Category Archives: Bible

CCH – OT – Genesis – “Diversity and Continuity”

In this inaugural post (for more info on this series click here), I will attempt to outline and to hint at an answer to a fundamental concern in reading not only Genesis but the Pentateuch as a whole; dealing with the composite text left to us.

To properly understand the difficulties in reading the text of Genesis left to us, a brief historical examination is in order.  A primary reason behind the current struggle to interpret Genesis (and indeed much of scripture) stem from the watershed publication of Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel in 1878.   As Marvin Pate has documented, it was this work among others in the “Religionsgeschichte approach” that “dealt the deathblow” to biblical theology in the 19th century (15).

According to Pate, Wellhausen’s Prolegomena made its splash by taking the (1) composite author theory of the Pentateuch and (2) Darwinism and combining them in a “popularized and integrated” way.  It is the composite author theory, or the “JEPD theory,” that is of lasting significance for studies of the Pentateuch, and our specific concern here (Ibid).

Basically, each letter of the JEPD theory stands for a specific “author” of the text, each of which had unique theological (and political) concerns that informed their memory/presentation of Israel’s history and it’s interaction with their God.  To note one popular example, in the Pentateuch God is called, among many names, both Yahweh and Elohim.  These different names are significant, because the actions and descriptions of God when named as Yahweh seem to present a fairly consistent picture of God, but one much different from the also relatively self-consistent Elohim.  This suggests that two different authors wrote these two depictions of God, one where Yahweh (the “J Source”) is portrayed with very human characteristics and one where the otherness and transcendence of God is emphasized (the “E Source”).  Each perspective was cut and pasted together over the centuries, leaving the composite text of the Pentateuch today.

The upshot of all this is that we are left with a diverse and composite text (even after the return of biblical theology as documented by Pate), “consisting of a patchwork quilt of traditions from various periods (Birch et al, 38).”  Despite the relative lack of attention given to the “documentary hypothesis” today, as Birch writes, “general agreement continues that Genesis 1-11 is a composite work (Ibid).”  The situation for the Pentateuch as a whole is no different.

At this juncture the problems of the Scripture’s authority and its ability to present a coherent understanding of God and humanity come into view.  Birch and company are right caution against a mere grab bag approach that would encourage the creation of an idol, but then how is unity maintained (29)?  A more complete answer to this question will come in a subsequent post that deals with the nature and tasks of systematic theology, but for now let me gesture at the concept of witness.  Briefly, this approach can be understood through Jesus’ rebuke in Jn 5:

You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (39-40, NRSV).

By seeing the scripture as a witness, its unity is found in the One it points to, despite the diversity of ways it does so.

In sum, as we begin to examine Genesis, and much of the rest of scripture for that matter, we take from this initial inquiry into the composite nature of Genesis that one must have the courage to deal with the text as it, and often it turns out to be a great deal messier than probably all would prefer.  This however, is not an invitation to despair, but instead to look towards the “common focus on the character, activity, and will of Israel’s one God (Ibid, 30).”

*With that, off to bed for a couple hours rest before the weekend camping trip.  I will be checking the post on my mobile, so feel free to comment suggestions, pushbacks, questions, spelling/grammar checks, etc etc.  The CCH continues Monday, see you then!  


Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Peterson.  A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

Harris, Stephen L. and Robert L. Platzner.  The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.  2nd ed.  New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.

Hartsfield II, Wallace.  Lecture Notes, “Hebrew Bible I.”  Fall 2008.

Pate, Marvin C., J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays, E. Randolph Richards, W. Dennis Tucker Jr., and Preben Vang.  The Story of Israel:  A Biblical Theology.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.


A Theological-Ethical Reading of Mt 1:19-20

Growing up I had always been taught that Mt 1:19 was an apt illustration of the love vs. justice problem that pervades much of evangelical ethical thinking.  For many evangelicals this passage provides an example of the inevitable teleological vs. deontological tensions we face in life.  Good evangelicals are to take their cue from Joseph, feeling the teleological urge but ultimately being bound to doing “the right thing,” trying to follow the universally valid principles of justice no matter what. 

However, why should verse 20, where the angel of the Lord tells Joseph to not follow through on this decision, be read in this dualistic fashion?  Isn’t it entirely possible that Joseph, operating from his limited vantage point, was basing his decision not on the command of God but on abstract ethical maxims?  It is only when the Lord breaks through this abstraction via his angel that Joseph learns what he is supposed to do.  In this more Barthian reading of the passage Joseph is not some tragic western ethical hero, always willing to do right no matter what.  Instead, he is sinning by attempting be righteous without knowing the concrete will of God, relying merely on a merely abstract principle of righteousness.  Once he had “resolved” to follow through on this decision without seeking the will of God, only God could break through to show him his error.

Divorcing the greatest commandment from how one conceives of just living no doubt can lead us down tyrannical paths, some with implications so severe that God must send his angels to break through to us.  More importantly, whenever we divorce our decision-making from seeking the concrete demand of God, reducing discipleship to an ethical calculus, we cannot help but go astray.

An (Oversimplified) Poll on Biblical Authority

Today I started reading David Kelsey’s semi-classic The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology.  I have enjoyed it so far, my only gripe being that his sentence construction can be awkward occasionally.  His goal is not to argue for a particular method of using scripture in developing theological models, but to provide differing illustrations and tools for how to understand the authority of scripture for the theological enterprise.   

This brings us to our poll for tonight.  According to Kelsey, a fundamental issue re biblical authority is whether it is functional or intrinsic in nature (30).  In other words, does the scripture’s authority reside in the purpose it serves the theologian/church, or is it’s authority found in it’s very nature (ex: inerrancy)?

Let’s put this to a vote!

Erwin McManus & Ray Anderson on the Book of Ecclesiastes

I recently spent a week out in California at Catalyst, a gathering of pastors and Christian leaders.  There I heard Erwin McManus talk for the 1st time.  Much of his talk centered on the book of Ecclesiates, where at one point he argued that Solomon’s famous dictum “there is nothing new under the sun” was wrong.  For McManus, this conviction was born primarily out of the view that creation is an ongoing process, which occurs (only?) through his people, the church.  Furthermore, despite his professed love for Ecclesiastes, his general posture was at odds with the alleged cynicism he read in Koheleth.  McManus sees much potential, particularly creative potential, in humanity and feared that the despair Ecclesiates expresses can be used to squelch this potential in man to create things that have meaning.  The pessimism of Koheleth appeared at odds with the ability of men and women to acheive significant things and to create things with lasting value.

Leaving aside the issues of Solomonic authorship and the implications of his statements for a theology of scripture, I want to focus on his concern regarding the Teacher’s cynicism in Ecclesiastes becoming a stumbling block to individual believers living lives with meaning.  To state the matter plainly, this concern is ill-founded.  As the late Ray Anderson argued in his recent work on Ecclesiastes, “the vanity of life is its hope.”  This is because Anderson rightly discerns that the Teacher is arguing that a self-contained world has nothing to honor; it is vanity.  The Teacher wants people to understand that they are more than just earth, more than just the span of their lives.  God has “put eternity in their hearts,” and because of that life on earth alone or for its own sake is in fact meaningless or frustrating.  However, that frustration actually serves to point one beyond their feeble attempts for meaning to the One who gives meaning as a gift.  Anderson states this beautifully:

You see the point of all this is that God has put eternity in your heart.  It means sadness if you are aware of it.  But that sadness is the beating of the wings of your spirit against the prison of the frustrations that encompass you.  And in beating your wings and protesting against the contradictions of life, in constantly yearning to know more of life you become more aware, more of an individual, not just a part of the flock; this means suffering, but the spirit is alive (emphasis mine).  

The irony is that in the Teacher McManus does not have an enemy but an ally.  Both feel the ich of transcendence, the frustration of complacency, and the deep desire to have a life pregnant with meaning.  For Koheleth, Anderson reminds us, such meaning cannot be sought until one comes to terms with the limitations of earthly existence.  This does not preclude genuine and radical transformation, but the gift of Koheleth’s “cynicism” is that we can never forget that all such pursuits find their telos in God, not in a life that is full of meaning for its own sake.  Thus, for McManus, and for us all, a meaningful life begins with vanity, a happy life includes frustration.

The History of Biblical Interpretation: Jewish Interpretation

Here are all my posts on section 1 for my primer on the history of biblical interpretation:

Part 1: Hellenistic

Part 2: Qumranian

Part 3: Rabbinic

The History of Biblical Interpretation: Jewish Interpretation, Part 3

We conclude our survey of Jewish Interpretation by looking at the Rabbinic methods employed in interpreting and applying scripture.  At the outset we should note that in contrast to the apocalyptic orientation of the qumran community and the synthesizing tendencies of Philo and his disciples, the general motive behind Rabbinic exegesis was to protect the authority of the hebrew scriptures and to espouse their proper interpretation.

Rabbinic interpretation can be understood within two broad types: 1) Halakah and 2) Haggadah.  The purpose of Halakah was to seek for principles and “rules of thumb” for behavior from legal portions of the scriptures.  In contrast, Haggadah cast a wider net, attempting to encompass the whole hebrew corpus.  This method primarily drew on narrative and proverbs to illuminate the meaning of texts (particularly dealing with the law) and to encourage readers.  Thus rabbinic approaches focused on primarily ethical and pastoral readings of scripture.

Rabbinic interpretation introduced methods of study that would be appreciated by many Christians thousands of years later.  By seeking to determine the meaning of words and phrases by cross-referencing within scripture itself, and by seeking the peshat, the plain sense, of the scriptures, these interpreters demonstrated an interpretive sense shared by many conservative approaches today.  Both of these instincts, inner-scriptural exegesis and attending to scripture’s plain sense, would later be employed by 21st century evangelicals.

That said, rabbinic exegetes should not be understood as mere forerunners of conservative evangelical interpretation.  Rabbinic exegesis remained heavily dependent on traditional understandings of given texts, and the practice of midrash, while revealing a commendable pastoral heart, at times easily degenerated into mere allegorical interpretation.  Finally, it should be noted that the Qumran tendency to atomize the text, used to reinterpret scripture to suit that communities’ needs, was also present in rabbinic exegesis.

So as we end our brief exploration of Jewish interpretation, it is clear that a diverse group of interpreters existed whose respective approaches serve as archetypes of the same general orientations and concerns faced by interpreters today.  The tension between literal and allegorical approaches to scripture, behind which lay clear disagreements regarding the role culture should play in biblical and theological reflection, are clearly seen here.  Also, it is fascinating to note that the rejection of Philo’s approach by rabbinic interpreters did not save them from reading their agendas into the texts, while those who fully embraced their perceptions of current events as a grid for interpretation (the qumran community) were also guilty of seeing their own reflection in their readings.  In this period we observe that having a canon within the canon was common (Rabbinic: Law of Moses, Qumran: Prophets).  Thus the inevitable short-sightedness that comes with one’s unique situatedness is evident in Judaism, prior to Christian interpretation. 

Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard summarize these themes:

In sum, Judaism sought to relate its ancient scriptures to the realities of its contemporary experience.  Rabbinic Judaism found in the application of the Mosaic Law a refuge to protect Jewish identity.  Rather than resist outside influences, Hellenistic Judaism tried to accomodate its beliefs to those of platonic philosophy.  And the ascetic Qumranians mined OT prophecies to explain their involvement in the events of their own day.  In part drawing on this rich, complex stream of interpretation, and in part parallel to it, flowed a new interpretive current-Christian interpretation (28).

It remains to be seen in the course of this brief survey whether Christian interpretation really ever diverges from these fundamental tensions and concerns present in Jewish interpretation.  As we end this first historical epoch, one thing is clear: one’s conception of the purpose of scripture plays a key role in interpretation.  What exactly is scripture supposed to do?  Until someone comes to terms with that question, they cannot properly interpret scripture.  We will begin to examine different answers Christians have given regarding the function of scripture as we turn to the apostolic period (30-100 AD).

The History of Biblical Interpretation: Jewish Interpretation, Part 2

This is the 2nd installment of a series I started forever ago.  I though it might be fun to pick it back up.  So here goes:

The 2nd major “method” of Jewish Interpretation, was founded at Qumran, a site on the shores of the Dead Sea that flourished during the period of 150 B.C.-68 A.D.   The group there-thought to be the Essenes-was a radical group which denounced the current religious powers in Jerusalem and withdrew into seclusion, where they awaited God’s judgment on mainstream Judaism. 

For this apocalyptic-minded group, the hebrew bible was a flexible document, one that could be tugged at, refashioned, and reinterpreted in order to meet the current needs of their community.  Their pesher method of interpretation allowed them to (1) manipulate the actual words in the text, (2) contemporize it to their time (ex: Babylon actually refers to Rome), and (3) break down texts to smaller segments, interpreting each segment as they saw fit. 

Viewed today, much of the approach of the qumran community seems disastrous, particularly so for more conservative -minded evangelicals.  It is important to remember that the community sought to unpack the text’s significance for their own day.  If a couple thousand years has taught us anything, it is that this is no easy task.  Further, while many evangelicals may be dismayed at their manipulation of the text to address contemporary matters, this is something they do as well.  While the intentional contortion of texts may not be justified, reading “Rome” when you see “Babylon” is practically no different than reading Genesis 1 as an argument against modern science.  Lastly, while the qumran community perhaps overvalued the prophetic literature, this “canon within a canon” approach is prevalent throughout the history of the church, and frankly shouldn’t be seen as a capitol offense.   While some cannot stomach such a fast and loose handling of the hebrew bible, we can all be reminded of the difficulty of understanding how the bible applies to our lives.