Tuesday, December 22, 2020

My Take on Ecclesiastes

 About Solomon and Ecclesiastes... Here's my take:

The speaker in this book tags himself with the title Qoheleth, a participial form based on the root q-h-l (= to gather, assemble).  The English title Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek Septuagint, where it is derived from ekklesia and means "the one calling an assembly."  The exact nuance of the word is difficult to capture in English, and some of the various attempts are worth reiterating, including the transliteration qoheleth  without any attempt to translate it:  "preacher" (KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV), "teacher" (NIV), "leader of the assembly" (NIVmg), "speaker" (NEB), "qoheleth" (NAB), "philosopher," "president" or "spokesman.It is also worth noting that in the Hebrew text (cf. 12:8) the title Qoheleth appears with the definite article, indicating that it is not a proper name. 

But just who is Qoheleth, and when did he write?  Unquestionably, the author patterns himself after Solomon, the son of David (1:1), the king of Israel (1:12), even though the name Solomon does not appear in the book. This first person claim to have "grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled in Jerusalem before" (1:16) leaves little doubt that the author intends an identity with the one who asked God for wisdom (2 Chr. 1:7-12) and was heralded as "greater in wisdom than all the kings of the earth" (2 Chr. 9:22-23; cf. 1 Kg. 4:29-34).  All are agreed upon this point. However, there are some mitigating factors. In the first place, the opening of the book is offered in the third person (1:1-2) as are a few later interludes (7:27; 12:8), though most of the rest of the book is in the first person. Does this mean one writer is presenting the wisdom of another, or is the writer adopting the third person to stand outside him/herself temporarily? The Massoretic text offers the rather intriguing possibility, based on an alternative word division, that a woman is the writer by dividing the consonantal text of 7:27 as 'amerah qoheleth (= says Qoheleth [feminine]). The feminine construction would exclude Solomon, of course.  Most scholars reject the Masoretic division and divide the words as 'amar ha-qoheleth(= says Qoheleth [masculine]), the same as in 12:8.

Those who argue for Solomon as the author generally also suggest that the book was composed near the end of his life after he had built a large harem of non-Israelite wives who turned his heart away from Yahweh (1 Kg. 11:1-13), hence, the darkly pessimistic tone of the work.  Most scholars, however, judge it is more likely that the writer is not Solomon (why else avoid his name when obviously patterning a work after him?) but intends to faithfully present the wisdom of Solomon. The author expresses the wisdom for which Solomon was famous by rehearsing the projects of Solomon's life.  In any case, the pessimism in the book is not its final word, but rather its penultimate word. At least one strand of Jewish tradition held that the book was composed by the company of Hezekiah, probably with the understanding that this group edited a Solomonic text, though other Jewish traditions cite Solomon as the author.  Since the time of Luther most scholars, conservative or otherwise, have held that the book, while written as an idealistic representation of Solomon, was put in final form by someone later.

Though some have taken this approach, I would hesitate to say that we should discount the wisdom in the book, even if it be granted that Solomon wrote it in his declining years. This is not something like the words of Satan, which appear from time to time and are to be understood as the voice of evil. Rather, the book, in my view, should be taken as Holy Scripture, but from the viewpoint of exploring life "under the sun," which ends up being empty. This, of course, is the critical phrase--life "under the sun." By this phrase, I think the author intends to explore observable life, bracketing out, as least provisionally, whatever is not observable (and this includes God). 

Further, I think Qoheleth contains an implicit narrative line. The author is "going somewhere" with his thoughts. The book recounts a grand experiment in existential reflection. Thus, any attempt to reach final conclusions about the book's meaning apart from consideration of the whole is bound to fall short. To be sure, the book has many proverbial sayings that stand on their own, but between the prologue (1:1-11) and the epilogue (12:9-14), the main body of the book evidences a coherence that is hardly haphazard. 

On the surface, Qoheleth sounds like an unmitigated pessimist. His opening cry, repeated periodically, sounds like an accusation:  "Utter futility-everything is meaningless!" But there is more to Qoheleth than skepticism. He intends to bring his readers to the conclusion that the only thing giving meaning to life is the presence and recognition of God. However, though this is his conclusion, he does not start here.  He will only arrive by a circuitous route--over ten chapters! On the way, he puts himself and his readers in the sandals of what in the modern world we would call a humanist. He intends to lead them in a systematic search for the meaning of life by following the path that most men and women follow.

He begins as a secularist--a man who is preoccupied with the observable world and its culture. It is not that he denies God (philosophical atheism was not really an option in the ancient world) so much as he ignores him in the existential search. He begins much like a modern person concerned with financial security, personal happiness, leisure, social status and pleasure. Systematically, he moves from lifestyle to lifestyle--from the ancient counterpart to our modern stereotype of the beer-swilling "good ole boy" who is obsessed with television sports to the young executive who is a pragmatic intellectual driven to succeed to the artistic idealist who dabbles with reality while trying to find meaning in aesthetics. Qoheleth invites his readers to follow his quest.

At the outset, Qoheleth adopts a provisional self in the mode of Solomon, king of Israel. The author's provisional self was surely carefully chosen, for Solomon had both the time and the means to conduct such an exploration, and in fact, there is abundant evidence that he closely followed this very path (cf. 1 Kg. 4:20-34; 5:13-18; 7:1-12; 9:17-19, 24, 26-28; 10:1--11:8). Solomon had a much wider range of opportunity than most folks enjoy. He was rich beyond the dreams of avarice, intellectually brilliant, and had both the leisure and power to pursue whatever he wanted. He faced no serious political threats, and the affairs of state set up by his father were stable and required a minimum of effort. In short, he had both the time and resources to do whatever he wanted, and before Qoheleth is done, the author will guide his readers in exploring intellectualism, philosophy, decadence, sensual pleasure, aesthetics, politics, and entrepreneurial business. Qoheleth is an ancient version of the modern phenomenologist who is able to bracket the parts of life that he does not want to consider while he concentrates on isolated segments. In modern terms, he climbs to the heights of Ernest Hemingway's brilliance, Marilyn Monroe's sensuality, and Howard Hughes' wealth and creative genius--a man living in the (supposedly) best of all possible worlds with brains, beauty and money. To be sure, Qoheleth does not conclude by saying this is how life should be lived. In fact, he warns the reader at the outset that there will be profound disappointment. He drives relentlessly to his final conclusion that life ought to be lived in the fear of God. Anything less will be a climax of despair. Still, the reader only reaches this last point when desperate for an answer. Qoheleth's resolve is to see how far a person might get in life without the fundamental framework of deep reverence for God.

Qoheleth's approach raises complications, of course.  There will be tensions between Qoheleth's deepest self and his provisional self.  Still, all this is part of the game, and in many ways, his experiment is very much like a game except that the stakes are the highest possible.

So, this is how I take the book, and indeed, the book is one of my favorites!

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Interpretative Principles for Paul's Vocabulary

First, always understand words by their literal meaning - or better, their common usage - unless context demands otherwise.
Then, do not force any specific contextual meaning onto other more general occurrences of the same word that lack the same, confining context.
Finally, do not read other passages (or doctrines or systems of theology) "into" a specific passage without first listening to what the passage itself says - and does not say.
Remember these principles when reading Paul's "multiple" and varied uses of the word "law" in Romans. (This probably also applies to other Pauline words like "sin", "all", and "everyone" as well.)

These are good conservative, grammatical-historical interpretive principles. If they lead you to some non-traditional readings of Paul's letters, you are still a conservative Christian.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Paul and Recent Schools of Scholarship

The issue of how to best read Paul against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism has dominated Pauline studies since the publication of Ed Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).

Four different schools (with a number of subgroups) have emerged in this ongoing academic conversation:

(1) the “traditional” (sometimes referred to as the “Lutheran”) Paul who attacks the legalism of the Jewish religion of Torah as a “means of salvation” in contrast with the gracious endtime salvation provided by God’s action in Christ,

(2) the “New Perspective on Paul” (Dunn, Wright, and in a much more radical way, Stowers and Gaston) which sees Paul’s attitude toward the law as a specific battle against Jewish cultural exclusivism which provided obstacles to Paul’s Gentile Christian mission,

(3) the “Paul within Judaism” view (Nanos, Zetterholm, Eisenbaum) which sees Paul as a lifelong Torah-observant Jew who argued for the continuing validity of Torah covenant obligations on Jews while placing no such obligations on Gentiles who were now being included in God’s “age to come” through the work of Jesus Christ, and

(4) Paul as “cosmic apocalyptist” who radically transformed God’s apocalyptic action in Jesus Christ to the “cosmic” level and away from the “forensic” apocalyptic of the Second Temple Judaism – divorcing Paul’s apocalyptic thought from other contemporary Jewish apocalyptic writings.

The Paul as “cosmic apocalyptist” view is associated with scholars like J. Louis Martyn (Anchor Bible on Galatians), his students Martinus de Boer (New Testament Library on Galatians) and Beverly Gaventa (Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8), and the brilliant, mercurial (and often confusing) Douglas Campbell from Duke (The Quest for Paul's Gospel and The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul).

Martinus de Boer's distinction between "forensic" and "cosmic" apocalyptic is central to this school of thought. This distinction divorces the apocalyptic Christ event described by Paul from the more traditional Jewish apocalyptic which is tied to Israel's covenant faith and eschatological future as seen by the Hebrew prophets.

[Needless to say, I am not an adherent of this school of thought. I know of no earlier, contemporary, or later Jewish apocalyptic writings that are not thoroughly rooted in the Hebrew covenantal faith and the hope of Israel's future. The distinction between "forensic" and "cosmic" apocalyptic seems to be contrived in academia rather than found in any historical witness.

Neither can I accept the distinction of a "narrow" apocalyptic - focusing on the Jewish literary genre - and a "broader" apocalyptic - a worldview of God's intrusion/invasion of human history that transcends the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.

Nevertheless, the writings of this school are fresh, keenly insightful, and challenging. Personally, if I read these texts - while still seeing the close ties between Jewish apocalypse and covenant faith - there is much to be learned here.]

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Incarceration in Ancient Israel

Were there prisons in ancient Israel? Some scholars deny that the practice of incarceration ever occurred in the Hebrew scriptures.

 While it is true that the various Mosaic law codes - the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code, and the various collected laws of the priestly code - have little or nothing to say about long-term incarceration as a punishment for crime, there are scriptural precedents for the judicial practice of imprisonment.

It is interesting to note the progression of the judicial practice of imprisonment from the pre-history of national Israel through the monarchial period down to the post-exilic period.

Detainment until Execution of Judgment
11 The Israelite woman's son blasphemed the Name in a curse. And they brought him to Moses-now his mother's name was Shelomith, daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan- 12 and they put him in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.
Lev. 24:11-12 32

32 When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.
Num. 15:32-34
In both of these cases, incarceration seems to be short-term until a decision on judgment is reached.

Incarceration as a King's Prerogative
26 The king of Israel then ordered, "Take Micaiah, and return him to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king's son, 27 and say, 'Thus says the king: Put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I come in peace.'"
I Kings 22:26-27

10 Then Asa was angry with the seer, and put him in the stocks, in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this. And Asa inflicted cruelties on some of the people at the same time.
II Chron. 16:10

15 The officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of the secretary Jonathan, for it had been made a prison. 16 Thus Jeremiah was put in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.
Jer. 37:15-16

4 Then the officials said to the king, "This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm." 5 King Zedekiah said, "Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you." 6 So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king's son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Jer. 38:4-6
In the period of the monarchy - the united and divided kingdoms (1050-586 BCE) - the power to imprison seems to fall to the monarchs as the chief judicial agent in the nation.

Incarceration as Power of the Courts
25 "And you, Ezra, according to the God-given wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them. 26 All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment."
Ezra 7:25-26
In the aftermath of the exile and return, the administration of justice seems to fall to an independent judiciary that had the power to (1) impose the death penalty, (2) banish from the nation, (3) confiscate property, and/or (4) imprison the perpetrator.

See the article on "Imprisonment" at the Jewish Virtual Library for a more detailed study of this issue.


 It is perhaps best to understand the progression of Hebrew notions of punishment and imprisonment against the backdrop of the rise of Israel as a nation state with the attendant rationalization and bureaucratization of laws and institutions that necessarily followed this advance. The more primitive policies reflect tribal organizations - extended families led by a patriarch - only loosely tied together in a confederation by common devotion to YHWH. Only with the rise and maturing of the centralized state was full police power granted to governmental institutions.

 As a parting thought, a few questions remain. Even though imprisonment appears to be part of the judicial process of ancient Israel, did this practice ever reach the proportion and extremes of modern long-term prison penalties? Were the motives for incarceration the same as the modern motives of deterrence and rehabilitation?

Sunday, May 3, 2020


May 21st this year will be Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, when Christians throughout the world celebrate and remember the ascension of Christ and his promise to come again. One of the great Old Testament poems about ascension is Psalm 68. This Psalm as a whole celebrates the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem in the time of David and the eventual construction of Solomon's temple. In particular, it heralds the journey of the ark after its construction at Mt. Sinai though the wilderness sojourn (68:7-10). The psalm may well have been composed in honor of the procession of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David (1 Chr. 13, 15 and 16). It opens with the echo of the desert shout when the ark led the way for Israel (Ps. 68:1; Nu. 10:35). It climaxes with the ascent of the mountain in Judah that God chose as his permanent resting place (Ps. 68:16). Thus, when God "ascended on high," that is, when his throne on the ark was taken to Jerusalem and established in honor, he led in his train the captives of his victory over the Canaanites, sharing the bounty of victory with the community of Israel (cf. 1 Sa. 30:16-31; 2 Sa. 6:17-19). The ark was a sort of movable Mt. Sinai, containing the 10 commandments which were given on Sinai, and in the trek from the wilderness to the land of Canaan and the eventual establishment of the sanctuary on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, the ark finally was established in its proper resting place in Solomon's temple, which is why in 68:17 it says, "Sinai is now in the sanctuary." This procession of Yahweh enthroned upon the ark and now brought into the Most Holy Place of the temple is then described by the metaphor of an ancient "triumph," when a conquering king leads the victory procession through the capital. In his train are the captives of his enemies who have been subdued and now offer him gifts (68:18). These captive enemies include those rebels who have fought against him. Those who give gifts to the conquering king include not only those nearby kings who were his allies, but also the rebels who fought against him. The final line in 68:18, "...Yahweh God there to dwell," simply affirms that in his victory, God has established his dwelling place in the Holiest of Holies in Solomon's temple on Mt. Zion, which later is accentuated by 68:24. The idea of outsiders showering gifts upon the conquering king is again reiterated in 68:29 and 68:31.

In the New Testament, St. Paul sees something in this passage beyond the ancient entry of the ark into Solomon's temple and views it as anticipating the victory of Christ (Eph. 4), where he shares the gifts he receives from his tributaries with the church. For Paul, this event in the history of Israel was typological of a far greater ascension, the ascension of the resurrected Son of God into the heavens, in which he destroyed the spiritual enemies of his people (cf. Ep. 1:19b-21). Paul consistently saw events within the history of Israel as earthly fore-shadowings or analogies of spiritual realities in the church (cf. Ro. 4:3, 22-25; 9:24-29; 1 Co. 10:1-11; 2 Co. 3:7-18; Ga. 4:21-31). His treatment of Psalm 68 is typical of such exegesis. Paul shows that in Christ's resurrection and ascension, he not only was victorious over the opposing spiritual entities in the heavenlies (cf. 1:20-21; 3:10; 6:12), but he also shared the bounty of his victory with the members of his church. This bounty consisted of his grace-gifts to the church. Hence, the fuller meaning of the "ascension" in Psalm 68:18 refers, not merely to the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem, but to the enthronement of the risen Christ in the heavenlies (4:9a).

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Third Heaven and God's Dwelling Place

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows-was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (II Corinthians 12:2-4 NRSV)
The creation story of the first chapter of Genesis uses the word "heavens" in two different ways referring to (1) the atmosphere (where the birds fly) and (2) the placement of the celestial objects (the sun, moon, and stars). To these, a "third heaven" - a "heaven of heavens" or "highest heaven" - is mentioned in Genesis 28:12 and Deuteronomy 10:14. In this primitive worldview, the "highest heaven" seems to be the realm of God and his heavenly council.

The term "heaven of heavens" is a typical Hebrew superlative in which language - and the concepts it points to - intensifies and becomes all-inclusive. Apparently, this "highest heaven" points to all space above the earth - however vague, undefined, and immeasurable this may be.

It seems that is to this primitive concept that Paul refers to in his mystical - perhaps apocalyptic - journey to the realm of God himself in the passage above. This language is not intended to be scientific; nor is it to be understood literally. Rather, it means that Paul has had some sort of inexplicable, visionary, "out of the body," "caught away" experience that he perceived as a visit to the divine realm. Paul was clear that this experience was impossible to describe, consisting of things that mere mortals were not permitted to speak. [Clearly no commentator has the ability to expound on that which Paul himself found indescribable.]


It is important to remember that later, mature Hebrew theology - beginning with the Deuteronomist - struggled with any literal conception of God's dwelling place. In Solomon's dedicatory prayer for the new constructed Jerusalem temple, the Deuteronomist records Solomon's denunciation of the limiting language of the temple as God's abode or resting place.
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (I Kings 8:27 NRSV)
For the Deuteronomist, neither the temple, nor the Ark of the Covenant, nor the holy city of Jerusalem could "contain" God or rightfully be called his dwelling place. Consistently, the book of Deuteronomy offers a "name theology" in which only the "name of God," not God himself dwells in the central sanctuary. The transcendence of God disallows any primitive notion of a single place as God's abode.

Gerhard von Rad, in his Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel's Traditions, reports that ancient Israel pointed to a number of "places" as God's dwelling place: Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon's temple, Mount Zion (Jerusalem), and heaven. The multiplicity of these theologically significant, but mixed metaphors speak loudly (1) against any primitive cosmology of God's literal dwelling place and (2) to the mature conceptions of "God's separateness, transcendence, and limitlessness."

Friday, March 27, 2020

Paul's Letters and a Gentile Audience

The primary audience of Paul's missionary labors and letters were Gentiles who never fell under the Torah obligations of the Jews.  Despite the fact that Paul's "churches" were populated by both ethnic Jews and Gentiles, his letters are always - first and foremost - informed by his mission as an "apostle to the Gentiles." Paul understood himself - and his prophetic call - as the harbinger of the great end time ingathering of the Gentiles into the "people of God" that the Hebrew prophets had predicted.

Given Paul's clear - and often stated - self-understanding, there seem to be three simple rules for discerning Paul's audience in his letters:
(1) Unless otherwise noted, Paul writes to a Gentile audience.

(2) When Paul writes about "Jews," these references are most likely to Christ-believing Jews - including the Jerusalem church and other ethnic Jews - that were full participants in the various mission churches rather than to all Jews in general.

(3) Whenever Paul addresses his Jewish kinsmen (sometimes all ethnic Jews, more often Christ-believing Jews as determined by context), these statements are always the exception - and never the rule - to Paul's normal Gentile audience and these statements are always clearly delineated by direct statements or obvious clues in the text itself.
Whatever Paul says about the Jewish Torah and its obligations - especially the cultural identity markers of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and food regulations (kashrut) - it is significant to note that he (unless otherwise stated) is speaking to a Gentile audience upon whom falls no Torah obligations.

The question in Paul about Jews and Gentiles together in "one body" is the question of whether the end time ingathering of the Gentiles requires Jewish proselyte conversion (washing, circumcision, Torah observance). Paul answers an emphatic "NO!" to this question. For Paul, "Gentiles as Gentiles" are included in God's "age to come" without Torah observance that never applied to Gentiles in the first place.

Paul's "apparent" repudiation of the Mosaic law - in Romans and Galatians and similar passages - means one thing if directed toward Torah-observant Jews like himself, but it means an entirely different thing if addressed to Gentile converts who as part of God's final, end time action in Christ are now included into the "people of God" - without taking on the specific obligations of Torah observance.