Lent and Fasting

As series editor for the Through Old Testament Eyes commentaries, I’m excited that the newest volume on Matthew (releasing in March 2024) is from my good friend and first-rate scholar David Capes. To give you just a taste, here is a brief excerpt that is apt for the beginning of Lent.

Matthew 4:2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, perhaps in imitation of Moses who remained on Mt. Sinai forty days and forty nights without bread and water (Dt 9:9; cf. Ex 24:18). We have seen already how often Matthew finds the correspondence between Moses and Jesus. Whether on the mount of temptation or Mount Sinai, both men were preparing for the next phase of their remarkable missions.

Fasting, of course, is part of Israel’s discipline before God. Jesus affirms it in the lives of his own disciples . . . . Throughout the Old Testament, fasting appears to come at various times for various purposes: (1) to mark seasons of joy (Zec 8:18–19); (2) to express deep mourning (Ne 1:4); (3) to ask for a safe journey (Ezr 8:21); (4) to demonstrate humility (Ps 69:10); (5) to seek answers (Da 9:3); (6) to accompany repentance (Joel 2:12). There are others too, but these represent some of the many faces of fasting. Scholars note that fasting seems to be on the rise with and after the exile. By the time of Jesus, fasting appears as a regular feature of Jewish piety for the Pharisees and the followers of John (cf. Did 8.1; Tertullian, On Fasting 16; Tacitus, Hist 5.4.3). But fasting, in and of itself, may not have any rewards if it is not done in the right way for the right reason.

According to the prophet Isaiah, fasting without a life of repentance, a life turned Godward, leads to nothing (Isa 58:2–5). But fasting that addresses injustice and meets the needs of the poor brings healing and help in time of need (58:6–9). Proper fasting, the Scripture says, results in your light breaking forth like the dawn and God’s glory standing watch over your rear guard. Perhaps Jesus fasts after his baptism—after this turning point in his life—inspired by the words of Isaiah 58. If he had meditated on the prophet’s teaching, he leaves his wilderness experience expecting the Lord to guide him and satisfy his body and bones in these parched places.*

David B. Capes, Matthew Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2024), p. 76.

Dragons in the Bible

Dragons in the Bible? I can think of that red dragon in Revelation 12. But are there others?

In the outstanding Bible Project podcast series Chaos Dragons, Tim Mackie and Jon Collins explore the theme of monsters that surprisingly permeates the Bible from the first book to the last.

Chaos dragons are a common image in ancient near eastern literature, and the Bible writers take this and give it several twists for their own purposes. Such dragons often threaten humanity and the whole order God has created. They are associated with the disorder of the sea especially (see my blog here on that) but also of the wilderness. The Hebrew Bible uses a collection of related words (nahash, tanin, leviathan) to express this idea.

We remember leviathan from the book of Job which is in the sea (Job 41:1-4). Rahab is another such creature (Job 26:12; Is 27:1; 51:9). But we even find a reference on day five of creation—the “great sea creatures” (NIV, NASB) or “giant sea monsters” (CEV, NRSV) which translate tanin. Psalms 104 and 148 also use this word.

A connected image is the serpent itself from Genesis 3, seeking to undo the good order that God has created by deceiving the man and the woman. People can even take on dragonlike qualities. Pharoah is portrayed with these sorts of images in Ezekiel 29:3-4 (“great monster,” tanin). Even the scaly armor of Goliath (1 Sam 17:5) evokes this picture. Nebuchadnezzar is also described as a serpent or monster that swallows Israel (Jer 51:34). As the podcast series progresses, we hear the warning that if we are not careful, any of us can take on the role of a chaos creature.

As Mackie and Collins discuss in their friendly style, these symbols represent a constellation of ideas which consider how dark forces of chaos are not the rival of God but the rival of God’s creation. Episode 1 gives an overview of the theme throughout the Bible (as does their brief video). The other episodes go into more detail about these various instances and many others.

As we move into the New Testament, the theme of crushing the snake underfoot first found in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:15) is tied more explicitly to dark spiritual forces. In Luke 10:17-19 Jesus associates the disciples’ power over demons with the authority he has given them to tread on snakes.  Likewise in Romans 16:20 Paul tells his readers that he looks forward to when God will “crush Satan under your feet.”

This worthwhile podcast series will add a valuable layer of depth and appreciation for an important theme that ties the story of the Bible together.

Avoiding Biblical Missteps

Interpreting the Old Testament can be a tricky business. What do we do with all those laws in Leviticus? Do the promises to Israel apply to us or the church, or neither? And those prophecies in Daniel—they are pretty weird. The author of Ecclesiastes also seems kind of depressed. Does he need cheering up?

In Wisdom for Faithful Reading, John Walton (author of the stellar volume The Lost World of Genesis One) offers much helpful advice on how to keep going off the rails into fanciful interpretations of prophecy and unwarranted applications of narratives. His valuable principles include:

♦ Stay close to the biblical author’s intentions and purposes
♦ Consider closely the linguistic, literary, cultural, and theological context of each passage
♦ Don’t impose our modern ideas, context, or worldview on a text
♦ Remember that genre (whether poetry, prophecy, genealogies, narrative, wisdom literature) is key to understanding
♦ Avoid reading the Bible as a how-to book or an instruction manual
♦ Keep asking this main question about each passage: “What can we learn about God, his plans, and his purposes?”

At each point, Walton offers many concrete examples from all over the Old Testament that illustrate and illuminate each point.

His examples of correct interpretation, however, may reveal a problem for many readers. While his analysis in each sample text is insightful and helpful, he gives the impression that if you don’t know Greek and Hebrew as well as he does, and if you aren’t thoroughly trained in ancient Middle Eastern culture and customs as he is, you can’t possibly understand the Bible. Though he tries to address that, overall it can be discouraging for ordinary readers.

Sometimes he also seems to strip the Bible of its authority rather than highlight it. For example, according to Walton, anything that is common knowledge in the ancient world (like it is bad to steal or murder) would not count as revelation. Only why the author included the Ten Commandments is revelation (pp. 40-47 and 115-16).

I also have questions about the primary mantra he keeps repeating throughout the book: “Only the author’s intentions carry authority.” That is, if the original biblical author never consciously intended a certain meaning, then that cannot possibly be normative for us today. I see at least three problems.

First, for centuries the primary (not the only) way in which the early church fathers interpreted the Old Testament, was to see Christ in every page. And if Jesus is the same as the God of the Old Testament, then there is merit in that approach. Walton would seem to dismiss this out of hand because the ancient writers couldn’t possibly know anything about Jesus, and so he couldn’t be part of their literary intent. Though it is true we must also view the Old Testament on its own terms, I think we dare not shed the perspective of our early Christian heritage lightly.

Second, all authors (biblical or not) communicate things that were not part of their original, conscious message. Yet these are every bit as much a part of the actual communication as that which was consciously intended. The Old Testament authors were thoroughly immersed in the ancient writings that had come before them. The prophets and psalmists knew the Torah deeply. Were they always conscious of when and how it was influencing them? No, but it did. Likewise, are we conscious how assumptions about democracy, individual freedom, capitalism, and (even) Shakespeare are influencing us when we write? No. But these are deep and real influences that emerge in our writing all the time, even when we do not consciously intend them to come out.

Third, I wonder if Walton’s laser-like focus on author intent doesn’t contradict one of his own principles—don’t impose “a foreign perspective on the text.” Isn’t the principle of author intent a modern construct which might get in the way of our encounter with Scripture? Until the last century or so, has anyone in the history of interpretation had such a single-minded obsession with this principle? Doesn’t it largely come out of modern literary theory rather than from the world of the Bible itself?

In this book Walton is legitimately reacting to the many abuses of interpretation that have sadly wracked the church, especially in modern times. The guards he offers to protect against these missteps have much to commend them. But I fear that instead of just reacting to these problems, that he is overreacting.

Having said that, his very last chapter, “Living Life in Light of Scripture,” is a wonderful, clear-headed, positive statement of what we should be looking for from God and his Word. We would all do well to follow Walton’s encouragement to focus on the message of the Bible to trust God, love God, and love others regardless of what life may bring.

Why Are Bible Translations So Different?

How should gender language be handle in Bibles? Are some translations liberal and others conservative? Is it okay that I like some versions and not others? Why are Bible translations often so different? Which ones are most accurate? Isn’t a literal translation always the best?

Reading and studying the Bible has been a revered practice for centuries. Yet often we take for granted that it is there, not realizing the complex and fascinating process involved in making it available. Mark Strauss, who has been involved in many translation projects, pulls back the veil on all this in 40 Questions About Bible Translation, a book that models clarity and good sense. His volume is packed with so much helpful information that it is hard to summarize.

Translation begins with finding the oldest and best ancient manuscripts from earlier centuries. While most scholars agree, even in this a minority don’t, and that can lead to differences.

Then, besides knowing Greek and Hebrew, translators must know ancient cultures and how they used language and figures of speech. Consider, for example, how translations sometimes render phrases in ordinary language and sometimes don’t:

♦ “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth” meaning “he brings good news” (2 Samuel 18:25 ESV/NET)
♦ “Putting everything under his feet” meaning “under his authority” (Psalm 8:6 NASB/TLB)
♦ “I send My messenger before your face” meaning “ahead of you” (Mark 1:2 NKJV/NIV)
♦ “Having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity” meaning “after her marriage” (Luke 2:36-37 KJV/NASB)
♦ “His father . . . ran and fell on his neck” meaning “he hugged him” (Luke 15:20 ASV/CEB)

Strauss offers many such examples throughout the book to help us understand how Bible translators go about their important work.

Another reason for many of these differences in Bibles is the philosophy of translation. All “versions agree on two fundamental goals of translation, accuracy and readability” (p. 22). But it is nearly impossible to do both 100%. So some translations will aim primarily at accuracy (preserving the original language as much as possible), and others primarily at readability (making it understandable to current readers), while a third group tries to find a happy medium between the two.

We might think that word-for-word translation would be the best option, but often it is not. A literal word-for-word translation of Romans 7:23 would read, “I see but another law of members in me.” Yet no translation reads like this. If readers are confused, then the meaning is not communicated accurately. All versions, therefore, mix a word-for-word approach with readability to some degree or another. As a result, no translation is or can be literal.

Another challenge translators face is that a single Greek or Hebrew word can have multiple meanings. To illustrate, Strauss considers some meanings of the one English word board (see pp. 85-86):

A flat piece of wood (n.)—“Saw that board in half.”
A control panel (n.)—“Check the circuit board.”
A leadership team (n.)—“The board voted on new officers.”
Various flat surfaces (n.)—“skateboard,” “surfboard,” “blackboard”
Daily meals (n.)—“Does that include room and board?”
To get on a vehicle (v.)—“It’s time to board the plane.”

So a judgment call (that is, an interpretation) is always made on which meaning is intended for a particular Greek or Hebrew word, usually based on context.

While the differences in Bible versions can be confusing, it’s important to remember the advantages. It means we have a variety of translations well suited for different purposes–some for public reading, some for study, and others for devotional reading. In addition, if we come across phrases like “holy kiss,” “with . . . a double heart,” “make their ears heavy”—we may be left a bit befuddled. By comparing different translations, we can sometimes get a better sense of the range of meanings in a text. 40 Questions charts dozens of translations along a continuum to show how they each wrestle with the balance of accuracy and readability in different ways.

Space doesn’t allow me to mention all the interesting factors that go into translation which Strauss explains with such finesse. Just a few of the other topics he addresses include:

♦ The strengths and weaknesses of different translation philosophies
♦ How different ancient copies of Bible books help in translation
♦ Why there have been so many different translations over the centuries
♦ What has happened with gender language in the Bible over the last thirty years

Given how much is packed into this volume, it is now the basic go-to resource for what’s behind Bible translations.

*Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. My opinions are my own.

Image: Peachknee on Pixabay

Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes

Revelation is perhaps the most fascinating and least understood book in the whole Bible. There are more flawed interpretations than warts on a frog, bumps on a log, fleas on a dog, clichés in a blog, or rants from a demagogue.

When Hitler and Mussolini threatened the world, people thought Revelation predicted it. They were wrong. When the Middle East oil crisis hit in the 1970s and then Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in the 1990s, people thought those were in Revelation. They were wrong. This list goes on, and they were wrong.

Part of the problem is we jump right to detailed interpretation. Where will the battle of Armageddon be fought? What nations will be involved? And most to the point, when will it happen? We are consumed by curiosity about the future and end up depressed about all the terrible things we think will happen.

But we can overcome these wrong-headed approaches—by starting where the author of Revelation started. This New Testament writer was saturated with the Old Testament. In fact, Revelation is thicker with Old Testament images, motifs, metaphors, symbols, and literary patterns than any other New Testament book. If we don’t know and understand the Old Testament, the book of Revelation will forever be a mystery.

That’s why, as series editor, I was so pleased when Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III agreed to write a volume on this enigmatic New Testament book for the Through Old Testament Eyes commentaries. Focusing our attention on this background roots us solidly so we don’t fly off into wild speculations.

Longman offers important verse-by-verse coverage, yet one of his emphases I especially appreciate is how key Old Testament books shape Revelation—Daniel, Psalms, and Ezekiel.

And consider Exodus. Why all those plagues in Revelation? They bring to mind those of Exodus whose story of rescue dominates the Old Testament. That redemption comes to completion in Revelation.

The last half of Exodus focuses on the tabernacle, the precursor to Solomon’s Temple and to the heavenly Temple which comes down at the end of Revelation. This signifies God’s presence and rule over the whole earth.

All this allows us to clear away pointless conjectures and see what the book is really about. Which is, as Tremper puts it so clearly:

Despite present trouble, God is in control, and he will have the final victory. God wins in the end even though his people at the present live in a toxic culture and are marginalized and even persecuted. This leads to a secondary theme. Hope that leads to perseverance. Starting in the letters to the seven churches but continuing through the visions, the author’s purpose is to engender hope in the hearts of his Christian readers so that they will have the resolve to withstand the turbulent present. (p. 14)

Unlike the way we often read Revelation, I find this truly encouraging.

John Through Old Testament Eyes

The Old Testament presents true Judaism as tenaciously monotheistic. No god compares to the One God who is in a category by himself. In fact, the gods of other nations are actually no gods at all. Worship of them is absolutely forbidden.

Then how could the Jews who first followed Jesus believe he was the divine Son of the Father, and still defend the monotheism that is so strongly proclaimed in the Old Testament? That was the challenge John took up in his gospel.

Karen Jobes keys in on this central question in John Through Old Testament Eyes, the second in a set I am the series editor for—the Through Old Testament Eyes New Testament Commentaries. One way John presents Jesus as divine is by using Old Testament metaphors, images, and symbols that are said to be characteristic of God (such as judge, king, and shepherd). But John does not collapse the divine Father and Son, suggesting these are simply two names for the same person. After all, he (and Jesus) say clearly that the Son was sent by the Father.

How then does John maintain his monotheism? One way, as Jobes writes, is by redefining what monotheism means—as the unity of the divine Father and the Son. They are, for example, one in will and one in glory.

This is not the only question Jobes addresses. She ably covers the entire gospel, its structure, and various themes. All the while she emphasizes the richness of Old Testament background, motifs, and literary patterns that illuminate the fourth gospel.

Personally, I have found this approach most rewarding. When puzzling through difficult passages in the New Testament, I often find that the Old Testament roots of those sections provide the “aha” moments that resolve the mystery.

The gospel of John is often the first encounter that people have with the Bible. As a college student, like so many others, Karen Jobes was transformed by it. That love for the book is wonderfully married with the skills of a seasoned scholar, resulting in this readable and enlightening book.

Seeing the Bible with New Eyes

I have a one-question survey that will reveal with near perfect accuracy whether or not you are an individualist. Set? Here it is: Would you readily consider allowing your parents to arrange a marriage for you?

Those of us from a Western culture would never give this the slightest bit of serious consideration. But in collectivist cultures (which make up the majority of the world), people answer yes to this all the time.

Or perhaps slightly less dramatically, what about this? Would you expect your extended family to decide where you go to college? Maybe your nuclear family but definitely not your extended family. Right? Yet this is common in Latino/a and Asian societies.

For individualists, a collective culture is, well, like being in a foreign country. And that’s why, as the authors of Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eye contend, we so often misunderstand the Bible which comes out of collective cultures. We persistently read it through the lens of our own individualistic mindset.

With many stories of their own experiences in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere, the authors unpack how kinship, patronage, brokering, honor, shame, and boundaries are all hidden in plain sight in the Bible. A few examples.

Why does Matthew spend all that time laying out Jesus’ genealogy? Because honor often comes from your family, your family’s history, who you are related to. To be descended from Abraham and David brings great honor (Mt 1:1).

Why does Nicodemus come alone at night to talk with Jesus? Not because he feared the other Pharisees. Rather he didn’t want to inadvertently shame Jesus publicly by asking a question that might be seen as a challenge to a teacher he clearly respected (Jn 3:2).

When Jacob gives Rachel’s son, Joseph, the multicolored coat, the other sons aren’t jealous because he got a better Christmas gift? No. It was much more serious. They realized this meant Joseph was going to be treated as the first-born and get their father’s inheritance. They were angry that their side of the family (all being sons of Leah) would be dependent on Joseph’s generosity, which seemed unlikely from this arrogant kid. This is not an individual’s rags-to-riches story. It is a story of kinship and family reconciliation. Both sides forgive the other for the wrongs they did.

The discussion on shame is especially illuminating because we often only have one definition of shame, and it’s bad—something to always be avoided. But in Scripture and much of the world, there is also a good kind of shame that seeks to nudge people in the community back into proper behavior. It’s kind of like our conscience. Having a sense of shame beforehand can keep us from acting wrongly, not just feel bad after acting wrongly. The book offers multiple examples of when shame creates a path for restoration—which is good shame. When it seeks to exclude and cut others off, that is bad shame.

From a Western perspective, we might see patronage as creating unhealthy dependence, even being oppressive. But those inside see it as providing protection, meeting needs, giving security. Yes, it can be abused, but the problem then is not the system but the people in it.

Our lack of a corporate sense can minimize our commitment to the church and even to family that the Old and New Testaments assume. I am not just saved, you see. The Bible says I am also saved into a community.

The point of the book is not to expunge our individualism. That wouldn’t be possible in any case. Rather, we have much to learn about what the Bible is really saying by putting on collectivist glasses. And we have much to learn about living biblically from our brothers and sisters in the faith who come from such backgrounds.

I received a prepublication complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions here are my own.

credit: Joseph Redfield Nino from Pixabay

Crazy Jesus . . . or Crazy Like a Fox?

Sometimes Jesus made statements that sound just plain crazy.

Once he was explaining why he taught in parables. The reason he gives in Mark 4:12 is this—so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” In quoting here from Isaiah 6, Jesus makes it sound like he doesn’t want people to repent, to turn to God, to be saved. What in the world could he possibly be talking about?

Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship helps us untangle this mess while walking us through an important theme that spans both Testaments. The book of Isaiah condemns Israel for its idolatry, for worshiping statues that can’t speak or hear. Israel’s punishment? She was sentenced to become like the idols she worshiped—deaf and blind.

That theme is found also in Exodus, the Psalms, the Gospels, the writings of Paul and elsewhere. As Beale often summarizes in his book, we become like what we worship whether for ruin or renewal.

His analysis of the golden calf episode in Exodus is especially instructive. The rebellious people were described as being like a stubborn, “stiff-necked” heifer. The use of “stiff-necked” in Deuteronomy, Hosea and elsewhere is particularly connected with idolatry, not just general disobedience. They turned into what they worshiped.

Yet our ruined state need not be permanent. Isaiah also tells us this condition will be reversed. A day is coming when “the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see” (Is 29:18). This theme is echoed through the New Testament as well. Yes, the punishment is intentional but not eternal. Its purpose is to get the attention of sinners so they do turn to God.

The whole of Isaiah is the context of Jesus’ statement about the people experiencing the same punishment of being blind and deaf that their ancestors suffered for their idolatry. The blindness caused by using parables was likewise intended to be temporary, not perpetual–a shock treatment to push his hearers back to their Lord.

Beale’s book makes the case that God created us essentially to be image bearers. If we do not reflect God, then we will inevitably reflect something else in creation (305).

What might even God’s people today be worshiping besides the true God? To find out, we can ask what we (individually or corporately) are like today. Are we focused on methods or message, on tradition or truth, on character or success, on winning or being winsome, on justice for the world or justice for me? What we give priority to matters. We’re choosing who we will be today and tomorrow.

image credit: Pixabay kryzoxstv

Want to Know Jesus Better?

The Old Testament has taken a lot of hits in recent years. And it’s understandable when all people see are harsh rules and religious wars. It can seem so unenlightened if not downright wrong.

Let’s admit it. The Old Testament is a foreign country. Even when translated it can seem like it’s in a different language. We also find strange customs that often don’t make sense, and odd names that are hard to keep straight.

The solution, of course, is not to dump the Old Testament but to work to understand it, to learn more about those customs, that ancient history, how their literary genres are different from ours. But why? Why is it worth all that effort?

Because rooted in the Old Testament is our Christian understanding of mercy, justice, compassion, peace, faithfulness, forgiveness, creation, holiness, truth, and more. Without all that, our Christian faith is gutted.

More to the point, if we don’t understand the Old Testament, we can’t understand Jesus.

Fleming Rutledge quotes a radio preacher who said, “If you want to know what went on in Jesus’ mind, read the Old Testament.” And then she goes on to say, “There are many things that we do not know about Jesus, but of this we can be sure: his mind and heart were shaped by intimate, continuous interaction with the Scriptures. If we are to have ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16), we need to know the Old Testament.”*

Did Jesus say we should avoid the Old Testament? Minimize it? Take scissors and paste to it? What he said was this:

  • The Old Testament is about him (John 5:39).
  • We can avoid error by knowing the Old Testament (Mark 12:24).
  • Through the Old Testament we know why the Messiah had to suffer and then enter his glory (Luke 24:26)

It’s simple, though it is not easy. It takes some work. That’s one reason I wrote Mark Through Old Testament Eyes. We need to immerse ourselves in the Old Testament for its own sake, just as Jesus did. But it is also true that if we want to know Jesus better, we have to know his Bible.

*Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), p. 107.

The Grand Landscape of Scripture

When it comes to the Bible, scholars and non-scholars have something in common. We can both get lost in minutia.

Academics can get lost in the details of philology and morphology. The rest of us are prone to proof-texting, ripping verses or phrases out of context as if the Bible were a book of disconnected timeless truths or a mere handbook for living.

When we miss the big picture, Chris Wright and Gary Burge come to our rescue with excellent companion volumes—The Old Testament in Seven Sentences and The New Testament in Seven Sentences.

Each offers seven grand themes sparked by iconic verses in the Bible that help us see the majestic vista of God’s work. Wright’s choices from the Old Testament are creation, Abraham, Exodus, David, prophets, gospel, and wisdom. In the New, Burge walks us through fulfillment, kingdom, cross, grace, covenant, spirit, completion.

The two books link together in another way. Wright appropriately notes how the Old Testament points to and is fulfilled in Christ. Burge regularly points out how the New is based on and rooted in the Old. In plain and engaging language, both authors provide this necessary service because we have little hope of understanding Jesus or the apostles without engaging both testaments.

The result is a complete, brief, and readable overview of the Bible. Each book provides discussion questions for each chapter. Taking one a week, then, any church or small group could in under four months lift their heads from the weeds to see the grand landscape that is God’s story.

Note: I received complementary copies of both books from the publisher. I also was responsible for signing Chris Wright to do his book for IVP, though I had retired before the book was released and did not participate in its development or final form. My opinions are my own.