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Stories from a life in progress.

Lord LORD

One problem I have in choosing topics to write about here is worrying that ideas are too simple or too obvious. I think "oh, everyone must know that" and talk myself out of writing about it. I have to remind myself that not everyone knows the same things. I had to learn what I know, even if it seems obvious now.

Here's one for example: in the Bible, sometimes the word "lord" is written in all capital letters, and sometimes it isn't. Do you know why?

I can't remember being taught this in a church context, in a sermon or class. I think I first picked it up by reading the preface on an English bible translation, which (and I'm just guessing here) I don't think most people do. The reason becomes really clear if you study Biblical Hebrew, but again, pretty sure I'm in the minority there.

So maybe not everyone knows why "lord" is sometimes "LORD." Maybe not everybody realizes that, especially in the Old Testament, God had a proper name. Because that's what "LORD" means: it's how a lot of English translations indicate the use of God's actual name.

There's a weirdness about how English-speakers refer to God as just "God." Think about it. It's like if a person was named "Human" or "Man" or "Woman." Or if you had a friend named "Friend." Or even if you named a pet "Dog" or "Cat" or "Fish."

We get away with calling God "God" because there are centuries of monotheistic belief in our cultural roots. For a very long time, Western culture by and large has accepted the idea that there is only one God, so if someone talks about "God," you know who they mean. But there's still that little bit of depersonalization, that distance, which comes from not giving God a name.

The Bible doesn't do this. Sometimes God is simply called "God" or "lord," but he has a personal name too. Honestly, it makes more sense for God to have a personal name in the scriptures, considering the ancient Near East context in which they were written. Most religions had multiple gods, so the gods had to have personal names. You couldn't just call them "God" because how would anyone know which one you meant?

So in that place and time, it would have been truly strange for a god not to have a personal name. Even though Israel only had one national god, they still assumed that singular God would have a name. We see this laid out very clearly in Exodus 3:13-15:

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?"
God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers -- the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob -- has sent me to you.'" This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:13-15 NIV)

Moses knew that when he came to the Israelites saying "the God of your fathers has sent me," one of their most basic questions would be "Which God are we talking about? What's his name?"

What's his name?

More about that next time.

Reality doesn't care what you think

Here's an idea I just plain need to get off my chest:

Reality doesn't care what you believe. It's going to keep on being real anyway.

"Now hold on," I expect at least some people to say "Belief changes things. You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in what you can do. I believed in myself and that's what got me where I am now."

Yes. Fine. But.

The critical point here, the point that gets overlooked, is that it isn't belief which changes reality, it's action.

The two are closely linked. What you believe definitely influences how you act. But belief doesn't change anything by itself. Action is what changes things. At least some of the time, especially when doing something very hard is in order, strong belief is necessary in order to make action happen. But strong belief apart from action doesn't do a darn thing.

It's an Olympic year, which means we're soon going to have a very good object lesson in this. During the course of the games, many athletes giving many interviews will say some version of "I'm here because I believed in myself. I believed I could do this, and now I'm competing in the Olympics."

Those individuals are absolutely right. But many of those athletes will also talk about the great gigantic heaps of hard work and many sacrifices it took to get where they are today. Belief matters because it motivates that hard work. Without the hard work, no Olympics.

Strong belief changes things when it motivates action.
Strong belief, apart from action, doesn't do a darn thing.

Are we clear on that now?
Okay.
Now let me go back to my original statement:

Reality doesn't care what you believe.
Reality is going to keep on being real.

Sorry, Prof. Harold Hill.  There is no Think Method.

Sorry, Prof. Harold Hill.  There is no Think Method.

I say this because I'm not writing a blog about athletics, Olympic or otherwise. I write about faith and religion and a book which claims very firmly that it is telling the truth. I write about things that are beyond our action, beyond our ability to change. So in this sphere it matters to say ... reality doesn't care what I believe. It's going to keep on being real.

It matters because I feel fiercely driven to find real truth, to know what reality is like, and I think I've found some of it in my faith in God. I am fully convinced that the story told in the Bible is real, the story about who we are and who God is and what that means for us. I fully believe what the Bible calls the gospel of Jesus Christ, gospel meaning "good news that requires a response, because it changes everything."

I feel this so strongly that I am compelled, in the name of intellectual honesty and rigor, to tell myself "reality doesn't care what you believe. It doesn't care what you feel. It's going to keep on being real."

No matter how strongly I feel that I have found something true, I may still be deluded.
Maybe my beloved Bible is wrong.
Maybe no god is there.
Maybe the reality of the divine or supernatural is not at all what I think it is.
If I want to be sure of these things, I need evidence. I need a solid case, not mere feelings, not the strength of my own personal belief. Because my belief doesn't change reality a bit.

Feelings run high about this, in all kinds of directions. There's so much shouting in my culture about who is right on the nature of spiritual reality and why.
I know people who believe very strongly and fiercely that God is ultimate and real and I know people who believe just as strongly and fiercely that he is not.
None of us is right because of the strength of our feeling.
None of us is right because of what we believe.
Reality doesn't care what any of us believe.
It will keep on being real, and at least some of us are wrong, or maybe all of us are wrong. Maybe what's real lies somewhere else than any human proposition to date.
I don't think so. But then, I think I've found a little piece of what's real.

Which is why I need to write this post in the first place.

Reality doesn't care what I think.
It doesn't care what you think either.
It's going to keep being real.

Perspective wins

Now, this is better.

Last time I checked on my reading-the-whole-Bible progress, I was disappointed, because it felt like I hadn't really gotten anywhere.

Lo and behold, by just keeping-on reading, I'm getting somewhere.

I'm still fighting with outdated expectations for the summer. I'm not reading about or writing about what I thought I would, two months ago. But I am reading and writing, and that's not nothing. That's everything. That's how getting-somewhere happens.

I still need to hear that lesson. So I'm still making myself see it, making myself say it out loud.

What sacrifice was NEVER for

Remember in my last post I said that there is strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments regarding the purpose of sacrifices? (If you didn't read it, feel free to hop on back there and see for yourself.) Now I'm taking a look at this in the other direction -- what the Old Testament says. More specifically, that the Old Testament acknowledges sacrifices can't really deal with sins, just like the New Testament does. If we modern Christian people get the idea that, under Old Testament law, Israelites were taught that sacrifices were how you dealt with sins? We're not getting that from the Bible itself. We're making it up.

If it pleases the court, I would like to submit Exhibit A, from Leviticus 4:

The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands...'" (Leviticus 4:1-2 NIV)

This is the verse which introduces the type of sacrifice often called the "sin offering." It took going to seminary and being taught a thing or two about the Mosaic law to finally get this: this one is only specified for unintentional sins. Not for the kind of sins where you set out to do something awful. The kind that you do without realizing it. Go ahead and skim the rest of Leviticus 4. Over and over again it says "unintentional sins." Skim through the rest of Leviticus. You'll see this type of offering is the type generally used for dealing with symbolic things, like ceremonial uncleanness. If you're talking about murder? Embezzlement? Robbery? Nope. The sin offering was not a "get out of jail free" card. No sacrifice was going to get you out of that rap, sunshine.

In Exhibit B, the Prophets say exactly that:

"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:21-24 NIV)

Amos here is quoting God's words directly, and God is saying baldly "I'm tired of your religious nonsense. You can't act with injustice and ignore doing what's right and expect me to be happy and overlook it because you give me stuff. That's not an offering, that's a bribe, and I reject it."

Amos wrote during a time when wealthy Israelites were terribly oppressing the poor (you can read the book for yourself and see -- go ahead, it's only nine chapters long), and one of the most fundamental principles of God's law is "protect the poor and disadvantaged" (the law is longer than nine chapters, but you can read it too if you like). So God here tells the wealthy, Don't think you can buy me off with rich offerings. I don't want your animals, I don't want your grain, I want you to follow my law and do what's right.

Finally, as Exhibit C I present a case study from 2 Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba -- a relatively familiar story from the Old Testament. The entire story unfolds over the course of 2 Samuel 11 and 12, but in broad strokes, David the King steals another man's wife, gets her pregnant, has the man killed, and then marries the woman fast to cover up the whole business. Honestly, it's possible he even gained some public good-will points by marrying the lady. "Poor Bathsheba is a widow now? How terrible, and her husband Uriah was such a good servant to King David too! What's that? The king himself is marrying Bathsheba, to make sure she will be provided for? What a good king we have! Yay, King David!"

Riiiight.

Regardless, God sees this debacle unfold, and he is not pleased. He sends a prophet to call David on his actions, and it works. In 2 Samuel 12:13, David owns his guilt.

Immediately, in the very same verse, the prophet tells him "The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die."

David hasn't made any offerings. No sacrifices. He hasn't even stood up out of his chair, for all this verse shows. But his sin is taken away.

That doesn't mean there are no consequences for David's action. There are terrible consequences, ones that affect his family and his entire nation. But even so, before any of that happens, the scripture says his sins are taken away.

Psalm 51 gives another perspective on this episode, because this psalm was written by David himself in reference to it. Multiple times in this psalm, David asks God to hide his sin; verses 16 and 17 are a clear statement of the case I've been building:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17 NIV)

Did sacrifices ever atone for sins? No. Not really. Not according to the New Testament, and not according to the Old Testament either. Again we find a deep correspondence between the two.

What sacrifice was for

I'd like to take another look at something I said about sacrifice: not all sacrifices in the Old Testament were intended as atonement for sins.

I've heard general, often vague statements from Christians over many years regarding sacrifices and sin. In multiple conversations, multiple classes and discussions, someone would bring up a point like "the Israelites were always having to bring their sacrifices because of their sin. In Christ, we don't need to do that anymore."

Soooo ... yes. In Christ, there is no longer any need to make sacrifice to atone for sin. Correct. The New Testament makes this point clearly, vigorously, and repeatedly.

That's not the mistake made by the Christians with the vague statements about sin and sacrifice. The mistake is it not recognizing that there were many purposes for sacrifice in the Old Testament, and atonement was only one of them. In both the Old and New Testaments, honoring and pleasing God was one of the primary purposes behind sacrifice.

The New Testament itself does not make this mistake. Look at these:

Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:17-18 NIV)

In calling the provisions of the Philippians church a "sacrifice," Paul specifically says it carries the purpose of pleasing God -- nothing about atonement.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise -- the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. (Hebrews 13:15 NIV)

This verse follows a long discourse explaining why atoning sacrifices are no longer necessary in Jesus. Yet the author still says that sacrifice is appropriate -- otherwise, why would he say this thing in these terms? Why would he bother characterizing it as sacrifice, not just saying "let us continually praise God"?

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and1 knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
"Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?"
"Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?"
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God -- this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 11:33-12:1 NIV)

Again, in this letter Paul has gone to great lengths to describe that it is only through Jesus Christ that people are made acceptable to God, but here he says that sacrifice is pleasing to God and the "true and proper" way of worship.

Why is this important? (Why am I still going on about it?) Two things:

First, sacrifice is still a "true and proper" way to honor God and please him. Do we remember this, we modern American Christians? I don't. Trufax, I am personally challenged by studying this. I clutch on to things too tightly, both my physical possessions and my own ideas about how to do things. Am I honoring God? Would he be pleased, would he be tickled and delighted, if I started prying my fingers off some of these things? Would I discover they are not so necessary as I think? Would he have different and better things to give me instead?

Second is that there is continuity here between the Old and New Testaments regarding sacrifice, and it's harder for us to see if we hold a limited, flawed understanding of sacrifice, especially in what the Old Testament says about it. This is a theme I want to explore deeply and write about widely, that there is strong continuity between the Old Testament and the New, that the New does not "replace" or "overwrite" the Old, but rather expands and reveals it. Both sides of the Bible are a perfect fit for each other. My culture, even many fellow believers in Christ, don't see this. They're missing out. I'd like to help them see it.

No candy coating

I had a conversation with a good friend the other week about the blog posts I was writing, specifically the ones about feasting and sex and other aspects of ancient worship that are surprising to a modern viewpoint. We wandered on to related sections of scripture which I didn't mention in those posts, like the story of Judah and Tamar which carries the idea of shrine prostitution as a plot point (I'll get to writing about that one some day).

Her reaction was partly surprised and partly incredulous. She seemed not to know what to make of these topics in the Bible.

My response to her was ... the Bible is not a candy-coated book. It is often very raw, a fact which it doesn't even pretend to be coy about.

And that's a good thing.

Nope.  (Image credit.)

Nope.  (Image credit.)

Because, and maybe you've noticed this already, life isn't candy-coated either.

Everything that happens in the Bible, every kind of terrible thing, still happens now. Murder? Yes. Rape? Dear me, yes. All kinds of violence, actually. All kinds of thievery, from the personal to the national. Every sort of rotten family situation, with consequences spelled out in painful detail. Abandonment and abuse. Every kind of prejudice, including racial prejudice. Slavery. Torture. Loss. Grief. Terrible sickness and suffering.

Frankly, most of those subjects get treated before you make it out of book number one.

You name it, any kind of terrible thing, and it's represented somewhere in the Hebrew bible. Which means, the Bible has something to say to all of those situations.

Which means God has something to say about all of those situations.

Does he overlook a single one of them? Nope. He put them right in his book, to make sure we know it and know what he has to say regarding them.

The Bible is a raw, real-life kind of book. Which at some points makes it very hard to read. Sometimes it means I don't know what to make of it. But that's fine. I love that the Bible is a real-life kind of book; we badly need it to be.

When sex was passed off as worship

I'm still thinking about sacrifice in the ancient world and the things we miss by not knowing how ancient people did things. Here's another place which can stand some interpretational help along the same lines:

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. (Numbers 25:1-2 NIV)

Now that we know sacrifices and feasts were not separate things, the idea of a "sacrificial meal" makes sense. But what's that first verse about? Sexual immorality? How does that connect?

A modern person might crack it by reasoning "Israelite men were tempted into sexual immorality with Moabite women; the women invited the Israelites to their sacrifice-festivals; to please the women, the men went." Sensible, from a modern viewpoint. We know sex tempts people into doing things they shouldn't do.

Sensible, but not entirely accurate. Maybe you've already guessed it: just like feasting was used an act of worship in the ancient world, sex could be considered an act of worship too.

If that seems strange to us, it's because our culture is infused at the roots with a Biblical worldview, whether or not we recognize it. The Old Testament Law given to the Israelites forbid them from incorporating any kind of sexual component in their public worship. Israelite (later Jewish) sexual ethics as embodied in the Hebrew scriptures were upheld by Christians, who carried them out into the Western world. Eventually, when Christianity came to dominate the religious landscape of the West, a Christian sex ethic also became the cultural norm -- an ethic in which sex is completely unrelated to public worship.

But in the ancient Near East, the Israelites were actually unique in this respect. It was ordinary for the people of Canaan and surrounding cultures to include sexual acts as "legitimate" forms of worship to their gods. There's a reason Deuteronomy 23:17 notes that no Israelite man or woman was permitted to become a "shrine prostitute." All the peoples around them supported and engaged in shrine prostitution.

I mean, even the phrase "shrine prostitution" is bizarre to us. Bizarre and offensive -- if you really want to feel the impact of it, try editing it for a modern context and make it "church prostitute." Imagine that being an official job title, a paid position, for any modern congregation. Senior pastor; youth pastor; administrative assistant; janitor; prostitute. Squick. That is a seriously offensive idea in my culture.

In the ancient Near East? Not offensive. Common. Legitimized as something "sacred," something that honored the gods, especially fertility gods.

Knowing that the sexual immorality talked about in Numbers 25:1 was probably part of the same festival described in 25:2, we can perhaps reconstruct the situation thus:

The Israelites are moving north after their 40-year exile in the wilderness. They expect (and receive) hostility from the people who live in the areas they move through; the book of Numbers describes a lot of the early examples of that hostility.

This one time, though, something different happens. Instead of spears in the face, the Israelites get invited to a festival. The local people want to be nice to them for a change.

Festivals are fun. Full of fun stuff, like eating and drinking and sex (even though Yahweh God doesn't like that, all the other gods do).

Maybe it would be diplomatic to accept the invitation? Because if the Israelites refuse, maybe they will offend their hosts. Maybe they'll go back to spears in the face. But if they accept, maybe the local people will keep being nice to them. Maybe they'll let the Israelites move on through peacefully, which is all they were trying to do in the first place.

Plus, parties are fun. There will be lots of meat from the sacrifices. Some of those Moabite women are really pretty too.

And just like that, some of the Israelites convince themselves that breaking their sworn agreement to only worship the LORD as well as indulging in adulterous (and otherwise off-limits) sex is a fine idea. Maybe just this once. To make nice with the neighbors.

That's a different picture of what's going on than I get to by using a modern set of assumptions, not taking into account the idea that feasting and sex were connected with worship in the ancient world. Granted, in this case the outcome doesn't seem hugely different. Under both interpretations the Israelites are engaging in the same forbidden actions. But there are cases where it makes a much bigger difference -- where, without understanding the culture of the ancient world, we misunderstand what scripture is trying to tell us completely, or we just don't know what to make of it at all.

To understand the Bible as well as we can, understanding cultural background is vital. That's why I'm pursuing a Master's degree in biblical studies, to learn this kind of information. I want the background to understand and interpret scripture well, and I want to write about it and help other people understand better too.

When worship looked like a party (literally)

In reading through the entire Bible, I’ve made it into 1 Samuel. It’s been a long time since I read this book through, definitely before starting seminary classes last summer, and so I can really tell what a difference my deeper understanding of culture in the ancient Near East makes to my understanding of the text. I can fill in some things that the writer didn’t spell out because they were obvious in his time, and those things make more sense of the narrative.

Here’s one example that I missed before. It shows up several times in this book. This is the beginning of 1 Samuel 16:

The LORD said to Samuel, "How long do you intend to mourn for Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with olive oil and go! I am sending you to Jesse in Bethlehem, for I have selected a king for myself from among his sons."

Samuel replied, "How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me!"

But the LORD said, "Take a heifer with you and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.' Then invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you should do. You will anoint for me the one I point out to you."

Samuel did what the LORD told him. When he arrived in Bethlehem, the elders of the city were afraid to meet him. They said, "Do you come in peace?"

He replied, "Yes, in peace. I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." So he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. (1 Samuel 16:1-5 NET)

As highlighted, the part I’m looking at right now is about sacrifice. The thing I never realized before is what a sacrifice really was, or what happened when one was held.

The basic sacrificial system is laid out in Leviticus 1 through 7. But all of this sacrifice business is so foreign to my culture, I don’t think a lot of people understand it very well. I certainly didn’t without learning about it in class.

Many Christians assume that sacrifices were mostly about atoning for sins, because that’s a strong message of the New Testament. That’s not exactly true. It’s not false, it’s just imprecise. Not every single sacrifice had to do with sins at all; some of them were simply about honoring God.

One such type of sacrifice, often called a “fellowship” or “peace” offering, was accompanied by a celebration. An animal was slaughtered, and part of it was burned as an offering to God -- but most of it was taken away by the offerer, who cooked it and threw a feast. That feast was not separate from the worship, it was the worship. It was part and parcel with the sacrifice. It was an important way the people honored God -- by acknowledging that he provided for them, and then enjoying what he gave.

So that’s what’s going on in 1 Samuel 16. To give Samuel cover from the reigning king while he goes to anoint the king’s successor, God instructs Samuel to take along a heifer and offer it as a sacrifice. That means, when he gets to Jesse’s town, he will slaughter the heifer, offer part of it to God by burning it up, and throw a feast with the rest. The elders of the town, and Jesse and his sons, are invited to the party.

A similar scene plays out in 1 Samuel 9, when Samuel anoints Saul himself for the kingship. Saul goes looking for Samuel about a different matter, but he finds the prophet on the way to celebrate a sacrifice, and Samuel invites him. If you read the entire story, it’s clearly describing a feast, but it calls the event a sacrifice -- because those two things were not separate.

Jumping back further, at the very beginning of 1 Samuel, understanding this idea of sacrifices as worship-celebrations explains something that happens in 1 Samuel 1. The woman Hannah goes to the sanctuary to pray. What she does looks fairly ordinary to a modern reader -- she prays silently, her lips moving, but not talking out loud.

The priest in attendance doesn’t think she’s praying; he assumes she’s drunk.

What? How does a priest not recognize prayer?

One of the things in play here, again, is that this was a time of festival. It was a set time of year when many people brought their sacrifices, offered the necessary part to God on the altar at his sanctuary, and then took the rest off to party. Some people let the partying get out of hand, and ended up drunk. That wasn’t the right way to worship God, but it happened anyway. So the priest was used to seeing drunken people around at festival time. Sadly, apparently, he was more used to seeing drunks than people at prayer, which is a topic for another day.

1 Samuel 1 never says the people were partying. It never specifies there was a celebration going on, in those words. What it says is, the people went to the sanctuary to “worship and sacrifice to the LORD.” It’s up to us to fill in the details -- that this “worship and sacrifice” entailed celebration. That sometimes, the people worshiped God by throwing a party.

This is exactly the kind of information I wanted to enroll in seminary for, to learn the pieces that help us make better sense of scripture. I hope this one, my kind readers, helps you fill in a few gaps too.

A matter of perspective

A couple weeks ago I wrote about reading the entire Bible and my reasons for doing it. I included a picture to show my progress as of that date.

As of today, here’s my current progress.

Not very impressive.

Or at least, not very impressive compared to where I thought I’d be by this point. Which is the story of my summer so far.

I thought I’d be much farther along toward completing the Bible. I thought I’d be happily working away through my big translation project. I thought I’d be working steadily down my big stack of books.

Instead, I’ve completed ONE book (a little bitty book) and started a second. I’ve translated all of one verse. I’ve only crossed off two new books on my chart and knocked out the rest of Ezekiel.

Okay, fine, I finished Jude too.  JUDE IS SMALL BUT HE IS MIGHTY.

Okay, fine, I finished Jude too.  JUDE IS SMALL BUT HE IS MIGHTY.

This is the part where I really have to confront my expectations out loud.

I thought I’d be a lot farther along on some things, based on approximately zero pieces of evidence that such progress was possible. Sheer imagination, that's what I have to back that idea up. It was what I wanted to do, that’s all, and I translated that into expectation for what would actually happen.

This is often the part where I get really discouraged and hard on myself. But this time, I'm leaning on my experience that this is not a practical, fruitful, useful tactic.

It’s hard for me to remember accomplishments. My mind goes so much more easily toward the work I still want to do. So I have to make a hard point of remembering that I have actually been working on things since the beginning of June.

  • I have written and posted to this-here blog more regularly than in a long time.
  • Many of those posts took more time and work than I anticipated, but I think the time and work was worth it.
  • I’ve been pursuing other things I really wanted to do this summer, like get up nearly every morning and take a walk first thing.
  • I’ve been knocked around by some unexpected struggles with anxiety, which are such a terrible brain- and energy-suck.
  • I’ve had some unexpected time taken up by good stuff, like spending time with family

Oh, and by the way:

  • I HAVE FINISHED entire books of the Bible, which constitutes real, actual progress
  • I HAVE FINISHED an entire book from my stack of reading
  • I HAVE TRANLATED the first verse of my word study project, along with reviewing some necessary parts of Hebrew vocabulary and grammar.

Not very impressive? Shush, me. Shush and stoppit. Look at the right pile, the pile of things done and in progress, and be encouraged, and keep working.

Now, for the main event...

There’s a reason I’ve been writing this week about word studies. Because covenant is the topic I’m researching this summer, I’m using a word study as one of my tools.

In Hebrew, the word for “covenant” is b’rit. I need to do some more work in the theological dictionaries to look for nuances, but the basic definition of b’rit is “covenant, agreement.”

Running a search on b’rit in the Hebrew Bible reveals 264 references. If I want to do a proper job on my word study I will need to translate all of these verses (whew), but just looking at the list in English is enough to teach me some new things and uncover some questions:

A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. (Genesis 14:13 NIV)

Here’s an example where b’rit is translated using an entirely different word, and also an example of a covenant between several human people, not one between a person or people and God. Both of those things tell me something about covenants in the ancient world.

I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:7 NIV)

Why in this instance is the covenant specified as “everlasting?” Did most covenants have a time limit?

This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11 NIV)

Was it normal for covenants to be marked with signs? Is this an ordinary type of sign, or a weird one?

So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. (Genesis 21:27 NIV)

Once again we have a covenant between two human people, using a different word to translate covenant. Also some new details about the process involved in creating this covenant between the two men -- a gift of livestock was involved.

They answered, "We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, 'There ought to be a sworn agreement between us'-- between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the LORD." (Genesis 26:28-29 NIV)

In this instance the covenant is compared to a “sworn agreement,” which gives yet further information about what a covenant was and how it was put in place.

Friends, I’ve only reached the end of Genesis! Clearly this word-study business is going to give me plenty of new questions to answer.

I’ll write about what I find as I go, but first I’ve got some translating to do. Hebrew grammar, here I come!