Water and Shade in a Thirsty, Sun-Baked Land

On a tour of Jordan, as our bus made its way north from Petra to Amman, the guide kept touting the great lunch awaiting us in the capital with the words, “Many salads!” This puzzled us until we realized that, in a desert region, an abundance of leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, and cucumbers was a rare treat.

desert waterAs we traversed the Holy Land—through the Negev, the Judean wilderness, the Dead Sea region, and even the grassy districts of Jezreel and Sharon—we gained a greater appreciation of much of the Bible’s imagery. If God had settled the Israelites in the Arctic or the Amazon Basin, we would be reading more about the benefits of warmth and dryness, than of blessings particularly desired in an arid region:

Water and Vegetation: Psalm 1:3 speaks of those who are “like a tree planted by streams of water” and Revelation 7:17 promises “springs of living water.” Isaiah points to a day when

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus . . .1
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (35:1, 6b-7)

Shade: In a sun-parched land, we are able toabide in the shadow of the Almighty (Psalm 91:1); as if in “the shade of a great rock in a weary land (Isaiah 32:2); for

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night. (Psalm 121:5-6)

Of course, each of these features can typify something fearsome. Noah’s deadly flood was made of water, and the Psalmist seeks comfort in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But the over-arching imagery is one of comfort and safety in the presence of water and shade.

Last week, I had lunch with an immigrant from the Middle East, a man who served as translator for our troops in the region. He and his wife have Muslim backgrounds, but they may be coming to faith in Christ. At any rate, they’ve turned to my wife and me and for help in crisis, now that they’ve gotten the frightening word that she has a malignancy and that surgery is imminent.

They’re well acquainted with literal desert, but now they find themselves in a desert of dismay, and I see little evidence that they’re finding water or shade for their souls in Allah or their circle of friends at the mosque. And so, over lunch last week, I took him to the Bible, where we read the “Be anxious in nothing” passage in Philippians 4:6, and I gave my testimony of how God does not always give us bread when we ask for it, but gives us bread or its equal—and not a stone (Matthew 7:7-11).

I gave him an inexpensive paperback version of the Bible and showed him it was okay to mark it up, as I had done with mine. We turned, then, to Psalm 23 where David spoke to those who had received Yahweh as God: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”

This poor couple is parched by circumstances, but it is our prayer that they will not only find the water of physical healing on earth, but also the living water of salvation for eternity.

 

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Endnote

1 Some argue, with good cause, that the modern state of Israel has benefited the actual land in her day, causing “the desert to bloom.”


The Decline of Biblical Languages

In 1816, Harvard University published a circular letter in response to enquiries about admissions standards for ministry students. Candidates for admission, it said, “must be thoroughly acquainted with the grammar of the Latin and Greek languages” and “be able properly to construe and parse any portion” of the Greek New Testament.1 Fast forward to the year 2000, when it was only “recommended” that candidates for admission to Harvard Bible_GreekDivinity School have an “elementary” knowledge of one ancient or modern language. To graduate with a master of divinity, the main graduate degree typically sought by pastors, a student needed only to demonstrate “intermediate” proficiency in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, or Spanish.2 Apparently being able to ask “¿Como está usted?” had become as valuable in ministry as being able to read Romans in its original Greek.

Harvard isn’t an anomaly. Across America, there has been a marked decrease of biblical language training for Christian ministers over the past 200 years. Consider Princeton Theological Seminary, where as recently as 1950 candidates for the bachelor of divinity (the precursor to the master of divinity) were required to take exams in Greek competency before beginning their course of study, and take remedial classes if they didn’t pass.3 By 2013 though, language study was no longer even a required portion of the master of divinity curriculum at Princeton.4 Indeed, one of the main accrediting bodies for theological schools in the US and Canada, the Association of Theological Schools, does not require a seminary to offer Greek or Hebrew in order to have an accredited master of divinity program.

The most powerful preachers and theologians of ages past likely would regard this as ministerial malpractice. For, instance, Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian and North African bishop, said men who “speak the common tongue” need “two other languages for the study of Scripture: Hebrew and Greek.” The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that “we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages . . . the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained.”5

Of course, language study is not required of all faithful ministers. For example, a bivocational pastor who works 40 hours in a factory on top of shepherding a church and leading a family may not have time to study Greek. And doing so might keep him from more important responsibilities. Or there may be ministers with learning disabilities that prevent them from grasping language study. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary founder James P. Boyce rightly observed that learning “interpretation of the text in the English version” is “all that is actually necessary to . . . preach the gospel.”6 Still, Boyce would have agreed with Charles Spurgeon that every minister who is able should aim at “tolerable proficiency” in Hebrew and Greek.7

But aiming at “tolerable proficiency” is a far cry from what’s happening today. Some ministers who have opportunity to study biblical languages opt instead to study managerial techniques and advertising methods—both of which have their place, but neither of which feeds the church spiritually like biblically faithful preaching generated from study of Greek and Hebrew texts. Two surveys of preaching from the 1990s found that only 24.5% of sermons had content and organization determined by the biblical passage under consideration.8 Surely, the percentage would rise if more pastors took their cues from the original languages.

Those who spend years studying for ministry yet avoid the languages need to rethink their educational priorities. Refusing to study a topic that helps them teach Scripture more effectively contributes to the ministry’s becoming what one author has called a “new order of sacred fools.”9

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Endnotes:

1Circular Letter Relating to Harvard University,” The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 3 (1818): 297, (accessed April 21, 2014).

2 Harvard Divinity School Catalog, 2000-2001 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2000), 47-48.

3 Princeton Theological Seminary Catalog, 1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1950), 15-16.

4 Princeton Theological Seminary Catalog, 2012-2013 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2012), 35.

5 See video at BibleMesh Biblical Languages homepage, (accessed April 21, 2014).

6 James Petigru Boyce, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” an inaugural address delivered before the board of trustees of Furman University, July 31, 1856, (accessed April 21, 2014).

7 See video at BibleMesh Biblical Languages homepage, (accessed April 21, 2014).

8 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 251.

9 Ibid., 245.

So England Is Populated by the Lost Tribe of Ephraim?

One afternoon in a Chicago used bookstore, I ran across a booklet with the intriguing title, Britain in Prophecy.1 I’d heard about something called “British Israelism” and of some connections with Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. I was curious, so I plunked down my $6.00.

The author, Brian Williams, told this story: The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were allowed to return to the Promised Land from their captivity in Babylon. The 10 northern tribes—“Israel”—failed to make it home from Assyria and were dispersed among the nations. But prophecy demands that, in the end, they will be part of the Kingdom, so LostTribesthey must still exist. In this connection, Ephraim and Manasseh made their way to England and America, where they have been a blessing. (The general notion has appealed to some pretty famous people, including Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey, and Yale professor C. A. L. Totten.) As for Williams’s rationale, here are some items of his so-called “proof”:

1. Geography: Isaiah 31:8 and 14 speak of nations to the north and west, and verse 15 calls for glorification of “the name of the Lord God of Israel in the isles of the sea” (KJV).2 Unfortunately, the ESV and other modern translations render the “isles” of Isaiah 31:15 as “coastlands,” which could fit all sorts of non-British locales, including Finland and France.

2. Chronology: Taking his cue from Revelation 12:6-14, where prophecy links a count of three and a half to 1,260 days (meaning “years”), and then drawing on Leviticus 26:24 to set Israel’s penalty at a factor of seven (or double the three and a half), Williams gets a span of 2520 years. Counting from the beginning of the Assyrian captivity in 721 BC, he says that God’s judgment on Israel expired in AD 1800, at the time of the rise of the British Empire.

3. Genealogy: Working from Genesis 48, he says that Jacob’s blessing the younger Ephraim before his elder brother Manasseh means that Americans are from the latter tribe. The order of blessing made Manasseh the 13th child, and 13 figures prominently into American history, with its 13 colonies. Furthermore, verse 19 says that Manasseh shall become “a people” (America), while Ephraim shall become “a multitude of nations” (the British Commonwealth).

4. Etymology & Symbology: The name for the English county of East Anglia came from the Hebrew word, eglah, “meaning heifer or ox, which was the tribal symbol of Ephraim.” And then there’s the American seal, with its eagle, heavenly bodies, shield, arrows, and olive branch—all symbols connected with ancient Israel. (I’m surprised he didn’t link up with the first battle of the Civil War, Manasseh, especially since the other name for that conflict is Bull Run, which can be tied to the bullocks sacrificed in Israelite worship.)

The mind reels at this prime example of eisegesis (reading what you wish into the text), as opposed to the legitimate practice of exegesis (unpacking what is actually in the text). Williams has scoured the Bible for anything he can enlist, however remotely, to bolster his fantastical claims. But questions crop up everywhere, e.g., “Why don’t native Englishmen seem Semitic?” Of course, this imaginative game can be fun: Maybe Turkey to the northwest, with its Ottoman Empire and moon-and-star flag is Israelite. Or why not identify Asher with America since there is a Mt. Carmel in several states,3 and Tyre connects with “tire,” manufactured by the American corporations, Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone, and General—all based in Akron, whose Greek cognate, akrou, appears respectively as “uttermost” and “top” in Mark 11:27 and Hebrews 11:21.

Yes, the UK and US are fine places, but this doesn’t mean that Jenkins and Smiths are Hebrew. The Bible certainly doesn’t teach that.

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Endnotes:

1 Brian Williams, Britain in Prophecy (Birmingham, England: Brian Williams Evangelistic Association, Ltd.: undated)

2 Also, Hosea 11:9-10 says something about Ephraim and about children trembling at the Lord’s lion-like roar in the west.

3 Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, and Utah


What Is Passion Week?

(Note:  This is a portion of an article on Passion Week that is presented within The Biblical Story Course under ERA 6: Jesus, lesson 31).

CupSummary
The week of Jesus’ crucifixion is called “Passion Week,” after the Greek verb, “to suffer,” pascho. It began with His triumphal, popularly acclaimed entry into Jerusalem, and it culminated in His atoning death on the cross, His burial, and His resurrection. Today, the Church around the world celebrates those crucial days, now called “Holy Week.” Its sequence of observances outlines the events of that occasion: Palm Sunday, when the enthusiastic multitudes placed palm branches on the way as He rode into Jerusalem; Holy Monday, when Jesus cleansed the Temple of moneychangers; Holy Tuesday, when Jesus disputed with the Pharisees and later, while on the Mount of Olives, taught His disciples about future events; Holy Wednesday (also called Great Wednesday and Spy Wednesday), when Judas Iscariot made his treacherous arrangement with the chief priests; Maundy (“Commandment”) or Holy Thursday, when, after the Last Supper (where He washed their feet), and just before His arrest, He gave His disciples a “new commandment,” to love one another; Good Friday, when, at the urging of Jewish leaders and the command of the Roman ruler Pilate, He was crucified (with His enemies’ falsely charging Him with blasphemy and sedition, but with God’s turning their gross injustice into the great saving act of history); Holy Saturday, when He lay in the grave. Then, after “Suffering Week” comes Easter Sunday, when Jesus rose from the grave.

Connections
Many of Christ’s Passion Week actions and experiences fulfilled Scripture: He rode on a young colt in humility (Matthew 21:1-5; Zechariah 9:9); He cleansed and judged the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13; Malachi 3:1-3); He faced accusations with silence (Matthew 26:63; Isaiah 53:7); He was scorned and mocked in His suffering (Matthew 27:39-44; Psalms 22:6-8); and He died among the wicked and was buried in the grave of a rich man (Matthew 27:57-60; Isaiah 53:9)

BibleMesh
The enormous significance of Passion Week’s is seen in the space given to it by the Gospel writers. Most notably, eight of John’s 21 chapters (one third of the book) are devoted to that single week, though Jesus lived 33 years and gave three years to public ministry. In Luke, five of 24 chapters (one fifth of the book) focus on the week.

Passion Week is the central event of the Bible. In Genesis 3:15, God predicted that the seed of the woman (Jesus) would bruise the head of the serpent (Satan) – a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and resurrection. The prophets foretold the Passion in more vivid detail, describing the Lord as a sacrificial lamb (Isaiah 52:13, Isaiah 53:12). Jesus Himself explained that His death was His purpose in coming to earth (Matthew 20:28), and He called His followers to “take up their own crosses daily” in sacrificial service (Luke 9:23). The apostles echoed this call when they commended the “crucified life” to their hearers (Galatians 2:20).

Quick-Take Video on Passion Week
Dr. Garry Williams, director of London Theological Seminary’s John Owen Centre, provides a brief teaching video on the events of Passion Week.



What’s Wrong with Noah?

Numerous Christian reviewers have pointed out that Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah “takes liberties” with the biblical story of Noah. Indeed, the Bible doesn’t record any giant lava monsters, stowaways on the ark, or sacred serpent-skin relics. But the problem with Noah goes deeper than simply an imaginative portrayal of the details. Aronofsky fundamentally shifts the meaning and theology of the Noah story. As reviewer Brian Mattson points out, Aronofsky packed the movie with themes from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, specifically a form of Jewish Gnosticism called Kabbalah (which the singer Madonna popularized in recent years). Essentially, Gnosticism teaches that all physical matter is evil, created as an accident by an inferior deity, and that the goal of life is to attain Russell Crowe as Noah“secret knowledge” that will free us from entrapment in the physical world. (The term “Gnosticism” derives from the Greek word for “knowledge.”) Gnosticism was a major threat to early Christianity and provoked extensive refutation from church fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons. It regained some prominence during the past decade thanks in part to mention in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code.

Consider some of Noah’s Gnostic references. It depicts Adam and Eve as luminescent and fleshless until they eat the forbidden fruit and are relegated to the evil material world. Lesser divine beings (the Lava Monsters) redeem themselves, shed their material nature, and return to the heavens. As in Gnosticism, the god in Noah seems at times to be a violent lower deity. The serpent, often referred to as “Sophia,” “Mother,” or “Wisdom,” represents to Gnostics the true divine in contrast to the vindictive Creator of matter. This dovetails with Noah’s depiction of the Creator and Aronofsky’s eerie portrayal of a serpent skin from the Garden of Eden as the key to receiving blessing. Before Noah turns from his homicidal ways and professes love for his newborn granddaughters, he kills Tubal-Cain and recovers the serpent skin—possibly the inspiration for his enlightened perspective. The rainbow in Noah, which is circular like an important sign in Kabbalah, appears not as a sign of any covenant God makes with Noah but after Noah wraps the serpent skin around his arm and blesses his family. Probably not coincidentally, Aronofsky’s first feature film, Pi, also had Kabbalah as part of its subject matter.

Now consider the Noah story from Genesis. In that account, God is supreme and all-powerful, both a just judge and a merciful Savior, punishing mankind for its wickedness but preserving the human race by showing grace to a faithful remnant. The biblical God is a far cry from the cold deity of Noah who wants to wipe out all humans. Upon Noah’s exit from the ark, God professes His unflinching love for human life, forbidding murder and prescribing the death penalty for any who would destroy the crown jewel of His creation, “for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6).

What’s more, in the Bible’s Noah story, there is nothing inherently evil about matter and no hint that we need to be freed from the material universe. In fact, when Noah exits the ark, God reissues the charge He gave Adam at creation: steward the earth, be fruitful, and multiply (Genesis 8:16-17). The New Testament holds up Noah as a model of faith who obeyed God even when it didn’t seem to make sense (Hebrews 11:7) and preached about God’s righteousness to his unbelieving neighbors (2 Peter 2:5). Again, a contrast to Aronofsky’s portrayal.

All this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t see the movie. That’s a decision for each person to make according to his or her conscience. But whether you see it or not, don’t let a Gnostic-influenced Hollywood director cloud your understanding of the facts or theology of Scripture. For an accurate picture of Noah, turn to Genesis 5-10 and Bible-based resources like BibleMesh’s The Biblical Story. There you’ll discover the true Noah, who “became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7).