Articles

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Pt.1)

After Abraham

Having arrived at the crux of Abraham’s saga, which is the test of his faith as recorded in the twenty-second chapter, the story of Genesis moves to the death of Sarah and the purchase of a gravesite for her. Abraham bought the burial ground and the cave of Machpelah because although he had wealth, he was never a recipient of the land itself (cf. Gen. 37:1). When the covenant was being solemnized God had told His servant that he would go to his Fathers in peace, and his posterity would only claim the land after spending four hundred years in Egypt (Gen. 15:13-16, 18). This is the reason Abraham “waited for a city… whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). He knew that he himself would not own the land of promise. Genesis 25:7-10 records Abraham’s death and burial.

From the emphasis which has been placed upon Isaac by Moses, the author of Genesis, one would have thought that he would receive about the same amount of treatment as his father did, but in truth there is not much about him by comparison with Abraham, or indeed his son Jacob. We are told God blessed Isaac (Gen. 25:11), and answered his petition for a child for Rebekah who was barren (25:21). When Yahweh spoke to him concerning the famine which was in the land, He said,

Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.
And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” – Genesis 26:3-5

The Lord’s word to Isaac is to have faith and to dwell in the land. The mention of the plural “lands” no doubt refers to the possession of enemy territories within the bounds of the promised land (cf. 22:17). The reference to “the oath” in verse 3 brings both seed and land together again. We also see the refrain of blessing for the nations, as in 22:18. This, as we have seen, is best understood as a messianic expectation; all peoples of the earth will be blessed through the woman’s seed as per Genesis 3:15.

The comment about Abraham’s obedience shouldn’t be thought of as a conditional element to the covenant itself. God knew His man before He called him. It is important that we differentiate between the oath taken, which formalizes the covenantal bond between Yahweh and Abraham, from the conditional elements which keep obedient Hebrews inside the bond.  Abraham was obedient in the conditional aspects adjoined to the covenant, therefore he fulfilled the conditions. It is useless to speculate on what would have happened had he not circumcised himself and his household, or had become an idolater. The Lord chose a faithful man; a man with whom He could enact such a covenantal relationship involving such an immense and far-reaching teleological vision.

Two Sons

The birth of Isaac’s twin sons (in 25:21-23) provides an occasion for a reflection upon what God had said regarding nations coming from Abraham in chapter 17. In God’s providence, Rebekah had two sons; Esau and Jacob, who would become two distinct nations. Yet the birth was the subject of prophecy. The elder (Esau) was to serve the younger (Jacob). As we all know, as human beings go, Esau had more character than Jacob. But being the better man means next to nothing if you take a dim view of the promises of God; the only One who is truly good (Mk. 10:18). This was Esau’s folly. The tale is painful to tell:

Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.” And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. – Genesis 25:30-34

The narrative is a masterpiece of brevity, but it graphically portrays the attitudes of the two men. In comes Esau from the hunt. He is famished. Jacob has been cooking, with an eye no doubt for an advantage. There is nothing subtle about Jacob’s words. He is quite blunt. He wants the right of the firstborn, which, in Esau’s case, is no less than the entitlement to the greatest covenant in the Bible, barring the New covenant.

This is no trifling matter. But it is treated by the hungry Esau in a way that almost defies belief. “What is this birthright to me?” he asks. Good question. It is God’s covenant pledge to him! No wonder the writer of Hebrews refers to Esau as a “profane person” (bebelos – Heb. 12:16).

When the Lord shows up to confirm His covenant to Isaac He does so in uncompromising terms:

Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. – Genesis 26:3-4

All the ingredients which one finds in chapter 12 are present here. The land is prominent, as is the blessing to the world. There is absolutely no reason to keep the latter and not to retain the former. Covenants are covenants. Abraham’s obedience is a model for his people after him (26:5) , but God’s obligations hold anyway. That is why Isaac’s lapse of faith and duty, which is recorded next (26:7), does not cause the blessings to be repealed.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.6): Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?

Part Five

With Abraham on Mt. Moriah

When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser.  The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son.  The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not.  Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him.  For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised.  But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”[1]

We have not got the character of Abraham right if we conceive of him performing his duty in the cold analytical strength of unperturbed trust.  Faith he had, and we must pay close attention to its form and function, but this was the man who buckled when dealing with Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-20), and Abimelech (Gen. 20), and who implored the Almighty that Ishmael would be the chosen seed and so receive the inheritance of the covenant blessing (Gen. 17:18). It was Abraham who heeded Sarah’s bad advice in the matter of having the child who would be Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2).  And this latter incident was nothing if not Abraham and his wife’s solution to the dilemma of God’s promising something that looked more and more improbable: that Sarah would herself give birth to an heir.

We might say that the conception of Ishmael was a hermeneutical conception before it was a physical conception.  Yes, Abraham was very human, and one can be sure that his ascent up the slopes of Moriah was a deeply troubling one; a time of crisis for him personally.  Yet, for all the confusion that must have penetrated his thoughts from the time God told him to sacrifice his son (and notice how the text stresses “your only, whom you love” – 22:2)[2], Abraham showed that the word and character of his God were more sure than his unaided reason and churned up emotions.  How could he put faith above reason?  He didn’t!  He put reason in service of his strong faith.  This is what the writer of Hebrews explains in an extraordinary passage:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. – Hebrews 11:17-19.

Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead!”  His faith led his reason in the direction of a logical outcome which was guaranteed by the covenant oath which God had given to him.  The words of the covenant supported his faith, and his faith guided his reasoning.  This is the interpretative structure that I am proposing as the iron backbone of Biblical Theology.  If Abraham had not reasoned by faith in what God literally said, he would doubtless have succumbed to the sort of reasoning that comes easily to those of us whose faith does not aspire to reason that way.  Abraham would have reinterpreted the command, perhaps as figurative and typological, and would not have been ready to literally sacrifice Isaac.

A Critical Hermeneutical Lesson

There is a critical hermeneutical lesson to be drawn from this story and its commentary in the Book of Hebrews.  The temptation to reinterpret what God has pledged to do must not be overlooked or dismissed from our hermeneutical methods.  When our predisposition to reason independently  is also factored in (that is the default position we inherit from Eve), the re-interpretation of the Book of God via spiritualizing the words or devising a typology to fit our predetermined theologies should be viewed with suspicion.  What is clear is that the symbolical approach to God’s words can never duplicate Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22.  That faith did not venture on types and transformations.  Faith took God at His word!  For faith to be faith it has to take God at face value.  To proceed by another way is to introduce independent human reasoning into the scriptural situation and so to place a filter over what God is really saying so as to view it differently.  But the “literal” word is guided by the biblical covenants that lie easily identifiable upon the open pages of Scripture.  Our reinterpretations will always threaten to skirmish with those covenant oaths until one or the other gives way.

This episode and its interpretation by Scripture itself is to me one of the key hermeneutical guideposts in the Bible.  Not to stop and ponder it is to make a fatal mistake.  Abraham’s offering of Isaac in faith is surely one of the greatest exemplars of how to take God at His word and make faith drive reason rather than the other way round.  Here we have a hermeneutics from the inside (from Scripture itself) rather than a hermeneutics from the outside (from extra biblical sources).

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[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41

[2] Humphreys brings this out very well when he says, “Now, at just the point at which the narrative reached certain stability – when the long-promised son and seed were granted, when in spite of all appearances God begins to secure the future of the one he chose for a special covenant and destiny – all is destabilized by a test devised by God, whose designs and purpose are not clear at all.” – W Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, 139. Emphasis in original.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.5): Hermeneutics as a Test of Faith

Problems with the Promise and Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise – fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel.  Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. [1]

 

This might sound very good.  As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals.  So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament.  But the “promise – fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination.  The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ.  Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT.  Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT.  Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT.  An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.[2]

Because Goldsworthy is not interpreting the OT on its own terms, but through his own understanding of the NT, he is not hesitant about converting the covenantal promises of the land to Israel into a “true fulfillment” in Jesus Christ and the Church.  In this promise – fulfillment scheme, the OT does not serve up enough clear data to furnish its own interpretation.  But one might well ask, is there something wrong with the Old Testament or is there something wrong with the way some scholars look at it?[3]

The Birth of Isaac and the Hermeneutical Test of Faith

The next two chapters in Genesis (i.e. 18 and 19) are ostensibly about the judgment and destruction of the cities of the plain for their wickedness.  However, the three men who visit Abraham at Mamre are there for more than that.  One of the visitors is the Lord Yahweh Himself, as the text makes clear.  After the two angelic companions leave for the rescue of Lot in Sodom, the Lord tells Abraham,

I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. – Genesis 18:10

After hearing Sarah laugh at the promise, God reiterates it almost verbatim:

Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. – Genesis 18:14

As the story moves on we read in chapter 21,

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.  For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. – Genesis 21:1-2

In calling the reader’s attention to these verses I want to drive home the precision of God’s word.  God means what He says.  The tragedy of Ishmael is that Abraham and Sarah they did not take God at His word and instead attempted to help the situation along by a reinterpretation of His covenant words.  But the message of Genesis continues to be that God’s words are to be taken at face value.  The next chapter puts the seal to this truth, but before we study it, I should say something about the phrase “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” in verse 18.  This statement, which is a close match to Genesis 12:3[4], is not to be construed as a coverall statement of the whole Abrahamic covenant, land promise and all, to be given to every saint in the entire history of redemption.  The words draw attention to an important aspect of the covenant; the seed promise that will eventuate in salvation offered to the nations through Jesus Christ.  But they do not extend to the promises of geo-political statehood or geographical location.  The phrase is repeated by Peter in Acts 3:25 in a very Jewish setting (see 3:12-13).  It appears then to have been understood by Peter in the same terms Abraham had understood it.

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[1] E.g., “As Christians, we must return to the principles of Old Testament interpretation dictated by the New Testament.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 54-55

[2] Ibid, 50.  The conclusion drawn from this way of reading the OT is that not only does it not reveal enough of God’s intent, but many of its prophetic assertions are in need of revision via the NT.  So Goldsworthy can say that “the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.  See also G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431

[3] I simply pose the question for the time being.  Still, I cannot suppress the urge entirely.  In the words of John Sailhamer’s criticism of Geerhaardus Vos; “The divine promises as objects of faith in God were more important than their objective fulfillment… The lack of fulfillment of the OT promises was the primary means of teaching God’s people to look for spiritual and future dimensions of God’s promises.  Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of fulfillment.” – Meaning, 424-425.  It is this presupposition that invites typology to assume the upper hand in OT hermeneutics.

[4] The only change is the substitution of “families” (mishpachah) in 12:3 with “nations” (goyim) in 18:18.

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Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches

Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, editors.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2016, 501 pages.  

This book is a celebration of the work of Craig A. Blaising.  Though I am not a Progressive Dispensationalist, I do like Blaising’s writing.  He always approaches a subject from interesting angles, and usually makes important points.

The book is divided into the three sections of the subtitle, plus a beginning section on foundational matters.  The list of contributors is impressive and the table of contents is inviting.  But more important is whether the contributions are up to snuff.  On that score I can answer with a firm if not universal yes!  In this brief review I shall first turn to the most impressive essays and then say one or two things about what I might refer to as the more makeweight chapters.

First place for this reviewer goes to Daniel Block’s piece on Mosaic eschatology centered on the Book of Deuteronomy.  The essay presents a fine arrangement and handling of the salient texts, with good interaction with scholarship.  But its best part comes with the author’s treatment of Deuteronomy 4, 30 and 32.  This is an excellent piece of biblical theology.

Pretty close on its heals is the next chapter on “The Doctrine of the Future in the Historical Books.”  Although it did not interact with as many interpreters as Block, the writer, Gregory Smith, did use his limited pool of sources well.  He has many good footnotes, but too often relies on the same people (e.g., Merrill, Dumbrell, Kaiser, EBC).  This I think confines him to general conclusions instead of a decided stance.  He manages to convey the importance of the Davidic hope in the Historical writings, even if he leaves things a little open-ended.  Still, I learned a lot from Smith’s article and I recommend it.

The opening chapter is by Jeffrey Bingham and is a scholarly look at the answers given by the early church to the assailing of the two Testament canon by Marcion.  Bingham’s major thrust is that the Fathers recognized that theological continuity between the OT and NT was essential and also possible, whereas Marcion sided with a radical discontinuity (e.g. 45-46).  The article is informative and asks good questions, but Bingham runs out of space to answer them.  He does show, however, that the paths taken to minimize the perceived discontinuity problem are still with us and that Dispensationalism has not been given a fair hearing for its hermeneutical stability across the Scriptures.

John and Stefana Laing’s bold effort is entitled “The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy.”  It ambitiously tries to bring the three ideas into unified focus and nearly succeeds.  It is well structured, well annotated, and well written.  Some of the notes were especially nice to have, either for apologetic or for theological purposes.  They include a lengthy footnote, for example, about the ecstatic behavior of pagan prophets in which they customarily lost control of their faculties (83 n.6).  This article, with its mix of thoughtful historical, theological and apologetic content, must have taken a lot of effort to put together within the imposed page limit.  For the most part I liked it, although I have to take issue with their repetition of the hackneyed line about the prophets being more ethical preachers (forthtellers) than predictors of the future (foretellers).  Sooner or later evangelicals will discover that the scholarly consensus has shifted back quite a bit.

I could write glowingly about several other pieces in this fine book.  George Klein on the Psalms, Mark Rooker on the Prophets, Glenn Kreider on the eschatology of Jonathan Edwards, and more.  Mark Bailey handles Dispensationalism well.  For readers interested in Jurgen Moltmann the chapter by Lanier Burns is a great one stop treatment, even if Barth and Pannenberg must be content with a brief but competent review by two German scholars.

I said I would refer to a few less impressive chapters.  For me Stanley Toussaint’s piece on eschatology and hope was just okay.  I was disappointed that he did not tie hope more poignantly to the resurrection.  Charles Ryrie wrote a short piece, “The Doctrine of the Future and the Weakening of Prophecy.”  I shall only say that if I ever reached his age I doubt that I could produce an essay as good as Dr. Ryrie, although I’m afraid it isn’t very good.  Finally, Albert Mohler on the application of eschatology to the contemporary situation was rather pedestrian.

But after all is said and done I can give this book my recommendation.  It is not only a tribute to a fine evangelical scholar, it is a collection of solid articles, some of them super, on biblical eschatology.

 

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.

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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

 

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.