Category Archives: Biblical Motifs

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Scribes of the Kingdom

An Apologia for Christian Scholarship

There are several classes of people in the New Testament setting that are difficult to translate or describe, and are liable to be painted with a broad brush:

As we take each of these in turn, a clear picture emerges: Jesus and the apostles endorsed the role of theologians and scholars as essential to the function of the church. The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees was most assuredly not that they took their Bible seriously and sought to learn all they could about it; rather, Jesus’ conflict with them was caused by their neglect of applying what they knew so well (Matthew 23:23). Their expertise brought upon them a great responsibility.

Who Are Pharisees and Sadducees?

Pharisees and Sadducees are two important schools of thought within the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees derived their authority from the law of Moses, and numbered in the thousands. According to Josephus, only the wealthy elite were persuaded to become Sadducees. Their main distinguishing doctrine was their denial of an afterlife.

Both of these groups frequently become straw men during sermons on the New Testament. However, it is clear from the Bible that not all of the scholars or religious elite of Jesus’ day were hypocrites. In the New Testament, the Sadducees are never depicted in a positive light.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were rivals with different views of the Torah. Interestingly, Jesus warns his disciples about “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). Thus, he steered them away from joining both of these leading schools of thought, though several Pharisees did later join them.

Who Are Scribes and Lawyers?

Scribes and lawyers are, for all intents and purposes, the scholars and theologians of biblical times. But they are not translated this way because there are clear differences related to the tasks that they were involved in. In general, scholars of today are more specialized and less involved in clerical work.

In Greek, scribes are, etymologically, “lettered” or “literate” people. This makes more sense here in Asia, where handwriting is considered a marketable skill. In the Middle East, a “scribe” (خطّاط) acts mainly as a calligrapher, and neat handwriting is prized; in South Asia, scribes also may act like notaries, helping with official documents and clerical work, as they did in Bible times.

Lawyers as spoken of in the New Testament were not mainly concerned with secular law, but with God’s law found in the Torah. It is not entirely misleading to think of someone constructing an argument from piles of books or manuscripts, but the key difference here is that it was a religious role, not a secular role. For this reason, modern translations often use phrases like “expert” or “teacher” of the Law (that is, Mosaic law).

Woe to the Scholars!

Of the four categories listed above, all are are prone to negative descriptions. Among these, the Sadducees are perhaps the only one that is consistently portrayed in a negative light in the New Testament. They were in serious doctrinal error, and none of them in the Gospels or Acts ever offers any encouragement to the gospel of the kingdom.

Jesus also pronounces woe on lawyers (Luke 11:46, 52), and scribes and Pharisees, whom he groups together (Matthew 23, Luke 11:42-44). In light of this, and Paul’s writings about the cross being “foolishness” to the wise of this world, intellectuals and scholars have become low-hanging fruit for Bible teachers who want to lead people into a more spiritual worldview.

In general, this kind of anti-intellectualism is not only unfounded, but unbiblical. In the New Testament, there are many scholars and teachers that seriously consider Jesus’ teachings or even follow him. There are several verses where Jesus explicitly speaks of scribes in a positive light, which are listed below. As for the lawyers, Paul requests a lawyer named Zenas to minister with Apollos (Titus 3:13).

Several Pharisees are either sympathetic to the Christian faith or believers themselves. Paul calls himself a Pharisee before and after conversion, suggesting that there was nothing offensive about their doctrine; rather, similar to the “Nazirites” of Scripture, it denoted a certain status in relation to the law (Phil. 3:5). In today’s terminology, some contemporary writers have characterized the Pharisees more like a conscientious revival movement—not a bumbling cult of nitpickers.

Jesus Sends Us Scribes

There are at least three passages in which Jesus makes explicitly positive evaluations of scribes:

  • In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe asks Jesus about the first commandment. (This is one of several passages in which scholars ask Jesus sincere questions, not intending to “trap” him as in other stories.) After their discussion, Jesus pronounces that this scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God.”
  • In concluding the parables of the kingdom, Jesus tells his disciples that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). Scholars, therefore, have an important role in preserving and disseminating kingdom truths!
  • In Matthew 23, Jesus is pronouncing woe on the “scribes and Pharisees.” He tells them that he sends “prophets, wise men and scribes.” This is the most important verse in this study because it not only legitimizes scribes, but proclaims that Jesus himself sends them, working alongside prophets and other “wise men.”

Jesus and his disciples frequently interacted with scribes, lawyers and Pharisees in neutral settings. They attend his teachings and ask genuine questions:

  • In Matthew 17:10, Mark 9:11, Jesus’ disciples knew scribal teachings. In Mark 12:35, Jesus himself knew the teachings of the scribes.
  • In Luke 17:20, the Pharisees ask about the coming of the kingdom.
  • In John 9:40, Pharisees ask Jesus if they are blind, too.
  • In Mark 7:1, Pharisees and scribes come to see him—though he afterward rebukes them.
  • In Luke 7:37 and 39, Jesus sits in a Pharisee’s house. In Luke 11:37, Jesus accepts another invitation from a Pharisee.
  • In John 3, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) approaches Jesus in the night.

In other passages, scribes agree with Jesus:

  • In Luke 20:39, scribes agree with Jesus about the resurrection.
  • In Mark 12:28-34, the scribe (mentioned above) agrees that Jesus has spoken well about the greatest commandments.

In many New Testament Scriptures, scribes, lawyers and Pharisees have even become disciples of Jesus:

  • In Matthew 8:19, a scribe asks to be a disciple.
  • In Acts 15:5, some Pharisees had believed the gospel.
  • In Titus 3:13, Paul asks Titus to send “Zenas the lawyer” with Apollos; here he appears to be financially endorsing a scholar with a traveling ministry.
  • Paul himself was a Pharisee, and proclaims himself “a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee” well after becoming a follower of Jesus (Acts 23:6, 26:5, Phil. 3:5).

There are also New Testament passages where scholars, teachers, and Pharisees receive Jesus’ spiritual ministry:

  • In Mark 9:14, scribes came seeking healing.
  • In Luke 5:17, Pharisees and teachers came from every town, and “the power of the Lord was present.”

In a surprising number of passages, scribes and Pharisees defend Jesus and the apostles from the persecution of others:

  • In Luke 13:31, some Pharisees warned Jesus of persecution from Herod.
  • In John 7:50, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) publicly defends Jesus.
  • In Acts 19:35, a scribe calmed the mob in Ephesus.
  • In Acts 23:9, scribes of the Pharisees wanted to release Paul.
  • In Acts 5:34, Gamaliel (a Pharisee) advises the Sanhedrin to release the apostles.

Conclusion

The above passages resist caricatures of the Pharisees, who were a large and presumably diverse group. Rather, unlike the Sadducees, many Pharisees became followers of Jesus, or defended him against others of their sect.

More importantly, though, there is a clear and legitimate role for theologians in Jesus’ teaching. He does not exclude all intellectuals with a wave of his hand; rather, in Matthew 13:52 and 23:34, he maintains space for scholars and experts who maintain a high regard for God and his words.

“I Am the Lord” in Ezekiel’s Prophecy

When Will We Know That He is Lord?

– God tells us over and over that he is the LORD (YHWH), and he tells us when we will know that he is the LORD. This revelation of God’s character is a constant theme in Ezekiel, whether this revelation comes through judgment or mercy.

– The quote “I am the LORD” is God’s self-identification that began with Moses in the book of Exodus. In Exodus, as here, God identifies himself primarily by his activity. The verbal revelation clarifies an action which could otherwise be misinterpreted (e.g. Ex. 20:2, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”). This revelation does not change or develop who he is, but it does develop our understanding of him, and that is a goal worth mentioning around 80-90 times in Ezekiel’s book (listed below).

– Exodus 6:7 introduces two promises: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”
The first part, “you will be my people, and I will be your God”, is repeated six times by Ezekiel (11:20, 14:11, 34:30, 36:28b, 37:23, 37:26-28). It is also found in Jer. 24:7, 30:22, 31:1, 31:33, 32:38, and Rev. 21:3.
The second part, “you will know that I am the Lord”, is repeated by Ezekiel about 70 times.
While “knowing that he is the Lord” involves revelation, owning up to him as “your God” and us as his people involves commitment—or, in biblical language, covenant. In both cases, the wealth of repetition gives a sense of the idea’s importance.

– Here, in particular, I am looking at the second part of the promise. When does Ezekiel say that we will “know that he is the Lord”?

– Note that Ezekiel’s final passage of this kind, 39:28, is somewhat summative. Both the negative results—Babylonian captivity—and positive results—promised restoration—for Israel were part and parcel of God’s self-revelatory activity.

– These are not the only verses in Ezekiel that display God revealing himself, and many others could be named; but this list shows how important and well-developed this single motif is in Ezekiel’s book.

List of Occurrences in Ezekiel

– This list includes every time that God says “I am the LORD” in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Verses in italics are simply God stating, “I am the LORD.” Verses in normal font include reasons leading up to knowing that he is “the LORD.”

Unqualified statements: “I am the LORD”: 19 times*
Judgment/scattering of Israel/Judah: 25 times
Judgment on Gentiles: 21 times
Regathering/New Covenant of Israel: 15 times
Mixed/other (explanation in parentheses): 12 times
Total: 92 times

*See end note.

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The “Antihero” in Judges

Unwilling Leaders: No One Wants to Go First
“Who shall go up first…?” (1:1)
Barak tells Deborah that he will only go into battle if she goes with him. (4:4-10)
In ch. 5, the song of Deborah and Barak celebrates willing fighters like Jael (v. 2, 9, 24)  but curses draft-dodgers like Meroz (v. 23).
Jotham’s parable: righteous leaders are unwilling, so the wicked take the reins. (9:7-15)
“Who is the man who will begin to fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” (10:18)
“Come and be our leader” (11:6)
“There was no king” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25)
“There were no rulers in the land who might put them to shame” (18:7, NKJV)
“Who shall go up first for us to fight…?” (20:18)

Unlikely Heroes
Ehud’s left-handedness, considered a bad omen in many cultures, was also the reason he could sneak a weapon into the king’s chamber (see 3:16).
Barak requests the help of Deborah, a prophetess and judge. Then another woman, Jael, defeats the enemy commander (ch. 4)
An unnamed prophet reminds Israel of the Exodus while they are oppressed by Midian. (6:1-10)
Gideon fears Midian (6:11), fears his neighbors (6:27), doubts his own valor (6:12), doubts his pedigree (6:15), and requires several assurances from God (6:17, 6:36-40).
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute.” (11:1) He is a tragic figure, rejected by his half-brothers. Like David at Adullam, “worthless fellows collected around Jephthah” (11:3). He  delivers Israel, but ends up killing his own daughter to fulfill a vow. (In his culture this was more honorable than breaking his vow.) (11:29-40)
Four obscure judges from small towns. We know almost nothing about them.
Tola from Shamir, judge for 23 years. (10:1-2)
Ibzan of Bethlehem, judge for 7 years. (12:8-10)
Elon of Aijalon, judge for 10 years. (12:11-12)
Abdon from Pirathon, judge for 8 years. (12:13-15)
Samson is a strange and angry man, whose wife marries his best friend (14:20). Among other aberrant behaviors, he poses riddles and kills animals bare-handed.  He is eventually entrapped by his girlfriend; the reader thinks he would have seen it coming. (ch. 16)

Unorthodox Methods
Left-handed Ehud subverts the king’s guards and kills him in his own palace. (3:15-30)
Shamgar saves Israel and wields an ox-goad. (3:31)
Jael lulls Sisera to sleep with milk, and afterwards kills him with a tent stake. (ch. 4)
Gideon thins his fighting forces instead of expanding them. Even his methods for choosing men are strange. (ch. 7)
Gideon gives his warriors trumpets and lanterns, using innovative smoke-and-mirror techniques against Midian. (ch. 7)
A certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head…” (10:53)
Jephthah commits linguistic genocide by killing everyone with an Ephraimite accent. (12:1-6)
Samson ties torches to foxes’ tails to destroy Philistine crops. (15:4-5)
Samson uses a donkey’s jawbone to kill 1000 Philistines. (15:14-17)
Samson pulls down two load-bearing columns, destroying many Philistines and himself with them. (ch. 16)
Benjamin’s army includes 700 left-handed stone-slingers (20:16).

“The Seed of the Woman” in Genesis

“And the Lord God said unto the serpent … I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
Genesis 3:14-15 (KJV)

What does seed of the woman mean?

This very ancient promise refers to a descendant of Eve who would defeat the serpent, or Satan. The unique part of the promise is that seed in Hebrew is normally equivalent with semen, which a man contributes toward a pregnancy. A woman does not have a seed, but an egg; she is the one in whom the seed grows. So the seed of the woman refers to a person born without the help of a man, i.e., a virgin birth.

Who is the seed of the woman?

The seed of a woman could hardly refer to anything except the virgin birth of Jesus, in which he was not born of a man’s seed. The most famous verse of the Bible in English is John 3:16: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that he who believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life.” The phrase “only begotten” is somewhat confusing for at least two reasons:

1. Christian orthodoxy has always held that Jesus existed before he was born as a human, and birth was not the beginning of existence for him. (John 8:58) This aspect is especially confusing to Muslims.

2. John says that Jesus grants us the right to be born as “children of God” (John 1:12-13). If we become sons and daughters of God through the new birth, then Jesus is not God’s only son.

The Greek word is a unique compound word, monogenes, which many interpret to mean “uniquely begotten” or “singly born”—a probable reference to the virgin birth.

How does this promise figure in the rest of the Book of Genesis?

When Cain was born, it is quite possible that Eve thought that he was the promised seed of the woman. After all, she was the only woman around, and she had brought him forth “from the LORD” (4:1, KJV). When Seth was born Eve celebrated that God had “appointed another seed” for her (4:25). If Eve indeed thought that either Cain or Seth was her promised seed, then, as is the pattern in human life, she had misestimated God’s timetable for bringing his promises to pass.

Genealogies became important because there is a promised seed that would come forth in a specific way, and repeated promises in Genesis indicate that this “seed” will come from a specific lineage (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). Many cultures have very high views of genealogy, and many Middle Eastern cultures still relate their tribes back to the book of Genesis without interruption.

Noah also was a man of promise, since his father prophesied that he would comfort them concerning the work of their hands (Gen. 5:29). Mankind was preserved through him, but it would be many more generations before the promised seed of the woman would come.

Abraham is commanded to count the stars because “thus will his seed be.”⁠1  Although the meaning could refer to the number of Abraham’s descendants, Paul points out “Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16, NIV) The seed of Abraham and the seed of the woman are one and the same.

Isaac, more than anyone else in the book of Genesis, bears the weight of the coming seed. Abraham is given more seed promises than anyone else in the Bible, and the most immediate application would be his son. Since Ishmael is excluded from the promise, now we understand the significance of God’s request that Abraham sacrifice his son. His son was the only means he had of fulfilling God’s promise, and God asked him to sacrifice him. When he goes alone with Isaac, Abraham says, “we will go, and we will return.” The writer of Hebrews says that Abraham showed his faith in the resurrection from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19).

The purpose of election continues as God decides that Jacob and not Esau will be the source of the promised seed. Paul writes to the Romans about these twins, saying that God used them to make it obvious that God does not choose the best, brightest, or holiest to join him in his plan, so “that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth” (Romans 9:11). Election here means choice, and God’s choice is key to following both the narratives and the genealogies of the book of Genesis. All of these are tending towards the fulfillment of the promise that was spoken at the beginning.

Even Joseph’s story, centers around the preservation of this covenant people and the “seed of the woman.” Even though the scepter fell to Judah, Joseph preserved the family through whom salvation would be revealed. He received riches and wealth in the story, but he tells his family that the express purpose of God was to preserve his family through the crisis (Gen. 45:4-8, 50:15-21, Ps. 105:16-17).

Summary

In the first half of Genesis, God speaks, promises, and explains himself over and over. He appears to Abraham twice in chapter 12, and once in almost every chapter from there until Abraham’s death.

In the second half of Genesis, there is much more action and much less of God’s voice. From chapter 36 to chapter 45, there is no mention of the seed of the woman or the promise of the land. Jacob and Joseph only see in retrospect that God’s redemptive purposes were at hand. So Jacob says that God has “redeemed” him from all trouble (48:16), and reminds himself and his family of all the promises that God had spoken so many years before (48:3-4, 48:21).

After Genesis, the story of the seed of the woman does not advance significantly until God begins sharing the promise with David in the book of 1 Samuel. However, this promise becomes a background to understanding the promise of the land, the Exodus, the conquest of Joshua, and the rejection of God as king in 1 Samuel. The entire Old Testament leads us toward the victory and resurrection of Eve’s seed, our virgin-born Messiah.

1 Although the view is eccentric, E. W. Bullinger believed that God had spoken to Abraham using the constellations as a pre-biblical revelation of Jesus, “the seed of the woman.”