Monday, August 29, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 3

When thinking about what I would write for this chapter, I pretty quickly decided I will do something brief now and come back and fill in more material later. Because this chapter is really pretty definitive for the rest of human history. The stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are interesting and all, but this chapter provides a summary of sin, the condition of man, and redemption. So, I will write more later, when I have more time.

Some points.

First, the serpent is pretty clearly either a representation of the devil or the devil in some alternate form, because in several places later in the bible the devil, or Satan, is called a serpent. Even Christians who don't interpret this story literally will generally say that the serpent represents the spirit or the will of Satan, who is in some respects an archetype of sin. In this context, when I use the word "sin" you can just think, "opposition or rebellion against God for whatever reason(s)". More broadly, sin can be defined as "missing the mark", as in attempting to do something and falling short from that goal. So in that general sense, it doesn't always have a moralistic connotation (as in, murder is sin), but the moralistic connotation can be considered a subset of sin. That is, all moral failings are sin, but sin is not all moral failings. The moral connotation tends to dominate its usage in commonplace English, however, and similarly it tends to dominate in Biblical passages as well. However, to my recollection the underlying Hebrew/Greek does not necessarily include that moralistic tone when you study the original words.

Second, and this is much discussed in some circles, note that the woman does not precisely quote God when she states the commandment to not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. People tend to draw this in a multitude of ways, anything from "the man did not teach her the command correctly" to "they are putting a fence around the command" to "the snakes wiles are already implanting deception in the woman's mind" and so on and so on. I think a lot of this is (as I said in a previous post, but different context) building a rather large structure on a small base. In my opinion, it is as likely as anything that the original writer is just providing a brief recap of what was just said in the prior chapter. We see this type of brief summarization in some other places in the Bible as well, so it doesn't seem particularly unusual to me. I just mention it because many armchair theologians "draw a lot of water out of this rock". :)

Third is this:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise

This verse is in parallel with 1 John 2:16, which talks about the "lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life". In this case, being delicious is the lust of the flesh, beauty is the lust of the eyes, and desire for wisdom is the pride of life. I can only imagine that 1 John is drawing from this verse, but I can't confirm the fact. Anyway, it provides a good alternate view on the same subject, which is these three-fold appetites that can lead to deception and ultimately lead one away from God.

Fourth, a lot of people also make a big deal out of this brief passage: "and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate." There are a variety of interpretations, one of the most common being the presumption that Adam was present with Eve during the discussion with the Serpent and subsequent fruit-eating. If you make this assumption, then a natural conclusion is that he didn't say or do anything (as he is not recorded at all until this point). So a lot of people take this as evidence of the sin of passivity. At the least, the husband should be taking an active role in preventing the woman from violating God's command. Or, as some take stronger positions, he is the man in the relationship and should therefore be exercising authority over the woman and prevent her from eating the fruit. As I made clear before, I tend to view marriage as a union of equals so I don't agree with the stronger position in that sense.

Another common approach to this passage is to say that the dialogue is heavily compressed and does not represent a singular event. Rather, some analysts say that this passage represents weeks or even months of subtle manipulation from the serpent to convince the woman to eat the fruit, and that after that, she went and somehow got her husband to eat it. Biblical literalists (generally) tend to dislike this approach because it doesn't jive with a literalist's sense of temporality. However, I think it's pretty reasonable given that there is a lot of evidence in Genesis 1-4 of compressed temporality all over the place. Among other places, there are obvious temporal gaps in the follow verse pairs: (Gen) 2:25 to 3:1, 2:15 to 16, 2:7 to 8, 2:18 to 19, 2:20 to 21, and so on. Now admittedly Gen 3:7 and onward represents a fairly contiguous set of events, but that doesn't mean that the parts before it are necessarily contiguous.

Anyway, I don't really have a "horse in this race", as to me I don't really care which approach (or neither) is correct. From a theological perspective, it doesn't matter. But people debate this stuff so I figured my readers might be interested.

Fifth, When it says their eyes were opened, this provides the counterpoint to what we read in chapter 2 about them not having any shame. They are now opened to self-perception, which results in guilt/shame and as a result, they try to cover themselves up. They are, like so many other people, ashamed of their true identity and try to cover it up in a protective sense. I have a whole philosophical nugget about "protection" and how that relates to clothing, but don't have time now to write it. Maybe I'll edit it in later.

After this, they hide from God. This already speaks so much about the shame they feel regarding themselves and their actions, about how it has already broken their relationship with God so that they no longer trust him and much like they tried to conceal their bodies behind fig leaves, now they try to conceal themselves from God. There are so many possible reasons why they might be hiding from God that I don't feel like speculating which is correct. It could be anything from fear of punishment, to shame of letting him down, to embarrassment, etc.

In the next few verses, 3:10, we see that the man was ashamed because he was naked. So again, we see that the "knowledge of good and evil" really just led to self-awareness with a perspective of a broken identity: that he is unhappy with who he is, and that is what leads to these attempts at compensation (by blaming others or the fig leaves) or simply hiding from those from whom they fear judgment.

In verse 11 God pretty much figures out what happened, and in verse 12 we see the very beginning of what has since become a worldwide pastime of countless generations: the blame game. The man blames the woman; the woman blames the serpent; the serpent got nobody, so he gets the first curse. And so forth. So on the surface of things, the man and the woman are both correct. They are speaking the truth. But there are two problems here. The first is the implicit attitude problem, that they are trying to deflect criticism from themselves to someone else. This is especially bad for the man, who deflects criticism onto another person, who he is supposed to love and cherish. It should be little surprise that, after being fingered by another, the woman should also try to deflect blame. The second problem, which is related to the first, is that they are essentially ignoring or (perhaps more accurately) concealing their own culpability in this matter. Yes, the woman told the man to eat it, "the woman who you gave to be with me" (so it's not enough to blame the woman, he's throwing a sideways accusation against God for placing this horrible deceitful woman with him and the woman tricked him and it's not his fault!), but there was no application of force here. The man knew the commandment just as well as the woman, so he must have at least partially agreed to disobey God's command. Even if he was fully deceived into eating it (like somehow he didn't know what the fruit was), he still hid from God rather than approach him openly, so one way or another he was opened to having a broken relationship with God, and just as his eyes were opened his heart towards God was closed in the same measure.

For the woman, while she does not launch a sideways accusation at God, she has more obvious personal culpability because it is immediately clear that she, at least, knew she was eating the forbidden fruit. On this point the text is undeniable, regardless of what deception she was taught by the serpent. But even with the woman, she finds it irresistable to try to shift blame to another, to the serpent who deceived her.

My sixth point is another subtle one: why is God asking anybody anything? It really is perplexing to the first-time reader, because God is omniscient so he should already know the answers to these questions. This leads to an interesting conclusion, which is that God does not ask questions because he wants to know the answer, he asks questions because he wants the answerer to know both the question and the answer. This is another philosophy nugget, but to put it in a nutshell, asking questions is a long-proven teaching method, and here is no exception.

So after all the blame shifting, God starts to pronounce curses in accordance with the action of each person/serpent. Note that the curses are in reverse order from who has been blamed/questioned (man/woman/serpent, serpent/woman/man. This is a common Hebrew literary technique called chiasmus). The first curse is pronounced on the serpent, and since the serpent is considered an allegory (at least) of the devil, it is still relevant today.

Eating dust seems like a pun to me. Remember that dust is the source of man. So on the one hand, because the serpent has no legs, it walks face first in the dirt all day long (as an animal). But on the other hand, you can consider it a broader metaphor for how the devil will spend the rest of his existence trying to consume the lives of men. God further declares a warfare between the serpent and the woman. Of course, the warfare had already started because the serpent was trying to deceive the woman, so there were no good intentions already.

Anyway, God says the enmity will be between their "seed", which emphasizes descending generations (and therefore, an ongoing struggle). Many commentators point out that "a bruised heel is painful but a bruised head is fatal", so clearly this is not considered an equal struggle nor does it have any sense of parity. Lastly, the seed of the woman is widely considered in conservative Christian circles to be a reference to Jesus.

The curse of the woman is something people study and write about a lot, but I will keep it brief. The description of the woman "desiring her husband" and him "ruling over her" represents a dual fracture in the husband/wife relationship. The word "desiring" is generally related to the issue not of desire in the modern sense, but control. It really is describing a conflict over control of the other, where both partners desire to control the other.

The most significant curse is the one on Adam, which is definitive for the human condition. In brief, it describes that work is now toil/difficult (this is not how life is supposed to be. Work is a challenge but should not be strife - again I am just summarizing), that provision (bread) is attained through sweat (difficult, laborious effort). That the ground will yield thorns and thistles (both are inedible, tough weeds with lots of spiky defenses - this shows the denigration of nature from kind and hospitable garden to tough, difficult wilderness), until the ultimate result of the curse, death, and returning to the dust.

Death was not an original part of the creation. Adam and Eve, had they not sinned, would have lived forever in a world that includes work, but different work from how most people understand the word today. It is work free from stress and overbearing difficulty. They would have lived in a world free from the thorns and plagues of modern life that destroy lives and tear down the constructs of human society.

At the very end of the chapter, the man and the woman are driven out of the garden and must now fend for themselves in a newly harsh and cruel world that is (unfortunately) of their own construction. But God has not abandoned them, and as sin has now laid its foundations down into the world, God begins the process of redemption.

He covers them with garments of skin, which foreshadows the sacrificial process of atonement, and ultimately foreshadows the sacrifice of Jesus to bring about human redemption and reconciliation with God, reversing the curse and bringing true alignment with the purposes of human creation, which were outlined in chapters 1 and 2.

TODO: Add discussion of nakedness as biblical motif.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 2

Picking up where we left off last time, we now have the 7th day, the day of rest. Thus, the Sabbath is introduced. I won't go too deeply into the Sabbath now, as it is a recurring motif that we will see many hundreds of times before the end, so I can talk about it more later. What I will say now is that this passage unequivocally ties the Sabbath to the act of creation, but it does not here create a Sabbath mandate. This is an important distinction because later on, God will mandate a Sabbath rest for the people of Israel every 7 days, but only under different circumstances. More on that in later posts.

We also get one of the first repeated sections of the Bible. Chapter 2 here contains a retelling of part of chapter 1, specifically focused around the creation of Man. It adds a lot more detail than chapter 1, but the two sections are more or less compatible. This is one of the sections that is used to justify the JEDP theory, because (as they maintain) if it contains multiple copies of the same story, those different copies must have come from different sources. I don't find this argument very convincing for a couple reasons. I will list two. First, if this was initially an oral history (and most scholars agree it was at least derived from oral history), then that alone can explain the repetition. Oral histories are typically loaded with repetitive elements to aid in memorization. Second, the JEDP theory also espouses the existence of a "final editor" who went over all the material and fitted it together. If that is the case, then it is difficult to explain why there should be two copies of the story at all. If these two stories represent any sort of inconsistency, you would reasonably expect them to be simply merged into a single telling, including details from both. While JEDP theorists can raise various counter-points, attempting to do so simply adds even more detail and complexity to a theory whose sole basis is an analysis of the text without any objective archaeological or historical corroboration. You find yourself arguing with one set of hypotheticals, trying to analyze and counter-analyze the motives of purely theoretical individuals ("well why didn't the do " with another set of hypotheticals "because the would not have if the was "). Since I often have a hard time even understanding the motives of real people that I know, I can't imagine how someone can confidently assert the motives of people who may or may not exist. So, at the end of the day, it seems like a really tall structure with a very narrow base, in my point of view. Anyway, enough about that.

We see a couple key motifs here that will recur again and again, beyond just the Sabbath. The first is breath = life. This is partially due to the structure of Hebrew; the word "breath" is the same as the word "spirit" is the same as the word "wind". In Hebrew, they are all the same word, "ruach". So any time you see any of breath/wind/spirit, it is just "ruach" being translated into some particular context, but to Hebrew readers any usage of the word has the underlying implication and inference of the other two meanings. Perhaps the best analogy I can make is the english word "birth". We talk about women giving birth to children, or a team of people "giving birth" to a project, in the sense of "creating" it. So it can be used in multiple contexts, but any time you talk about "giving birth" you are going to think to yourself, this is drawing an analogy to childbirth. Of course, the difference is that birth is a word where we (as english speakers) know the etymology, but we do not know the etymology of ruach, so to us all three translations are equally adaptable.

So, with that said, the Hebrew ruach is almost always used in the context of life, whether that is bringing about life (in this case) or the restoring of life, or whatever. We will see in many times later. I should add, one of the key implications of this verse where it says God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" is that since breath = spirit, God is actually breathing his spirit into the man. This emphasizes even more strongly all of the points I made in Chapter 1 about man being made in the image of God. Now we see that man has been given the spirit of God as his own source of life.

The second is that man is made out of the dust. Contrasting this with the above, we can see a pretty clear dualism. There is the dust, out of which the man's body is constructed, and then there is the breath (spirit) of life, out of which he is animated: "and man became a living being."

Man is frequently equated with dust, especially after the Fall, to imply his own mortality and the limitations of human existence. Or as it is famously quoted at funerals, "from dust to dust", that it is from dust man is built, and to dust he returns. We will see this also in Chapter 3. In this case, man has not yet sinned and therefore it is not necessarily a negative statement. And since that's true, we know that being made of dust is not a result of the Fall, so nobody has to be ashamed or sad of being built out of temporal, earthly materials, as long as you realize *it is only your body*. The important part is the spirit, which was breathed into the man from God. That's why my body is not the most important part of who I am. It's important, but not the most important. The most important, what defines me as a person, is the non-material, God-breathed essence. While much of modern naturalism operates on the presumption that there is no soul (a metaphysical property that defines life), it is pretty clear in this passage that the Bible contradicts that presumption.

Man is placed in the garden of Eden, a land with four rivers, with gold and onyx stones. All of these things would equate to an Israelite mind, "wealth". If one were to live in Israel, you would quickly discover that water is one of the most precious resources. Many times in the Bible we will see various parties in conflict over water resources, because of their scarcity in this largely arid region. Whether one operates as nomadic shepherds (like most of the main figures in the OT) or as farmers, water is the basis of your wealth in that it supports your flocks or fields. So the presence of four named rivers (including the Tigris/Euphrates which are very large rivers) obviously implies a richness and wealth to this land.

We are also given the first command to man (having already received the first stated blessing), that he should not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A lot of people have speculated wildly over the meaning of "the knowledge of good and evil", over why this tree is placed in the garden, why Adam is commanded not to eat it, and I don't plan on repeating those voluminous speculations. If anyone wants to learn about that, you can pretty easily look it up online. That's because in my opinion, the Bible does not make the purpose of all this clear. Obviously some theories are better than others, but I just don't believe we're given enough clarity to state anything definitively, as some are fond of doing. What I think is clear is: God is good, therefore the prohibition is given for good reasons like protecting the man and enabling him to live a life of fullness. That's all I have to say.

Next point, the man has a companion created for him, not from amongst the animals, but by being put into a sleep and having part of his side removed. A couple quick points. First, when it says "a helper suitable for him", the term "helper suitable" means an equal partner. It does not imply any superiority or inferiority for either member in this partnership. Second, we see that this is before the Fall, so it is within God's design and pattern for such partnerships to form. Third, it is a man and a woman. I don't feel much need to emphasize this point, since interpretations of the Hebrew text are undeniable: there is no contention over the meaning of this passage. I think it's reasonable for some people to say that this passage alone is not sufficient to claim that "gay marriage is wrong", but at the same time, this is pre-Fall and it is the first marriage. It is the only conjoining of people that can produce children (as per the command we see in Chapter 1) and there is no instance of gay marriage in the rest of the Bible entirely. So it might not be conclusive textual evidence, but it is definitely strong circumstantial evidence in my opinion.

Next, something I thought was really cool is that we see the man speak for the first time. He makes a declaration regarding his new union with the woman, and what's even more amazing is that the next verse (verse 24) lists the consequences of this declaration, that she was no longer just a woman but now she was his wife and they shall be unified by the consequences. What's cool about this is that we see a pattern in chapter 1 of God speaking, and the authority results in changes to the world. And now we see the man speaking, and he is exercising authority that changes the patterns of the world also. So he is acting like an image of God.

He was also given authority over the animals and was given power to name them. Naming creatures (or people) is an act of authority or power over that animal/person, and names are generally very important in the Bible as we will see going forward. So he is already acting as a steward of the garden where he was placed.

Lastly, the man and the woman are naked but are not ashamed, so they do not have the capacity for shame. Shame is based out of the results of the fall. In my opinion shame is simply a "self awareness of ones limitations". If one is not thinking about oneself, it is impossible to feel shame no matter how ridiculous we might be acting. :) Seriously, think about some people one has seen (or perhaps been?) dancing like a maniac while listening to some great music, in a public place. If you aren't thinking about how others perceive you, then you won't be embarrassed by what you are doing. On the other hand, people can be ashamed of even simple things if they focus incessantly on how others perceive them, which is really just their self-perception. More on this in the next chapter.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 1

Finally, Genesis 1, the book where it all began... *so excited*

IN THE BEGINNING, the Hebrew beresheth, the Greek genesis, from which this book derives its title. The very existence of a "beginning" has caused much philosophical and theological strife over the years. The fact that there is a beginning to creation (the word "creation" itself implies a creative act, before which this "creation" did not exist), and yet God himself is before creation. As others have pointed out, the sentence simply assumes the pre-existence of God. No explanation is given for so many things. "Where God came from", "why God is creating anything", "how does God create the universe". All of these points are left seemingly unanswered, and wise men ponder the answers thereof.

Minor nit point before I move on. The common translations all say, "the heavens and the earth", where "heavens" is pluralized. This implies that there are multiple heavens, but only a single earth. This is, at least implicitly, a sort of rejection of extraterrestrial (ET) life, because God only created a single earth in this story.  Of course, as one studies the book of Genesis you learn that the book contains numerous omissions (such as the questions I listed above), so such an omission does not in truth mean that ET does not exist. However, what it does mean is that the existence or non-existence of ET is most likely not important to human meaning, because otherwise it would probably be addressed. Onwards.

GOD CREATED. What a bold act. I love this part because textually it is extremely compact and action-oriented. This really gives me a sense of the boldness and strength of God, that with no statements of hesitation, fear or reluctance, he positively creates the world out of nothing.

The earth is without form, yet God was moving. God was moving in preparation for the coming of the word.  And God spoke, and creation almost explodes into existence. Again we see the forcefulness of God's actions in that his mere words suffice to bring about creation and order. For every act of God that is listed in Gen 1 is an act of bringing about separation, which means order. Organizing reality by separating disparate elements from each other. Light from darkness, water from air, ground from water, and then from that foundation he fills each realm with life and guardians: the sky with lights, the water with fish, the ground with plants, and the air with birds. Each realm is filled with a suitable form of creation that can be sustained by it and shape it in turn.

In all of these matters, God has absolute power to align creation through what amount to royal edicts, simple verbal (after a fashion) declarations that have immediate forcefulness. Furthermore, when you investigate the Hebrew, you see that this chapter uses the "majestic plural" for God. Instead of the singular El, it uses the plural Elohim. This is characteristic of royalty, and it further amplifies the sense of power and authority that comes from God in this passage.

There is a pattern here in Genesis 1 where God creates a series of realms and then populates them.  These realms are: the heavens (verse 1), the sky (verse 6-8), the waters (verse 10) and the dry lands (verse 10).  These realms are then populated in turn with vegetation on earth (verse 11), the lights (or stars, moon and sun) populating the heavens (verse 14), fish populating the waters (verse 20), and then the earth is populated again with a list of things: creeping things (i.e. insects), the cattle and their kind (mammals), the beasts of the earth (miscellaneous?) (all of these verse 25), and then mankind in verse 26, who dwell in land but are declared rulers over all of the populations of the world in the three realms of earth, sky and water.  A notable omission here is dominion over the heavens, which is the only part of creation that man does not rule (with respect to this particular declaration).  This is not to say that man would not in some future time be given rulership over the heavens, but he does not have it here and this is for God to decide.  The separation of the natural world into these three realms (plus the heavens) is a recurring motif in the bible, alongside the juxtaposition of heaven and earth (which we see in part in verse 1 of this chapter).  This juxtaposition is a figurative parallel of the juxtaposition between God and man, who are represented by heaven and earth accordingly, since God is the ruler of heaven and man (as here) is declared the rightful ruler of the earth.  (In this case the word "heaven" has two valid meanings depending on the context: it either refers to the heaven of God, the spiritual realm of God's kingdom, or the heaven of the earth, the sky.  These two meanings are used in turn to suit the purposes of the author.  This ambiguity exists in verse 1, possibly intentionally.)  Of course, as we discover the rulership of man is subordinate to God's rulership over all creation, and we will also discover that the rulership is conditional on man's obeisance to his divine sovereign (to continue the metaphor).  These motifs are most commonly found in the poetic literature such as Psalms, but will also appear elsewhere, as we will see.

What we also see in this chapter is a telescoping specificity as we progress through the realms of creation.  By this I mean that the creations described get more and more specific as the passage continues.  To wit, in verse 1 we see the creation of "the heavens and the earth", which is the whole sum of all physical creation (and arguably even spiritual creation).  By verse 9 we are dealing with the waters gathering on the earth, which is a tiny fraction of the whole creation, but it is the tiny fraction that is most relevant to the lives of man.  The lives of man is the next layer of specificity, as God focuses in beyond the general creation of animals and birds to detail the creation of a particular species, and more than that, of a certain individual of that species, made in the likeness of God.  By chapter 2, the story has already progressed beyond the "general creation" of life, the universe and everything, and into the details of the lives of these first few people.

As a side note, this renders a scientific analysis of Genesis 1 rather difficult because science (as a general matter) is more interested in generalities than specificities, so as the scope of Genesis tightens, its applicability diminishes.  The tight scoping and lengthy dialog around the creation of man in particular leaves a scientific analysis groping for the Big Bang theory from the first 5, cryptic verses, which is a tall order even under ideal circumstances.  But it also shows why a scientific analysis often fails to find anything interesting is that the text is clearly most interested in presenting the creation and coronation of man, and it is written in a pre-modernist mindset.  In short, the author is not trying to present a scientific theory, he is presenting a history of life and how we got from "there" to "here" but primarily using a story-based and moralistic framework and not a modernist "objective" framework of naturalism.  The story of Genesis 1 through 3 is a story about moral or spiritual laws, not natural laws.  To try to draw naturalistic theories out of it is like trying to draw water out of a stone: stones do not have water, nor were they made to bear water.  You should try to read Genesis for what it was written for, and if you're looking for naturalism, your best bet is to look elsewhere.

Continuing with an analysis of the realms of creation, we also see that the creation story is inherently geocentric and ultimately anthropocentric.  This is an obvious correlation to what I've said just above, because Genesis 1 is not the story of the creation of the universe (even though it includes that): the creation of the universe is its beginning, but the creation of man is its end.

The culmination of chapter 1 is found in verse 26-27, where it says:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him;male and female He created them.

So, a few points here. First, God creates man both male and female. This obviously precludes any possible sense of the superiority of one gender over the other. It implies both the differences (that they would be listed separately) but also the similarities (that we are both "man") which have bound us as people together for the entirety of human existence.

Second, nearly the first thing that God says about man is that man is delegated royal authority over every realm of existence on the earth: the sea, the sky, and the dry land. Notably missing is the heavens, but this is a minor point compared to the overarching importance of human dominion. This passage is the fundamental origination of all human authority, so it deserves more attention than I can afford to give it.

You can dig through the archives of this blog to see some older (and more general) material I have written about power and authority, but what I will say now is that humans were given authority over the earth. We can use this power to either bless the earth and bring life, or destroy it and bring death. It can almost go without saying that right now there are groups of people who are doing both at different times. But I believe that it is our collective responsibility to choose life for the earth and to act to bring that about through various means, both physical and perhaps even more importantly, spiritual means. In my opinion, the spiritual authority that we hold is even more important than the physical authority. I don't have time to teach all about spiritual authority, but just know that it is as easy and simple to activate our spiritual authority as it is for God when God speaks and brings about creation. We have the latent power to do the exact same thing through regal declarations, though this power is not always active nor always understood. Moving on.

Third, Man is created in the likeness of God. There are few ways I can overstate the significance of this, and even the Bible repeats it a few times for emphasis, in how it affects our identity as people, our relationships with God and with creation, or the broader questions of the meaning of life and existence. It is absolutely fundamental in its implications.

I will list a few implications, and leave the many others for a reader's exercise. First, it makes God fundamentally relatable. Because we are created in his image, we have an underlying capacity to understand God and for him to understand us. This is because of the intrinsic similarity, which allows for us to experience empathy for one another.

Second, and related to the statements about authority, the similarity to God means that we have been imprinted with God's characteristics, such as love, power, authority, righteousness, immortality, etc. Just think of every characteristic of God and know that that is either a latent or active characteristic of ourselves, though often in a diminished capacity. Think of it like a smaller bowl in the shape of a larger bowl. We can't hold as much water as the larger bowl, but we have the "characteristic of holding water", which not every shape does. There are many shapes that do not have this property at all, but we do. We just can't do it as much as the larger bowl. It's the same way with things like, for instance, omnipotence. No, we are not currently all-powerful, but we have the characteristic of power and authority, and through experience and maturity it's something we can grow in.

Third, it has the implication that we are children of God. Just as children are made in the image of their parents, so are we made in the image of God. So not only does it imply the capacity to relate to God, but that similarity itself implies a relationship with God. So we have the capacity to relate to God and in the same sentence we have a relationship to fulfill the latent capability. This is why I call it the basis of human existence: we are children of God who can relate to him as such. Moving on.

God blessed them, God gave them direction for their lives, God gave them relationships to himself and to each other (more details on that in chapter 2) and God gave them food. It all sounds like a pretty good deal; and it is. The graciousness and kindness of God cannot be overestimated. With that, I will move on to chapter 2. :)

P.S. Some people make a really big deal out of the supposed "6 days of creation" and use this in combination with the genealogies that follow to date the universe to around 6000 years old. Without remarking as to the accuracy of this theory, that entire discussion seems to really put a tremendous amount of emphasis on what is a fairly insubstantial element of this otherwise profound passage. In other words, I just think there's a lot more important stuff going on than some silly attempt to date the universe from what is pretty obviously not intended to be a scientific text.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis Introduction

At last, I am through dealing with all of the multiplied complexities of source manuscripts and translation methodologies and compilations and so forth, and now I can delve into the multiplied complexities of yet even more archaeology, theology, philosophy and history.

That's right, we're now in the book of Genesis!

Introduction to Genesis

Genesis is the first book of the Bible and one of the oldest books that is still in existence, in its entirety. Certainly it's one of the most influential books and for thousands of years it has shaped Man's thoughts about himself or herself, his or her relationship with God, and the nature of life itself. This is not a book for the weak-minded or those with craven hearts.

I will cover some basic facts about Genesis, but not much more. One could literally write books about this book alone, as many people have done. I will not do that.

Genesis is deeply connected with the next four books of the Bible, leading these first five books to be called the Pentateuch. Their date of composition and original authorship are both heavily disputed, but in broad terms, there are basically two competing theories. The first, older and traditional viewpoint is that the entire Pentateuch was authored by Moses, around 1500 BCE. Under this viewpoint, the book of Genesis is a composite of either Hebrew oral histories or divine revelation from God about the past.

Topically, the book of Genesis covers several major epochs of time. The broadest, and first, is the life of Adam and Eve, the creation of the universe and man, the Fall from sinlessness, and the beginning of human history. The next briefly mentions the lives of a series of men culminating around Noah and the flood, and then Noah's ancestors down to Abram/Abraham (same man, two names). The last major epoch is the events in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, with the prediction of the enslavement in Egypt.

As such, from the topics alone it should be clear that there are two or perhaps three sources of information. While the creation of mankind may be partially derived from a Hebrew mythos, to be accurate with respect to creation and God there has to be some degree of divine relevation. With respect to the genealogy of Abraham and the history of his children, that is probably more closely related to Hebrew oral tradition and was probably passed down from generation to generation. Detailed analysis can pretty clearly show aspects of oral transmission, such as repetition of some stories, as I will mention when we get there.

The second theory about the origin of Genesis is much more recent and was essentially constructed in the 19th century by a school of theologians predominantly from Germany. Under this theory, called the Documentary Hypothesis, the Pentateuch had four primary sources, called JEDP, which stands for Jehovist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, Priestly. This theory holds that different pieces were constructed by different people, at different times, and that those pieces coalesced into the four named sources, which were then edited and combined together through a merging process. Once merged, there was a final editor who revised it for consistency (after a fashion) and pushed it out the door. All of this process happened between 800 and about 500 BCE, according to the theory.

The Documentary Hypothesis (which I will just call the JEDP theory) is definitely exceedingly popular amongst progressive textual critics (AKA Higher Criticism) and progressive or non-theistic theologians in general, who constitute a fairly large majority of the field. Amongst conservative theologians, it tends to rub a lot of people the wrong way because JEDP undermines a lot of the stated claims of the Pentateuch. Namely, some of the later books like Deuteronomy and Numbers have extensive passages that are preceded by "and then Moses said...", so if Moses didn't write it, then chances are he didn't actually say these things. To someone who adheres to the accuracy of the Bible, this can be troublesome. Similarly, there are some predictive statements in the Pentateuch regarding e.g. the future kingdom of Israel, and if the Pentateuch is from the 500's, then those statements weren't actually predictive at all; they are simply backfilling "prophecies" to match their history. Again, this strikes conservative Christians, who tend to regard the bible as literally accurate, as deceptive or misleading, and therefore they tend to dislike the JEDP theory for that reason. Of course, disliking a theory and disproving it are two separate matters, but I can say that from my brief study of the JEDP, there truly are some serious structural flaws in the theory. For the sake of time, I will not discuss them now, but if anyone is interested in discussing it with me you can post a comment below or email me.

For the purposes of this study, I will assume the more conservative position is correct (in general terms, but not always in details), I will assume divine inspiration of the authorship and I will assume internal consistency of the Pentateuch (and Bible in general).

Also, in case anyone is curious, the title Genesis is derived from the Greek word "genesis", which means beginning or creation. This is based on the Greek translation of the first word in the book, "beresheth", which means "in the beginning".

Ok, hopefully I'm done (for now) with introductions. I hadn't planned on writing this, but it seemed too important to ignore and not relevant to chapter 1, so I had to give it its own post. Now I will get to chapter 1.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bible Commentary - Introduction - Translations

Lastly, I am going to briefly discuss some of the major Bible translations and how they have been built on top of the documents I have just mentioned. As a precursor to all this, the reader should understand that the original biblical manuscripts *do not contain chapter or verse divisions*. This is really important when reading the bible because it might sometimes appear that certain thoughts run across chapter boundaries, and that's because the chapters (and verses) are themselves added long after the original writing of any of the books of the bible. These divisions were added partially in the 13th century and then fully in the 16th century, well over a thousand years after the writing of the last book, Revelation. So chapters and verses are useful for study, useful for reference, but are not to be used for biblical exegesis (for instance, "this part is in chapter 14, and this part is in chapter 15 so clearly the author did not consider them related" - don't do this).

Before mentioning any specific Bible translation, I want to talk about two ways of translating Bibles. In truth, these two philosophies extend far beyond just Biblical scholarship, and can be equally applied to any type of translation work, whether ancient or modern. The first is "word for word". This is the translation philosophy where the translator essentially tries to come up with a literal, word by word translation, without consideration for the intention of the phrase or any cultural references, etc. For example, in contemporary english there is an expression, "it's raining dogs and cats". If you perform a word for word translation into French, it's something like "il pleut des chiens et des chats". This is good and all, unless the French speakers reading it are not familiar with our American, English aphorism. In which case they would be rightfully confused.

The second translation philosophy is "thought for thought". In this case, the translator tries to capture not the literal phrasing of a sentence, but the higher level *intention* of the expression being translated. It essentially looks beyond the literal meaning and tries to come up with something applicable and understandable by stripping out aphorisms and what are even more subtle, language artifacts. An example of a language artifact is the frequent use of connecting conjunctions in Hebrew, which I mentioned above in this post. We don't really need to use "and" all the time in English because we have punctuation, so maintaining a proper word-for-word translation in that context can be either confusing or just not read very well.

Generally speaking, word-for-word bibles tend to adhere closer to the original text, as the name implies, but thought-for-thought bibles tend to be easier to understand. As such, people generally recommend thought-for-thought translations for new bible readers or people who are looking for some easier and simpler, which is not saying too much because the bible is long and complicated regardless of how it's translated. On the other hand, word-for-word translations are best for serious study, experienced bible readers or people who are interested in the nuts and bolts of the idiomatic constructs of the bible. Many people have two or more bibles and will use different translations depending on what they are using it for, whether serious study or lighter quiet time reading, etc.

Here is a great quote from wikipedia that summarizes much of what I just said regarding translation philosophies. In this quote, "dynamic equivalence" describes thought-for-thought and "formal equivalence" describes word-for-word.

Dynamic equivalence (also known as functional equivalence) attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text (if necessary, at the expense of literalness, original word order, the source text's grammatical voice, etc.), while formal equivalence attempts to render the text word-for-word (if necessary, at the expense of natural expression in the target language). The two approaches represent emphasis, respectively, on readability and on literal fidelity to the source text. There is no sharp boundary between dynamic and formal equivalence. Broadly, the two represent a spectrum of translation approaches.

In the real world, no translation adheres strictly to one or the other. There is a spectrum of positions between the two extremes, and every Bible falls somewhere on that spectrum. That said, I will now discuss specific Bibles.

No proper discussion of Bibles can begin anywhere but the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV is one of the oldest English translations and by far one of the most influential in terms of world history and theological impact, both due to its merits and due to its flaws. I cannot now give a proper history of the KJV, that would fall outside of the scope of my writing, but I will briefly mention that the KJV was commissioned by King James of England. There are several different versions of the KJV, but with the exception of the modern NKJV all of them were written around 1600 CE. In the 1600's, there did not exist a large selection of modern NT manuscripts and the Minority text was largely unknown and unused. In addition, modern scholarship has been able to find a number of mistranslations in the KJV, due to lesser understanding of ancient Greek at the time. Nevertheless, even with these mistakes, the KJV is a magnificent achievement for its time and for the relatively high accuracy it achieves. I personally would not use the KJV for any meaningful study due to these issues, as well as the older English style in which it is written, but I still have a lot of respect for it due to its legacy. With regards to the spectrum of translation philosophies, the KJV tends fairly heavily toward word-for-word. For the OT, the KJV is based predominantly on the Masoretic Texts, with substantial input from the Septuagint and the Vulgate.

Another major Bible translation that has taken much of the world by storm in the last few decades is the New International Version, the NIV. The NIV was a project that began sometime around 1965 and produced its first complete Bible in 1978. Since it was produced after the discovery and analysis of the Minority Text, the NIV's NT is mostly conformant with that grouping of documents, in opposition to the KJV. The NIV also takes advantage of the recent discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as modern linguistic scholarship, so it tends to correct a number of mistakes in the KJV. It is written in contemporary English, so for first time Bible readers it is much easier to follow than the KJV. For the OT, it is similar to the KJV in that it is mostly based on the Masoretic Texts and with input from the Septuagint, Vulgate, etc. In terms of the spectrum of translation philosophies, it generally falls in the middle somewhere, translating some parts by thought and some parts by word. I personally learned the NIV first, and I think it's one of the best intermediate bibles. It adheres reasonably closely to the underlying text while smoothing out the most difficult-to-understand passages.

The last bible I will mention is the New American Standard Bible, also known as the NASB (sometimes also the NASV, the NAS Version). The NASB is a revision of a prior bible translation, the appropriately titled American Standard Bible, and it was first translated between 1963 and 1971. The latest revision is 1995, so it is another contemporary Bible translation. As such, it shares many characteristics with the NIV, including its reliance on the Minority text in the NT and composite usage of the Masoretic text, Septuagint, et al in the OT. The biggest difference between the NASB and the NIV is that the NASB is much more strongly a word-for-word translation. As such, in recent years I have utilized the NASB much more heavily because (as should be evident) I am a pretty serious bible reader and I want to have a translation that approximates the native language as closely as possible. I will likely use the NASB as my primary translation for this bible commentary, but possibly also use the NIV and other translations as appropriate (Amplified, Message, NLT, etc).

To conclude this section, I have left out a bunch of other Bible translations, but many of them share the fundamental characteristics of the bibles I have mentioned. In fact, you can learn nearly everything you need to know about a bible by just finding out its date of original publication and its translation philosophy. The date will (almost always) implicitly tell you what underlying texts were used, and the translation philosophy will tell you how closely the translation resembles the original documents.

To conclude my introduction, I definitely just brain dumped like 3 years of scholarship in one post, so I wouldn't be surprised if peoples' heads are spinning after reading this. Fortunately, it is a written medium and therefore anyone can reference it in the future at their leisure. I will be using these concepts and principles in my future posts without any further explanation (except where warranted), so if anyone reads those future posts and gets confused, you can just come back here and re-read the explanation. It's the magic of the internet. ;) And with all that, I can now gladly move on to my first real book, Genesis!!

Bible Commentary - Introduction - Sources/Archaeology

There have been many books written about the source manuscripts used in modern Bible translations, and I cannot match their depth or completeness. If you want to build an extensive knowledge of Biblical sources, read those books. A great starter guide is The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell. Nearly everything I write here will be a recap of what I read in that book.

That said, I will start with an overview of the translation process, which is how the Bible gets from ancient manuscripts to the english (or other language) translations we have available today in bookstores around the world. Then I will give an overview of the different source materials available for the OT, and then the sources of the NT, as well as a brief description of how these sources play into different translations. I will conclude with a description of some of the different major Bible translations and the philosophies underlying those translations, which can result in even more differences in the same verses from version to version, simply based on how the words are interpreted.

Translating a Bible is not as simple as modern translations of books, or speeches or whatever, from one modern language to another. The biggest reason for this is that we do not have the original source texts, which I will henceforth refer to as "the autographs". The only extant documents are copies of the originals (which I will henceforth refer to as "sources" even though they aren't the original sources). As such, translating the Bible has three main steps. First, you have to gather all of the existing manuscript fragments together. Second, you have to collate all of those documents into a single master document. This is because the fragments are often of the same passage, but there are sometimes mistakes in some of the fragments. You have to weed out the mistakes by cross-referencing the different fragments against each other. And I am deliberate in using the word "fragment", because of all the extant manuscripts, almost all of them are just brief passages, like (for example) John 6:5-20. It's usually just a literal scrap of text, but there are thousands of them and when put together, you can get a whole copy of the Bible. But this leaves some serious challenges in resolving conflicts between different scraps. Usually these resolutions can be made on the basis of a variety of factors, but sometimes disagreements persist between different versions, and in a small handful of cases these disagreements are theologically significant. Third, and lastly, once a collated document has been created, you have to translate that from the source language into English (or whatever). Each one of these steps has taken thousands of people a collective hundreds of thousands of hours of scholarship over the past few thousand years, so suffice to say every single letter in the Bible has been scrutinized by hundreds of people all around the world ever since it was first written.

The first step is largely archaeology and is mostly removed from the textual/linguistic analysis that goes into the translation effort. The second and third steps are both immensely complicated endeavors that I cannot hope to describe in detail, so I think I will stop here and say, "read Josh McDowell if you want to know more. Or just search online for more."

Some additional difficulties faced by translators:
1) Some of the extant copies are not written in the original language of the autographs
2) The source manuscripts contain numerous obscure words for which there are no proper modern translations
3) Cultural differences in writing style from back then until now result in some issues that have to be glossed over by modern translations, because they would be confusing or misleading to modern readers. One example (among many) is units of measurement. The standard Hebrew measure of distance is a "cubit", which is somewhere around 1.5 feet. But for the translations to reference "cubits" all over the place would confuse a lot of people who are understandably unfamiliar with it, while it would be deeply familiar to ancient readers.

As I briefly alluded above, there are a variety of sources for the OT that come from many different periods and (perhaps more surprisingly) many different languages. I will start with the most important source manuscript of the OT, the Masoretic texts.

The Masoretic texts are a group of Hebrew documents dating to roughly 800 CE. This is, surprisingly, the earliest complete Hebrew OT that exists today. What's fascinating about this is that the earliest complete NT manuscripts are actually much earlier, dating to between 300 and 400 CE. So the documentation of the OT is generally worse than the NT. However, some evidence exists that shows the general accuracy of the Masoretic texts, so all is not lost for that reason. Jewish scholars over the millennia have demonstrated an almost fanatic devotion to accuracy is their retention of the OT. While this has not guaranteed the non-existence of any errors, it has made the situation a lot better than it is for many other ancient documents.

One of the biggest reasons scholars believe the Masoretic texts are accurate is cross-comparison with the Dead Sea scrolls. The Dead Sea scrolls are a set of various documents (not all Biblical) dating to roughly 100 BCE. While the date is great, the biggest problem is that they do not include a full copy of the OT, so we can only cross reference a subset of passages. One of the biggest discoveries is a complete copy of the book of Isaiah (which for those who don't know, is quite a long document). Compared with the Masoretic Isaiah, it was nearly identical except for a few trivial spelling differences.

Another source for the OT is the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the OT dating to around 70 BCE. This is useful for its date and its completeness, but unfortunately it is a translated work so (obviously) it is not in Hebrew. This adds a layer of difficulty for English translations because it essentially requires you to "double translate" the book, from the original Hebrew to the Greek Septuagint, and then from that Greek to modern English. Double-translating almost always introduces a lot of inaccuracy into the final product, due to all of the factors that make even a single translation being compounded through two languages. If you ever experiment with Google Translate you can see this for yourself.

Similar to the Septuagint is the Aramaic Targums, which are a set of Aramaic translations of various passages of the Hebrew OT. The Targums have a somewhat different character from the Septuagint, in that they tend to be more didactic and less literal, but are essentially just another ancient OT translation. They date to roughly 0 CE, plus or minus a hundred years.

Lastly (that I will mention), is the Vulgate. The Vulgate is a complete Bible translation of both the OT and the NT into Latin, and it dates to roughly 400 CE. This translation is significant because the OT was translated into Latin from the original Hebrew, much like the Septuagint of 500 years earlier. Research has shown that the Hebrew from which it is derived is largely in correspondence with the Masoretic texts, again validating their accuracy.

That concludes what I will say about OT manuscripts. For the NT, the situation is a bit different. For one, the set of documents we have are much closer to the autographs in terms of age. The earliest complete NT is from around 300ish CE, compared to the origination of between 50 and 90 CE for when the books were all first written. There is even an extant fragment of John dating to around 130 CE, which is remarkably early and would have existed in the lifetime of some of the witnesses of the Acts of the Apostles. You can find the wikipedia article on that fragment here.

Putting aside a lot of nuance and detail for the moment, nearly all of the major extant copies of the NT are found to belong into two large families of documents. These are groups of documents that almost completely agree within themselves, and mostly (but not entirely) agree with each other. They are called the Majority text and the Minority text, alternately called the Byzantine type and the Alexandrian type. The names are indicative. The Majority text is the statistically larger group of documents, while the Minority text is from a comparatively smaller group of documents. The Majority text is largely derived from a group of documents that were originally housed in Constantinople; hence, Byzantine. The Minority text is derived from documents originally housed in Alexandria, Egypt. The Majority text is much more widespread because it was largely adopted in substance by the Catholic church and it forms the basis of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. However, the Minority text represents more geographically and lexicographically dispersed documents, which is much more valuable for the purposes of critical analysis. As such, the Minority text has held increasing weight in recent decades compared to the long centuries of Majority dominance. For example, the NIV frequently holds to Minority text positions where the two versions don't agree.

These disagreements are relatively infrequent though, so the vast substance of the NT is not called into question by any differences between the two bodies of manuscripts.


Bible Commentary - Introduction - Language

The Bible was originally written in three different languages. In the OT, it was predominantly Hebrew with a brief section of Aramaic and a scattering of proper names and words adopted from other languages, like Babylonian and Assyrian. In the NT, it is almost entirely Greek, but again there is a brief scattering of proper names and places from Aramaic, transliterated Hebrew and Latin. Hebrew and Aramaic, as languages, are quite different from modern English.

OT Hebrew, in particular, was written very differently from modern English. Among other things, Hebrew is a right-to-left language, so the reading order is reversed, and the written construction of words is different. OT Hebrew does not possess any punctuation, like the modern period or comma, so you will read a LOT of conjunctions ("and he walked here and he walked there and he said I am tired of going here and I am going to lie down now and when I get up..."). This is intentional, because conjunctions were really the only way they had to denote the end and beginning of different sentences in a written medium. Similarly, OT Hebrew does not contain any difference between upper and lower casing. Everything is written in the same case. This means that translators have to guess what words are proper names and what words are descriptive. This is especially challenging when words are both used as a generic noun and as a place name. The best example of this is Adam, which is literally the Hebrew word for "man". So it's unclear if the "Adam" written in Genesis 1-3 was meant to be interpreted as "the man blah blah blah" or "Adam blah blah blah". The way Hebrew is written is that the consonants are characters and the vowels are special markings on those characters. Unfortunately, OT Hebrew omitted all of the vowel markings. I don't know why, but they did. This unfortunately leaves a lot of ambiguity in the pronunciation and even interpretation of numerous passages in the OT. Modern scholarship has managed to nail down most issues resulting from this ambiguity, but there are still a few important cases left. The biggest and most well-known of these issues is the pronunciation of YHWH, the Tetragrammaton, which is referenced in the OT as the name of God himself. Yikes. So it should be apparent why a lot of people want to get it right. Unfortunately, just as with every other word in the OT, there are no vowel markings, so we pretty much have to guess. Some people use different markings to achieve the words Jehovah or Yahweh. Those are the most popular pronunciations, but both of them are simply creative guesses. We don't actually know. Lastly, OT Hebrew is thousands of years old and the OT contains a lot of obscure words for which we do not have any proper translation. The translators simply have to guess at the meaning of these words in the context of the passage, which accordingly results in differences between some versions.

The Greek NT is much more closely aligned with modern English in the sense that 1) it has vowels, 2) the verbal tenses and conjugation are almost (but not quite) the same as English, 3) the language is much more recent, so our understanding of the vocabulary is comparatively better. Some difficulties remain however. First, there are still words for which we don't have proper translations (or at least debatable translations). Second, NT Greek does not have casing, just like OT Hebrew, so it is ambiguous in some places what are proper nouns and what are generic nouns, just like in the OT Hebrew. Third, NT Greek doesn't have any punctuation, so again the translators of the Bible have to guess when one sentence ends and another begins. None of these modern conveniences existed for ancient authors or ancient readers. They probably walked uphill in the snow both ways, too. :) My understanding is that NT Greek does put spaces between distinct words though, so that is useful. For reference, Latin scripts from that time period do not use spacing, so every word flows directly into the next. Maybe that's why literacy rates are so much higher these days?

Bible Commentary - Introduction - Date/Authorship

Woo!!! So pumped. Ok, so I expect this section to be rather dynamic and it will expand over time as I think of more things to add. There's a ton of material that is relevant to the Bible as a whole, and not to any one particular chapter, and nearly all of that stuff will go in this section, as I described in the prologue. So, let's get started because this portion will be long enough already.


The Bible is one of the oldest books that is still present and read in modern society, when you consider it from the point of oldest authorship. Of course, this is somewhat misleading, because in truth the Bible is not actually one book. It is (by Protestant standards) 66 books, although even that isn't entirely true because not all 66 "books" are distinct. Many people reasonably consider the first five books of the Bible (called the Pentateuch for that reason) to be actually a single book. Certainly they were intended to be read as single unit. Similarly, the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles were written as single entities but split into two parts and subsequently called two "books". But with all of these details aside, the Bible consists of at least 55-60 separately written, distinct books.

So the first thing the reader should understand is the somewhat fractured nature of the Bible. Estimates vary on the date of the oldest book, but even the latest estimates put it around 600 BCE, while the earliest estimates for the youngest book, Revelation, put it around 70 CE. So that means that from start to finish, there is at least a 670 year gap in the writing of the modern Bible. By conservative standards, the oldest books were written around 1600-1500 BCE and the youngest were written around 90 CE, putting the gap at an even greater 1600 years. Considering that we are only 2000 years past the events of the New Testament (NT) itself, it should be astonishing to think that the oldest events of the Old Testament (OT) are nearly as far back in history to the New Testament authors as the New Testament is to us. Clearly the OT (also known as the Hebrew Bible) was considered holy scripture to the NT authors, and indeed there are many places in the NT where the authors quote the OT as scriptural references to prove doctrine or prophetically reference modern events, much like modern theologians debate over NT scriptures. Even the smaller date, 670 years, is roughly three times the duration of the United States as a nation.

Estimates vary on the number of authors. While the Protestant Bible contains 66 books (of which perhaps 59 are distinct), the authorship of these different books is highly debated. For my part, I'm going to generally assume that the author is the self-referenced creator of each book (so, for example, the author of the book of Isaiah is Isaiah himself, as described in Isaiah 1:1). Since most (but not all) of the books in the Bible make reference to their own author, this resolves the authorship of most books and gives you a rather high number of authors (at least 20-25 distinct authors). So again, this shows that the Bible is highly fractured in terms of both date and authorship. Therefore one must expect stylistic differences, cultural differences, and language differences to appear in the various books. One can also identify certain theological differences and in some places the same story is told more than once and with differences between the different versions.

But at the same time, all of these differences serve to highlight even more the surprising similarity between all of the books in the Bible. There are thematic elements that run all the way from Genesis to Revelation, messages about the human condition, about the demonic opposition faced against man, and about the nature and purpose of life itself. Obviously when dealing with such weighty subjects, no single message or posture will please everyone, and it will certainly spark a lot of controversy, as has been the case for essentially the entire duration of the Bible itself. Ironically, many of these historical controversies are documented in the Bible itself, but by no means have they slowed down. It's fairly popular these days to say that we (as people) are more divided than we have ever been, but if one reads about the life of Jeremiah, about kings Rehoboam and Jereboam and the division of Israel, or about the divisions brought about by the emerging Christian sect of circa AD 30, one can see that such divisions have existed for thousands of years and our time is not unique in that regard.

At the end of the day, perhaps the doctrinal and thematic unity of the Bible can serve as a greater example of the unity possible, and desirable, in human society, resolving itself in the redemption of human existence through the Passover sacrifice, Jesus Christ; that in his sacrifice, we might find peace with God and peace with each other; that even if every other difference were to remain, at least we could learn to appreciate each others' perspectives and find the beneficial synergy of differences as described in 1 Corinthians 12. Regardless, I will discuss all of these topics at depth in the proper chapters of study.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bible Commentary - Prologue

Here we go again. :) This time I've set my sights a little bit higher, and instead of reviewing the relatively modest Phantastes, I'm aiming for the relatively dense and lengthy Protestant Bible. :D As such, I am going to write a prologue here: post a table of contents (which I will update periodically throughout the study), some administrative remarks, and my personal thoughts on doing this study (which are unrelated to the actual analysis of the Bible).

Table of Contents:

My thoughts:

First off, I'm going to say that my target timeframe for completing this is somewhere between 3-8 years, so this is not going to be a quick project. Second, I plan on being thorough, in the sense that I will have a post for every one of the 1189 chapters of the standard NIV/NASB Bible. And on that note, I am going to probably use the NASB as my preferred translation, though I might use the NIV (uhh, 1989 edition I think?) as an alternative text.

Third, this is not meant to be an exhaustive commentary, if such a thing were even possible. My remarks will be general, covering anything from history to textual criticism to cultural references to theological analysis and exegesis, but limited in the sense that I'm only going to post my personal thoughts on each chapter and not seek to provide a comprehensive overview of different perspectives (though I will reference various perspectives as appropriate in certain places). I like to think that I can offer an alternative perspective, very different from what you find in many scholarly commentaries (not to say that such commentaries are of any lesser value), since I am not a professional theologian and therefore I will try to cover topics in more grounded terminology and philosophy. I don't seek to replace any other commentary, but if someone can derive value from my work here, then perhaps I will achieve my goal.

Fourth, while I will try to cover different viewpoints, I am myself a moderately conservative (theologically) Christian and it is inevitable that my personal opinions will predominate a lot of the discourse. If any reader is interested in (for example) a naturalistic viewpoint on the origination of the Bible, you will probably be disappointed. My reading of the bible is inherently supernatural, and I'm not going to hide it. I will try to write up major naturalistic theories, but if I start running out of space or time, these will be cut first.

Of course, my foremost goal is to organize my own thoughts and to spur myself in digging deeper into these 1189 chapters, so at the end of the day it doesn't even matter if anyone else reads this. But I nevertheless believe that others may find it profitable to do so.

From an initial perspective, I expect to write three, perhaps four different sections in this commentary, simply as thus: Introduction, analysis of each chapter, perhaps a section on inter-testamental period (~300 BCE to 0 CE), and then a brief conclusion. Upon further thought, it seems evident that I should write an introduction for each book, covering the basics of when it was written and by who, and any major points that don't belong to a single chapter. The chapter-by-chapter commentary will take up the vast bulk of my time and words, but it seems improper to write such a commentary without giving at least a brief context into the matters at hand. The initial introduction will contain general points about the Bible as a whole, about the particular doctrinal assumptions that I'm going to make, some broad comments about other systems of analysis, and the broad history and language of the Bible. Obviously people write books about this stuff alone, so I will keep it brief at first and expand this section later as necessary. The (possible) section on intertestamental times will simply describe the history of what happened in the 300 years between testaments, and the conclusion will be my personal thoughts on writing this commentary and any necessary parting words.

Lastly, just as with my prior book club, this commentary will not seek to summarize the contents of each chapter. I am providing this as companion material, to go along with others reading the Bible itself, and then reading my commentary for additional illumination. Simply reading the commentary may be interesting, but I will reference events/passages in the chapter at hand without prior explanation or synopsis. I will not, however, assume that the reader is familiar with the Bible as a whole or any particular theological doctrine, or anything apart from the prior chapters in the study, and will therefore try to explain any theological system I reference from the base texts. That will certainly require me to elaborate at length about theories that many people (especially Christians) are already familiar with, but I will do so for the sake of those who are not. It should be pretty simple for people not interested in those discussions to simply skip over them.

Oh yeah, and one last thing. If anyone reading this does not have access to a Bible, there are a couple great bible resources you can find online. For one, there is an online and searchable bible website that has every major translation: This is a great resource as you can cross-reference amongst all these different translations and it's all free. For offline access, you can download e-sword which is an extensible program that contains a couple free translations. This resource is more limited in terms of what translations you can get without paying money, but it's still good if you don't want to be connected to the internet. It also contains a lot of commentary resources as well as access to Strong's notes on word meaning and translation, and it also has original Greek and Hebrew scripts for looking at the originating manuscripts. This is at Third, you can also find the original Greek NT at For the Hebrew OT, I usually use e-sword.

[Edit]: I keep thinking of "last things" that I need to tell readers. This is because I know the Bible pretty well so it takes time for me to unravel all of the now-subconscious assumptions of knowledge that I make. What I forgot to mention is that my readers should understand the bible has 3 main layers of division: book, chapter, verse. And it's essentially hierarchical. Books are sets of chapters, chapters are sets of verses. You will commonly see me write annotations such as Gen[esis] 3:5. What this means is: Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Verse 5. I will also commonly use ranges, such as Gen 1-5, or alternately Gen 3:14-20. Gen 1-5 means Book of Genesis, chapters 1-5 inclusive. Gen 3:14-20 means Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Verses 14 through 20 inclusive.

I know from personal experience how utterly confusing it can be to navigate a bible when first reading it and how hard it is to find stuff, but in this sense you have two main guides. First, if you use a website like, you can just type in the "book chapter:verse" and they will bring it up for you. You can even use ranges of chapters or verses and they are smart enough to figure it out, so that approach is dead-simple. If you have a physical bible, you can just find the table of contents which will list where to find the books, and then within the book all of the chapters and verses are listed in ascending sorted order, much like any other book. So it should be relatively straightforward to find a given chapter once you have the right book: you can just scan from left to right until you find it. [/edit]

Edit 2: One more "last thing".  I want to include links to helpful, free and online bible commentaries that I have read from other sources.  Ideally, I should have something unique to say that you won't find in other commentaries, but at the same time they make insights that I do not.  Either way, it is only proper that I should cite the commentaries that I myself read, in case any of my readers should find them useful.  There are a lot of verse-by-verse commentaries I know of and a few topical commentaries; mine will fall approximately between them, where I address some topics and address the bible itself on a chapter-by-chapter basis.  I will try to keep these links up to date, but I make no promises.

A great verse-by-verse commentary is Keil and Delitzsch.  These guys have a great breakdown on the meaning of specific words or phrases.  Old Testament only.

Another fabulous resource is the collection.  They have commentaries on tons of things organized every way you can imagine.  Their content tends to be a bit more fragmented because it's not one author studying the whole bible, but the sheer volume alone makes this a substantial resource.

For access to the Hebrew text and translations, I use e-sword with the free KJV and Strongs.  For Greek, I generally use

I will put more here as I discover them.  I know that there are many great bible resources, but the ones listed above are what I have used in doing my own study for this blog.

Well, that's everything I can think of for this prologue. On to the introduction!