Our Friend

In one of the earliest posts on this blog (Whose View?), we discussed the importance of knowing the original languages of the Bible, as the language makes the vision possible. What you and I “see” in Scripture is what the authors place there.

This importance of knowing languages can be seen in one of the shortest, and frankly, largely ignored Pauline letters, Philemon. Bracketing the writings of Paul in the New Testament, Philemon closes out the series of canonical writings to the Gentiles that begins with Romans. If Romans is the call of the apostle Paul to the Roman society, especially to the patricians, for them to accept and submit to the Gospel, then Philemon is the test case of whether and how this happens.

In other words, Philemon is a magnifying glass looking at Paul’s call in one specific Roman household, which functions as any Roman household.

The thrust of the letter is simple enough: Paul is returning to the Roman (now a believer) patrician Philemon his (i.e., Philemon’s) runaway slave Onesimus. Appealing to Philemon’s love and respect for Paul (verses 10 – 20), the apostle calls on the patrician to welcome back Onesimus, whom Paul met in prison and who cared for Paul, and to receive him with open arms and generosity.

Oh, and to call him a brother (verse 16).

Let’s stop here and look at this. You are a Roman patrician, with power over someone’s life, especially that of slaves in your household. The whole neighborhood knows you lost a slave who ran away. Now, he shows up at your door with a letter from someone named Paul that will need to be read out loud in an assembly for everyone gathered to hear. On top of this, when you would have at least severely punished Onesimus, you cannot, because of what this letter is asking of you. And on top of all this, you have to refer to this slave. . . as your brother. You — a Roman patrician!

What will the other patricians think?

Here we do not “know” how Philemon chose. It is not for us to know but to learn. Were Philemon to welcome back Onesimus and call him a brother, then the Roman power ethic would have been conquered in his home. While his social status and Onesimus’ would have remained the same, his power over Onesimus would not.

This is why Paul refers to our recipient as Philemon, borne out of the Greek words “friend” and “our.” Philemon is literally, “Our friend.” Anyone who lives by the Gospel is a friend of the Lord, who alone tests the heart.

Identity

What happens to your identity if you bear the name of Christian? Do you lose your identity? In Colossians, Saint Paul says that, in the renewal of the “new self,” “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all” (3. 11).

I have given thought to this matter over the years, coming to the conclusion that, well, you lose your identity as a believer in the Lord. The loss of identity is part and parcel of the start of the “new self” Paul mentions in Colossians. Our identifying markers have gone the way of the wind. How can one love the neighbor if one still holds onto identity? “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2. 20).

Now, I am not so sure this is what Paul is saying. This is true, but also partially true. Let’s think about this as if we were living in the first century Roman Empire.

In many regions of the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, clothes function as social markers, but also tell a story. Clothes are an indication of social status as well as location. For example, just by being able to read the design on a traditional headscarf (i.e., hijab), one could know from which village someone comes.

Slaves wore or did not wear certain clothes; for example, they were often deprived of shoes. The higher social classes dressed better, of course. Does this now mean that if a slave became a disciple they would then have new clothes?

Likely not. Their identity remains the same, this is who they are socially in the Roman Empire. Someone from the Galatia region of Asia Minor does not change their clothing, which may be specific to the region in which they live, to look like the clothes, say, from Galilee or Antioch. Why should they?

So I think Paul is saying that your identity remains the same. What changes is the power one identity has over another person or tribe — it no longer has this power! The Gentile believer who eats with the Jewish believer forgoes the power of their identity over the other, since they are both seated at a table that is not theirs, i.e., at the Lord’s table.

So in loving the needy neighbor, there is then no need or place for you to assert your identity. Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 29 – 37). As the hearers, we need to know his identity as a Samaritan, as this is part of the tension of the parable. But in his service to his fellow suffering human within the parable, the Samaritan’s identity doesn’t matter.

In the next post, we will see how this mechanism functions in Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

No Distinction

Following the previous post, Luke-Acts, we will look at the dichotomy between notions of civilization and barbarism.

The Romans, a highly refined civilization, practiced crucifixion, a cruel punishment. The British, in the heydey of the Pax Britannica, invented the concentration camp; the United States used depleted uranium against Serbia and Afghanistan, not to mention the use of atomic bombs against a civilian population.

Civilization can be such a broad term, and barbarism, well, misunderstood.

In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says that he is “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1. 14). Greek here is not meant to refer to a culture or an ethnicity — it is a stand-in for any civilized people (like the Romans). Barbarians, on the other hand, are those people, both within and outside the Roman Empire, both conquered and unconquered, who were considered unlettered and uncultured. Their speech might also be seen as unrefined and their dress and manner uncouth.

But for God, no distinction is made between these two groups. So why does Paul make this distinction? He does so because it is a common social denominator in Roman society — in other words, this is how the Romans divided the world (us and everybody else).

So, in speaking of the “Greeks and barbarians,” he is addressing a salient point of how the Romans saw their empire and its mission to bring civilization to the barbarians — slow down, Paul says, because your civilization includes behaviors that are truly barbaric. The pageantry of the empire simply masks those behaviors.

Who fought in the Roman army? People from the lower ranks of Roman society, including slaves. People who had no rights.

On the other hand, barbaric cultures, as they were called, had established tribal notions of honor and acceptable behaviors within the society.

Paul calls on the Romans, who had a refined culture, to look at their actual practices, and he calls on the barbarians to forego their tribalism as the identity marker to share fellowship with the nations.

So, at table, there is no distinction by God and there should not be any within the church as well.

Luke-Acts

One of the recurring comments I have read over the years about Luke the Evangelist is that he was the church’s first historian, and that his Acts is a history. You know, there’s the oft-repeated idea that the Acts of the Apostles is a history of the early church.

In the ancient Greek tradition, the two predominant historians were Herodotus and Thucydides. The latter, writing during the Peloponnesian War, which led to the ruin of Athens, considered himself the first serious historian, writing his history based off evidence — speeches he heard or had reported to him by reliable witnesses.

In the centuries since Thucydides wrote, the Romans entered the scene and took over the Mediterranean region and along with it, the remains of the empire of Alexander the Great. Building on the Greeks, the Romans had their own historians. By the first century, among the most famous was Livy, who wrote the History of Rome.

This history was an origins narrative, explaining how Rome came to be, and came to rule. But in this sense, there was a commonality with Thucydides and Herodotus — history is a search for origins. For Thucydides, the origin he examined was what led to the defeat of Athens.

Luke begins his Gospel with an explanation that he is writing a narrative (v. 1), and that these events about which he is writing “were handed down to us” by certain people (v. 2). These people, who he does not name, “became from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants [i.e., “at your service/in your service] of the word.” They were not eyewitnesses — they became so, hence the use of γενομενοι, which means “became/were made.”

In Luke 1. 1 – 2, Luke writes that his narrative is an orderly account based off what was handed down by people who became reliable eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So Luke is establishing to the Roman ear that this narrative has an origin of Jesus’s life (Mark’s Gospel does not), and so they should listen to it. The reference to the account have been “handed down” is a phrase of familiarity to them, and the mention of Augustus in Luke 2 highlights to the Romans the period in question.

To the Romans, for whom chronology was important in history writing, this was essential to provide. And so this is how the Gospel and Acts were written. But, rather than being a history of the early church, or even the life of Jesus, as is commonly stated, Luke-Acts is a “history of the word of God,” from Jesus to Paul, from Galilee and Jerusalem to Rome (Luke 1 – 2; Acts 28).

There is something about Livy’s work which is interesting. In the beginning of the history, he writes: “It has been handed down to us, as a certain fact . . . .” Is Luke referencing Livy and Thucydides here? Both Luke and Livy begin with a reference to things handed down, as fact, and he alludes (as per Thucydides) to the presence of eyewitnesses. This word “eyewitnesses” appears only once in all of Scripture, and it appears only here, in verse 2. And in Luke 2, he announces the birth of Jesus by referencing how this happened during the days of the decree of emperor Augustus that the whole world then be registered in a census (2. 1).

If we consider that the name Luke is actually Latin (i.e., Lucas, Lucius, Lucianus), the prospect that Luke was writing specifically to the Romans as a civilization is plausible, but why did he choose this narrative format, and what was his message to them?

It is plausible, and likely, that Luke-Acts is an invitation to the Romans, within Rome and beyond, to find this word as worthy of their table fellowship, and to find common space with the people they considered barbarians or subjects of theirs, including the Jews of their time.

Think about it –the Romans considered themselves to have been the greatest civilization ever. They beat the Greeks and absorbed their culture as needed, and introduced to their known world paved roads, aqueducts, and architecture. They also introduced the notion that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and they were proud of their legal system.

Why would the powerful Roman families adopt a teaching that had a genesis within Judaism, a people with whom the Romans kept mostly professional and strictly non-social relations? After all, the Jews functioned to the Romans as “less-than.” So, what would draw a Roman to the Gospel, whose origin (a la Luke 24) is in the law and the prophets?

Luke’s ingenious approach has much to do with answering this. Under Roman practice, practicing Jews did not have to offer incense to the emperor, merely to pray for him. The reason is that Judaism predated the Roman empire, and this was a concession and acknowledgement of Roman society. If the Good News and, therefore, Luke-Acts is a “history of the word” in the time of the Romans, but whose antecedents go back to the Law, then by extension, Rome has been made a part of Luke’s, and thus Scripture’s, history. Are we not speaking of the word of the Cross to this day?

To explain further, the Romans were presented with an opportunity to receive the Good News as a privilege; to accept the history into which they were written (by Luke) and submit to it, or to go their own way as they were and leave the world in the same condition.

Secondly, those barbarians. The natural tendency of an elitist Roman would be to see in the barbarians as uncouth and immoral peoples, with whom virtuous Romans would have no dealings. At best, they are a conquered peoples. But how could they not listen to the trial of Jesus in Luke 23 before Pilate and not also conclude that, they too, are no less brutal? Where is there virtue in a society if the innocent are so easily disposed?

Thirdly, by ending Luke with table fellowship, a staple of the Roman society, Luke now makes of his Luke-Acts the subject of table conversation. How can a powerful Roman patrician, who would dispose of a biological progeny at will, not have to re-assess his “house rules” after hearing Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son? How could a patrician bury his slaves under harshness when in Luke 18 even the blind man has been given a voice?

As such, Luke-Acts is a true book of evangelization, of the spreading of the Good News, uniting Jew and Gentile at table. Luke-Acts is thus the door through which the Gentile could come to know Jesus Christ and the word he carried with him to the cross (Luke 24. 44 – 49).

Hold it There

In one of the “let’s get out of here” events of the Bible, Jacob finds a means and time to escape from his father in law Laban, who, being unimpressed with the ambitious Jacob made him work for over twenty years for the privilege of being with his daughters Leah and Rachel.

In Genesis 31. 19 – 55 we have this escape, along with Laban catching up to Jacob and his (i.e., Laban’s) daughters, and the covenant that is made between father in law and son in law. A peace treaty is made, where Laban will not hold Jacob accountable for the past, and Jacob promises to not return to Laban’s lands. The forefather also promises to take care of Laban’s daughters and their children.

As we explained in the previous post, Arc of the Covenant, Jesus just does not exist “out there” in a world of ideas. Jesus was, is now, and will always be, according to the Scriptures. What this means is that Jesus could only be presented to us by the evangelists according to the language and words found in the Old Testament, or more accurately, the Law, the prophets, and the wisdom writings (including so called apocryphal included like Sirach, et al).

But if this is the case, then the parables of Jesus are not simply pulled from thin air. Jesus retells the Scriptures, or more correctly, “interprets” them to explain how the stewards had misunderstood them.

In Luke 15, we have a kind of similar event, told as a parable. I can imagine someone listening to the Prodigal Son and perhaps, just maybe, thinking — “Wait, I’ve heard before a speech like the one the older brother gives. Similar to it. Sounds a lot like the speech Jacob made to his father in law Laban in Genesis 31. 36 – 42.”

In both Genesis 31 and Luke 15, we have speeches where a son (or son in law) makes the case, to put it bluntly, “I’ve worked my life off for you, and you don’t appreciate it at all!” In Genesis, it is Jacob; in Luke, it is the older bother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. “Listen!” says the older sibling to his father, “for all these years I have been working like a slave for you.”

Was not Jesus alluding to Jacob, and his retort to Laban? Is not the older brother’s speech similar to that of Jacob’s?

The interesting aspect of all this is that Laban is indeed, a very difficult man. He is relentless in his oversight of Jacob, and perhaps as people we, too, may feel sympathy with Jacob (though we recognize him as a schemer).

If Luke 15 hearkens back to Genesis 31, then we can safely assume that the father in the prodigal son was also a very difficult man with expectations. Which, of course, would make his running to the younger son all the more dramatic. His compassion is unanticipated (much like Laban’s offer to make a covenant), as well as his response to the older brother. We do not expect this from him. Not disputing anything the older brother says, the father simply responds that a celebration is warranted, because the older brother’s younger brother “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (15. 32).

In the covenant between Laban and Jacob, the promise was sealed with food. We are told they ate together, that bread was broken, and that they danced all night (v. 54). In Luke 15, there is also a meal and dancing.

Jesus takes a well-known story from Genesis and makes of everyone listening to it a Jacob. If Jacob, the forefather Israel, could make peace and eat to celebrate the covenant, then what is your excuse?

Not only Jesus, but also the parables, are according to the Scriptures.

Arc of the Covenant

By a perversion of justice he was taken away — Isaiah 53. 8

It is hard, as a reader or listener, to control narration. It just moves, like a train. Hit the “pause” button, quit the movie, the story remains as is. You and I cannot control it. To ignore anything uncomfortable, well, just leave the story and do not return to it (until you’re ready).

Along these lines, narration is like a moving stream. So is narrative character development.

So we would not just jump to a certain point, in say, The Grapes of Wrath, and expect to have the clearest picture of a certain character. We start from the beginning, and can discuss character traits, likes and dislikes only at the end.

In large stories, even those that take place over several books, we speak of a character’s arc, meaning how their life story or purpose develops, or doesn’t. The character begins here, but ends up there. As we have seen, David begins as a beloved shepherd but ends up as a proprietor king. That is his arc.

Others in the Bible have an arc. Abraham, Noah, Moses, Elijah — to name a few. They encounter struggles, have to make decisions, and come out “the other side” in a different way, though I would not say necessarily as “better.” There is no “better” in Scripture.

The question I have been trying to answer is this, though: does Jesus have an arc?

This is not some theoretical question. All characters go through a change, but it seems that Jesus does not. We have presented to us, from the beginning, someone so perfect, there is no room for growth. And this is not an inconsequential question. If he has an arc, what is it? What would this then mean? If he does not, then how can this be possible?

Classical theology addresses this issue with the expression that, being fully God and fully human, Jesus possesses perfect knowledge as God. He lacks nothing. So, in this sense, He does not have a development, at least (as one could argue) after his baptism. He may even “grow” and mature, but only in the sense that, as a human, he learns to follow his divine will.

In storytelling, a character, especially the hero of the story or protagonist, undergoes change and growth (usually for the better) by experiencing and overcoming an adversary or a struggle. Sometimes, these struggles are internal — for example, consequences of one’s upbringing, social and class status, doubts, psychological weaknesses, etc., and other times they are external — for example, a nemesis, a monster, or a natural event.

These lines are not absolutes, as different types of struggles can be “won” by the protagonist. Sometimes an inner struggle allows for an outer struggle to be conquered. For example, Moses “comes to terms” with his mission from God in Exodus 3, and so he has no doubts leading the Hebrew people into the wilderness, where the natural environment becomes unbearable for them but not him.

Does anything like this happen to Jesus?

In the Gospel of Luke, two events stand out: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4. 1 – 15), and the agony at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22. 39 – 54)). One is an external struggle, imposed by the three questions Jesus is asked; the other is his internal agony in those final moments before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Jesus “passes” both of these tests. The consequence of passing his temptations is that he begins proclaiming the Gospel; in passing the test of his agony, he endures the trials and the cross.

But does he change, or become better by any of this? Well, Jesus is no more wiser after the first test than before. In fact, it was his knowledge of God’s wisdom (i.e., the Scriptures) prior to the temptations that allowed him to pass the test. With the agony at the Mount of Olives, however, Jesus passes a major test of trust in his Father’s will (see v. 42).

So Jesus does appear to have an arc in the Gospel of Luke. His agony at the Mount of Olives, which we are told led to him sweating as if with great drops of blood (22. 44), is a “crucible” moment for him, as this is a test imposed on him by the Father.

But here’s the thing: Jesus’ arc in the Gospel of Luke does not make sense as it is presented along these terms. Why not? Consider the following: Jesus is conceived and born according to divine purpose and is born near a shepherd field (Luke 1 and 2); he lives among the poor in Galilee of the nations, and dies outside of Jerusalem, the capital of Roman Judea; he teaches in parables along the way, and enters the homes of the poor and the oppressors (Bethany and Jericho); he dies at the hands of a collusion between local religious authority and the Roman power on the cross.

Throughout Luke, Jesus encounters an obstacle that needs to be overcome. There is not one defining obstacle that defines him, but many trials throughout his life. He says as much to the disciples at the last supper: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials” (22. 28).

So, then, does Jesus have an arc? Yes, it is the arc of Scripture.

In the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist highlights the oppression and the injustice that Isaiah proclaims, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away” (53.8). Notice the cruelty in Luke 23. 16. Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent, yet he is still ready to have him flogged. And, upon his death, the Roman centurion proclaims the innocence of Jesus (23.47; an ironic statement, as the Romans were proud of their legal system, which Luke shows to be corrupt and which the Gentile centurion recognizes).

The crucifixion of Jesus was not just simply the death of one man in a stand-alone life story. The Gospel of Luke is not a biography of Jesus. The crucifixion was an attempt to bury into oblivion not only Jesus but also the entire Good News, which Jesus proclaimed starting from Galilee and carried on his shoulders to the cross outside of Jerusalem.

The life and death of Jesus can only be understood in light of what came and was promised before (Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12; Luke 25.27; 25. 25.44 – 45).

The true arc here is the arc of the Scriptures, expressed as God’s covenant and promise, which Jesus carries “against all odds” leading him to the cross. No one else in Scripture does that. While the forefathers and mothers, prophets and poets each have their own individual arcs, only Jesus carries the entire arc of Scripture as part of his own life story.

This is why for John, writing after Luke, Jesus is the Word.

On a Limb

In Galatians 4: 21 – 31, Paul raises this issue: who is a child of Abraham? If you read this passage quickly, at a surface glance he is comparing the free child and a slave child to someone born according to promise and someone born “according to the flesh.” Two mothers, two different covenants. In other words, Sarah is good, Hagar is bad.

Looking at this passage carefully, I am not so sure this contrast between Sarah and Hagar, and their children, is what Paul is getting at. I’ve read this passage dozens of times, and I thought I understood the general thrust of Paul’s point.

But here’s the problem: Scripture gets you like that. It’s like a cut fastball in baseball, which looks like it is coming straight at you, but then breaks at the end.

The problem here, for me at least, is that I checked up on Paul’s reference in 4.29. Go back to Genesis, to which this verse refers, and see if the two match up. They don’t. Genesis 21. 9 – 12 does not deal with a child persecuting another child. So, was Paul reading something in the Bible that isn’t there, was he making something up, or have we just been dealt a cut fastball?

I’ll go out on a limb here, I admit, and try to make sense of this passage.

First, a recap. As we saw in Whose Story is It? Ishmael is conceived and born according to the manipulations of Sarah. She has Abraham be with her slave-girl Hagar to produce a child. She attempts to hijack God’s plan and control it. Ishmael is the child born out of this attempt.

Isaac’s conception comes from God, but to to be clear, he is not the result of Abraham and Sarah’s efforts. He is born to Sarah, and is acknowledged as Abraham’s son because he was promised by God and because he was born into Abraham’s house. God’s purpose is still fulfilled, in spite of Sarah’s efforts.

Yes, both children were born into Abraham’s house, and they are both his.

In Genesis 21. 9 – 12, we encounter a situation where Ishmael, the biological son of Hagar and Abraham, is playing with Isaac, the child of promise. All Genesis says is that Ishmael was playing. That’s it. There is nothing there about persecution.

Sarah wants Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, because she is jealous of Ishmael and wants her son Isaac to be “the one.” She gets her way; God intervenes and calls on Abraham to listen to the voice of his wife. Hagar and Ishmael leave the home, but they never leave the household of Abraham.

What just happened?

Well, Ishmael’s descendants, too, can become children of Abraham, whether or not they physically live in the same home. Ishmael’s descendants will eventually become part of the nations who will be called to become precisely those children. In this way, God’s purpose is fulfilled, regardless of what Sarah wants.

But why does Paul mention persecution in Galatians 4. 29 when this isn’t mentioned at all in Genesis? It’s just two boys playing.

I think what is happening is that Paul is drawing our attention to Sarah as the constant in both these births. It is her manipulations that led to Ishamel’s birth and exile, but it is also her failure that showed how God’s will cannot be thwarted by humans.

So, it is Sarah who is the one doing the persecuting. She persecutes Hagar and Ishmael. It is also Sarah who, without realizing it, shows how God’s will and purpose will prosper no matter the will of man.

Sarah is, therefore, a metaphor in many ways. She can be the one who persecutes; she can be the one tries to outdo God and control His will. As the master of a slave woman, she can be cruel to another human being.

The free woman to which Paul refers in 4.23 is therefore not Sarah. He does not name Sarah at all in Galatians 4. 21 – 31. The free woman of Galatians is the New Jerusalem, out of which the Spirit comes.

Therefore, the path between the will of the flesh (i.e., our will) and that of God wholly resides with us. What direction will our life take? I think this is part of what Saint Paul was getting at. I also think he is saying that even the children of slavery can become free children, full members of the household of God. Your path is not predetermined. All it takes is to be born according to the Spirit, whoever you are, whatever your social status, and wherever you may live.

Who Reveals Whom?

Does God reveal the Bible?

This is one of the greatest classical theological chicken and egg dilemmas that, . . . . No, wait. Stop. Just kidding. This was never really a dilemma.

Although, this idea was treated like a scientific truth for centuries and more. You know, the idea that God, in the heavens above, revealed the text of the Bible we have. Simple as that.

It is hard for people to wrap their minds around the notion that God did not “reveal the Bible.” Saying he does would imply we have a God in our minds who we know exists, who has certain characteristics we mentally assign to him, and who then reveals a text about Himself we call the Bible. Again, not to be beat on the same drum, but what is this if not Platonism and its eternal perfect Idea with copies of said Idea(s) here on earth (i.e., the Bible).

The consequences of this line of thinking is that, in practice, one group of people may choose to follow this Bible on their own terms, while another may draw the conclusion they can bypass the Bible and just appeal directly to God. So, the theoretical height, weight, depth, and “character traits” of the eternal God can be anything we wish them to be, again a priori, in theory.

Rather than the above, we should appreciate that it is the Bible that reveals God. Let’s repeat. The Bible reveals God, the real God, not the one set in our minds through which filter we selectively read or listen to the Bible.

One of the solutions to all of these mental gymnastics, of course, is to recognize that the Bible addresses issues outside of our conceptions of God. For example, the Scriptures address issues such as racism, war and violence, as well as the difference in social classes.

Let’s look at how racism is addressed in the Bible. It’s not done explicitly, you have to see it in how the story is told.

Of course, person A will tell you that racism is “bad,” while person B will inform you that God made humanity “in His image,” so there is really only one race, the human race. With this last point we are getting closer to understanding the mechanism of how the Scriptures functions. It’s far more powerful to say, “hey, look, there’s only one race on this pale blue dot, and that’s all of us included,” than to just label something.

Here’s an experiment: ask yourself what racism is, and how you would recognize it. Now, read this passage, ask yourself the same question and answer it again.

We are looking at a passage mentioned in a previous post. We have king David, who is fresh from using his power to seduce and appropriate another man’s wife, Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite. How often have we allowed our own assumptions in hearing or reading the Bible to cover up for us that David is a racist and not just an adulterer?

Uriah was one of the kingdom’s honorable warriors, but he was a foreigner (i..e, a Hittite). David is lounging and enjoying himself as he sent men to die in battle for his wars. This is seen by the use of the words, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem (v. 1). That is, these were casual wars of choice, and like a coward David stays behind as people die.

When David learns that Bathsheba is pregnant, he calls Uriah back from the war, hoping Uriah would take the time home to go be with his wife. But Uriah is an honorable man, unlike David, and he refuses to even see his wife. Why not? “When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house,’ David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Honorable men are dying on the front lines, and you want me to have a romantic evening?

So, David concocts the plan to send Uriah to the front lines, where he will surely die, and does (vv. 14 -18).

It’s all so horrible, all of it. What makes it even worse is that Uriah is a foreigner, and so he was expendable. He had no established family in the kingdom, and no children. There was no social group David might have considered that would have deterred him before he seduced Bathsheba. David explicitly inquired who Bathsheba was, and when he learned her husband was a Hittite, he called for her (vv. 2-3). This horrible story is one way the Bible paints racism for us. It is a different definition than the one we are used to today, where racism is a form of a priori hate, but nonetheless this story involves the abuse of power over a minority.

Here we have it: racism as appropriating and stealing from someone or a group because you consider them expendable.

Such is the language of Scripture.

Baseline

This post concludes the series devoted to the congruence of philosophy and the West, and the implication this had had on the study of the Bible and its place in peoples’ lives

In the previous post (Consult the Book of Armaments!), we examined the difficulties of biblical interpretation. Historically, much ink was used within Christendom in defending one “school” over another, but in any event, we ended up in the 20th and 21st centuries with a tendency to use the Bible as a manual of sorts, especially as a map to the end-times.

So, what is a good place to begin in getting back to the roots, that is, the field of vision? Well, this word Christendom is a great starting point.

In his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington presented a series of maps showing the influence of the West throughout history. Guess what? The maps show the influence of the West (the book was written in the 1990s) waning. Yes, by the late 1990s the influence was smaller and smaller, which was odd considering how far and wide the reach of the West has been.

After all, ever since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the West claimed ideological lineage with the ancient societies of Greece and Rome. Classical studies abounded. Archeology, the nexus between academia and a civilization’s physical historical memory, also came out of the West.

And with all this came cultural appropriation through war and colonialism (honest question — how many of the items in the British Museum were actually made in England?).

But, alas, in a more recent time, March 2003, the same historical mechanism was at work. The Fall of Baghdad to American forces led to an event that occupied, interestingly, the news cycle for several days — the looting of the Baghdad Museum, and with it, the disappearance from Mesopotamia, of the historical cultural artifacts thousands of years old. See here for a reality check.

The Scriptures, which are Semitic documents, also became a part of the Western intellectual tradition by cultural appropriation as well. It is not so much that original manuscripts disappeared — there are not many to be found! — but that the Bible came to be seen as western document. Its interpretation in the modern world (post 1500) was done primarily by Western scholars; the publication of the Bible into different languages by the West; and as Christendom approached non-Christian peoples, the Bible was always “there.”

So, a work of literature can still be stolen if it is appropriated as a cultural weapon of sorts, as if one culture or civilization claims exclusive rights to it.

So what is the solution to this? Well, we need to establish a baseline. For one, the people of the Middle East are perfectly capable of preserving their own artifacts. The second, relative to Scripture, is that we need to recognize the Bible as an ancient Near Eastern/eastern Mediterranean literature. It is not the cultural property of anyone outside the region that produced it.

The Bible ought to be restored to where it belongs, and from where it grew, the Middle East. It doesn’t belong to us. It is given to us so that we learn not to appropriate its riches. And it is a message for every culture, civilization, and peoples to walk hearing the voice of the Scriptural God. Blessed are those civilizations that come to see the Scriptures in this way.

Consult the Book of Armaments!

In the history of biblical interpretation, for a very long time there were two “schools” of thought on the matter. These views were named after the cities where this kind of early research, if you will, was concentrated, namely Antioch and Alexandria.

The group in Antioch took a kind of “matter of fact” view, that the Bible should be read “as is,” without a tendency to speculate about deeper meanings. This school of bible study also led to some dedicated attempts to understand the languages of the Bible (i.e., Lucian of Antioch).

The speculative aspect is what the group out of Alexandra, Egypt did, which made sense since they were disciples of neo-Platonism, and speculation is the name of the game with philosophy. So, under this scenario, the Bible has a plain meaning, but also deeper “spiritual” meanings that spiritual people can unlock. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea is a metaphor for knowing God.

Of course, either system also has its extremes. The Antiochian school can tend towards fundamentalism, while the Alexandrian tends towards mysticism and guru-like devotion (“tell me, Master, what does it mean?!”).

With all the ink spilled in battles over which way is the best of reading the Bible, have you ever wondered if there is, well, a clearly wrong way of reading the Bible? I present to you this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Behold, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!

Was this a comedic critique of how the Middle Ages used the Scriptures (“Consult the Book of Armaments!”) or how we do it today?

More importantly, what does this scene also say about how we use the Bible as a justification to wage war on our enemies? That is, when the Bible is a weapon itself. What does this say about how we engage in false piety? The king lowered his head as the reading took place from “the Book of Armaments,” heard the directions, and still counted wrong (i.e., he was not listening).

And of this focus on seeing the Bible as a handbook for war, or as a text that needs to be “consulted.” Yes, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) is filled with battles, and presents the hearers with God as Warrior and record title holder. But the purpose of all those scenes is to tire out even the most die-hard warrior, and to show how war is ultimately a futile act. Better the silence of the cave at Horeb than the tumult of battlefield victory (1 Kings 18-19).

The other aspect of “how not to” involves the tendency to use the Bible as a generic handbook or manual. Chapters and verses become verbal weapons in our arguments with ideological Philistines. This mindset has even penetrated to the popular level, as people “see,” especially in end-times books like Revelation, which country represents which enemy of God.

How did we get here? Well, only a modern industrialized society, used to putting things together (like a new cabinet or TV stand), could have created the “Bible as Manual for Living” school of popular Bible studies. In this way of reading, the Bible becomes no different than a map for “making it to heaven.”

If we want to see the Bible for what it “really is,” and listen to what it actually says, then we need to pay attention to how we are hearing and reading it. Begin with the “how” over the “what.” The Bible has its own field of vision. We are to see what “it” sees. And that begins by foregoing the inclination to think we control the text. You can do it! It’s not too late!