Friday, July 18, 2008

Pastor Boyd rocks the house!

Below is Greg's drum solo from a few weeks ago at the NDY fundraiser on behalf of Providence Ministries. Tonight, NDY will be performing in Jackson, MN at Rhythm of the River, a two-day music festival.

Thanks Greg for using your talents to better the lives of kids in Haiti!!

posted by yours truly~marcia

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Little Whining and a Book Review (Overcoming Evil God's Way)

Yo folks,

Hope you’re all enjoying a grand summer (or, for those in the Southern Hemisphere, a nice winter). I’m having a great time, but I’m also feeling a bit scattered. It's requiring more effort than usual to stay centered and aware of God's presence. Not sure how it happened, but I’ve just had way too many “pots on the burner.” Mind if I whine for a moment?

Here's a snippet of my life (beyond the ordinary chores, relationships, etc.). I have my weekly sermons and other church duties, of course. And, as part of my daily routine, I have about 50 e-mails (on average) that ask for a response (taking roughly an hour a day). Beyond this, I just finished and sent off a manuscript for publication entitled (tentatively) This Sacred Moment: Reflections on Practicing the Presence of God. I’m now editing the page proofs of Revolting Beauty and refining for publication The Cosmic Dance (our funky illustrated book on science and theology). I'm speaking eight times at a week-long conference in Hungary in a couple weeks that I need to prepare for. I have two academic dictionary entries, an academic journal article and three revised chapters for the new edition of Across the Spectrum due by September. Plus I'm supposed to complete two chapters in a forthcoming anthology by this spring.

But these aren't what's occupying most of my time. The project that presently occupies most of my time, thought and passion these days is The Myth of the Blueprint (my eight-year project showing the influence of pagan philosophy on the early church's view of God, free will, providence and evil). I just finished a section on the first two heirs of Plato in the "Old Academy," Seusippus and Xenocrates. This stuff seriously lights my fire!

See, I've got lots of pots on the fire. I don't want or expect anyone to feel sorry for me, because I love every bit of this! (Well, e-mails not so much, but everything else for sure). But that's my problem. I'm interested in and passionate about way too many things! (My ADHD tendencies are getting the better of me, I suppose).

But I’m not quite done whining yet. I also have to read -- a lot. I have to read! It’s a sort of addiction. Last week I finished J. R. Boys-Stones’ Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study of its Development from the Stoics to Origen. (This is a great work detailing the shift from independent reasoning to authority that occurred in Stoicism and Middle Platonism and that strongly influenced early Christianity). Then two days ago I finished John Dillon's The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274). (Dillon is the best authority on ancient Platonism, in my opinion). I’m now reading a book that a publisher sent to me, written by Stephen Russell, entitled Overcoming Evil God’s Way (Faith Builders Resource Group, 2008).

And with this I (finally!) transition from my whining to the point of this post. (Oh yes, I forgot to mention in my whining that I try to post two or three times a week. Nuts, isn't it?).

Overcoming Evil is intended to be a comprehensive overview of the biblical and historical case for “nonresistance” (returning force with force). I’m only a hundred pages into this book (it's about 300 pages long), but so far it’s very good. Already I'd recommend it. Russell's material on the Old Testament is a nice, clear and comprehensive introduction to the issue of peace and violence in the Old Testament, though it doesn't add much to what we’ve already covered the last couple of months. My review will thus be brief.

His main point is that, when you read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ (as we must) it becomes evident that, while all Scripture is inspired, not all Scripture reveals God’s character with equal clarity. It's true God reluctantly participates in the bloody barbarism of the cultures he’s trying to slowly win over, but God's true character is revealed when (for example) he mercifully protects Cain, the murderer, from being murdered and when he puts strong constraints around ancient, unbridled, retaliation practices. So too, in contrast to the barbaric Conquest narratives, we see God’s true heart in Old Testament characters who display Christ-like characteristics. For example, we find Elisha doing warfare God’s way when Elisha leads a supernaturally blinded Syrian army with whom Israel was at war (and that had been dispatched specifically to kill Elisha! See 2 Kg 6:12-14) into the court of the Samaritan King. When all expected Elisha to give the order to slaughter the captives, he instead told the king to throw them a banquet (2 Kg 6:22-23). That’s doing battle God’s way. And in contrast to the use of violence which always -- always! -- leads to more violence, this act of mercy brought an end to the fighting between Syria and Israel (2 Kg 6:23). God's ideal will is for his people to fight like Elisha, not Joshua.

Three other points of emphasis in Russell's material on Old Testament violence are worth mentioning. First, Russell rightly points out that, while Yahweh knew his people would have to be defended against hostile nations (recall Ellul's point that nationalism and violence are two sides of the same coin), God didn’t originally intend to have his people fight. He repeatedly promised his people that if they would trust him, he would do all their fighting for them. Moreover, as we've seen, many passages suggest that God originally intended to fight Israel's enemies with non-lethal means, e.g. driving them out with hornets. So, when God later commands his people to kill (unless Creach is right and this is to be interpreted allegorically), this too must be understood to be a matter of God sadly accommodating his will to meet his untrusting, violence prone people where they're at.

Second, Russell has an excellent section on God as the Lord of history. He notes how God was willing to use the violent tendencies and arrogance of one nation (e.g. Assyria) to punish the sinfulness of another nation (e.g. Israel), only to turn around and allow yet a different arrogant and violence-prone nation (e.g. Babylon) to punish that nation (Assyria). In doing this God was exposing the sinfulness of all nations as well as exposing the futility of using violence as a source of security. (This is similar to what Craigie argued in The Problem of War in the Old Testament). The only true security is trust in God. Yet, in the midst of all these judgments, Russel points out, there was always uttered a word of mercy and hope. Even Assyria and Egypt, Israel's arch-enemies, would eventually become part of God’s people (e.g. Isa. 19:25).

Third, in the course of fleshing out all this, Russell offers some wise and pointed words to America. He notes that empires rise and fall with remarkable speed, even those such as Assyria and Babylon who, at the height of their power, seemed utterly invincible. Babylon’s mighty reign lasted less than a century, as did the empire of modern day communist Russia. We Americans are now the reigning empire, and, as with all previous empires, we trust in our power and wealth to keep us secure. (In fact, as with all previous empires, we interpret our power and wealth as a blessing from God/the gods). We must remember that this has been the arrogant mindset of all empires just prior to their falls from power.

In this light, Russell concludes, “Who imagined the fall of the Soviet Union would come a short seven decades after its founding and rapid rise in power? And who among us knows what God has in store for our nation or any other? But His purpose is good, and if we choose to become part of His plan, even our deaths will be victorious” (72-73).

Wise words. I encourage you to put no trust in the power and wealth of America (or whatever country you happen to live in). The only real security is in Yaweh and living his way, as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Even if it means you die.

Stay centered in his love and peace.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Creach and the Command to "Utterly Destroy"

Hello Bloggers,

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I was waiting until my new site was ready to launch before writing another post. Unfortunately, it seems something new pops up every day to delay the launch, so I finally decided to post regardless of when the new site will be ready. (Do you have any idea how much work it takes to get a new website ready? For cry'n out loud!)

We’ve been discussing (among other things) the problem of Old Testament violence on this blog the last couple months. Without question the most offensive aspect of Old Testament violence concerns God’s command to “destroy them [the Canaanites] totally” and “show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). This is the concept of herem (“ban”) which most scholars interpret to mean something like “devote to destruction.” It's close to the concept of offering something up as a sacrifice to Yahweh. But could anything be more contrary to the teachings of Jesus than the idea of sacrificing men, women and children (to say nothing of the animals) to God as a sacred offering?

But what if the concept of herem was not meant to be taken literally? This was the view of the second century theologian Origen (found in his Homilies on Joshua). He argued that anything in the Old Testament that wasn’t consistent with the moral and theological truth revealed in Christ must be interpreted in a non-literal way. He thus interpreted herem as an allegory for spiritual warfare. The Canaanites thus represent everything inside of us or in the world that keeps us from being fully devoted to God. These things, he argued, must be completely destroyed.

Now, the practice of allegorizing Scripture (on the part of Jews and Christians) or other ancient literature (like Homer on the part of pagans) in order to make it more consistent with the beliefs and practices of the exegete was a widespread practice in the ancient world, especially in Alexandria where Origen was located. But, as a general approach to Scripture, it is uniformly rejected by scholars today. Not surprising, until recently I knew of no scholar who took Origen’s attempt to allegorize herem seriously. Then I happened to stumble onto the work of Dr. Jerome Creach, Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. Dr. Creach was kind enough to send me the rough draft of a chapter he’s working on in which he fleshes out his view that herem was not meant to be taken literally. (It will be part of a larger book he’s writing that addresses the issue of faith and violence).

I can summarize the heart of Creach’s argument by making seven points. Taken together, they suggest that herem in Deut. 7:2 was meant as a metaphor for complete devotion to Yahweh, not as a command to literally annihilate people.

1) There are a number of passages in Deuteronomy that reflect a much more humane treatment of foreigners than a literally reading of herem would suggest. For example, Deuteronomy 15 instructs the Israelites to be generous and merciful to foreigners, and 21:10-14 gives instruction to Israelite men requiring them to treat with decency Canaanite women they want to marry. Verses 24:17-18 instruct the Israelites to be kind to foreigners in need, and so on. How are these instructions consistent with the command to completely slaughter all Canaanites?

2) Joshua 11:19 presents the Israelites as trying to make peace with various Canaanite cities, though only the Gibeonites accept their offer. Only when cities rejected peace did war ensue. Other passages treat Israelite warfare as a defensive response to Canaanite aggression as well. Creach argues that this theme is interwoven throughout the Conquest narrative (reflecting concerns by those who redacted the final version of this book). This motif hardly seems consistent with the understanding that the Israelites were to slaughter them carte blanch.

3) The fact that Rahab (Joshua 2) and the Gibeonites are spared -- and even held up as models of faith -- is hard to reconcile with a literal interpretation of herem.

4) Engaging in redaction arguments that are too complex to go into here, Creach argues that Joshua 1-12 presents an idealized account of the Conquest. There is some evidence for this in the text itself. For example, Joshua 11:23 says Joshua “took the entire land” and that there was a rest from war. But 13:1 depicts "large areas of land" that had not yet been taken over when Joshua was an old man. Moreover, the beginning of Judges describes how various tribes worked to secure their territories (Judg. 1:1-3, 6). On top of this, Creach argues that archeology supports the gradual conquest model much more than the idealized model of chapters 1-12 of Joshua. This also suggest that the “conquest” was not as militant and annihilationist as a literal reading of herem (and a straight forward reading of Josh. 1-12) would suggest.

5) Creach argues that Numbers 21:1-3 suggests that herem was originally something Israelites offered to God; it wasn’t something God himself ordered. To acknowledge that their military victories were acts of God the Israelites vowed to not benefit from it, but to offer up everything as a sacrifice to God. Creach then notes how Deut. 7:1-5 differs from this, for here God himself orders herem and it has a moral dimension to it. The concern in Deuteronomy (but not Numbers) is that Israel will be seduced by Canaanite practices.

6) Creach argues that Deuteronomy 7:1-5 is patterned after Ex. 23:20-33. In this latter passage the Lord told the Israelites he himself would “wipe out” the Canaanites (vs. 23). But he clearly doesn’t mean by this that he would completely destroy them, for he says he’ll make them “turn their backs and run” (vs. 27). He also says he’ll use hornets to drive them out little by little (vs. 28) because if he did this all at once the land would become destitute and overrun with wild animals (vs. 29). For the Israelites’ part, they weren’t to make any covenants with the residents of the land or with their gods (vs. 32) and were not to let them live in their land because of the possibility that the Israelites would be seduced by their foreign gods (vs. 33). This clearly is not consistent with the idea that God’s intent from the start was to have the Israelites slaughter the Canaanites completely.

7) Finally, utilizing the work of R. W. L. Moberly (“Toward an Interpretation of the Shema”), Creach notes that Deut. 7:1-5 is part of an explanation and extension of the Shema (“Here O Israel…” Deut. 6:4-9). It stipulates what it looks like for the people of God to be faithful to Yahweh, and it involves not following “the gods of the peoples around you” (Deut 6:14) and remembering that Yahweh delivered Israel out of Egypt and drove out their enemies before them (vs. 19). Chapter 7 then adds the command to "utterly destroy" their enemies (vs. 2) with the stipulations that they are not to intermarry with them (vs. 3) and are to break down all their sacred places and idols (vs. 3). Yet, it's hard to reconcile the stipulation to not follow the gods of the people around you, to remember that the Lord “drove out” the enemies before you and to not intermarry with the indigenous residents with the understanding that the Israelites were to completely annihilate the Canaanites.

Put all this together, and you arrive at Creach’s conclusion that the command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites had become a metaphor for complete devotion to Yahweh by the time Deuteronomy was written. The practice of herem perhaps began in Israel as a practice that was close to “ethnic cleansing,” which is perhaps what we find reflected in Number 21:1-3. But it evolved over time to become a metaphor for something that was not violent. To this extent, Creach argues, Origen was right. Herem is a metaphor for being completely devoted to Yahweh and that “points aways from violence and bloodshed.”

Think about it.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Word to My Mennonite Friends: "Cherish Your Treasure!"

Hello friends,

I plan on getting back to the problem of violence in the Old Testament soon, but today I want to share a marvelous experience I had last week.

About eight months ago I spoke at a conference at Hesston college (a Mennonite college) on faith and politics (I posted on it here). While at this conference I sensed very strongly God telling me there was some sort of relationship I (and possibly the church I pastor) was to have with the Mennonites. More specifically, at the end of the conference I received a very clear and burning message I knew I was to share with the Mennonites. Whatever else this "relationship" entailed, I knew it included sharing this message. Yet, I had no idea when or how this message was to be shared.

Then about two months ago I received an invitation to speak at a historic gathering of Mennonite leaders in Columbus, Ohio. When the Executive Director of the Mennonite denomination (Jim Schrag) explained to me what he hoped my talk would accomplish I got goose bumps because it was exactly what God had put on my heart at Hesston seven months earlier. I have rarely been part of something that was so obviously providential. I was humbled and delighted to be given this important assignment. My message was -- and is -- basically this.

There is a beautiful and powerful grassroots Kingdom movement arising all over the globe that Mennonites in particular need to notice. Millions of people are abandoning the Christendom paradigm of the traditional Christian faith in order to become more authentic followers of Jesus. From the Emergent Church movement to the Urban Monastic Movement to a thousand other independent groups and movements, people are waking up to the truth that the Kingdom of God looks like Jesus and that the heart of Christianity is simply imitating him. Millions are waking up to the truth that followers of Jesus are called to love the unlovable, serve the oppressed, live in solidarity with the poor, proclaim Good News to the lost and be willing to lay down our life for our enemies. Multitudes are waking up to the truth that the distinctive mark of the Kingdom is the complete rejection of all hatred and violence and the complete reliance on love and service of others, including our worst enemies. Masses of people are waking up to the truth that followers of Jesus aren't called to try to win the world by acquiring power over others but by exercising power under others -- the power of self-sacrificial love.

What many who are being caught up in this movement lack is a sense of tribal identity and historical rooting, and many are looking for his. A central feature of post-modernity is the longing to "live in a story" that's bigger than oneself. Many, therefore, are looking for a tradition they can align with.

The only tradition that embodies what this rising breed of Kingdom radicals is looking for is the Anabaptist tradition (which the Mennonites are heir to). This is the only tradition that consistently refused political power and violence. This is the only tradition that made humble, self-sacrificial love the centerpiece of what it means to follow Jesus. It's the only tradition that isn't soaked in blood and the only tradition that looks remotely like Jesus. Many (in fact, most) of the early leaders of this movement in the 16th century paid for their non-compliance with the Christendom paradigm by being martyred. This tradition is a treasure to be cherished. And it's a tradition whose time may have come, for this is precisely the vision of the Kingdom that millions today are waking up to.

The irony is that, just as millions like myself are running toward this treasure, many Mennonites are running away from it. In the name of becoming culturally relevant, the distinctive, radical aspects of the Anabaptist tradition are being downplayed by some as they become "mainstream" American Christians. For example, some Mennonite churches now allow national flags on their premises -- even in their sanctuaries! This was always taboo among Mennonites, for they have always (wisely) been keenly aware of the danger of mixing the Kingdom with nationalism. So too, some churches are now letting their Kingdom message get co-opted by politics -- some on "the right" and others on "the left," which in turn is beginning to create tensions in the church. And some churches have even begun to back off the centrality of their stance against violence.

So, my message to the Mennonites, in a nutshell, was (and is) this: Cherish Your Treasure! Not in a prideful way, of course, but simply as a precious gift God has given you and that God wants to give the world through you. Be daringly flexible on all matters that aren't central to the Kingdom (e.g. worship styles, dress, etc.), but be utterly uncompromising on all matters that are central to the Kingdom (viz. everything that pertains to living a Jesus-looking life). My Mennonite sisters and brothers, you have what multitudes in the rising Kingdom movement are longing for. You can provide a home to so many who right now are looking for one. If you hold fast to the faith you've been entrusted with (Jude 3), you may just find your fellowship exploding in the years to come. For, I believe, the Anabaptist vision of the Kingdom is a vision whose time has come.

I am deeply humbled and honored to have been invited to share this word with the leaders of the Mennonite Church last week. My prayer is that God uses it to prepare them to fulfill the vital role God has for them in the Kingdom movement he's inspiring in our day.



p.s. People who are in the know tell me that the new CVM site will be ready to launch in a few days. Wooooohooooo!! It's got about 10 times the content as the present one and is a whole lot easier to navigate.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Shack: A Review

Over the last few months I've had at least a dozen people tell me I needed to read the novel The Shack by William P. Young. "It's your theology in narrative form," one person told me. Now, I rarely read novels, especially Christian novels. And in my experience, Christian novels that try to get theological are the worst. But, giving the pattern of enthusiastic recommendations and given that someone had given me a free copy begging me to read it, I decided to give it a two or three chapter trial on a plane ride the other day.

Warning: Do not read this novel on a plane or any other public place where you're trapped around people -- unless you're totally okay with becoming emotionally undone in front of perfect strangers. There are points where this book rips your heart out. At least it did me. The body building dude sitting next to me on the plane must have thought I was a first rate wimp, weeping over a novel.

Anyway, to my surprise, I loved this book! Without giving much more away than is on the back of the book, The Shack is about a guy (Mack) whose little daughter is abducted and murdered by a serial pedophile killer (Young goes for the jugular on the problem of evil, which I deeply appreciate). Several despairing years later, Mack encounters God in the very shack where his daughter's life was taken. The bulk of the novel covers three days of conversations between Mack, on the one hand, and God "the Father" (who appears as an African American woman), the "Son" (appearing as a 30-something carpenter) and the "Holy Spirit" (an etherial, hilarious, Asian lady).

I felt like the portrait of God in this novel was beautiful and reflective of what we find revealed in the New Testament. And the theological and psychological insights of this book were at times profound and consistently communicated in brilliantly simple ways. A good deal of the dialogue is about the problem of evil, but the novel touches on everything from the Trinity, Incarnation and the nature of free will to the nature of relationships, forgiveness and even the role of our imagination in staying anchored in "the Now." In fact, Young even addresses (at length) the nature of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This was the section that impressed me most. Young fleshes out how our tendency to judge God, others and ourselves lies at the root of our sin and misery. It was amazing. Those who have read my Repenting of Religion will have no trouble understanding why I was so excited about this material.

Now, you might think that a book with all this theology would be pretty boring, but it's not -- at all. It's actually a page turner. Young manages to pack all this heady stuff into a narrative that keeps you spell-bound (at least it did me). In one moment he has your head spinning with theological quandries and in the next he has you crying, sometimes out of sadness and other times because of the beauty and tenderness of what he's sharing.

I know many readers of this blog will be most interested in what I thought of Young's theodicy (his explanation for evil). I again don't want to give too much away because I want everyone to read this book. But I will say that those who told me Young expressed my understanding of God and evil in narrative form were largely right.

I was at one point worried, for Young has God say to Mack, "As difficult as it will be for you to understand, everything that has taken place [including his daughter's abduction] is occurring exactly according to this purpose [God sharing his love, joy and freedom with humans] without violating choice or will " (pp.124-25). Sounds like a meticulous view of sovereignty playing the 'mystery card" of free will and divine determinism all over again. But as the narrative unfolds, it became very clear that whatever God [Young] meant by the above sentence, he didn't intend to say that evil happens because God has a purpose for it. Over and over God stresses that he does not in any sense cause evil. But he does respond to it in ways that always end up furthering his purposes in the world. In fact, the novel contains some probing insights into the nature of love and freedom. Young even has a superb section that explores the irrevocability of free will and the mind-boggling interrelatedness of the "ripple effects" of our choices. Those who are familiar with my Is God to Blame? and/or Satan and the Problem of Evil will have no trouble seeing why I was delighted with this material.

The only substantial disagreement I have with the theology of this novel concerns Young's view of time and the nature of the future. While his book breaks from the classical tradition on many points, on these two issues Young is a traditionalist. At several points God brings up his foreknowledge of all that will (not might) take place and Young seems to (mistakenly) think that this helps God achieve his sovereign purposes without violating free will (as though God were not infinitely intelligent and thus able to anticipates "maybes" with the same effectiveness as "certainties"). But given that the open view of the future is a minority view in Christian circles, it's hardly surprising Young espouses this view. And given the over-all theological, psychological and spiritual insight of this masterful novel, this one piece of theological disagreement is hardly worth registering.

I encourage you all to read this powerful and poignant novel.

But not in a public place.



Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Boyd and Heiser Dialogue On The Nephilim Question

In the previous post my friend Michael Heiser offered clarifications to points where he felt I misunderstood and misrepresented his position. In this post I'd like to share a dialogue between Michael and I that arose from the questions I raised in my review of his forthcoming book, The Myth That Is True.

1) My original question: If these giants were as widespread as Heiser’s "seed of ha nachash" hypothesis supposes, why don’t we have archeological evidence of giant skeletons, buildings, tools, weapons, etc.?

Michael's response: Michael replied that “[s]keletons don’t last that long to be recovered” and “[t]he giants of the bible (these giant clans) were not unusually tall BY OUR STANDARDS. I personally don’t believe that the biblical giants were over seven feet tall. According to the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scroll readings for the Goliath story, Goliath was actually 6 feet 6 inches.”

My reply: This is surprising to me. What about the King of Og whose bed was over 13 ft. long and 6 ft wide? And why rely on the Septuagint version of Goliath’s height instead of the Hebrew text which, I’ve read, makes him over 9 feet tall?

Michael's rejoinder: Regarding Og, his sarcophagus is what is measured, not him. Regarding Goliath, everyone who does textual criticism knows that the Masoretic text of Samuel is in bad shape. The Septuagint and the Dead Sea Material are, in the overwhelming number of cases, superior.

2) My Original Question: Many of Heiser’s arguments are circumstantial and sometimes quite speculative….If the seed of ha nachash was as central to the biblical story-line…wouldn’t it be a bit more obvious?

Michael's Response. Michael replied that he doesn’t “say anything that isn’t rooted in the text, and I tell you when I speculate.” He pointed out that his theory is “able to reconcile Gen 3, Isa 14, and Ezek 28” and is “grounded in the text and in comparative data.” Finally, Michael noted that since I misunderstood his nachash thesis (see the previous post), he felt my “question is a bit misguided.”

My reply: Michael’s right that my overly-literally reading of his ha nachash theory lessens the force of the objection I raise here. And it’s true that Michael believes his interpretation of ha nachash as “the shiny one” reconciles Gen. 3, Isa 14 and Ezek. 28. But his interpretation still strikes me as circumstantial, and I don’t see any conflict between these three passages that needs to be reconciled.

Michael's rejoinder: The vast majority of critical OT scholars and likely a majority of evangelical OT scholars do NOT feel Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are referencing the “serpent” of Eden. I disagree, but I am in the minority.

3) My Original Question: Genesis 3:15 suggests an on-going animosity between the seed of the serpent (or shiny one) and the seed of Eve until a descendant of Eve crushes the serpent's (or shiny one's) head. But if the seed of ha nachash is the Nephilim, then the battle seems to have ended pretty much with the invasion of the promised land (with a few lingering giants among the Philistines to be slain later on).

Michael's Reply: Michael replied that he didn’t see the battle as ending in the OT, and the only reason I thought he was suggesting this was because I took his idea that the Nephilim were the seed of ha nachash too literally.

My response: Fair enough.

4) My Original Question: Because there’s so little in Scripture about the rebellious gods begetting Nephilim, Heiser has to rely quite a bit on certain non-canonical writings to flesh out his thesis, especially 1 Enoch.

Michael's Response: Michael responded that “This is just wrong. Genesis 6 is crystal clear, and 1-2 and Jude back it up in very explicit terms.”

My Reply: I grant that Genesis 6 is pretty clear and that 2 Peter 2 and Jude are most likely tapping into the "Watcher" tradition. But I don’t think this gets us much mileage in terms of arguing that the Canaanite Nephilim were begotten by rebellious gods.

Michael's Rejoinder: The Canaanite nephilim weren’t directly begotten by the rebellious sons of God of Genesis 6, so I’d agree with you. The “Canaanite nephilim” (which is a bad term since “nephilim” isn’t used of any of the giant clans) are descended from the nephilim. The question is, “how?” This takes us back to the flood question (Gen 6:4b). I outlined three views there, and opted for the last one—that the Genesis 6 cohabitation happened afterward. In that respect, you’re right—there are no other passages that say this sort of thing happened again. It’s just based on a point of Hebrew syntax in Genesis 6:4.

5) My Original Question: If the Canaanites were as infected with the seed of ha nachash as Heiser suggests, why were some spared and even taken as wives?

Michael's Response: Michael responded that the “infection” was related to “the initial Genesis 6 event – the sons of God and the human women” but that “there is no hint at all that the original (after the fact) threat of Genesis 6 was in view” in the conquest narratives. “The problem [rather] was that the (spiritual) seed of the nachash (evil enemies of Israel) would try to squash Israel.” He also pointed out that in the pre-scientific ancient world, the male “DEPOSITED the child in the woman, who served to incubate it.” In other words, there was no awareness of women contributing genetically to the person being born, so there would be no concern with daughters of Nephilim passing on an infected gene.

My Reply: It’s true there is no “hint” in the conquest narratives that the problem of the Nephilim infection of the human race was “in view.” But that’s precisely my point. If the problem of the Nephilim before the flood was that they were infecting the human race, how could this not be a problem with the Nephilim after the flood – if indeed the Canaanite giants were supernaturally begotten just as the pre-flood giants? And perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how appealing to the pre-scientific views of conception and gestation answer the question I raise.

Michael's Rejoinder: The reason that the problem was “messing with the human race” in Genesis 6 is because that’s what Genesis 6 says. The OT never says thereafter with the other giant clans that there was any mingling of the populations (there were Mosaic laws forbidding it, though). I can’t say intermingling was the problem when the text doesn’t say that. The problem is clearly other: these were descendants of ancient enemies who were occupying the land. These particular enemies were viewed as demonic. As such, the story of the genocide of these particular populations are cast as holy war—it was Yahweh vs. the demon-gods and Yahweh’s people vs. the people of those demon-gods. I’m just saying what the text says without trying to insert any other reason.

6) My Original Question: If many (or all) of the Canaanites were not fully human, why do the narratives consistently refer to them simply as humans?

Michael Response: “Because they WERE human. They were just more than human. Remember Jesus? He was fully human but not only human.” He adds, “the nephilim and the giant clans were not deity like Jesus. But they did have unusual parentage.”

My Reply: I concede Michael’s point. But it still seems to me that if the Nephilim of Canaan had “unusual parentage” we might expect more than one verse (Num. 13:33) indicating it.

Michael's Rejoinder: There’s a lot more than one verse in play (and this is my dilemma in writing this book). That one explicit verse needs to be set against the backdrop of the wider Canaanite religions. It was not just an Israelite belief that certain populations in certain areas were “Sheol/Underworld ground zero.” Bashan = “place of the serpent” to the people of Ugarit as well – doesn’t take much imagination.

7) My Original Question: While some of Heiser's exegetical arguments were compelling and insightful (he certainly caused me to notice some things I'd never noticed in the text before!), others struck me as a bit stretched. Most importantly, his reading of Genesis 3 left me unconvinced.

Michael's Response: Michael responded by saying readers of my blog “need to read the chapter” [in his book]. He says, “If you understand the wordplay going on in Genesis 3 (the Hebrew word for “earth” is also used for “Sheol” or the Underworld in the Bible) it is easy to see how God is sentencing the Shining One, who wanted to be above the highest of God’s created order (the “stars of God—the heavenly host – see Isaiah 14:9ff.), to be below every created thing – literally sentenced to rule the Underworld (hell) instead.”

My Reply: I grant that readers need to read the chapter to ascertain its plausibility. But the main problem with his interpretation, I felt, was that Gen. 3:1 refers to the serpent as one of the “wild animals” God made, and 3:15 curses him “above all livestock and all wild animals.” In this light it's hard for me to think the author had anything other than a real snake/serpent in mind. But, as always, I could be wrong.

Mike Rejoinder: This is precisely why most OT scholars do NOT think Ezek 28 and Isa 14 reference the Eden story. Read the text CLOSELY. It never actually says that the nachash IS one of the beasts of the field. ESV has “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field.” Here’s where English translations betray the reader. The Word “other” isn’t in the Hebrew text! What the text actually says is that the nachash “was more crafty than the beast of the field.” No kidding—he was a divine being! I don’t want contradictions between Genesis 3, Ezekiel 28, and Isaiah 14 where none exist—and translations like the ESV (and your assumptions about Genesis 3:1) create contradictions (unintentionally).

8) My Original Point: Against the church tradition, Heiser argues that Satan first fell when humans fell – in Genesis 3. He is correct in noting that the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach that Satan fell prior to the human fall. But I think we have other sound reasons for thinking he did.

Michael's Response: Michael responded that he didn’t “say anywhere that Satan fell in Genesis 3.”

My reply: My apologies. I inferred this because Michael says in his book that “the fall of what is likely a large group of angels (demons) is never described anywhere in the Bible prior to the Fall of Adam and Eve” and because he emphasizes that Genesis 3 is where the Lord cursed “the shiny one” and cast him down.

Michaels Rejoiner: And it isn’t. We have to speculate that there was, and I (with you) believe that as well.

Thanks to Michael for this interaction. I wish him the best with his book and encourage those interested in this topic to be looking for it.

Okay, that's it for the Nephilim issue, but not for the broader Jesus Versus Jehovah issue. (I'm thinking about writing a book with that title. Catchy, heh?)



Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Heiser Clarifies Misunderstandings in My Review

In my last post I reviewed chapters from my friend Michael Heiser's forthcoming book, The Myth That Is True. He wrote me a response pointing out several areas where I seem to have misunderstood him. He said my misunderstandings were helpful, for they pointed out areas where he might need to be clearer in the text. But I certainly don't want to in any way misrepresent his position, so I'd like to post his clarifications.

1. I said I thought the "lynch-pin in Heiser’s thesis is Genesis 3:15 in which the Lord says that, because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, there would be on-going enmity between the offspring of the serpent (ha nachash) and the descendants of Eve.” Heiser responded:

My view of the nachash is not a lynchpin to the later idea connecting the holy wars of Joshua to the giant clans. You can hold the latter without the former.

2. I thought Michael was arguing that the Nephilim were the offspring of ha nachash that Yahweh had earlier prophesied would war against humans. Heiser wrote:

Actually, I don’t believe the nephilim are literally connected to the nachash in any sort of genealogical way. The nephilim are spiritually the seed of the nachash in that they are enemies of the people of God. The nephilim are “demon seed” in that they were fathered by divine beings, but they are never linked to the nachash (the “serpent”) in the Bible. They’re just “on the same team” as enemies of God and God’s human family. The nephilim are a “fulfillment” of the curse about the seed of the nachash hating the seed of the woman—but the nephilim are seed of the nachash only in that they are enemies of the people of God. It just happens they aren’t mere humans. No “familial link” can be established between the nachash and the nephilim, but a “common enemy” link can certainly be established.

3. I said that "Satan’s strategy, presumably, was to pollute the human gene pool in order to prevent the arrival of the fully human descendant of Eve (Jesus) who would overthrow Satan’s reign on earth.” Michael responded:

I don’t believe that the POINT of the cohabitation of divine beings and human women was to infect the messianic line. That was a residual effect, but not the motivation. There is no biblical or Second Temple literature that has the sons of God expressing the motive of disrupting the messianic line.

4. I thought Michael was arguing that the reason God ordered the Canaanites exterminated was because he wanted "to ensure that his people, from whom the Messiah would come, would not be polluted with the ‘demon seed.’” Heiser responded:

This overstates my position. The need to eradicate the nephilim was not to save the messianic line (I don’t say that in the book to my knowledge). Rather, the reason is to reclaim the land promised to them from ancient enemies who were descended from the nephilim.

5. I said that "while it seems only the Anakites were direct descendants of the Nephilim, this passage [Num. 13:33] suggests that the demonically-caused genetic propensity toward great height was very widespread. In other words, it suggests that many if not all Canaanites were at least indirectly related to the Nephilim.” Michael responded:

I don’t like the phrase “demonically caused” because the sons of God were not demons. They are different beings. This makes it sound (again) like I see a “genetic” link between the nachash and the nephilim, when I don’t. The height was due to the fathership of the sons of God, not demons. (Yes, the sons of God were corrupt and sinned, but “angelology” is not so simple as to use the word “demon” of them. Demons have their own separate origin. The text also doesn’t say (and I don’t say) that the Anakim were first generation descendants of the nephilim (but it does link them securely in some generational relationship).

My hearty thanks to Michael for these clarifications. If this is a topic that interests you, I encourage you to read his book when its published. And for related interesting reflections on "the divine council" (Michael's specialty), check out his website.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yahweh's War Against the Nephilim

Hello Bloggers and Bloggerettes,

Sorry it's been awhile. Been very busy la la la la.

In this post I’d like to review a forthcoming book by my friend Michael Heiser. It's entitled The Myth That is True and Michael was kind enough to send me several chapters that deal with the topic of the Nephilim. (My thanks to Michael!) Heiser’s arguments are often complex and nuanced and I obviously can’t begin to do justice to them in a short (or even long) post. So I encourage readers to get his book when it comes out. Though Heiser often relies on his technical expertise in Ancient Near Eastern studies (he’s an Old Testament scholar), he communicates his material in a very readable and even entertaining way. His book reads something like a detective novel. I think a lot of you would enjoy it. In the meantime you can visit Michael's website here.

As with my previous post on the Nephilim, buckle your seat belt. We're going to get into some pretty bizarre stuff.

The seed of "the shiny one"
The lynch-pin of Heiser’s thesis is Genesis 3:15 in which the Lord says that, because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, there would be on-going enmity between the offspring of the serpent (ha nachash) and the descendants of Eve. Yet, the Lord says, in the end a descendant of Eve will crush the head of ha nachash. Heiser (who has a impressive command of Ancient Near Eastern languages) argues that ha nachash shouldn’t be translated as a noun (“serpent”) but as an adjective, in which case it means “the shiny one” (cf. Isa. 14:12 and Ezek. 28:14 where Satan is spoken of in similar terms). According to Heiser, therefore, the prophesy of Genesis 3:15 isn’t about the enmity that sometimes exists between snakes and people but between the seed of the shining one -- Satan -- and humans.

This concept of the “seed of ha nachash” has a spiritual application, such as when people are described in the Bible as children of the devil (e.g. Jn 8:44). But, Heiser argues, it also has a more literal application. We first find this literal application in the Genesis 6 account of the “sons of God” taking wives from the “daughters of human beings” and begetting Nephilim (giants).

Heiser marshals a number of convincing arguments against those who try to argue that the “sons of God” in this passage refer to the righteous lineage of Seth and that the “daughters of men” refer to the unrighteous lineage of Cain. Making use of his expertise in Ancient Near Eastern languages, he also refutes those who attempt to argue that the word Nephilim means “fallen ones” (as in fallen people) rather than supernaturally conceived giants. He thus defends the uniform ancient Jewish and early Christian understanding of this passage as a report of angelic beings (called "Watchers") who took on flesh, had intercourse with women and beget hybrid, quasi-divine creatures who were extraordinarily tall, strong and violent. According to Heisner, these Nephilim are the offspring of ha nachash that Yahweh had earlier prophesied would war against humans. Satan’s strategy, presumably, was to pollute the human gene pool in order to prevent the arrival of the fully human descendant of Eve (Jesus) who would overthrow Satan’s reign on earth.

Humans were apparently willing participants in this rebellion, for the Genesis account says the “sons of God” took “wives.” In other words, they didn’t rape women. According to I Enoch (which Heiser thinks is passing on reliable traditions), this unnatural intermingling began in the “days of Jared,” who is referenced in Genesis 5:18. This means this rebellious angelic activity had been going on for centuries before God decided it was time to judge humanity, the fallen angels and their hybrid children in Noah’s day. Moreover, Heiser argues that by telling us that only Noah and his immediate family were unsullied at this time, the Genesis author was showing that the seed of the woman “had nearly been eclipsed.” The purpose for the author inserting this strange episode at this point in the narrative was to justify God’s drastic action in flooding the land.

But the flood didn’t permanently solve the problem, Heiser argues. The Genesis author himself notes that the Nephilim existed not only before the flood but also afterwards (vs. 4) and we find descendants of the Nephilim all over the place in the land of Canaan. How is this possible? Heiser suggests that perhaps the flood was local, not global. (It’s important to remember that the word “earth” (eretz) in the Bible doesn’t refer to a planet [they had no such concept] but to whatever land a given writer had in mind when he or she wrote). On the other hand, if the flood was in fact global, perhaps the rebel gods resumed their project of creating hybrid-creatures once again after the flood. In support of this, Heiser notes that Genesis 6:4 could be translated: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – whenever (not simply when) the sons of God went to the daughters of humans beings and had children by them.”

The Nephilim and the Population of Canaan
Like a detective following a hot trail, Heiser then sets about piecing together evidence and marshaling arguments that the various tribes mentioned in the conquest accounts were directly or indirectly related to the Nephilim. In his view, the seed of ha nachash had infected the entire land. The reason God ordered these groups exterminated, Heiser argues, was because he needed to ensure that his people, from whom the Messiah would come, would not be polluted with what Heiser refers to as “demon seed.” The warfare for the promised land was a continuation of the prophecied war between the seed of Eve and the seed of ha nachash.

Here are just a few of the arguments I found most intriguing.

1) In Numbers 13:32-33 the spies report that “all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them" (emphasis added). Heiser argues that, while it seems only the Anakites were direct descendants of the Nephilim, this passage suggests that the demonically-caused genetic propensity toward great height was very widespread. In other words, it suggests that many if not all Canaanites were at least indirectly related to the Nephilim.

2) In Joshua 11:21-22 the military campaign of Joshua is summarized and, significantly enough, the focus is squarely on the Anakites. “At that time Joshua went and destroyed the Anakites from the hill country: from Hebron, Debir and Anab, from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua totally destroyed them and their towns. No Anakites were left in Israelite territory; only in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod did any survive.” According to Heiser, this passage explicitly states that the main objective of the military campaign was to clear the land of the seed of ha nachash so the Israelites could dwell there.

Yet the campaign wasn’t altogether successful since Joshua grew old and died before the Anakites in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod could be killed (Josh. 13:1-7). These were Philistine cities, and this explains why giants show up when the Israelites later engaged them in battle. For example, I Chronicles 20 mentions Sippai who was a descendant of the giants (Heb. raphaim) (vs.4) as well as Lahmi the brother of the giant Goliath the Gittite (that is, from Gath), “who had a spear with a shaft like [the size of?] a weaver’s rod”(vs.5). It also mentions another “huge man” who was a descendant of giants (Heb. rapha) who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. He was killed by David’s nephew in a battle that took place at Gath (vs. 6).

3) A tribe that is singled out for mention when Yahweh first announces his plan to bring Abraham’s descendants into the promised land are the Amorites. The Lord tells Abraham that after four generations in Egypt the sin of the Amorites will have reached “its full measure” and thus warrants God’s judgment as he brings Abraham’s descendants (the Israelites) back to this land (Gen. 15:16). Centuries later the Lord reminded the Israelites that he had destroyed the Amorites, “whose height was like the height of the cedars and who was as strong as the oaks" (Amos 2:9-10). The Amorites were apparently giants. Related to this, when the Israelites first encountered the Amorites, they were chased out of the land “like a swarm of bees…all the way to Hormah” (Deut 1:44). The metaphor seems to signify how small the Israelites were compared to the Amorites.

4) According to Heiser, Mount Hermon in the Transjordan is particularly significant to understanding Yahweh’s war against the Nephilim. According to I Enoch the rebel gods (the “Watchers”) descended “in the days of Jared” on Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is associated with giants in a number of ways. It was within the territory of the Amorites, who we’ve seen were giants (Deut. 3:8-9). King Og of Bashan who was one of the Raphaim (giants) and whose bed was at least thirteen and a half feet long ruled this area (Deut. 3:11). Other passages also associate Mount Hermon with the giant clan of the Raphaim (Josh 12:1-5). On top of this, Heiser points out that Mount Hermon was associated with a number of demonic practices in Scripture and the ancient Jewish tradition.

Heiser notes that the word “Hermon” (kh-r-m) in Hebrew means “cursed.” According to I Enoch it got its name because here is where Yahweh cursed the Watchers for their rebellion. But this is also the word used for the Hebrew practice of Holy War (usually transliterated herem). It's usually translated "ban" and signifies consecrating something to Yahweh as a sacrifice (that is, for destruction). Heiser seems to suggest this connection may not be coincidental. If I understand Heiser right, he's suggesting that in ordering the destruction of the Canaanites, God was trying to complete his curse on the Watchers and their hybrid descendants. If correct, this association of Mt. Hermon with "the ban" would strongly support a connection between the Canaanites and the Nephilim.

5) In Joshua 12:1-5 the Raphiam are associated not only with the infamous Mount Hermon but also with the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrie. Heiser notes that Ancient Ugarit literature also associates these two places with rapiuma, the Ugaritic word for Raphaim, and it describes them as “divine” and as the descendants of great warrior kings who now inhabit the underworld.

6) Heiser offers other circumstantial pieces of evidence suggesting various tribes among the Canaanites were giants. For example, one tribe is called the “Jebusites,” and their name means “those who trample.” Another tribe is the Perizzites and they are mentioned in close connection with the Raphaim (e.g. Josh 17:15).

If Heiser is correct, then in waging war against the Canaanites Yahweh was not really fighting against other humans. He was actually fighting for the human race against the seed of "the shiny one," Satan. God was protecting the bloodline that would eventually give rise to the savior who would crush the head of Satan, end his reign on earth and liberate humans to be his viceroys on the earth, as he always intended them to be.

I’m in total agreement with Heiser’s reading of Genesis 6 (I offered my own defense of this view in God at War). But I’m somewhat hesitant to accept that many if not all the Canaanites were infected with the seed of ha nachash. It’s not that Heiser’s arguments aren’t compelling. Many of them are (though I would need to do quite a bit of research to solidly confirm or deny some of his particular arguments that are rooted in his command of Ancient Near Eastern language and literature). My hesitancy is rather due to a number of questions that remain floating around in my mind. Here’s a few off the top of my head (given in no particular order).

1) If these giants were as widespread as Heiser’s "seed of ha nachash" hypothesis supposes, why don’t we have archeological evidence of giant skeletons, buildings, tools, weapons, etc.? (In my research on the Nephilim I found some who claim they have evidence of this -- even supplying photos! But I found no scholarly confirmation of any of this. In fact, I couldn't find any reputable scholar who even bothers to refute it).

2) Many of Heiser’s arguments are circumstantial and sometimes quite speculative. To be sure, they're often very clever and compelling, but circumstantial and speculative nonetheless. If the seed of ha nachash was as central to the biblical story-line as Heiser supposes, wouldn’t it be a bit more obvious?

3) Genesis 3:15 suggests an on-going animosity between the seed of the serpent (or shiny one) and the seed of Eve until a descendant of Eve crushes the serpent's (or shiny one's) head. But if the seed of ha nachash is the Nephilim, then the battle seems to have ended pretty much with the invasion of the promised land (with a few lingering giants among the Philistines to be slain later on).

4) Because there’s so little in Scripture about the rebellious gods begetting Nephilim, Heiser has to rely quite a bit on certain non-canonical writings to flesh out his thesis, especially 1 Enoch. But what warrants this level of confidence in this and other non-canonical books? It certainly goes against the scholarly consensus to accept that I Enoch and other apocalyptic books pass on a substantial amount of reliable historical information. The claim would therefore need a good deal of supporting evidence and argumentation.

5) If the Canaanites were as infected with the seed of ha nachash as Heiser suggests, why were some spared and even taken as wives? And if the fully human Canaanites could be clearly distinguished from the hybrids, why did Yahweh often command slaughtering everybody? Why not simply command the slaughter of only the Nephilim or the Anakites or “people over eight feet tall,” or something of the sort? Even if we accept something like the Nephilim thesis, in other words, it doesn’t remove the problem of why God had the Israelites slaughter humans.

6) If many (or all) of the Canaanites were not fully human, why do the narratives consistently refer to them simply as humans? Yahweh commands his people to slaughter “men, women and children.” This seems odd if some (or all) of these people were not really people.

7) While some of Heiser's exegetical arguments were compelling and insightful (he certainly caused me to notice some things I'd never noticed in the text before!), others struck me as a bit stretched. Most importantly, his reading of Genesis 3 left me unconvinced. For example, he argues that Yahweh’s curse on ha nachash that forced him to crawl on his belly and eat dust (Gen.3:15) was a metaphor for his being cast out of the divine council down to earth. I personally don’t know of any scholars who agree with this perspective, and it struck me as forced. It seems to me (along with the majority of scholars) that the passage is referring to a snake. This beast was "more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made" (3:1) and when he was judged the Lord said: "Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!" (3:15). In the context of this narrative, it seems clear we're talking about a literal snake.

Now, many regard this narrative to be a folktale depicting the primordial rebellion of humans. Others take this to be a historical event that nevertheless employs allegorical elements (the snake, the two trees) to make its point. And still others interpret the whole thing literally. But Heiser's attempt to argue that ha nachash is not a snake or serpent but a reference to "the shiny one" just doesn't seem supported by the narrative itself. This would be a relatively minor point hardly worth mentioning except for the fact that a good deal of Heiser’s “seed of ha nachash” theory seems to hang on his particular interpretation.

8) Against the church tradition, Heiser argues that Satan first fell when humans fell – in Genesis 3. He is correct in noting that the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach that Satan fell prior to the human fall. But I think we have other sound reasons for thinking he did. For example, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it strikes me that we have a much harder time accounting for why nature is so violent millions of years prior to the arrival of humans unless we accept that a corrupting influence was operating in the world prior to the creation of humans.

In light of these and other questions, I’m presently not convinced of Heiser’s thesis. It could be that for some genetically odd reason certain tribes of the Canaanites simply were unusually tall. It could be that they’re referred to as Nephilim simply because this had become a standard word for giants. I grant that this conflicts with Numbers 13:33 where it explicitly states the Anakites were descendants of the Nephilim. If these “Nephilim” aren’t the Nephilim referred to in Genesis 6, who are they? A different well-known tribe of giants? I think this is Heiser’s strongest argument. But I'm hesitant to put too much weight on this one verse, which I feel I'd be doing if I accepted that the Anakites and other groups in the land of Canaan were hybrid creatures on this basis.

Yet, I can't deny it is possible. For all who are intrigued by this possibility, I heartily recommend getting a hold of Heiser’s fascinating book when it comes out as well as checking out his website.

One final point: even if we were to accept that the slaughtered Canaanites were not fully human, this hardly solves our bigger problem of reconciling the violent-tending God of the Old Testament with the self-sacrificial God of the New Testament, for there are plenty of other violent episodes Yahweh engages in against people, often using his people as warriors. This is the very sort of behavior Jesus forbids. So…let's keep reading and thinking.


Friday, May 30, 2008

What's Up With The Nephilim?

After a little break to plug the upcoming NDY fund raiser for Providence ministries and then show off my new granddaughter, it's time to get back to trying to explain why God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites.

I'll warn you ahead of time: this reflection is a bit "out there." But I believe in leaving no stone unturned. Over the last few weeks a dozen or so people have sent e-mails expressing their conviction that many of the Canaanites were not really human. Some, at least, were Nephilim -- giants who were the hybrid progeny of fallen angels having sex with women.

I told you this was going to be "out there."

In light of these suggestions I looked into this possibility. I found a good deal of truly bizarre stuff (e.g. linking the Nephilim to the building of the Pyramids, the Easter Island Statues, UFOs and so on). But I also learned some things I didn't know before. Here's the theory (or at least my novice take on this theory) in a nutshell

In Genesis 6:4 we are told that the "sons of God" (ben elohim) had sex with the "daughters of the human beings" and had offspring. These were "the Nephilim" (meaning giants) whom the author says are "the heroes of old, men of renown." All ancient interpreters of the Bible agree that the "sons of God" in this passage refers to angelic beings who were supposed to watch over humans but who instead rebelled against God and used their position of authority to corrupt the race. (This is referred to as the "watcher tradition." It was widespread in the ancient Jewish world and early Christian tradition. It's possibly alluded to in Jude 6. It's fully expressed in 1 Enoch, which is quoted in Jude 14-15). As I argued in my book God at War, viewing the "sons of God" as angels squares with biblical terminology and explains why the offspring of their unnatural union with women were supernaturally large. It also accounts for why the Genesis author shares this bizarre episode as a prelude to the story of the flood. He's demonstrating how hopelessly screwed up the human race was getting to justify God sending a flood and starting over with Noah's family.

As an interestingly aside, many ancient cultures have stories of semi-divine warriors who fought in the past (e.g. the Titans). Many people argue these fables are rooted in actual history -- which, they argue, is what the Genesis author is giving us in 6:4.

Anyway, I always assumed the hybrid Nephilim were killed in the flood. But several people drew my attention to the fact that the Genesis author says, "the Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward... "(Gen. 6:4, emphasis added). This means that either some Nephilim survived the flood (which is possible if you hold to a local flood, as most Bible scholars today do) or that the rebel angels went back to work creating hybrid offspring at some point after the flood.

What's this got to do with the Canaanites? Well, there are a number of references to exceptionally large people among the Canaanites, linking them to the Nephilim. Here's a summary.

* When the spies returned from scouting out the land, they told the people, " We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them" (Nu. 13:33, emphasis added). They also brought back "a single cluster of grapes" from the land that were so large it took two men to carry it (Nu. 13:23). Don't ask me.

* There are several other references to the descendants of Anak (Anakites) that make mention of their incredible size, as well as other Canaanite tribes that are said to be "as tall as the Anakites"( Duet 1:28; 2:10, 21; 9:2). Some argue these also are descendants of the Nephilim.

* We find a reference to Og, King of Bashan -- a Raphite (who are also said to be as tall as the Anakites -- Rapha means "giant") -- whose bed was nine cubits long and 4 cubits wide . That's a bed that is somewhere between 13 to 18 feet long and six to eight feet wide! (Note, some argue that all the references to the "Raphaim" are actually references to "giants," not the proper name of a tribe. (This is how the KJV translates the term. See Deut 2:11, 20; 3:11, 13; Josh. 12:4; 13:12; 15:8; 17:5; 18:16 [KJV])

* Later in the biblical narrative we read about descendants of the Raphites (= "giants?") as well as others who were incredibly large -- including, of course, Goliath, whom David slew (e.g. 2 Sam. 21:15-22; I Chron. 20:4-8).

On the basis of this evidence, some argue that the "Watcher" angels were once again trying to undermine God's objective for human history by creating hybrids. When God commissioned the Israelites to slaughter these "folks," he was protecting the human project from further corruption, just as he had done with the flood.

Now, I'm frankly not sure what to think of all this. Its weird -- to the point that I'm tempted to dismiss it. But I've learned that reality is usually more weird than my western mind likes to admit. If we take the narratives seriously, we can't deny there were some incredibly large people (and grapes!) in the land of Canaan. And we can't deny this largeness is related to their being descendants of the Nephilim. But I'm not yet sure this entails that some of the Canaanites were actually hybrids, just like the pre-flood Nephilim. But even if they were, I'm not sure how far this gets us in giving a plausible account for why Yahweh had whole towns slaughtered. Clearly, many (if not all) of these victims were full humans -- as evidenced, for example, by the fact that sometimes the Israelites were allowed to keep some women as wives.

I'm trying to keep an open mind. I don't know how much more time I'll invest in this topic. But I just today received in my e-mail a book-in-process (called The Myth That is True) from a friend of mine named Michael Heiser that defends something like this thesis. I plan on giving it a read as soon as I can and may get back to you on whatever light it sheds on this weird and fascinating subject.



It's a Girl!!!

Shelley and I are proud to announce that our wonderful daughter Alisha (aka: "snorky") and our spectacular son-in-law Tim have given birth to an adorable, 8 pound, 21 inch baby girl! They've given her the name "Sage" (isn't that an cool name?).

Congratulations Tim and Alisha!!!

We thank God for his precious new creation, given as a gift to this beautiful Kingdom couple.

And so...

Ladies and Gentlemen,
We proudly present to you,

Sage Nicole Gilbert
P.S. Tim and Alisha feel called to move into the city so they've put their town home on the market. If you know anyone interested in a very spacious, delightful town home in the Burnsville area...check their place out here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reverend Greg Boyd "The Drummer"

NDY (Not Dead Yet) will be performing Friday, June 6th, 8pm at O'Gara's Garage in St. Paul. Cover charge is $10 at the door, with all proceeds going towards Providence House in Haiti.

We hope you can make it to hear the band live but if not below is Reverend Boyd playing a drum solo leading into Takin' Care Of Business at NDY's gig from January. Greg, I (Marcia) dare you to quit your day job!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Teleological Exegetical Principle and O.T. Violence

These days we're (mostly) discussing why the God of the Hebrew Bible sometimes commands people to slaughter enemies, including women and children, while Jesus reveals that God dies for enemies and longs for their forgiveness. Based on our recent exploration of Peter Craigie’s The Problem of War in the Old Testament, I’m in the process of formulating what I might call The Teleological Exegetical Principle. (Remember folks, I'm thinking out loud here. I'm exploring possibilities, not giving absolute conclusions). Basically, this principle stipulates that, all other things being equal, we should always interpret the beginning of any divine program from its end (telos).

Let's first apply this principle to the law of the Old Testament. The Old Testament law initially looked like it was given to make us righteous before God, but it failed (as Paul frequently notes). Given that it ended in failure, the Teleological Exegetical Principle would lead us (along with Paul) to presume that this was the point (or at least one of the points) of God giving the law all along. He was proving to us that we can never be made righteous before God by striving to obey the law alone. In the light of this failure, we (along with Paul) can view the law as a "shadow” pointing us -- as a negative object lesson -- to the reality of “Christ.” Its failure prepared us to humbly accept God’s righteousness as a gift given through Christ.

If Craigie is right, this principle also applies to nationalism and violence (they are inseparable) in the Old Testament. Divinely sanctioned nationalistic violence initially looked like it could establish the Kingdom of God, but it failed. The nation of Israel tried to live by the sword but it ended up dying by the sword (as Jesus said would always happen). Given that nationalistic violence ended in failure, the Teleological Exegetical Principle would lead us to presume that this was the point (or at least one of the points) of God using nationalistic violence all along. He was proving to us that his Kingdom can never be brought about by nationalism and violence.

This negative object lesson laid the groundwork for the coming of the anti-nationalistic, anti-violent Kingdom, inaugurated through Jesus. And this leads to yet another application of the the Teleological Exegetical Principle.

Jesus’ death -- which was brought about because Jesus refused to be co-opted by nationalism or to resort to any violence -- initially looked like a failure but ended up in victory. Jesus' sacrificial death defeated the Powers, set captives free, reconciled us to God and established the Kingdom of God on earth. Given that Jesus’ death ended in victory, the Teleological Exegetical Principle would lead us to presume that this was the point of Jesus refusing nationalism and violence. He was proving to us that God's Kingdom can only be brought about by refusing nationalism and violence as we rather choose to love and sacrifice for our enemies, even to the point of death.

So, if the God who sanctioned genocide in the Old Testament looks antithetical to the God who died for his enemies on Calvary, this is because it's supposed to! If you're offended and angered when you read about Yahweh commanding the slaughter of women and children or David celebrating infants being smashed against rocks, it's because being offended and angered by this sort of barbarism is the point. Only if you see how grotesque and futile this nationalistic violence is will you be able to fully devote yourself to a non-nationalistic and anti-violent Kingdom.

If Craigie is right,
God was reluctantly condescending to the violent mindset of the world and playing the part of a tribal warrior god in order to ultimately show us (among other things) that he's not at all like this. Or, if you will, God entered our violence filled Matrix (recall the movie) and played along with its violent rules, but he did this in order to wake us up to our bondage to this ugly, illusory Matrix. Once freed, we are empowered to see who God really is and who we really are. Christ is the "reality" to which all Matrix "shadows" point. In Christ we see that God is a God who would rather give his life for enemies than kill them. And in Christ we see that all people, including enemies, are worth God giving his life for.

Now, I'm not pretending this explanation for God's treatment of enemies is without problems or is adequate in and of itself. But I AM convinced that something like this was going on in Yahweh's sanctioning of violence in the Old Testament and that this must be part of a comprehensive explanation of this violence.

More to come. In the meantime, imitate God as he is revealed in Jesus (Eph. 5:1-2), not the God revealed in the Old Testament's warfare tradition.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Review of Ehrman's "God's Problem"

The other night I read Bart Ehrman's new book, God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer. Since it touches on the issue of violence in the Old Testament and since I've received so many e-mails asking me about it, I thought I'd post a review.

This book was better than I expected. I really disliked Ehrman's earlier best-selling book Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman's conclusions were very biased and went far beyond what the evidence warranted. Yet he presented his arguments in such a way that laypeople unfamiliar with the science of textual criticism could (and many did) find convincing. Consequently, I initially resisted reading God's Problem. I figured if Ehrman's work was poor in his area of expertise (Ehrman is a New Testament textual critic), it would probably be atrocious in an area where he isn't a specialist (viz. dealing with the problem of evil). Nevertheless, a friend (Paul Eddy) compelled me to read it and, much to my surprise, I actually thought it was pretty good. It was certainly better argued and fairer than his Misquoting Jesus.

I'll make six comments that roughly follow the outline of Erhman's book.

1) Ehrman does a masterful job presenting the problem of evil in its full horror. His book is permeated with horrific examples of evil, and he gives these because he rightly surmises that most westerners (certainly most western Christians) wrestle with this issue in a detached, theoretical manner. They are thus inclined to accept easy answers that are woefully inadequate. I couldn't agree more.

2) Ehrman notes how Old Testament authors viewed suffering as divine punishment (chapters 2-3). He presents this material -- much of which we've covered the last couple weeks on this blog -- in all its barbaric horror. I would quibble with some of his interpretations (e.g. his view that animal sacrifices were meant to appease God's wrath), but overall his work here is solid. Ehrman concludes this section (as he does each section) with a critique. He forcefully argues that, as a comprehensive explanation for why humans suffer, this just doesn't work. What's odd, however, is that Ehrman correctly notes that Old Testament authors never presented God's judgments as "a universal principle, as a way of explaining every instance of suffering" (49). Yet, he still critiques the punishment motif as if it was meant to be an exhaustive explanation of evil. His criticisms are valid against the divine punishment theodicy, but not at all against the Bible.

3) Ehrman nicely expounds on a biblical motif that views suffering as a consequence of human sin -- revealing that biblical authors had some sense of free will (chapter 4). In this context he discusses the "free will defense." Ehrman notes that there's a tension not addressed in the Bible between affirming human free will, on the one hand, and affirming an "all-powerful Sovereign...who foreknows all things" (113). Elsewhere in the book Ehrman adds that the free will defense doesn't explain "natural evil" (12-13). Those who are familiar with my work (e.g. Is God to Blame?, God of the Possible and Satan and the Problem of Evil) won't be surprised to hear me claim that neither objection is very strong. Given that the free will defense is the most common one appealed to by Christians, I was surprised at how brief and unpersuasive Ehrman was in trying to refute it.

4) Ehrman proceeds to discuss a wide variety of biblical passages that suggest, in various ways, that God uses suffering to contribute to the greater good (ch. 5). I felt that both Ehrman's presentation of the biblical material and critique of the greater good defense in this chapter were strong. Erhman rightly exposes the injustice involved in the idea that God allows or ordains suffering in some in order to benefit others. He also rightly rejects the mistaken notion that God allows suffering because we couldn't appreciate good without it (147-48). Moreover, while Ehrman agrees that good can sometimes come out of evil, he objects to the idea that "something good always comes out of suffering"(147). To the contrary, he insists, "most suffering is not positive..." (ibid).

The trouble, however, is that Ehrman seems to think he's exposing a weakness in the Bible's view of suffering when he offers these criticisms. He's not. Yes the Bible presents a God who is always working to bring good out of evil, and yes it depicts God as always using evil for his own good purposes. But nowhere does the Bible intimate that all suffering is "positive" for those who suffer, and nowhere does it suggest that all evil is allowed "for the greater good."

5) One of the weakest points of Erhman's book, in my opinion, concerns his treatment of Job (chapter 6). He insists that the book of Job is a compilation of two contradictory books: a folktale (Job 1-2 & 42) in which Job is tested, passes the test and has everything restored, and a book of poetic dialogues between Job and his "friends" in which Job rails at God while being accused by his friends. The point of the folktale, Erhman insists, is that "God deals with his people according to their merit, whereas the entire point of the poetry [viz. the dialogues] is that he does not do that..." So, in the folktale, suffering is seen as "a test of faith" while in the poetry "suffering remains a mystery that cannot be fathomed or explained" (154).

There's a number of problems with Ehrman's perspective and interpretation of Job, but time allows me to only mention two.

First, Ehrman's view (shared by many other Old Testament critics) assumes that whoever allegedly compiled the folktale and poetic dialogues into a single book was simply too stupid to notice the obvious contradiction that Ehrman and other critics now find. But why should we assume the redactor (compiler) was less bright than modern critics? It strikes me as more humble and more reasonable to assume that if an ancient redactor didn't see a contradiction, perhaps we're mistaken in thinking there is one. And once you acknowledge this, we have less reason to think there were two different works put together in the first place.

This leads to my second point: Because Ehrman treats the book of Job as a compilation of two contradictory works, he massively misses the point of the entire book! Ehrman thinks that when God shows up "in the whirlwind" to give his monologue (chs. 38-41) he does so simply to assert "that he is the Almighty and, as such, cannot be questioned" (174). This is why there is no answer to the question of suffering (according to the poetic dialogues). But this isn't all God does in the monologues. God points to the unfathomable beauty and complexity of creation (ch.38-39) and then points to Behemoth and Leviathan, cosmic monsters that all ancient near eastern people believed in (chs. 40-41). If God simply wanted to assert that he cannot be questioned, why point these things out to Job?

The answer, I submit, is that God wasn't saying he couldn't be questioned simply because he was "the Almighty." He was revealing why humans cannot know why evil occurs the way it does and thus why they shouldn't question "the Almighty" who does know. It's because a) we humans know next to nothing about the complexity of creation, and b) we shouldn't think we can do a better job than God fighting the cosmic forces of evil that threaten the world. In short, we humans will never know why evil strikes the way it does because we are ignorant.

In this light, the folktale (if we grant it is that) of the prologue (chs. 1-2) makes perfect sense. It's letting the audience of the book in on an event that the characters in the book don't know about -- and never (in the context of this narrative) learn about. And that is the point! Job and his friends assume they know what they're talking about when the former accuses God of injustice and the latter accuse Job of sin, but they don't. Both parties assume God is directly behind Job's afflictions, but the fact is that random events take place in the unseen heavenly realm that adversely affect us but about which we know nothing. At the same time, we can be assured that God is at work in the world to compensate for injustice -- which is the point of the epilogue (ch.42). (I discuss this interpretation of the book of Job in much greater depth in Is God to Blame?).

While Ehrman thinks Job has nothing to say about the problem of evil, if my interpretation is right, it has much to say. For it reveals that the mystery of evil isn't a mystery of God's character or purposes; it's rather a mystery about an unfathomably complex world that is afflicted with hostile cosmic forces. And this leads to my sixth and most important comment on Erhman's book.

6) Ehrman ends his work with an excellent discussion of the apocalyptic worldview and its perspective on evil. He rightly notes that this is the worldview of Jesus and all New Testament authors. In this view, "cosmic forces of evil were loose in the world, and these evil forces were aligned against the righteous people of God, bringing down pain and misery upon their heads, making them suffer..." (191). Not only this, but the reason there are "so many disasters in this world, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, wars, deaths" is because "the powers of evil are in control" (202). Ehrman praises this perspective because it "takes evil seriously" (244) while insisting "quite vociferously that God does not bring disasters; it is his cosmic enemies" (218). It also is the only explanation that accounts for natural evil. In my view, he's absolutely right!

Yet, Erhman argues that this understanding of evil also fails because it's "based on mythological ideas that [he] simply cannot accept" (245). Moreover, the end of the world that apocalypticists thought was going to happen in their lifetime proved wrong (245-46). And, finally, the apocalyptic belief that God will supernaturally intervene in the near future and bring an end to evil "can lead to a kind of social complacency..." (246).

I don't find any of these objections compelling. First, I have never found a remotely persuasive argument as to why we should regard belief in hostile cosmic powers to be "mythological." This is simply a modern, western, naturalistic assumption (and, I should note, one that is being increasingly abandoned).

Second, even if we were to grant that Jesus, Paul and others mistakenly thought the end of the age was going to occur in their lifetime, this hardly negates the entire apocalyptic worldview. Where's the justification for jettisoning an entire worldview just because one aspect of the worldview is mistaken? That's bad logic! At the same time, there are ways of interpreting the various references to the immanent end of the world in the New Testament that avoid attributing a mistake to Jesus, Paul and others. For example, some scholars (such as N.T. Wright) argue that the "end" these people were referring to was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Alternatively, some argue that the central point of passages expressing a belief in the approaching end to the world are meant to instruct us about how we should live (e.g. with hope and passion, as though each day were our last) rather than to register an opinion about when this end will occur.

Finally, while some who embrace an apocalyptic worldview may become complacent about battling evil in the world, there is no necessary reason why they would do so. Consider, for example, that Jesus held an apocalyptic worldview and yet spent his entire ministry confronting evil. Consider also that a central aspect of the New Testament's message is that his followers are supposed to imitate him in everything. This objection, therefore, amounts to nothing.

In conclusion, I applaud much of Erhman's expositions of various biblical motifs that explain why we suffer. But none of these motifs claim to be a comprehensive theodicy, so Erhman's critique of them as theodicies misses the mark (even though many of his critiques of theodicies based on these motifs are to the point). Most importantly, Ehrman's critique of the apocalyptic explanation of evil is completely without merit. Given that this was the worldview Jesus and his disciples embraced, and given that this worldview provides the best single explanation for evil -- as Erhman himself grants -- I feel justified in relying on this view of evil as the most comprehensive and authoritative in Scripture. And this makes the utter weakness of Ehrman's refutation of this perspective all the more significant.

It means the Bible does provide an answer to our most important question -- why we suffer. Ultimately, it's because the world is held hostage to cosmic forces of evil. But this affliction will not last forever.