Categories
Commentary Theology

Women Who Flipped the Patriarchal Script

Since finishing my posts on Genesis, I’ve received a few questions about Paul’s use of Genesis in 1 Timothy 2. In my post on Genesis 2, I said we can’t project back onto Genesis how Paul uses Genesis for struggling churches. 

WHAT?!

But Paul!

I know some may worry that I’m saying Paul was mistaken. (I’m not.) I’d love to jump there right now. But I already had this post written. And we’re only a few posts away from 1 Timothy, so please hang with me.

Today, let’s look at some amazing women in the Old Testament who completely break out of the patriarchal norm. William Webb coined the term “breakout” to describe when a biblical author cuts against the cultural grain and does what the original reader wouldn’t expect.[1]

These passages on women flip the patriarchal script on its head. And they prepare us for Jesus who will obliterate all social divisions, including gender. 

I’ll discuss three Old Testament breakouts: The Women in Judges, The Prophet Huldah, and Queen Esther. (See note 2 below for other OT breakout examples.)[2]

The Women in Judges

The book of Judges gives us glimpses of Israel’s leaders before the monarchy. Wickedness, corruption, and cowardice defined this era. Some men are bold and faithful. But what would have stood out to the original audience are the several exceptional women God works through. 

The first, and most obvious, is Deborah (see Judges 4-5). Deborah was a prophet and someone who “was judging” Israel (4:4, ESV). This word for “judging” can also mean “to rule or govern.” In her role, she “held court” or “sat” (i.e. “presided”) as judge (4:5) and authoritatively spoke for God (4:6-7). As a military leader, she gathered up Israel’s troops to defeat the enemy (5:6-8).

In a male-dominated world, this is quite an accomplished woman.

Many complementarians try to downplay Deborah’s role and what it means for us today. Some argue that it was shameful for a woman to lead and Deborah only stepped up because a man did not. The text never says this or implies it.

God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

In Deborah’s song (chapter 5), we actually see that Sisera was defeated “in the days of Shamgar son of Anath,” who preceded Deborah as a judge (see 3:31). It seems Shamgar and Deborah had overlapping tenures (notice the flow from 3:31-4:4 without the headings). 

If God wanted to use a man as leader and/or prophet, Shamgar was available. But God did not. He chose Deborah. Consider, too, that Deborah is married (4:4). God could have called her husband to lead. But he did not do that either. 

Deborah gave Barak, a military leader, the opportunity to deliver Israel from the hands of Sisera, the Canaanite general. Barak’s resistance to go alone led to Deborah prophesying that his honor would be taken from him and given to a woman (4:9). This mocking of the lack of male military leadership in Israel isn’t directed at all men in general, but at Barak in particular.[3]

Who gets Barak’s honor? Deborah is likely in view, as shown in her song in chapter 5. Jael, the “most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (5:24), is probably also included. When Sisera sought out Jael’s tent for a hiding place during battle, she put him to sleep with warm milk and then drove a tent peg through his temple (see 4:18-22). 

This story reveals that God demonstrates his power by using the weak to shame and overcome the strong. God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

Some complementarians try to get around this breakout by claiming that being a prophet and a pastor are at odds. Here’s an example:

It’s not true to say that because Deborah was a prophet and prophets are leaders, therefore women can be any type of leader including the preaching pastor of a church. The difference between a prophet and the preaching pastor of a church may well be as profound as the difference between a cat and a dog. Therefore the argument simply isn’t relevant or compelling.

What we know about prophets from the Old Testament seems to indicate that they operated outside the formal boundaries of the covenant leadership structure. In fact, the real value of the prophet in the Old Testament is their ability to speak truth to power. The prophet is regularly sent by God to rebuke those in formal office.[4]

Let’s set aside the obvious differences between Old Testament prophets and pastors. The problem with this view is that, in Judges, Deborah, while a prophet, does serve within the covenant leadership structure. She is the person holding formal office—as formal as possible in this era before Israel’s monarchy. She not only speaks for God as a prophet but she rules on God’s behalf as his judge.

Other complementarians imply that Deborah isn’t a precursor to women church leaders because Old Testament prophecy and New Testament gifts of preaching and teaching are not the same. Denny Burk says that teaching is “always authoritative because it instructs people what they are to believe and to do” but that prophecy is spontaneous and not instructive.[5]

But Sam Storms, a complementarian, describes the role of prophets this way: “Their primary role was to make known the holiness of God and the covenant obligations; to denounce injustice, idolatry, and empty ritualism; and to call God’s covenant people, Israel, to repentance and faithfulness.”[6]

Doesn’t this sound like what we’d want one of our pastors to do today? 

Finally, it’s noteworthy that we’re never told what Deborah did was wrong or wicked in the eyes of the Lord. In a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes (see 21:25), Deborah worshiped the Lord and did what was right in his eyes.

There’s one more woman in Judges whom God uses to upend patriarchal norms. Samson’s mother in Judges 13. In this text, we see that the Lord appears to her, not her husband (Manoah) to announce the birth of her son. The woman believes the Lord’s message but the man questions it.

When the man asks the Lord to appear to him (likely for confirmation) the Lord chooses to appear to the woman a second time. After the Lord appeared to them both, Manoah is afraid and believes the Lord will kill them. It’s his wife who reassures him and says if the Lord wanted to do that, he would have already (see v 23).

God prioritizes coming to a woman, not a man. It is a woman, not a man, who has resolute faith in what God is doing. This is another subversive text showing women are valued, worthy, reliable, and have a primary role in God’s plan. God again incrementally moves the story of humanity a tad bit closer back to the ideal ethic he began in the Garden.

The Prophet Huldah

Huldah is a female prophet and her story is in 2 Kings 22:14-20 (cf. 2 Chron 34). She prophesied during the reign of Josiah (c. 640-608 BC). In Josiah’s eighteenth year as king, during the temple restoration project, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy). Josiah commanded Hilkiah to “go, seek an oracle from the Lord for me and the people—for all Judah” (2 Kings 22:13).

Hilkiah went with four other men and found Huldah, a woman (v 14). She spoke God’s word to them about the coming disaster of invasion and exile. But she told Josiah that he will die in peace because of his repentant heart (vv 15-20).

Here’s the thing. Zephaniah and Jeremiah were both well-known male prophets during this time (see Jer 1:2; Zeph 1:1). Why didn’t Hilkiah go to them?

Why didn’t Huldah seek male confirmation from Jeremiah or Zephaniah, or even her husband (see 2 Kings 22:14) before she prophesied?

The text doesn’t say.

Huldah’s prophetic voice is legitimate as it stands, regardless of gender. With confidence and courage, she speaks the authoritative word of God to Hilkiah, King Josiah, and all of Judah (see 22:13).

These women didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names.

These men did not reject her because of her gender. This shows God again defying and uprooting the patriarchal norm.

Queen Esther

During Israel’s exile, Haman, an advisor to the Persian king, plotted to kill all the Jews. God raised up Esther, a Jew, to become queen of Persia and save Israel from genocide. Without Esther’s intervention, God’s people would have been exterminated. God’s saving plan to redeem the world through Abraham’s line, leading to Jesus, would have ended.

Though Esther didn’t hold a formal religious position, her leadership is exceptional in a world where women were not valued as leaders (and the previous queen was deposed for disobedience!). That God would raise up a woman to save his people—and enshrine it in his holy Scriptures—is completely counter-cultural.

It flips the values of the world upside down.

Summing It Up

God used these prominent women to serve and lead his people in the Old Testament because they were women. They didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names. And they weren’t mere exceptions to the patriarchal rule. Instead, these women led Israel to imagine a better future for God’s people where equality and mutuality are embraced and treasured.

Now, let’s move on to the New Testament. We’ll start where everything starts—and finishes.

Jesus. 


Notes

[1] William Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 91-102.

[2] Some other “breakouts” to explore: 

  • Moses’ sister Miriam (Ex 15:20; Mic 6:4) and Isaiah’s wife (Is 8:3) are both identified as prophets. Micah 6:4 even identifies Miriam as one of the leaders of Israel.
  • Women served at the entrance to the tent of meeting and tabernacle (Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22). The Hebrew word “serve” in these verses means “to fight/wage word” perhaps implying “to guard.” While women were not priests, this showed they played an important role in keeping watch over Israel’s sacred space.
  • Ruth’s courage, strength, initiative, and persistence to find a husband allows the family tree that would lead to David, and then Jesus, remain unbroken.

[3] Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals, 96.

[4] Paul Carter, “What Deborah Does and Doesn’t Say About Women in the Church,” TGC Canada Blog, 7/22/2017.

[5] Denny Burk, “The big mistake egalitarians make when they interpret Paul,” Southern Equip, 7/2/2019. 

[6] Sam Storms, “What Does Scripture Teach About the Office of Prophet and Gift of Prophecy?” TGC Blog, 10/8/2015.

Categories
Commentary Theology

Genesis 2: Coworkers in the Garden

In my last post, I made the case that Genesis 1 shows us that God created humanity male and female, and that both genders were endowed with equal status, function, and authority to carry out God’s command. As the “image and likeness” of the Creator, humanity served as representatives, or vice-regents, of King Yahweh on earth.

The first chapter of Genesis doesn’t allow us to construct a gender hierarchy. Indeed, to argue that way entirely misses the author’s point.

Now, what about Genesis 2?

In this post, we’ll see that the purpose of Genesis 2 is to show how God provides what is necessary for his mandate to actually be fulfilled. It will also show that the woman is never portrayed as subservient to the man. Instead, we’ll see the beauty of their mutuality as co-priests in God’s sacred space.

Is Genesis Even About Gender Roles?

Let me digress for a moment.

If we’re self-aware enough, we should often ask if our contemporary debates on a particular topic have much to do with what the authors of Scripture were dealing with in the first place. For our discussion, we should ask, “Is Genesis 2 even about gender roles?”

Listen to what Old Testament scholar, and Genesis expert, John Walton has to say:

My own opinion of the contribution of Genesis 2 to the debate is that it offers no establishment or articulation of gender roles. Regardless of what conclusions can be drawn about the issue as a whole once New Testament texts are considered, this text is concerned with human roles, not gender roles. Man and woman serve together. We still have the same problem Christ’s disciples had. While he busied himself proclaiming the spiritual qualities of the kingdom, they were busy arguing who would be most important.[1]

So why I am I spending all this time with the appetizer of Genesis when 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2 looks like the main course? Precisely because it’s part and parcel of the complementarian position.

A case for male “headship” (that is, leadership) is often made by complementarians based on Genesis 2 (and Genesis 1 for that matter). Complementarians argue that while men are not better than or superior to women, they are nevertheless called by God to be the “head” based on several things they see in Genesis 1-2, such as:

  • The man was created first (v 7).
  • The man was given the charge to keep the garden first (v 15).
  • The man named the woman (v 23).
  • The man is the one who leaves his parents to pursue a wife (v 24).[2]

I think Walton is right, however, that the creation account isn’t about gender roles. On the other hand, it displays the magnificent, mutual role humans have in God’s world. That’s what I’m trying to show in these first two posts.

If we can understand the original function and purpose for humanity at creation, won’t it go a long way to helping us peel back the layers of female subjugation that thousands of years of patriarchy have built?

I think so.

Now, on to the text.

Doing Priestly Work in Sacred Space

I made the case in the last post that humanity was created for a specific function/purpose. Male and female were to be Yahweh’s representatives in his sacred space. They were created “in his image”—an ancient Near East way of talking about someone ruling on behalf of a deity.

As we get to Genesis 2, this idea of God creating sacred space is bolstered by the fact that we see God resting on the seventh day of creation,[3] as well as the Garden being placed in proximity to four rivers (see 2:10-14, where the rivers actually flow out of Eden into the Garden). In the ancient world, temples were the place where the divine came to rest–that is, set up residence among its people. Descriptions of temples in ANE literature also contained references to rivers/water, vast gardens, and animals within the larger palace complex.[4]

As long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

All of this would have been a common scene for the ancient audience of Genesis and they would have associated it with a sacred space for deity.[5]

Right now, you might be thinking, Wait, aren’t we talking about gender? What’s the point of all this ANE stuff?

Yes, we’re talking about gender, but as long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

When we do, we’ll see the brilliance of God’s design for humanity that makes our question, “What can women do?” look rather silly.

Back to Genesis. Verse 15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV).

The Hebrew words for “work” (‘bd) and “take care” (šmr) are often used throughout the Old Testament in connection to worship or priestly activities in the temple.[6] This is another piece of evidence that the man’s job, as image bearer of Yahweh, was likely a priestly one, mediating God’s presence in whatever he did.[7]

There’s only problem. This priestly work is too much for the man to do alone.

Just a Helper?

In Genesis 2:18, God sees that it is not good for the man to be alone in this garden work.

At this point, most English Bibles do something rather strange. They use the word “helper” at the end of verse 18: “I will make a helper fit for him” (ESV).

When you and I hear the word “helper,” we think of the boss’s secretary or our tiny toddler picking up socks around the house. Aren’t you a good, little helper! Perhaps our minds even drift to a person who serves at the beck and call of another–like the housemaids and servants portrayed in movies like The Help or The Butler.

The problem is that the word translated here, ‘ezer (pronounced ay-zer), doesn’t mean “helper” as we use it in English.[8]

Owen Strachan, one of the most outspoken proponents of complementarianism, says that on the basis of Genesis 2:18, women help men fulfill men’s calling as leaders. “In the wise and gracious design of God, women are ‘helpers.’ They are to be wives and mothers, the bearers of children. While men lead, protect, and provide, women come alongside and support them.” He goes on to say, “To be a woman is to support, to nurture, and to strengthen men in order that they would flourish and fulfill their God-given role as leaders.”[9]

There are several problems with Strachan’s view. First, he’s projecting modern gender roles into Genesis when the main purpose of the narrative is to talk about human roles in the sacred space of the Garden.

Second, this passage has nothing to do with women being wives and mothers. Nor does it have anything to do with men leading, protecting, or providing for a woman. (God actually provides something for the man, who is helpless!)

Third, Strachan fails to see that the use of ‘ezer throughout the Old Testament doesn’t allow for it to be exclusively a term for a subservient person. In fact, 72% of the 128 times ‘ezer occurs it is in reference to someone with a superior-status helping someone of a lesser status who is in need.[10] Quite often, it is used in reference to God himself. Here are some examples:

‘Ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

  • “And the other [son] was named Eliezer, for [Moses] said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Ex 18:4, NIV). The name Eli-‘ezer means “My God is help.”
  • “We wait in hope for Yahweh; he is our help (‘ezer) and our shield” (Ps 33:20, NIV).
  • “You who fear him, trust in Yahweh–he is their help (‘ezer) and shied” (Ps 115:11).
  • “You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper (‘ezer)” (Hos 13:9, NIV).

Walter Kaiser, a renowned Old Testament scholar, makes the case that ‘ezer is a combination of two older words meaning “to rescue/save” and “to be strong.”[11] Perhaps this is why ‘ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

Finally, consider that ‘ezer can also mean “help” in the sense of cooperating together, like in Isaiah 30:1-5 when God pronounces a woe on Judah for attempting to build alliances with nations who had more military might.

This, and more, leads me to be convinced ‘ezer is more than just a “helper.”

You may not be. After all, all of this doesn’t actually prove that ‘ezer in Genesis 2 is anything more than a secretary or servant. We need the surrounding context to help us.

No One Equal to the Task

This is where the word kenegedo comes into play. It occurs right after ‘ezer and qualifies it in this context.[12] It’s often translated as “fit for” (ESV) or “suitable for” (NIV). “A helper fit for him” (ESV) or something similar is what we typically read in English.

Kenegdo literally means “according to the opposite of him.” That’s pretty awkward. It’s essentially someone who corresponds to the strength of another. Coupled with ‘ezer we can roughly translate this like “corresponding strength” or, as Walton puts it (admitting he’s making up a word), “counterpartner.”[13]

The narrative flows like this. God puts the man in the Garden to work it and care for it (i.e. priestly activities in sacred space). God recognizes that it’s not good that he’s doing the job alone, so he declares he will make a “corresponding strength” for the man. God brings all of the animals he has created to the man to name them. He finds no ‘ezer among them for himself.

The text isn’t suggesting that the man is lonely and wishes he had someone to snuggle with. Romantic interest or even reproduction is probably not on his mind here–he wouldn’t have been looking at animals in that way at all! Also remember that he is living in the presence of his Creator and is free from sin. He’s not lacking fellowship.

Instead, the man recognizes what God did back in verse 18: working and keeping the Garden is too much for him to do by himself. Working the Garden is the context of this “account” (recall Gen 2:4). The man is unable to accomplish the task alone, so he’s searching for someone like him (the fancy word for this is his “ontological equal”). He wants a partner who can serve with him as a co-priest in the sacred space.

But he can’t find anyone.

So God finally provides one for—and from—him.

“Hey, You Look Like Me!”

In verses 21-22, we’re told God provides a woman from the man’s side (the word we translate as “rib” in verse 21 is an architectural term used for building projects that really doesn’t really mean “rib” at all).

Just as God forms the man from the ground to display his solidarity with the land he is working and keeping, so God forms the woman from the man to display the solidarity they have with each other. This reemphasizes that she is his “corresponding strength” as they work in the Garden.

The man’s reaction tells us everything we need to know about the equality of these two humans before sin entered the world:

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

“This finally is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘Woman,’
because she was taken out of Man” (v 23, ESV).

The man cries out in delight as he has finally found someone like him–bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh. Someone equal to him and to the task of keeping the Garden.

The man calls her “woman.” This is a Hebrew wordplay. The man, ‘ish, calls her ‘ishshah, showing how the woman comes from and is connected to him. As ‘ishshah, she’s elevated to his level, in contrast to the animals who are below him. It does not at all imply that she’s subservient to him.[14] She is, quite literally, from him. She’s his equal in every respect.

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

Some complementarians have focused on the man’s “naming” of the woman and equate it to the authority he had over the animals when he named them (2:19). But he’s not naming the woman like that or like he does in 3:20.[15] This is a poetic exultation that he’s found someone like him. He identifies her as someone in the same category he’s in–a human he can labor with.

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. There’s no hierarchy here!

What’s with the little bit in verse 24 about a man leaving his parents? The point, as it explicitly says in the text, is that he would be united to his wife and become one flesh with her.

This ties a nice bow on the chapter. The big idea is the unity, solidarity, equality, and partnership of man and woman in God’s creation.

The First Team of Priests

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. Let that sink in. This is incredible. There’s no hierarchy here! To pull out specific gender roles (like leading and following) based on Genesis 1-2, we’d have to import them into the text from our own cultural categories or project them back onto the text from other parts of Scripture.

Simply, the original Israelite readers–who were entrenched in patriarchy themselves–would have never thought about gender roles or headship when reading the creation narrative.

As I’ve already said, Genesis 1-2 is about more than gender roles. It’s about humanity’s identity and their role of being representatives of God and coworkers with God.

When we look down the corridors of biblical history, all the way to the end of the story in the book of Revelation, we see how this partnership in the Garden comes full-circle. All God’s people, men and women, are a kingdom and priests who reign with Yahweh in a redeemed Eden, that temple-garden-city where we will see Jesus’ face and sin and death will be no more (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 21-22).

Indeed, we are that kingdom and priests now. Later on, I’ll try to show that this is at the very heart of what Jesus brought when he ushered in the Kingdom of God and what the New Testament seeks to flesh out.

Still, until God brings the New Creation, we live in a sinful world which brings devastation to everything in us and around us. A significant part of that devastation is patriarchy.

That’s what we’ll consider next as we turn to Genesis 3.


Notes

[1] John Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com. For anything on Genesis 1-3, just read everything by John Walton. His book The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015) has also been tremendously helpful to me in understanding Genesis 1-3.

[2] For a brief article that sums up what most complementarians see in Genesis 1-2 see Denny Burk, “5 Evidences of Complementarian Gender Roles in Genesis 1-2,” The Gospel Coalition, March 5, 2014.

[3] As you probably know, in the original writings, there were no chapter or heading breaks. Try reading Genesis 1-2 without any of those breaks and notice the continuity from 1:31 to 2:3. Since 2:4 begins with “This is the account of…”, it should actually be the true beginning of “chapter 2” and signal the beginning something distinct from the week of creation that runs through 2:3.We see this formula again in Genesis 5:1, 6:9; 10:1, 32; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9, 37:2. Every single time this formula introduces a new section in the narrative, focusing on a new individual and/or family.

[4] Walton, “The Garden of Eden (2:8-17),” Genesis.

[5] All of these comparisons to ANE literature may freak you out a bit. But it doesn’t have to. The point is not to bring doubt on the Bible. While we start with the text of Scripture to see what it has to say, we need to read it through the lens of the people who originally read it if we want to be faithful to understand it. Otherwise, we project our contemporary categories and understandings onto the text. The point is to show that God, in his kindness and grace, spoke through the writers of Scripture in a way that would be understandable to them. (Theologians call this “accommodation.”)

[6] The word for “work” can be used in an agricultural sense of landscaping, in general for one’s day job (Ex. 20:9), or for worship (Ex. 3:12). For the word translated “take care,” see Lev 8:35 and Num 3:7, 28.

[7] The pseudepigraphal book Jubilees makes a comment about Adam as he leaves the Garden that fits this idea of priestly service: “And on that day on which Adam went forth from the Garden, he offered as a sweet savour an offering, frankincense, galbanum, and stacte, and spices in the morning with the rising of the sun from the day when he covered his shame” (3:27). While Jubilees is not book we recognize as Scripture and, indeed, it has extra details that have no Scriptural foundation, it does give us insight into how ancient Jews understood various aspects of their history. For more on this see, Walton, “Proposition 12,” The Lost World of Adam and Eve.

[8] “The English word ‘helper,’ because it can connote so many different ideas, does not accurately convey the connotation of the Hebrew word ‘ezer.” See NET Study Bible, Notes on Genesis 2:18, on BibleGateway.com.

[9] Owen Strachan, “The Gender of Genesis and Ecclesial Womanhood,” 9Marks, July 1, 2010.

[10] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 128.

[11] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005.

[12] Marg Mowczko, “A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew),” Marg Mowczko blog, March 8, 2010. Also read everything by Marg Mowczko.

[13] Walton, “Suitable Helper,” Genesis.

[14] Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homoseals, 116-117.

[15] Genesis 3:20 definitely suggests the man exercises some authority over the woman when he names her Eve, while his own name remains unchanged. Of course, we aren’t told this is a good thing! Nothing in Genesis 2:23 suggests he is placing himself over her. But even if we assume that the man is showing authority by naming the woman here in Genesis 2, Webb points out that we could see it as a subtle hint of the patriarchy to come through the Fall in Genesis 3. See Ibid., 117. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced the man is naming her at all. Again, he’s simply identifying what she is.

Categories
Theology

The John 3:16 of the Old Testament

I’ve talked to many Christians who were taught and believed that God’s people Israel in the Old Testament were saved by works, rather than grace.

Of course, looking at the prologue to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 will show that’s simply not true. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2).

God acts. God does the work. God does the saving.

Then he gives them his law. The order goes like this: God rescues his people. Then he tells them what their lives should look like under his kingly rule.

Add to that Hebrews 11 where we see that those saints who have come before were saved, not by their commitment to the law, but for their faith. That’s the whole point of that chapter.

That should be enough.

But another passage stuck out to me this morning I hadn’t noticed before. Deuteronomy 4:37: “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength.”

That sounds a lot like John 3:16, doesn’t it? That verse says, “God loved the world this way: he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

  • “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them” → God loved the world
  • “He brought you out of Egypt” → will not perish but have eternal life 
  • “By his Presence and his great strength” → he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him

When you lay the two passage side-by-side, we see that God’s love is the initiating motivation for salvation. His very real presence and grace is the power of salvation. And finally, freedom and life with God–the rescue from bondage and death–is the result of God’s salvation.

Whether Old Testament or New, the salvation of God does not come because of the obedience or conformity to God’s law, in part or in whole.

It comes freely and only to his people by his grace, his power, and his very Presence.

Categories
Life

Reading the Bible in 2016: Knowing What to Read

In my last post, I said that if you want to make your 2016 Bible reading worthwhile, then you need know how to read. You need to read successively, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. Today, I want us to consider what to read. I’ll suggest a plan for beginners and then several plans for non-beginners.

A Beginner Reading Plan. If you are unfamiliar with reading the Bible, or haven’t had a steady plan for a long time, let me suggest starting with the Gospel of Mark. Simply watch Jesus. Note what he does. What he says and how he says it. It is 16 chapters, so you could reasonably expect to get it done in two weeks. Though you could slow way down and stretch it to a month. Mark is quick, punchy, and action-oriented. It is for the non-readers among us!

After Mark, go to the Old Testament and read the first book of the Bible: Genesis. Genesis means “beginnings.” In Mark, you read “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1). In Genesis you’ll read the beginning of history. Genesis is 50 chapters and often reads like an adventure story, but it a narrative with a lot of details. It might take you 2-4 months to work through.

Now, let’s go to a third beginning: the beginning of the church in Acts. Acts is the history of how the church started and grew after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. It has 28 chapters and because of its fast-paced you might be able to read a couple chapters a day and get through this book in four weeks or less. It is theological history, but there is not heavy theological doctrines expounded. Again, this reads like an adventure story—because it is!

After you’ve read through Mark, Genesis, and Acts, let me suggest you go to Ephesians (only 6 chapters) to acquaint you with the reality of what this gospel of Jesus has accomplished for and in us and what God calls his church to be.

Next, let me point you to Exodus. Exodus is 40 chapters and is dense—it has a lot of laws. But it also has a lot of drama, dialog, and real-world problems because of sin. If you come to understand the basic themes and ways God works in Genesis and Exodus, much of the rest of the Bible will become more and more clear as time goes on. Exodus is an important book.

Reading Mark, Genesis, Acts, Ephesians, and Exodus, as a beginner, might take you the whole year. And that is a perfectly okay way to start, or re-start, reading the Bible.

Non-beginners. If you are familiar with the Bible, whether you have been a Christian for a short or long time, you may want something more systematic and, dare I say, rigorous. Let me suggest one option I’m doing and then provide a few links to good plans.

This year, each day I am reading two to three Psalms per day (at various times throughout the day, morning, noon, and the last while I feed my infant son his last bottle of the day!), two Old Testament chapters (other than Psalms), and one New Testament chapter. I’m simply starting with Genesis and Matthew and will proceed through the Old and New Testaments as the books are ordered. I start with a Psalm, praying through it as a read. Then I read the OT and NT readings, making notes as I go, and then I write out a prayer or simply pray orally as I read. Including reading, you can do this in as little as 20 minutes or as long as you want. This plan will take you through the OT and NT once and the Psalms seven times (if you read three chapters per day). Also, since this plan is not based on specific readings for specific calendar days, you should not feel pressure to finish by December 31! The bigger goal is letting the Word shape you, not simply “getting through it.”

Here are a few other plans I’d recommend.

Now let me be clear: not every Christian must read the Bible every year! It is a good thing to do from time to time, but not required. If you’ve never done it, give it a shot. If you did it last year, you are free to try something else! If you are the latter, I’d recommend simply reading through whole books of the Bible at a time, alternating OT and NT books so you just don’t get stuck in one testament. Remember that the whole Bible is God’s word!

Finally, check out this great FAQ on reading through the Bible.

Happy reading in 2016!

Categories
Theology

Reading Ruth: Four Themes to Keep in Mind

Ruth is a literary masterpiece. Death. Suspense. Love. Brokenness. Redemption. Often we think it is mainly about a romantic encounter between a strong man-hunk and an unworthy pauper girl. That’s in there, of course, and it certainly adds to the drama. The author knew what he was doing–it draws us in!

Ruth is, however, mainly about God and his activity and purpose. Here’s four themes to keep in mind as you read the book.

  1. God welcomes non-Israelites into his covenant. From the outset of the book, the author makes clear that Ruth is a Moabite (1:4). She is referred to as “the Moabite” throughout (2:2, 6, 21, etc.). God is not anti-Gentile. So long as the non-Israelite is devoted to Yahweh, he welcomes them into the covenant. God does this with Rahab in Joshua and with the Ninevites in Jonah.
  2. God works through ordinary means. There is not one mention of a miracle or vision or angels in Ruth. Rather, God works through the everyday means of ancient Israelite culture. Naomi sends Ruth to Boaz’s field and Ruth “happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (2:3). God also directs events from behind the scenes through Naomi’s plan for Ruth to seek out Boaz on the threshing floor (3:1-5).
  3. God graciously guides a particular family’s life. Naomi was all but hopeless after her husband and sons died, as she may not have an heir to continue her line. Boaz, too, did not have an heir of his own. Yet by the end of the book, after Boaz and Ruth marry, Naomi is redeemed and Ruth’s son becomes Naomi’s heir (4:13). In this way too, Boaz is given a child. Naomi’s friends give God all the glory (4:14-15).
  4. God sovereignly works out his redemptive plan. Boaz and Ruth’s son is not merely an heir of Naomi. The son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, who is the father of David (4:17). Thus Obed begins the Davidic line, which will eventually bring David to the throne. More than that, God works in the lives of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz so that David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ, would become the Redeemer of all God’s people.