Does the Bible support genocide, violence and war? In the Bible God tells the Israelites to destroy the Midianite nation. I have received a comment about the military threat of the Midianite nation, “Why couldn’t they (the Israelites) spare any (Amalekite) captives? At least those who wouldn’t be a military threat in the future like the Midianites?”
After the death of Sarah, Abraham married Keturah, and Midian was one of their sons (Gen. 25:1-4; 1 Chron. 1:32-33). Midian’s descendants were called Midianites or Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:27-28; Jud. 8:24-26). They settled in “the land of the east (of Canaan)” (Gen. 25:6NIV). And they are thought to have worshipped many gods, including Baal-peor and the Queen of Heaven, Ashteroth. (more…)
Esther and Mordecai
A former Crown Resorts employee exposed the company’s conduct in China and helped spark a year-long inquiry in New South Wales. The inquiry found that Crown Resorts had breached the state’s gaming regulations by engaging in international money laundering and is no longer suitable to hold the licence for its new Sydney casino. The whistle-blower lost her job and her mental health has also been affected, as well as her job prospects because she now has a criminal record in China. (more…)
Hurricanes bring strong winds, heavy rains, floods, storm surges and even tornadoes (Appendix A). Hurricane Michael which struck the coast of Florida in October 2018 was the third-strongest hurricane in continental U.S. history. It’s landfall pressure was 919mb, which was slightly stronger than the 920mb of Hurricane Katrina that flooded New Orleans in August 2005. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest tropical cyclone season on record with a damage total of at least $US300 billion and over 3,300 estimated deaths.
When do you think of God? What reminds you of Him? A thunderstorm reminded David of God’s awesome power. (more…)
What’s one of your current projects? We all have things we need to do. They can be unique tasks or they can be repetitive ones. For example, I need to stop storm-water ingress at home when it rains. Psalm 127 gives us advice on how to do our daily work. The main point is that it’s better to commit our work to God rather than to do it all alone.
Psalm 127 has been categorized as a wisdom psalm. These psalms have similarities in literary features or content to the wisdom books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. They are written for the purposes of teaching and instruction rather than worship. Wisdom literature addresses important issues in life. (more…)
Doublespeak is saying one thing and meaning another, usually its opposite. In 1984 when Big Brother and the Party say “peace” they mean “war”, when they say “love” they mean “hate”, and when they say “freedom” they mean “slavery”. And today “tolerance” can mean “intolerance”. Doublespeak deliberately obscures, distorts, disguises, or reverses the meaning of words to manipulate public opinion. It’s used in advertising and politics. Is the beginning of the Bible a type of doublespeak where words don’t have their usual meaning?
The Bible is a library of 66 books that were written over a period of more than 1,500 years by many different authors. It was written to be understood by ordinary people, so it shouldn’t be difficult to interpret. Fathers were to teach it to their children (Dt. 6:4-9; Eph. 6:4). Timothy knew it from infancy (2 Tim 3:15). And the Bereans were commended for checking Paul’s teaching against the Old Testament (Acts 17:11).
The original aim of this post was to examine the literary genre of Genesis 1-11. But then I realized that such studies are often a means to say that this portion of the Bible doesn’t mean what it seems to say. But there is no direct correspondence between genre and whether the content is fact or fiction. For example, God’s spectacular victory over the Egyptian army is described in prose (Ex. 14:23-31) and then in song (Ex. 15:1-12, 21). In this case, prose and poetry are both based on historical fact. Likewise, Christian hymns and songs are often based on Scripture. In this case poetry is based on the facts in Scripture. So, although poetry and prose are different genres (styles), the genre doesn’t indicate whether their content is factual or not. Poetry can be factual, and prose can be figurative. Nevertheless, I will look at the genre first.
Just as there are different types of painting (landscape, still life, and portrait), there are different types of literary works. Literature can be divided into poetry, drama, and prose. And prose can be fiction or non-fiction. The Bible is comprised of several types of literature.
Accurate exegesis and interpretation (understanding) takes into consideration the purpose and style of a given book or passage of Scripture. In addition, some verses are meant figuratively, and proper discernment of these is enhanced by an understanding of literary genre (category, type or classification). An inability to identify literary genre can lead to serious misunderstanding of Scripture. The main literary genres found in the Bible are: law, history, wisdom, poetry, narrative, prophecy and apocalypse, and letters (see Appendix A).
Genesis is the first book in the Bible. As it describes the background to the rest of the Bible, it’s the foundational book of the bible. Some claim that the early chapters of Genesis are more poetic and theological than factual by suggesting it’s an epic myth, exalted prose, semi-poetic, or a defence of monotheism. In this post, we will evaluate this claim.
The purpose of Genesis
The book of Genesis is summarized in Appendix B. The Bible says that this book was produced by Moses (Lk. 24:27, 44). As the events recorded in Genesis occurred before his lifetime, presumably he compiled and edited its content. He did this during the Israelites journey to the Promised Land. So, the book was written for the Israelites and the context is the exodus. The content of Genesis indicates the information they needed to know and the questions that they were asking. These included:
Why are we (Israel) traveling to the promised land?
Why were we (Israel) living in Egypt?
Why do we (Israel) have 12 tribes?
Why do we (Israel) practice male circumcision?
What was our (Israel’s) special relationship with God?
Who were our (Israel’s) ancestors and where did they live?
The history of our nation (Israel).
The origin of our nation (Israel).
The promises given to Abraham.
Where did the patriarchs come from?
The origin of nations and languages.
God protects the godly and judges the ungodly.
Why is humanity now in an alienated relationship with God?
The prevalence of evil.
The origin of evil.
The origin of marriage.
The origin of humanity.
The origin of animal and plant life.
The origin of the earth.
The origin of the universe.
God’s immense power.
Moses was selective in the material that he used. He “spoke from God as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). Moses documented enough information to answer their main questions without going into detail. So, Genesis describes the main features of the past, in order to help the Israelites understand their present circumstances.
Looking at the main genres found in the Bible (see Appendix A), it’s clear that the one most suitable for addressing these topics is “history”. To investigate whether Moses used this genre, we will look at the literary genre of Genesis 1-11 in particular.
Is it figurative language?
Figurative language is language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the most literal interpretation. Figurative language uses exaggerations or alterations to make a linguistic point. It is very common in poetry, but is also used in prose and nonfiction writing.
Metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism are examples of figurative language. But there are many others like alliteration, onomatopoeia, oxymorons, puns, synecdoche, metonymy, irony, and idioms.
There is chiasmus in Genesis 1-11 (Gen. 2:4; 9:6; 6:1 – 9:19; 11:1-9). This is a figure of speech in which two or more phrases are presented, then presented again in reverse order to make a larger point. Chiasmus was particularly popular in the literature of the ancient world, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, where it was used to articulate the balance of order within the text. The chiastic structure makes narrative easy to remember, which is very important for a largely oral culture. Chiasmus presents facts in a particular order, but it doesn’t indicate fiction. Biblical scholars have identified many chiasms throughout the Bible. For example, Genesis 17:1-24 is a chiasmus in the life of Abraham.
Some claim that there is number symbolism in Genesis 1 (see Appendix C). But this is a weak argument for saying that this Bible passage is symbolic rather than factual. And it doesn’t change the meaning of the Hebrew words from their usual meaning. And like chiasmus, this doesn’t make the language figurative. Instead it shows that it was written to be easily remembered and passed on aurally.
In other post, I have shown that the framework hypothesis method of interpreting Genesis 1 is questionable and not robust. This assumes that the days of creation are figurative categories that were chosen for literary or thematic reasons and that many of the words in this chapter don’t mean what they seem to mean. This interpretation is unnecessarily complicated and extrabiblical.
As it’s not figurative language, maybe Genesis 1-11 is poetic?
Is it poetry?
The main characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism where the statements in two or more consecutive lines are related in some way. Scholars have identified various types of Hebrew parallelism, such as: synonymous (repetition of the same thought), contrastive (contrast with an opposite thought), and developmental (building on a thought).
However, parallelism is absent from Genesis 1-11 except for 1:27; 2:23; and 4:23-24. If Genesis is poetic, it would use parallelism throughout like the book of Psalms. But Genesis doesn’t look like Psalms. For a poetic account of creation see Psalm 104.
Some claim that the number symbolism in Genesis 1 means that it is poetic (Appendix C). They infer this from a comparison with ancient non-biblical accounts. But this is poor exegesis. The best exegesis uses the immediate context and so should be based on Genesis and the other books of Moses. We will use this approach. And we will use the views of other biblical characters, rather than the views of current scholars who are separated from these events by thousands of years. This shows that the people referred to in Genesis really existed and the events referred to in Genesis really occurred.
There is repetition in Genesis 1-11 (see Appendix D), but it’s not parallelism or poetic. There are many other examples of this in the Old Testament (see Appendix E).
Just because a passage is poetic doesn’t mean that it’s fiction. Poetry is merely a literary form. On its own, it has nothing to do with whether the content is fact or fiction. It may or may not reflect a historical background. Many poetic portions of scripture relate to genuine history (Num. 24; Ps. 148; 1 Tim. 3:16b). And these are acknowledged as being divine in origin and authoritative in force (Ps. 82:6; Jn. 10:34).
As it’s not figurative language or poetry, maybe it’s parables?
Is it allegories or parables?
Parables are usually introduced with a simile or a statement indicating that they are a figure of speech. As neither of these are present in Genesis 1-11, there is no evidence of any parables. The prophet Nathan told a parable to King David (2 Sam. 12:1-7). The historical facts about David, Uriah and Bathsheba are clearly stated, and it is also clear that the parable was fictional. And the intention of Nathan in telling the story is clear, as is the intention of the writer of 2 Samuel in recording this historical event. But there are no indicators in scripture that any of Genesis 1-11 is a parable.
An allegory is a story in which the characters and/or events are symbols representing other events, ideas, or people. Paul interprets the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah as an allegory for the Old and New Covenants (Gal. 4:22-26). Here, Paul takes actual, historical people from Genesis (Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah) and uses them as symbols in a lesson for Christians. He explains for the reader, “These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants” (v.24). Likewise, Paul refers to “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Here he implies similarity between two historical characters. The evidence of scripture shows that the people referred to in Genesis really existed and the events referred to in Genesis really occurred. They are not allegories.
As it’s not figurative language, poetry or parables, maybe it’s a historical novel?
Is it a historical novel?
Historical novels are fictional stories that are based on historical characters or historical settings. The beliefs of the authors of the other books of the Bible show that the characters and settings in Genesis 1-11 are fact, not fiction. The evidence of scripture shows that the people referred to in Genesis really existed and the events referred to in Genesis really occurred. They are not a historical novel.
As it’s not figurative language, poetry, parables or a historical novel, maybe it’s a myth?
Is it a myth?
A myth is a mixture of fact and fiction that may have a moral lesson. Some believe that the biblical account of the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:3) was an abbreviated Hebrew version of a more ancient Babylonian tale. The ancient Babylonian creation myth Enūma Eliš is a poem that explains the origin of gods and people. But the gods are mortal, violent and frail, and nothing like the supreme Creator God of Genesis. It’s a song in praise of Marduk, their greatest god. Genesis 1 is about the creation, while Enūma Eliš is more about the creator. Genesis 1 is a tightly structured narrative, while Enūma Eliš, is a dramatic narrative poem.
The main problem with the mythical approach is that it confuses historical issues and literary genre. If we leave aside the question of whether the miracle stories in the Bible (including creation) are fact or fiction, the whole question of whether these stories are myths becomes extremely easy to answer. The biblical narratives are not myths because they do not possess a mythical literary form. They are straightforward and use the language of ordinary events. The biblical stories take for granted the world as we tend to experience it.
Is Genesis 1 merely an argument against pagan myths? A myth is a story blending fact and fiction that serves as a vehicle to convey truth. But if this was the case how does one decide which part is fact and which part is fiction? Does it teach us not to worship the sun but the God who made the sun? Pagans don’t just worship the physical object, but a god behind it (1 Cor. 10:19-20). The Bible does contain arguments against pagan gods (Ps. 74:13-15; Isa. 37:18-20; 45:12-20). They emphasize God’s strength and the weakness of idols. But Genesis 1 is nothing like this. Instead the pagan myths are probably derived from the original account which was passed down to Moses. The early chapters of Genesis were edited from ancient sources that pre-date the pagan ones. Normally borrowing embellishes history into a fanciful legend. In the ancient Near East, simple accounts may lead to elaborate legends, but not vice-versa. So, the simple Hebrew account of creation can lead to the embellished Babylonian creation legend, but not vice-versa.
Some scholars believe that there are three creation stories in the Bible. These are Genesis 1, Genesis 2 and a myth of the primordial battle between God and the forces of chaos known as Leviathan (Ps. 74), Rahab (Ps. 89) or the monster of the sea (Isa. 27). But this is incorrect. The introduction in Genesis 2:4 to the second section of Genesis states that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is an account of the creation of the universe. Recapitulation was widely practiced in ancient Semitic literature. It this case a broad summary is followed by a detailed account of matters of special importance. Genesis 2:5-25 is a more detailed account of the creation of Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation (Gen. 1:26-30). So the difference in styles between Genesis 1 and 2 is due to the different subject matter. Leviathan, Rahab and the monster of the sea are symbols of the power of Egypt (Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10; Isa. 27:1). Such scholars interpret this figurative language to be narrative, while they interpret the narrative in early Genesis to be figurative! This demonstrates how presuppositions can influence one’s interpretation of Scripture!
The Bible specifically warns Christians against believing myths. The Apostle Paul says: “As I urged you … stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths … ’ (1 Tim. 1:3–4NIV).
“Have nothing to do with godless myths …” (1 Tim. 4:7).
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of (false) teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4).
“Therefore rebuke them (false teachers) sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth” (Titus 1:13-14).
The Apostle Peter says: “we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power” (2 Pt. 1:16).
As it’s not figurative language, poetry, parables, a historical novel or a myth, maybe it’s a biography or autobiography?
Is it a biography or autobiography?
Genesis can be divided into sections which begin with the Hebrew word for generations or descendants (see Appendix F). It’s interesting to note the same pattern is evident in Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-36. So there is no evidence of a change of genre within the book of Genesis.
The Bible says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (Ex. 17:14; 4;4; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Dt. 31:9, 24; Mk. 10:3; Lk. 24:27; Jn. 1:17). And Jesus referred to it as “the law of Moses” (Lk. 24:44; 1 Cor. 9:9), “the book of Moses (Mk. 12:26), and simply “Moses” (Lk.16:29).
It is likely that each of the generations from Adam onwards wrote down an account of the events which occurred in their lifetime, and Moses, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, selected and compiled these, along with his own comments, into the book we now know as Genesis. So Moses was the editor of Genesis. The events of Genesis occurred long before his time. The original version of Genesis 10 (which shows where people were scattered to after the incident at Babel) was written before 1870BC because it mentions the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which were destroyed by God about 360 years before the birth of Moses (Gen. 10:19). Moses included editorial comments (Gen. 26:33; 32:32). And a description of the Jordan valley in Abraham’s time as being “like the land of Egypt”, seems to be an editorial comment by Moses (Gen. 13:10).
So Genesis 1-11 is mainly a biography and an autobiography. If it’s a biography or autobiography, can its facts be confirmed?
Comparison with Genesis 12-50
Genesis 12-50 is a historical description of the lives of four generations of Israelites: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Often, the book of Genesis has been divided into two sections: Primeval History (chs. 1-11) and Patriarchal History (chs. 12-50). But where is the boundary between these two sections? At Genesis 11:27? But the text of Genesis 11 has a similar structure to that of Genesis 12! In fact, there are no significant differences in the structure of the text in Genesis 1-11 compared to Genesis 12-50. As “patriarchal history” is generally regarded as accurate history, then there is no linguistic reason why “primeval history” should not also be accepted as accurate history. And some passages of the Bible cite characters from both sections without indicating that the earlier ones are less historical. It would be better to say that the difference is one of subject matter. Genesis 1-11 deals with the world, whereas Genesis 12-50 deals with the descendants of Abraham.
Genesis 12 would make little sense without the genealogical background in Genesis 11. As Genesis 11 includes the genealogy of Shem, this links to the genealogy in Genesis 10, and to the one found in Genesis 5. Shem is mentioned in each of these three chapters of Genesis.
Genealogies treat people from Genesis 1-11 in the same manner as those from Genesis 12-50 (1 Chr. 1-8; Lk. 3:23-38). The same applies to the list of heroes of the faith from the Old Testament (Heb. 11:4-22).
Evidence from the rest of the Bible
The principal people mentioned in Genesis chapters 1–11 are referred to as real people (historical, not mythical) in the rest of the Bible. For example, Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Noah are referred to in 15 other books of the Bible. And I have demonstrated in other blogposts that Adam and Eve, and Noah were real people.
At least 25 New Testament passages refer directly to the early chapters of Genesis, and they are always treated as real history. Genesis 1 and 2 were cited by Jesus in response to a question about divorce (Mt. 19:4-6; Mk. 10:6-9). Paul referenced Genesis 2-3 (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 11:8; 15:20-22, 45-47; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-14). The death of Abel recorded in Genesis 4 is mentioned by Jesus and John (Lk. 11:51; 1 Jn. 3:12). The flood (Genesis 6-9) is confirmed as historical by Jesus and Peter (Mt. 24:37-39; 2 Pt. 2:4-9; 3:6). And Jesus mentioned the flood in the same context as He did the account of Lot and Sodom (Gen. 19) (Lk. 17:26-29). Finally, in Luke’s genealogy of Christ, he includes 20 names found in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 (Lk. 3:34-38). He traced the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam (Lk. 3:23-38). So the New Testament treats Genesis 1-11 as real history and not merely literary or theological devices. It’s a record of “actual events” in the history of humanity
Jesus Christ referred to the creation of Adam and Eve as a real historical event, by quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in His teaching about divorce (Mt. 19:3-6; Mk. 10:2-9), and by referring to Noah as a real historical person and the flood as a real historical event, in His teaching about the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ (Mt. 24:37-39; Lk. 17:26-27).
Humanity needs to be redeemed because of the fall into sin (Genesis 3). Unless we know that the entrance of sin to the human race was a true historical fact, we can’t understand God’s purpose in providing a Savior. And the historical truth of Genesis 1–11 shows that all mankind needs salvation from the penalty, power, and presence of sin.
Unless the events of the first chapters of Genesis are true history, the Apostle Paul’s explanation of the Gospel in Romans chapter 5 and of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 have no meaning. Paul writes: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Jesus) the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). And, “For since death came through a man (Adam), the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man (Jesus). For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive … So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam (Jesus), a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45). The historical truth of the record concerning the first Adam is a guarantee that what God says in His Word about the last Adam (Jesus) is also true. Likewise, the historical, literal truth of the record concerning Jesus is a guarantee that what God says about the first Adam is also historically and literally true.
So Genesis 1-11 presents as a biography or autobiography whose facts are confirmed by the rest of scripture as being historically accurate. These inspired writers treat the people, and events in Genesis 1-11 as real, not merely literary or theological devices.
The Bible was written to be understood by ordinary people, so it shouldn’t be difficult to interpret. We have seen that Genesis 1-11 is not figurative language, poetry, parables, a historical novel or a myth. But it is a biography and an autobiography that describes real historical people and real historical events. It is prose narrative, with some embedded pieces that are poetic (Gen. 1:27; 2:23; 4:23-24) and some genealogical records (Gen 5, 10, 11:10–26). And it differs from other near eastern cosmologies because they are poetic and polytheistic. The writers of the Bible affirm that Genesis 1-11 is fact not fiction. It is an account of real events. Jesus affirmed it as well. And the gospel is based on the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis. So, Genesis 1-11 isn’t a type of doublespeak where words don’t have their usual meaning.
Sarfati J D (2015) “The Genesis Account”, Creation Book Publishers.
Appendix A: Traditional genre (literature style) of the books of the Bible
The dominant genre of each book of the Bible is listed below. Note that figures of speech can occur within each of these genres.
Joshua to Nehemiah
Wisdom (also contains poetry)
Song of Songs
Matthew to John
Prophecy and apocalypse
Ezekiel to Malachi
Romans to Jude
Appendix B: Summary of the book of Genesis
- Creation (Gen. 1-2).
- The fall into sin (Gen. 3-5).
- The flood (Gen. 6-9).
- The dispersion (Gen. 10-11).
- Life of Abraham (Gen. 12-25:8).
- Life of Isaac (Gen. 21:1-35-29).
- Life of Jacob (Gen. 25:21-50:14).
- Life of Joseph (Gen. 30:22-50:26).
God created a universe that was good and free from sin. God created humanity to have a personal relationship with Him. Adam and Eve sinned and thereby brought evil and death into the world. Evil increased steadily in the world until there was only one family in which God found anything good. God sent the Flood to wipe out evil, but delivered Noah and his family along with the animals in the Ark. After the Flood, humanity began again to multiply and spread throughout the world.
God chose Abraham, through whom He would create a chosen people and eventually the promised Messiah. The chosen line was passed on to Abraham’s son Isaac, and then to Isaac’s son Jacob. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and his twelve sons became the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. In His sovereignty, God had Jacob’s son Joseph sent to Egypt by the despicable actions of Joseph’s brothers. This act, intended for evil by the brothers, was intended for good by God and eventually resulted in Jacob and his family being saved from a devastating famine by Joseph, who had risen to great power in Egypt.
Appendix C: Number symbolism in Genesis 1
Some people quote the following to claim that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is symbolic rather than factual.
- The first sentence of Genesis 1 consists of seven Hebrew words.
- The second sentence of Genesis 1 contains exactly fourteen (a multiple of seven) words.
- The Hebrew words ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’ appear 21 times (a multiple of seven). But this is incorrect, “heaven(s)” (Strongs #8064) appears only 11 times (which isn’t a multiple of seven) and “expanse” (Strongs #7549) appears 9 times (which isn’t a multiple of seven). According to Genesis 1:8 “God called the expanse Heaven (or sky)”. This is a total of 20 times (which isn’t a multiple of seven).
- The Hebrew word ‘God’, is mentioned 35 times (a multiple of seven).
- The Hebrew refrain ‘and it was so’ and the summary statement ‘God saw that it was good’ occur seven times. But this is incorrect, “and it was so” only appears six times (v. 7, 9, 11, 15, 24, 30; which isn’t a multiple of seven)!
- The six days of creation and the day of rest comprise seven days.
But they don’t mention that the Hebrew word “day” appears 15 times. And “water” appears 12 times. And “God said” appears ten times. And “evening” and “morning” both appear six times. None of these are multiples of seven!
So this is a weak argument for saying that this Bible passage is symbolic rather than factual. I expect better scholarship to justify such a claim. Instead, it looks like cherry-picking to me.
Appendix D: The structure of Genesis 1
Genesis 1 has a repetitive structure, which was a common device in ancient literature to aid memorization. But it is not poetic. There are four basic themes on each day of creation.
1. God’s command
“And God said, ‘Let there be …”
“And it was so …”. God spoke things into existence. As God is the creator of time, He needs no time for His creative acts.
“God saw that it was good”.
4. Conclusion/Closure of the day
“And there was evening and there was morning – the Xth day”. As the Hebrew day went from sunset to sunset, it was made up of the night-time hours followed by the daylight hours. Each command was fulfilled within a 24-hour period (see “In six days”).
Why did God take so long to create the universe? He took six days of creation plus one day rest to give us the pattern for a week.
Appendix E: Other Biblical examples of repetitive structure
Repetition is present in many Old Testament passages.
Numbers 7 is also a numbered sequence of days. On 12 consecutive days a representative of each of the 12 tribes of Israel brought an offering for the altar.
“The one who brought his offering on the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah” (v.12)
“On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of Issachar, brought his offering” (v.18).
“On the third day, Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the people of Zebulun, brought his offering” (v.24).
“On the twelfth day Ahira son of Enan, the leader of the people of Naphtali, brought his offering” (v.78).
No one teaches that Numbers 7 is a literary framework for teaching something theological and that is not history. The same should apply to Genesis 1.
Genealogies are repetitive. 1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44 gives genealogies from Adam to King Saul. As these are accepted as being factual, so should those in Genesis 5 and 11 (they overlap).
Nehemiah 3 describes the rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in a repetitive manner. It progressively moves around the wall mentioned each section between each of the ten gates and describing who repaired each section.
Appendix F: Possible sources of the book of Genesis
The sources of Genesis are 12 family documents (see below). Eleven of these are headed by the Hebrew word toledoth (Strongs #8435), which means generations or descendants. The fact that these are referring to what follows rather than what precedes is clear in other instances of this word in the Old Testament (Num. 3:1; Ruth 4:18; 1 Chr. 1:29). So, in Genesis, the toledoths tell us what followed from the named person.
It’s possible that each of these documents was written on a clay tablet. During the exodus Moses probably compiled all these tablets into a long scroll. He may have used vellum to write on as the Israelites had many sheep.
- Creation of the universe (Gen. 1:1 – 2:3). There is no toledoth here, because nothing (in time) preceded creation. Time began at the beginning of this creation.
- “Descendants” of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 2:4-4:26). This is what followed from creation.
- Descendants of Adam (Gen. 5:1-6:8).
- Descendants of Noah (Gen. 6:9-9:29).
- Descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen. 10:1-11:9).
- Descendants of Shem (Gen. 11:10-26).
- Descendants of Terah (Gen. 11:27-25:11).
- Descendants of Ishmael (Gen. 25:12-18).
- Descendants of Isaac (Gen. 25:19-35:29).
- Descendants of Esau, born in Canaan (Gen. 36:1-8).
- Descendants of Esau, born in Edom (Gen. 36:9-37:1).
- Descendants of Jacob (Gen. 37:2-50:26).
Written, June 2018
The Bible is loaded with contradictions and translation errors. It wasn’t written by witnesses and includes words added by unknown scribes to inject Church orthodoxy (Eichenwald, 2014). That’s the opinion of Newsweek.
And Humanists reject the claim that the Bible is the word of God (Sommer, 1997). They are convinced the book was written solely by humans in an ignorant, superstitious, and cruel age. They believe that because the writers of the Bible lived in an unenlightened era, the book contains many errors and harmful teachings.
How reliable is the Bible? Is it trustworthy? Can it withstand objective scrutiny? This blogpost is based on a presentation by Tom Murphy titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.
Has translating the Bible over and over for almost 3,000 years ruined its reliability? Don’t errors accumulate like messages get changed when they are passed along a line of people in the Telephone game (or Chinese whispers)?
Don’t the many translations of the Bible ruin its reliability?
The Telephone game is a very false comparison. The English translations we have are not the product of a long line of translations. Our current English translations are translated directly from the original languages.
If that’s so, then why are there so many different translations then? Surely if translations are made directly from the originals then we would have only one version.
There are three main reasons we have so many different English translations of the Bible. First, translation research advances with time. Ongoing research helps us to more accurately understand and translate the original languages. Second, changes in modern English. The English language changes with time. New translations are made using modern English, so people can easily understand the Bible. Third, there are different approaches to translating. Some translators use one-word for one-word as much as possible, while others try to translate thought-for-thought.
We have so many versions, not because some shady telephone game has corrupted the text but because we are getting better at translating the Bible and we want translations in contemporary English everyone understands.
But weren’t the books of the bible written hundreds of years after the events they describe? Given that time gap, their messages could all be legends!
Could it all be legends?
Showing the biblical books are not legends begins with showing when they were written. They were not written hundreds of years later. The biblical manuscripts contain four kinds of evidence that indicates when they were written.
Independently verifiable historical statements.
Only a writer living at the time could have known these facts, which we can verify using archaeology or extra-biblical documents. For example, statements like names of places, people, geography, and significant events. Historical accounts that are written long after the events they describe don’t include such comments. Verifiable statements like these strongly affirm the early writing of the biblical books. Famous archaeological examples include evidence for the Assyrian King, Sargon II mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 and the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5:2-9. Prior to the archaeological discoveries that confirmed the historical accuracy of Isaiah’s reference to Sargon II (1843) and John’s description of the pool of Bethesda (1964), both biblical passages were considered to be blatant historical errors on the part of the biblical authors.
Historical events that are not mentioned.
Some historical events are not mentioned that definitely would have been mentioned had they already occurred. This evidence gives time frames for the writing of biblical books. For example, Acts 18:2 mentions the expulsion of the Jews from Rome (AD 41-54) but does not mention the destruction of the Temple (AD 70), therefore Acts dates between AD 41 and AD 70.
Direct manuscript evidence.
Having just a tiny surviving fragment of a book that we can date puts a limit on the latest date it could have been written. For example, as Papyrus fragment P52 from the book of John dates to about 120 AD, John must have been written before then.
Who the writer was and when they died.
Knowing the writer and when they died helps date a book. For example, multiple extra-biblical sources tell us Paul died shortly before AD 68, so all of Paul’s letters were written before AD 68.
This evidence tells us the books of the bible were written very early. Look at the dating of the Gospels to see just how small a gap we are talking about. They were all written within decades of the crucifixion. The liberal dating is invariably later than the conservative dating for two main reasons. First, some biblical books make predictive statements (see Appendix A), like the destruction of the Temple in Mathew 24. Liberal scholars assume that such successful predictions are not possible and assume the book must have been written after the event. Second, some books (like John) show a very high view of Jesus’ divinity. Liberal scholars assume this to be a slow evolutionary development and therefore date the book later.
But these reasons rest on assumptions that presuppose Christianity cannot be true; they reject the idea that God exists and/or that He influenced the authors to make successful future predictions. They also reject that Jesus claimed to be God and that His disciples believed Him.
The Jesus legend hypothesis fails because there was simply not enough time between the historical Jesus and the written records for legends to have corrupted the narrative. Secular historian Professor A. N. Sherwin-White points out that at least two full generations are needed for legendary developments to obscure the core details in a historical narrative. For example, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than 400 years after his death, yet classical historians still consider them to be trustworthy. The fabulous legends about Alexander did not develop until the centuries after these two biographies. After 400 years, Alexander’s history is less corrupted than the Gospel accounts are alleged to be, though the largest gap between the Gospel accounts and the actual events is only about 70 years, even using the most sceptical dates.
The problems for the legend hypothesis get even worse when two other facts are considered.
The Gospels use older source material.
For example, the Passion Story included in the gospel of Mark was probably not originally written by Mark. Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, says the Passion source must go back to at least AD 37, just seven years after Jesus’s death.
The Gospels are not the oldest texts in New Testament.
Older New Testament texts affirm the supposedly legendary resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians (written about AD 55) Paul cites what is apparently an old Christian creed: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5NIV). All grammatical and textual evidence tells us that the creed Paul gives came from Peter and James when Paul visited Jerusalem, reaching back to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion in the very city where the crucifixion occurred.
To conclude, both Christian and non-Christian scholars are at a near-consensus that the entire New Testament was written within the first century AD, within decades of Jesus’ death. The texts are so close to the life of Jesus that legendary evolution simply cannot account for the narratives they contain.
But we don’t have the original manuscripts! How do we know that we have what Moses, David, and the Old Testament prophets really said or wrote?
Can we know what the original Old Testament texts said?
With no photocopiers, the original texts were copied by hand as they wore out or more copies were needed. The Jewish people had scribes who oversaw this. They were such meticulous perfectionists that they would count all paragraphs, words and even letters to check they copied correctly. They even knew the middle letter of every book and would count backwards to check for mistakes.
The Masoretic text is used as the source text for translating the Old Testament because we accept the Old Testament that was accepted by the 1st century Jewish community – Jesus’ community. The Masoretic text is a Hebraic and Aramaic text that circulated amongst Jewish communities between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, the oldest copy we have is from the 9th century AD.
For a long time, critics pointed out that this text is very far removed from the original manuscripts, which were penned between the 15th and 5th centuries BC. They questioned if, after so many centuries of copying, we could really have the original words. That’s where the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was helpful.
Discovered in the Qumran caves in 1947, these well-preserved texts date back to between 200 BC and 100 BC. For example, the Great Isaiah Scroll is a copy of the book of Isaiah. Of approximately 1,000 scrolls found, 225 are Old Testament Books and include every book except Esther. Amazingly, there is a virtual agreement between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic text from 1,100 years later! The meticulous scribal process preserved the textual integrity for over 1,100 years! This means that we can confidently trust the Old Testament we have today. There is no evidence of grand changes through a great historical game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).
But we can go further. We currently we have four major groups of Old Testament manuscripts in three different languages, transmitted independently of each other over a span of over 1,000 years, yet they all show a high degree of agreement. In addition to the Masoretic text and Dead Sea Scrolls we also have:
The Septuagint, a Greek translation that originated between the 3rd century BC and 2nd Century AD.
The Vulgate, a Latin translation produced by the Christian priest Jerome in the 4th century AD, and
The Peshitta, a Syriac (Aramaic) translation produced in the second century AD.
By comparing all the texts available, we can reliably discern the content of the Old Testament. Of all the apparent variants in the surviving Old Testament manuscripts, none introduce wildly divergent readings from the Masoretic text that can’t be readily explained by a copyist error (such as spelling/grammar mistakes) or an easily identifiable change intentionally inserted by the scribe responsible for producing the manuscript. And the footnotes of any good study bible will point out these variants (there’s about 45 of them; of these only in 9 do translators resort to using the Dead Sea Scrolls over the Masoretic and of the 45 only one influences more than one sentence – it’s a paragraph found between 1 Samuel 10 and 11).
Also, critics assume well-used papyri disintegrate within 10 years at best, meaning many hundreds of copies of copies must separate the original text from the oldest surviving manuscripts. However, studies by historian George Houston demonstrate that ancient manuscripts were actively used anywhere from 150 to 500 years, and each copy would have been used to make hundreds more. For example, The Codex Vaticanus was reinked in the 10th century after 600 years of use. So the oldest surviving Old Testament manuscripts we have may only be a few generations of copies from the originals. For the New Testament, we could theoretically have direct copies of the original texts, or at least copies of the very first copies.
All this means that the conditions were very favorable for preserving the contents of the biblical texts. The close agreement observed across the 1,100-year gap between the Dead Sea and Masoretic manuscripts is evidence of this.
Well that covers the Old Testament. But what about the New Testament? How can we be sure we know what Jesus said, or that we know what Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote?
Can we know what the original New Testament texts said?
The New Testament text is even more certain than the Old Testament. Some surviving fragments date back to 120 AD. That’s only 35-100 years after the originals! Another big help is that there are nearly 6,000 partial or complete New Testament manuscripts in the original Greek. Add to this approximately 10,000 manuscripts of Latin translations and another 9,300 manuscripts in some 13 additional languages. All together we have about 25,000 copies of the New Testament. And these numbers are counted from databases that notoriously lag-behind current developments and do not record manuscripts contained in private collections or in the form of scrolls – it is quite likely that we have well above 25,000 copies of the New Testament to work with.
Let’s compare the date of the oldest manuscripts and number of existing manuscripts with a few other pieces of literature that historians consider accurate. For the New Testament, the time gap is hundreds of years smaller and the number of manuscripts higher by thousands compared to other works from antiquity. This shows that the New Testament is the most trustworthy document from antiquity. By comparing all the manuscripts we possess, scholars easily identify copying mistakes. This process is called textual criticism. Through this process, we can ascertain the wording of the New Testament with about 99.9% accuracy. See Appendix B for more information on copying mistakes.
Well, all this only proves that we know what these books originally said. But, how do we know the right books are in the Bible? It was just people who decided wasn’t it?
Do we have the right books?
Usually when critics argue that people decided what books should be in the bible (which is called the canon), they are using a different definition of canon than Christians do. The critic thinks the church decided to declare some books authoritative and not others – that the canon didn’t exist until church leaders conferred authority on a few books when they wrote canonical lists. But the Christian understanding is different. If God exists and He inspired human writers, then the canon began to exist the moment the author put pen to paper and the canon grew as each God-inspired book was written.
The Old Testament Canon has never been in doubt. It is the exact list of books that the Jewish community has used for thousands of years. It is the exact Old Testament that Jesus declared to be inspired and authoritative (Mt. 5:17). The only differences are in the order and grouping of the books. The oldest references we have to the Old Testament canon comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote during AD 95 in his work Against Apion that the Jews recognize 22 books as authoritative; this list of 22 books covers all the Old Testament recognized by Protestants, with the exception of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. However, Josephus commends these books in his AD 93/94 work Antiquity of the Jews (which also mentions Jesus).
Regarding the Old Testament Apocryphal books. The Jewish community rejected all Apocryphal books as authoritative. Early Jews may have privately read the apocryphal books for insightful historical and/or theological observations – Josephus and prominent 1st-century Midrashic rabbis did this – but they opposed any consideration of these books as Scripture.
What about the New Testament? Did Emperor Constantine decide what counted as Scripture at Nicaea in AD 325. Are the books in the Bible just the politically motivated selections of a Roman Emperor 300 years after the fact?
Was the New Testament decided at Nicaea?
As for the New Testament, the books we have in our Bible imposed themselves on the early church; they were recognized as inspired from the beginning. It’s a common myth that the biblical books the church uses were imposed on Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the council of Nicaea in AD 325 for political reasons. This is not true. We have ample evidence to show that the New Testament books we use were considered authoritative from their very beginning.
The New Testament writers recognized each other’s words as scripture. Peter wrote, “His (Paul’s) letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pt. 3:16).
We also have very early lists of canonical books produced well before Nicaea that give a nearly identical list of books to our current New Testament today.
- Around AD 180 we have records of the church father Irenaeus listing every book in the NT as cannon, except Philemon and 3 John.
- The Muratorian fragment from AD 180, affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament, in a list remarkably close to Irenaeus’.
- Then in AD 198 Clement of Alexandria had a remarkably similar position, He affirmed the four gospels, 13 epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1&2 John, Jude, and Revelation.
Beyond these lists, we have numerous quotations from early church fathers which quote the books of the New Testament as authoritative scripture. These Church fathers frequently begin their quotation with “It is written”, the same language used before citations of Old Testament scripture. All of this predates the Council of Nicaea by 100-150 years. Therefore, the canon was not “foisted” on the church then. Nicaea could have only ratified the near 200-year consensus the church already held. It is interesting to note that a number of the later church fathers (after AD 150) condemn as heretical some of the Apocryphal texts by name (most notably Acts of Paul and The Gospel of Thomas).
There was never any concern that the cannon the church accepted was wrong. The bigger concern in the early church was that some Christians would be misled into believing that the counterfeit apocryphal books should be regarded as scripture when they really shouldn’t. This was the real reason official lists of canonical books were authorised at various church councils – to combat heretical teachers and apocryphal books masquerading as scripture.
In AD 367 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, listed all the books that are in the New Testament canon. He also spoke up against books to be rejected because they were “an invention of heretics”. He called these “apocrypha”.
So we have the right Bible because its ancient words have been preserved since it was written.
How does knowing all this help us today?
It’s important to know that we have the right Bible because our entire faith and hope of salvation depend on the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection as documented in the Bible. Paul corrected those who said there is no resurrection of the dead by saying, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep (died) in Christ are lost (forever). If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:13-20). If the apostles were “false witnesses”, their message in the Bible would be unreliable. But knowing that the Bible is reliable gives us confidence and assurance in our Christian faith. The New Testament confirms many times that “Christ indeed has been raised from the dead”. It’s fact, not fiction.
Peter said that what the Apostles wrote was based on eyewitness accounts and not on fabricated stories (2 Pt. 2:3). “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pt. 1:16). Knowing that we have an accurate copy of what they wrote means that we have access to eyewitness accounts. This means that the Christian faith is based on real objective historical events and not on subjective human ideas or religious concepts.
And Christians are to defend their faith. In the context of criticism, opposition and persecution, Peter said, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15). We need to know why we believe what we believe. Our “hope” is our confidence about God and eternity. We can have confidence that we will have eternal life if we believe that Jesus died for our sin. And all this is based on the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Sometimes critics just want to undermine our faith or the faith of our fellow believers. We defend our faith as an act of reverence to Jesus and as a support and comfort to our fellow believers who may be struggling with doubt. And sometimes the critical questions come from a seeking heart and by answering them we might be helping clear away the obstacles that may be keeping someone from coming to faith in Jesus.
The Bible is the most reliable document we have from antiquity. It’s good to know that we have the right Bible. It’s an accurate copy of the message that God gave in ancient times.
Appendix A: Predictive statements in Daniel
Daniel is an example of a book of the Bible that makes predictive statements. Even giving the book of Daniel the absolute latest possible dates critics can give (ca 200 BC based on the Dead Sea manuscript found at Qumran), the predictive statements found in the later chapters of this book still precede the actual events described. Prior to the Dead Sea Scroll findings, critics did indeed try to claim that all of Daniel’s predictive statements came after the fact. The Dead Sea discovery proved that some of the book’s predictions definitely precede the events, even if we were to say that the copies found in Qumran are the earliest manuscripts containing them.
Appendix B: How are variants counted?
Some critics, like Bart Ehrman, say that the New Testament contains over 400,000 variants from the standard text, which is more than the total number of words in the New Testament (about 138,000)! So how is this number calculated? Please note that a “variant” is not an error. It’s where texts are not perfectly matched. Most of these variations are insignificant.
These variants were counted by the number of manuscripts they are found in. For example, if a spelling mistake occurs in just one verse and this mistake is found in 2,000 of the 25,000 manuscripts we have, that one spelling mistake was counted as 2,000 variants, even though it’s just one word in just one verse. So saying there are more than 400,000 variants is a misleading statement. Furthermore, 70% of all variants are one particular scribal error called the moveable-nu; it is the Koine Greek equivalent of accidentally using “a” instead of “an” in English. Of all variants, less than 0.1% are worth even mentioning in the footnotes found in good study bibles. Only two variants affect more than two verses, the end of Mark (Mk. 16:9-20) and the story about the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 7:53-8:11). And no variants at all influence any Christian doctrine or practices. This is largely because the doctrine and practices are taught in many passages of the Bible. They don’t rely on a single passage.
It’s interesting to note that the large number of variants is mainly due to the large number of ancient manuscripts. These increase the accuracy in determining the text of the original manuscript. So, it’s actually a strength and not a weakness!
This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr Tom Murphy (a chemist) titled, “Do we have the right Bible?”.
Eichenwald K (2014) “The Bible: So misunderstood it’s a sin”, Newsweek 23 December 2014.
Sommer J C (1997), “Some reasons why Humanists reject the Bible”, American Humanist Association.
Written, May 2018
Does the Bible support genocide, violence and war? In 1 Samuel 15:1-3 God tells the Israelites to destroy the entire Amalekite nation. I have been asked “Does god give us permission to commit genocide in situations where he deems it acceptable? How should this scripture help us find peace and stability for all in this world? What shall we say to the violence and utter destruction this poses should this be a model for us to use in future conflicts? How should one balance this with “thou shall not kill”? Is this what you are talking about when you speak of the bible’s congruency with itself over the time it was written?” That’s a good question!
Another comment was “I did quote you a verse from the Bible that I believe empowers Christianity to wage war and 1 Samuel 15:3 sounds like war to me. And “if” god really did inspire these scriptures then he IS THE PROBLEM. It is also irrelevant what part of the bible this comes from when it is the holy inspired truth. If this scripture is no longer valid or void because it is part of the Old Testament then your argument for the validity, authenticity, or divine authority of the whole bible is very questionable. How does this work? Do we now have Synod of George and those that think like him who now get to say that part of the bible is no longer valid and we like this part instead? If so then Islam seems to have the most uncorrupted book. If Jesus ended the old testament system how did we end up with all the crusades? Perhaps we need some new prophet to come forth again and end all this religious violence we have now. Lord knows we need it because as long as Jews, Muslims, and Christians are fighting none of us will ever know peace. If the bible cannot inspire us to “be peace” then it is no longer relevant to human beings and should be discarded in the anals of history”.
The Bible was written in ancient times. To read it is like visiting those ancient times. We are like tourists travelling to a different place where there is a different language, culture, situation, time in history and maybe a different covenant in God’s dealing with humanity.
We also need to know that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. So we should also read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation.
Here’s what the Bible says, “Samuel said to Saul, ‘I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over His people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’’” (1 Sam. 15:1-3NIV). So, they were commanded to completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation.
We can understand God’s message in the Bible by finding the original meaning, and then the principles behind this, and updating them according to what has changed since then, and applying these modern principles in our daily lives.
History of the Amalekites
The Hebrews (Israelites) were God’s chosen people in Old Testament times. They originated from Jacob whose name was changed to Israel. They moved from Canaan to Egypt during a drought. Because of Joseph, they were encouraged to settle in Egypt (Gen. 47:5-12). But when the Hebrew population grew in Egypt, the Egyptians used them as save labor and ordered the killing of all Hebrew baby boys (Ex. 1:6-22). But Moses was spared this fate. And God told him that He planned to rescue the Hebrews from slavery. Moses was to lead them out of Egypt towards the north so they could settle in the land of Canaan (Ex. 3:7-10). After ten plagues devastated the land of Egypt, the Egyptians urged the Hebrews to leave Egypt. God led them with pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of for by night. There were many obstacles during their journey. The first was when they miraculously crossed part of the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was drowned. They also experienced a polluted water supply, and lack of food and water. So the Hebrews grumbled against Moses. The next challenge recorded in the Bible is when the Amalekites attacked them just before they reached Mt Sinai.
The Amalekites were a nomadic group that moved around the southern regions of Palestine between Egypt and Edom (see Appendix 1). And at times they occupied the southern portion of the promised land. They were living in the Negev (near the southern border of the Promised Land) when the Hebrews spied out Canaan (Num. 13:29; 14:25, 43, 45). They attacked the Israelites who were travelling from Egypt towards Canaan (Ex. 17:8-16). God helped the Israelites warriors led by Joshua to defeat the Amalekites. And after the battle, God promised Moses, “I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex. 17:14). Even the pagan Balaam repeated this message that the Amalekites were the first nation to attack the Israelites after they left Egypt and oppose God’s purpose for His people and he predicted their destruction (Num. 24:20). The word “first” is also used in this sense in Numbers 15:20, 21; 18:12. And Moses said, “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16). The Amalekites were challenging God’s rule over the world.
By the way, the armies of other nations who attacked the Hebrews en route to Canaan (like the Amalekites), the Amorites and the people of Arad and Bashan were also completely destroyed (Num. 21:1-3; 21-35). This pattern of destruction is unique to the nations that opposed Israel’s settlement of Canaan.
After the men who spied Canaan returned with a negative report, the Israelites rebelled against God. So God said they would die in the desert before reaching Canaan. But the Israelites didn’t accept this judgement and decided to disobey God once again by invading Canaan (Num. 14:40-45). God commanded them not to do this. But they persisted and were defeated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites. At this time some Amalekites were living in the hill country near Hebron, which was inside the promised land.
Just before the Israelites entered Canaan they were given laws that included, “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land He is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget” (Dt. 25:17-19)! This is about 40 years after God’s promise to “completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”. The context of this law is teaching on justice (Dt. 25. 1:16). So the destruction of the name of Amalek is a matter of justice.
After the Israelites settled in Canaan, the Amalekites helped the Moabites to capture Jericho from Israel (Jud. 3:12-14). And later they helped the Midianites oppress the Israelites (Jud. 6:3, 33; 7:12). So the Amalekites continued to attack the Israelites.
Then God’s instruction is given to Saul (1 Sam. 15:1-3). This is about 380 years after God’s promise to “completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”. Saul went to destroy the Amalekites, but he disobeyed God by sparing the king and the best livestock (1 Sam. 15:4-26). As a result of this Samuel said that his reign would end and he would be replaced with another king (David). In a summary of Saul’s military victories it says that, “He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them” (1 Sam. 14:48). It is evident that not all the Amalekites were destroyed in this battle because David and his men raided them about 17 years afterwards (1 Sam. 27:8).
When Samuel put king Agag to death Samuel said, “as your sword has made women childless”, which shows that he was punished for his own violence (1 Sam.15:33).
Soon afterwards when David and his men were away from their wives and children, they returned to find they had been kidnapped by the Amalekites who had destroyed the city (Ziklag) with fire (1 Sam. 30:1-31). So David and his men went after the Amalekites and rescued the wives and children. They killed all the Amalekite army except for 400 young men who escaped. About 300 years later, in the days of king Hezekiah, the descendants of Simeon “killed the remaining Amalekites who had escaped” (1 Chron. 4:43). This is about 700 years after God’s promise to “completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”.
The plot to destroy the Jews of Persia in about 470 BC was lead by Haman who may have been an Amalekite (Est. 3:1-6). This was about 970 years after their first attack on the Israelites!
The Amalekites tried to destroy Israel more than any other nation. Their hatred of the Israelites and their repeated attempts to destroy God’s people led to their ultimate doom. Their fate should be a warning to all who oppose God’s purposes.
The original meaning
The books of 1-2 Samuel are a historical narrative of the history of the nation of Israel from the birth of Samuel to near the end of king David’s reign.
The passage (1 Sam. 15:1-3) is a message from God to Saul the first king of Israel. It was given in about 1030 BC. The message was that the Israelites were to totally destroy the Amalekites and all that belonged to them (see Appendix 2). The reason given is because the Amalekites opposed Israel by attacking them when they came from Egypt about 420 years earlier. This was an unprovoked attack. And the Amalekites repeatedly attacked God’s chosen people many times over hundreds of years.
The passage is a command given to Saul and the Israelites. It’s not a model that they were to follow or just a report of events that occurred. The meaning is clear and there seem to be no figures of speech in the passage.
Now we know the original meaning of the passage, what are the principles behind it?
The original principles
A principle is a general truth applicable in a variety of situations. This message to Saul is a command that required obedience. So, one principle is that God’s people should obey God’s commands.
The command was to punish the Amalekites for attacking the Israelites when they were obeying God by travelling from Egypt towards Canaan. In this case the punishment was to be complete destruction (see Appendix 2). So another principle is that God judges (punishes) those who oppose Him or rebel against Him. God punishes the wicked.
In this case the punishment was to be death. So another principle is that death can be a punishment by God for those who oppose Him or rebel against Him. This episode also taught the Israelites that God protects His people.
Does this message justify God’s people retaliating or seeking revenge or warring against their enemies? No, because in this case God issued the command about 420 years after the offense. So, God was deciding the timing and not the Israelites.
Now we know the ancient principles behind the passage. But what about us today living about three thousand years later? We need to update the principle.
What has changed since then?
Our time in history, situation, and culture are different to then. Today God’s people are Christians from all nations, and not just Israelites (Jews) as was the case in the Old Testament. We have the whole book of the Bible and not just the Pentateuch. We know God’s whole program of salvation and not just the beginning of it. We are under a different covenant and no longer under the Old Testament law. We haven’t been given the commands of Moses to follow. We are not Israelites living in Canaan with God living in a tent; we are Christians with God living in us as the Holy Spirit. We are not Israelites living in a theocracy that was meant to drive out or destroy the previous inhabitants of Canaan.
Jesus told His followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). But this thought is already in the laws of Moses (Ex. 22:4-5). Jesus was talking about people like the Romans who hated and threatened to harm Jews. Also, He treated the Samaritan woman (who Jews despised) with kindness (Jn. 4). When Jesus was arrested unjustly by men carrying weapons, Peter cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant (Malchus) with a sword (Lk. 22:49-51; Jn. 18:2-11). But Jesus said, “no more of this!”. And He touched the man’s ear and healed him. And Jesus prayed for those who crucified Him to be forgiven of their sins.
Paul said, “bless those who persecute you” (Rom. 12:14). And don’t retaliate or seek revenge (Rom. 12:17-21). We are not the ones to take revenge. Instead we should leave that up to God.
Paul also said that our main enemies are spiritual and not physical (Eph. 6:10-20). He also said that Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt. 5:8). This is a figure of speech that illustrates how we can be unaware of Satan, but he can devastate our lives. And our main weapons against these spiritual enemies are the truth, God’s righteousness, the good news (gospel) about Jesus Christ, salvation, the word of God (Bible), and prayer.
As Christians are under the new covenant and not the old one, God doesn’t promise to keep them from all physical harm. Instead He promises to protect them spiritually. Their salvation is assured. And nothing can separate them from God’s love.
Now we know what’s changed since the time of king Saul, what are the principles behind the passage for us today?
The modern principles
This is where we use the original principles and what has changed since then to develop equivalent principles for us today. We can also ask, what does the passage teach us about God and humanity?
The first principle for Christians today is that they should obey God’s commands to them. These commands are found in the New Testament (although we need to realize that the gospels describe a period that was under the old covenant). The commands in the New Testament were addressed to Christians living in the first century AD. Although we live in a different time in history, we still live in the church era where the Holy Spirit indwells all true Christians. So, these commands should still apply to us in some way. And any commands in the Old Testament (who weren’t given specifically to Christians) must be viewed through the insight of later revelation in the Bible.
The second principle for today is that God punishes sinners (those who rebel against Him). The New Testament says that we are all sinners and death is a consequence of our sin (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). This is bad news!
The third principle for today is that our main enemies are spiritual and not physical (Eph. 6:10-18).
The fourth principle for today is that God protects His people spiritually and not necessarily physically.
The fifth principle for today is to not retaliate when provoked and leave revenge up to God.
Now we know the modern principles, how can we put them into practice today?
The modern applications
How should we apply these universal principles? Each principle has many applications according to the different situations people can be in. What do we need to know and do?
We are to obey God’s commands to us. Those for the church are given in the New Testament. We need to read this portion of the Bible often in order to know what God’s commands are. Once we know and understand them, then we should put them into practice. For example, do we bless or curse those who oppose us (Rom. 12:14-21)? Do we love or hate them? Do we empathize with others?
What about the Old Testament? We can also read it and use the method used in this post to determine the principles and applications for us today.
We are to recognize that because we are all sinners who have disobeyed God, we are separated from God and deserve to be punished by Him. But Jesus came to earth to take this punishment. The good news (gospel message) is that we can avoid this punishment by confessing and turning away from (repenting of) our sins and trusting in Jesus’ work of salvation. Are we aware of our sinfulness? Do we have a guilty conscience? Has this led us to repent and turn to God for forgiveness and salvation?
As Christians we have accepted that Christ’s sacrificial death was for our sins, and so the penalty for these has already been paid. But sin breaks our fellowship with God. This can only be restored by confessing the sin to God – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Do we confess our sins to God?
As our main enemies are spiritual and not physical, we need to be empowered by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit using weapons such as prayer and the truth revealed in the Bible. How often do we read the Bible? Do we memorize scripture? How often do we pray?
God protects us spiritually when we are in a church fellowship, when we have joy in the Lord, when we practice the truths in the Bible, when we watch out for false teachers, and when we develop assurance of salvation (Phil. 3:1-3). Who holds us accountable? Do we have joy on the Lord? Do we use scripture to counter temptations? Are we aware of the major errors being promoted amongst Christians? And does our behavior show that we have changed to follow Christ?
As we are not to retaliate when provoked and leave revenge up to God, we should respect and pray for those who attack and oppose us. How do we treat those who oppose us? Do we pray for them?
This exegesis of 1 Samuel 15:1-3 shows that this passage doesn’t make genocide or war acceptable today. The command was justified in its original context, but it doesn’t apply to other situations. Furthermore, there are no commands given to Christians in the New Testament that are similar to 1 Samuel 15:1-3. So the ideas of genocide and physical warfare against other nations aren’t commanded or modelled in the New Testament.
But the New Testament does acknowledge that there will be wars between nations (Mk. 13:7-8). And wars are predicted in Revelation (Rev. 6:3-4; 8:7; 9:17-19; 12:14, 17; 13:7-9), culminating in wars against God and His people (Rev. 19:19; 20:7-9).
Also, the New Testament repeats the sixth commandment by saying “You shall not murder” (Rom. 13:9; Jas. 2:11). Murder is prohibited because people are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5-6).
How can a loving God command a genocide? The Amalekites repeatedly tried to destroy Israel (God’s people on earth). This happened over a period of 400 years. God records these episodes to show how they opposed the Israelites from generation to generation. But the Israelites were chosen to bring blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3). If God was going to keep on blessing the world, he needed to stop the Amalekites. God knew that the Amalekites would always oppose Israel. Moses said, “The Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16). Without total destruction of the Amalekite nation, they were going to keep on coming back, and God’s plan would not be safe. Women and children were included, because otherwise the pagan attacks on the Israelites would continue.
God is also holy, righteous and just. This means that God judges all rebellion against Him. What about God’s mercy? Before the Israelites attacked the Amalekites, king Saul told the Kenites, “Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them” (1 Sam. 15:5). The Amalekites had a way out, if they were willing to deny their identity as Amalekites and live with another nation. The purpose was to destroy Amalek as a nation. So it is genocide (elimination) of a nation and not necessarily genocide of all the people of that nation. When the Amalekites became aware of the imminent attack they could chose to flee with the Kenites or stay with their people and oppose the Israelites. Those who fled lived and most of those who stayed died.
For those who seek “some new prophet to come forth again and end all this religious violence we have now”, in future Satan will provide a counterfeit Messiah (Rev. 13:1-18). But Jesus brings peace (Rev. 21:1-4). At the end of history He will bring in a kingdom of peace. So, violence and war are not models for us to follow.
Those who question the ethics and morality of the command in 1 Samuel 15:1-3 often don’t believe in the existence of God. But this is a contradiction. How can there be absolute morals without God? That’s impossible. Our society has no basis for morality at all. Democratic morality changes from time to time (for example it can approve of sexual immorality).
We have investigated the original meaning, the original principles, what’s changed since then, equivalent modern principles and modern applications of 1 Samuel 15:1-3. The original meaning given in about 1030 BC was that the Israelites were to totally destroy the Amalekite nation. But the modern application of this passage relates to obeying God’s commands to us in the New Testament, and realizing that we are all sinners who deserve God’s judgement, and realizing that our main enemies are spiritual and not physical, and not retaliating when provoked but leaving revenge up to God, So 1 Samuel 15:1-3 doesn’t make genocide or war acceptable today.
Appendix 1: Where did the Amalekites live?
From ancient times the Amalekites lived in the land extending to Shur and Egypt (1 Sam. 27:8). Shur was a desert between Egypt and Philistia. It was north-east of Egypt and west of the Negev. And “Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt” (1 Sam. 15:7). So Shur was outside the southern boundary of the promised land.
The Hebrew spies reported that “The Amalekites live in the Negev”, the desert between Egypt and Canaan (Num. 13:29). This is consistent with an earlier statement that they lived at En Mishpat (Kadesh) (Gen 14:7). And at this time the Amalekites and Canaanites were living in the valleys between Kadesh and the promised land (Num. 14:25). When the Israelites tried to enter Canaan from Kadesh, “the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah” (Num. 14:45). Hormah is east of Beersheba. This implies that some Amalekites were living in the hill country near Hebron, which was inside the promised land.
Later the Amalekites are associated with the Midianites and “other eastern peoples” (Jud. 6:3). Even later some Amalekites resettled in the hill country of Ephraim, which was inside the promised land (Jud. 12:15).
At the last mention in the Bible of the Amalekites they were living in the hill country of Seir (1 Chron. 4:42-43). Seir (Edom) was south and south-east of the Dead Sea. It was outside the southern boundary of the promised land.
So although the Amalekites are not listed among the nations who occupied Canaan before the Israelites settled there (Ge. 15:19-21; Ex. 3:8; Dt. 7:1; 20:17; Jud. 3:3-5), and they are not mentioned in the Book of Joshua, which describes battles between the Israelites and the Canaanite tribes, at times they did occupy the promised land.
It seems as though the Amalekites were a nomadic group that moved around the southern regions of Palestine between Egypt and Edom. And at times they occupied the southern portion of the promised land.
Appendix 2: “Charam”
According to Brown-Driver-Briggs, in 1 Samuel 15:3, the Hebrew verb charam (Strongs #2763) means “exterminating inhabitants, and destroying or appropriating their possessions”. It is used in the Old Testament for the destruction of the cities of Canaanites and other neighbors of Israel. The most well know example is the city of Jericho (Josh. 6:17). The related noun is cherem (Strongs #2764).
In the case of the Canaanites, God waited about 400 years until the sin of the Amorites “reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). Then God dispossessed the Amorites of their territory because of their sinful behavior. Those who practice gross sin and idolatry come under God’s judgement. And God decides when this punishment is administered. Later the kingdoms of Israel and Judah experienced the same punishment because of their sinful behavior and disregarding their covenant commitments to God.
We expect serious sin to be punished and have laws to administer this. But in God’s sight we are all sinners.
As these instances of cities and nations being “devoted to destruction” were specific to the settling of Israel in Canaan, this practice is not applicable today. So, its occurrence in the Old Testament shouldn’t be used to justify warfare today.
So what should the Christians attitude be to warfare? Some Christians are pacifists. Others would say that warfare is justified for self-defence and for supporting the defenceless against attacks.
Written, December 2017
Also see, Genocide of the Midianites?
A national anthem is a song that celebrates a nation’s history, struggles and traditions. It’s a patriotic song that’s sung at important events. The book of Psalms was the Israelites song book. They would have memorized these songs and sung them regularly. The Hallel psalms (113-118) were sung at their three main festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:1-17). They seem to be equivalent to a national anthem in ancient Israel.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted at the last supper when Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples on the night before He was crucified. The Biblical account finishes, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26NIV). The hymn they sang (chanted) was probably one of the Jewish Hallel (praise) psalms (Ps. 113-118). Apparently, Psalms 113-114 were sung before the Passover meal and Psalms 115-118 after the meal. So, the final song may have been Psalms 115-118 or Psalm 118. The Hebrew verb halal (Strongs #1984) means to praise, celebrate, glory or boast. And Hallelujah (hallel-Yah) means to praise Yahweh (the Hebrew word for God).
The Hallel psalms show that God’s people can look back and ahead with thanksgiving and praise. This pattern of songs of praise and thanksgiving can be traced back to the exodus (Ex. 15:1-21). After the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, the Israelites sang a “song to the Lord” about what God had just done (defeated their enemy) and what He was about to do (the conquest of Canaan).
Here’s a summary of the Hallel psalms.
The theme is to praise God because He is great and gracious. To be gracious is to be kind and generous. He is great because He is matchless and omniscient (all knowing). He is gracious because he helped the needy then and He helps us in our spiritual need. So the Jews praised God because of His attributes and His actions. This psalm begins and ends with “Praise the Lord” (or hallelujah in Hebrew). We can also praise God for who He is and what He does. He is still great and His kindness is shown in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus. If you are needy, call upon the great God to be gracious to you.
The theme is to respect God’s awesome power in the Exodus. His power was shown in crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River. And in the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai that caused the Israelites to tremble in fear (Ex. 19:16-18). And providing water from a rock. These miracles were a demonstration of God’s power. We can also respect God’s awesome power shown in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
Before the meal
At the beginning of the annual Passover celebration, the Jews chanted psalms 113-114. This reminded them that their God was great and gracious and that this was demonstrated in the exodus. Like the Jews recalled psalms 113 -114 before the Passover meal, we can praise God when we recall God’s greatness and kindness shown in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus, and His awesome power shown in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.
So, let’s praise the Lord – “Now and for evermore” and “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets” (Ps. 113:2-3). That means continually and everywhere! That’s what the Jews did in the Hallel and what Christians did in the early church (Acts 2:46-47).
The theme is to praise the Lord for His love and faithfulness. The absence of miracles caused foreigners to question the existence of Israel’s God. But Israel’s invisible God is greater than their idols. God is trustworthy and will reward the Israelites. It looks ahead saying that God will bless those who trust in Him. And it ends with “Praise the Lord”. We can also praise the Lord for His love shown through the sacrifice of Jesus. Let’s glorify God in all we say and do (1 Cor. 10:31). And not use Him like an idol to get what we want. Are we willing to trust God in difficult circumstances?
The theme is to praise God for deliverance from death. When in a dangerous situation, God heard the psalmist’s cry for help and he was rescued. His grateful response is to obey and serve the Lord. It ends with “Praise the Lord”. The Jews applied this psalm to their exodus from slavery in Egypt. We can also praise the Lord and obey and serve Him for our deliverance from spiritual death through Jesus and for the resultant spiritual blessings.
The theme is for the Gentiles to praise God for His great love toward Israel. God’s love for Israel affects their destiny. It ends with “Praise the Lord”. Indeed, today God’s salvation is available to people of all nations. We can also praise God for His great love for us in the salvation He offers us through the sacrifice of Jesus.
The theme is to thank God for deliverance from enemies. He answered their call for help. The psalm begins and ends with thanksgiving, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever” (v.1, 29). The Israelites give thanks for deliverance and victory over their enemies (v.5-21). They repeat “God has become my salvation (or deliverer)” (v. 14, 21). They are reminded of the exodus (Ex. 15:2). God rescued them from their enemies. And they respond with rejoicing (v.22-27).
They sing, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 22). This probably referred to the king who was now exalted instead of being rejected. It’s a metaphor that describes his changed circumstances. He was like a stone which was discarded by the builders as useless, but now he is important to God like the cornerstone of a building. Imagine Jesus singing “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” on the night before He was rejected and crucified. The Bible applies this verse to Jesus (Mt. 21:42; 23:39; Acts 4:11-12; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pt. 2:7). We can also apply it to Jesus. Let’s exalt Him in a world that rejects Him.
They also sing, “This is the day the Lord has brought about, we will be happy and rejoice in it” (v.24NET). They were rejoicing on the day of their victory and deliverance. Imagine Jesus singing “This is the day the Lord has brought about, we will be happy and rejoice in it” on the night before He was crucified. He brought about a great victory and deliverance for us that we can be happy and rejoice in.
They also sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26). This probably refers to the one who with God’s help has defeated the enemies. The crowds shouted these words during Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mt. 21:9; Mk. 11:9; Lk. 19:38; Jn. 12:13). Imagine Jesus singing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” four days after the crowds had shouted it to Him and knowing what was about to happen! We can also apply it to Jesus. He indeed was sent by God the Father.
Psalm 118 ends with praise and thanksgiving, “You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you” (v. 28). And everyone joins in, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever”. God delivered the Jews physically, while Jesus delivers us spiritually. Let’s praise and thank God for delivering us from the penalty and power of sin.
This psalm may also be sung at the second coming of Christ by those who believe in Him during the tribulation. In this case it celebrates God’s final victory over evil.
After the meal
Like the Jews recalled psalms 115 -118 after the Passover meal, we can praise the Lord for His love in delivering us from spiritual death (which is the penalty of our sin) through the sacrifice of Jesus. That was a great victory for which we should be grateful, thankful, and joyful. It also means to respond by obeying and serving the Lord. It’s a change from slavery to service.
An anthem of praise
In the Hallel we see that God raises the needy (113), delivers the oppressed (114), is superior to idols (115); receives personal praise (116), national praise (118) and will receive global praise (117). Praise is mentioned nine times and thanks is mentioned six times. And four of the six psalms finish with “Praise the Lord”. So the theme of the Jewish “national anthem” is praise and thanksgiving.
In the Hallel the Jews looked back with gratitude to God’s past acts of salvation (the exodus and the giving of the Torah) and ahead with confidence to God’s future blessings. We can also look back and look ahead. Back to Christ’s death and resurrection, which is God’s greatest act of salvation. And ahead to the finalization of our salvation when we leave this earth to meet the Lord in the air. And to when Christ returns as the powerful Messiah to establish His kingdom on earth. That’s why we can look back and ahead with thanksgiving and praise. What’s your anthem? Is it characterized by praise and thanksgiving?
Written, July 2017
First Aid (Emergency First Response) courses teach us how to sustain life when there can be a danger of death. We follow the acrostic DRSABC: Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway, Breathing and CPR. We need oxygen and blood circulation to keep living. This is threatened in drownings and heart attacks. That’s why the treatment is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Death results if severe blood loss from arteries and veins isn’t stopped as can occur in car accidents and stabbings.
The Bible often uses figurative language to describe death. The main word used in this sense is “blood”. In order to understand this symbolism we will look at the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament, where “blood” is often a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death.
“Blood” in the Old Testament
The word “blood” (dam Strong’s #1818) is used in several senses in the Old Testament. The literal meanings include: the fluid flowing in arteries and veins of animals and people, which is essential for life (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11, 14); and the blood of an animal sacrifice that could take the place of a sinner’s death in dealing with their sin (Lev. 17:11). The figurative meanings include: death (Num. 35:33; Josh. 2:19, Ezek. 5:17); killing a person (bloodshed), as in murder or capital punishment (Gen. 9:6; Dt. 17:8); killing an animal (Lev. 17:3-4); guilt (Lev. 20:9); a red color (2 Ki. 3:22); and wine, which is the juice of the grape (Gen. 49:11).
So the word “blood” is often used in the Bible as a figure of speech. And it has a range of meanings.
The meaning of atonement
The Hebrew word translated “atone” (kapar, Strong’s #3722) means to cover over or make amends. For example, the timbers of Noah’s ark were covered inside and outside with pitch (Gen. 6:14). In the other 103 occurrences of the word it means being made right with God by the forgiveness of sins. For example, animal sacrifices are said to “make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven” (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7NIV). In this case the animal took the penalty as a substitute. An innocent animal took the punishment that was due to a guilty person.
Recently a Saudi blogger was sentenced to 1000 lashes for criticizing Islamic clerics, and seven religious freedom advocates offered to take the floggings in his place. That’s like atonement; when someone else takes your punishment.
Let’s look at some examples of the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament.
Abel – Murder
The first mention of the word “blood” in the Bible is associated with Abel. After Cain killed Abel, God told him, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). This is a figure of speech called personification because blood doesn’t literally cry out. It means that there is a need for justice to be done. And justice was done when Cain was punished by losing his livelihood of cropping the land and he became a nomad. Here the word “blood” symbolizes death or murder. When Jesus summarized martyrdom in the Old Testament, He mentioned, “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Lk. 11:51), which means from the death of Abel to the death of Zechariah.
Noah – Lifeblood and murder
After the flood, God commanded Noah, “you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Gen. 9:4-6). Here the term “shedding blood” means murder. In this way, the word “blood” is associated with death. People are valuable because they are made in the image of God. That’s why the Israelites were told that execution was to be the punishment for murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:16-32).
In this passage “blood” is associated with life and death. We know that if too much blood is lost from the body, life is replaced with death. In this sense blood is the life of the body. That’s why it’s translated “lifeblood”. But blood has no life on its own. Blood inside the body is a sign of life, while blood outside the body can be a sign of death. So blood can be associated with both life and death. But we will see that in the Bible it’s usually associated with death.
After the flood they were allowed to eat meat but prohibited from eating blood. This command was also given to the Israelites (Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 17:10-14; 19:26; Dt.12:15-16, 20-28; 15:23; 1 Sam. 14:32-35). And this is still one of the regulations today for Jewish kosher food. Both physical and spiritual reasons were probably behind this prohibition. Blood present in meat means it is not fully cooked, and eating uncooked meat can lead to disease or sickness. Another two reasons are given in this passage: “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:10-11). First, it was essential for life – “the life of a creature is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11, 14; Dt. 12:23). Second, because blood had a special role in animal sacrifices, it was not to be eaten as part of their food.
Joseph – Apparent violent death
When Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, they deceived their father by dipping his multicolored robe in goat’s blood and taking it to him. Then Jacob said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces” (Gen. 37:33). So blood on the clothing was taken to be evidence of a violent death.
Moses – Animal sacrifices and forgiveness
In the first Passover each Israelite household in Egypt killed a lamb and put the blood around their front door. At midnight all the firstborn Egyptians and their animals were struck dead. But God told the Israelites “when I see the blood (around your doorways), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death.
The word “blood” is mentioned 88 times in the book of Leviticus. That’s the greatest number of any book in the Bible. On these occasions blood is associated with burnt, fellowship, sin and guilt offerings; offerings for ceremonial uncleanness; the dedication of Israelite priests; not eating blood; or it’s a symbol of murder (bloodshed), atonement (17:11), or death (20:9).
The blood of slaughtered animals was a part of the Israelites’ offerings. In the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, the priests splashed blood on the altar (Lev. Ch 1, 3, 7). And in the sin offering, the priest sprinkled blood in front of the curtain to the Most Holy Place as well (Lev. 4). But these offerings for sin couldn’t address unknown sins. Because of such sins, the tabernacle, the land and the nation were ceremonially unclean. So God instituted the Day of Atonement for the compete atonement of all sin (Lev. 16:33).
Blood was a significant part of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Lev. 16). This was the only day of the year when the High Priest could enter the most Holy Place of the tabernacle/temple. A bull was killed and he sprinkled the blood on the ark of the covenant and in front of it to atone for the sins of his household. Then he did the same with the blood of a goat to atone for the Israelites’ sins. Then he put some of this blood on the horns of the altar. God wanted His people to know what happened in secret in the tabernacle. So the High Priest put his hands on another goat and confessed their sins and the scapegoat was taken away and released in the wilderness. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The animals die so that the people can live. The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty had been paid. The transfer was also depicted by the scapegoat.
This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). So in the animal sacrifices, blood stood for death and judgment. But it also enabled God’s people to continue living godly lives.
Moses – Covenant making
After God gave the Israelites the ten commandments and other instructions, Moses wrote them down (Ex. 24:3-8). He then read them to the people, and they promised to obey them. Then Moses built an altar and animals were slaughtered as offerings to God on the altar and the blood was splashed on the altar and splashed on the people. The blood on the altar symbolized God’s part in the covenant (His forgiveness) and the blood on the people symbolized their obligation to obey the covenant. The blood probably symbolized that they would die (like the sacrificial animal) if they broke the covenant (Gen. 15:10-18; Jer. 34:18-19). So the Mosaic covenant was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
Other examples of “blood” in the Old Testament
Murderers are sometimes identified by blood on their clothes or shoes. So they were referred to as having on them the blood of the person they killed. Since murder demanded punishment, the person who carried this out was said to be avenging the murdered person’s blood (Num. 35:19, 26-27; Ps. 79:10). This was said to take the blood away from those responsible to take vengeance, and to return it to the head of the murderer (1 Ki. 2:29-34). Murder is said to pollute the land (Num. 35:33; Ps. 106:38). It needs atonement: “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num. 35:33). Here murder is called “bloodshed” and “blood” stands for the death of the murderer.
To kill someone for no reason is to “sin against innocent blood” (1 Sam. 19:5ESV). Jeremiah said if they killed him, they would bring “the guilt of innocent blood” upon themselves (Jer. 26:15). If a person deserved to be put to death, or if they caused their own death, their blood was said to be on their own head and not on someone else’s (Josh. 2:19; 2 Sam. 1:16; 1 Ki. 2:37).
The symbolism of blood in the Old Testament
God chose blood as a symbol of life and death because of what it is. Blood is associated with both life and death. It’s a mixture of cells (red, white and platelets) and plasma that’s pumped through the arteries and capillaries to provide oxygen and nutrients to every cell of the body. The veins also carry away waste products. The loss of too much blood, without a transfusion, can lead to death, which is loss of life. The Bible says that “The body without the spirit is dead” (Jas. 2:26). Likewise, the body without sufficient oxygenated blood is dead. When our circulatory system stops, we die. That’s why CPR is important.
For us today, blood is mainly a symbol of life. Blood tests monitor our health and blood transfusions help to sustain life. If you Google “blood” and “death”, you mainly get web pages on computer games! Today blood is mainly associated with death when there is terrorism and war. But in ancient times, blood was mostly a symbol of death.
In animal sacrifices an innocent animal was a substitute for a guilty person. It took the penalty for their sin and rebellion against God. There was no other way to escape this death penalty. Likewise, Jesus Christ died for people like us who sin and rebel against God. He is our substitute. There was no other way of salvation to escape this death penalty. The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). And “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Have you accepted God’s gift that replaces our destiny of eternal death with eternal life?
An animal sacrifice also included a cost to the person giving the sacrifice. Animals were valuable to them. The price of the animal involved represented a price that had to be paid by the one providing the offering. Each time an animal sacrifice was made, the person giving it was reminded of the cost of sin. What about us? When are we reminded of the seriousness and the cost of sin? Does the Lord’s Supper help us remember this?
Day of atonement
Each year the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle by means of the blood of animal sacrifices so the sins of the people could be forgiven. This was a physical picture of what Jesus did for us. He entered God’s presence by His death (“His own blood”) for our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-14. His was a superior sacrifice – it only needed to be done once, not annually. It superseded all the sacrifices associated with the day of atonement.
Isaiah described it as “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are (spiritually) healed” (Isa. 53:5; 1 Pt. 2:24-25). Jesus died for our sins like a sacrificial animal. The innocent for the guilty. As our substitute; to make us right with God.
Pope Francis has just visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe died. In 1941 when a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 men selected to die began to cry: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. And his request was granted. The innocent substituted for the condemned and took the punishment.
Blood of the covenant
As Moses was the mediator of the old covenant that was ratified by “the blood of the covenant” (Ex. 24:8; Heb. 9:20) when blood was sprinkled on the people, Jesus was the mediator of the new covenant when He died. His death brought in the new covenant. As the death of animals, symbolized by their blood, atoned for the sins of the Israelites, Christ’s death atones for the sins of all who accept His sacrifice.
This relates to the Lord’s supper. After He drank from the cup of wine, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). So Jesus is quoting from Exodus. Only this time He’s using a figure of speech in using the word “blood” to stand for His death. Did you know that the cup of wine in the Lord’s Supper represents the death of Jesus? How does this work? We have seen that in the Old Testament, the word “blood” can be used figuratively for the word “death”. Also wine is called “the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11; Dt. 32:14; Isa. 63:2). I suppose this came from the fact that if you crush grapes you get wine, while if you stab an animal you get blood. So death is linked to wine because they are both linked to blood in the Old Testament.
This was a superior covenant because it fulfilled the old one. Christ’s sacrificial death (which is called “blood” in the New Testament) fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12).
Although today we see blood as a life-giving substance, the Old Testament often uses the word “blood” as a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death. For example, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). His death is described as “the shedding of His blood” and elsewhere as “His blood” or “the blood of Christ”, and it was like “a sacrifice of atonement”. Let’s remember it’s not referring to the fluid flowing through His body, which was just like yours and mine. Like the rest of His body, it was common to humanity.
Real blood from animals was evidence of their death as a sacrifice. They paid the death penalty as a substitute for people’s sins. That’s the background to the New Testament which shows Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice who paid the death penalty for us.
We have seen that the Israelites’ spiritual life was sustained by animal sacrifice, evidenced by their blood. This was a foretaste of the situation today where spiritual life begins with our acceptance of the death of Christ and is sustained by our ongoing appreciation of this by reading and meditating on Scripture.
Written, August 2016
Also see: Symbols of Christ’s death
Singing is good for you. It can have physical and psychological benefits and help you to feel good. Singing improves the memory and can alleviate depression. It involves the mind, the emotions and the body. It’s been said that, “Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought”. In ancient times, when few people could read or write, stories were passed down through song, because songs are memorable.
Group singing has three benefits. It enables the expression of our emotions, which can increase our confidence. It requires a flexible mind in order to make the correct sounds, which can make us more creative and adaptable to life’s challenges. And it connects us socially to others with a common purpose. So group singing can enhance our wellbeing.
In this post we look at some songs in the Bible. We know that Jesus sang with His disciples and Paul and Silas sang in prison (Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26; Acts 16:15). And there are songs throughout the Bible.
About one third of the Bible is poetry. For example, the Wisdom books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs and the Prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations are all poetic. Some of these poems are the lyrics of songs. For example, Psalms, Song of Songs and Lamentations. There are 150 songs in the book of Psalms. It was the Israelites song book. They must have been passionate singers. In all, there are about 185 songs mentioned in the Bible. Let’s look at a few of them.
The first song – after a great victory
The first song mentioned in the Bible happens after one of its greatest miracles. God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by parting the Red Sea, allowing them to escape from Pharaoh’s army. When the Egyptians pursue them, the sea flows back over them, washing away their chariots and horsemen. Not one of them survived. This was a display of God’s power over nature and a picture of salvation.
What was the people’s response? The Bible says, “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in Him and in Moses His servant” (Ex. 14:31NIV). They then had a great celebration that included music, singing and dancing. It was like after victory in battle (1 Sam. 18:6-7; 2 Sam. 1:20). The lyrics of the song they sang are in the Bible. It had five parts.
The chorus is (Ex. 15:1, 21):
“Sing to the Lord,
for He is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
He has hurled into the sea”
Here they are summarizing and praising God for what He had done.
Who God is (v.2-3). They praise God as a strong warrior and say “He is my God”.
What God has done (v.4-12). They retell the defeat of the powerful Egyptian army. How they “drowned in the Red Sea”. Only their God had such power.
What God would do in future (v. 13-17). They predict that God will lead them in the conquest and occupation of Canaan. When the Edomites, the Philistines and the Canaanites hear what God had done, they would be terrified. This was later confirmed by Rahab (Josh. 2:9-11).
Conclusion (v.18). “The Lord reigns for ever and ever”. His powerful rule is eternal.
So the first song in the Bible celebrated a great military victory over their enemies. The lesson for us is that as God delivered the Israelites from slavery, through Jesus He can deliver us from the slavery of our sinfulness.
The last song – anticipates a great victory
The last song mentioned in the Bible happens in heaven when there is a time of great tribulation on earth. It’s sung by those who were martyred for their faith in God. They sang the song “of Moses and of the Lamb”.
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations.
Who will not fear you, Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev. 15:3-4).
The song is comprised of quotations from the Old Testament. The context is God’s judgement of the ungodly. Those martyred in the tribulation are celebrating God’s coming victory over the ungodly. When Jesus returns in power and glory, He will right the wrongs on our world (2 Th. 1:6-9). Justice will be administered by our mighty God (“Lord God almighty”) over all the nations (He’s “King of the nations”). He is unique (“You alone are holy”). And in the millennial kingdom, He will be worshipped by all nations.
Because of His sacrificial death, Jesus is worthy to execute judgment, as described earlier in Revelation in the new song also sung in heaven:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).
So the last song in the Bible celebrates the final victory over Satan and those who oppose God. They anticipate deliverance from the presence of sin. The lesson for us is that in future all the wrongs and injustice in our world will be made right through Jesus and justice will be done.
The longest song – All about the Bible
Psalm 119 is a massive acrostic poem of 176 verses. There are 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Moreover, the eight verses in each stanza begin with the same Hebrew letter.
The theme of Psalm 119 is the Hebrew Bible which is called by names such as: “law”, “statutes”, “precepts”, “commands”, “laws”, “decrees”, “word”, and “promise”. It’s mentioned in almost every verse. For example, Psalm 119:89-96 can be titled “God’s enduring word”:
89 Your word, Lord, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens.
90 Your faithfulness continues through all generations;
you established the earth, and it endures.
91 Your laws endure to this day,
for all things serve you.
92 If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.
93 I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have preserved my life.
94 Save me, for I am yours;
I have sought out your precepts.
95 The wicked are waiting to destroy me,
but I will ponder your statutes.
96 To all perfection I see a limit,
but your commands are boundless.
This stanza begins by saying that God’s word is eternal and ends by saying that it’s boundless. So, God’s word is a reliable enduring foundation for our faith. God also established and sustains creation. Through exposure to the Scriptures we can be saved from the penalty of sin. Peter wrote, “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Pt. 1:23). An acquaintance with God’s word reminds us to confess our sins a daily basis in order to maintain our relationship with God (1 Jn. 1:9).
So the longest song in the Bible celebrates God’s word, which is available to us in the Bible. The heading that I’ve given it is “All about the Bible”. It’s about how important the Bible is and how it can guide and help us in our daily life. The lesson for us is that we can trust God’s unchanging word.
The shortest song – God keeps His promises
The two shortest songs in the Bible, which are comprised of five Hebrew words, are in 2 Chronicles.
After Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem (about 958 BC), the priests carried the ark of the covenant into the Most Holy Place of the temple. Then “Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:
‘He is good;
His love endures forever’
Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God” (2 Chr. 5:13-14). So they celebrated the ark’s transfer from the tabernacle to the temple with this song. God had kept His promise to bring them into the Promised Land.
About 100 years later, Jehoshaphat was king of Judah (860 BC). When the Moabite and Ammonite armies came to attack, Jehoshaphat prayed to God for help. He was told to go to the pass of Ziz near the end of the gorge in the desert of Jeruel. “You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you” (2 Chr. 20:17).
Early the next morning they set out and Jehoshaphat “appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise Him for the splendor of His holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:
‘Give thanks to the Lord,
for His love endures forever’” (2 Chr. 20:21).
So the army was led by the singers! As they began to sing and praise God, the Lord caused the enemy to kill themselves. So the Israelites showed they trusted God to deliver them from their enemies by singing this song.
A verse based on these two short songs occurs six times in the Bible (1 Chr. 16:34; Ps. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1). It says,
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
His love endures forever”.
Two reasons are given to give thanks to the Lord. First, “He is good”. That’s a part of God’s nature. Second “His love endures forever”. Under the old covenants, God promised to love the Israelites (Dt. 7:8-9, 12-13; 23:5; 2 Sam. 7:15). So this covenant love never ends. It goes on and on.
The last sentence of this verse, “His love endures for ever” occurs 43 times in the Bible. 26 of these are in Psalm 136 where it is repeated as a chorus or refrain. Under the old covenant, the Israelites knew that God loved them eternally.
So the shortest songs in the Bible reminded God’s Old Testament people that God keeps His promises and He helps them. Today Christians live under the new covenant of God’s grace. Likewise, He will keep His promises to us and help us as His New Testament people.
Songs are a powerful way to express our Christian faith and to remind us of what God has done for us.
The first and last songs in the Bible are songs of deliverance from enemies and the ungodly. They are songs of salvation. So let’s sing songs of Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer.
The longest song in the Bible emphasised the importance of God’s word. Let’s use the Bible to guide and help us in our daily life. So let’s sing songs that remind us of Scriptural events and Scriptural truths.
The shortest songs in the Bible were reminders of God’s covenants with His people. So let’s sings songs about God’s promises to us.
Christians are told to sing “to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16). So, let’s “Give thanks to the Lord (our Creator and Redeemer), for He is good; His love (shown by Christ’s sacrifice) endures forever”.
Written, April 2016
As we’ve become more connected with internet and wireless devices, the dangers we face online have grown. The threats include malware, malicious web sites, identity theft, ransomeware, pornography, scams and hacking. In order to be safe, we need to defend ourselves against them. An ancient Hebrew song reminds us how we can be safe and secure against the dangers we face in the journey of life.
1I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
He who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, He who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
He will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore. (Ps. 121NIV)
This is the second in a series of 15 songs that are titled, “A song of ascent”. Three times a year the Israelites travelled to Jerusalem for a religious festival (Ex. 23:14-17; Dt. 16:16; Ps. 122:3-4). Jerusalem is in the mountains and they probably sang these songs during their pilgrimage. The roads went upwards towards Jerusalem, which is at an elevation of 770 metres above sea level. These songs reflect events on the journey to Jerusalem, and metaphorically of events in the journey through human life.
Some think that “the mountains” in this song were the places where the pagans worshipped their gods (Dt. 12:2; 1 Ki. 11:7). Sometimes the Israelites worshipped idols in these high places. And Judah’s kings were judged according to whether they destroyed them or not. For example, king Josiah removed all the idolatrous shrines at the high places (2 Ki. 23:19). If this is the singer’s meaning, then he is saying that he is helped by the God who made the mountains, and not by the idols.
Another interpretation is that “the mountains” is a metaphor for the dangers faced in life. However, as the other instances of this word in the songs of ascents refer to Mount Zion and to the mountains that surround Jerusalem, I think “the mountains” in verse 1 are physical and not figurative (Ps. 125:1-2).
The key word in this song is “protect” (or keep, watch over, guard, shield, preserve). In the Hebrew language it’s shamar (Strongs 8104). It occurs six times to emphasise that God protects His people. He is like a watchman guarding a city or a bird shielding its young (Ps. 91:4; 127:1).
1I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
Like Daniel prayed toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10-11), the singer is looking towards the mountains where God dwelt in the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (Ps. 48:2; Isa. 8:18). They trust in the God of creation to protect them on the journey to Jerusalem. After all, He’s the one who made the mountains and the universe. He who also made the Israelite nation, helps them individually. God knows every detail of their situation.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
He who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, He who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
There was a risk of slipping and falling down a steep slope on the roads towards Jerusalem. And we can face all sorts of danger every day of our lives. But God knows about it 24/7. He doesn’t need to sleep like us. He can help us keep standing and keep going on our journey of life. In Psalms, slipping is a metaphor for doubting one’s faith in God (Ps. 73:2; 94:18) and ceasing to value Scripture (Ps. 17:7; 37:31). So, it probably refers to their spiritual life more than their physical life. This promise was given to Israel who were God’s people in the Old Testament. There are similar promises in the New Testament that God protects the spiritual lives of Christians.
“the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” (2 Th. 3:3).
“The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18).
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
While travelling towards Jerusalem, there was a risk of facing heat, cold, rain, snow, lightning and wind. As they didn’t have motor vehicles like us, they were exposed to the weather when they travelled. Like a hat protects us from sunburn and a bodyguard protects us from danger, God protects us from every evil influence during the day and the night. Mentioning the sun by day and the moon by night is a poetic figure of speech to indicate all day-time and night-time dangers. This is an example of merism (where opposites incorporate all between them): heaven/earth, sun/moon, day/night, going/coming, now/forevermore.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
He will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
There was a risk of robbery on the roads towards Jerusalem. Your life could be threatened. And in early Australia, travellers could be robbed by outlaw bushrangers. But God protects us in all we do. Our spiritual lives are secure.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
Lessons for us
Like a Jew travelling to Jerusalem we’re on the journey of life. I hope we’re all prepared, by being part of God’s people today.
The Jewish pilgrims were assured of safety through God’s protection. They could trust God to help them. Let’s remember that God still protects those who trust in Him. We’re eternally secure. He’s mainly interested in our spiritual welfare. That’s why we should look up to Him in prayer for help in our daily lives. It’s good to have a source of outside help.
Written, for hike to Mt Solitary, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia in April 2016
I have received the following comment about a post on polygamy.
Sorry, but what I come to notice is that some people are using the New Testament to then try to interpret the Old Testament. Just like the author of this post is doing. By using Jesus and Paul interpretation of the Old Testament (Gen. 2:24-25) to say this means marriage is only between one men and one woman. If you see, in the Old Testament GOD never condemned polygamy for his people. It will be really hard for me to believe that GOD has clearly spoken and given rules about certain things like owning a Hebrew Slave, yet when it comes to polygamy he decides is best to put it a non-clear way.
1-“The first mention of polygamy in the Bible involves Lamech who claimed to avenge himself eleven times more often than Cain (Gen. 4:19, 24)”. -this point is moot, the text has to do with the killing, the fact that he had two wife makes no sense. If you find a person in the bible that was evil but only had one wife you will not say monogamy is bad.
2- “In fact, God had commanded that the king “must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Dt. 17:17)” – I love this because if you actually read the TEXT in CONTENT, well actually just read starting from verse 14, see that GOD is talking about the rules that the KING OF ISRAEL has to follow. He never ever say, everyone or my people. He is specially talking about the KING OF ISRAEL.
3- “The most extreme example of polygamy in the Bible is king Solomon who “had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray” (1 Ki. 11:3). His wives turned him to idolatry.” – Again here, the passage clearly never say don’t have many wife’s because I say it should be only one men and one woman. It clearly teaches the wrong thing here is that the wife’s made him believe in ANOTHER GOD.
This post is based on a survey of the instances of polygamy in the Old Testament (OT). I have been careful to identify instances of a man having more than one wife (or concubines) at the same time (concurrently). In those days woman sometimes died as a result of childbirth or for other reasons. In such cases the man usually remarried and could be said to have had children with two wives. Such serial marriages are not polygamy.
We will see that because polygamy wasn’t God’s idea, it wasn’t the original form of marriage, and it wasn’t the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it wasn’t the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
In this post we look at whether the instances of polygamy (including bigamy) in the OT are a command, a model to follow or merely a report of events. Monogamy will be considered in the same way so the two can be compared.
Is polygamy a command, a model or a report?
Some think that Exodus 21: 7-11 regulates polygamy involving a female Hebrew slave. However the translation of “ownah” (Strong’s 5772, feminine noun) as “marital rights” in verse 10 is uncertain as this is its only occurrence in Scripture (NET Bible). Also, it has been suggested that it could mean accommodation or ointments. The main point is that the displaced woman was to be cared for and not disadvantaged. Therefore, this verse doesn’t definitely relate to polygamy.
Hebrew law maintained the rights of the firstborn in a polygamous marriage (Dt. 21:15-17). Does this mean that God approved polygamy? Not necessarily, but He recognized that it did occur as this passage begins “If a man has two wives …”. It seems that God allowed polygamy because otherwise a man who had multiple wives would need to divorce all except one and those who were divorced would be destitute because they would be unable to remarry.
Under Hebrew law, levirate marriage obligated a man whose brother has died and left a widow without heir to marry her (Dt. 25:5-10). The son of this union “shall carry on the name of the dead brother”. This special case preserved the family name and protected the family property and the widow’s welfare in societies where women can’t own property and there is no social welfare. If the man was already married, this would mean that he had two wives. This seems to be the only OT command that is potentially related to polygamy. The best Scriptural examples of levirate marriage are Tamar (Gen. 38:1-30) and Ruth (Ruth 3:1 – 4:17), but they don’t involve polygamy.
Nathan the prophet said that God gave David Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:8). Does this mean that God commanded David to be polygamous? When we look at the context of this verse, it is part of the interpretation of the parable in v.1-4. The main message is that God has placed David as king of Israel in place of Saul. David has replaced Saul. So God had given David, as king of Israel, everything that was Saul’s. This included wealth and power and caring for Saul’s wives. If God had given him all this, how despicable of David to take another man’s wife. The Hebrew word translated “into your arms” (Strongs #2436) in v.8 is used in v.3 to describe how a poor man cared for a lamb like it was his daughter. Saul’s wives were given to David to care for like “all Israel and Judah” were given to him. But how could Saul’s wives trust him after how he had treated Uriah and Bathsheba? By the way, there is no conclusive evidence that he married any of them. So, this verse isn’t related to polygamy.
It is interesting to note that Jehoiada (a good High Priest) chose two wives for King Joash (2 Chron. 24:3). Joash was a godly king until the death of Joash, but he didn’t finish well. Was this a model of bigamy to follow for the kings of Judah?
Besides this, I am not aware of any example of polygamy in the OT that has God’s approval.
In the following cases polygamy is reported as a historical event without being endorsed or criticised: Lamech (Gen. 4:19, 23), Nahor (Gen. 22:20-24), Abraham (Gen. 25:6; 1 Chron. 1:32), Esau (Gen. 26:34; 28:6-9), Jacob (Gen. 29:16-30), Eliphaz (Gen. 36:12, Caleb (1 Chron. 2:18-19, 46, 48 ), Manasseh (1 Chron. 7:14), Gideon (Jud. 8:30-31), and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:1-2). Also, some other men who are said to have large numbers of children may have had more than one wife at once. But there are no reported incidences of polygamy among the Jews after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC.
Polygamy is also reported amongst the following kings of Israel without being endorsed or criticised: Saul (2 Sam. 3:7), David (2 Sam. 5:13), Solomon (1 Ki. 11:1-8), Rehoboam (2 Chron. 11:18-21), Ahab (1 Ki. 20:3), Jehoiachin (2 Ki. 24:15), Jehoram (2 Chron. 21:14, 17), Abijah (2 Chron. 13:21), and Joash (2 Chron. 24:3). These kings disobeyed the command not to have many wives (Dt. 17:17). Solomon was the worst offender with 700 wives and 300 concubines!
At that time kings used marriages to establish political alliances with other nations. For example, King Belshazzar (of Babylonia) had many wives and concubines and king Xerxes of Persia had a harem (Dan. 5:2; Est. 1:9; 2:14).
The Bible says that polygamy led to troubles in the family. There was friction, jealousy and rivalry between the wives (Gen. 30:1; 1 Ki. 11:3-4). And Solomon’s wives “led him astray” and “turned his heart after other gods” (1 Ki. 11:3-4).
So polygamy occurred in Old Testament times and it is reported amongst God’s people the Israelites, but it wasn’t approved or commanded by God. The only instance that could be a model for the kings of Judah to follow is the bigamy of king Joash.
How does this compare with what the Old Testament says about monogamy?
Is monogamy a command, a model or a report?
The 10th commandment given to the Israelites includes, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21NIV). The singular word “wife” assumes the ideal that each husband has only one wife.
Similarly God’s commands given to the Jews about 1,000 years later include,
“…the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife (singular) of your marriage covenant.” (Mal. 2:14)
“… do not be unfaithful to the wife (singular) of your youth” (Mal. 2:15b).
The singular word “wife” assumes the ideal that each husband has only one wife.
Hebrew law always assumes the ideal where a husband had one wife and not more than one. For example:
“Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife” (Lev. 18:8; 20:11; Dt. 22:30; 27:20).
“Do not dishonor your father’s brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations” Lev. 18:14; 20:20)
“Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law. She is your son’s wife” (Lev. 18:15).
“Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife” (Lev. 18:16; 20:21).
“Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living” (Lev.18:18).
“Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife” (Lev. 18:20; 20:10).
“These are the regulations the Lord gave Moses concerning relationships between a man and his wife” (Num. 30:16).
“If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife” (Dt. 22:22).
“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant” (Dt. 25:11).
Also, the test for an unfaithful wife assumes the ideal of monogamy (Num. 5:11-31).
In all these instances it is assumed that a husband had one wife at any given time and not more than one.
The commands for the kings of Israel included not having many wives:
“The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself … He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold” (Dt. 17:16-7).
Horses were used in warfare and royal wives were taken to form alliances with other nations. God wanted the kings of Israel to trust in Him and not in armaments or political alliances. The accumulation of wealth may be due to the oppression of the people. So God places limits on the armaments, alliances and wealth of these future kings. The kings “must not take many wives” (v.17). The Hebrew verb translated “many” (Strongs #7235) means multiply. This doesn’t seem to be a command for monogamy because in the previous verse the same word is applied to horses, which were used in warfare. As they wouldn’t be restricted to one horse, then they weren’t necessarily restricted to one wife. So this passage can’t be used to support monogamy for these kings.
After God created Adam He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). Note that the helper, which became Adam’s wife is singular, not plural.
After God created Eve (the first woman) from Adam’s rib, the Bible says “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Because it says “that is why”, Adam and Eve are a model of marriage for humanity (when husband and wife leave their parents and live together). Because it says “his wife” and not “his wives”, this marriage is monogamous, with one man married to one woman and not many women. It is interesting to note that the second “start” to the human population (after the Genesis flood) began with four monogamous couples (Noah and his wife, Shem and his wife, Ham and his wife, Japheth and his wife). Also, Isaac, Joseph and Moses were monogamous.
One of the blessings of a godly man is “Your wife (singular) will be like a fruitful vine within your house” (Ps. 128:3). King Solomon advised “Enjoy life with your wife (singular)” (Eccl. 9:9). Also, a godly man “does not defile his neighbor’s wife (singular)” (Ezek. 18:6, 15).
Others who had one wife were Cain, Lot, servants (Ex. 21:3-5), Amram ( Num. 36:59), Lappidoth (Jud. 4:4), Heber (Jud. 4:17), Gilead (Jud. 11:2), Samson, Elimelek (Ruth 1:2), Phinehas (1 Sam. 4:19), Nabal (1 Sam. 25:3), David’s 600 men (1 Sam. 30:22), Uriah (2 Sam. 11:3), Bahurim (2 Sam. 17:18-19), a prophet (2 Ki. 4:1), Naaman (2 Ki. 5:2), Shallum (2 Ki. 22:14), Hezron (1 Chron. 2:24), Abishur ( 1 Chron. 2:29), Ephraim (1 Chron. 7:23), Jeiel (1 Chron. 8:29), Jehoiada (2 Chron. 22:11), Haman (Est. 5:10), Job (Job 2:9), Ezekiel (Ezek. 24:18). Kings have been omitted from this list because of the greater likelihood of them having more than one wife and of having concubines. For example, although Jezebel is said to be the wife of king Ahab, he also had other wives (1 Ki. 20:3; 21:5-7).
When the men of Benjamin who survived war with the rest of Israel were provided with wives, it was one wife for each man (Jud. 21:20-23).
So monogamy was the original form of human marriage (it was God’s idea) and it is assumed to be the ideal marriage in the commands of the Old Testament. Clearly monogamy was approved by God and was more prevalent in OT times than polygamy.
Marriage as a symbol
It is interesting to note that the OT prophets often illustrated God as the husband of Israel (Is. 54:5-8; 62:5 Jer. 2:2; 3:14; Ezek. 16:32; Hos. 2:16, 19-20; 3:1). In this figure of speech, the nation of Israel is God’s wife. It only makes sense with monogamy and not with polygamy – God only had one bride and wife in the OT and that was the nation of Israel. God didn’t have multiple brides and wives in the OT.
Because of her idolatry (following other God’s), Israel is accused of spiritual adultery (Jer. 3:1, 20; 13:27; Ezek. 23:37; Hos. 1:2; 4:13-14; 5:4; 9:1). Israel had broken the covenant between them (it was like a marriage covenant). This is illustrated by Hosea who married Gomer in a monogamous relationship (Hosea only had one wife). But Gomer was unfaithful in committing adultery – “like an adulterous wife this land (the northern kingdom of Israel) is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord” (Hos. 1:2). Afterwards Hosea took her back. He was to “love her as the Lord loves the Israelites” (Hos. 3:1). Then he told her “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any (other) man, and I will behave the same way toward you” (Hos. 3:3). This is a monogamous marriage, not a polygamous one.
So the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel was a monogamous marriage and not a polygamous one.
Polygamy and monogamy compared
We have seen that monogamy was approved and commanded by God, but polygamy wasn’t. Monogamy was God’s idea. But God protected the rights of children in a polygamous marriage and protected women without an heir. Also the commands given in the OT assume monogamous marriages, and not polygamous ones.
The first marriage was between Adam and Eve, so it was monogamous. Also the marriages of those saved in the Genesis flood to repopulate the earth were monogamous. So marriage was monogamous at the beginning of time and not polygamous. The godly example and model for marriage in the OT was monogamy. Although some godly men were polygamous, they aren’t commended for their polygamy. Instead the Bible records the troubles that this caused (see the lives of David’s and Solomon’s children). The only model to follow that advocates polygamy, may be that the bigamy of king Josiah was a model for the kings of Judah.
Both monogamy and polygamy are reported in the OT without being endorsed or criticised. These are historical reports of events that don’t indicate God’s viewpoint on the subject of marriage.
Because monogamy was God’s idea, it was the original form of marriage, and it was the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it was the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
Because polygamy wasn’t God’s idea, it wasn’t the original form of marriage, and it wasn’t the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it wasn’t the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
Written, August 2015
In my exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation) of the book of Zephaniah, I was amazed that most modern Bible translations have “earth” and not “land” for the Hebrew words adamah (Strongs #127) and erets (Strongs #776).
This passage says (NIV):
“I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything
from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
The Hebrew word adamah (Strongs #127) used twice in Zephaniah (1:2-3) means “ground” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in these verses it means “ground” as earth’s visible surface. This is supported by “the face” (#6440) meaning the surface of the ground (Brown-Driver-Briggs). Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the CJB, DRA, GNV, ISV, NABRE and NKJV Bibles – see BibleGateway.com) or “ground” (which is used by ASV, DARBY and YLT Bibles). The NASB states that the literal meaning is “ground”. This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse describes an attack on Judah), not the whole earth.
According to the Macquarie dictionary, the word “earth” can mean: the planet, its inhabitants, the surface of the planet, the ground, or the softer part of the land. The appropriate meaning of the word “earth” in a particular text is determined by the context of the word. As there are no other words in this passage or the rest of the book that refer unambiguously to the whole planet or all its inhabitants, the first three possible meanings are ruled out. Therefore, the preferred meaning for adamah in Zephaniah (1:2-3) is the ground, the land or the surface of the earth within the country of Judah.
So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“I will sweep away everything
from the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.
This passage says (NIV):
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole earth will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth”
The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) used twice in Zephaniah (1:18) means “earth” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in the Old Testament it can mean: the whole earth, its inhabitants, a region, its inhabitants, or ground (surface of ground). As there are several alternatives, the one chosen should largely depend on the context of the word. Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the ASV, CEB, CJB, DARBY, DRA, GNV, ISV, LEB, NKJV, WEB, YLT and mentioned as an alternative in the NET). This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse addresses the nation of Judah), not the whole earth. The ERV states that both adamah and erets can also mean “land” or “country”. The NLT uses “land” for the first occurrence and “earth” for the second! In a footnote, it says “or land”.
So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole land (of Judah) will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all the people living in the land (of Judah)”
The word erets in Zephaniah
The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) is mentioned eight times in the book of Zephaniah1:18 (twice); 2:3, 5, 11; 3:8, 19, 20. The table below shows how it is translated in four modern versions of the Bible; how I would translate it; and the context.
From this table, it is evident that:
– I only agree with the versions on about 25% (2/8) of the occasions (where they use “land”).
– On the other 75% (ranging 63% to 88%) of occasions (shaded yellow), the versions use “earth” (which has global connotations) even though it is evident from the context that none of these verses refer to the whole planet or all its inhabitants.
– The translators are always using “earth” when the context involves more than one country. However, they are also using it for a single country (1:18)!
By the way, the NKJV uses “land” or “nation” on 50% (4/8) of these occasions.
The phrase kol erets in the prophets
The phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) occurs in Zephaniah 3:8 and 3:19 and is used in the Bible by other prophets. A study was made into the translations of this phrase in the prophetic books by various versions of the Bible. The results are tabulated in a similar format to that described above. The verses are listed in approximate chronological order.
From this table, it is evident that:
– I think that the phrase refers to the whole earth or all its inhabitants in about 13% (6/48) of the verses. The context of these verses is the sphere of God’s reign and God’s sovereignty. The other versions of the Bible agreed with this interpretation.
– These versions of the Bible translated the phrase as “land(s)” “country” or “countries” in about 56% (27/48) of the verses (but the NET used “earth” in three of these verses). The context of these verses is a country/land or a group of countries/lands. So it was used for both individual countries and groups of countries. I agreed with this interpretation. By the way, the fraction for the NKJV was 50%.
– However, the major difference between these versions and how I would translate the phrase is that they use “earth” where I use “land” (shaded yellow) in: Isa. 10:14 (except the NIV); 25:8; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8, 19 (except the NIV); Jer. 50:23; 51:7, 25, 41, 49; Hab. 2:20; Lam. 2:15; Ezek. 35:14; Dan. 8:5 (except the NET); Zech. 1:11. This is about 31% (15/48) of the verses. It shows that the translators are not only using this practice in Zephaniah, but in at least seven other prophetic books as well. Why are they doing this? Is it when it refers to more than one country? This is mainly the case, except for the countries of Babylon (Jer.50:23; Hab. 2:20), Edom (Ezek. 35:14) and Judah (Zeph. 1:18). So they are not consistent.
It is interesting that these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. They agree on 90% of occasions (it is 80% when the NKJV is included). However, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “country”/”land” for an individual country and sometimes they choose “earth”. Also, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “countries”/”lands” for a group of countries and sometimes they choose “earth”.
I have shown that although four modern versions of the Bible usually translate the Hebrew words adamah and erets (Strongs #127 and #776) in the book of Zephaniah as “earth”; the word “land” would be a better translation.
A study was made of the translations of the phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) in the prophetic books by four modern versions of the Bible. This showed that the poor translation in Zephaniah was evident in about 31% of the occurrences of the phrase in the prophetic books. The context of many of these is groups of countries (but some are single countries). I was unable to determine why these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. Are the translators assuming that in the days of the prophets a group of nations was viewed as comprising the whole earth? But this doesn’t explain all the translations! The methodology seems to be inconsistent. Are they using some other criterion? Could the consistency between different versions indicate collusion or plagiarism?
Written, November 2014
Also See: God’s warning
The Islamic State is killing minorities in Iraq and Syria who won’t convert to Islam. It’s genocide. Women and children are taken as sexual slaves. People are fleeing to save their lives. How would you feel in the face of this onslaught if you were one of the Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis or Christians? Terrified? Shocked in unbelief? Wanting to escape?
This article looks at the book of Zephaniah where the Jews are warned of an impending terrible destruction. We will see that, because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.
Zephaniah prophesised “during the reign of Josiah” (Zeph. 1:1NIV), who was king over Judah in 640 – 609 BC. At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. Judah was a vassal state of Assyria during much of the 7th century BC. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Josiah’s father Amon and grandfather Manasseh were wicked kings who spread idolatry across Judah. They worshipped Baal, Asherah, and the stars and planets, with child sacrifice to Molech and ritual prostitution (2 Ki. 21:6-9; 2 Chr. 33:6-9). There was occultism and the righteous were martyred. Josiah turned back to God and repaired the temple, restoring temple worship in 622BC.
Zephaniah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 70 years after Isaiah and Micah and was a contemporary of Nahum and the young Jeremiah. He is recognised as the last pre-exilic prophet.
Before Zephaniah, Isaiah proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He warned that Judah’s wickedness would be punished by the Babylonians. The judgment is called “the day of the Lord”. But they would be restored when the Messiah would reign. Micah also proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He lists their sins, and predicts a ruler from Bethlehem and the restoration of a remnant. The main theme of these prophets was God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. We will see that this is what Zephaniah prophesied as well. So he may have been already familiar with the content of his message from the earlier prophets.
During the time of Zephaniah, Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies. At this time, Jeremiah (Ch. 1-38) denounced the sins of Judah. He predicted that because of these they would be defeated by the Babylonians and be exiled for 70 years. But he also predicted their restoration and life under the Messiah with a new covenant.
So, at the time when Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies. Idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent; they were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Apart from the first verse, the book of Zephaniah is poetry, not prose. It teems with figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, metonymy and synecdoche.
God is the central character. He is a God of action. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end he shows mercy and pardons people. Zephaniah is a humble spokesman: he speaks about God and not himself.
The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. However, this is prevented by their sins.
Through “the day of the Lord”, Judah is restored to serve Him and they are joined by believing Gentiles.
The two main themes of Zephaniah are predictions of God’s judgment and God’s deliverance, which show His justice and mercy. Zephaniah mainly concerns the coming judgment and punishment of Judah and other nations because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is followed by the promised restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance.
Those who “have sinned against the Lord” (1:17) will be judged and those who obey and trust the Lord will be restored (2:3; 3:12). The themes of judgment and restoration are linked by a call to repentance (2:1-3).
Looking at these linkages shown in the schematic diagram, four major themes can be identified: Humanity’s sinfulness, God’s warning, God’s judgment, and God’s deliverance. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Zephaniah shows that human sinfulness is a universal problem; it affected both Judah and the other nations.
The sins of Judah included: idolatry (1:3, 4), syncretism (where the true God is worshipped through or alongside other gods) (1:5; 2 Ki. 17:41), apostasy (1:6), following foreign (pagan) customs and culture, which compromised their identity as God’s special people (1:8-9), violence (1:9), apathy and pride (1:12; 3:11), love of money (1:18), oppression (3:10), rebellion (3:10), self-sufficiency, unruliness and ungodliness (3:2), greedy and corrupt leaders (3:3-4, 7), lying and deceit (1:9; 3:13), and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance (1:12). They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6).
The sins of other nations included: pride (2:10, 15), self-sufficiency (2:15), and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people (2:8, 10).
This sinfulness was the source and reason for God’s judgment. God had given His people standards to live by in the Mosaic law. So they should have known better.
Now we come to God’s response to their sins.
The prophets warned God’s people about the consequences of their sinfulness. They were breaking the covenant with their God. Instead of living like God’s people, they were living like pagans. They were breaking most of the ten commandments. The punishment for disobeying the covenant is given in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 28:15-68). It included being defeated by their enemies, having their cities besieged, plundered and destroyed and their people captured and scattered to other nations.
Zephaniah calls for repentance (2:3). There is deliverance for the humble who trust God. But Jerusalem is unrepentant (3:6-7). They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the northern kingdom about 100 years earlier that lead to them being captured by the Assyrians and destroyed as a nation.
So God is merciful: He warns His people of the consequences of their behavior. And we know that king Josiah did repent.
There are two possible responses to a warning. The first is to ignore it. Now we come to the major theme of God’s judgment.
Judgment is predicted for both Judah and other nations for their ongoing sinfulness.
First for the Jews. The “day of the Lord” is mentioned at least eleven times in the book of Zephaniah (1:7, 8, 9, 10, 14 (twice), 15, 18; 2: 2 (twice), 3). Each occurrence is associated with a message to Judah. According to the NET Bible the concept of “the day of the Lord” may have originated in the ancient Near Eastern idea of the sovereign’s day of conquest, where a king would boast that he had concluded an entire military campaign in a single day. In the Old Testament the phrase first appears in the book of Amos (Amos 5:18-20).
It is a time of great judgement. But when and where will it occur? The book begins with God declaring (1:2-3): “I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.” “When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
At the end of chapter 1, Zephaniah comments (1:18): “In the fire of His jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”
So everything on the ground will be devastated. Where will it occur? It is clear from the next verse that both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). He calls it “the day of the Lord” (1:7, 14) and “the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18; 2:2). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7).
But why does the NIV say the judgment is on “the face of the earth” (1:2, 3), “the whole earth” and “all who live on the earth” (1:18)? It seems to me that these phrases are translated poorly by most modern translations of the Bible. Click the link to see my reasons. A better translation is: “the land (of Judah)” (1:2, 3), “the whole land (of Judah)”, and “all who live on the land (of Judah) (1:18).
The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement, “the day of the Lord”: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18).
As it described total destruction of living things and idols, yet there are survivors (a humble remnant), the description of the judgment seems to include hyperbole (1:2-3, 18b, 2:3; 3:11-13). Some resolve this dilemma by assuming that the verses on deliverance (3:9-20) were written after the time of Zephaniah. But this isn’t necessary because the combination of the themes of judgement, deliverance of a remnant and a new life of blessing for the faithful is an old as Noah’s flood. So the day of the Lord includes both punishment and purification. Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterised by both justice (when he punishes sinners) and mercy (when he restores the repentant).
When will the judgment occur? “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly” (1:7, 14). It’s imminent. It describes the desolation after an army invades Judah and Jerusalem (1:4-18a). Nothing will be able to save the Judeans (1:18a). It will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). A time of wailing (1:11). This prediction was probably given at least 30 years before it was fulfilled when Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment was to occur. In the meantime, the purpose of the distress was so Judah would repent.
Secondly, judgment is also predicted as total destruction for nations around Judah. Philistia in the west (2:4-6), Moab and Ammon in the east (2:8-11), Egypt in the south (2:12) and Assyria in the north (2:13-15). As there is judgment in all directions, no one can escape. God also promised to judge all the wicked Gentiles (3:8). This is when other nations experience “the day of the Lord”. It was announced by Zephaniah to call Judah to repentance (3:6-7).
About 50 years later Ezekiel also prophesied the destruction of Ammon, Moab and Philistia (Ch. 25) (Assyria had already been invaded by the Babylonians). Ammon and Moab would be invaded by Babylonia. God would take vengeance on Philistia. Also, Egypt and its allies would be invaded by Babylonia (Ch 29-32). After this it was invaded by the Persians. So all these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions.
God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all.
The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behavior so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.
Deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.
First for the Jews. Believers would be protected during “the day of the Lord” (2:3). Then God promises to restore a Jewish remnant (2:7; 3:10-13, 18-20). Deliverance and salvation follow judgment. The scattered Jews will return to the land of Judah. They will seek the Lord, trust in Him, obey Him and be humble (2:3; 3:12). They will resume the temple offerings. Their enemies will be punished and there will be peace and honesty in their land. Shame and wickedness will cease (3:11-13). The Jews will be praised and honored around the world – praise and honor has replaced their shame. They will occupy Philistia, Moab and Ammon (2:7, 9c). This leads to joyful celebration in Jerusalem under God’s leadership (3:14-17). Singing has replaced their wailing (3:14), because the punishment has been taken away, the enemies turned back and God is with them (v.15). There is joy and singing in heaven as well (3:17). God “will rejoice over you with singing”.
When will the deliverance occur (Zeph. 3:10-20)? A Jewish remnant returned to Judah after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Although Gentiles called “on the name of the Lord” when they became Christians (Zeph. 3:9; Rom. 10:13), I don’t think that the deliverance described has been completed yet. Did Judah have peace (3:13)? After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Have the Jews been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20)? It says “never again will you fear any harm” (3:15), yet Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Secondly, redemption is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies (2:11): “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands”. When they realise the awesomeness of God, they will repent and worship Him. They will also seek His help in prayer and serve Him (3:9). This has been fulfilled to some degree in the Christian church.
We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews of the 7th century BC that because of humanity’s sinfulness, God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles in the “day of the Lord”. And God did judge them. But God is merciful. He warns them of their situation and their need to repent.
After this a Jewish remnant will be restored and they will worship Him as King of Israel.
So Zephaniah’s main themes are: Mankind’s sinfulness, God’s warning to repent, God’s judgment (the day of the Lord) for the unrepentant, and God’s deliverance for the repentant (the remnant). This is an example of “the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). These are two aspects of God’s character. The kindness is for those who repent, while the sternness is for the unrepentant.
The Jews should have known about these themes because they come from the Pentateuch. It contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It also says if they confess their sins with humility, then God would remember their covenant (Lev. 26:40-45). So their repentance is the goal of their punishment. God wanted them to turn back to following Him once again.
Zephaniah also implies that God is the God of all nations. In those days each nation had their own gods. People were polytheistic. Here we see that Judah’s God is sovereign and supreme over other nations. He will destroy all the other gods (2:11). Therefore, He was sovereign and supreme over their gods. So the fact of one true God as expressed in the first two commandments is another theme of Zephaniah.
Furthermore, it implies that God intervenes in history (1:12). They thought He wouldn’t intervene, but God says He will search Jerusalem (2:11). So the fact that Judah’s God intervenes in human affairs and history is another theme of Zephaniah.
In order to apply Zephaniah’s prophecy to our modern world, we need to take of account of what God has revealed since then. Today we know that the New Testament teaches that because of humanity’s sinfulness, we all deserve God’s punishment. But God is merciful. In the Bible He warns us of our situation and our need to repent. Jesus took the punishment for us when He was crucified. Those who repent are redeemed to worship Him as their Lord.
When Paul addresses the sins of the self-righteous moralist, he writes “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). So God warns people today of a coming judgment. Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). In the meantime, we are to be faithful followers of Christ (2 Pt. 3:11-14).
Even though it was written over 2,600 years ago, Zephaniah’s book is relevant to our times. We can apply the four main themes to ourselves. What are our sins? What are our gods? Are we apathetic? Are we materialistic? Are we selfish? How loyal are we to God? They had a choice. So do we. Will we confess and repent of our sins in order to maintain our relationship with the Lord? There is deliverance and salvation for the humble who trust in the death of Jesus Christ for their sins. Do we have the hope of heaven? The hope of a better time to come.
Because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming; but deliverance and salvation is promised for the repentant.
Written, November 2014
We live in a world of contracts. They regulate our lives and financial transactions. There are employment contracts and marriage contracts. Contracts for the supply of telephone and internet services. Contracts when you buy a car or a property or build a house. Anti-bullying contracts at schools.
This article looks at some of God’s contracts in the Bible. We will see that because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Adam and Eve lived in utopia. But after they disobeyed God, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Sinful behaviour increased until it had to be punished when God destroyed the world in a global flood and started again with Noah’s family. Noah lived about 2,500 years BC. We see two aspects of God’s character in His response to humanity’s sin. First there is judgement and punishment. Second there is grace and mercy. God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises.
The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses at about 1,500 years BC. The most important types of contracts, agreements and treaties at this time involved kings. There were two types:
- Royal land grants – A king’s free gift of land or some other benefit to a loyal servant. The grant was normally perpetual and unconditional, but the servant’s descendants benefited from it only if they continued to be loyal.
- Suzerain–vassal treaties – A treaty between a great king and the lesser kings that he ruled. Here the one with the political control is called the suzerain (a French word) and the other is called the vassal (a Latin word). The suzerain protected the vassal as long as the vassal was loyal to him. It was a conditional treaty.
We will now look at a series of covenants/contracts that God made with humanity. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties.
After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolized by the rainbow (Gen.9:13). It was unconditional, like a royal land grant.
When in Babylon, Ezekiel had the vision of God’s glory, and the radiance was like a rainbow (Ezek. 1:28). When on Patmos, John had the vision of the throne in heaven, which was encircled by a green rainbow (Rev. 4:3). The rainbow symbolizes that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
How did people respond to God’s promise never to destroy the world again with a global flood? At this time they were also told to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, 7). But they were disobedient and built the city of Babel instead and resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). That’s behaving like a teenager who is given everything by their parents, but rebels and goes their own way.
What about us? The Bible says that Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” and “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:11). Do we live as though God sustains the universe, or do we ignore Him and go our own way?
So the first covenant/contract was a promise of God’s protection and now we will move to the second.
Promised nation and land
When the people proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements, God judged their sin by causing the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages.
Then God responded with grace and mercy and promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). This was unconditional like a royal land grant. By the way, this promise has not yet been fulfilled. Although Solomon ruled over it as over vassal states, his people didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).
How did they respond? Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. Sarah and Abraham lacked faith and took matters into their own hands.
So God repeated the promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan and promised to be their God (Gen. 17:1-22). He promised a son who was to be named Isaac who would have many descendants and Ishmael would also have many descendants. It was an everlasting covenant/contract (Gen. 17:7-8). They were to undergo male circumcision because it was the sign of this covenant/contract (Gen. 17:11).
How did they respond? Abraham promptly circumcised the males in his household. When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted God’s promise and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).
Politicians make promises before elections. But people often doubt them because afterwards they can get downgraded into core and non-core promises or scrapped because it is alleged that the circumstances have changed.
What about us? In the New Testament, God promises eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s second coming. Do we treat God like we treat politicians? Do we live as though these are doubtful non-core promises? Are we like Abraham who trusted God or like Sarah who didn’t?
So the second covenant/contract was a promise of a nation and land and now we will move to the third.
The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac and Jacob; and Jacob’s family followed Joseph to Egypt. After being in Egypt for many years, Jacob’s family grew to a nation of 2 million people and Moses led them out in the exodus to Canaan. At Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). As it was conditional on obeying God’s laws, including the 10 commandments, social laws and religious laws, this covenant/contract was like a Suzerain-vassal agreement. There were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). It was based on works; if people obeyed, God would do His part. The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant/contract (Ex. 31:13, 17).
How did they respond? The 4th time that Moses went up Mt Sinai to met with God lasted 40 days (Ex. 24:18) and the people got impatient and made a golden idol shaped like a calf (Ex. 32:1-6). It was not a good start! Then after the spies explored Canaan, the people rebelled against God and wanted to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). Their punishment was to wander in the wilderness for 38 years, while those that rebelled died before they reached Canaan.
After the Israelites occupied Canaan, they were ruled by Judges for about 300 years. Then they became a monarchy. Saul was the first king and David the second. David lived about 1,000 years BC. Later in the monarchy they divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. All of Israel’s kings were ungodly; they followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Assyrian conquest of 722BC. Many of the kings of Judah also followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Babylonian conquest of 586BC.
If a tenant fails to pay the rent on time or damages the property, they are warned of the danger of being evicted. If they continue failing to comply with the contract then the lease is terminated and they are evicted.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the end for the Jews as some returned to Judah after the exile in Babylon. But we will see later that this covenant/contract is now called the “old covenant”.
Likewise, sin shouldn’t be the end of our fellowship with the Lord. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). If we confess our sins, then we can experience God’s parental forgiveness.
So the third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God and now we will move to the fourth.
When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). His son Solomon would build the temple and experience God’s mercy. This covenant/contract was unconditional like a royal land grant. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). It was repeated by Jeremiah and Luke (Jer. 33:17-26; Lk. 1:32-33). The prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.
A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). His kingdom is everlasting.
Unrest has stopped peace talks in the Ukraine and between Pakistan and the Taliban. There is little progress in Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Peace is illusive in the world’s hot spots.
The Bible says that this world will not have peace until Jesus returns to set up His kingdom. Just as Solomon had a peaceful kingdom, Jesus will bring peace to the world. Do we believe this?
So the fourth covenant/contract was a promise of a dynasty and now we will move to the final one.
We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant/contract. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicts a Babylonian conquest and 70 year exile (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27). Then he predicts that Israel would be restored after the captivity (Jer. 30-31).
He also promises the Israelites a new covenant/contract, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).
The nation is revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today.
This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s a promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth which will merge into the eternal kingdom. This covenant/contract was instituted at the first Lord’s Supper when Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:20). It began at His death when the curtain inside the temple was torn in two. His death makes the new covenant/contract possible. It’s the foundation.
Ancient covenants were validated by the sacrificial death of an animal (Gen. 15:9-21; Heb. 9:19). Christ had to die before the new covenant/contract commenced. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).
The blessings of the new covenant/contract for the Jews are both physical and spiritual. Believers enter into it spiritually; they enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the gospel by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Gentiles like us have been grafted into the tree of the faithful, but in future believing Jews will be grafted back into the tree (Rom.11:17, 23-24).
The new covenant/contract is different to the one given at Mt Sinai. It is unconditional like a royal land grant. It depends on God alone. The old covenant/contract of the Jewish law is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). We shouldn’t live by those rules and practices. The old covenant/contract was a shadow of what was to come. Its purpose was to bring a knowledge and conviction of sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). It was temporary, until the time of Christ. God confirmed this by destroying the temple in AD 70 (1 Cor. 3:7, 11). The new covenant/contract is eternal (Heb. 13:20). Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).
With the advent of computers, typewriters are now obsolete. Photocopiers have made carbon paper obsolete. Other things like floppy disks and video tapes are also obsolete. So let’s not be tempted to try to please God by following the Old Testament laws, because they are now obsolete.
The gospel is called the “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Because it depends on God and not humanity, it brings forgiveness of sins, something the old covenant/contract couldn’t do. It’s a “better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 7:22; 9:6) as explained in Hebrews chapters 8-10. The law promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. It required righteousness but didn’t give the ability to produce it. The gospel imputes righteousness where there is none and empowers believers to live righteously. It’s better, because it relies on God alone. The Old Testament offerings were ceremonial and ritual, they didn’t deal with the guilt of sin (Heb. 9:9-10). Christ’s sacrifice was superior, it was once for all.
The Lord’s Supper is our symbol of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?
So the final covenant/contract was a promise of Jewish revival and spiritual blessings for believers.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from these five covenants/contracts that God made with humanity?
We have seen that God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises. They illustrate God’s grace and mercy.
The covenant/contract often had a sign or symbol to remind people of it:
- Rainbow – given to Noah to remind of God’s protection for all
- Male circumcision – given to Abraham to remind of Jewish nation and land
- Sabbath day – given to Moses to remind of the Jewish relationship with God (They were His special people)
The other two covenants didn’t include a sign, although the Lord’s supper reminds Christians of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) and receiving the Holy Spirit could also be viewed as a sign (Eph. 1:13).
They show us that God keeps His covenants/contracts. He is faithful. In particular the rainbow symbolizes that God keeps His covenants/contracts. Many of the promises he made in the Old Testament have already been fulfilled. But not all of them.
We have seen that people don’t always accept what God offers to them. Some trust in them like Abraham, while others rebel against them like the Israelites. Do we live as though God is our master, our Suzerain, and we are His servant, His vassal?
Some may say the revival in the new covenant/contract only applies to Christians and that God is finished with the Jews. They are extinct as a separate entity in God’s plans for the future. But when he wrote Romans in AD 57, Paul predicted a Jewish revival and it hasn’t happened yet (Romans 11). Also in AD 55 he divided people into three categories, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The Greeks are unconverted Gentiles and the church includes believing Jews and Gentiles. Also Jews appear in John’s visions of the future in the book of Revelation (Rev. 7:4-8; 11:1-2; 14:1-5; 15:5-8). It includes 144,000 Jewish believers who are sealed for their protection. Although this was written in AD95, 25 years after the temple was destroyed, it hasn’t happened yet. So according to the Bible, God isn’t finished with the Jews. If He was, why has the Jewish nation returned to Israel of recent times after a gap of about 1,900 years?
We have seen how God’s grace and mercy flows through the Old Testament covenants/contracts into the New Testament and to us another 2,000 years later. In a world that has no time for God, and in the struggles of life, it’s good to know that He controls the big picture.
So let’s be like Abraham trusting that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
Because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Written, February 2014
Sin is our greatest problem
Our world can be a dangerous place. But sometimes we are unaware and oblivious of the dangers. Using a smart phone can be dangerous if we are not aware of what’s happening around us. After a woman died recently in Sydney when she was run over by a bus, police issued a warning about people using their phones when walking.
Not only are there physical dangers, but there are spiritual dangers. Are we aware of the spiritual dangers we face? Like ignoring the God who made the universe by living as though there is no God? Or are we oblivious of these like someone using a phone when crossing a street? Today in a survey of the first 11 chapters of the Bible we will see that sin against God is our greatest problem, and the source of all our problems.
This passage was compiled and written by Moses 700–2,500 years after the events occurred. Some of this information was passed down from his ancestors and some was revealed to him directly by God. Note that most of this time is covered by two generations – the lifetimes of Adam and Noah cover about 1,900 years. When he wrote it, Moses was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”, so he could write and keep records (Acts 7:22).
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt where people worshiped many pagan gods (Polytheism). In order to understand their situation and their world, they needed to know about the earlier history of the world. This helps us understand our world as well.
Genesis covers the origins of the universe, the earth, humanity, marriage, sin, languages, the nations, and the Israelites as God’s chosen people. The first eleven chapters summarize the highlights of world history up to the time of Abraham. This history includes four crises.
A crisis in the first generation
Chapters 1-2 describe the creation of the universe, the earth, the plants and animals, and Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. God spoke and it happened over a period of six days. They were given one restriction: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17).
The first crisis occurs when Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan to disobey God (Gen. 3:1-5). What will they do: follow God or Satan? This is a unique situation, because they lived in a perfect world and didn’t have a sinful nature. It was an external temptation. After they chose to disobey God and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are banished from the Garden of Eden. This first sin affected the whole creation including child birth, relationships between husband and wife, work and agriculture. Life was now a struggle with conflict, suffering, disease, decay, spiritual death and physical death. They went from a life in paradise to a life of problems. Their problems were a consequence of their sin. Sin was their greatest problem and the source of all their problems.
The Bible teaches that we have all inherited this sinful tendency – “everyone has sinned, we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT). Everyone is guilty; we are all self-centred, and so we were all affected.
However, in the list of God’s punishments there is a promise. He said to Satan “I will put enmity between you and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and hers; he (Eve’s offspring) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15NIV). So there is a hint of good news amidst the bad news. A suggestion of an end to the conflict between people and Satan, when Satan is crushed.
It’s a bit like the old game of “Snakes and Ladders” (“Chutes and Ladders in the US”) where you roll a dice to get a number and move that many spaces along the board. When you land on the head of a snake you slide backwards, and when you land on the bottom of a ladder you jump ahead. The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin hindered their life and moved them away from God, like the snakes hinder a player of snakes and ladders. The sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, and spiritual death. But the promise of victory over Satan is like a ladder to help them and move them towards God.
Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed Satan the snake (Gen. 3:12-13). Like Adam and Eve, we often blame our problems on others or our circumstances. Do we realise that our sin is our greatest problem? Do we ignore God by living as though He doesn’t exist?
A crisis in the second generation
Cain and Able were Adam and Eve’s first two sons. Cain becomes jealous of Abel. The second crisis occurs when this develops into hatred and he is tempted to kill Abel. What will he do; follow God or his anger? His parents would have told him what happened after they disobeyed God. But he murders Abel and is banished to be a nomad and “went out from the Lord’s presence” (Gen. 4:1-16). Cain’s problems were a consequence of his sin. This incident would have devastated Adam and Eve. The first boy to grow from infancy to maturity was a murderer! Their greatest problem as a family was caused by Cain’s sin.
But once again, it’s not all bad news. Because Cain was worried about his safety, “the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (Gen. 4:15). This is a promise of God’s protection. We can see a pattern developing here. God punishes sin, but provides some relief in the form of a promise.
Also, it is an example of the conflict between Satan’s offspring and Eve’s godly offspring (Gen. 3:15). In this case Cain was Satan’s agent who killed Abel, who is commended for his faith in God (Heb. 11:4; 1 Jn. 3:12). But God replaced Abel with Seth and the godly line of descendants was re-established (Gen. 4:25-26).
So in the history of humanity, Cain is like a snake in the game of snakes and ladders and Seth is like a ladder. Cain’s descendants moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there, while Seth’s descendants moved towards God and followed Him. Who are we like; Cain or Seth (Jude 11)? Cain ignored God, but Seth followed God.
According to the Bible, The fool says …, “There is no God”. They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). If we live as though there is no God, then we become god. We claim to know everything everywhere – otherwise God could exist somewhere, but we could be ignorant of Him. The Bible says this is foolish and leads to sinful behavior.
A crisis in the 10th generation
During the 1,600 years after the first crisis, the earth’s population grew, being comprised of cities and societies. We have seen the crises and problems in the early history of our earth for individuals and for a family. Now we will look at society as a whole.
Wickedness increased with time. It became a part of their normal way of life. They were oblivious to its danger. In the days of Noah, society was characterized by violence and corruption (Gen. 6:1-7). “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). It is a crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way. They reject the message of Noah, the “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pt. 2:5). He warned people to turn to God or face God’s judgment. So they had a choice to make.
God’s judgement on their sin was to destroy the original creation with a global flood. The death of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.
But once again, it’s not all bad news. Noah’s godly family was protected on the ark (Gen. 7:1 – 8:19) and given a promise that the earth would never be destroyed again by a flood (Gen. 8:21 – 9:17). Here we see that God punishes sin, but some are rescued.
Noah’s family is like a ladder in the game of snakes and ladders. They followed God. The rest of the people are like a snake. They moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there. Who are we like; Noah’s family or the rest? The rest ignored God, but Noah’s family followed God. Their choice determined their destiny.
A crisis in the 15th generation
In God’s covenant with Noah, He commanded the people to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). They obeyed the first part but not the second. They increased in number and built the city of Babel, but resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). They proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements. This is another crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way.
God’s judgement on their sin was to cause the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Now because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. This would have been a tough time. They lost technology and homes that were in the city, becoming nomads and settling in new areas. Some probably lived in caves at this time. The scattering of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.
Once again we see that God punishes sin, but where is the promise? It’s like a game of snakes and ladders without the ladders. The promise is given to Abraham in the next section of the book of Genesis.
Are we alert or oblivious?
What can we learn from these four crises in early history involving Adam, Cain, the flood and Babel?
At each crisis the people had a choice, but the choice wasn’t unlimited. Because we are finite, we are only free to make decisions within God’s limits and boundaries. God is the only one without boundaries – He is infinite. He gave us a free will and choice, but within certain boundaries. God sets the standard for human behaviour. It is a sin to cross those boundaries.
At each crisis the people had a choice to follow God or Satan. And their choice determined what their life was like afterwards. Likewise, our choices have physical and spiritual consequences. They determine our destiny in many ways.
But in each crisis people acted as though God wasn’t there; they ignored the possibility that they would be punished for disobeying God. They were unaware and oblivious of this danger. It’s like they were asleep or unconscious or there’s a malfunction of the brain and nervous system. My nephew is in a hospital brain injury unit. He can see and hear and is starting to speak a little, but he can’t respond with the rest of his body. If there is danger, he can’t react to it. For our safety, let’s be alert and aware of spiritual dangers instead of being oblivious. The dangerous sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, spiritual death, physical death, and eternal death in hell. It’s the snake to hell that Satan promotes. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation. Here death is the door to hell.
God made us with a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). It’s like an alarm to remind us when something is wrong. It worked for Adam and Eve when they felt guilty and hid from God after they sinned. Then they confessed their sin. Is your conscience working or broken?
Our greatest danger is spiritual death, which leads to eternal punishment in hell. This is the consequence of our sin if we don’t accept God’s promise of eternal life with Him in heaven (Jn. 3:16). That life is possible because Jesus took the punishment that we deserve when He died on the cross. It is ours if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God. Have you done that?
This salvation is like the promises that we found in the passage. It is an example of God’s grace and mercy and like the ladders in snakes and ladders, which move us closer to God. The salvation sequence is: Conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, followed by confession, and repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, spiritual life, physical death, and eternal life in heaven. It’s the ladder to heaven that Jesus Christ provides. It’s the choice of those alert to temptation. Here death is the door to heaven.
According to the Bible, there are no other chances to follow God after we die. We only live once, and die once. We only have one life to follow Jesus and then the opportunity will end. There is no reincarnation. Also, the way of salvation is not through good works, or superior knowledge, or acts of worship or devotion. We can’t get to heaven by being good. It’s not through what we do, but accepting what Jesus has already done for us.
But sin has consequences for Christians as well. We can also be oblivious and live as though God isn’t there. This destroys our fellowship with God. It can be restored if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God once again (1 Jn. 1:9). This pattern is like snakes and ladders, with sin being a snake that moves us away from God and restoration a ladder that moves us towards God. The sequence is: Temptation, followed by sin, loss of fellowship with God, conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, confession, repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, and the restoration of fellowship with God. It’s the snake and ladder of daily Christian living. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation, but whose conscience alarms later.
Of course it is better if our conscience alarms at the stage of temptation than that at the stage of conviction. So temptation is a critical stage. A healthy alert conscience short circuits the cycle and saves a lot of anguish.
Christians still experience the conflict between Satan and humanity (Gen. 3:15). When we pray it’s good to include spiritual concerns like temptation, sin, conviction, confession, repentance, and salvation, not just physical concerns.
Because we are all sinful, there will be crises in our life. There will be choices to make. In this respect, life is different to the game of snakes and ladders: it’s about choice, not chance. When facing a crisis, we need to realise that sin is our greatest problem. The first step in dealing with a problem or an addiction is to acknowledge that we have a problem. Then we can deal with the sin and get right with God.
Some say Genesis chapters 1-11 is just a story to illustrate that God made the world. It really took billions of years, not six days. It’s not real history. It’s a different genre. Adam and Eve didn’t exist, there was no global flood. The genealogies aren’t true. It’s an ancient myth. But such a viewpoint undermines the whole Bible. This part of Genesis is quoted extensively by both Jesus and Paul. Adam and Noah are both mentioned 8 times in the New Testament. They were real people.
So let’s remember these lessons from the early chapters of Genesis. Let’s be alert and aware of our sinfulness and not oblivious like someone using a smart phone when crossing a street. We ignore it at our peril because God punishes sinners. But it’s not all bad news, the good news is that God promised to help sinners like us and the rest of the Bible describes how He did it.
Let’s be like Noah’s family and make good choices and follow the God who made the universe, instead of living like He isn’t there. Realizing that sin is our greatest problem and Jesus is God’s solution.
Written, February 2014
When the armies of three nations ran out of water they sought the help of Elisha the prophet (2 Ki. 3:9-27). Elisha received a message from God saying that He would use a miracle to provide water for themselves and their animals. This happened on the following morning and God also used the appearance of the water to defeat their enemy. So God did more than they requested (Eph. 3:20).
The first part of God’s message as given in verse 16 has been translated in two ways:
- “Make this valley full of ditches” (NKJV). This emphasises that the armies were to dig the ditches (or pits) and then the Lord would provide the water.
- “I will fill this valley with pools of water” (NIV). This emphasises that God would provide the water.
See link for a comparison between different translations and a translation note from the New English Translation (NET). Here we see that both alternatives occur in more than one translation. The difference depends on whether the command is assumed to be literal or hyperbolic (a figure of speech). It has also been said that in this context “ditches” (or pits) and “pools” are nearly synonymous.
Possible applications to the two alternative translations are:
- Pray, listen to God and do all you can to accomplish His purposes, while trusting God to act.
- Pray and then wait and trust God to act.
Written, February 2013
Welfare for the poor
I have received this question about the Bible: It seems that slavery was condoned in the Bible and there were forced marriages with captive women, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.
According to the dictionary, a slave is a person who is completely dominated by their owner and works without payment. The word “slavery” implies hardship, exploitation and lack of freedom. Slaves are different to servants or employees who are paid a wage and have the freedom to leave their employment. Let’s look at what the Old Testament has to say on this topic.
“Slavery” in the Bible
Slavery was prevalent in ancient times. People could become slaves due to poverty or warfare or being born to slaves (Ex. 21:4; Eccl. 2:7). The English word “slave” or related words occur in 65-310 verses in the Bible, depending on the translation (see below). Translations with lower frequency use the word “servant” where the others have “slave”. The Hebrew word is “ebed” (Strongs #5650), which describes one who serves another as a slave.
The Old Testament describes the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people. Their first instance of slavery was when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:17, 19). This included being imprisoned for over two years (Ex. 41:1; Ps. 105:17). After he was freed, his father’s family moved to Egypt because of a famine.
Before this time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, which was Egypt (Gen. 15:13-14; Acts 7:6-7). As they felt threatened by Jacob’s numerous descendants, the Egyptians subjected them to slavery (Ex. 1:6-14). Under their slave masters the Israelites constructed buildings and worked in the fields. They were beaten by the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11; 5:14). It was forced labour and a life of oppression, suffering and misery (Ex. 2:23; 3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14; 6:6). This continued during the 40 years when Moses was in Midian. After they cried to God for help, He promised to deliver them from the slavery (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-10; 6:6-8). The Israelites were finally delivered after the ten plagues and God miraculously lead the exodus towards Canaan (Ex. 13:20-22).
Afterwards they were to remember they were slaves in Egypt (Dt. 16:12; 24:22) and that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Lev 26:13; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:11; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:12; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5, 10; 15:5; 24:18; Josh. 24:17; Jud. 6:8; Jer. 34:13; Mi. 6:4). At the Passover festival they celebrated their release from slavery (Ex. 13:3, 14).
The Israelites then travelled to Canaan where they eventually divided into two kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times they were enslaved by the Arameans (Syrians), the Phoenicians (Tyre & Sidon) and Philistia (2 Ki. 5:2; Joel 3:4-6, Amos 1:6). Over a 10-year period the Assyrians attacked Israel until they were conquered and deported to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:3-6; 18:9-12; 1 Chron. 5:26). This was God’s punishment for their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23). So the Israelites were slaves to the cruel Assyrians.
Then the Assyrians attacked Judah, but God delivered them (2 Ki. 18:13-19:37). Later Isaiah predicted that they would be conquered and deported to Babylon (2 Ki. 20:16-18). This was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took prisoners back to Babylon where they were captive for at least 70 years (2 Ki. 24:12-1; 25:1-21; 2 Chr. 36:20). Next they were slaves to the Persians (Ez. 9:7-9; Neh. 9:36-37), followed by the Syrians and Egyptians in the inter-testament period. In fact from this time until 1948, Judea was always ruled by other nations.
What’s it like to be a slave? In Psalm 123 the captives in Babylon plead to God for deliverance. They had endured contempt and ridicule from the Babylonians.
So God used slavery to get the Israelites out of Egypt so they could settle in Canaan. He also used slavery as punishment for their idolatry in Canaan. In more recent times, He used the Nazi holocaust, which was worse than slavery, to give Judea back to them in 1948.
When a criminal is convicted of a serious crime, they are sentenced to gaol where they lose their freedom. Gaol or prison is a form of slavery, which I will call penal slavery.
The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is when Noah cursed Canaan; “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-27NIV). The descendants of Canaan were extremely wicked (Gen. 15:16; Dt. 9:4-5; 18:9-13). That’s why they were cursed to be slaves. Because of their wickedness, the Canaanites were to be driven from their lands or destroyed when the Israelites settled in Canaan (Ex. 23:23, 31). But some Canaanites remained in the land and these were used by Solomon to built the temple, the palace, and the city walls (1 Ki. 5:15; 9:15-22; 2 Chr. 2:17-18; 8:1-9; Eccl. 2:4-7). Also the Gibeonites (Canaanites who deceived the Israelites) were woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23-25). So the prediction was fulfilled when the Canaanites were slaves to the Israelites. In this case the Canaanites were better off than otherwise – as they hadn’t escaped to another country they should have been killed during the Israelite invasion of Canaan.
The Canaanite slavery to the Israelites and the Israelite slavery to Babylonia were both examples of penal slavery. A thief who couldn’t make restitution for their crime was also to become a penal slave (Ex. 22:1-3).
How other nations treated slaves
Samson lived when the Israelites were ruled by the Philistines. He had great strength and killed many Philistines. When the Philistines finally captured Samson they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles in prison where he worked grinding grain (Jud. 16:21). That was slave labor!
When the Ammonites besieged an Israelite city, they would only agree to a treaty if the right eye of the Israelites was gouged out (1 Sam. 11:2). Fortunately that didn’t happen! Also, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, they put out king Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon (Jer. 39:7).
When the Amalekites attacked Israel, they abandoned an Egyptian slave when he became ill (1 Sam. 30:13). After he had been without food or water for three days, David gave him food and water.
Other nations were slave traders – they traded slaves for merchandise (Ez. 27:15). So these nations were cruel to their captives.
How Israelites were to treat slaves
So far we have seen that because slavery was prevalent in ancient times, it is recorded in the Bible. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved it. But what does God say to His chosen people about slavery?
If we can’t meet the repayments on a car or house, they are repossessed. If we are made bankrupt, we are restricted from business ownership and overseas travel and required to repay our debts before we can be discharged. In a world without government welfare and charities, God put laws in place to protect poor Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38). They were to be helped with no-interest loans and sold food at cost. So a Jew could not profit from the poverty of a fellow Jew. But God also put some other provisions in place.
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:39-43).
Here we see that a Jew could repay their debt though physical labor. But they were to be treated as household employees or indentured servants, not as slaves. In this way, adults or children could become slaves to pay debts (2 Ki. 4:1; Neh. 5:4-8).
“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today” (Dt. 15:12-15; Ex. 21:1-4; Jer. 34:14).
Debt slaves were to be released after working six years or in the Sabbath Year or in the Year of Jubilee if that came earlier (Dt. 15:1-11). This meant that they could not be enslaved for more than six years. They were not to be perpetual slaves. The reason they were to be released was because God said, “the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). The slave was to be released with provisions to ensure they didn’t fall straight back into debt. The NIV Bible calls this slave a “servant”, presumably because they are treated more like an employee than a traditional slave. As employees like servants don’t sell themselves to their employer, this is a form of slavery which I will call debt slavery. It is like a debt repayment scheme. After the work was done, they were freed. After all, Solomon said that“the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7).
“But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant” (Dt. 15:16-17).
In this instance, we have a debt slave who is about to be released. Instead, they chose to continue working for their master or owner because of the good conditions and lack of oppression. This is a form of household slavery which I will call voluntary slavery. As noted earlier, the NIV calls this type of slave a “servant”. The hole in their earlobe was the sign of a voluntary Jewish slave.
Prisoners of war are captive to the victors (Num. 31:7-9; Dt. 20:14; 21:10). This is a form of slavery which I will call captive slavery. For example, the Jews were captives of the Babylonians. As the Israelites were not meant to enslave Canaanites and they didn’t usually get involved in distant wars, this would not have been a significant source of slaves in Israel. But when God used Israel to punish wicked nations, the survivors were often captive slaves. The Canaanites mentioned previously were captive slaves. Also, captured Ammonites were Israel’s laborers (2 Sam. 12:31). Such captives could be taxed by their new ruler and used to provide labor and military forces (2 Sam. 8:2).
The Israelites slaves were to come from other nations, not from Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). When the kingdom of Israel defeated Judah they intended to take the men and women as slaves (2 Chron. 28:5-15). But after they were confronted, the Judeans were freed. However, the Jews did have Jewish slaves when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was that the Israelite salves had not been released after serving for six years, as God had commanded (Jer. 34:8-22).
Captive slaves were often penal slaves. For example, Israelite idolatry led to Philistine and Ammonite oppression (Jud. 10:6-10; 13:1). This captivity was part of God’s judgement of wickedness.
Rights and privileges
In all the above cases, the owners of Jewish slaves were commanded, “Do not rule over them ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). What a contrast to the cruelty of other nations in Biblical times and in world history!
The Jews were to give a foreign slave refuge and protect fugitive slaves rather than returning them to an owner (Dt. 23:15-16). Slaves were to share many of the privileges of others in the household. They were to rest on the Sabbath day and could eat the Passover if circumcised and celebrate Jewish festivals (Ex. 12:44; 23:12; Dt. 5:14; 12:12; 16:10-11, 13-14). A priest’s slave could eat of the offerings, which was prohibited for an employee (Lev. 22:10-11).
Although foreign debt slaves could be bought and owned as a person’s property and passed on to subsequent generations (Lev. 25:44-46), they were to be loved and treated as fellow citizens (Lev. 19:34; Dt. 10:19).
What about allowing a slave to be beaten (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27)? Slaves were given similar rights to free citizens; the punishment for mistreating a slave was the same as for a free person. There were laws giving punishment if a slave was injured or killed and if a man slept with another’s female slave (Lev. 19:20-22). There was a penalty of death for kidnapping an Israelite into slavery (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7).
What about forced marriages? Marriage contracts allowed a family to find a better life for their daughter (Ex. 21:7-11). In a world when most marriages were arranged by the parents, a young girl could be sold as a maidservant so she could be a potential wife or concubine in a wealthy family. The payment could be viewed as a bride price that was paid to the parents of the bride. She was adopted until the marriage was completed. If she became a concubine or wife in a wealthy family she would be better off than in poverty. In this case the woman was to be treated in the same way as any wife or concubine; she was not a sex slave. Whether or not she became a concubine or wife, her rights and privileges were to be protected.
When the Israelites were travelling to Canaan the Moabite and Midianite women enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-18). This resulted in a plague that killed 23,000 Israelites in one day (1 Cor. 10:8). God told the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites. So an army of 12,000 men killed all the Midianite soldiers and captured women and children (Num. 31:1-47). But Moses said that because it was the women who had caused the Israelites to sin, they must be killed and only the virgin women kept as the spoil of battle (Num. 31:18, 25-47). These women probably became household slaves; there is no evidence that they were forced into marriage. After all, it is recorded that there were slave girls in David’s household (2 Sam. 6:20, 22).
An Israelite could marry a foreign female prisoner of war if she was not a Canaanite (Dt. 21:10-14). The marriage was of a probationary nature because he could let her go wherever she wished if he was not pleased with her. However, he could not sell her as a slave. This form of captive slavery seems like forced marriage, but it would probably be better for the woman than slavery in a foreign nation. What would you rather be: a wife or a slave? The woman who was released from the marriage also seems to be better off than a slave because she could “go wherever she wished”.
Liberation from slavery
Slaves long for deliverance and release from slavery and suffering into a life of freedom and joy. Debt slaves could be released and redeemed by the payment of a ransom price. If girl slaves didn’t become a concubine or wife, they could be redeemed (Ex. 21:8). The value of a slave was 30 pieces of silver, similar to the amount paid to Judas Iscariot (Ex. 21:32; Mt. 26:15)!
God redeemed (freed) the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:6; Dt. 7:8). Jeremiah predicted that God would also redeem them from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:11). If Jews were slaves to a foreigner living in Israel, they could be released in the Year of Jubilee or earlier if they were redeemed by a relative (Lev. 25:47-55).
God’s attitude to slavery in the Old Testament is like His view of divorce. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8). Both slavery and divorce were not God’s plan, but He gave practical ways to deal with them.
The Old Testament regulated “slavery” in Israel by removing the oppression, cruelty, exploitation and racism that is usually associated with it. Instead they were to be treated as employees and given opportunities for liberation. “Debt slavery” was a form of welfare, an employment contract that was a repayment scheme which saved the poor from starving and was so good that it could lead to “voluntary slavery”, which was a form of lifetime employment. “Penal slavery” and “captive slavery” were sentences for wickedness. In all these cases there was a loss of freedom for the good of the person and society.
So “slavery” in Israel was different to that in other nations. This type of “slavery” was different to what is usually called slavery, which makes it difficult to translate the Hebrew word “ebed” (Strongs #5650). As we don’t have an English word for it, many Bibles use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.
Slavery was an important part of Jewish history. Joseph was a slave who reached an exalted position. Jesus took “the very nature of a servant (or the humble position of a slave)” when on earth, but has now been exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:7-9). The Jewish Passover was a celebration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of our liberation from slavery to sin.
So debt slavery as described in the Old Testament is largely an example of God’s compassion for the poor and disadvantaged people in their community.
Written, February 2013
Have you read the best book in the world? The Christian Bible is the world’s best-selling and most translated book. There are many English versions of the Bible. How can we choose which one is best for us? We will look at six categories.
The most accurate Bible is written in the original languages, which were Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament. This is the best way to appreciate what the Bible meant to its original readers.
Because few of us know these languages there are Interlinear Bibles that show both the words in the original language and the equivalent English words. These can be useful for the purposes of Bible study. When you look at an Interlinear Bible you will realise that it is impossible to do a word-for-word translation from the original languages into spoken English. For example here is a verse in such a Bible: “so For loved God the world, so as the Son of Him, the Only-begotten, He gave, that everyone believing into Him not may perish, but have life everlasting” (Jn. 3:16). The words are in a different order to the way we speak and sometimes single words need to be expressed as phrases and sometimes phrases need to be expressed as single words. Also additional words need to be added to make it readable. So there is no one-to-one correspondence between the words of different languages, and there is no such thing as a word-for-word literal translation of the Bible into spoken English. Furthermore, interlinear copies of the Old Testament are extremely difficult to read as Hebrew was written from right to left!
But, what if you can’t read ancient Hebrew and Greek or want a Bible that is readable? You could read the Bible that has the most comprehensive footnotes that relate to the original languages.
The New English Translation (NET) Bible (2005), which is mainly available in electronic form, has extensive footnotes comprised of Translation Notes, Text-critic Notes, Study Notes, and Map Notes. This enables a functional equivalent (readily readable and understandable) text with formal equivalent information about the source text in the footnotes. The translators’ notes show the decisions and choices behind the translation and makes the original languages more accessible.
But, what if you don’t want to read a Bible with extensive footnotes and that is not readily available in hardcopy form? You could read the Bible that has been read over the longest period of time.
The King James Version (KJV) has a 400 year heritage. It is a product of a bygone era that added many sayings to the English language. Of course the type style and spelling has been modernised, otherwise it would be too difficult for most of us to read comfortably. The most recent edition seems to be 1987. If you appreciate the work of Shakespeare and classic literature then this is the Bible for you. For example, it uses pronouns such as “thou”, “thee”, “ye”, “thy”, and “thine” and verbs such as “speaketh”.
The source language for this translation, the “Received Text” (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD). As the Received Text was first published in 1516, it lacks the input of many early Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered since this time. Also, it lacks the input of much of linguistic scholarship of the past few hundred years.
In order to make the KJV more readable for modern readers, its vocabulary and grammar was revised in the New King James Version (NKJV, 1982). So if you prefer a traditional Bible that is based on the KJV, then the NKJV is the Bible for you.
But, what if you want to read a Bible that is based on more recent scholarship than the Received Text? You could read a Bible that retains some traditional aspects of the English language.
Languages are always changing and English is no exception. Traditionally male terms were often used to refer to groups that included both men and women. This was particularly the case for patriarchal societies. But this pattern has been changing. For example, people now say “people” or “humanity” instead of “man” and “mankind”. All translations make these changes from the source text to some degree. Those that do it to a small extent, I will refer to as “traditional”, whereas those that do it to a large extent, I will refer to as “gender accurate”. Here is a comparison between different translations.
The following translations generally use male terms for groups of people: New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1995), English Standard Version (ESV, 2007) and Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009) (see Appendix). So if you prefer a traditional Bible that is based on current scholarship, then these are the Bibles for you.
But, what if you want to read a Bible that is easier to understand and closer to spoken English? You could read a Bible that aims to read more like people speak today.
Translators transfer the meaning of a text from the source language into the receptor language. When they do this they have choice in how much they use equivalent idioms in the receptor language. The more idioms they use, the more readable the translation.
The following translations generally use idioms in the receptor language: Contemporary English Version (CEV, 1995) and New Living Translation (NLT, 2007). So if you prefer a Bible that is closer to spoken English, then these are the Bibles for you.
But, what if you want to read a Bible that is readable but structured closer to the text structure in the source language? You could read a Bible which combines contemporary language with accuracy in translation.
The New International Version (NIV, 2011) aims to be “gender accurate” by using the words spoken today to describe groups of people. Here is a link to my review of the NIV Bible. So if you prefer a Bible that is closer to spoken English, then this is the Bible for you.
But, what if you want to read the best Bible?
Best of all
Although no translation is perfect, the best Bible is the one you read! They all tell us what God wants us to know and to do. They are God’s message to us all, and God continues to speak through them today. Let’s translate this message into our lives.
Appendix: 2018 update
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009) has been revised as the Christian Standard Bible (2017). The CSB has changed to be more gender accurate than the HCSB.
The reading levels for these Bibles are as follows (with the date of the latest edition in brackets):
– King James Version – Year 12
– New American Standard Bible (1995) – Year 11
– New King James Version (1982) – Year 11
– English Standard Version (2016) – Year 11
– Christian Standard Bible (2017) – Year 8
– New English Translation (2017) – Year 8
– New International Version (2011) – Year 8
– New Living Translation (2015) – Year 6
– Contemporary English Version (2006) – Year 5
These English translations of the Bible have been produced by evangelical Christians who consider the Bible to be the inspired Word of God.
Written, January 2013; updated January 2018
In part 3 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess some criticisms of this translation by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA.
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW)
The CBMW issued “An Evaluation of Gender Language in the 2011 Edition of the NIV Bible” in mid-2011. They are concerned that “the 2011 NIV … unnecessarily removes male-oriented terminology that was present in the 1984 NIV — especially the use of generic masculine forms of expression”.
Their accusations against the NIV 2011 are summarised below, including the verses referenced.
It adopts feminist-leaning translations – 1 Tim. 2:12
“The 2011 NIV changes some key verses on women’s role in the church so that they favor an evangelical feminist position, especially in translating 1 Timothy 2:12 in a way that differs with all other commonly-used modern English translations and that gives women a wide open door to serve as pastors and elders in churches, contrary to the actual teaching of the New Testament.”
Rom 16:7; 1 Corinthians 14:33-34; Romans 16:1
It incorrectly changes “father” to “parent” or something else – Proverbs 15:5; 1 Samuel 18:2
It incorrectly changes “forefather” to “ancestor” – Joshua 19:47
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “son” to “child” – Proverbs 13:24; Psalm 8:4
It incorrectly changes “man” to a gender-neutral term – 1 Kings 9:5; Proverbs 27:17
It incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” or to other non-family words –
Luke 17:3; Deuteronomy 22:1
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “he” and “him” to “they” and “them” – John 14:23
It loses many more masculine singular pronouns than the “Translators’ Notes” suggest –
Proverbs 28:19; John 6:40; John 15:6; Proverbs 5:21; Romans 4:8; Matthew 10:24; Matthew 12:35; Matthew 18:15; Revelation 3:20
It incorrectly changes “women” to “weaklings” – Nahum 3:13
It waters down or omits details of meaning that modern culture finds offensive – They object to the removal of male examples to teach general truths, by removing words such as “father,” “son,” “brother,” “man,” and “he/him/his.”
Most of these accusations have been responded to generally by the NIV translators and specifically by Decker (2011).
The translator’s response is summarised below.
- The NIV translators have never been motivated by a concern to avoid giving offense. We were simply following what wide-ranging, objective research tells us about the state of modern English.
- It is the scholarship that has influenced the translation decisions – not a modern agenda of any kind.
- The CBMW review betrays a simplistic understanding of word meaning.
- Why single out the NIV for criticism for translation decisions that, to some degree, are being widely adopted by modern translators? We, along with translators of other modern versions, are not trying to “avoid” certain words. Rather, positively, we are trying to find the right word in contemporary English to represent the meaning of ancient Hebrew and Greek words.
Dr Rod Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania USA. His response to the CBMW report is summarised below.
The CBMW is a very vocal single-issue group that has determined that one of the primary ways to champion their position is to advocate a single approach to translation: formal equivalence with explicit objection to “gender-neutral” translation. Their single issue is defending a complementarian view of men and women and opposing egalitarianism. I personally hold a complementarian position, so my objection is not to the position itself but to some of the ways in which CBMW has attempted to advance that cause.
The tone of their official review of the NIV 2011 is unhelpful, and the methodology employed is designed more for rhetorical effect than it is for a substantive engagement in the issues. The methodology essentially collates a large quantity of data presented in summary form. This gives the uninformed reader the impression of thousands and thousands of errors. In reality there are a few basic issues in regard to how gender-related language should be translated. These get too little attention in the review. One sometimes sees a parallel in the manner in which “KJV-only” advocates defend their preference against all comers.
More specifically, 1 Timothy 2:12 is not a feminist-driven translation choice. To say that “in one stroke the NIV 2011 removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders” is ill-advised rhetoric. Decker also quotes Paul Wendland:
The CBMW overstates the case when it claims that the NIV 2011 translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 will give “an open door” to women pastors since “in one stroke it removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders. As soon as a church adopts the 2011 NIV, the debate over women’s roles in that church will be over”. The NIV 2011 still says that the husband/man is the head of the wife/woman and that an elder/overseer in the church is to be “faithful to his wife.” How has a wide open door been given to women pastors when NIV 2011 says these things? Just as gender roles could be taught on the basis of the KJV, in spite of “usurp authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12, so it will be possible to teach gender roles on the basis of NIV 2011.
Also, I do not find the CBMW’s argument convincing when they say that ‘assume authority’ must be understood as ‘assume authority on one’s own initiative.’ If I would say in a conversation, “The president assumed office today,” would anyone think, “He means the president is assuming office on his own initiative”? I have a hard time believing it.
Moo has stated “that in order to have or exercise authority, it must first be assumed”. You could even argue that “assume” is stronger than “have” or “exercise”. You can have authority but never exercise it. You could exercise authority without having it (in any official, designated capacity). But you can’t have or exercise authority without first assuming it.
Decker also addresses the linguistic concerns of the CBMW, including:
- To state that Luke 17:3 incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” “is biased and ill-informed”.
- To suggest that eliminating a “male-oriented” term (i.e., generic “man”), as in Proverbs 27:17, is capitulating to the feminist agenda is foolishness.
- To ask why is the male meaning that is present in the source text of John 6:31 eliminated makes an unwarranted semantic assumption.
People like the CBMW are concerned about neutering masculine pronouns. John 6:44 is an example of a masculine singular pronoun (“him”) being replaced by a gender-neutral plural pronoun (“them”). In this instance they think that a corporate element is being added to a verse that originally had an individual focus. However, the “them” in this verse does not refer to a group of people, but to the “one” referenced in the start of the verse. The NIV 2011 verse is worded exactly how people speak today!
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day||No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day||John 6:44|
However, there is a verse in the NIV 2011 that I think would be improved if it was translated like John 6:44. Revelation 3:20 is not worded how people speak today. Is there any reason why “them” can’t be used in this verse instead of “that person'”, because “them” is much more readable than “that person”.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||My suggestion||Reference|
|Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me||Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.||Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.||Revelation 3:20|
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)
Other opposition has come from the US SBC, which passed a resolution opposing the NIV 2011 at their annual convention in June 2011. The heart of the 2011 resolution claims, “this translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” It also references a 1997 resolution on translation that condemns “gender inclusive translation”. It is understood that the CBMW report would have given the 2011 resolution momentum. The resolution has also been used to claim that the NIV 2011 undermines the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible (God supernaturally guided the biblical authors to write the exact things that He wanted expressed).
The NIV translators and Decker (2011) have responded to this accusation.
The translator’s response is summarised below.
- We object strongly to the accusation that the NIV “alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” Our concern is always, in every decision we make, to represent God’s unchanging Word accurately and naturally in modern English.
- We object strongly to the accusation that “the 2011 NIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards.” In fact, our translation standards are exactly those followed by professional translators around the world. We employ these standards in combination with the best biblical and linguistic scholarship to render God’s eternal Word accurately into modern English. This mandate is what guides us in all our decisions — not any other agenda.
According to Decker (2011):
Unfortunately, neither “gender-neutral” … nor “gender inclusive” in the 1997 resolution are defined. Definition is the heart of any such statement … It appears that the resolution assumes a very broad definition of the term and applies it to a translation that itself uses a very narrow definition. .. the only changes in the NIV 2011 that may be termed “gender inclusive” are those that the translators understood to be inclusive of both men and women in the original text. That is hardly objectionable. It is unfortunate that the SBC has not issued a more accurate statement …
The 1997 resolution of the SBC that is referenced in the 2011 resolution indicates that their concern is with regard to “gender inclusive language” in “Bible translations with the intent of translating the Scriptures into the current language of the people”. In their opinion this is a deviation from the historic principles of biblical translation. As translations such as the KJV were in the current language of their day, this seems to be a bias against translating the Bible into modern language. Instead they prefer to retain the language of a previous era and reject aspects of current language, which is similar to how the Amish view aspects of technology. This is acceptable provided their view is not forced on others with a differing opinion.
As the SBC doesn’t provide any biblical examples of its concern or any reasoning, it could be difficult to convince others of their viewpoint. Instead they only provide a brief statement. This may have been due to their reliance on the CBMW report.
It is instructive to compare a selection of verses in different translations. Here we see that translations like the ESV and HCSB, which are accepted by the CBMW, sometimes make similar choices to the NIV 2011. However, they are not as consistent as the NIV 2011.
As these criticisms of the NIV 2011 by the CBMW and the SBC have been answered adequately by the NIV translators and Decker (2011), the criticisms appear to be weak in view of current biblical scholarship. As most of their claims were linguistic, it is appropriate that they be answered by biblical linguists. Furthermore, according to Dr Daniel Wallace, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, the NIV 2011 is a well-thought out translation, with checks and balances through rigorous testing, overlapping committees to ensure consistency and accuracy; the scholarship is excellent both in text and translation decisions; and it has great readability. Dr Wallace is an expert in Greek grammar and New Testament textual criticism and a strong complementarian. It would be helpful if more biblical linguists confirmed this to help counter the negative comments by non-linguists on the internet.
As a result of this 3-part series it is clear that most of the changes between 1984 and 2011 are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible.
On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the NIV translators, of the paper by an independent New Testament scholar, Decker (2011), and of criticisms by the CBMW and the SBC, indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written, January 2013
See the previous articles in this series:
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 1
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2
In part 2 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess a statement by an independent New Testament scholar. In order to avoid duplication, points already made in Part 1 of this series will not be repeated.
Dr Rodney Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. This is a conservative Bible college which serves a (theologically) conservative constituency. He teaches courses in New Testament (NT) Greek language and NT textual criticism.
Rodney Decker has a doctorate in NT Theology from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minnesota USA. His 1998 doctorate dissertation was titled, “Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark in Light of Verbal Aspect”. He is the author of numerous journal articles on linguistic, exegetical (explanatory, expository), and theological topics and has written text books on Koine Greek, which is the original language of the New Testament. Rod holds a complementarian position where men and women have complementary roles that include male leadership in the home and in the church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended for all times and cultures), whereas egalitarians believe that men do not have the sole rights as leaders in the home or church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended only for his time and culture).
Further information on Rod’s activities is available on his website: NT Resources.
Assessment of evaluation done by Dr. Rodney Decker
“An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version” (Themelios 36, 3, 415-456) was published in November 2011.
Decker explains the two general approaches to translation – “formal equivalence” (attempts to reproduce the word order, grammar and syntax of the donor language as closely as possible in the receptor language, with minimal changes for intelligibility) and “functional equivalence” (attempts to accurately communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, while it may relax the form of the source language). All translations include both formal and functional equivalents to a certain degree. The NIV balances both approaches, whereas the ESV and HCSB are more “formal” and the NLT more “functional” on the translation spectrum. Every translation, including the most formal, makes many substantial revisions to the form of the source language.
Decker explains that an update of the NIV Bible was necessary because “our language has changed”. With regard to changes in the NIV 2011 in English usage, advances in scholarship, and improved clarity, he agrees that most of these changes are “very good ones that contribute to understanding the Word of God in English”.
Changes related to gender language
If a translation intends to communicate in contemporary English, then that translation is fully justified to make changes that reflect current usage. The change in English usage of gender language was determined by a study based on the Collins Bank of English—a 4.4 billion-word database of English usage worldwide based on both print and audio recordings. This is the first time that such an objective approach has been used in Bible translation. For example, of the current terms referring to both men and women, about 70% use “people” or “human” and about 15% use “man” or “mankind”.
The principle involved in the NIV 2011, as is the case with a number of other evangelical translations (e.g., ESV, HCSB, NET, NLT), is that wording in the source language that is not gender specific should not become gender specific in the receptor language. In this respect, the receptor language for a passage should match the donor language. If one is addressed to men and women then so should the other. Likewise, of one is addressed to men (or women), then so should the other.
Seven guidelines were used to revise gender language in the NIV 2011. Decker lists these and gives some examples using NT passages. In all cases he is in agreement with the approach adopted by the translators.
Decker did a sample comparison between the NIV 1984 and the NIV 2011 using the book of 2 Timothy. Some of the changes he found are given below.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|ignoble||common||2 Tim. 2:20
|weak-willed||gullible||2 Tim. 3:6
|forefathers||ancestors||2 Tim. 1:3
|reliable men||reliable people||2 Tim. 2:2
|workman||worker||2 Tim. 2:15
|a man||those who||2 Tim. 2:21; 3:13
|the man of God||the servant of God||2 Tim. 3:17
|the servant of God||the brothers and sisters||2 Tim. 4:21
He didn’t think that any of these seven gender changes are controversial. However, he did identify three potentially controversial passages.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servanta of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.||I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacona of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.||Romans 16:1-2|
|a Or deaconess||a Or servant|
Whether one objects to this translation, will probably depend on how deacons function in their church. The NIV 2011 has reversed the text and marginal translations that were found in the NIV 1984. In this case Decker prefers the NIV 1984. Of the changes in 12,000 verses between 1984 and 2011 (most of them are minor), this is the only one that Decker quotes where he prefers the 1984 version. Whether a technical term (“benefactor”) is used in this verse or a general descriptive (“great help”) is probably a minor matter.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding amonga the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Romans 16:7|
|aOr are esteemed by|
In Greek only a difference of accent distinguishes between Junias (male) and Junia (female) and accents were not part of the original text. There are arguments for either accent pattern. Contemporary NT scholarship appears to favor the feminine form, but it is not certain.
The issue is not with Junia being a woman, which seems likely, but the nature of the statement made about her. Decker provides evidence that it may have been better if NIV 2011 had reversed the text and marginal readings, though including the alternative reading is an improvement over the NIV 1984.
1 Timothy 2:12
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.||I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.||1 Timothy 2:12|
The Translators’ Notes explain the reasoning behind this change as follows. Much debate has surrounded the meaning of the rare Greek word authentein … The exercise of authority that Paul was forbidding was one that women inappropriately assumed, but whether that referred to all forms of authority over men in church or only certain forms in certain contexts is up to the individual interpreter to decide. “Assume authority” leaves the question open … until we discover more conclusive evidence.
Decker states that from a translation perspective, this position is defensible. Given the uncertainty in meaning, it is most appropriate for a translation not to decide the issue. Instead, one’s conclusions regarding this text must come not from one word but from the immediate context, Paul’s teaching elsewhere, and a biblical theology of the subject.
It is a translation that allows multiple interpretations (“assume” may be read in either a positive or negative sense), but that may be a wise choice in this case. Those who want to proof-text certain positions (whether that position is valid or not) may not be happy, but we must be honest with the text and acknowledge that this is an issue that must be resolved on a much broader basis. He also states that this is not a feminist-driven translation choice.
Changes related to “Messianic” texts
Decker looked at the most commonly cited example of changes related to “Messianic” texts, the use of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|What is man that you are mindful of him,||What is mankind that you are mindful of them,||Psalm 8:4|
|the son of man that you care for him?||human beings that you care for them?a|
|5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings||5You have made thema a little lower than the angels||Psalm 8:5|
|and crowned him with glory and honor.||and crowned thema with glory and honor.|
|a 4 Or what is a human being that you are mindful of him, a son of man that you care for him?|
|a 5 Or him|
This is a typological OT text that does not specifically prophesy Messiah directly but that the NT identifies as typological in relation to Jesus.
Decker thinks that the NIV 2011 more accurately reflects this text than the NIV 1984 and other similar translations. When Psalm 8 is interpreted on its own (without reading any NT use back into the OT text) the psalm refers only to human beings. This is the original meaning – what it meant to the original readers and hearers. The point of the psalm is that even though humans are puny beings in comparison with God, we are God’s special creations with privilege and responsibility to rule over the rest of creation (v. 5-8). Both “man” and “son of man” refer to the human race, not to any specific person. As such, using English plural pronouns (“them”) following them is appropriate. There is no hint here of anything Messianic. If we had only Psalm 8, we would never suspect that it had any relevance to Jesus.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|But there is a place where someone has testified:||But there is a place where someone has testified:||Hebrews 2:6|
|“What is man that you are mindful of him,||“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,|
|the son of man that you care for him?||a son of man that you care for him?|
|7You made him a little lower than the angels;||7You made them a little lower than the angels;||Hebrews 2:7|
|you crowned him with glory and honor||you crowned them with glory and honor|
|8and put everything under his feet.”||8and put everything under their feet.”b||Hebrews 2:8|
|In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.9But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||Hebrews 2:8b-9|
|b 7,8 Or 7You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor 8and put everything under his feet.”|
Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. Once again it’s all about human beings, although “at present we do not see everything subject to them” (v.8b). The dominion over the rest of creation given to humans has never been properly administered. This problem is solved in v.9 where Jesus is introduced as the One who became human to fulfil the typology of Ps 8 – He will demonstrate this dominion in His coming kingdom. The incarnation began demonstrating how someone who is fully human should and will exercise the dominion God intended.
This means there is nothing obscured in the NIV 2011 version of Psalm 8. A generic reference for humanity is thus valid for Psalm 8:4-8 and Hebrews 2:5-8. Only in Hebrews 2:9 does the reference become Christological and singular, and at that point the NIV 2011 is perfectly clear.
The NIV 2011 more often explicitly represents the conjunctions compared with the NIV 1984, which often left them untranslated for reasons of English style (see Rom. 1:16). Also some passages that have been debated and for which there are multiple options have been left open (see Rom. 1:17). Decker thinks most of these of changes are improvements that contribute to understanding the Bible in English.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||Romans 1:16|
|For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed||For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed||Romans 1:17|
In Part 1 of this series, it was noted that the Greek word “sarx” was usually translated as “the flesh” in the NIV 2011 instead of “the sinful nature” as in the NIV 1984. Although this was because “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin, I expressed some uneasiness about this change. Decker thinks that this change encourages some people to think of the physical body as sinful and is inclined to think the earlier choice was better in many cases, but “sarx” does not always have the same meaning. However, “sinful nature” remains in Romans 7:18, 25.
Decker also evaluated the NIV 2011 in terms of its accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and appropriateness. He rates it high in terms of accuracy as the meaning is communicated accurately. By taking a mediating position between formal and functional equivalence (though tending closer to the formal end of the spectrum), the NIV 2011 has been able to produce a text that is clearer than many translations, especially those weighted more heavily with formal equivalence. It excels in communicating clearly in the language of the average English-speaking person. By using expressions that a receptor-language speaker would use, the NIV 2011 sounds much more natural than many other translations. Also, it is as well-suited for expository preaching as it is for public reading and use in Bible classes and children’s ministries.
In Decker’s opinion, the NIV 2011 is a usable translation in many situations. It continues the NIV tradition largely unchanged, though improved in many small ways. It is not perfect, but no translation is. Overall, however, it improves an otherwise fine translation. He thinks that many churches would find it helpful in ministry. It is of sufficient quality and accuracy to serve as the primary Bible in the local church, just as was the NIV 1984. So long as one realizes that the purpose of gender accurate language is to accurately reflect the language in the original texts of Scripture, it is hard to fathom objections.
One group of churches that uses the NIV 1984 is of the opinion that if a church began using the NIV 2011 in public reading tomorrow, most congregation members wouldn’t even notice the change.
In this part of an evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, the contributions of an independent New Testament scholar, Dr Rodney Decker, have been presented. As Professor of New Testament and Greek at a US Baptist Bible Seminary, Dr Decker has provided expert input on the linguistic aspects of this evaluation including grammar and syntax (the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences). Dr Decker confirms that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written January 2013
See the next article in this series:
– Criticisms of the NIV Bible
It’s important for people to be able to read and hear the Bible in their own language.
How the Bible came to us is described in the blog, Can we trust our Bibles. The steps in the process are:
- God-breathed: The original text was “God-breathed” via the prophets and apostles
- Preservation: Faithful copies of the original text have been preserved
- Scholarship: Textural scholars have reconstructed the original text
- Translation: The reconstructed text has been translated into various languages
The two most recent translations of the NIV Bible were done in 1984 and 2011. The process of translation involves transferring the message from a source language to a receptor language. In the case of the NIV2011 the source languages are Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) and the receptor language is everyday English. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.
This evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible looks at:
- Part 1 A statement by the committee that did the translation
- Part 2 A statement by an independent Bible scholar
- Part 3 A statement by a group that is critical of the NIV 2011
Assessment of statement by the committee that did the translation
The update reflects advances in biblical scholarship and changes in the usage of the English language between 1984 and 2011. Some examples of these are given below (italics added to highlight the changes). About 95% of the text is unchanged between 1984 and 2011.
Changes in English usage
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|ankle chains||anklet||Isaiah 3:20|
|heart will be glad||he will be glad||Exodus 4:14|
|overweening pride||great . . . arrogance||Isaiah 16:6; Jeremiah 48:29|
Advances in scholarship
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|inn||guest room||Luke 2:7|
|demons||false gods||Psalm 106:37|
|richly ornamented robe||ornate robe||Genesis 37:3|
|something to be grasped||something to be used to his own advantage||Philippians 2:6|
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother …||when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban …||Genesis 29:10
|If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both||If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together||Job 9:33
Explains the second clause.
|I can do everything through him who gives me strength||I can do all this through him who gives me strength||Philippians 4:13
Stops misapplication outside the context of v.12 (to be content in all circumstances, whether in riches or in poverty).
Improved accuracy in gender language
About 25% of the changes related to gender. The Collins Bank of English was used to determine current usage of gender language. Some of the guidelines used were:
- ‟Ancestors” usually replaced ‟forefathers”.
- When it was clear that a passage addressed both men and women, ‟brothers and sisters” usually replaced “brothers” (Greek “adelphoi”). In this sense, the NIV 2011 is more gender accurate than the NIV 1984.
- When the Greek word “anēr” (‟man” or ‟person”) refers to both men and women, this is made explicit.
- A variety of words were used to replace words that referred to both men and women. For example: ‟people”, ‟humans”, ‟human beings”, ‟humanity”, ‟human race”, ‟mankind”, and ‟man” (which has been retained for some memorial phrases, such as ‟The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, Mark 2:27). Here is an example of some of these changes.
Examples of texts that now have ‟mankind” where they didn’t before include:
- ‟Let us make mankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26a);
- ‟Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and
- ‟For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Some other examples are given below (italics added).
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.||I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.||Romans 16:1-2
According to current scholarship, “diakonos” means “deacon”, not just ‟servant” and “prostatis” means patron or benefactor not just someone who was a ‟great help” in some unspecified way.
|For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.||It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels||1 Corinthians 11:10
‟a sign of” did not correspond to anything explicitly in the Greek.
|I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.||I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.||1 Timothy 2:12
There is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”. Other alternatives are “exercise authority” and “usurp authority”.From the context, I assume that “authentein” includes the authority of an elder in the local church (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
|In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.||In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything||1 Timothy 3:11
From the context, it is possible that these women were either deacons’ wives or women deacons.
Some other improvements include:
- ‟Saints” often becomes ‟God’s people,” ‟the Lord’s people,” ‟the Lord’s holy people” and the like.
- In the Gospels and Acts, when associated with the coming deliverer of the Jews, ‟Christ” has often been changed to ‟Messiah.”
- In the New Testament, ‟spirit” has been capitalised whenever a reference to the Holy Spirit made good sense in a given context.
- Most occurrences of ‟sinful nature” have become ‟flesh”. Especially in Paul’s letters, “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the NIV 1984 often rendered sarx as ‟sinful nature.” But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx. The updated NIV uses ‟flesh” as the translation in many places where it is important for readers to decide for themselves from the context whether one or both of these uses of sarx is present.
Some well-known texts that have been updated are given below.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me||Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me||Psalm 23:4
“shadow of death” is a metaphor
|‛I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel, ‛and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.||‛The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‛does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.||Malachi 2:16
The beginning of the verse is hard to translate.
|Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!||Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!||2 Corinthians 5:17
It is likely that Paul is making a much more sweeping claim than just the salvation of the individual believer.
|For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.||For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.||1 John 2:16
Returns to KJV rendering.
It is clear that most of the changes mentioned above are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible. As I am not qualified to comment on some aspects of the linguistic changes, these have been omitted above.
With regard to the word “mankind”, I prefer to use the word “humanity”. Other changes that may take a while to get used to are “the flesh” (from “the sinful nature”), “impure spirits” (from “evil spirits”) and “forbearance” (from “patience”). I need to investigate these further.
As the changes to 1 Corinthians 11:10 and 1 Timothy 3:11 move the verses closer to the Greek text, they are an improvement.
The change to Romans 16:1-2 was based on current scholarship, although I suspect that whether Phoebe was a deacon in the local church will be debated by some. On the other hand they would probably accept a woman as the coordinator of a children’s ministry at church, which could be deemed to be the role of a deacon (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).
The change to 1 Timothy 2:12 has some ambiguity, but this may be appropriate as there is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”.
On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the committee that did the translation indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written January 2013
See the next article in this series:
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2
Promise and judgment
Recently I was asked this question about the Bible: I was wondering, what about the parts of the Bible that say that God ordained for the Israelites to slaughter so many people. Yes, I understand that was God’s judgment on a wicked people, but that doesn’t explain slaughtering innocent children, and in some cases of wiping out a people. It seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners. I agree that wholesale slaughter of nations seems incompatible with a God of love and mercy. It’s an argument that is often brought against the Old Testament.
The context of the Israelite invasion of Canaan begins with Abram who was in the 20th generation of life on earth. Abram was given many promises including that his descendants would be a great nation, the Jews who were God’s special people on earth. They were to be different and separate to the other nations: “you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Dt. 7:6NIV). The Israelites were given special laws to follow, including “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices” (Lev. 18:2-3).
In the 10th generation, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:25), which was an act of divine judgment. As the Old Testament is an account of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, we will see that Israel as God’s representatives on earth was to be involved with the judgment of the sins of the Canaanites.
When Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land” forever (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 1 Chron. 16:15-18). God confirmed this promise in a covenant: “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it” (Gen 15:7). The promise was repeated to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses (Gen. 50:24-25; Ex. 6:8). This was an unconditional promise (Ps. 105:8-11). It was like a grant given by a king to a loyal subject.
What land would they receive? “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:18-21). They were to be given the land of Canaan that was occupied by these nations.
When would this happen? “Know for certain that for 400 years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there (Egypt). But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions … In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). So under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites would leave Egypt and travel to occupy Canaan. Note that the timing of being given the land was when the sin of the Amorites was fully developed. This is explained in Deuteronomy, “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you” (Dt. 9:4).
Sins of the Canaanites
The Bible describes the wickedness of the Canaanite nations: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (Dt. 18:9-12).
Their sexual immorality is described in Leviticus 18 as detestable. The Israelites were told “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24-25). They were also warned against child sacrifice to the god Molek (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5) and against religious prostitution (1 Ki. 14:24; Dt. 23:17).
So the Canaanites were characterised by extreme wickedness, like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They have been likened to a cancer in society. In such situations, God gives a warning of His judgment. In the days of Abraham they had the witness of Melchizedek the king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem) (Gen. 14:19-20) and the judgment of Sodom and Gormorrah (Gen. 19:1-29).
Before Jericho was destroyed, Rahab told the spies, “I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:8-11). They knew about God’s promise – the land grant – made over 400 years before and were fearful because of the exodus 40 years beforehand when the God of the Israelites defeated the Egyptians, who were the most powerful nation at that time. This fear had been predicted (Ex. 15:14-17). They also knew about the Israelites recent military victories. Most people would flee when their country was invaded by a stronger army (Jer. 4:29; 6:1). The Amorite and Canaanite kings were also afraid because they knew that God had dried up the Jordan river so the Israelites could cross over (Josh. 5:1). As the Israelite invasion would be gradual (“little by little”), the Canaanites had plenty of time to escape (Ex. 23:30; Dt. 7:22). So they knew what was coming and they could either repent of their ways or escape by migrating out of the land of Canaan.
God had promised that the Israelites would occupy the land of Canaan. When we look at how this is described in the Bible we see two kinds of words: the Canaanite nations were both “driven out” and “destroyed”. What does this mean? We see that the Canaanites had a choice, either migrate before the Israelites arrive or be executed. It was an eviction, not a genocide. This meant that the wicked Canaanite culture and nation was to be destroyed, but most of the people could be assimilated into the surrounding nations. Also, it was to protect the Israelites from being influenced by the Canaanite idolatry and wickedness.
For example, God said, “I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you” and “I will wipe them out” (Ex. 23:23, 31). The people were to be banished or killed and their idols destroyed. To avoid idolatry, there were to be no treaties and intermingling: “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against Me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (Ex. 23:32-33). More detail is given in Deuteronomy and Numbers: “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them” (Dt. 7:2-3); “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:52-53); “in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Dt. 20:16-18).
So the Canaanites were to be driven out of the land (Lev. 18:24-25) and those who refused to leave were to be executed as judgment of their wickedness and to minimise the chance of the Israelites catching their wicked ways. It was an expulsion, not an extermination. As some always escaped and migrated elsewhere, there were no instances of “wiping out a people”.
Later when the Israelites followed the idolatry of the Canaanites, they were also evicted from Canaan and deported to Babylon (Lev. 18:28)!
Was this fair? Was it consistent with the ways of God?
God’s revelation to those who have not heard the gospel
According to Paul, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).
This passage describes people like the Canaanites. They could see the works of God in the created world. A creation requires a creator, it can’t create itself, and it doesn’t happen by accident or just by the physical laws of this world. The immensity and magnificence of the created world requires a creator with power and knowledge that greatly exceeds those of humanity. This should be obvious. There is no excuse for not realising that a powerful being has made the universe.
However, people rejected and suppressed this truth and foolishly worshipped idols (Rom. 1:21-32). Their gods were created things instead of the One who created everything. This led to sexual immorality and other sinful behaviour. That’s why the Canaanites were under God’s wrath and judgment. God was fair, He had revealed Himself in His creation and then He waited 400 years while the Israelites were in Egypt. God was patient in judgment (2 Pt. 3:9). He allowed evil to run its course and allowed plenty of time for repentance. Instead of turning to God, the Canaanites turned to increased sinfulness. Physical death was one of the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:19). In this instance, people died prematurely during the Israelite invasion. This means of death discontinued after the Israelites were defeated and captured by the Babylonians. After their captivity, God’s people were not required to kill so they could occupy the promised land.
In the instance of Sodom and Gomorrah, God said he would not destroy these cities if there were ten righteous people there (Gen 18:32). As He enabled Lot’s family to escape this destruction and Rahab’s family to be protected at Jericho (Josh. 6:25), we can infer that all the Canaanites who died had rejected God’s revelation and decided to stay and oppose the Israelites.
What about the children?
We have seen that the Canaanite inhabitants, including children, were either driven out or killed to prevent intermarriage and idolatry (Dt. 7:3-4; 20:16-18). Otherwise, the children who were killed would have probably followed the ways of their parents who were the leaders and those deeply involved in the Canaanite culture.
Also, with respect to idolatry, God said He punishes “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Dt. 5:9). Here we see that children suffer the consequences of their parent’s actions, which is also the case today. For example, if parents are involved in crime or drugs or are alcoholics, it affects the lives of their children. As they lived in extended households, more generations of the Israelites and Canaanites were victims of their family circumstances than would be the case today. For example, Achan’s family were stoned because of his disobedience – the plunder was put under the family tent (Josh. 7:20-25). Household members share in the fate or fortune of the parents, like collateral damage in a war. The fate of the Canaanite children depended on whether their parents migrated out of Canaan or stayed there. On the other hand, Rahab’s family were saved because they were in her house when Jericho was destroyed – they shared in Rahab’s fortune. We should blame the parents and not God for the “slaughtering of innocent children”.
The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death.
Three Bible verses teach that young children are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.
Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).
At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognise His works of creation and choose to accept, honour and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.
Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11)?
Clearly, Israel’s God was greater than the false Canaanite gods, showing that there is only one true God (Isa. 43:10-12).
God kept His promise to the Israelites. It was a unique time when God established His kingdom across Canaan for a period of about 800 years, which was a foretaste of His future promised kingdom over all the earth for 1000 years. Also, God has given Christians many spiritual promises in the New Testament which He will also fulfil.
God punished the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites. This reminds us that sin has consequences. It results in physical and spiritual death. The only remedy is that eternal life is available for those who accept Christ’s gift of salvation.
God warned the Canaanites of the coming invasion and gave them plenty of time to escape. Today, the gospel message goes out and God is patiently waiting for people to turn to him (2 Pt. 3:9).
Household members, including children, shared the fortunes of their parents. We need to realize that our actions can have consequences for others.
Canaan was Israel’s promised inheritance, which was gained by their faith and obedience and lost by their disobedience. After being rescued (redeemed) from Egypt, because of their backsliding, most of the Israelites died before they reached Canaan. They succumbed to the temptations and trials of this sinful world. Canaan symbolises our present spiritual inheritance. God has given us many spiritual promises in the Bible. By claiming these and living lives in obedience to Scripture, we will be rewarded in heaven at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Let’s resist the temptations and claim God’s promises like the Israelites who claimed Canaan. It’s not easy, but God has supplied our weapons including; the truth in the Bible, our righteousness, the gospel, our faith in God, God’s salvation, the Bible and prayer (Eph. 6:10-20).
God’s main aim was to destroy the Canaanite religion, not the Canaanite people. This was to protect Israel from idolatry and the sins that were associated with idolatry. Likewise, we are told to flee idolatry (1 Cor. 10:1-14). When we are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that we can endure it. Christians are to be separate from all forms of sin, wickedness and idolatry such as are practiced by unbelievers. We are to flee from these like the Jewish exiles fled from idolatrous Babylon (2 Cor. 6:17).
So this unique period in history reminds us that God keeps His promises and judges sin.
Written, October 2012