How can non-believers overcome destructive patterns without the Spirit’s help?

Q. The non-believer goes to various secular sources for help in areas like drugs and alcohol, anger management, eating disorders, etc. The believer goes to the Lord trusting the Holy Spirit for power to help because he’s powerless. My question is, “What is the advantage for the believer?” He sees the non-believer progressing in these areas without the Spirit’s help, doesn’t he? Are there some domains of sin where the believer can say, “I received victory in these areas only by the power of God?”

I think it’s actually inaccurate to draw a contrast between non-believers getting help from community resources without God and believers getting help from God all on their own.

On the one hand, classic Christian theology holds that those who have not yet benefited from the “special grace” of God that leads us to salvation in Jesus Christ nevertheless still benefit from the “common grace” of God that is in the world because it is God’s good creation and because God is actively exerting a redemptive influence throughout the earth. So the non-believer is not necessarily making progress in finding freedom from destructive patterns of life “without the Spirit’s help.” This is particularly true if he or she is participating in a group whose members are all working together to overcome a common problem. Human community, when it is cooperative and directed towards a positive end, reflects the character of God and can be a powerful channel of common grace.

On the other hand, the biblical portrayal of salvation is not that we are saved in isolation and need to work out our sanctification (progress towards Christ-like character and life) all alone, just between ourselves and God. Paul writes to the Corinthians, for example, regarding our entrance into the Christian life, that “we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit.” We are saved into community, not into individual self-reliance. (That’s the American individualistic version of “salvation” instead.)

So it’s not a matter of vindicating the need for faith by identifying certain areas of life where destructive patterns can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit’s help. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that we live out the model of life that God intended for us humans when the take part in a community whose members offer one another mutual support and encouragement. This is so powerful that it can have many beneficial effects for members even when the community is not built on a shared faith commitment. (Although many “secular” groups actually do talk about the need to rely on a “higher power.”) But I honestly believe that when followers of Jesus form close communities in which members can share their struggles honestly and receive help from people who do not judge them, but rather support and help them, even more powerful things can and do happen. That’s the kind of community I wish for you and for all of my readers.

Review of John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One

A reader of another of my blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, has asked how the interpretation offered there of the Genesis creation account compares with the one in John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. In response, I have offered a review of Walton’s book in a series of posts that begins here. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to read the review as well, since it deals with many “good questions” about the Bible.

Why didn’t God give Esau back the blessing that Jacob stole?

Q. I appreciated your post on “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wresting match?” but I have another question. This one has been disturbing me for quite a long time. Why did God allow Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing and get away with it? Why did God continue to bless Jacob? I expected that at some point, because we are dealing with an omnipotent being, God was going to reverse the blessings, but that doesn’t happen. Please answer.

Let me respond by offering a series of observations. First, the blessing  that Jacob stole from Esau was specifically the blessing of primogeniture, that is, the blessing Esau would have been given so that he could fulfill his responsibilities as the first-born son of Isaac.

Primogeniture (which simply means “first born”) was one of the existing cultural institutions that God incorporated into the Law of Moses to promote order and provide for those in need. The book of Deuteronomy commands that when a father dies and his inheritance is divided, the firstborn son is to be given a “double portion,” that is, twice as much as the other sons. In this culture women didn’t own property and so they were dependent on male relatives, typically their fathers and then their husbands. But any unmarried sisters, or widowed sisters without children, would have to depend on this oldest brother after the father’s death. That’s why he was given a double portion, so he could care both for his own immediate family and for his extended family in his late father’s stead.

It was customary for a father, on his deathbed, to bless the firstborn son, asking God to give him material abundance so that he could care for the extended family, and to make his brothers come under his authority so that order would be preserved within the clan. Accordingly, when Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he’s Esau his firstborn), he says, “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine,” and, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

A further observation I’d like to make is that, paradoxically, God repeatedly did not follow the custom of primogeniture as He carried out His program of redemption. The Old Testament is full of examples of God choosing younger brothers over older ones: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau (even before they were born, God told their mother, “the older will serve the younger“); Judah over his three older brothers as the ancestor of the royal line; David over his seven older brothers as king; and so forth. It seems that God simply looks for the person who can best fulfill his purposes, regardless of that person’s social standing. And so the judges, for example, include both men and women (Deborah), even though this was a patriarchal society that privileged men, and they also include an illegitimate son (Jephthah) and a youngest son (Gideon).

My next observation is that God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. We get an indication of this when Joseph tells his brothers, who sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God does not take away our free will; God lets us choose, and God is always able to work with our choices to advance his own positive purposes, although there can also be negative consequences for people who makes bad choices.

Genesis tells us that “Esau despised his birthright,” that is, his responsibilities as the firstborn son weren’t important to him and he was likely to neglect them. Jacob, on the other hand, was hard-working and ambitious—a real hustler. He was much better suited to assume the leadership of the Israelite family as it began growing rapidly into a group of tribes that would become a nation. Ideally, Esau would have recognized Jacob’s abilities, and his own disinclination, and offered Jacob the role of family leader voluntarily. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Jacob was a “hustler” in another sense—a con artist. He took advantage of a weakness in Esau’s character to defraud him. The book of Hebrews describes Esau as “profane,” meaning literally that “nothing was sacred to him.” (Clearly these were two young men who both needed some character development!) One day Esau came home famished at the end of a day of hunting and saw that Jacob had made stew. He pleaded for some, and Jacob “sold” it to him in exchange for his birthright, which he knew meant nothing to Esau.

But Jacob still had to get the blessing that went with the birthright, and so he also deceived his father Isaac, pretending to be Esau once his father’s eyesight had grown so dim that he couldn’t tell the difference. (Though smooth-skinned Jacob also had to put on Esau’s clothes and wrap his arms and neck in goatskins, so that he would smell and feel like his hairy older brother!) As a result of this deception, Jacob received his father’s blessing, in God’s name, of both material abundance and family leadership.

So why did God honor this blessing, when it was obtained under such fraudulent circumstances? As I said earlier, God works through the free choices, both good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish his purposes. Unfortunately we often don’t give God good choices to work with, and that seems to be what happened in this case. There were plenty of negative consequences for Jacob: He had to flee from his brother’s anger at this deception, leaving with nothing but a staff and spending twenty years in exile. But through the hardships of those years, his character was shaped and he became a man who could lead the tribes of Israel into their future. The same thing could have been accomplished much more positively, but I think that everyone involved (not just Esau and Jacob, but their parents Isaac and Rebekah, who each showed favoritism towards a different son) didn’t give God enough good choices to work with to allow things to happen any better. As I said, God doesn’t take away our free will.

One final observation I’d like to offer is that when Jacob returns from exile a wealthy man, rich in flocks and herds, he does make some restitution to Esau for the material abundance he stole from him when he took his firstborn blessing. Jacob sends Esau hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, and donkeys, and when they meet in person, he says to him, “Accept the gift I have brought you.” This is literally, “Please accept my blessing that has been brought to you.” Jacob is making restitution by providing Esau with a “blessing” in place of the one he stole. Jacob also bows down to Esau and calls him “My lord,” even though Isaac’s blessing to Jacob had been, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.”

These actions on Jacob’s part don’t undo Esau’s surrender of his birthright; that was an permanent transaction between the two of them, even though it wasn’t concluded under the best of circumstances. But it does seem that Jacob, now that he is more mature, at least tries to return some of the benefits of their father’s blessing to Esau.

Sometimes this kind of thing is best we can hope for. It’s a messy world, even with an omnipotent God actively working to bring about its renewal.

Raffaellino Bottalla, “Meeting between Esau and Jacob,” c. 1640. Esau and Jacob ultimately were reconciled later in life.

Was Isaiah’s vision in the temple a theophany of Jesus?

Q. When Isaiah had his vision in the temple, who did he see? Was this a theophany of Jesus?

Actually, Isaiah’s vision would not be considered a theophany. That term means literally an “appearance of God” and it refers to those instances in the Old Testament when God, initially seeming to be human, appears to people and visits with them. The Bible often describes this human-like figure as the “angel of the Lord,” but sometimes the narrative shifts and it  calls the figure “the Lord” (i.e. Yahweh, God Himself).

For example, in the story where Hagar flees from Sarah’s mistreatment, the text depicts the “angel of the Lord” speaking with Hagar. But at the end of the episode, it describes Hagar giving the name El-Roeh (“the God who sees”) to “the Lord who spoke to her.” Similarly, at the start of the story of the burning bush, the “angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in the flames. But the text then describes “the Lord” or “God” speaking to Moses from the bush.

When the angel of the Lord first appears to the future mother of Samson, she thinks he is a “man of God” (a prophet). When he returns, her husband asks him, “Are you the man who talked to my wife?” But eventually they both realize that he’s actually the the “angel of the Lord“—when he ascends to heaven on the flames of a fire they make to offer a sacrifice! Then the husband says, “We have seen God!”

So a theophany is an appearance of God on earth in human form, interacting with people who only eventually realize that He’s really God. Many Christian interpreters believe that these are actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ, that is, of Jesus in the human form that he would eventually have when he took on human flesh by being born to a human mother.

Isaiah’s vision in the temple is different. For one thing, there’s no question, right from the beginning, that Isaiah is seeing God. He says: “I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” So this is not a case in which God appears in human form. Rather, it’s a vision of the divine throne room, as Daniel would later have when he saw “thrones set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” John reports a similar vision of the heavenly throne room in the book of Revelation.

In addition, while the Lord interacts with Isaiah during the course of the vision (He asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replies, “Send me!”), this isn’t a case where God actually comes to earth to visit and speak with a particular person. Other biblical figures interact similarly with characters in their own visions, but this is not the same thing as a theophany. And so we should conclude that Isaiah saw not the pre-incarnate Jesus, but the “Ancient of Days,” identified with God the Father, on the heavenly throne.

Michelangelo’s portrait of Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The book he’s holding may symbolize the other Scriptures, to which Isaiah referred frequently, or to Isaiah’s own prophecies, which he began to deliver after one of the seraphs in his temple vision touched his lips with a live coal from the altar, purifying them to speak God’s words.

Did the Holy Spirit raise Jesus from the dead?

Q. Paul writes in Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.” Can this statement be used in support the idea that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead?

For this particular statement to be used that way, it would have to refer to “the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead” rather than “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.” However, there’s another interesting statement in Romans that suggests that the Holy Spirit might indeed have had a role in raising Jesus from the dead. Paul says something a little earlier in the letter that’s parallel to this later statement: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Here Jesus’ resurrection is not attributed directly to the Father, but to something (or someone?) associated with the Father.

We may observe more generally that all of the activities of the Trinity involve all of its persons, so it would have been uncharacteristic for the Father alone to have raised the Son, without the involvement of the Spirit. As Christian thinkers in the first few centuries after Jesus tried to wrap their minds around the Trinity, one thing they agreed on was that it would be inaccurate to distinguish between the persons of the Trinity by appealing to their roles or responsibilities. That is, we shouldn’t say, “The Father does this while the Son does that and the Spirit does this other thing,” or, “The Father is responsible for this, and the Son for something else, and the Spirit for yet another area.”

We have some vivid pictures in the Bible of the persons of the Trinity all working together to accomplish important things. For example, in the Genesis creation account, God the Father creates through the Word while the Spirit hovers over the waters. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens open and the Father speaks while the Spirit descends like a dove. While he was on earth, Jesus himself said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also.” I think we can legitimately expand this to say, “Whatever the Father and the Son do, the Spirit does also.”

So in some way the Spirit must have been involved in the resurrection of Jesus. I picture it as being something like the way the “two witnesses” in the book of Revelation are raised from the dead: “The Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet.” (Many English translations say “breath of life” or “spirit of life” instead, but I think the text could well be referring to the Holy Spirit.)

This raises another very interesting question: If all three persons of the Trinity work together in every one of their activities, was Jesus involved in his own resurrection? The book of Hebrews makes this interesting statement: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” Jesus actually did die an earthly death, on the cross, and so this statement that his prayers to be saved from death were heard seems to be describing his resurrection. In that case, Jesus was involved in his own resurrection through his prayers and submission, that is, his trust in God.

Hebrews goes on to say, “Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he was perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” This, too, would suggest that the Second Person of the Trinity was involved in his own resurrection through his trusting obedience, and in that way he contributed to the achievement of salvation for humanity that the whole Trinity was working for together.

Where did the “Legion” of demons go after the swine died?

Q. After Jesus cast the “Legion” of demons into the swine, where did the demons go after the swine died?

As I discuss in the post linked below, it seems most likely that these demons would then have roamed the earth looking for other beings to occupy. The Bible doesn’t tell us as much as we’d like to know about how these things work, but it does give us clear warnings not to open ourselves up to evil influences, and we need to take those warnings to heart.

Why didn’t Jesus destroy demons when he cast them out?

Review: Joshua in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic

Joshua, the latest biblical book in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series by Simon Amadeus Pillario, has been released today. You can order a copy here. I’m excited to offer this review. (Full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid biblical consultant to the project. Images in this post are reproduced with permission.)

First, I’m very pleased by the historical and cultural accuracy of the presentation found once again in Joshua. This is a hallmark of the series. As I said three years ago in my very first post about this project, “Bare printed texts . . . invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic ‘Bible world’ where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul.” The Word-for-Word series corrects this by presenting visual images based on painstakingly careful research into the findings of biblical archaeology.

For example, when Joshua commands the Israelites to carry large stones out of the Jordan and set them up at Gilgal, the comic depicts these stones being arranged in a circle. While the biblical text doesn’t say explicitly that this was how they were placed, that’s suggested by the name Gilgal, and we know that people did make “stone circles” at this point in history.

The comic also corrects a wrong visual impression we may have about what happened when the walls of Jericho “fell flat.” It shows them collapsing straight down into rubble, instead of falling forward intact like dominoes.

Along the same lines, in the episode where the casting of lots reveals Achan as the party responsible for stealing from the spoils from Jericho, the biblical text says that Joshua “brought Israel near by their tribes.” The comic shows shows only the tribal leaders coming forward at that point. And only the clan leaders assemble when Joshua next “brings near the families” of Judah. Readers of the text (myself included) may have thought that Joshua brought forward many thousands of people at a time in this episode, but this depiction makes much better sense and suits the practices of the culture.

I’m also impressed by the way this next volume once again uses a very creative presentation to pull off a transformation in genre. It draws on all of the conventions available within a graphic novel to bring a literary text to life visually.

This is particularly effective in places where the narrator speaks at length and there is little dialogue between the characters. In one such place, the comic portrays Jabin of Hazor thinking of and listing off the kings he wants in his coalition, keeping track on his fingers and pausing to think of more names, instead of just putting the list of kings in a long sidebar of written text. Similarly, the narration flows directly into Adoni-Zedek’s thoughts as he considers whether to oppose Joshua: “Gibeon was a great city . . .” And when the narrative quotes from the Book of Jashar, that book appears in the panel as a scroll, bearing the text quoted.

The comic even transcends its own genre in some places where the panels themselves seem to join in the action. In the battle against the enemy coalition led by Adoni-Zedek, when Yahweh “confuses” their forces, the panels are placed in every direction on the page, even upside down. With similar creativity, only a single image of the Israelites marching is needed to depict them circling Jericho seven times, because the image is sliced into seven frames. This is one comic that isn’t just a succession of rectangular boxes.

One of the things I find most powerful is the way that the comic uses its visual powers to show that later parts of the biblical story are always lived in light of the earlier parts of the story. As Caleb tells Joshua that he’s just as fit for battle at 85 as he was when he was 40, an image is shown in the background of Caleb as a young warrior leaping into a fight. He’s recognizably the same person, but his beard and hair are black, instead of white as in the foreground. This is how Caleb is seeing himself as he speaks. Similarly, as Joshua recounts Israel’s earlier story to encourage the people to renew their covenant with Yahweh, that story is illustrated in luminous background images.

Beyond this, I find the imaginative viewpoints from which the artist chooses to depict the action simply delightful. The dawn scene at start of the second attack on Ai is viewed from the angle of a bird in a tree. As the Gibeonites are producing faked evidence that they’ve traveled a long way, Joshua’s skeptical face is seen through a hole in the bottom of one of their worn-out shoes!

These imaginative viewpoints can also bring out powerful truths from the text. When the Israelites remove the stones from the mouth of the cave in which they’ve trapped five enemy kings, the artist portrays this action from inside the cave. There’s an amazing scene of the five kings hiding their eyes from the bright, unaccustomed light that is breaking in on them. Of course this happened literally, but it’s also eloquently symbolic.

The Joshua volume includes various kinds of maps that are all used for good effect. There are small inset maps that show where the Israelites are going as they move from place to place, or that trace the action in battles. I’ve often thought that the middle part of the book, in which the land is divided among the tribes, would be best presented through maps, and that’s what’s done here. When the narrative lists all the cities the Israelites conquered, a helpful map of those is offered as well.

Joshua is admittedly a difficult book in many places because of the slaughters it reports. The comic presents this violence unflinchingly but not gratuitously. It discreetly lets the narrative carry the story in places where a full depiction would be very disturbing visually. (Like other volumes in the series, this one carries a 15+ warning, i.e. it’s designed for readers who are at least 15 years old.)

Let me conclude by quoting the overall reaction I shared with the artist after reviewing the volume as his biblical consultant: “The artwork and fidelity to historical detail are simply amazing. I feel as if I’m right in the middle of the action. Every panel has interesting things to see and learn from. I’d love to teach a study on Joshua sometime using this as the text!” I heartily recommend Joshua in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series.