Posted by: mattcolvin | April 17, 2015

Jujitsu in Hebrews 8

8.2 – καὶ τῆς σκηνῆς τῆς ἀληθινῆς, “of the true tabernacle” is a polemical phrase that points ahead to 8.5-6, with its argument that the Mosaic tabernacle (and thus also the 2nd Temple refurbished by Herod) is a copy of a heavenly original.

The effect of this argument is to turn one of the early Christians’ weak points – the absence of Christ from present view on this earth – into a point of superiority to Judaism. Why is Christ not here and visible like the Aaronite priests? Because He has ascended into heaven to do His ministry in the only Temple that really matters. The vaunted temple in Jerusalem is not the true one; is it not then a false one? And worse, it is a σκηνή set up (“pegged”) by men, not God.

The Jerusalem temple’s divine authorization was a weak point for Christians, who expected its demise, but could not help admitting that it had been instituted by God. Here, Hebrews makes a clever move by shifting the question from the Temple’s institution to its construction. This, of course, was elaborately narrated in Israel’s scriptures, both for the Mosaic tabernacle in Exodus 36-39, and for the Temple built by Solomon in 1 Kings 5-8 (and rebuilt in Ezra 3-6). Thus, the fact that God commanded the construction of the Temple is rhetorically undercut by the equally undeniable fact that He did not Himself construct it.

This argument is formally similar to Paul’s dismissal of circumcision as “made in the flesh with hands” in Eph. 2.11. Circumcision too was instituted by God, but human hands executed it no less than they constructed the Temple. And in the same way, the pejorative λεγομένης (“so-called circumcision”) parallels the use of ἀληθινῆς in Hebrews 8.2 to imply that the present temple in Jerusalem is not the true one.

8.4 – εἰ μὲν οὖν ἦν ἐπὶ γῆς – note the contrafactual conditional with its imperfect present-unreal verb. If Jesus were here (but He is not), then He would not be a priest. He is thus removed not only from actual rivalry with the Aaronite priests (since He is not ἐπὶ γῆς and they are), but also from even hypothetical competition with them: even if He were ἐπὶ γῆς, He would not have any need to perform the sort of work that they do, since He is not concerned with serving a “copy and shadow” (8.5).

Again, this defangs a powerful argument of unbelieving Judaism: namely, the observable presence of very visible Aaronite priests going about their divinely commanded work in the solid Herodian temple. “Where is your priest? What Temple does He work in?” The pressure of this argument on early Judaeo-Christians would have been powerful. The author of Hebrews brilliantly turns it against the Jewish opponent: the very immanence of that temple, the very repetition of those rituals, the very visibility of those priests are all proof that that entire system is ineffective and inferior. If Jesus is not visible, it is because His priesthood truly qualifies Him to enter the only Temple that really matters, with the only sacrifice that is permanently effective.

Posted by: mattcolvin | April 17, 2015

Bread and the Messiah in John 6


I haven’t been blogging much, but I have written many GNT notes and preached a lot of sermons in the last two years. Here are some thoughts on John 6.

John 6:5 – Jesus as so often, introduces his teaching by setting it up with a question, this time to Philip:

πόθεν ἀγοράσωμεν ἄρτους ἵνα φάγωσιν οὕτοι;
Where shall we buy loaves, that these may eat?

The question is highlighted in the memory of the witness (John’s memory or the memory of his source) because it sets up the problem that Jesus will go on to solve by His teaching. It is, on the surface, a straightforward question about providing food for a large number of people.

Jesus’ solution to this practical problem is immediately understood by the multitude. What conclusion do they draw? Surprisingly enough, not a practical one. They draw a conclusion about Jesus’ identity and His role in the story of Israel; and thus also a conclusion about where or at what point in the narrative of Israel’s eschatology they therefore find themselves:

οἱ οὖν ἄνθρωποι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν σημεῖον ἔλεγον ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ προφήτης ὁ ἐρχόμενος εἰς τὸν κόσμον.
So the people, seeing the sign which He had done, started saying, “This is truly the prophet, the one Coming into the world.”

(I capitalize “Coming” to indicate that this was a word denoting a figure from Jewish eschatological expectations.)

Jesus is also aware that they have drawn a second conclusion:

…Ἰησοῦς οὖν γνούς ὅτι μέλλουσιν ἔρχεσθαι καὶ ἁρπάζειν αὐτὸν ἵνα ποιήσωσιν βασιλέα…
…so Jesus, knowing that they were about to come and snatch him to make Him king…

All this, simply from the sign: the eschatological Prophet like Moses has arrived to bring about the new Exodus accompanied by miraculous food, and the time has arrived, they think, to restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Acts 1.6)

And yet, when Jesus finds them again on the other side of the sea (6.25), He accuses them of not understanding, and of treating the miraculous feeding in a crassly greedy manner:

ζητεῖτε με οὐχ ὅτι εἴδετε σημεῖα, ἀλλ’ ὅτι ἐφάγετε ἐκ τῶν ἄρτων καὶ ἐχορτάσθητε…
You seek me not because you see the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were satisfied

This is probably a verbal allusion to an OT narrative of the miraculous feedings during the Exodus. Since the manna and quail were both given in response to Israel’s ungrateful complaining, the OT tends to emphasize the “satisfaction” or “fullness” of the Israelites after their eating. We see this detail in Psalm 78.25 and 78.29:

[He] had rained down manna on them to eat
And given them of the bread of heaven
Men ate angels’ food;
He sent them food to the full. (78.24-25)

Or again, the miraculous quail:

So they ate and were well filled,
For He gave them their own desire.

Cf. Exodus 16.8 (LXX):

ἐν τῷ διδόναι κύριον ὑμῖν ἑσπέρας κρέα φαγεῖν καὶ ἄρτους τὸ πρωὶ εἰς πλησμονην…
When the Lord gives you flesh to eat in the evening and bread early in the morning, to fullness

Tellingly, the result of these two miraculous feedings is not faith and loyalty:

In spite of this they still sinned
And did not believe in His wondrous works (LXX: οὐκ ἐπίστευσαν ἐν τοῖς θαυμασίοις αὐτοῦ). (Ps. 77.32 LXX (78.32 ΜΤ))

By taking Psalm 78 as a grid for understanding His present situation, Jesus is making a pointed response to His audience in John 6, who are asking, “What sign will you perform then, that we may see it and believe you? What work will you do?” (6.30) This is an outrageous request, given that Jesus has already fed them with 5 loaves. They want something like the manna, but first, they have already received a miraculous feeding, and second, Jesus asserts that they are blind to the typological nature of the manna:

Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives/is giving (δίδωσιν – present tense!) you the true bread from heaven.

The central question concerns the identity of Jesus and His superiority to the types of the Old Covenant. It is the same question that the Jewish redactors of the Passover seder also stumbled over by expunging the figure of Moses and by prohibiting the christological exegesis of the rituals of the meal. “We do not conclude (sc. typologically interpret) the Pascha with afikomen” – i.e. with the Messiah as the antitype of the lamb.

We recall that after the episode with the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus’ disciples brought Him food, He replied by defining His food “of which you do not know”:

My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work.

This understanding of metaphorical bread is taken up again in John 6, and in light of John 34, we may be entitled to link 6.33 and 6.38:

For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. (6.33)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (6.38)

There is nothing here about transmogrified bread; not even anything about “setting bread apart for holy use.” That is simply not what John 6 is about. It is about recognizing the Messiah, understanding where in Israel’s story you are, and not responding to the generosity of God with unbelief and rebellion.

Posted by: mattcolvin | January 20, 2015

Genesis 1:27 and Interpretive Maximalism

My friend Pr. Uri Brito has a fine article at about James B. Jordan’s controversial hermeneutic. He cites this paragraph from Jordan’s Judges commentary as a justification for Jordan’s approach:

We have to explain this [i.e., the business about types and prophecies] in order to distance ourselves from the interpretive minimalism’ that has come to characterize evangelical commentaries on Scripture in recent years. We do not need some specific New Testament verse to `prove’ that a given Old Testament story has symbolic dimensions. Rather, such symbolic dimensions are presupposed in the very fact that man is the image of God. Thus, we ought not to be afraid to hazard a guess at the wider prophetic meanings of Scripture narratives, as we consider how they image the ways of God. Such a `maximalist’ approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers.

I have seen this argument also in Jordan’s Through New Eyes:

Just as everything in creation is a general symbol of God, so also man is the special symbol, for man and man alone is created as the very image of God (Genesis 1:26). Each individual human being, and the race as a whole (Genesis 1:27), symbolizes God in a special way. What is this special way? Theologians have debated the issue, and no one will ever fully understand it (since to do so we should have to understand fully the nature of the God whose symbol we are). All the same, this much can be said: Man is the only symbol that is also a symbol-maker. The first part of Genesis 1 is the context in which it is then said that man is the image of God. God has been presented as one who determines, creates, evaluates, names, takes counsel among Himself, etc. These things are what man uniquely images. (Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 31)

Thus, Genesis 1:27 is used to underwrite “symbolism all the way down”.

I do not follow Jordan’s hermeneutic, but I don’t want to spend time criticizing it here. Casting his net wide has allowed him to catch many fish that other exegetes do not catch. So there is fruit from his method, and we would do well to glean from him. But my concern is with the way he takes Genesis 1:27 to justify his approach to the creation as “symbol all the way down” and to Scripture as virtually a Mandelbrot set of recursive and bottomless symbolism.

Whatever debates theologians have had about what it means that Man was created as “the image of God”, the precise meaning of the phrase can indeed be ascertained. And the procedure for explaining it is not Jordan’s hermeneutic, but the more plodding and difficult work of historical and linguistic research. Jewish exegete Jon D. Levenson explains in Creation and the Persistence of Evil:

The link between the creation of humanity “in the image of God” in Genesis 1 and their status as royalty can be clearly seen in ancient Near Eastern inscriptions in which it is the king who is described as the “image” of the deity. Hans Wildberger assembled a rich and convincing collection of such passages from both Egypt and Mesopotamia, of which a sample will suffice for purposes of illustration here. In the Rosetta Stone, to begin with a late example, the Hellenistic Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes is called eikōn zōsa tou Dios, “the living image of Zeus.” About twelve hundred years earlier, Amunhotpe III was described as the god Amun’s “beloved son,” his “living image.” Another Pharaoh, perhaps his successor Thutmosis IV, is called “the image of Re, son of Amun, who tramples down foreigners.

Wildberger noted the similarity of this epithet to the use of rādâ in Genesis l and Psalm 110, but he might have drawn attention as well to the statement in Psalm 8:7 that God has laid “the world at his feet,” made not of the individual, but of humanity in their regal role within the created order. Of Wildberger’s Mesopotamian examples, the most striking is an Assyrian letter from the seventh century B.C.E. in which the priest and court astrologer Adad-šum-uur terms the king “the image [tsalam]” of the god Bel, using the Akkadian cognate of the Hebrew tselem, the term for “image” in Genesis 1:26–27. On the basis of these examples, and apparently without knowledge of Saadya’s precedent, Wildberger makes a persuasive case for seeing the creation of humanity “in the image of God” as a statement of the sovereignty of the human race over the rest of creation. The entire race collectively stands vis-à-vis God in the same relationship of chosenness and protection that characterizes the god-king relationship in the more ancient civilizations of the Near East. “The image of God” is his chosen viceroy.

To my mind, these parallel usages in Egyptian and ANE sources establish the meaning of the phrase in Genesis 1 fairly precisely and conclusively. If we did not have them, we simply would not know what it means for man to be “the image of God”. Without the work of historical research, and of ancient languages, we are at sea.

Despite all this, Jordan has actually arrived at the right conclusion: “God has been presented as one who determines, creates, evaluates, names, takes counsel among Himself, etc. These things are what man uniquely images.” But he has got there without the extra-Biblical evidence that would have given the answer certainty and confirmation. And this is the problem that I don’t think I will ever surmount: my own training as a scholar of Greek and Latin literature has accustomed me to certain standards of argumentation and evidence; without the needed historical and philological work, an interpretation simply fails to persuade. All too often, that is what separates Biblical Horizons from what Alastair Roberts has called “a more public form of scholarship”.


Posted by: mattcolvin | September 28, 2014

Wished His Father Dead?


In Kenneth Bailey’s Jacob and the Prodigal, I encounter again the claim that for the younger son to ask for his share of the inheritance was a huge insult to the father, a way of wishing his father dead. In support of this claim, Bailey cites Ebrahim Sa’id, an Egyptian Protestant scholar commenting in 1935, with the commendation that “Sa’id was an able Middle Eastern Christian scholar. He looked at this text and at his own culture and affirmed that Jesus does not use an Oriental patriarch as a model for God” because it is “unthinkable” in the modern Middle East that a father should accede to such a request. Rather, says Bailey, “if the father is a traditional Middle Eastern parent, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house.”

(Perhaps Bailey could have benefited from reading a different Sa’id, namely postcolonial theorist Edward Said, who would have flagged Bailey’s use of a stereotyped “Oriental patriarch” as a benchmark of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.)

Two things make me suspicious of Bailey’s claim: first, the text of Luke 15 does not explicitly draw the conclusion that the younger son was wishing his father dead. Indeed, the parable gives no attention to any such implication. Even the older son, whose resentment of the younger gives him every reason to remind their father of this implication, makes no mention of it. Instead, his complaint is over the squandering of the money “with harlots” and the inequitable treatment of his own faithfulness in comparison to the younger son’s unfaithfulness.

Moreover, the father gave an early inheritance not only to the younger son, but also to the elder: ὁ δὲ διεῖλεν αὐτοῖς τὸν βίον. (‭‬ Luke 15‬:‭12‬)

The younger’s difference from his brother is not in having received his inheritance early, for they have both done that. Rather, it is in having broken an arrangement of consortium, or “dwelling together”, which is an arrangement preferred and extolled in many Biblical texts (e.g. Psalm 133). A similar breaking of consortium is at work in the story of Jacob and Laban. And we can see that this is so in the father’s answer to the elder son: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” (‭Luke‬ ‭15‬:‭31)

Second, if we direct our attention away from modern “Oriental patriarchs” and toward more specifically Jewish evidence from before the time of the New Testament, we find that the distributing of inheritances before the death of the testator, far from being an unthinkable breach of filial duty, was common enough to attract attention from Ben Sira: “To son or wife, to brother or friend, give no power over thyself while thou livest; and give not thy goods to another so as to have to ask for them again… For it is better that thy children ask of thee than that thou shouldst look to the hand of thy sons… When the days of thy life are ended, in the day of thy death, distribute thine inheritance.” (Sira 33:19-23, cited in Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament) If Ben Sira feels the need to warn his readers against the practice, we may assume it was common enough and not “unthinkable”.

Ironically, the section in which Bailey perpetuates this mistaken claim of “wishing his father dead” is entitled, “Scraping off the Barnacles of Centuries”. A good project, that, if only one does not preserve certain precious barnacles and polish them because “that’ll preach”.


Posted by: mattcolvin | September 12, 2014

First It Killed the Romans, and Now It’s Killing Me

My twelve-year-old son protested this morning, “Why do I have to learn Latin? No one even speaks it anymore!” When I was 12, I’m pretty sure I said similar things.

To object to learning Latin because no one speaks it might seem plausible in the age of Twitter and Facebook. It assumes that the point of a language is primarily to express oneself, or to receive the communications of others who are alive now. But Latin was the language of learned men for 2000 years. Do we suppose that because they are dead and can no longer hear us, we therefore have nothing to learn from them?

Second, this objection misses half the point of a language. W.H. Auden quotes C.G. Lichtenberg: “I have drawn from the well of language many a thought which I do not have and which I could not put into words.” (Foreword to History in English Words) Auden goes on:

Many who write about ‘linguistics’ go astray because they overlook the fundamental fact that we use words for two quite different purposes: as a code of communication whereby, as individual members of the human race, we can request and supply information necessary to life, and as Speech in the true sense, the medium in which, as unique persons who think in the first and second person singular, we gratuitously disclose ourselves to each other and share our experiences.


Auden is pointing out that language is a medium not just of communication, but of thought: it is a way for us to think about the world or ourselves. Wittgenstein says the same: “What we cannot express in words, we must pass over in silence.” Or as J. M. Gregory puts it, “The very power of thought rests largely upon this fabric of speech…All true enlargement of a child’s language is increase of his knowledge and of his capacity for knowing.” (The Seven Laws of Teaching, ch. IV)

The difficulty, of course, is that a 12-year-old boy struggling with Latin perfect infinitives has no real conception of the rewards in store for him. C.S. Lewis reflects on this fact in his address, The Weight of Glory:

The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire.

To please his parents! Here is where it is so essential that the homeschooling parent have a relationship of trust with his child. As Aristotle puts it, Πιστεύειν δεῖ το­ὺς μανθάνοντας – “Those who learn must have faith.”

Right now, my son doesn’t believe me about Latin: he grants that it is useful for me as a scholar and teacher, but he doubts whether he will be in that line. And no amount of argument is likely to make a dent in the opinion of a boy for whom the rewards of Latin are in the future less vivid, while the difficulty and labor of learning the language are in the all-too-vivid present.

My mother knew well how to overcome this myopia: food was a shared love language between us, so she applied culinary carrots and sticks: chocolate chips given for vocabulary mastery, dessert withheld for shirking. But the underlying message was not lost on me: she loved me, and wanted me to have something that she knew was good. That is why I am bribing my son right now: “Finish that exercise on perfects in indirect statements, and I’ll buy you an iced coffee.” And off he runs to get his Latin done, motivated by a tangible and potable evidence, if not of the value of the language, at least of the fact that his father loves him.


Posted by: mattcolvin | September 11, 2014

“You Have Said It”

(Republished from a guest post I wrote on Alastair Roberts’ old blog on April 5, 2007) Alastair has asked me to blog about something Jesus said during His earthly ministry. This being Lent, I thought it might be good to focus on something he repeats three times during the Passion week. Thrice Jesus answers a question by su eipas “you have said (it),” or su legeis “you say (it)”. With this reply, He is answering momentous questions: “Is it I [who am to betray you], Lord?” by Judas (Mt. 26:25); “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” by the High Priest (Mt. 26:64); and “You are the king of the Jews?” by Pilate (Mt. 27:11, Mk. 15:2, Lk. 23:3, Jn. 18:37). The reply to all three is mistranslated by many Bibles as “It is as you say,” i.e. a direct affirmation of the proposition put in the question. It is amusing to look at the NKJV and find “It is as you say” – the italics indicating the translators’ supplements. David Daube, in an article on Judas, traces Jesus’ utterance to the Hebrew ‘amarta, which Strack-Billerbeck equate with wie du sagst, so ist es: “as you say, so it is.” But this is not the true meaning of the phrase. Daube cites an episode from t. B. K. Kelim 1:6, which concerns a dispute over whether a certain entrance to the Temple had required a washing of hands and feet. After the war with Rome, Rabbi Simon the Modest, in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, professed that he used to enter that particular gate without washing. “Whereupon Eliezer, a giant in learning and piety yet rudely domineering, asked him which was more esteemed, he or the High Priest. Simon kept silent. Eliezer: “You are ashamed to admit that the High Priest’s dog was more esteemed than you.” Simon: “Rabbi, you have said it.” Eliezer: “By the Temple service, they would break even the High Priest’s head with their clubs [were he to enter unwashed]; what would you do that the guard might not find you?” R. Simon’s use of ‘amarta is a reply to Eliezer’s rude comparison of himself with the High Priest’s dog. It is a mistake to read it as “Yes, you’re absolutely right.” It is far more subtle than that: something more like, “I take no responsibility for the proposition you have just put. It came out of your mouth, not mine. To say more would be to cross a line into impropriety.” Consider: a straight “Yep” would be absolutely inappropriate in Judas’ case. “One of you is going to betray me.” Judas: “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus: “Bingo.” This would be mere fatalism, not Biblical prophecy. Judas becomes a sort of Oedipus, betraying the Messiah malgré lui. But Jesus’ answer is a non-denial, not a straight affirmation. Judas will betray, but not because Jesus has compelled him. The answers given on the witness stand before the Sanhedrin and Pilate would be less troublesome if they were reduced to “yes.” But there, too, Jesus has His reasons for evasion. Of course, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One. And the reaction of His opponents to his use of su eipas is to treat it as a “yes.” But this is because in their eyes only a denial of His Messiahship would do. As for Pilate, N.T. Wright points out that his question is in the form of a statement: “You are the king of the Jews” – su ei ho basileus twn Ioudaiwn. The answer “Thou sayest” has a further nuance to it: You think you are asking, but you are in fact declaring. Pilate will end by writing Jesus’ title on a sign over His head. Jesus’ answer before the Sanhedrin and Pilate is of a piece with the rest of His earthly ministry. He never denies His messiahship, but He seldom asserts it verbally. Rather, by His actions, He lets the Father and Spirit testify of Him, while He testifies of Them. Of course, He is the king of the Jews. But recall to what lengths he had gone to avoid oral professions of it. When John’s disciples asked him if He was the Coming One, “or do we wait for another”, Jesus directed them to “Tell John what you have seen and heard,” and adverted to His miracles and His preaching of the kingdom. When confronted by the Pharisees about the crowds who were hailing Him as Messiah, He replies that if they do not do it, the stones will cry out. He tells the Jews that “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true…There is one who testifies.” What wonder then that when on the witness stand, Jesus still refuses to testify? “You will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, and sitting at the right hand of God.” The Father will vindicate Him. He does not need to argue His way to a “not guilty” verdict. Klaas Schilder likes to point out that though Jesus is in the dock, it is really the Sanhedrin and Pilate who are on trial. Jesus is pronouncing sentence on them. He has come to Israel and done the works of His Father. All Israel is on trial to see what she thinks of God’s anointed. Peter passed the same test with his profession: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” and Jesus congratulated him. But then He immediately commanded his disciples to tell no one (Mt. 16:20). The Jews of Jesus’ day took His reticience for a “yes”: “What further need of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy.” But many modern Jews take it as a “no.” A. Kolatch, The Second Jewish Book of Why, p. 71:

Many Jewish scholars believe that Jesus considered himself a prophet only. They reject the contention of Christian scholars that when Jesus used the phrase “Son of Man” in his preaching (first mentioned in Daniel 7:13, where the Aramaic phrase bar enash is used), he was referring to himself as the Messiah. The phrase “Son of Man,” in the Jewish view, is used in the third person, and more likely than not, when Jesus used the phrase he was referring to someone other than himself. Jewish scholars also point to the fact that there is little evidence in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) – the earliest account of the life of Jesus – that Jesus regarded himself as the Messiah.

“Little evidence”?? What kind of evidence did Kolatch want? Miracles? The trial continues to this day. Who do you say that He is?

Posted by: mattcolvin | September 10, 2014

Star Wars Christology

“He also continued free from all suffering, since indeed it was not possible that He should suffer who was at once incomprehensible and invisible. And for this reason the Spirit of Christ, who had been placed within Him, was taken away when He was brought before Pilate.” – Irenaeus, summarizing Gnostic beliefs in Adversus Haereses I.7.2


I owe the metaphor to my friend Tim Giese, but it is too good not to share here. The Passion according to the Valentinians and Cerinthus, was a sham: by the time any nails were being driven through wrists, all that was left was the “animal Christ”, since the divine Christ had long since hit the “eject” button and escaped.

If I remember right, my friend Tim said this was “just like Obi-Wan Kenobi”. I think that’s very apt.

There is that smile, as though he knows quite well that no real suffering is involved:


Then he stops parrying, and Vader swings. 


We see here that the cloak has no one inside it. It is collapsing to the floor, where it settles in a heap and Obi-Wan’s light saber falls on top of it:


Later, of course, Obi Wan will be seen with Yoda and Anakin, having escaped this wretched material world, to dwell forever in disembodied bliss:


Of course, such salvation is probably only available to those who have the necessary divine spark, or midichlorians, within them.

Posted by: mattcolvin | August 21, 2014

Retraction on “Quiverfull”

On April 29, 2008, I wrote this retraction on my old Upsaid blog Fragmenta. It was deleted along with the rest of the blog when Upsaid abruptly disappeared. I dug this entry up via Wayback Machine. Since some have been asking for it, I am reposting it here.

The older I get, the less I know.

When Sora and I were first married, we espoused a “Quiverfull” position. This was partly because I had grown up in a church with several large families that I admired; partly because Sora had come to Christianity through the influence of Christian women who were reacting against feminism and everything else. Steve Schlissel’s position on the matter was also an influence.

We talked a pretty hard line against contraception. We were young and arrogant and thought we had all the answers. And of course, I enjoy a good argument, so I didn’t hesitate to stake out the extreme ground and defend it online. I argued with Jon Barlow and Joel Garver. Barlow’s argument was the closest to persuading me out of my position, as he fisked our “QuiverFAQ” and urged that Sora and I were “making the blessing of children into a good unlike any other good.” At the time, I didn’t let on that Barlow had made any dent. But I’m sure that that exchange, and others like it, contributed to my change of mind like water wearing away a rock.

I still respect the Quiverfull position, and am, ironically, grateful that we held it for 8 years, since we got a bunch of lovely children out of it. I have tremendous respect for Steve Schlissel and Valerie Jacobsen and the numerous families we know who are doing a wonderful job with more children than we have. But several considerations have made us change our minds on the issue.

David Daube’s analysis of the issue in his article “The Duty of Procreation” (CWDD 3, p. 951-969 is persuasive to me. His main point is that Onan is not the rule:

[The story] brings out an exceptional situation where you must do your best to produce offspring… To infer from this a basic obligation to procreate is fallacious. Had Onan begotten a child for the deceased and then practiced coitus interruptus, with the widow and ten more women, forgoing the perpetuation of his own name, he would have incurred no reproach. There is nothing strange in this. It is in the very nature of a boon that, while as far as your own person is concerned, you are free to take it or leave it, you must not withhold it from others. a sufficiency of food or a donkey in good shape is a pleasant thing to have. Yet there is no injunction in the Bible against starving myself should I be so minded or against saying good riddance if my own ass break down; indeed I may shoot it even when it is in perfect condition and sell its hide or make a bonfire with it. But – note the analogy to Onan’s case – Biblical law does call on me to allow a corner of my field to be harvested by the poor and to help up another man’s ass that has fallen.

I have also lost a lot of confidence in one of my main arguments: namely, that the church taught against contraception for 1900 years. I’ve come to believe that the church is fully capable of making colossal errors of interpretation, and then hanging onto them for centuries. So I’m now more willing to entertain the idea that Jim Jordan might be right on this issue.

A third factor was Grandpa Mickey, who ever so gently pointed out that the more kids we have, the less time we have with any of them. This rankled like a burr under the saddle, and didn’t seem very persuasive when we only had four. And we answered it by saying that time spent with siblings is a good of which children have more when they’re in a full quiver. But now we have six, and while we’re delighted with all of them, we are feeling the time crunch and recognizing that the maintenance and opportunity costs of many more children will preclude a lot of things we also want to do.

It also seems to me that there are some people who have vocations, even within marriage, that require them to forgo more children. For many years, I was not able to imagine any such vocation, but my imagination has improved with time.

Some parents are uniquely gifted to do a really good job with a large number of children. Our assumption when we only had 2 or 3 or 4 was that if God was willing to keep giving children to a given set of parents, and those parents weren’t doing a very good job of parenting them, then it was ipso facto a result of the sinfulness of those parents: impatience, selfishness, materialism, etc. It was easy to say that they should just get their act together, stop sinning, and keep having kids. But some men are better builders than others, and the Bible says we are to evaluate our resources and act wisely. Saying “just stop being selfish” is not a solution to the problem.

We still think children are a blessing. We still think that the modern birth control mindset should not be the default modus operandi. But we’re no longer willing to say that everyone who uses birth control is sinning.

I am grieved that I was wise in my own eyes, and rejected the counsel of older and more prudent men in the faith. (Doug Wilson’s position comes to mind.) I am sorry that I accused faithful brothers and sisters of sin without Biblical grounds. And I am especially sorry that I bound heavy burdens for other families. I ask your forgiveness.

Posted by: mattcolvin | August 21, 2014

David and Jonathan’s Arrow Code

OK, exegetes, disciples of James Jordan, and Bible scholars. I have a question. It’s about the story of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20. Why is it that Jonathan resorts to this elaborate code-acting, shooting arrows and telling his lad “Look, the arrows are beyond you!” while David hides… and then Jonathan and David come out and talk face to face without any concealment or coded actions? I could understand the arrow-code without the subsequent conversation. But as it is, it makes no sense to me.

The whole point of the coded action, with its two pre-arranged alternatives, is for Jonathan to communicate clearly to David while seeming, to any other observer, to be speaking only to his servant lad. Then to openly meet with David in the same field seems to throw away all advantage gained by this device.

Google book search turned up nothing terribly enlightening. Robert Polzin, in Samuel and the Deuteronomist, p. 189, says that “In the coded message of the arrows, the only matter that David did not already know is that now, finally, Jonathan is no longer ignorant of affairs.” True enough, but no help to my puzzlement.

David Daube has nothing on the topic, even though it’s precisely the sort of puzzle he likes to solve. Anyone got a commentary that addresses it?
My father suggested, in a comment on this post on August 9, 2006:

One commentator has suggested that Jonathan, after the angry confrontation with his father the king, suspected that even his own servant might be spying on him. Once the servant left the field, he was no longer worried about being spied on. I suppose the implication was that Jonathan and David devised a coded method of communication, in case there was no opportunity to talk out of others’ earshot; in the event, such an opportunity did arise, but only after they had already used their code.

Still not sure about this one.

Posted by: mattcolvin | August 21, 2014

Brothers Serve for Nought

We’re reading Genesis in family worship right now [note: Oct. 6, 2006], so I was especially excited to have my understanding of Gen. 29:15 corrected and expanded by Daube:

“Laban receives Jacob with the words “Surely thou art my bone and flesh,” a recognition of ties in kinship. Upon this, Jacob “dwelt with him for a month.” “To dwell together,” yashabh yachadh, technical of the remaining together of coheirs as a united family; “to dwell with somebody,” yashabh ‘im, presumably implies a measure of inequality — Jacob is a full member of the family, but Laban is still its head. At the end of the month, however, something curious happens. Laban makes a declaration commonly translated thus: “Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought?” But this rendering is objectionable both from the philological point of view and considering the character of Laban, anything but openhanded. The correct rendering is: “Art thou my brother, and shouldest thou serve me for nought?”, meaning, “Thou art not my brother and shouldest therefore not serve me for nought.” Laban, that is, repudiates the relationship; and Jacob, instead of serving for nothing as any junior member of a family has to, undertakes service for a reward — degraded. (Of service within a family, the parable of the prodigal son offers an illustration, the elder son saying to his father: “Lo, these many years do I serve thee.”)…

“The similarity to the exodus story is striking: the Israelites for a while resided in Egypt as welcome guests, to be subjugated by an arbitrary decision of their hosts. Later on, it is the hostility of Laban and his sons, caused by the uncanny increase in Jacob’s wealth despite all their precautions, which brings about the ultimate crisis: just as the Egyptians cannot stop their slaves from multiplying and only lose them by their excessive harshness…”

– D. Daube, “The Exodus Pattern in the Bible”, in C. Carmichael, ed. Biblical Law and Literature, Berkeley, 2003

Daube goes on to point out many further similarities, but that’s enough for a teaser.

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