Here is a conversation on the Bible that is an extract from the comments after a blogpost. Check the post for the complete discussion that took place over a period of more than three months. As there were two commentators involved at the same time, the discussion with each is separated below.
Commentator 1 September
Much of the old testament is filled with violence and genocide the likes of which would keep today’s UN war crimes tribunals busy for an eternity.
How can we rely on the Christian scriptures as you have said when we have no proof only faith of their authenticity? Faith is in no way empirical evidence of the divine origin of the texts.
George’s reply 24 September
You asked, “How can we rely on the Christian scriptures as you have said when we have no proof only faith of their authenticity?” Please read my post on “Can we trust our Bibles”. It concludes that our Bibles are very close to the original because early manuscripts have been preserved, scholars have reconstructed the original text and languages have been translated accurately. Because of this and the numerous manuscripts that have been preserved, the Christian Bible is one of the most reliable ancient texts that are available today. (more…)
In the Christmas carol, “Joy to the world”, “heaven and nature sing” at the coming of the King (Jesus Christ). But how can nature sing?
The final five psalms in the book of psalms (146-150) have a theme of praise. Each of them begin and end with “Praise the Lord”. In this post on Psalm 148 we see that all creation (nature) praises God.
Psalm 148 has been categorized as a nature psalm. These psalms praise the Lord as the creator and sustainer of the physical universe. God is separate from nature because He created it. This made Jewish beliefs different to the common beliefs of ancient times that various objects in nature are divine. Just think about the gods of Egypt, Canaan, Greece and Rome. The theological description is that God is “transcendent”, which means He is independent of the creation. But the creation (nature) is also sustained by His mighty power; He sustains “all things by His powerful word” (Heb. 1:3NIV). And the creation (nature) declares (shows) God’s greatness (Ps. 19:1). Psalm 148 says, (more…)
Telling somebody in public they are doing a good job when in fact they are doing a bad job is worse than saying nothing at all. Other blunders are to offer praise for something that’s unimportant and praising the wrong person. These are all wrong reasons to praise someone.
When do you praise of God? What reminds you of Him? When David was the king of Israel in about 1,000BC, the nation depended on agricultural production for food and many resources. So David praised God for lush pastures, flocks of sheep and bountiful harvests.
In this post we see that David had three main reasons to praise God. But did you know that these reasons have now been superseded? (more…)
Last week I climbed Uluru (Ayers Rock) in central Australia. On the way down there was a man who became very unwell around 3/4 of the way up the climb chain. He was being assisted by two off-duty police officers and two off-duty paramedics. This turned into a major problem when he suffered a heart attack. They performed CPR and used a defibrillator to shock his heart back into a survivable rhythm, saving his life. A few hours later the man was carefully moved down the steep face of the rock on a stretcher using ropes and pulleys. He was treated at Yulara Health Centre before being flown to Alice Springs Hospital by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and then to Adelaide for specialist heart surgery.
This post looks at a major problem faced by a commander in the Syrian army, which is described in the Bible. We will see from this that God can deliver us from our major problem.
Naaman’s problem is described in 2 Kings 5:1-15 (NIV):
1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram [Syria]. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. (more…)
Applying the Bible to our lives
These days many of us get our sense of right and wrong from movies. Although some of our superheroes may act like a self-sacrificing Messiah in battles to save the world, the lessons in movies are usually determined by ungodly people who want to entertain us.
When I googled “How to live”, there were 20 billion results on the internet! If I took five seconds to read each one, it would take over 30 years of reading continuously! How can we know which is the best way to live our lives? These are all the subjective opinions of many people. We can save wasting a lot of time by following the objective opinions of the God who made the world and who knows all about us. And it doesn’t take years to find because He has communicated to us in the Bible. The Bible is often called “God’s word” or “the word” because it’s a message from God. (more…)
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, DC following allegations of sexual abuse. This is the latest in a series of sex abuse scandals involving leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. So, what does the Bible say about the behavior of Christian leaders?
The letter of 1 Peter in the Bible shows us how God can help us get through hardship, trials and suffering. In chapter 5, it includes instructions to the elders of churches, which would apply to the leaders of any Christian ministry. This passage is written in the context of suffering. It is preceded by a passage on suffering for being a Christian (4:12-19) and is followed by a reminder to have an eternal viewpoint when they are suffering (5:10).
The passage says “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pt. 5:1-4NIV).
It’s a message to those living between the two advents of Christ. The first was when Christ suffered and the second is when He will come in great glory. We live in this time period.
When churches (and ministries) experience persecution and suffering, it is primarily the responsibility of the leaders to provide help, comfort, strength and guidance. Peter urges them to do this in view of the persecution they were enduring. He supports this by saying that he is also a Christian leader (elder). So he’s speaking from experience. He also saw Christ’s crucifixion at the first advent and he told others about it. And he knew that there will be no more suffering when Christ returns in great power and glory to rule over the earth at the second advent and he told others about it.
The main message was that they were to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them” (5:2). Here leaders are likened to shepherds and those they lead are likened to sheep. This is a common biblical metaphor. The shepherd is the dominant leadership metaphor in the Old Testament. As sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. And Jesus was “the Good Shepherd” (Jn. 10:11).
Peter says to take care of and watch over those you lead like shepherds take care of and watch over their sheep. A shepherd’s care is physical, while a Christian leader’s care is spiritual. Leaders are “shepherds of God’s flock” who do this work for the Good Shepherd. Then he gives them three important characteristics of a Christian leader (or church elder). These are given as three negatives (“not because you must”; “not pursuing dishonest gain “; and “not lording it over those entrusted to you”), each of which is followed by a positive (“but because you are willing”; “but eager to serve”; and “but being examples to the flock”). So Christian leaders are to be:
– willing leaders
– eager leaders, and
– examples to follow.
- A willing leader
The Bible says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (5:2). There’s a wrong way and a right way to lead. In this case, not reluctantly or under coercion or compulsion, but voluntarily. This is like Paul’s advice on giving, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Our attitude is important to God. It’s wrong to lead because there seems to be no alternative or because of exerted pressure.
When Paul was in prison, he sent Onesimus back to his master rather than have Onesimus’ help without the approval of his master; “I did not want to do anything without your (Philemon’s) consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary” (Phile. 14). Paul sought the help of volunteers, not those who had no choice in the matter. Likewise, God wants those who lead Christian ministries to do this voluntarily, and not out of a feeling of obligation or a desire of recognition or status. It’s not just a job to do, but a calling from God.
Nehemiah led the project to restore the walls of Jerusalem after they had been ruined for 150 years. His team faced mockery, attacks, distraction and temptation to sin (Neh. 4:3, 8; 6:10-12). Nehemiah understood that God had appointed him to the task and his sense of purpose invigorated the people to follow his leadership despite incredible opposition. God equips Christian leaders to overcome the challenges and obstacles and complete the tasks He’s given them to do.
- An eager leader
The Bible also says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them— … not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve” (5:2). Not greedily looking for reward or recognition or some other benefit, but eager to serve others. They are “not a lover of money” (1 Ti. 3:3). 83% (5/6) of the warnings to the church about greed and the love of money are addressed to leaders (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Tit. 1:7, 11; Heb. 13:5; 1 Pt. 5:2). They gladly serve without reward or recognition. They are outwardly focused, not self-focused. They desire to give, not get.
In this verse “eager” means ready, prepared, passionate and enthusiastically willing to lead. They anticipate the needs of the people and gladly initiate action to address these. They are eager to lead in a way that Paul was eager to preach the good news about Jesus to the Romans (Rom. 1:15). And in the way that the Christians in Corinth were eager to help needy believers in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 9:2).
- An example to follow
The Bible says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them— … not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (5:3). Not as a dictator, tyrant or bully with a desire for power and control. Not like a boss who commands, dominates, intimidates, manipulates and coerces his people. Not like the leaders of Israel who “ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezek. 34:4). They were interested in themselves and not in the welfare of the people. And not like Diotrephes who loved prominence and expelled from the church those he disagreed with (3 Jn. 9-10). Christian leaders must not abuse their authority.
Recently Hun Sen was re-elected to lead Cambodia in a sham election. The leaders of Cambodia’s main opposition were jailed or exiled, and their party was dissolved and was banned from competing in the election. And independent media in Cambodia is largely silenced. So Cambodia is governed by a dictatorship, not a democracy. And its neighbors (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar) are also governed by repressive regimes.
Instead Christian leaders were to be a model or pattern to follow. Paul told young believers to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Ti. 4:12). And he told the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul’s example was not to lord it over others (2 Cor. 1:24). Christian leaders are not to drive God’s people, but to lead them by their examples of mature Christian character. The ancient shepherd walked in front of his sheep and called them to follow him. They showed the sheep which direction to walk.
Jesus told His disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man [Jesus]did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:25-28). Christian leaders are to serve and give, not demand and get. It’s self-giving, not self-serving.
“Those entrusted to you” are the people that God has given the leader to lead. God specially assigns people to leaders. They are the leader’s sphere of service. The leader is to manage these people for Jesus Christ who is the Chief Shepherd (1 Pt. 5:4).
Lessons for us
If we are a Christian leader, let’s be willing and eager to care for people and be an example they can follow. This means not abusing others like Cardinal McCarrick is alleged to have done or any other form of abuse.
If we are under the authority of Christian leaders, let’s accept their leadership, accept their care, and follow their example (1 Pt. 5:5).
Written, July 2018
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
“Run”, “take”, “break”, “turn”, and “set” are said to be the words in the English language which have most meanings. Many of our words have multiple meanings, but we usually aren’t confused by them. That’s because the other important element of language is context. In this post we look at the meanings of the word “day” in Genesis 1.
Days of creation
The Hebrew noun yom (Strongs #3117), occurs 14 times in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3. Six of these are the “days” of creation, which are listed below.
“And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day” (1:5NIV).
“And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day” (1:8).
“And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day” (1:13).
“And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day” (1:19).
“And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day” (1:23).
“And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day” (1:31).
The Hebrew word yom has several meanings, with the most appropriate one usually being indicated by the context. In this post we look at what the word yom in these verses meant to the ancient Hebrews. Our method includes a study of the text, the context and how Moses used this word.
Other instances of “day” in the first section of Genesis
We will begin by looking at the other instances of the word yom in the first section of Genesis (Gen. 1:1 – 2:3). As it describes events that occurred before the creation of humanity, this account came from God. But it may have been edited by Moses. The first instance is “God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness He called ‘night’” (1:5). Here yom means the daylight period of a 24-hour day (approximately 12-hours). The remainder of the 24-hour day is called “night”.
The next instances of yom are in this passage, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day (12 hours) from the night (12 hours), and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days (24 hours) and years (12 months), and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.’ And it was so. ‘God made two great lights—the greater light (sun) to govern the day (12 hours) and the lesser light (moon) to govern the night (12 hours). He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day (12 hours) and the night (12 hours), and to separate light from darkness” (1:14-18). The first instance of yom in this passage means the daylight period of a 24-hour day. While the second means “24-hours” because it’s associated with the word “years”. The remaining two instances of yom mean the daylight period of a 24-hour day.
The final instance of yom is in this passage, “By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done” (2:2-3). In this passage, the word yom is described by the adjective “seventh”. Previously each of the six days of creation was described by a numerical adjective, “one” to “six”. As this is the next “day” in a series of days, it has the same meaning that yom has in the other six days of creation, which is discussed below under the subheading “Interpretation of the days of creation” (See Appendix A).
So in this section of Genesis, the instances of the word yom apart from the days of creation can mean:
– a 12-hour period (sunrise to sunset), or
– a 24-hour period (sunset to next sunset).
Instances of “day” in the second section of Genesis
The instances of yom in the second section of Genesis (Gen. 2:4-4:26) are listed below. This section begins, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth (the universe) when they were created, when (in the day that) the Lord God made the earth and the heavens (the universe)” (2:4).
Adam is warned about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “when (in the day that) you eat from it you will certainly die” (2:17).
The serpent told Eve, “when (in the day that) you eat from it (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5).
In these three instances, yom is used in the Hebrew idiom “in the day that”, which means “at the time that”, or “when”. It’s a time period of unspecified length. The time periods here are: the six days of creation, which are interpreted in the next section (2:4) and the time it takes to eat some fruit (say a few minutes) (2:17; 3:5).
After they sinned, Adam and Eve heard God “walking in the garden in the cool of the day (yom)” (3:8). This means either the daylight period of a 24-hour day or the whole 24-hour day. I favor the former.
The punishment given to the serpent and to Adam were for “all the days (yom) of your life” (3:14, 17). In this case, the plural version of yom means a 24-hour period, but the context adds “of your life” to give an expression meaning “a lifetime’. In this case yom has a figurative meaning which is a space of time defined by an associated term.
“In the course of time (yom)”, is used to describe the time period before Cain and Able brought offerings to God (4:3). The NET says that “The clause indicates the passing of a set period of time leading up to offering sacrifices”. The literal meaning is, “And it happened at the end of days”. It describes the time period when Cain and Abel grew to be adults. In this case, the plural version of yom means a 24-hour period, but the context adds “in the course of” to give an expression meaning “a portion of a lifetime’.
After being informed of his punishment, Cain told God, “Today (this yom) you are driving me from the land” (4:14). In this context, yom means a 24-hour day.
So in this section of Genesis the instances of the word yom can mean:
– a few minutes, or
– a 12-hour period (sunrise to sunset), or
– a 24-hour period (sunset to next sunset), or
– six days of creation (which are interpreted in the next section), or
– a portion of a lifetime (when yom is plural and accompanied with “in the course of”), or
– a lifetime (when yom is plural and accompanied with “of your life”).
So, here a phrase that includes the plural of version of yom can indicate a period of time period between 24 hours and a lifetime.
Interpretation of the days of creation
We have seen that the Hebrew noun “yom” can have several different meanings in the early chapters of Genesis. But in each day of creation, the word “yom” is singular. This rules out the meanings shown above that can be associated with the plural version of yom. So in this case that Hebrew text rules out “a lifetime” and “a portion of a lifetime”. This leaves the following possibilities:
– a few minutes, or
– a 12-hour period (sunrise to sunset), or
– a 24-hour period (sunset to next sunset).
And each of the six days of creation is associated with the statement, “And there was evening, and there was morning”. How does Moses use the words “evening” and “morning” elsewhere in Genesis? From appendices B and C it’s clear that “morning” usually means after sunrise and “evening” means after sunset. The only possible figurative meaning is in Genesis 49:27, which is poetic. But Genesis 1 isn’t poetic because it has no parallelism and isn’t type-set as poetry in most Bibles. It’s a numbered sequence of days like Numbers 7:12-89 and not a poem. So the meaning of these words in Genesis 1 should be “after sunrise” and “after sunset”. This seems to follow the Jewish order of reckoning time: from sunset to next sunset (rather than from midnight to next midnight). As “evening” and “morning” were part of each day of creation, the day seems to mean a 24-hour period rather than “at the time that” or “a 12-hour period”. This is supported by the Hebrew text associated with the first instance of “evening” and “morning”, which seems to indicate that having an evening and a morning amounts to having one full day (Appendix D).
It is instructive to see how God and Moses interpret the days of creation. The words of the fourth commandment were spoken by God (Ex. 20:1). These say, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:8-11).
Clearly the “six days” of labor in this passage are the same period of time as the “six days” of creation – they both use the plural yom with the adjective “six”. They both mean six 24-hour days. And the “seventh day” of Sabbath rest is the same period of time as the “seventh day” that God rested after creating the universe – they both use the singular yom. They both mean one 24-hour day.
Similarly, this is repeated when “the Lord said to Moses” (Ex. 31:12), “Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.’” (Ex. 31:14-17).
Clearly the “six days” of work in this passage are the same period of time as the “six days” of creation – they both use the plural yom with the adjective “six. They both mean six 24-hour days. And the “seventh day” of Sabbath rest is the same period of time as the “seventh day” that God rested after creating the universe – they both use the singular yom. They both mean one 24-hour day.
Can this “day” mean long periods of time?
Some people suppose that the “days” of creation in Genesis 1 are long eras of time. However, we have seen that the only meanings of yom in this section of Genesis are either a 12-hour period (sunrise to sunset), or a 24-hour period (sunset to next sunset).
We have also seen that in the second section of Genesis a phrase that includes the plural version of yom can indicate a period of time of up to a lifetime. But the occurrences of yom in Genesis 1 are singular, not plural. This is consistent with the NET Study Note that says, “The exegetical evidence suggests the word “day” in this chapter refers to a literal twenty-four hour day” (see Appendix E).
The other meanings of yom in the Old Testament are given in Appendix F.
Another explanation that is given for disregarding this interpretation of yom is to say that Genesis 1 is a symbolic or poetic genre rather than history or prose. This topic is addressed in a coming post on “Genesis 1-11: Fact or fiction”, which shows that Genesis 1 is not Hebrew poetry and it is not symbolic.
Can there be a day before the sun exists?
One objection to this interpretation is that 24-hour days can’t exist without the sun. The sun seems to be created on the fourth day of creation (Gen. 1:14-16). However, all a day requires is a light and a rotating earth. And the light doesn’t have to come from the sun. Was there a light on the first day? Yes (Gen. 5:4). Was there a rotating earth on the first day? We are not told specifically. But there is light and darkness and evening and morning. So we can’t rule out the possibility of a rotating earth on the first day of creation.
Why six days?
Why did God create the universe in six days and not in an instant or six seconds or six minutes or six hours or six weeks or six months or six years or six eras of time? The Israelites were told it was a pattern for the observance of their weekly Sabbath under the law of Moses (Ex. 20:8-11; 31:14-17). They were to work for six days and then observe the Sabbath on the seventh. As we are under the new covenant and not the law of Moses, we are not required to keep the laws of the Sabbath (they are not included in the New Testament commands to Christians). So God’s six days of creative work and one day of rest gives us the pattern of the seven-day week. There is no astronomical explanation for the week being seven days like there is for the length of a day (a rotation of the earth), a month (a rotation of the moon) or of a year (a rotation of the earth around the sun).
Are the days just a literary device?
It has been suggested that the seven “days” in the first section of Genesis (1:1-2:4a) is just a list of events or categories and not a chronological sequence. In this case the number and ordering of the “days” were chosen for literary or thematic reasons. They are a metaphorical framework that God used to describe the creative process. By looking at three foundations of this interpretation, we will see that it would not have been understood this way by the ancient Hebrews.
First, it is assumed that similarities between day 1 and day 4 (both mention light or lights), mean that these are two different ways of describing the same event. So the events described on day 4 add more detail to those described on day 1. Likewise for days 2 and 5 (both mention water and atmosphere), and days 3 and 6 (both mention land and vegetation). Therefore, Genesis 1 describes three events in no particular sequence. But water was created in day 1, so in this respect day 1 is also similar to day 5. And the heavens in which the sun and moon were placed were made on day 2, so in this respect day 2 is also similar to day 4. And the sea is mentioned in days 3 and 5, so in this respect day 3 is also similar to day 5. So the parallels are selective and other parallels are ignored! Obviously, water, land and the atmosphere needed to be created before creatures could inhabit these. That’s common sense, and not a literary technique!
Second, if the seventh day is still continuing, then the other six days are metaphors and not 24-hour periods. But we have seen that the seventh day isn’t a long period of time (Appendix A).
The third justification for the framework approach is that 24-hour days don’t make sense if is assumed that God used natural processes to create and not miraculous means. This is based on the presupposition that as miracles are not observed today, they have never happened. And so the events attributed to each day couldn’t be achieved in 24-hours. An interpretation of Genesis 2:5-6 is used to claim that God used natural means during the creation period and not supernatural ones. But Genesis 2:5 is in a section that describes what happened on day 6 in more detail, and it refers to cultivated plants, not those created on day 3. And the psalmist says this about creation, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of His mouth … Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere Him. For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps. 33:6-9). And this is also what the writers of the New Testament believed, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3). So the process of creation didn’t take a long period of time; God spoke and it was done. His creation was miraculous. And there are other nature miracles in the Bible like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan river on “dry ground” (Ex. 14:21-22; Josh. 3:15-17).
If we apply the framework hypothesis to Genesis 1, what stops this approach being applied to Genesis 3 (with a talking snake), Genesis 6-8 (with a global flood), Christ’s miracles and Christ’s resurrection? Nothing! So, it finishes up saying that most of the Bible is metaphorical; it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. But the prophets and apostles didn’t devote their lives to metaphors. Their preaching was based on historical facts, not metaphors. Many of them died as martyrs. And they wouldn’t have been willing to give up their life if the Biblical account was mainly metaphors.
Some consider Genesis 1 to be an illustration to teach the theology of six days work plus the Sabbath. But this is back to front – the Sabbath was based on the historical events of Genesis 1, not vice-versa (Ex. 20:8-11).
Our study of the text and context indicates that the ancient Hebrews would have understood each “day” of creation to mean the 24-hours from sunset to next sunset. And they would have understood that the sequence of seven days comprised one week, which was the model for 6 days work and one day Sabbath rest. So the framework hypothesis is extra-biblical.
What about the rest of the Bible?
We have looked at what the word yom in Genesis 1 meant to the ancient Hebrews who took part in the exodus. But the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. What do the scriptures that were written after the Pentateuch say about this topic?
Did any of the other authors of the Old Testament mention the creation? Yes they did, but none of them specifically mention how long it took. Instead they seem to assume that it’s already known from the Pentateuch.
Did any of the authors of the New Testament mention the creation? Yes they did, but none of them mention specifically how long it took. Instead they seem to assume that it’s already known from the Pentateuch. But one author does refer to it implicitly.
The writer of Hebrews quotes from Genesis 2:2, “For somewhere He (God) has spoken about the seventh day in these words: ‘On the seventh day God rested from all His works’” (Heb. 4:4). In this verse the Greek noun hemera (Strongs #2250) is translated “day”. This singular word is also used seven other times in the book of Hebrews. In these instances it means:
– “In the day” (or “during the time”) of testing in the wilderness in 3:8. This was a period of about 38 years.
– “Every day” (or “daily”) in 3:13; 7:27; and 10:11. These are 24-hour days.
– “A certain day” (or a certain “time”) in 4:7.
– “Another day” (or “another time”) in 4:8
– “When” in 8:9.
So the singular noun hemera has several meanings in this book, but none of them means a long period of time. Could “the seventh day” in 4:4 have any of these meanings? Yes, it could be a 24-hour day that is referred to as “the seventh”. That’s the only one that makes sense in conjunction with the adjective “seventh”. Therefore, in Hebrews 4:4 “the seventh day” means a 24-hour day, like the 24-hour days described in Hebrews 3:13; 7:27; and 10:11. The adjective “seventh” implies that “the seventh day” followed six other 24-hour days (which were the six days of creation). By the way, there is no suggestion in this passage that “the seventh day” was a long period of time.
Did Jesus mention the creation? Yes He did, but He didn’t specifically mention how long it took. But Jesus showed that He accepted the Pentateuch as describing historical events. For example, in Matthew 19:4–6 He quotes from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, which are the chapters of the Bible that describe the six days of creation.
Jesus told the Jews that they must accept the words of Moses (Jn. 5:45-47). At that time faithful Jews believed that the Pentateuch was factual because it was the foundation of their faith. And in it Moses wrote that God created the universe in six days (Ex. 20:11). This was a fundamental belief of faithful Jews, including Jesus and the apostles.
What about the fact that Christians are under a different covenant and no longer under the Old Testament law of Moses? Like Genesis 1-11, the six days of creation occurred before God’s promise were given to Abraham and the old covenant was given to Moses. So, the new covenant through Jesus doesn’t affect how God created the universe. But through Jesus we can anticipate God’s new creation (Rev. 21:1-22:5).
What about 2 Peter 3:8?
When writing to Christians in about AD 66, Peter warned them not to forget the promise that Christ would return to judge the world. As they were in danger of forgetting this promise which had been given about 35 years earlier, he wrote, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pt. 3:8). 1,000 years is 365,000 days, which would be a long period of time for people living in Peter’s time. So the verse says that for God a short period of time is like a long period of time and a long period of time is like a short period of time. It’s two conflicting similes that doesn’t make sense unless time is irrelevant to God. Comparing 1,000 years with one day may have been a Hebrew idiom for comparing long and short periods of time (Ps. 90:4). From God’s eternal perspective, there’s no significant difference between one day (a short period of time) and 1,000 years (a long period of time). Just because there had been a time delay, didn’t mean that God had forgotten to keep His promise.
Some people use this verse to say that in the Bible one day can symbolize 1,000 years or a long period of time. But if this is the case, the verse also says that 1,000 years or a long period of time can symbolize one day or a short period of time. This doesn’t make sense because these have opposite meanings. Instead, the word “day” in this verse is used in two similes which together indicate that God doesn’t experience time like us. This makes sense because God crested time.
What about billions of years?
How do scientists calculate the age of the universe and the time it took to form? Three methods have been used. One is based on assumptions about stellar evolution. Another is based on assumptions of an expanding universe and the Big Bang theory. And a third is based on Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. They all seem to use the size and rate of expansion of the universe; parameters whose magnitudes are inferred because they can’t be measured directly. Instead they are measured by remote sensing. And they all use mathematical models that assume what happened in the universe over billions of years because it can’t be measured directly. And they assume the existence of entities like dark energy and dark matter. If the assumptions are wrong, then their estimate is wrong. It’s a circular method because the answer is based on their presuppositions.
The Bible says that God created the universe is six 24-hours days, but scientists claim that it formed naturally over about 14 billion years. The difference between these two periods of time is huge. Orders of magnitude are used to compare very large differences between numbers. It this case the difference is expressed as the power of 10. For example, 1,000 is one order of magnitude greater than 100, two orders of magnitude greater than 10, and three orders of magnitude greater than 1. In this case, 14 billion years is about 12 orders of magnitude greater than 6 days. This is a factor of 1012, which is 10 with 12 zeros after it! Or 10,000,000,000,000 times greater!
The 14 billion years comes from the naturalistic assumption that the present is the key to the past. But history goes forwards, not backwards. And causes go before their consequences (or effects) and not after them. It’s more accurate to say that the past is the key to the present. Scientists can only observe the present. As any statements they make about the past are based on assumptions, their accuracy is based on the accuracy of their assumptions. Because of this, there is a huge uncertainty in their estimation of the age of the universe.
Elsewhere I have shown how history trumps science when dealing with the past. This is because a reliable eyewitness is superior to forensic science in the investigation of crime. Consequently, reliable history is better than ancient forensic science in investigating what happened in ancient times.
Can the Hebrew language express long periods of time?
If the creation of the universe took much longer than six days, what Hebrew words are available to communicate this?
“Years” is mentioned in Genesis 1:14 and a “thousand” is mentioned in Genesis 20:16. The Hebrew word eleph (Strongs #505), translated “thousand” occurs 505 times in the Old Testament. And the Hebrew word shanah (Strongs #8141), translated “years” occurs 876 times in the Old Testament. The largest number mentioned specifically in the Old testament is Jeroboam’s 800,000 troops (2 Chron. 13:3). Olam (Strongs #5769) can mean “long duration”, but it usually seems to mean “forever” or everlasting”.
A characteristic of the natural world can also be used in a simile to convey a large number. For example, God told Abraham, “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). And He told Jacob “I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted” (Gen. 32:12).
So the Hebrew language can express long periods of time.
A mature creation
One of the reasons why the Hebrew account didn’t need to mention long periods of time, was that God created a mature universe. Adam and Eve began life as adults, not babies. The fruit trees were already producing fruit. All natural processes and cycles were operating in equilibrium, not in their initial phases. Stars and galaxies were positioned in the universe. This happened in six days. There is no mention of matter being concentrated in a dense ball as is assumed by the Big Bang Model. And there is no need for evolutionary development from the simple to the complex. It’s easy for God to create complexity. He can do it instantly.
A study of the text and context indicates that the ancient Hebrews would have understood the noun yom in each “day” of creation to mean the 24 hours from sunset to next sunset. The idea that these could be large periods of time is extra-biblical and is not based on exegesis of the Hebrew text.
All of the authors of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and Jesus Christ, would have also believed that God created the universe in six days, each of which were 24-hours long. This trumps extra-biblical opinions. And God’s six days of creative work followed by one day of rest seems to be the source for the 7-day week in our calendar.
Because of the way it’s calculated, I’m skeptical of the claim that it took about 14 billion years to create the universe. It’s a huge amount of time. But the real uncertainty in this number is also huge.
Appendix A: Length of the seventh day
The entry for “Day” in Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon includes:
“2. Day as a division of time:
d. day as defined by evening and morning Genesis 1:5,8,13,19,23,31 (compare further בֹּקֶר, עֶרֶב); see also Genesis 2:2 (twice in verse); Genesis 2:3, Exodus 20:11 (twice in verse), Exodus 31:17 (twice in verse).”
This lexicon associates the seventh day with the other six days, which is the case for Exodus, 20:11; 31:17. Remembering the Sabbath every week is consistent with the day of rest being 24-hours like the other days of creation and not a month or a year or some other length of time.
Because it was not a day of creation, the seventh day is described differently. It lacks the command (“God said”), fulfilment (“and it was so”), assessment (“God saw that it was good”) and conclusion (“there was evening, and there was morning”) of the other six days. Instead, the conclusion to day seven is “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (Gen. 2:4a).
On the other hand Vine thinks that in Genesis 2:3 yom refers to the entire period of God’s resting from creating the universe, at least until the return of Christ. When the Jewish leaders criticized Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, “In His defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I too am working’” (Jn. 5:17). It is clear from the context that Jesus is referring to God’s providential and redemptive work and not to His creative work.
And some use Hebrews 4 to claim that the seventh day is unending. But this is poor exegesis. Hebrews 3:7-4:13 warns against unbelief. That’s the context. The writer uses two illustrations. One is the Israelites who rebelled against God during the exodus and so they never entered God’s rest – “They shall never enter my rest” (Heb. 4:3b, 5), which is quoted from Psalm 95:11. Psalm 95:7-11 is also a warning against unbelief. The other illustration is God’s rest after the six days of creation – “And yet His (God’s) works (of creation) have been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere (Gen. 2:2) He (God) has spoken about the seventh day in these words: ‘On the seventh day God rested from all His works’” (Heb. 4:3c-4). The writer wants unbelievers (who never enter God’s spiritual rest) to become believers (who have entered God’s spiritual rest). He says, “we (believers) who have believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3a). So the spiritual “rest” he is addressing is different to the “rest” from creating mentioned in Genesis 2:2-3.
Appendix B: Occurrence of the word “evening” in Genesis 2-49
The Hebrew noun ereb (Strongs #6153) means “evening”. It occurs in the following passages of Genesis 2-49.
“When the dove returned to him in the evening” (8:11).
“The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening” (19:1).
“it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water” (24:11).
“He went out to the field one evening to meditate” (24:63).
“But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her” (29:23).
“So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening” (30:16).
“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder” (49:27). This is metaphoric language in a poem.
Appendix C: Occurrence of the word “morning” in Genesis 2-49
The Hebrew noun boqer (Strongs #1242) means morning. It occurs in the following passages of Genesis 2-49.
“Early the next morning Abraham got up” (19:27).
“Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials” (20:8).
“Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water” (21:14).
“Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey” (22:3).
“When they got up the next morning” (24:54).
“Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other” (26:31).
“Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head” (28:18).
“When morning came, there was Leah!” (29:25).
“Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters” (31:55).
“When Joseph came to them the next morning” (40:6).
“In the morning his mind was troubled” (41:8).
“As morning dawned, the men were sent on their way with their donkeys” (44:3).
“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder” (49:27). This is metaphoric language in a poem.
Appendix D: Is the “day” defined in Genesis 1:5?
Numbers can be cardinal or ordinal. A cardinal number indicates a quantity, such as one, two, three, four, five. It’s used for counting things. An ordinal number indicates position, such as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th. It’s used for putting things in order. In the first section of Genesis (Gen. 1:1-2:4a), in the Hebrew language the number associated with yom is cardinal for day 1 (ehad, Strongs #259, meaning “one”) and ordinal for the remaining days 2-7 (Steinmann, 2002). Is this defining what a “day” is for the rest of the creation week? Steinmann found that in the Pentateuch ehad is only used as an ordinal number for numbering units of time to designate the day of a month (Gen.8:5, 13; Ex. 40:2, 17; Lev. 23:24; Num. 1:1, 18; 29:1; 33:38; Dt. 1:3). All other units of time are numbered using ordinals. Therefore, in Genesis 1 ehad should be translated as “one” and not “the first” (Gen. 1:5). This is the meaning given in Green (1985). The NASB translates it this way, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day”. And the NET says that an alternative version of this sentence is “There was night and then there was day, one day”. This statement is equivalent to saying that one rotation of the earth equals one day.
According to Steinmann, “Genesis 1:5 begins the cycle of the day. With the creation of light it is now possible to have a cycle of light and darkness, which God labels “day” and “night.” Evening is the transition from light/day to darkness/night. Morning is the transition from darkness/night to light/day. Having an evening and a morning amounts to having one full day. Hence the following equation is what Genesis 1:5 expresses: Evening + morning = one day.”
Appendix E: NET Study Note on the days of creation in Genesis 1
“The exegetical evidence suggests the word “day” in this chapter refers to a literal twenty-four hour day. It is true that the word can refer to a longer period of time (see Isa. 61:2, or the idiom in Gen. 2:4, “in the day,” that is, “when”). But this chapter uses “day,” “night,” “morning,” “evening,” “years,” and “seasons.” Consistency would require sorting out how all these terms could be used to express ages. Also, when the Hebrew word יוֹם (yom) is used with a numerical adjective, it refers to a literal day. Furthermore, the commandment to keep the Sabbath clearly favors this interpretation. One is to work for six days and then rest on the seventh, just as God did when He worked at creation.”
Appendix F: “Day” in Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon
The Hebrew noun yom is used in the following ways in the Old Testament.
- Day, opposed to night
- Day as division of time
- Day of the Lord (coming in judgment)
- Plural, days of anyone
- Phrases, without preposition and with, are
Green J. P., (1985) “The interlinear Bible, Hebrew-Greek-English”, Hendrickson Publishers.
Steinmann, A., (2002) “Echad as an Ordinal Number and the Meaning of Genesis 1:5”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45(4):577–584.
Written, May 2018
Last Wednesday was ANZAC Day, which is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand of those who served and died in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. Did you know that the phrase “Lest we forget” used to commemorate those who died in warfare came from the Bible? It came via the poem “Recessional” (see Appendix A) by Rudyard Kipling which was written towards the end of the 60th anniversary celebrations of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1897. These turned into a celebration of the power of the British Empire.
The poem was written to be sung as a hymn at the end of a church service (see Appendix B for an explanation of its meaning). It acknowledges that God helped establish the British Empire. But all human power is transient and empires eventually decline and disappear. It urges the English to be humble instead of boasting about their achievements. The main warning is not to forget God. The chorus is:
“Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!”
So the context of “Lest we forget” is God, not those who have died.
The title “Lord of hosts” comes from the KJV of the Bible (1 Sam. 1:3), which can be translated “Lord Almighty” (NIV), “Lord of Armies” (CSB), or “Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (NLT). It means that God is sovereign over all other powers in the universe, including the British Empire.
The phrase “Lest we forget” comes from a warning given to the Israelites after they settled in the promised land. It says, “Then beware lest thou forget the Lord, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Dt. 6:12KJV). Or, “be careful not to forget the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt” (NLT). They were not to forget what God had done for them. But we know that the Israelites did forget God and followed idols.
So, in Recessional, “Lest we forget”, was a call to not forget God. But this song was also sung at remembrance services for those who died in warfare. And in this context, it was a call to not forget those who had given their lives for their country. In this context, the meaning of “ancient sacrifice” in the song changed from Christ’s death to the death of soldiers. This is an example of how words and phrases can change their meaning over time.
Lessons for us
As the Israelites were God’s people in Old Testament times, Christians are God’s people today. And like them, we are not to forget what God had done for us. We too can easily forget God and the ancient sacrifice of Christ for us. He gave up His life so we could have eternal life.
Let’s not be like the Israelites who forgot about God when they followed idols. Anything we can’t live without or must have is an idol that needs to be removed or put back in its place. An idol is anything that we give higher priority than God. Or anything that we think about more than we think about God.
“Lest we forget”. Don’t forget God!
Appendix A: Recessional
A poem by Rudyard Kipling (1897)
God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law —
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!
Appendix B: Exegesis of Recessional
Kipling was a British poet who wrote verse for English readers. This poem was written over 120 years ago when the British Empire was a major world power. Some of the imagery used in the poem is drawn from the KJV Bible.
Their ancestors worshipped the God of the Bible.
Their armies trusted in this God.
They were in awe of the greatness, power and majesty of God.
They acknowledge that God helped them establish the British Empire.
They acknowledge God’s sovereign power and pray that He will continue to help them.
They are warned not to forget God.
The 60th anniversary celebrations for Queen Victoria will end. They are transient.
The military leaders will stop parading and the visiting dignitaries (kings of Europe) will return home.
But Christ’s ancient sacrifice endures.
God wants us to be humble rather than proud and boasting. We need to confess and repent of our arrogance and boasting. This may be derived from, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17KJV). “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (NLT).
They acknowledge God’s sovereign power and pray that He will continue to help them.
They are warned not to forget God.
Although their Navy travels to far-away places, they can’t sustain their presence in these places.
Watch-post fires are extinguished as military personnel leave.
The 60th anniversary celebrations and the might of the British Empire is transient.
Like Nineveh and Tyre, the British empire will eventually decline and disappear. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire whose destruction by the Babylonians was predicted in the Bible (Nahum 1:1 – 3:19). Tyre was a powerful Phoenician city whose destruction by Alexander the Great was predicted in the Bible (Ezek. 26:1 – 28:19).
They acknowledge God will judge the nations and pray that He will spare them from judgment. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness (Gen. 18:20 – 19:29). The Bible teaches that God will judge nations according to their treatment of the Jews (Joel 3:1-16). And in many cases, sin brings its own judgment (Rom. 1:18-32).
They are warned not to forget God.
They are intoxicated with the idea of colonial power.
They have no awe of the greatness, power and majesty of God. Because of these two things, they say things they shouldn’t say.
Like the Russians and Germans, they boast of their achievements.
They also boast like the heathen in other lands who don’t have the benefit of knowing the Bible.
They acknowledge God’s sovereign power and pray that He will continue to help them.
They are warned not to forget God.
They are acting like the heathen in other lands who don’t have the benefit of knowing the Bible.
They trust in military might.
But all this is futile because it will end in dust! It is insignificant compared to the eternal nature of God.
They leave God out of their lives.
They claim to be God’s people. And they pray to God for forgiveness for their boasting and their foolish language.
Verses 3 and 5 say that they shouldn’t trust in human achievements because these don’t endure. They are fleeting.
Written, April 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).
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
Esperanto is an international auxiliary language devised in 1887 to help break down the language barriers between different ethnic groups. It was to help communication while allowing retention of different languages and cultures. And a language to unite humanity and bring world peace. However, its proponents were persecuted by the Communists and Fascists and it remained a small movement. In this post we look at an international religious language.
When I was investigating the Islamic faith, I realized that to follow Muhammad and the Quran (Koran), you need to learn how to recite classical Arabic. Classical Arabic is a sacred language for Muslims because it was the language of the 7th century AD used by Muhammad and the language of the Quran. It’s no longer spoken in everyday language (except for religious purposes), being equivalent to Shakespearean English in the English speaking world.
The Quran is Islam’s holiest book; which Muslims believe are the commandments of Allah (God). Muslims believe that the Quran is divine (being Allah’s final message) and must be recited and studied in classical Arabic. A translation into another language (such as English) is viewed as being not divine because a human being did the translation – so it’s viewed as being only a human interpretation. Therefore, one needs to learn classical Arabic in order to properly understand the Quran.
This belief is based on a particular interpretation of this verse from the Quran: “We have revealed/made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” (12:2; 43:3). Of course, this is a translation into English, not the original version in classical Arabic! So Muslims would say that it’s not from the “real” Quran because it’s the wrong language! See my exegesis (interpretation) of this verse in the Appendix which gives a different interpretation because it includes the context given in the Quran.
As Islam forbids translation of the Quran from classical Arabic into another language, in all mosques around the world the recitation of the Quran is done in classical Arabic. In this way, classical Arabic is the world-wide liturgical language of Islam.
The mandatory prayers
Muslims are required to pray five times a day facing Mecca. They believe that all these prayers are to be recited in the classical Arabic language because the prayers include extracts from the Quran. Non-Arabic speakers often learn them by heart and recite them from memory. That’s why the Call to prayer announced by loudspeakers five times daily from mosques is only given in classical Arabic; even in non-Arabic communities. Has anyone ever heard this announcement made in any other language?
A sacred language
So to become a Muslim, you have to adopt the classical Arabic language for these most important religious activities. No other language is accepted except classical Arabic. In this way, Islam is a language-exclusive religion. It is monolingual.
Muslims have many native languages, but one religious language. Non-Arab Muslims have to accept this bias as a natural part of life. As language is a part of culture, the daily use of classical Arabic language would affect one’s culture. In this way, it is understandable that Muslims would adopt aspects of Arabic culture into their local culture as well. For example, some non-Arabic Muslims adopt Arabic names and give their children Arabic names. They also often adopt Arabic modes of dress. So Islam is closely associated with Arabic language and Arabic culture.
On the other hand, Christianity is definitely multilingual. The Bible has been translated into all major languages and is being translated into minor languages as well. When the church began on the day of Pentecost (50 days after Christ’s death), there was a miracle whereby the apostles were able to speak in the native languages of people from at least 15 different language groups (Acts 2:5-15). This was called the gift of tongues (the ability to speak a foreign language without learning it). So from the beginning, the message about Jesus Christ was given in the native languages of the hearers, and not in only one “sacred” language (such as Latin or Koine Greek or Aramaic, John 19:20).
If Christianity was monolingual, then all public usage of the Bible would have to be in a single language like Koine Greek, or Latin or King James English.
Christianity is also multicultural and multinational. Peter had to change his attitude towards Gentiles after being shown that the barrier between Jew and Gentile had been removed because God doesn’t favor people because of their nationality (Acts 10:28, 34).
There is another example in the Bible of God using a multilingual approach rather than a monolingual one. After the Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, in about 444 BC, Ezra read the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy in the Old Testament) to them. But the people no longer understood the Hebrew language as their native language was now Aramaic. So the Levites “instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear (translating it) and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:7-8NIV). Afterwards the people were pleased “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12). It seems as though the Levites were translating the Scripture from Hebrew into Aramaic on this occasion. Many Hebrew words needed to be explained as it was no longer their native language.
Evidence of the usage of Aramaic in this era is given in the book of Ezra. The only portion of the Old Testament that wasn’t written in Hebrew is Ezra 4:8 – 6:18; 7:12-26, which was written in Aramaic. These passages refer to correspondence to and from the king of the Persian Empire written between 534 BC and 458 BC.
Muslims claim to worship the same God as the Jews and the Christians. But we have seen from these examples that the God of the Jews didn’t ask the Jews to treat Hebrew as a sacred language and the God of the Christians didn’t ask the Christians to treat Koine Greek (or Aramaic or Latin) as a sacred language. Yet Allah asked the Muslims to treat classical Arabic as a sacred language. Clearly Allah is inconsistent with the God of the Jews and the Christians. Is seems like Allah is a different god.
To follow Muhammad, Allah and the Quran, you need to learn to recite classical Arabic because classic Arabic is the international liturgical language of Islam. Fortunately, you can follow Jesus Christ in your native language.
Appendix: My exegesis of Quran 12:2; 43:3
This verse says, “We have revealed it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” or “We have made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran so that you may apply reason”.
The steps involved in understanding an ancient passage like this are as follows:
– What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
– What were the original principles behind this meaning?
– What has changed since then?
– What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
– What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.
The Quran was written in 7th century AD Arabic language (Classical Arabic) so that the 7th century AD Arabic people could understand it. This is different to Islam whose original meaning seems to be; “the Quran was written in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”.
The Quran must be understandable. This is different to Islam whose original principle seems to be; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. Islam seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.
What has changed since then?
It is claimed that the Quran was written at least 1,300 years ago. Since this time Islam has spread to other nations. This means that Muslims no longer speak the same language and no longer speak classical Arabic in everyday life. And for many Muslims, Arabic isn’t their native language.
For the Quran to be understandable by all Muslims, it needs to be available in their native language. This is different to Islam whose modern principle remains; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. As mentioned above, this seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.
Translate the Quran into native languages so it can be readily understood by those who read and recite it. This application of the verse is different to Islam because I took the context into account, which is given as “that you may understand”. However, I am in the minority!
Written, January 2017
Tasmania’s electrical power shortage has reached crisis levels. 30% of the power usually comes from Victoria by cable, but the cable has been broken since December 2015. 60% of the power usually comes from hydro-electric systems, but dam levels are at a record low capacity of 14% and falling. An old gas-fired power station has been brought back into operation and temporary diesel generators acquired. And major manufacturers have cut production to conserve power.
After Jesus died and rose again, He told His apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:4, 5, 8). When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, the church era commenced replacing the era of the law of Moses. In this post we look at the meaning of a passage from Joel, quoted by Peter as an explanation to the Jews.
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants (slaves), both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18NIV).
We will see from this passage that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Context of Acts 2
Luke wrote the books of Luke and Acts in the Bible. Acts, written about AD 63, is a selective history of the first 30 years of the church. It describes the church in Jerusalem (Ch 1-7), in Judea and Samaria (8:1 – 9:31), and elsewhere in the Roman Empire (9:32 – 28:31). It was written for Theophilus who was probably Luke’s patron (Lk. 1:3-4; Acts 1:1). The main theme of the book is to describe the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem across the Roman Empire and to indicate the major challenges to this.
After His resurrection, the Lord Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to His followers, so they could be His witnesses (1:3-8). Then the Lord ascended into the sky and the disciples were promised that He would return in a similar manner (1:9-11). While they waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (1:12-26).
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and indwelt the disciples (2:1-13) and Peter addressed the crowd of Jews and Jewish proselytes who were in Jerusalem (1:14-41). As a result of Peter’s message about 3,000 people came to faith in Christ and joined the infant church. Then Luke summarized the activities of this pioneer church (2:42-47).
Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost included:
– an explanation of recent events (v.14-21)
– the gospel of Jesus Christ; His death, resurrection and exaltation (v.22-36)
– an exhortation to repentance and baptism (v. 37-40).
Peter explained what happened on the Day of Pentecost by saying they weren’t drunk and quoting from the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32).
Context of Joel
Joel was a prophet of God to Judah prior to the Jewish exile (his book is difficult to date more precisely). The key phrase of the book is “the day of the Lord”, found five times (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). It’s a time when the wicked are judged and the repentant are saved (Joel 3:15-16).
Up to 2:18 Joel addresses the desolation that would come on Judah. After that the repentant are promised deliverance. The book is structured as follows:
– Plague of locusts (Ch 1). This probably also symbolized the Lord’s army on the day of the Lord.
– An army is approaching (2:1-11)
– Call to repentance (2:12-17)
– They are promised material prosperity (2:18-27)
– They are promised an outpouring of God’s Spirit (2:28-29)
– Wonders in the heavens and earth (2:30-32)
– Judgement of the Gentile nations (3:1-16a)
– Promises restoration and blessing for the Jews (3:16b-21).
The people of Judah had turned away from the Lord (Joel 2:12-14). They had broken their covenant with the Lord. Consequently, the locust plague and drought was God’s judgement. Joel urges Judah to repent, but when they continually resist, God’s judgement is inevitable. Those who repented were promised prosperity, restoration, and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation. The passage quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost mentioned God’s blessing (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18) and God’s judgment (Joel 2:30-32; Acts 2:19-21).
Joel 2: 28-29
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).
As the context is “afterward”, these verses may apply after the day of the Lord. So after God punishes the rebellious, He rewards repentant Jews with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit is generally among the community of Israel, but not in the individuals (Is. 63:11). Instead, the Holy Spirit only came upon particular people for particular tasks. For example:
– The Holy Spirit empowered Joseph (Gen. 41:38), Moses and Joshua.
– The Holy Spirit empowered craftsman (Ex. 31:2-5) and Gideon and Samson (Jud. 6:34; 14:6)
– The Holy Spirit empowered prophets (Ezek. 11:5; Mic. 3:8; Zech. 7:12; Acts 28:25)
– 70 elders prophesied when the Spirit of the Lord came on them (Num. 11:24-30).
– The Spirit of the Lord came on David and departed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:13-14).
When the task was accomplished, the Holy Spirit would leave the person. David said, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). So, in Old Testament times the empowering of individuals by the Holy Spirit was selective and temporary.
Joel 2:28-29 predicts a change where the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people. Instead of selected individuals, God says it will regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was a message from God enabled by the Holy Spirit. This is different to the rest of the Old Testament because it indicates the Holy Spirit coming on people in general and not only particular individuals. Instead, it’s similar to the promised new covenant, which included “I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:26-27).
Of course, the Holy Spirit’s current role of indwelling believers and abiding with them “forever” is also a great contrast to the Old Testament situation (Jn. 14:16).
Joel 2: 30-32
On the day of Pentecost, Peter also quoted from, “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls” (Joel 2:30-32).
The day of the Lord is the time of judgment associated with the blessing given in Joel 2:28-29.
What did Joel 2:28-32 mean then?
Joel was given a revelation of a future time when a period of judgment (v.30-32) is followed by a time of blessing (v.28-29). Wonders in the heavens and on earth precede the judgment (day of the Lord). As judgment was often associated war, the meaning to the Israelites of that time could be that they will by invaded by an enemy, but God would deliver the faithful who would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. As afterwards “all people” have faith in God, it seems as though all the unfaithful people are destroyed in the judgment. Or it could mean that Israel is physically delivered from God’s judgment and its enemies destroyed. When the prophecy was given their enemies were the Phoenicians, Philistines, Egyptians and Edomites (Joel 3:4, 19).
The phrase “all people” (Strongs #3605, #1320) could mean every person, people from all categories in society, or all nations. As the context is “Your sons and daughters”, “Your old men” and “Your young men”, it probably means every Israelite. To call “on the name of the Lord” meant to trust and respond to God the Father (Mt. 7:21; Jn. 6:29). It shows God’s mercy in offering a way of escape to those facing judgment. They will survive the day of the Lord.
The principle of Joel 2:28-29 is that in future God will empower all the faithful Israelites with the Holy Spirit.
What does Joel 2:28-32 mean now?
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Joel’s prophecy.
The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were partially fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C and by the Romans in AD 70. But John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. It’s associated with Christ’s second advent.
What about times of blessing? It’s difficult to identify periods when Israel has been blessed since Joel’s time. The only clear application of Joel’s prophecy to times of blessing is that made on the day of Pentecost by Peter, which is the subject of this post. Soon after this Peter said that the promised time of blessing was still future (Acts 3:21). It’s associated with Christ’s millennial kingdom.
So we understand that Joel 2:28-32 is a prophecy about events associated with Christ’s second coming and His millennial kingdom.
When Peter quoted from Joel, he changed the introduction from “And afterward”, to “In the last days”. As he is speaking to Jews and it was before the New Testament was written, they would have understood the “last days” from the Old Testament where it can mean the coming tribulation or the Millennial kingdom (Dt. 4:30; Isa. 2:2; Dan. 10:14; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1).
Peter also added “God says” to the quotation to emphasise that these were the words of God written by the prophet Joel. This is like a prophet saying “The word of the Lord came to me, saying” (Jer. 1:4).
Peter changed the word “dreadful” to “glorious” when describing the day of the Lord (Joel. 2:31; Acts 2:20). The reason for this maybe that He was associating this occasion with Christ’s second coming (Ti. 2:13).
Peter also added “and they will prophesy” at the end of v.18. This phrase is repeated from the previous verse for emphasis. Also he stopped half way through Joel 2:32 omitting, “for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls”. This could be so he could finish the quote with “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” to indicate what his audience needed to do when they were convicted of their sin (Rom. 10:13). In this context, they are spiritually saved from God’s judgment. And “the Lord” is Jesus Christ. Also, he didn’t want to make the application to deliverance from an army.
There is another difference between what happened on the day of Pentecost and Joel’s prophecy. The spiritual gift that occurred on the day of Pentecost was speaking in other languages, while Joel referred to prophecy. So the emphasis is on the Holy Spirit who gives the gift, not on the particular spiritual gift.
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Peter’s sermon. He was announcing to the Jews that what they saw on the day of Pentecost was a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. But this is only a partial fulfilment because John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). Also, the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers, not “on all people”. Also, there were no wonders in the heavens on the day of Pentecost (Mt. 24:29; Acts 2:19-20). Although some argue they were fulfilled at the crucifixion or figuratively on the day of Pentecost. So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. This is associated with Christ’s second advent and His millennial kingdom.
Peter was announcing to the Jews that through Jesus Christ, God had now brought in the promised new covenant. This meant that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was enabled by the Holy Spirit. Updating the principle from Joel 2:28-29 to the day of Pentecost gives: God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Who were “all people” who received the Holy Spirit? It wasn’t every Israelite. Afterwards, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children (Jews) and for all who are far off (Gentiles)—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). So, on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to those who repented and were baptized. Although they were mainly Jews, Gentiles weren’t excluded. They were people of every gender, age and social class.
It was also a fulfilment of Christ’s promises to send the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49; Jn. 7:37-39; 14:16-26; 15:26 – 16:15; Acts 1:3-5; 2:33).
What does Acts 2:17-18 mean?
It meant that from that time onwards, all those who accepted God’s gift of salvation through Christ would receive the Holy Spirit. This was the new era of the church age which replaced the era when the Israelites lived under the Law of Moses. It doesn’t mean that all will prophesy. Instead the New Testament teaches that each believer will have at least one spiritual gift.
Today, we are still in the church era, and the Holy Spirit still indwells all believers. But the church’s foundation was laid almost 2,000 years ago. It is founded on Christ’s completed work (1 Cor. 3:11) as taught by the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). This work was completed in the first century AD and we have a record of this foundation in the New Testament. So, in this sense, we no longer have apostles or prophets in the church today because these gifts are no longer required now the church’s foundation has been laid.
Peter was pointing out a similarity between what happened on the day of Pentecost and events associated with the second coming of Christ. This involved the activity of the Holy Spirit.
What doesn’t it mean today?
Be careful of using Acts 2:17-18 to over-ride other verses in the New Testament. For example, it doesn’t mean that:
– every Christian has the gift of prophecy regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race, or
– every Christian can prophesy (or preach or teach) at a church meeting regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
Instead, prophecy was used to illustrate the fact that every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
There are similar messages to this in other New Testament Scriptures. For example, when the household of Cornelius accepted the gospel message, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). Now Gentiles could be God’s people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Also, in the church people of various genders, ages, social classes and races are empowered by the Holy Spirit:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
Quotation from the Old Testament
According to Fruchtenbaum, Peter’s quotation in Acts 2 of Joel 2 is a literal fulfilment of an application from the Old Testament.
“Virtually nothing that happened in Acts 2 is predicted in Joel 2. Joel was speaking of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the nation of Israel in the last days. However, there was one point of similarity, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, resulting in unusual manifestations. Acts 2 does not change or reinterpret Joel 2, nor does it deny that Joel 2 will have a literal fulfilment when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on the whole nation of Israel. It is simply applying it to a New Testament event because of one point of similarity.”
We have seen that Acts 2:17-18 shows that Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-29) had a partial fulfilment on the day of Pentecost, but the complete fulfilment is still future. The thing they had in common was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit indwells all believers. But in a coming day after the wicked have been judged, everyone will be empowered by the Holy Spirit as prophesised by Joel.
The fact that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit is a challenge and an encouragement. Do you have this power in your life? If the answer is yes, does the presence of the Holy Spirit encourage you to live for Jesus Christ?
Fruchtenbaum A.G (1992) “Israelology: The missing link in Systematic theology”, p. 844-845
Written, March 2016
Europe is fracturing over how to handle hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing the Middle East and North Africa. Many people don’t want refugees in their neighborhood. They look differently, speak differently and there is a lot of resentment. There is a cultural clash – the role of women in society and dress. The Dutch, Danes and French are in favor of gender equality, while the Muslim immigrants see differently.
The Christians in Galatia were being fractured by Jewish legalism. They were adding their previous religion to Christianity. So Paul corrected them vigorously. In this post we look at the meaning of the verse, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28NIV). We will see that instead of discriminating against each other, Paul tells them to concentrate on what they have in common.
The first Christians were Jews and Jewish proselytes (Acts 2:5, 8-11). After Christianity spread to other nations, the question arose as to whether the new Christians needed to follow Jewish practises. This was resolved at a meeting in Jerusalem in AD 49-50 (Acts 15). It was agreed that Jewish practices associated with the law of Moses, like male circumcision, weren’t required for salvation. This is the topic that’s being addressed in Paul’s letter written about AD 48-50 to the churches in Galatia. The theme is the contrast between the law of Moses and faith in Christ.
The major divisions of Paul’s letter are:
– Introduction (1:1-10),
– Paul defends his authority (1:11 – 2:21),
– Christian doctrine (3:1 – 4:31),
– Practical application of the doctrine (5:1 – 6:10), and
– Conclusion (6:11-18).
Galatians 3:28 is in the section on doctrine, which contains the following teaching:
– Faith or works of the law (3:1-14)? This contrasts Christian faith and “the works of the law” (3:2, 10).
– Law versus promise (3:15-22). God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional; it didn’t depend on works at all. The law was given to the Israelites to show humanity’s sinfulness.
– Children of God (3:23-4:7). After the day of Pentecost, Jews and Gentiles could be children together in God’s family. Both Jews and Gentiles as mature sons can inherit God’s blessings promised to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ.
– Paul’s concern for the Galatians (4:8-20). They were seeking God’s favour by following legal observances. While Paul sought their spiritual welfare, the Judaizers wanted to isolate them from Paul.
– Hagar and Sarah (4:21-31). Hagar represented the law and Sarah represented God’s grace. Hagar’s son (Ishmael) was a slave, while Sarah’s son (Isaac) was free. As Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the Judaizers persecuted the Christians. So don’t mix law and grace. Instead, get rid of the legalism.
Galatians 3:28 is in the subsection on “Children of God”, which teaches:
– Christians aren’t required to keep the law of Moses today. But in the Old Testament times the Jews were viewed as being under the guardianship of the law (3:23-25)
– Christians are children (“sons” in ESV, HCSB, NET) of God through faith in Christ. They share a kind of unity and the inheritance promised to Abraham which was fulfilled in Christ (3:26-29)
– The Christian Jews had changed from being slaves to the law to being sons of God. They have a great inheritance awaiting them (4:1-7).
In Galatians 3:28 Paul tells the Galatian Christians “you are all one in Christ Jesus”. What does this oneness mean? In this case it means a unity in Christ amongst their diversity. At that time “you are all one” was used to signify a common characteristic that was present amongst diverse objects. For example, those who plant and those who water share a common purpose (1 Cor. 3:8), God the Father and God the Son share divinity (Jn. 10:30), husband and wife share “one flesh” (Mt. 19:6; Mk. 10:8), and all Christians share a corporate body in Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17). In all these cases the word “one” describes a unity between diverse people, not between similar people. So it means that the diverse believers in Galatia were united in oneness in Christ. They had unity, not uniformity or unlimited equality.
The paragraph v.26-29 is all about being children (or sons) of God. Paul describes how it happens (v.26), when it happens (v.27), what is changed from being under the law of Moses (v.28) and the resultant inheritance (v.29).
Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.
The subject of verse 28 is those “in Christ Jesus” (Christians), who are referred to as “you” in verses 26-29. This is in contrast to the previous paragraph (v.23-24) which is addressed to Jews who are indicated by “we”. So there had been a change from living under the law up to the Day of Pentecost to becoming children (or sons) of God through faith in Christ after the Day of Pentecost. Paul told the Galatians, “you are all children of God through faith” (v.26). They had a new spiritual status through their relationship with Christ.
Then Paul explains that the new spiritual status started when they were “baptized into Christ” (v.27). Although it takes place at the time of conversion (the baptism of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 12:13), it’s confessed publicly in water baptism. This public identification with Christ is like a soldier being identified by his uniform: they had clothed themselves with Christ (v.27). Paul has used this metaphor elsewhere for exchanging an old way of life for a new one (Rom. 13:12-14; Eph.6:11-14; Col. 3-10).
Then Paul says that true Christians are united through their common relationship with Christ – they are “all one in Christ Jesus”. In this respect there is no difference between “Jew” and “Gentile”, “slave” and “free”, or “male and female”. Each pair represents all of humanity. These are binary categories of people divided according to race, social class and gender.
We need to interpret Galatians 3:28 in terms of the contrast between the law of Moses and faith in Christ (which is its context). The implication is that in Christianity there is a unity within the categories of people that is absent under the law.
What kind of a unity is this? The doctrinal portion of Galatians (Ch. 3-4) is mainly about the differences between the law of Moses and the Christian faith. These were ways to enter into a relationship with God before/after the day of Pentecost and what that brings. So the unity involves entering a relationship with God and the resultant blessings. It meant that the way of salvation is the same now for both Jew and Gentile. And for both slave and free. And for both male and female. This is consistent with Paul saying that God’s salvation is equally available to everyone regardless of race (Rom. 10:11-13) and that this salvation removes ethnic barriers (Eph. 2:15-16).
Furthermore, all Christians have the same position in Christ regardless of their race, social class and gender. They are all born again, justified, forgiven, redeemed, adopted, a child of God, spiritually alive in Christ, a new creation, in God’s spiritual kingdom, citizens of heaven, seated with Christ, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and headed for heaven. Each also has eternal life and peace with God. So no one has an advantage in the kingdom of God because of their race, social class or gender.
Equality of inheritance of all God’s blessings maybe Paul’s main point because it’s the subject of the next verse: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v.29). This means that no race or social class receives more inheritance than another and that males don’t receive more inheritance than females.
In the New Testament, salvation is described metaphorically as an inheritance which anyone may personally receive. Under the law of Moses, inheritance of land left by their fathers was restricted to Jewish free men (Dt. 21:15-17). That’s probably why Paul introduces slaves (or social class) and women (or gender) into Galatians 3:28. He’s saying that in Christ, Gentiles, slaves and women receive the inheritance in the same way as Jews, the free, and men. So everyone who receives the inheritance of salvation receives it in the same way.
On the other hand, under the law of Moses, Jews were privileged over Gentiles (Dt. 7:6; 14:1-2), and society was hierarchical and patriarchal, with a free man more favoured than a slave and a man more privileged than a woman. Jews were the children of God, while Gentiles were sinners (Gal. 2:15). What a contrast!
Principle and application
According to Grant Ritchison, the principle of Galatians 3:28 is “God does not recognize human distinctions in those who are in Christ”. Then he makes this application:
“Human role distinctions (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Ti. 2:11-15; Eph. 5:22-24; 6:1-8) have nothing to do with our spiritual significance before God. Christian feminists completely miss the point of this passage which says the male has no spiritual privilege over the female. Every person, male or female, rich or poor, has the same spiritual status before God”.
“When we make distinctions in people, we form a basis for prejudice against them, making some superior and others inferior. Christians should not make race, economic status, or gender a measuring stick of acceptance”.
“However, God maintains differences in roles within society. God designed differences in sexual roles so there are functional differences between men and women. He did not create unisex; He created gender difference. If so, where is the distinction? Spiritually, men and women are the same. Physically and functionally, they are different. Spiritual blessing is one thing but human function is another thing”.
What does it mean today?
Today it means that the diverse believers in any place are united in a oneness in Christ. As the context is one’s standing before God and one’s spiritual relationships and blessings and not one’s functions or roles (in the family, in the church or in society), it means that racial, social and gender distinctives are irrelevant to salvation (entering into a relationship with God). These distinctives are also irrelevant to position before God and the blessings that accompany salvation.
Consequently, because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different race and respect their customs. It’s unity amidst ethnic (or cultural) diversity and not showing ethnic (or cultural) bias or favoritism. Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch because Peter was following the prejudice of His previous religion (Gal. 2:11-14).
Because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different social class and respect their position in society. It’s unity amidst social diversity and not showing social bias or favoritism.
Because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different gender and respect their gender. It’s unity amidst male and female and not showing gender bias or favoritism.
The same applies to all other differences between people that don’t affect salvation like: rich/poor, younger/older, literate/illiterate, socialist/capitalist etc. Christians who differ in these respects should also be accepted without bias or favoritism.
After all, Paul encouraged the Jewish and Christian believers in the church at Rome to live harmoniously (Rom. 15:5). His guiding principle for them was “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7). If Christ has accepted a person, then we should also accept them. Then he reminds them that the ministry of Jesus Christ includes Jews and Gentiles, and the implication is that we should welcome both as well (Rom. 15:8-13).
India is a large country with a range of races, languages, cultures, customs and religious faiths. It is multiracial and multicultural. In spite of this diversity, there is a sense of national unity and oneness among all the Indians that keeps them bonded together.
What doesn’t it mean today?
Be careful of using Galatians 3:28 to over-ride other verses in the New Testament. For example, it doesn’t mean that:
– we ignore or remove all ethnic or cultural customs, or
– we ignore or remove all social differences, or
– we ignore or remove all gender differences by assuming that their roles are identical. If this aspect is elevated to override the rest of Scripture, it can be used to justify homosexuality.
So the Christian faith wasn’t designed to abolish racial, social and gender distinctions. In fact, it’s impossible to obliterate one’s race or gender.
“You are all one” doesn’t mean you are all equal. Because people are equal in one respect (salvation and its blessings), it doesn’t follow that they are equal (the same) in other respects. For example, it doesn’t mean that men and women have interchangeable roles in the home and church.
Instead, the New Testament does recognize the distinction between races (Rom. 15:27; Gal. 2:14) and between slaves and masters (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22 – 4:1). It also recognizes the distinction between men and women. For example, the elders that lead the early church were always male (1 Tim. 3:2; Ti. 1:6). In order to practice the teachings of the early church it’s important not to be deceived by the emphasis on gender equality in the western world.
Instead, let’s accept a diversity of customs and social class and distinct male and female roles without unbiblical bias or favoritism. After all each of us has a particular race, a particular social class and a particular gender. But these differences don’t matter in one’s relationship with God.
Paul has expressed similar thoughts to this in other Scriptures.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). This verse refers to the “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:10). It follows references to the believer’s standing and state (or position and practice). He wants their state to be consistent with their standing (or their daily behavior to be consistent with their Christian faith). Verse 11 teaches that as far as their standing before God is concerned, all believers are on the same level. Christ “is in all” in the form of the Holy Spirit. So no-one is spiritually superior to anyone else. And Christians can no longer blame and excuse wrong conduct (such as anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, v. 8-9) on racial background (“Gentile or Jew”) or social class (“barbarian, Scythian, slave or free”).
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Each Christian is different (like a part of a body), but they share the fact that each is baptized by and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is the case regardless of their race (“Jews or Gentiles”) or social class (“slave or free”). So as far as salvation goes, ethnic and social distinctions are irrelevant.
So in AD 55 and AD 60, Paul told those in Corinth and Colossae that race and social class were irrelevant to salvation and wrong behaviour. And we have seen that in AD 50 Paul told those in Galatia that race, social class and gender were irrelevant to the way of salvation and their position “in Christ”. So Paul’s teaching is consistent over this ten-year period.
Practical applications in Galatians
Galatians 3:28 is in the doctrinal portion of this letter (3:1-4:31). The practical applications made in the letter are:
– Don’t tolerate legalism, like requiring believers to follow the law of Moses (5:1-12)
– Serve one another humbly in love (6:13-15)
– Express the fruit of the Spirit, not the acts of the flesh (5:16-26)
– Share each other’s burdens (6:1-6)
– Do good to all, especially to believers (6:7-10).
Note that none of these applications relate to gender roles or functions in the church. In fact, there is no mention of gender roles in the whole letter. Therefore, to apply Romans 3:28 to gender roles or functions in the church is “cherry-picking” (in this case taking a verse totally out of context and reading in a meaning that wasn’t intended by the author).
More on slavery and gender
We have looked at what Paul wrote (~ AD 50) in Galatians 3:28 about slavery. The Bible contains additional instructions for slaves that were written about AD 60-64 (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25; Phile.; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Ti. 2:9-10; 1 Pt. 2:18-21). These mainly involve obeying, serving and respecting their master. If Galatians 3:28 meant abolishing slavery, then we would expect this to be mentioned in some of these passages which were written 10-14 years afterwards. But it isn’t. This is consistent with Galatians 3:28 teaching that slaves and their masters can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ. This is equivalent to saying that people in all social classes and positions in society can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ.
We have also looked at what Paul wrote (~ AD 50) in Galatians 3:28 about gender. The Bible contains additional instructions for women that were written about AD 55-64 (1 Cor. 11:3-16; 14:34-35; Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Ti. 2:9-15; 1 Pt. 3:1-6). These mainly involve godly behavior, including submission to husbands. If Galatians 3:28 meant abolishing gender roles, then we would expect this to be mentioned in some of these passages which were written 5-14 years afterwards. But it isn’t. This is consistent with Galatians 3:28 teaching that women and their husbands can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ.
We have seen from Galatians 3:28 that in Christianity, ethnic (cultural), social and gender differences are demolished with regard to our salvation, our position before God and our inheritance. That’s why the labels that can separate believers are often replaced by the words “brother” and “sister”. All believers are saved the same way and all are entitled to the same privileges as children (sons) of God.
So, instead of discriminating against other Christians like the Galatians, let’s concentrate on what we have in common.
Hove R. W. (1999) “Equality in Christ? Galatians 3:28 and the gender dispute”, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois.
Ritchison G. <www.versebyversecommentary.com/galatians/galatians-338>, 1 March 2016
Written, March 2016
Also see: May we go in there?