Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.2)

Part One

The whole episode in Genesis 15 is highlighted by the time stamp in verse 18, “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…”  Yahweh declares that He has already given the land to Abram’s descendants.  Therefore, as we have said, the covenant serves to reinforce and amplify the plain and clear word of God.

But what about the dimensions of the Promised Land?  Can they be determined?  If they can, can we say that Abram’s descendants have received it all?  Has the gift ever been fully given?

The answer to the question in part hinges on what is meant in verse 18 by “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”  Is the river of Egypt the Nile?  Or is it a seasonal Wadi?  The less usual term nahar for river (of Egypt) persuades most commentators that the Nile is not intended.  Also, we should observe the fact that the adjective “great” (gadol) is used of Euphrates only and not the river of Egypt.  It seems, then, as if this “river” is the Wadi mentioned in Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4, 47, and 1 Ki. 8:65, and is what is known as the Wadi el-Arabah[1], which leads to the Gulf of Aqaba, circumscribing the area known as the Negev (south).[2]  So if we take the southern part of the land to be the Wadi el-Arabah, and the northern part to be the Euphrates, we must then ask whether this land area has ever been truly inherited by Israel at any time in its history, and if it is to be inherited in the future.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, supercessionists believe that the promise of inheritance has already been fulfilled:

Eventually, under Solomon, Israel claimed the land from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt, just as the Lord had promised originally to Abraham (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 23:31; cf. 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26).[3]

If it is indeed the case that Genesis 15:18-21 was fulfilled in Israel’s past then is there anything more to be said?  Hasn’t that oath of God been satisfied?  There are problems with such a view.  One such difficulty is how anticlimactic the whole thing is.  Abraham gets called away from his homeland with the promise of a land in which he will remain a sojourner all his life.  The nation that springs from him spends four hundred years out of the land in Egypt.  When they return they quickly apostasize and begin to splinter into factions.  When they do finally “inherit” the whole piece of real estate in the days of David and only fully with Solomon (a mere eighty years maximum), it all ends with an unceremonious division of the nation and the land amid gradual declension until the descendants of Abraham are shipped off as captives back to pagan Mesopotamia in shame!  In the history of nations this would be hardly worth a mention, let alone an honorable one.  If the hope of the land covenant was extinguished so early, as Robertson and many other covenant theologians think, the fulfilling of God’s unilateral promise to Abram leaves little grounds for any tangible hope for Israel.  It is one of the main purposes of the present book to show that this way of telling Israel’s story is fatally wrong.

Returning to the question of the land’s dimensions, Ronald B. Allen says that the land promise includes parts of ancient Aram as well as Canaan.  He writes,

Although the period of conquest and the later expansions under Saul, David and Solomon began a fulfillment of the extent of the promises, the pattern was still only a partial fulfillment. 

Citing Charles L. Feinberg, Allen believes the land promised in Genesis 15 would range over 300,000 square miles.[4]  This is considerably bigger than the land occupied at present by the nation of Israel.  If Feinberg’s estimate was right, God would still have covenantal obligations in regard to the land coverage itself, never mind the promises of perpetuity included in the covenant.

As we have seen, it is an act of purely arbitrary interpretation to divide the seed promise from the land promise in this crucial chapter of Scripture.  As far as the biblical history has come to this point, there is no reason to create such a cleavage in our understanding of the narrative.  We must suspend judgment on what we think we know and allow the story to unfold at its own pace, marking carefully the outworking of God’s covenants as they come into view and drive the teleological and eschatological picture as it is steadily forming.[5]

Genesis 16 contains the story of the birth of Ishmael.  Ishmael was born after Abram had been in the land for ten years (16:3).  He was not the son of Sarai but of her handmaiden Hagar.  Like Adam many centuries before Abram had listened to his wife in contradiction to the word of God.  The pragmatic solution which Sarai devised is still being felt by us today.  This ought to remind us how placing our reasoning above the clear statements of God is always dangerous.  It has been the cause of many theological errors.  Despite the temptations to problem solve for God, we are never in a position to alter His timetable, nor His meaning.  Basic hermeneutics should seek to be guided by this rule.

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[1] Also known as Wadi el- Arish

[2] See David M. Fleming, “Wadi”, in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 951

[3] O. Palmer Robertson, Understanding the Land of the Bible, 9.  It is not uncommon to find supercessionist author’s skipping the vital details of Genesis 15:8-21 in their argumentation.  See also Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 423-424.  An example of this is Sam Storms’ book, Kingdom Come.

[4] Ronald B. Allen, “The Land of Israel”, in Israel: The Land and the People, H. Wayne House, General editor, 24

[5] To cite John H. Sailhamer, “We must keep our eye on the author and follow him throughout his work.” – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 154

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.1)

This is another excerpt from the book I am trying to write.

The Abrahamic covenant is pivotal to the history biblical which unfolds thereafter, and Genesis 15 is perhaps the key passage to understand with respect to it.[1]  The initiative is God’s, and it is here that God binds Himself by oath to perform the details of the promises He makes to Abraham.  It will be useful to reproduce the first part of the chapter.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.  2 But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”   3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”  4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”  5 Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6 And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.  7 Then He said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” – Genesis 15:1-7

 

Sometime after the blessing from the priest of God Yahweh Himself appears to Abram and reiterates His word of promise.  The interchange is instructive.  Abram’s immediate response to the vision of God is to ask about a child (cf. 11:30).  If the land was going to go to his descendants (zera – “seed”) as God had said (13:15-16), then something needed to happen about Sarai’s condition.  As every Bible reader knows, God was to do something about that – eventually!  But Abram has been brooding on the promise.  And he and his wife would certainly have been sensitive on the matter in any case.  He is quite forward with God.  There is an air of desperation and even irony in his words; “what will you give me, seeing I go childless…You have given me no seed.”

Little did he know that many more years were to pass by until God finally came through.  At a time when all hope seemed lost, God showed He was as good as His word.  This ought to remind the reader that God will perform exactly what He has said He will do in regard to Abraham’s descendants (national Israel in the context – 15:13) although it appears to many that their time is passed.

The Lord’s reply reassures Abram that his original expectation based on God’s promise (12:2a), was accurate.  “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” (15:4).  And yet, every reader of the Bible knows that his trial of waiting for a son was far from over.  But Abram did believe what God said to him, not only about an heir, but also about his descendants.  Faith in God’s promise is faith in His character, and God’s character can only be trusted if His words can be trusted.  Abram’s faith in the promise glorified God and God’s response was to justify Abram as righteous before Him.

The context is very clear that the content of the declaration by God concerning the stars of the heaven and the sand on the seashore evoked trust in Abram and that God reckoned that trust as righteousness to Abram’s account.  Abram was not presented with a message about a crucified and risen Messiah.  He wouldn’t have known what crucifixion was in any case.  When the Apostle uses Genesis 15:6 in his argument for justification he repeats the content of the message while observing the response of God to Abram’s faith (Rom. 4:3-5; Gal. 3:6-7).  The onus for Paul is on the faith in God, not on what Abram believed.[2]

Upon the heels of this faith/righteousness transaction the very next thing that comes up is the gift of the land (15:7).  For the writer of Genesis, as in the Old Testament generally, the seed and the land belong together.  They ought not to be separated in our theology.  It is to the subject of the land that the chapter now turns.

(more…)

Charis-Anne

A Protracted Providence

My readers know that I don’t go in for autobiographical writing at my blog.  But here is a brief note about my celebration of God’s living providence.  Perhaps it will encourage one or two of you?

The beginning of September 2016 finds me fuzzy headed with limbs aching after moving to our new home, only four miles away from our old one.  The new place has three bedrooms with space for a fourth and plenty of yard.  The old house was a two-bedroomed rental where we crammed the four kids (two girls, two boys) for the past three years since coming to California from Texas.  Although it had a nice view we are glad to be out of the old house (actually a modular home built in the 70’s); the plumbing was always blocking up somewhere, the wiring was downright unsafe and the walls were covered by that faux dark wood paneling which epitomes the decade in which it was installed.  Added to this was the fact that our landlord was, let’s say, less than stellar.  We’re glad to be out.

That said however, we must be thankful to God for providing the house for us in the first place.  When we got the “green light” to move back to California in 2013 our house in Texas sold fast and we needed a place in NorCal quickly.  Finances were an issue and the Lord helped us out with a house that would work.  It was also situated in a community which we would not have moved to otherwise: a community in which we have made many friends and have done some (I trust) worthwhile ministry.  My wife and I thought we would be living in the modular for between 6 and 12 months.  God had other ideas.  Our resolve has been tested.

Among these major tests I might mention two.  First there was the challenge of trying to understand why God had lead us here in the first place.  The ministry we had envisaged working with (or working with TELOS), quickly turned out to be a poor fit personality wise.  There were several matters involving this other party’s extended family which I shall not go into here; and which were not all this person’s fault it must be said.  But the upshot was that the reason I thought we were coming to California was not the reason that God brought us here, and I was left for no small period wondering if I should stay or go – although I sensed strongly that I needed to stay.  The reason the Lord has us here has only really become apparent in the last eight months.  I was made Senior Pastor of the Church I have been serving at and my salary was duly increased (though we still make do on far less than most people think).  For however long God has us here I intend to bring an increased focus on the Bible as His Word to man and to expound it and counsel with it as best I can.  The results of my efforts must be left up to Him.

The second test for the Henebury family has been the surprise of a new arrival in the clan.  With  limited resources, only two bedrooms and four kids already, one extra seemed too much to deal with for me and my longsuffering homeschooling wife.  We have all been praying for God to somehow provide a three bedroom house for us to move in to; which is no small supplication in an area where affordable houses are scarce and the Pot “industry” artificially buoys the house prices.  But our prayers have been answered.  August 3rd saw the safe arrival of our beautiful daughter and August 25th saw us starting to move into our new house.

We have called our baby daughter Charis-Anne.  Me and my wife do not go in for the strange attention grabbing monikers which parents – even Christian parents – burden their offspring with.  She will be called “Anne.”  But I attached “Charis” because despite some tough years the Lord has indeed been gracious to me and my family and I wanted to mark it clearly with a meaningful gesture.  I have not been deserving of God’s kindness, but He gave Grace anyway!

God Chooses One Man – Pt.2

Part One

Before moving on I should say that the promise to make Abram’s name great[3] is not a part of the covenant oath which God takes in Genesis 15.  It is worth noting that a covenant then is more than just a promise.  God can promise something without including it within a covenant.  As we shall see, a lot of confusion has come about by Bible teachers not taking care to differentiate between a promise of God within a covenant oath and a promise not housed within an oath.

The second part of Genesis 12 concerns Abram’s lack of faith and its fallout.  Although descending into Egypt and promoting a lie concerning Sarai (12:11-19), God averted the dire consequences of Abram’s decisions, and at the beginning of the next chapter we find him living in the south part of the Promised Land.  The ensuing story of the separation of Abram from Lot is not just the rehearsal of a necessary parting of the ways.  Despite the sermonic grist found in the deference shown by Abram to his nephew, Dempster is certainly right to point that his offering a choice to Lot about where to live threatened the promise.[4]  Still, verse 14 notes that it was “after Lot had separated from him”, that God invited Abram to survey the land “for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever” (13:15).  The Lord then repeated His promise about those descendants being great, at least in terms of number (13:16).  Although I do not think we should designate these Divine utterances by the word “covenant”, at least until chapter 15[5], it should be noted that in repeating His promises to the man He called out of Mesopotamia, God is reiterating His intention to do precisely what He told Abram He would do.

Before we can turn to the enactment of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 we must pause to describe the meeting between Abram and Melchizedek in chapter 14:18-20.  Melchizedek is the king of Salem (which would become Jerus – salem), and he just appears[6] as “the priest of God Most High” (El Elyon).  Abram is returning from victory over the five kings who invaded Canaan, taking Lot captive.  His meeting with the king of Salem is not described as a shock meeting.  The narrative gives the impression that the two men knew each other.  Melchizedek acts as the priest of God to bless Abram, and it is in that role that he receives tithes from Abram.  We may wish to speculate about why Abram’s interactions with Melchizedek are not given more extensive coverage, but we must be satisfied with the little we have got.  Those three verses are referenced by the writer of Hebrews to make several important points.  Prior to speaking directly of this ancient king, his priestly role is spoken of via references to Psalm 110:4.[7]  The writer ties in the High Priestly function of the Risen Jesus with the Melchizedekian priesthood.  In doing so he makes the point that this priesthood is superior to the Levitical one which would be instituted later under the Mosaic covenant (Heb.7:4-19).  For one thing it is everlasting, and for another it is linked to “a better covenant”, the New covenant in Christ’s own blood.  Even the name Melchizedek, and his title, king of Salem, are not passed over, but the author of Hebrews stops to mention that his name means “king of righteousness”, and his title, “king of peace” (7:2), showing that these adumbrate Christ’s future role.

The coincidences which the NT writer picks up on look upon a second glance to be arranged.  Here we have a priest of God who appears on the scene to be almost forgotten by the time the Levitical cultus is established in the Book of Exodus.  But this man is situated in what would become God’s city, Jerusalem (city of peace or foundation of peace), and he officiates, at least for a time, as the priest of God in Abraham’s day.  More must be said about him, but it is enough to note that his possession of this priesthood gives Christ a non-Levite priesthood to step into in His mediatorship of the New covenant.  Further, it may indicate that just as Jesus assumes Melchizedek’s priestly role, He will also one day assume his kingly role over earthly Jerusalem, thus bringing the throne and the priesthood together as indicated in Zechariah 6:12-13.


 

[3] I want to notice that the name ‘Abram’ was not the name which God would make great, but the revised name ‘Abraham.’  That said, it does not mean that God is in any way misleading him, for: 1. It was the same person to whom God promised a great name, 2. The expanded name is clearly related to the first, and 3. God told Abraham that it was under that name that he would henceforth be known.  It wasn’t left up to the ingenuity of later interpreters to make the connection.

[4] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 78

[5] Cf. William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 35

[6] This is unusual in a book filled with genealogies.  I take this to be what is meant by the cryptic language of Hebrews 7:3.

[7] See Hebrews 5:6, 10, & 6:20

 

God Chooses One Man – Pt.1

Although he never held any official position or led any army or wrote any books, by any measure Abraham is one of the most important human beings in history.  Jews, Christians and Muslims trace their roots in him in one way or another.  This man who lived approximately two thousand years before Christ is a central figure to the biblical storyline in both Testaments.

Now this book deals with covenants.  And the covenant with Abraham is one of the most important covenants in the Bible.  Moreover, if it is not correctly understood it leads to massive theological fallout.  Therefore, we must take care to examine the Abrahamic covenant (or covenants if some writers are to be believed) so as to get clear in our minds just what its terms are.  Does it envisage only one theological topic? Or does it cover several?  To a large extent the answer to these questions turns on whether the Bible is to be interpreted back-to-front; from the New Testament back into the Old Testament.

The prelude to the Abrahamic covenant comes in Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the LORD had said to Abram; “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.  I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

And to this verse we must add verse 7:

Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.”  And there he built an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (emphasis mine)

This is not a covenant itself but is a sort of historical precursor.  It is of interest that the man who was chosen was not a very promising candidate.

What a pathetic sight is this man, trudging the dusty Mesopotamian roads, whose journey has come to a dead end northeast of Canaan.  How could it be possible that one without such promise could hold so much promise?[1]

In chapter 11 Abram[2] is called from his home city of Ur and at the beginning of the next chapter we find the contents of the call.  I am tempted to get sermonic and to bring out the many applicatory aspects of the passage.  But my purpose here is only to examine what it was that the LORD said to Abram.  What is the first thing that God promises Abram?  It is “a land” (eretz).  The land is not a mere geographical starting point for Abram, it will be essential to his call and the call upon his descendants, as verse 7 makes clear.  So the land is the first element in the call.  Next the LORD continues by promising that Abram will become a great nation.  As Genesis 11:30 is at pains to emphasize, his wife Sarai was barren.  This presents two large obstacles to Abram’s faith: the problem of how his descendants would get the land promised to them, and the problem of how on earth a barren woman would begin a nation.  Why not choose a man who knew the terrain and who was respected already by the inhabitants?  And why not choose a woman who was young and fertile?  We see then that the conditions do not make faith easy.  The whole crux of the Abraham saga turns on the difficulty of trusting God’s word.

The third part of the promise was that God would make Abram’s name great.  This is in opposition to the ambitious humanism of the builders of Babel (cf. 11:4).  This Mesopotamian émigré would become one of the most significant people in history.  Three world religions trace their roots back to him, so there is no doubt that this has been fulfilled.  The next part concerns the blessing which Abraham will be to the nations.  This blessing to the nations would not of course come about via physical descendancy, as if all peoples could trace their ancestry back to Abram (as they can to Noah).

I will have more to say about these features of Genesis 12:1-3 further on, and it will be necessary to carefully distinguish the specific parts of this text as they are utilized by the Apostolic writers in due time.  But let us take note of the important elements of the passage; elements which we must track as we proceed:

  1. The first part of the Divine promise stresses the land
  1. Abram will have descendants who will compose a great nation or people (goy)
  1. He himself will have a great name
  1. Finally, that all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abram

There is one more thing which we should note about what God said to Abram.

I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you

God’s commitment to this man is so fixed that one’s reaction to Abram determines God’s reaction to them.   This ought not to be taken in the narrow sense as referring just to Abram’s person.  The mention of land and the promise of a great nation stemming from him require that the ban would come upon those who curse Israel.

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[1] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 76

[2] Although I don’t want to make much of it, I have chosen to use the name “Abram” until he is renamed “Abraham” when he was ninety-nine in Genesis 17.

Noah to Babel

The movement from Noah in his post-diluvial world to the next great judgment; the division of human language at the plain of Shinar (Gen. 11:2) is the history of the decline of memory.  Declension in the remembrance of God and His ways (i.e. God as He is) gradually dehumanizes us.  Suitably enough, the movement ends with the impediments to joint remembrance which the disparate languages inevitably brought about.

The first part of Genesis must be joined comfortably and naturally with the second half.  These two parts converge in the stories of Noah and the new beginning, and the nations who come from Shem, Ham and Japheth in chapter 10.  We are told that it is from Shem that the chosen line will come.  In 11:10 Abram is a direct descendent of Shem.  God is called the God of Shem in 9:26.

Of course, in order for the nations to develop there had to be a passage of time.  All came from Noah, who came from Adam, so that all the peoples of the earth stem from them.  Biblically, there really is only one race of men.  According to Genesis 11:1 there was one communal language.[1]  If we recall that language was designed for men to communicate first to God and then to each other about God and His ways, we can see that Noah’s “new start” with one speech had at least that advantage.  Yet human sin will always employ its greatest power – our bent towards independence, to come up with ways to redirect language and meaning away from its intended use.  Once human autonomy was became an ideology only a mighty work of God’s Spirit can turn things around; albeit locally and temporarily (cf. Gen. 8:21).[2]

Something is wrong here at the start of Genesis 11.  There is no stone in the valley of Shinar but there is clay and there is bitumen.  So bricks can be made, and buildings can be erected.  The great building that is mentioned is a “unity structure” – a great tower.  Not a tower to the glory of God acknowledging our creaturehood, but rather an open acknowledgement of the greatness of humanity and its potential as a self-determining unit.  The love of unity challenges the impulse to Noah to spread out.  Mankind’s willful “let us” (Gen. 11:3-4) is answered by God’s “let us”; a response to this insistant independence.  If one could go back and interview the leaders of this endeavor it is fairly certain that one would hear an encouraging message of human goodness and utopian promise.  The true reason though is pride: they want to make “a name” for themselves.[3]

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[1] Interestingly, Genesis is not the only ancient witness to a shared language.  The Sumero-Akkadian text called the Enmerka Epic very possibly refers to a harmony of tongues in ancient Mesopotamia.

[2] Independence from God and His words became established in the human makeup when Eve became an arbitrator of God’s words.

[3]According to the “Eridu Genesis” we find the Babylonian goddess Nintur telling mankind to do the very opposite of what God wants then to do in the Book of Genesis.

A Reluctant Dispensationalist

Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist.  In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker as a title.   

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors.  They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals.  Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all.  And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.

For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, or should not be, fixated on the defense of a system.  Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing – its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible.  We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right.  That is a good thing.  But the last word will not be said in this life.  We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know).  The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders.  Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.

We have work to do to make Dispensational theology more prescriptive.  We like to call it a system, but we have often been less than adventurous in our proposals for a systematic expression of the Dispensational outlook in all areas of theology and its attendant disciplines (e.g. worldview and apologetics; biblical counseling).  “Why reinvent the wheel?” the satisfied objector complains.  Okay, I reply, but can’t we improve the wheel a bit?  Can’t we look the whole thing over and tighten things up here and iron out a problem or two there?  Can’t we make it run better and farther?

God has given us the Bible to understand Him, ourselves, and our world.  He has not just given the Bible to tell us how to get saved.  We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior and we discover who the Savior is and we discover our responsibility.  Therefore hermeneutics becomes extremely significant to the understanding of truth, reality, God, salvation, and destiny.  God invented communication in order for Him to communicate Himself to man.  From the beginning God created man to understand His revelation; even before the Fall.  God has done the same thing with His Word.  God has created man and given to him His Word in order for God to be understood.  Man has an automatic system of hermeneutics built inside of him in order to interpret God’s revelation.  Of course the affects of sin have perverted our ability to observe and understand revelation.  However, with the regeneration of the Spirit man’s ability is enhanced.  Without hermeneutics we cannot communicate whatsoever, whether reading, writing or speaking.  We need know the correct method of interpretation in order to distinguish between the Voice of God from the voice of man.

Craig Blaising, though identifying as a Progressive Dispensationalist, has shown that this straightforward way of reading Scripture is in agreement with the way performative language is understood (see his essay in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds, Darrell Bock & Mitch Glaser, esp. 160-161).  In my so-called “Rules of Affinity” I have tried to show that all the primary doctrines of the Christian Faith are drawn from either direct (word for word) affinities between biblical texts and doctrinal propositional statements or from “inevitable” conclusions based on the collusion of those direct affinities.  The Dispensational method of interpretation, which gives preference to these affinities, is therefore naturally geared to producing doctrines from one clear spring of vocabulary, not from a wider variety of murkier ones.

Personally, I am an avid advocate a “Dispensational” account of every aspect of Truth in theology and worldview.  But for this to become a reality I am convinced that it ought to stop defining itself by dispensations and begin opening up the possibilities of unifying itself around the biblical covenants and defining its system and procedures by them. Then a fully-rounded theology which includes all the corpora of theology, not merely ecclesiology and eschatology, will be created, with the result that a Dispensational worldview will be developed and proclaimed.  One may argue back and forth about the dispensations; their number and features, without abandoning “Dispensationalism.”  But one cannot ignore the biblical covenants without demolishing the whole project altogether.  I only wish the position that I love to be freed from the torpidity which is often the unintended outcome of defending a point of view rather than of strengthening it.  I am in sympathy with the Dispensational understanding of the Bible, and it has many advocates more able than I on its side.  My main qualm concerns its understanding of itself.  Many reflective dispensationalists will tell you that the dispensations themselves, both in definition and number, are not at the central core of what it’s all about.  But because the name has stuck it creates almost an apprehension to look beyond it.  The covenants stand there upon the open pages of the Bible but they are rarely heard outside of a prearranged ‘Dispensational’ recital.  Given their wings their power to organize, punctuate, and direct the eschatological movement of the Bible Story is unexcelled – and only “Dispensationalism” is in the right position to unleash their power.  But…those dispensations!

Mt plea is for the biblical covenants to be given their rightful place and dispensations to be made subordinate to them.  This will do nothing but invigorate the whole enterprise.  Nothing would be lost; much would be gained.  And I think the enemies of Dispensational theology would be harder put to disparage it.

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God of the Flood – Pt.2

Part One

Dimensions

Where did the waters of the flood come from?  The Gilgamesh Epic and similar flood stories (e.g. Berossus) say that the cause of the flood was a mighty downpour.[1]  There is no great stress laid on the “fountains of the deep” as in Genesis.[2]  But Scripture reveals not just rainfall but massive subterranean upheavals producing water gushes unfathomable in their strength.

In Gilgamesh the craft is a cube about 200 feet square.  Heidel gives its displacement at 228,500 tons.[3]  This is in contrast to Noah’s Ark which was a coffin-shaped craft with a displacement of around 43,300 tons.  The imagination roils envisaging Utnaphistim’s “block” tumbling over the waves!  What living thing, one wonders, could survive such a pummeling?

By contrast the Ark was approximately 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high.[4]  It was designed to float safely on the tumultuous one world ocean.  It was in effect a coffin bobbing on the waters of death.  The earth emerged once more from the waters.  It was a new planet.  As Peter would put it, “the world that then existed perished”.  It has gone, churned over by hydraulic and volcanic forces we can scarcely imagine.  We inhabit, “the heavens and the earth which are now” (2 Peter 3:6-7).  Adam’s world is no more, and we cannot get back to it.  When Noah’s family, together with all their live cargo emerged from their giant “coffin”, they bridged the two worlds, bringing life from death.

A Global Flood?

Sad to relate, but not a few influential writers, often affected by the requirements of scientific respectability, much prefer to propound a localized flood, targeted to one area in which mankind was concentrated.  As Custance has it, there would be too many difficulties getting the animals onto the Ark and then having them spread throughout the earth once off of it.  He thinks the “catastrophe… wiped out mankind still congregated in one area.”[5]  Heidel on the other hand, is forthright:

The impression which this [main Babylonian] story is intended to make obviously is that the flood was universal… The other Babylonian deluge traditions convey the same general impression.[6]

And after giving some of the Genesis account Heidel states,

This account, like the main Babylonian story, plainly asserts the universality of the deluge.[7]

The Bible is unequivocal about the extent of the flood.  It was worldwide.  And this is reinforced by the many flood traditions that have come down to us from almost every ancient culture, whether advanced or “primitive.”  Custance himself mentions traditions from Egypt, India, Peru, Mexico, New Zealand, and many more.  Even the Eskimos have a flood story.  Moreover, the important thematic use of the waters (mayim) in the Creation and Flood accounts, when considered with the uncreation language we have noted in Genesis 6 and the reusing of the “deep” (tehom) in Genesis 7:11, leaves the strong impression that the Flood is a re-immersing of the planet in the “cleansing” waters out of which it came.  If this theme has any credence the waters of the Flood would have to be global.

On a side note, the Chinese word for large boat is a pictograph is made up of characters depicting a vessel, the number eight, and mouth or person.[8]  The present writer used to hold monthly speaking engagements at a Chinese church in Arlington, Texas, and was told that these three symbols referred to a big boat or ship.

To Conclude

To believe in the biblical portrayal of a global flood is to give up on the humanistic ideal of proving the age of the earth using isotope-based methods and slow gradualistic erosion and deposition patterns.  Therefore, any attempts to uncover data to support an old-earth position via physicalist theories will always have to set themselves against the Word of God.  The Ark Encounter is not some corny theme park attraction built solely to impress.  It is a re-experiencing of God’s grace to humanity; of life arising out of death.  Some Christians feel embarrassed by it.  No doubt they feel less embarrassment about reading the Holy Bible with selective guidance provided for them by their unbelieving peers.  Sin will always scoff at God.  We are not much improved over those whom the deluge destroyed.  It is well to be reminded of it!

I have tried to imagine what it would have been like waiting with Noah for God to issue the command to leave the Ark (Gen. 8:15-17).  How sorely tempted he must have been to disembark prematurely.  How greatly his faith must have been tried!  Reason would have furnished him with many well sounding excuses for going rather than waiting for the words of God.  But if Noah had not heeded the words of God he would never have been saved.  And if the God of the Flood had not covenanted never to bring the cataclysmic waters back upon the whole earth we would not have a rational basis for our experience of uniformity.  Neither indeed would we have a hermeneutical basis to trust in the gracious promises of God (cf. Isa. 54:9).  The same God who said that He would never again destroy the earth with a flood also said that He would give life eternal to whoever casts his hopes upon the merits of His Son.  The God of the Gospel is the God of the Flood, the God of the Ark, the God of hope.

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[1] Heidel, 240f.

[2] Although the Babylonian account does mention the bursting of the dikes. – Ibid, 248

[3] Ibid, 236

[4] Custance throws some suspicion on these dimensions, thinking the ark too large for a few men to build. See Arthur C. Custance, The Flood: Local or Global?, 37.  He doesn’t consider that Noah might have employed many helpers.

[5] Ibid, 56-57

[6] Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic, 249

[7] Ibid, 250

[8] See C.H. Kang & Ethel R. Nelson, The Discovery of Genesis, xii

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God of the Flood – Pt.1

This is something I wrote for Dispensational Publishing House

God and the Waters of Creation

In the very first chapter of the Bible there is an awful lot of water.  It does not come from the sky, nor does it run off the mountainous slopes of Hermon.  The waters (mayim) which are mentioned first in Genesis 1:2 are just “there” after the initial act of creation.  These waters are there even before any land is present.  In fact, water is even prior to light. Extraordinary in its properties, it is necessary for physical life, for breathable air, for rain and cloud-cover, as a coolant, a solvent, and for cleansing.[1]  Perhaps the original presence of water at the beginning of things says something about the Divine good pleasure and delight in the physical?

The primitive accounts which have come down to us from the ancient Near East sometimes depict clashing gods and the overcoming of chaos.[2]  Biblical scholars of various stripes have interpreted the Genesis cosmology with reference to such ancient mythological accounts and have surmised scenarios which draw explicitly from them.  These influences are then incorporated into their interpretations of the early chapters of the Book of Genesis.[3]  This is done in spite of the fact that the creation account in Genesis acts as an obvious polemic against these pagan reconstructions.[4]

The fact remains, however, that the world was in a real sense “born” out of water (2 Pet. 3:5).  God created “the deep” (tehom).  There is good reason to think that the tehom and the mayim refer to the same thing.[5]

God and the Waters of the Flood

It is only natural therefore that Moses should employ these same words, prominent in the creation account, in his description of the great flood of Noah.  Even more is this the case when one considers the reason for God bringing the flood in the first place.  It was not for the petty reason given in pagan versions, such as that the powerful god Enlil thought men were too noisy, as recorded in the Atrahasis Epic.[6]  We owe it to ourselves to ponder the words of Genesis 6:5-7:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.  So the LORD said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.

Since God, who is revealed as being so concerned with the good, had taken such care to create a world for man and had endowed him with His own image (Gen 1:3-31), would be brought to think of decimating it is surely shocking.  That such a thoughtful God, who had made a special paradise for Adam and Eve where He would consort with them (Gen. 2:7-15; 3:8a) could utter words of sad regret[7] over the scene should make us wonder at human sin.  We ought to shudder that in such a comparatively short time wickedness had engulfed the race, and righteous Noah was surrounded by sin on all sides before Yahweh erased the picture using the same substance out of which it came.  What we have recorded in Genesis 6:7 is God’s desire to repeal His creative actions; an un-creation oracle.[8]   God was sick and tired of supporting that malicious prediluvial society.  The “waters” would come again.  But there would be grace.[9]

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[1] For the amazing dexterity and importance of water see G. Gonzalez & J. W. Richards, The Privileged Planet.

[2] Although it is well to reflect upon the fact that behind many polytheisms there was a great God.  This is hardly better brought out than in the fourth chapter of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.

[3] See for example John H. Walton’s influential book, The Lost World of Genesis One, 55-56.  Walton gives little attention to the polemical intent of Genesis 1.  G. K. Beale, who admits to being influenced by Walton, refers to God achieving “heavenly rest after overcoming the creational chaos…” – A New Testament Biblical Theology, 40.  See also, 247 n.44; 630 n.36.

[4] See John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament

[5] Jonathan D. Sarfati, The Genesis Account, 105-107

[6] So Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, 225-226.  “[T]hey became so noisy as to deprive Enlil of his sleep.”

[7] We must not philosophize too much about God’s impassibility and His imperviousness to emotion.  Did not God incarnate express exasperation at His disciples (Mk. 8:15-21), or anger at the hard-hearted Pharisees (Mk. 3:5)?  For a good treatment of the subject, see Rob Lister, God Impassible and Impassioned.

[8] A similar more extended un-creation oracle is found in Jeremiah 4:23-27

[9] “In the Gilgamesh Epic there was no thought of granting mankind an opportunity to repent.” – Heidel, 230.  It was the god Ea who went behind the back of Enlil to protect his favorite Utnaphistim.

The Cruciality of Christ – Pt. 2

Part One

We have been considering the centrality of the Person of Jesus for an understanding of ourselves in the created order.  We continue with a look at the Prologue to John’s Gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. – John 1:1-3

So again, this shows us that Christ is right at the very center of the creation. In fact, creation is made for Him, and not only through Him. It is not that God used the Second Person to make the world and then He had no further interest in it. No! These things were made for Him and nothing was made unless it was made through the agency of Jesus Christ and to the satisfaction of Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity.

As we told are told here in John 1:1, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, that Word is to be equated as it is by John with the words spoken by God in Genesis 1:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

…that “saying” or “speaking” of God was not just in audible words; it didn’t require audible words anymore than the healing of the centurion’s servant required them.  In all probability there would not have been any other creature around other than God to hear them.  But the Word was the expression, the idea of God’s mind and will coming through the instrumentality of the Second Person of the Trinity, whom John calls the Logos.

With this introduction John insisted Jesus’ origin and nature are incomprehensible if seen solely in terms of this world. Only when we read it in the light of his pre-incarnate deity does Jesus’ story makes sense; that is why this prologue is here. It tells us who the subject really is so we can better understand his story. To show Christ’s preexistence requires that it identify the Word with Jesus, which the prologue does in John 1:14-17. – Douglas McCready, He Came Down from Heaven, 140

What McCready has said here is most important for us to get.  To repeat, we must start in our study of Jesus Christ by realizing who He really is: that He is God; that He is the pre-existent personal Deity.  Unless we do that, we don’t grasp John’s message.  Neither can we have a satisfactory Christology.  McGready continues in connection with John’s prologue:

Much of this passage has parallels in contemporary Jewish and Hellenistic literature, but when we get to verse 14, ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’, we find a statement that would scandalize both Jew and Greek. The extra-biblical parallels that do exist provide little more than points of contact for John’s message; none determined how John would describe Jesus.  – Ibid.

John does not rely either on the Greek concept of the Logos or on the Hebrew concept of theDabar-Yahweh – the word of the Lord.

The concepts of logos [Greek] and word [Jewish] both pointed to something of universal significance that had its home outside the temporal world, although each affected the world and played a role in its coming into existence. So when John wrote of the logospeople may not have understood precisely what he was saying but they knew he was talking about something very important. John’s key differences from these two traditions were to present the Logos as someone not something, to affirm his complete deity, and particularly for the Greeks, to proclaim he had taken up residence in this world. The ancient world had no trouble with supernatural beings and little difficulty with the reality of this world, to the Hellenists; however, the Divine could not contaminate Himself by entering into the physical realm. Jews were familiar with theophanies in the Old Testament but these were not incarnations; God was spirit and so could not become part of the physical realm.  The Hellenists could follow John until verse 14 when he would be horrified by the thought of the ‘word becoming flesh’. Conversely a Jewish reader would object to the anthropomorphism implicit in the claim that a man known to history was himself the revelation of the invisible God rather than an inspired messenger like the prophets. Only a few verses often introducing this Logos Word, John identified him as the man Jesus of Nazareth – Ibid, 140-141.

This is what we must grasp right off the bat!  We must fully ponder the great significance of the designation “the Logos,” but within the safe confines provided by Scripture’s own definitional framework.  The One “through whom and by whom and for whom all things were created and cohere” (as Paul puts it), enters our world, becoming flesh.

Therefore, the doctrines of the full deity of Christ and the personal preexistence of Christ are critical to a correct Christological outlook.  But further of course, because He is also our Creator, our understanding of the creation and our place in it should be Christologically conditioned.

We see this truth surface more once we connect the original creative work of Christ with the redemptive work of Christ (I know there is something anachronistic about referring to the Creator as “Christ” before His Incarnation, the anachronism is lessened considerably by the knowledge that the Second Person and the Messiah are identical).  As we’ve seen, He is the One for whom everything is created, and He is the One who upholds all things; even now upholding a fallen creation.  Because He continues to uphold a fallen creation, and especially a fallen humanity, the fact of the Incarnation – that He has become flesh and entered our space – to do noting less than allow Himself to be abused and humiliated and betrayed and murdered by His creatures in order to save them is indeed nothing short of astounding!  No wonder the angels desire to learn more of this: this “through Him and for Him”!

He is the one who takes away the sin of the world, and He is the One who will renovate this planet and restore it to Edenic beauty (Rom. 8:18-23), and rule on it until He has made it into something He can present to His Father (1 Cor. 15:20-28).  It was in the knowledge of this work that He instituted the Lord’s Supper (Mk. 14:22-25), and promised:

This is My blood of the new covenant,
which is shed for many.
Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the
vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

This One has entered this “present evil age” and has died on the Cross for the sins of mankind and has risen again for our justification and for our hope.  And He is coming again as the coming King to reign over this creation.  Indeed, it is precisely because this world is Christ’s world that I must reject any theology which would assert that the returning King will come only to dispense with it and replace it without making something worthy of it, and that despite the stain of Sin having penetrated into its very fabric.  Although the curse cannot be lifted from off of this earth, and it will eventually have to be replaced with a “New Heaven and New Earth” where “there will be no more curse” (Rev. 22:3), yet the stain of Sin will not prevent the Savior from delivering it up to the Father for His approval and blessing.  This is one important theological apology for premillennialism.

We can see therefore the cruciality of Jesus Christ!  It is not just an article of faith, but this is the way that history is…the explanation for why we’re here and where things are going and what is going to be the end of all things.  And the end of all things will be all about the Person of Jesus Christ!