Sunday, February 26, 2017

Allen Ross on the OT

Some useful freebie material by evangelical OT scholar Allen Ross:

Plague of blood

15 Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water. Stand on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that turned into a serpent. 16 And you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed. 17 Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord: behold, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall turn into blood. 18 The fish in the Nile shall die, and the Nile will stink, and the Egyptians will grow weary of drinking water from the Nile.”’” 19 And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, their canals, and their ponds, and all their pools of water, so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”20 Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. 21 And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. 22 But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. 23 Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. 24 And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile 25 Seven full days passed after the Lord had struck the Nile (Exod 7:15-25).

A couple of preliminary points before I get to the main point:

i) Hebrew has the same word for blood and the color red. Therefore, it's prejudicial to say the Nile transmogrified into hemoglobin. 

ii) Some well-meaning people attempt to defend the historicity of the plagues by construing them naturalistically. But although some miracles employ natural mechanisms, some of the plagues are designedly discriminating in a way that defies a naturalistic explanation. The plague of blood is case in point. Consider v19. The implication is that the plague extended to water that was collected prior to the plague. There's no natural process by which water in separate containers could become contaminated after the fact. That's independent of what happened to the Nile. 

iii) V24 is intriguing. Unbelievers think Exodus is pious fiction. Even if they think it contains a kernel of historical truth, they believe it's mostly legendary embellishment. And the miracles are, from their perspective, paradigm examples of legendary embellishment. 

But why would a narrator writing pious fiction invent v24? Doesn't that circumvent the miracle? Even if it was understandable for Egyptians, in their desperation, to dig down to groundwater to find potable water, we wouldn't expect the narrator to let them succeed. Rather, if even water in containers was contaminated, we'd expect the groundwater to be contaminated. Why would the narrator invent that loophole? 

This is the kind of niggling detail that only makes sense if the account is factual. God allowed Egyptians to find drinkable water because it wasn't his intention to make all the Egyptians die of thirst. Rather, the point of the plague was to send a message: to show that Yahweh was the true God, a God with awesome control over natural forces and natural elements. A God who could best the Egyptian pantheon on their own turf. 

Perhaps the groundwater was naturally filtered. so that it escaped the effects of the plague. God didn't make the plague extend to groundwater. The miracle didn't impede the normal filtration process that purifies polluted surface water from potable groundwater. But that's a realistic detail you wouldn't expect if the account is pious fiction. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hidden in Plain View: update


3 He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever (Heb 7:3).

1. What's the relationship between Melchizedek and Jesus? Some interpreters think Melchizedek is an angelophany. Yet in Genesis he appears to be a human king.

2. Some interpreters think he's a Christophany. But there are some basic problems with that interpretation. Hebrews says Melchizedek is like Jesus, not that he is Jesus. A relation of analogy rather than identity. 

That's underscored by the fact that in the typology of Hebrews, the antitype is greater than the type. We wouldn't expect the author to abruptly break that pattern. 

3. By itself, the passage in Genesis might seem inadequate to sustain the inferences which the author of Hebrews draws from it. But that's combined with the bridging passage in Ps 110:4.

4. What makes Melchizedek such a significant figure? Or is he that significant? Some critics might object that Hebrews is milking the brief episode in Gen 14:17-20 for more than it's worth. Yet, on closer examination, the inferences in Hebrews are justifiable:

i) Melchizedek is significant in part because he's both a priest and king. That dovetails nicely with a Messiah who's both priestly and kingly.

ii) Melchizedek is the first priest mentioned in the Pentateuch. That would be highly significant to the original audience. A priesthood was central to the religious life of Israel. Yet here's a priest who antedates the Levitical priesthood by centuries.

iii) Moreover, this priest is contemporaneous with Abraham, who's the seminal figure in Judaism. And the Levitical priesthood descends from Abraham. 

iv) What about the business of his lacking parents or genealogy? A critic might object that that's an unwarranted argument from silence.

Again, though, this is a part of the Pentateuch where, under the Mosaic cultus, you must be a Levite to be a priest. Given the Mosaic stress on the genealogical qualifications or disqualifications to be a priest, the absence of any background in the case of Melchizedek is conspicuous and telling. 

v) In addition, this foreshadows the eternally preexisting Son. That's not literally true of Melchizedek, but again, the author is dealing with types and shadows, where the fulfillment exceeds the precedent. 

Seven lampstands

and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (Rev 1:20). 
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev 2:5). 

Why seven churches? Why the lampstand metaphor for churches? What's the significance of removing a church's lampstand?

1. No doubt the churches in Revelation were real 1C churches. But were there only seven? Or is that sample dictated by John's numerology? 

2. The septunarian numerology in Scripture has its background in creation week.

3. But beyond that general background, there may be a more specific tie-in. The seven days of creation are distinguished by alternating light and darkness. Sunlight, dawn and dusk. So the lampstands in Revelation may mirror the seven units of daylight in Genesis. 

4. God is the giver of light. By threatening to remove the lampstand, God rescinds the gift of light. And, of course, that plays on the metaphorical connotations of light and darkness in Scripture.  

5. In addition, Rev 2-3 may evoke some other motifs from Gen 1-3. 

i) In the case of the Ephesian church, which is the inaugural example in Revelation, you have some explicit allusions to Genesis in the "tree of life" and the "paradise of "God. 

Moreover, to have "fallen" or "abandoned one's first love" recapitulates the sin of Adam and Eve. 

The fact that the Ephesian church is the first church in the sequence might provide a framework or textual clue for Genesis motifs in the other churches. 

ii) The "book of life" (Sardis) and "crown of life" (Smyrna) may be synonymous metaphors for the "tree of life". 

iii) The "morning star" (Tyatira) may recall starlight and the dawn/dusk refrain in Gen 1. 

iv) The "shameful nakedness" (Laodicea) and "garments" (Sardis) may recall the Fall in Gen 3. 

v) The temple/pillar imagery may recall Eden as sacred space (Philadelphia)

vi) The "white stone" (Pergamum) may be recall the gemstones of Havilah (Gen 2:11-12).

vii) And the Spirit refrain may recall Gen 1:2.

Friday, February 24, 2017

6 Historical Positions on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom

Here is a good overview:

Illegal immigration and ID theft


The enemy of your enemy isn't necessarily your friend

Am I a Pharisee?

When we watch movies (and TV dramas), it's natural to take sides. To identify with the hero. To root for the good guys and take moral satisfaction when the bad guys lose. Indeed, many movies deliberately manipulate the audience into taking sides. 

When we read the Bible, the same psychology kicks in. And up to a point, there's nothing wrong with that. We're supposed to take sides. And we're supposed to side with Jesus. We're supposed to identify with God's people rather than the enemies of Jesus.

However, we need to be careful about that. For instance, when reading the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, our natural tendency is to subconsciously identify with the tax collector and cast individuals or groups we disapprove of in the role of the Pharisee. 

But that's diametrically contrary to how we ought to it. When reading that parable, we should ask ourselves, "Am I like the Pharisee?" Christians need to periodically ask themselves, am I unconsciously falling into a Pharisaic outlook? 

This happens when we begin to make our assurance of faith dependent on drawing an invidious contrast between ourselves with other people. Where we think orthodoxy, or what we take to be orthodoxy, is a substitute for sanctity. Where we think that being against something puts us on the path to heaven. 

Ironically, recasting our theological opponents in the role of Pharisees can easily make us unwittingly reprise the role of the Pharisee. We become the villain by casting others in the villainous role. We unintentionally assume the role of the bad guy by succumbing to spiritual pride. 

But Christians always need to be self-critical. Regularly practice self-examination so that we don't fall into that trap. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Traditional" Baptists

So Calvinism is beyond the pale, but it's fine for "traditional" Baptists to give a platform to a man who promotes purgatory, postmortem salvation, flirts with open theism. 

Does Gen 1 teach creation ex nihilo?

1. Grammatically, it's possible to render Gen 1:1, as well as the syntactical relationship between 1:1, 1:2, and 1:3, in a way that indicates preexistent matter. But is that consistent with the aim of the text?

2. There's a sense in which the original audience for Genesis weren't orthodox Jews. Rather, the Pentateuch is what made them orthodox Jews. It has a pedagogical or catechetical function in teaching them how to think properly about God and their place in the cosmos. Imagine what they believed before they had the Pentateuch. What they believed when they read it or heard it for the very first time.

I daresay their beliefs were a hodgepodge of folklore, local mythology, perhaps some oral traditions about Abraham, and their memories of the Exodus. To some degree, their default frame of reference is pagan mythology and primitive folklore. 

One purpose of Genesis is to set the record straight. To teach them what really happened. To correct the heathen creation myths floating around the ancient Near East. Not necessarily by directly alluding to them, but by presenting the real history of events. 

3. When theologically orthodox scholars and commentators leave the door open for preexistent matter, I think they have in mind a three-stage process:

i) In the beginning was God

God did not come into being. He always existed. 

ii) Preexistent matter

At some point, he made matter. This was the raw material for creation.

iii) Creation

Gen 1 picks up where (ii) leaves off. God organizes the preexistent matter into the universe. Preexisting matter is like the clay from which God fashions a pot. 

But a basic problem with this analysis is that, from a pagan perspective, there's no presumption that God or gods preexist nature. Indeed, the presumption is that nature or the world process preexists God or gods. Nature never came into being. Gods came into being. Gods are the byproduct of the world process. So they'd understand the three-stage process this way:

i) In the beginning matter (or nature, or the world process)

ii) Then God

iii) Then God fashions preexistent matter into something more specific

If Gen 1 doesn't rule out preexistent matter, then it doesn't rule out paganism. But that would be counterproductive to the narrator's aim. 

4. If possible, it gets even worse. Modern western readers think of natural elements as inanimate or impersonal. But in paganism and animism, it isn't just preexistent "matter" or stuff. Rather, darkness might be a god, the deep might be a god. Indeed, the original gods, from whom Yahweh came. 

If Gen 1 doesn't rule out preexistent matter, then it doesn't rule out polytheism or cosmogony. Once again, that would be counterproductive to a major aim of the narrator. For those reasons alone, I think Gen 1 must intend to convey creation ex nihilo. 

5. But here's another consideration. If the narrator wanted to convey creation ex nihilo, how could he do so with the available vocabulary and categories? One strategy would be to express the idea through negations. Indicate that before God's creative activity, there was nothing apart from God. 

Look at v2. Darkness is a negation. The absence of light. And darkness is more abstract than night.

To be formless is to have no structure. And a void is synonymous emptiness. Vacuity. A blank. 

Taken in combination, isn't this a way of suggesting that prior to God's creative activity, there was nothing at all? An "earth" without form and void, covered in darkness, is a paradox. A way of saying there was no earth. For the "earth" in v2 is defined by totalistic negations. 

When the going gets tough

I've discussed this before, but I'd like to use a different example to illustrate the same principle. It can be helpful to have multiple illustrations of something. 

According to the soul-making theodicy, certain goods or virtues are only possible in a fallen world. These virtues are worthwhile. Take courage, or self-sacrifice. 

Or take someone who betrays his best friend. He's wracked with guilt. They don't speak to each other for years. Finally, he contritely presents himself to his friend, hoping his friend will receive him back into his life. Suppose his friend forgives him. The experience of restoration is a wonderful good which he'd never experience had he not betrayed his friend, and suffered the consequent estrangement. Examples can be multiplied.

However, a critic of the soul-making theodicy will object that the appeal is circular. These goods or virtues are superfluous, since you only need them in a fallen world. So you can't use that appeal to justify the existence of evil. 

But do these goods or virtues have no intrinsic value? Suppose three or four high school buddies are highly athletic. Not only do they play on the same intramural teams (e.g. football, hockey, La Crosse), but they do lots of things together on their own, like hiking, hunting, white water rafting, horseback riding, and jet skiing.

Then one of them is crippled in a traffic accident. Now he's confined to a wheelchair. At first his buddies visit him everyday in the hospital. After he's discharged, they visit him at home. 

But they begin to drift apart. That's because he can no longer do most of the things they use to do together. And even though he can still do one or two of the same things, like jet skiing, it's no longer quick and effortless. Rather, it's time-consuming. Everything's an effort. Everything takes longer. 

He can no longer slip out of his street clothes and slip into swimming trunks or wet suits without assistance. He can't walk down to the shore and mount the jet ski. He must be carried. If he falls off, he can't get back on without assistance. He can't shower without assistance. He needs a portable shower stool. He may even need Depends. This is more of a minor inconvenience than anything, but his buddies treat it as a major imposition. 

From the viewpoint of his buddies, it's just not fun to bring him along anymore. He slows them down. He crimps their style. He's a drag factor. So they abandon him. And his girlfriend dumps him because she doesn't want to marry a "cripple". 

Suppose, by contrast, a Christian classmate befriends him. The classmate isn't naturally athletic. Indeed, the disabled jock used to look down on him. But the Christian classmate makes a point of filling the vacuum. They even jet ski together, which the Christian classmate never did before. 

Suppose a critic said, if it hadn't been for the accident, he wouldn't need a friend who stood by him when things got tough. True, but that misses the point. The accident exposed the fact that there was no depth of friendship to the camaraderie which his buddies enjoyed. No real commitment. No sacrificial love. They wanted to do things with each other, but they didn't want to do things for each other. 

Sure, it took the accident to bring that out into the open, but it reveals a serious moral deficiency in his fair-weather friends. They failed to rise to the occasion. It's hardly adequate to say it's only a virtue to rise to the occasion if you have an occasion to rise to. The occasion isn't what makes that virtue virtuous. Rather, the occasion is the opportunity to develop or display a virtue that was meritorious all along. His buddies aren't good people without that virtue. They have poor character. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Talkie Toaster

Some Christian apologists have shamefully alleged that life is meaningless in a godless universe. But that's a calumny on the noble name of atheism. You don't need God to have a meaningful life. Just ask Talkie Toaster, the artificially intelligent toaster on Red Dwarf: