some of these questionable claims?

Was James a carpenter like his half-brother Jesus?

Q. We’re using your study guide to biblical wisdom literature in our Sunday School class.  We’re currently studying the book of James and we have a question about its author, the half-brother of Jesus.  Would he have been a carpenter too?

John Everett Millais, “Christ in the House of His Parents” (“The Carpenter Shop”), c. 1849. Is this how we should understand the biblical references to Jesus as a “carpenter”?

The place to begin answering this question is by asking whether Jesus was actually a carpenter himself.  Mark records in his gospel that when Jesus returned to Nazareth and taught in the synagogue there, the hometown crowds were amazed at his wisdom and power and asked, “Where did this man get these things? . . . Isn’t this the tektōn?”  In Matthew‘s version of the same episode, the people ask, “Isn’t this the son of the tektōn?”

In these cases the Greek term tektōn is traditionally translated “carpenter,” and this has led to popular pictures of Jesus at work with his father in a carpenter’s shop, building tables and chairs for friends and neighbors.  But the term actually has a broader meaning.  In classical texts in can refer to a worker in wood (for example, someone who makes plows and yokes for farming).  But it can also refer to a “joiner,” that is, a construction worker who puts together buildings out of wood.  In other texts it describes workers in stone, i.e. masons, and in rarer cases it even describes a metal-worker.

So we should really understand tektōn to mean something like “construction worker.”  This gives us a very different picture of Jesus from the one that has him working in the family carpentry business.  Jesus most likely took construction jobs wherever he could find them, such as over in the larger city of Sepphoris near Nazareth.  He was, in effect, a day laborer. This helps us appreciate, for one thing, how Jesus shared all aspects of our human condition during his incarnation, including uncertainty over employment.

But knowing the broader meaning of the term tektōn also helps us appreciate that Jesus may have been regarded as socially inferior by many in his home town because of his occupation.  The word seems to have those associations.  For example, according to Walter Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon, Aristoxenus says that the father of Sophocles was a tektōn. But the Life of Sophocles rejects this idea and suggests instead that the father may have had tektōnes among his slaves.  So the occupation was considered lower class and perhaps even dishonorable.

This gives a more dismissive and condescending ring to the comments Jesus heard from the townspeople when he returned to Nazareth.  But this is another way in which Jesus “made himself nothing” and took on the “nature of a servant” when he came to earth, as Paul says in Philippians.

And as for his half-brother James, if the father and the eldest brother were each a tektōn, then it’s likely that this was a landless family of day laborers and that all of the brothers would have worked in this same profession.  One can easily imagine people from Nazareth hearing the wisdom teaching that was later collected in the book of James and wondering similarly, “Where did this man get these things? . . . Isn’t this the tektōn?”

Are we really supposed to give thanks for everything?

Q. I wonder if you’ve encountered the idea that we’re supposed to thank God for everything, even for the bad things that happen to us.  I’ve heard Paul’s statement in Ephesians referenced to support this notion:  “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This concerns me mainly because I can’t recall examples in Scripture where people thanked God for bad things that happened to them.  Did Jesus thank God for sending him to the cross?  Did Job thank God for taking everything from him?  And so forth.   Am I missing something?

Bible translations are generally agreed that when Paul says there in Ephesians that we should give thanks hyper pantōn, he does mean “for” everything (as opposed to “in” everything” or “in all circumstances,” as he says in 1 Thessalonians).  Hyper followed by a noun in the genitive (in this case an adjective used as a substantive), when paired with verbs of thanksgiving or praise, clearly means “because of” or “on account of,” as these other examples from Paul’s writings show:

“that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy”
“many will give thanks on our behalf
“something I thank God for

But regarding that substantive pantōn, the NET Bible makes the interesting suggestion that Paul is actually saying we should give thanks “for one another.”  The term pantōn can be either neuter (“everything”) or masculine (“everyone”), and the context in Ephesians does have to do with relationships in the community of Christ’s followers.  But practically all other translations take it to be neuter, meaning “everything” or “all things.”  So the broad consensus understanding is that Paul is saying we should give thanks “for everything.”

What does he mean by that?

I understand him to mean that we can always be thankful for what God is doing in a given situation or circumstance.  God is always active to make all things work together for our good.  But I agree with you that we’re not called to be thankful or grateful directly for things that are destructive and evil.  I don’t see Scriptural examples of this, either.

To use one of your illustrations, Jesus didn’t thank God for sending him to the cross.  In fact, he prayed that he’d be spared the cross if at all possible.  But I think he was aware of what God wanted to accomplish through the cross (which he calls his “hour of glory” in the gospel of John), and he celebrated that even in advance.

To use a contemporary situation as another illustration, I don’t think a follower of Jesus would be called to thank God directly for a loved one’s serious disease.  But they could still be very grateful for what they were learning through it about God’s grace and sustaining power, and for the way they were discovering that they were surrounded by a community of caring, loving people.

I hope this is a helpful distinction.  We don’t give thanks directly for evil or destructive things.  But we do give thanks for the way God is at work in every situation.

Who were the Nephilim?

Q.  Who were the Nephilim? Offspring of angels? Or is that theory completely wrong?

The Nephilim appear in the Bible early in Genesis, and they seem in some way to have helped bring about the flood.  Their story is told this way:

“When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created . . .’”

I believe that here the biblical author is intending to describe marriages that are best understood as unions of human women and some sort of male supernatural beings. These marriages produced offspring who were “the heroes of old, men of renown.”  That is, the offspring were capable of prodigious deeds.  But as a result they also threw off restraint and led the entire world into “great wickedness.” God became so “deeply troubled” by this wickedness that he “regretted that he had made human beings” and decided to destroy them in the flood.

This passage naturally poses many problems for interpretation.  If it really is describing marriages between humans and supernatural beings, how are we to account for its claim that such marriages not only took place, but actually produced offspring?

In light of this difficulty, many interpreters posit that the “sons of God” in view here are not actually supernatural beings, but rather the descendants of Seth, the son born to Adam and Eve after Cain killed Abel. He founded a line that “called upon the name of the Lord.” These godly Sethites, in the understanding of these interpreters, were corrupted by intermarriage into the culturally accomplished but godless line of Cain, which would be called here the “daughters of men.” Such dilution and compromise of the godly line led to unrestrained wickedness throughout the human population, these interpreters suggest.

But if this is the case, it is difficult to understand, for one thing, why intermarriage should only have been between Sethite men and Cainite women, rather than also between Sethite women and Cainite men.

Moreover, this interpretation requires that the term ‘adam, which to this point in the book has always had a generic meaning (“humanity”), suddenly and without indication be used to signify only a certain line of human descent (not “the daughters of humans” but “the female descendants of Cain”). But the generic meaning is clearly required again where God says “my Spirit will not contend with humans forever,” while the specialized meaning would be needed once more in the second reference to the “daughters of humans [Cainites?],” and the generic meaning would be needed again where God observes the wickedness of the “human race” and regrets making “human beings.” And yet there is nothing in the text to guide the reader in making these shifts of meaning.

Finally, the contexts of the other biblical occurrences of the phrase “sons of God” all call for a supernatural meaning. The term occurs near the beginning and ending of Job, for example, where the NIV translates it as “angels.” While it is true that the chosen people, to whom the Sethites would correspond at this point, are referred to metaphorically as God’s “sons” from time to time, the precise phrase “sons of God” is never used to describe them.

There is an alternative non-supernatural interpretation, first offered by Meredith G. Kline, in which the “sons of God” are kings. Kline argued that this passage actually describes human corruption in the form of institutionalized polygamy: “The sinfulness of the marriages described in [this passage] was not that they were . . . a mixture of two worlds . . . . The sin was that of . . . polygamy, particularly as it came to expression in the harem, characteristic institution of the ancient oriental despot’s court.”

But while this explanation accounts for why no marriages between the “daughters of God” and “sons of men” are described, it is still vulnerable to the same objections based on the shifts required in readers’ understanding of the term ‘adam (here it would have to mean “commoners” sometimes and “humans” the rest of the time) and the meaning of the phrase “sons of God,” which does not signify kings anywhere else in biblical Hebrew.

For all of these reasons, we should accept that the author’s intention is to refer to marriages between humans and supernatural beings, as difficult as this might be to square with our conceptions of those beings. As Derek Kidner notes at this point in his commentary on Genesis, “If the [supernatural] view defies the normalities of experience, the [non-supernatural] defies those of language (and our task is to find the author’s meaning).”

If this passage does describe marriages between humans and supernatural beings, however difficult it may be to understand how those could have taken place, this would actually fit well into the developing argument of the early narratives of Genesis, which explain the trouble-fraught human condition as a departure from an original paradisal state in consequence of measures God took to prevent human grasping after divinity.

The first pair are expelled from the Garden of Eden, for example, so that, having already become “like God” in “knowing good and evil,” they will not also “take from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” At the end of these early narratives, God divides the human community into contending factions through the confusion of languages, in order to frustrate its project of building a tower with its “top in the heavens.” In the same way, as Kidner observes, this passage “could well belong to the series [of human overreachings] as an attempt, this time on angelic initiative, to bring supernatural power, or even immortality, illicitly to earth.”

Even if the initiative was angelic, however, it appears that human consent was required, since the formal phrase for contracting a marriage is used in the passage: “to take a wife.” But we can imagine that this consent was granted only too willingly, since the prospect of semi-supernatural grandchildren would have suited perfectly the aspirations to “supernatural power” of the “men” who arranged these marriages for their daughters.

(The term Nephilim appears once more in the Bible, in the book of Numbers, at the place where the spies report back about the land of Canaan.  But there the term probably just means “giants,” not semi-supernatural beings:  “We saw the Nephilim there . . . We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”)

Bieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel.” An example of human “grasping after divinity,” as the arrangement of marriages between human daughters and male supernatural beings may also have been.

“To an unknown god” or “to the unknown God”?

I was speaking with a friend recently about the best way to translate the altar inscription that Paul saw in Athens, which he described in his speech to the Areopagus:

Agnosto theo

Should this be translated “to an unknown god” (as in the NIV, NLT, NASB, etc.) or “to the unknown god” (as in the ESV, KJV, NKJV, etc.)?

Greek grammar allows either translation, so the decision needs to be made based on context.  It’s doubtful that the Athenians, by putting up this altar, were saying, “We don’t really know the true God, but at least we know that we don’t know, so we’re putting up this altar to acknowledge that God.”  It’s much more likely that the Athenians were saying, “We’ve already got altars to all the gods we know, but in case we missed one, here’s an altar for that one, too.”  This suggests that “to an unknown god” is the correct translation of what the Athenians intended.

However, Paul seems to be taking advantage of the ambiguity in the Greek phrase and addressing the Athenians as if they had dedicated this altar to the true God, whom they were worshipping without realizing it.  “You are ignorant of the very thing you worship,” Paul says, “and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”  He then introduces the Athenians to “the God who made the world,” who is “the Lord of heaven and earth,” and who sent Jesus and raised him from the dead.

So it appears that when the Athenians put up the altar, they meant it to say “To an unknown god.”  But when Paul read the inscription back to them in his speech, as far as he was concerned, it said “To the unknown God.”

Of course it’s impossible to capture this nuance in a single English translation, which has to say one thing or the other.  But comparing different translations gives us a window into the fascinating dynamic of Paul’s speech, in which he cleverly and creatively finds  common ground that allows him to introduce Jesus to yet another group of people.

For some follow-up thoughts on this topic, see this post.

What’s the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession?

Q. What is the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession? I read the post on your blog about whether the “evil spirit from the Lord” that tormented Saul was “an actual spirit-being” or “a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit,” and I’m hoping you can expand on that distinction.  I’ve read in Acts about the girl who was possessed and could predict things until Paul cast the demon out. Is one sign of possession the ability to do supernatural things like that?

Let me say first, in light of the recent discussion on this blog of “metaphysical naturalism” and its denial of the supernatural, that I do believe, according to the Bible, that there are supernatural evil beings who seek to oppress people and keep them from turning to God and experiencing the life that God offers.  Anyone who doesn’t share this belief will not find your question, or my answer, meaningful, and so it probably would not be worth their time to read any further.

Second, also by way of background, I think it’s important to observe that the Bible itself distinguishes between mental illness and demonic possession.  It’s not the case that the biblical writers simply assumed that everything we would recognize today as mental illness was caused by demons.

For example, when Matthew describes the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry, he tells how “people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases . . . and he healed them.” Among those Jesus healed, Matthew says, were the seleniazomenoi and the daimonizomenoi.

The first term, seleniazomenoi, comes from the Greek term for “moon,” selene, and it can be translated literally as “moon-struck.”  The English equivalent is “lunatic,” and that is how many English Bibles translate the term.  Some translate it as “epileptic” instead, but I think it does refer to people with mental illnesses, which were thought in the ancient world to be caused by the influence of the moon.

The second term, daimonizomenoi, means to be oppressed by a daimon or demon, which the New Testament writers understand to be an evil spirit.  It’s important to note that they don’t actually use the term “possessed,” although they do depict Jesus and the apostles casting demons out of people, as if these had occupied and controlled them.

So then what is the essential distinction between mental illness and demonic oppression?  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament offers a helpful insight into this, in its article on daimon.  It says that in the case of demonic oppression, “What is at issue is not merely sickness but a destruction and distortion of the divine likeness of man according to creation. The centre of personality, the volitional and active ego, is impaired by alien powers which seek to ruin the man and sometimes drive him to self-destruction.”

In other words, we can think of someone with a mental illness driving a car but having trouble finding their way through thick fog and drizzle.  Someone oppressed by a demon, on the other hand, is having to wrestle with the demon for control of the steering wheel to stay on the road.

This volitional aspect of demonic oppression is also seen in the way that many, thought not all, who suffer from it may have “opened the door” in some way by choosing to become involved in the occult.  (Or they may have exposed family members by doing this.)

The girl you mention in the book of Acts who could tell fortunes illustrates another distinction: demonic oppression may be characterized by the demons doing supernatural or superhuman things through the person affected.  Another biblical example is the man described in the gospels as “Legion,” who “had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.”

A final observation I would make is based once again on an insight from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  After confirming the observation that “in the NT not all sicknesses are attributed to demons,” it continues, “Nevertheless, it may be said that the existence of sickness in this world belongs to the character of the [present age] of which Satan is the prince.”  In other words, we suffer from illnesses, including mental illnesses, because the creation has not yet been redeemed from its bondage to evil, sin, and decay.

That being the case, we may rightly suspect that an evil influence is at work to aggravate a mental illness.  Even when it is not a situation of outright demonic oppression or possession, there could be demonic harassment. Throughout the centuries, in fact, many outstanding Christian leaders, writers, artists, and so forth have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses.  Beyond the natural medical causes, there may well have been spiritual opposition designed to discourage and disable these people from fulfilling their God-given vocations.  Both the natural and the supernatural dimensions need to be kept in mind.  But spiritual opposition is not, in and of itself, demonic possession.

In conclusion, from a pastoral perspective (I was a pastor for over 20 years), I would encourage a person (or their family and friends, on their behalf) to seek spiritual deliverance from demonic oppression through the help of mature, reputable, qualified Christian leaders in cases where a sharp internal conflict of the will is evident (i.e. something “makes” the person do unpleasant and uncharacteristic things that they don’t want to do), where the person’s health and life has repeatedly been put at risk (like the boy described in the gospels whom a demon often tried to throw into the fire or into the water), and where superhuman phenomena are present.  These are not infallible indications, and each one individually could have a different explanation, so in-person, real-time discernment by experienced and spiritually mature advisors is required.

On the other hand, I would encourage a person to seek counseling and treatment for mental illness if they experience persistent symptoms such as depression, anxiety, confusion, troubling or irrational thoughts, etc.  Particularly if the person can’t just “shake it off,” they should get professional help and be open to the benefits of therapy and medication.  But I also believe that spiritual resources such as prayer and community support are vital for relief from mental illness and that they can make a big difference in the lives of those who suffer from it.

Those who are delivered from spiritual oppression or who find God’s grace to cope with mental illnesses are  able to offer encouragement to many others through the gifts God has given them.  To give just one example, Joseph Scriven wrote the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” out of his experience of long struggle with depression.  I hope and pray that any who read this post and recognize that they need help from God will find it through the loving community of God’s people and so become a blessing to others in the same way.

Was King Jehoram’s “youngest” son not his last son?

Q.  I’m confused about Jehoram and Ahaziah. Jehoram was 32 years old when he became king and he reigned 8 years, so he was 40 when he died. The people of Jerusalem took his youngest son Ahaziah and make him king when he was . . . 22? So Jehoram stopped having sons when he was 18?  That seems so unlikely.  And then I see in a footnote that some manuscripts say that Ahaziah was 42 when his father died at 40, which of course is impossible! I mean it doesn’t really matter, but what do you think is the deal?

Actually, it does matter quite a bit, as we’ll see at the end of this post.  But first, let’s try to figure out what’s going on here.

The traditional Hebrew text of the First Testament (the Masoretic Text) does say in Chronicles that Ahaziah was 42 years old when his father died at age 40—an impossibility, as you note.  This is clearly a copying error that has crept into the text.  The account of these same rulers in Samuel-Kings has a more reliable figure: Ahaziah was 22 when his father died.

But your real question is, assuming that 22 is the correct age, why did Jehoram stop having children at only age 18 (since Ahaziah is said to be his “youngest”)?  This is an excellent question, and one that I haven’t seen discussed in the scholarly literature.

Most Israelite men didn’t marry and have children until they were somewhat older, but crown princes had a responsibility to make sure that the royal line continued, so they married younger and had many children by multiple wives and concubines.

According to the version of this account in Chronicles, the reason why Ahaziah, the youngest, succeeded to the throne is that Judah’s enemies invaded the land and carried off and killed all the older royal princes.  (Ahaziah may have been overlooked or ignored precisely because he was the youngest.)  Since there were these older brothers, this means that Jehoram probably married and started having children as soon as he was physically able, in his early teens.  But this doesn’t explain why he stopped at age 18, particularly in a climate where a nation’s enemies might try to wipe out the entire royal line.

Here’s what I think is going on.  The text explains that during Jehoram’s reign, “the Philistines and the Arabs who lived near the Cushites attacked Judah, invaded it and carried off all the goods found in the king’s palace, together with his sons and wives. Not a son was left to him except Ahaziah, the youngest.”  Then, after Jehoram dies, it says, “The people of Jerusalem made Ahaziah, Jehoram’s youngest son, king in his place, since the raiders, who came with the Arabs into the camp, had killed all the older sons.”
I think this actually means, “The people of Jerusalem made Ahaziah king in Jehoram’s place, since the raiders, who came with the Arabs into the camp, had killed all of his older sons, but Ahaziah, who had been the youngest at the time, had survived” (because he was overlook or ignored because he was just an infant).

In other words, this is one of those places where the Hebrew narrative describes a person from the perspective of a past incident that is being related, rather than from a contemporaneous perspective.  Ahaziah likely wasn’t Jehoram’s youngest son absolutely, but he was the youngest of the senior royal princes who were born early in Jehoram’s reign.  He continued to be known as the “youngest” (the qatōn) because that was how he had survived the massacre.

In fact, the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament notes that in Judges, qatōn “singles out” Jotham, Gideon’s “youngest,” as the “sole survivor when his brothers were murdered—probably on the assumption that he was too small to be noticed.”  The TDOT then adds that “the special position of such a survivor is clear from” the story of Ahaziah in Chronicles.

This, I would say, is the answer to your excellent question—why would a king whose lineage was threatened not have had any children for the last twelve years of his reign, when he was still in young adulthood?  Actually, he did, but Ahaziah is described as the “youngest,” even though he wasn’t the last, because he survived the massacre and could succeed to the throne.

So why does this matter?

First, the fact that in the Bible a man’s son could be described as his “youngest” even though he wasn’t his last shows that we can’t read the First Testament in a simplistic, literalistic way.  We need to be sensitive to the nuances of meaning inherent in Hebrew language and literature.

Second, going back to the faulty reading “42,” we need to recognize that the Masoretic text does contain some blatant errors, some of which even contradict other places in the Bible.  (Often in cases like this the Masoretes left a marginal note to the synagogue reader to say something different than what’s found in the text, but there’s no such note in this case.)  So we shouldn’t give automatic preference to the Masoretic Text in determining the original reading.  But the RSV and NRSV do this, and so they have Ahaziah 42 years old when his father was 40—without any explanatory footnote!  A word of caution to translators: don’t preference the Masoretic Text to this extent.

“Take no thought for tomorrow”—don’t we have to plan for the future?

Q.  Jesus told us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” But don’t we have to plan for the future?

When Matthew records Jesus’ teaching about what our attitude toward tomorrow should be, he uses a Greek word that can, in many contexts, mean to give careful consideration to something.

Paul uses the same word, for example, when he tells the Philippians that Timothy is genuinely concerned for their welfare, and when he writes in 1 Corinthians that all parts of Christ’s body should have equal concern for each other.  The King James Version reflects this common meaning of the word in its translation of Jesus’ teaching, “Take no thought for tomorrow.”

This translation, however, can suggest to modern readers that we can and should take a spontaneous, impromptu approach to life, making no provision for the future.   People can even spiritualize such an attitude, as I discuss in this post.  Unfortunately, this can lead to many mistakes and misfortunes that could have been avoided with a little forethought.  Even though these mistakes actually reflect a lack of due diligence, people can excuse them by saying they were following Jesus’ teaching.  They might even judge others who do plan for the future.

This is all really a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what Jesus was saying.  The same Greek term can also mean—in fact, it more commonly means—to be unduly anxious or worried about something.  The context in the Sermon on the Mount, where this saying of Jesus appears, shows that that is his intended meaning there.

Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father cares for us and will provide for us, so we don’t need to wonder, “What will we eat?  What will we drink?  What will we wear?”  If we seek his kingdom and righteousness, all these things will be provided as well.  And so, Jesus concludes, “do not worry about tomorrow” (NIV, NRSV) or “do not be anxious about tomorrow” (ESV).

Other passages in Scripture teach positively that we should plan carefully for the future.  Proverbs, for example, teaches:

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family
and to nourish your female servants.

Even though this teaching is offered in an ancient agricultural context, its implications are clear for us today.  We can’t assume that things will always go well, so we need to make careful provisions for the future.  But “careful” shouldn’t mean “full of care.” We shouldn’t be anxious or worried, but trust in our heavenly Father’s love.  That’s what Jesus is telling us in the Sermon on the Mount.

Why does Jesus say to “make friends with the unrighteous” in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager?

Q.  This is one I’ve always wondered about.  In Luke 16 Jesus tells a parable about the shrewd manager.  I think he shouldn’t have charged the creditors less just to start the cash flow, but the part that I don’t get is Jesus’ last remark—something like, “Make friends with the unrighteous, so that when you fail, they might accept you into everlasting homes.”  (Huh? scratching the head).

This is definitely one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables.  It seems as if the master represents God, and the manager stands for a typical servant of God, so it’s pretty shocking to hear Jesus say, “The master commended the dishonest manager . . .”

To understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to realize that when Jesus tells a parable, there’s typically one single point of correspondence between the story he tells and something he wants us to understand about the kingdom of God.

For example, in the parable of the persistent widow a little bit later in Luke, Jesus talks about a judge who “neither fears God nor honors man.”  Yet somehow this judge represents the God who hears our prayers!  Jesus is making only a single point:  we are called to perseverance in prayer.  (There’s actually an implied contrast at the end:  If perseverance pays off even with such a judge, “Will not God bring about justice?”  So Jesus clearly isn’t making a further point about the character of God when he describes the judge.)

In the same way, the parable of the shrewd manager is making only a single point:  Soon the money we now have in this world will be no longer at our disposal.  (That is, our lives are shorter than we realize.)  So we need to use our money while we can to “make for ourselves friends” who can receive us into “eternal dwellings.”

In other words, use the money you have on earth to make friends with God.  Invest your money in ways that advance God’s purposes, and then God will take care of you when you leave this earth and “can’t take it with you.”  (As I say in my Luke-Acts study guide, the manager “provides for his future by using resources he’s just about to lose.”)

Jesus isn’t praising dishonesty or cheating.  He’s simply encouraging us to take the right attitude towards the money we have.  But he does this through some startling language, another common characteristic of his parables.

As he wraps up this story, Jesus describes the manager as practicing “unrighteousness” (adikia) when he cheats his master.  He then describes the money of this world as “the mammon of unrighteousness” (adikia).

He’s not saying that wealth is intrinsically evil.  He wouldn’t call us to invest our wealth in God’s work on earth if it were.  But he is saying that in this world, money is often used to manipulate other people (just as the steward does here) and to undervalue or overvalue things compared to their true worth in God’s eyes.  In that sense it’s the “mammon of unrighteousness.”

But we can also use our for God’s purposes, and if we do, this will show that we belong in “eternal dwellings.”  We will have made friends not “with the unrighteous” but “with the unrighteous mammon.”  That is, by means of the corruptible and often corrupted money of this world, we can make friends who are really worth having.

Did God really send an evil spirit to torment Saul?

In First Samuel it says that God sent an evil spirit to Saul to torment him.  I know what it’s like to go through depression and anxiety, and I don’t understand why God would do that to him. (Other places in the Bible mention similar occurrences of God sending evil:   Isaiah 45:7, Judges 9:23, and Jeremiah 6:19, among others.)

Interpreters differ about what this expression means precisely.  Some say that the so-called “evil spirit from the LORD” is an actual spirit-being that God allowed to trouble Saul as a punishment for his disobedience.  God is not the author of evil and does not tolerate evil in his presence, so if this is the correct interpretation, we shouldn’t think of God having evil spirits waiting around to do his bidding.  Rather, the spirit would be “from God” in the sense that its freedom to trouble Saul was a judgment from God.

But this is not the only way to understand the expression.  The Hebrew word that describes a spirit-being, ruach, can also be applied to the human spirit.  We see the supernatural meaning in Eliphaz’s opening speech in the book of Job, “A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end.”  We see the natural, human meaning in Psalm 51, “Create in me a pure heart . . . and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

In addition, the Hebrew word often translated as “evil” means more generally “bad” or “harmful.” It’s the word used, for example, when Job says, “Shall we receive good from God, and not trouble?” (NIV). Some versions translate this as “evil,” but I don’t think that’s correct, since God is not the source of evil.  In the other passages you mentioned, the NIV translates this term as “disaster” (Isaiah and Jeremiah) and “animosity” (Judges), which I think fairly captures the sense—not “evil.”

So the actual meaning of the phrase about Saul could be “a bad spirit from the LORD,” signifying not an actual spirit-being, but rather a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit, reflecting the break in Saul’s relationship with God.

A couple of times earlier in Samuel-Kings, we read that “the Spirit of God came powerfully on Saul”—once when Samuel anointed him king, and once when he was inspired to deliver the Israelites from an enemy.  Now, unfortunately, we hear that “the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul.”  Once the Spirit’s presence had been experienced, its absence would be keenly felt.  This may be sufficient to explain Saul’s dark moods.

On balance, in my opinion, the first meaning—a spirit-being—seems more likely, given the parallelism in the narrative:  “The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”

But whatever this evil or bad spirit was, and however active a role God had in sending it, we need to recognize that God was also gracious to Saul in arranging for David to come to his court and relieve him through music, through a servant who happened to have seen “a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre.”

God allowed Saul the privilege of hearing one of the most gifted musicians in ancient Israel play his lyre and perhaps sing early versions of what became some of the psalms.  When David did this, Saul “would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave.”  God mercifully tempered the judgment with relief, allowing Saul back into his presence through the worship music he providentially made possible at his court.

I hope that any who experience depression and anxiety today will find this same relief in seeking and finding God’s presence, whether through music, the beauty of creation, the encouragement of God’s word, or some similar means.

Erasmus Quellinus, “Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp”