Biblical studies: October 2007 Archives

Consider the city of refuge law in Deuteronomy 19:

Here is the law concerning a case of someone who kills a person and flees there to save his life, having killed his neighbor accidentally without previously hating him: If he goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings the ax to chop down a tree, but the blade flies off the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies, that person may flee to one of these cities and live. Otherwise, the avenger of blood in the heat of his anger might pursue the one who committed manslaughter, overtake him because the distance is great, and strike him dead. yet he did not deserve to die, since he did not previously hate his neighbor. [Deuteronomy 19:4-6, HCSB]

Compare Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said to our ancestorys, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who says to his brother, 'Fool!' will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, 'You moron!' will be subject to hellfire. [Matthew 6:21-22, HCSB]

Jesus' sequence of "You've heard that it is said" statements and their corresponding "But I say" statements are sometimes taken to be revisions of the Torah or at least revelations of the hidden meaning behind the Torah, which readers couldn't have seen very easily without his aid. Not so. When he refers to the spirit of the law, he doesn't mean just some hard-to-see intent. He means the basic fundamental principles that undergird the specific teachings, and these are usually explicitly taught clearly within the Torah, some of them over and over again.

I just noticed this particular statement yesterday, but it's pretty clear in the Deuteronomy passage that the difference between the murderer and the manslaughterer is that the murderer hates their neighbor. The reason the manslaughterer doesn't deserve death (and by implication the reason the murderer does) is that the manslaughterer doesn't hate (and the murderer does). So it's actually hate, in Deuteronomy 19, deserves death. When Jesus says that anyone who hates deserves hellfire and judgment, he's not going deeper than the Torah's own criterion, which is the heart attitude. There are probably lots of cases of this kind of thing, but this particular one struck me yesterday when reading Deuteronomy 19. I don't think I'd ever noticed it before.

Commentaries on Samuel

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post.

I don't usually give NIVAC volumes pride of place, but Bill Arnold's (2003) really is my favorite commentary on Samuel. He has a great sense of the narrative flow of the book, and he gives arguments for his conclusions, something not all the authors of this series do as well as he does.

The series' strength, when it's done well, is to present the original meaning of the passage, often giving it the length a brief, popular-level commentary will usually give, followed by two further sections. Bridging Contexts looks at the theological, existential, and moral principles behind the text in its original setting in order to abstract away from that setting, which allows the author to move to Contemporary Application to apply those principles in our day. Some authors in this series do not make good use of the format, using the different sections to talk about whatever they feel like but without ever using the format the way it was intended. Others are not careful in their abstracting from the original text or not very thoughtful in how to apply the text.

Arnold is among the best writers I've read for this series so far. (Karen Jobes, who did Esther, and Craig Keener, who did Revelation, are in the same league. Craig Blomberg's I Corinthians would have been if his hadn't been one of the earliest volumes and thus not allowed as much room as the series tended to allow as it went on.) Arnold has a great sense for the narrative flow of the text, and his theological and moral reflections strike me as honest, careful, insightful, and aware of scholarship in not just theology but also ethics, which several authors in the series lack. In other words, he isn't just a linguist or historian, as many biblical scholars are.

I particularly liked his treatment of the problem of lying and the problem of war in Samuel. He raises questions many commentators ignore, and he doesn't try to get around the text but simply faces it. He brings in background work by theologians who have engaged with a larger philosophical tradition on these ethical and theological issues. Several commentators on this book disappointed me greatly in how easily they would avoid what the text says in certain places just so their favored ethical theory might come out true, which strikes me as just eisegesis.

A few years ago I wrote about the rare occasions when it's legitimate to represent your opponents unfairly, using a passage from Isaiah as an illustration. I thought of a similar issue yesterday in reading the first chapter of Deuteronomy. In the early chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the events of Exodus through Numbers once again to the Israelites on the eve of their entrance into the promised land. But there are differences, just as there are with the different reports of Jesus' life in the four gospels, the different accounts of the history of the kings of Israel and Judah in Samuel-Kings and Chronicles (as weel as the occasional narratives in the prophets), and the three different accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts.

It's one thing to reorder the events so they aren't chronological but thematic. The order of contact with the nations east of the promised land is different. In the latter chapters of Numbers it looks chronological, and in Deuteronomy 2-3 the nations Israel actually fought end up at the end to be treated together, whereas they probably weren't encountered in that order. But you might argue that anyone aware of the geography would know that this wasn't ordered chronologically or geographically.

But what about the spy report in Deuteronomy 1? It leaves out some important information that Numbers is very up-front about. It's the sort of thing that we might call selective reporting in our day. If you just read Deuteronomy, you'd get the sense that the spies came back with an entirely positive report. All it says is that the spies reported the land to be good and full of good fruit. There's nothing in the report about their being scared of giants or unwilling to go into the land. The only mention of that comes later, when Moses recounts the people's opposition.

Now I think there are some good reasons (which would take too long to list here) for thinking that Deuteronomy's narrative assumes the background knowledge someone who has read Numbers would know. So I'm not inclined to accept that it's all that plausible that a contrary ideology is behind Deuteronomy. Besides, there isn't a huge theological difference between recognizing a bad spy report (representing the majority of the tribes with one person per tribe) and recognizing a bad response from the people as a whole. So I don't accept a source-critical solution to this problem (which I'm not sure would be a solution anyway).

Here's what I propose is going on. I do think there's a theological reason for Moses' reporting things differently in Deuteronomy 1. In Numbers, the concern is largely getting down what happened in order. But in Deuteronomy, Moses is giving a speech to the people on the eve of their entrance to the land. Moses' overall point is that the good report is all they needed, and the false report (not given here as a report by the spies but given in Numbers as exactly that) is irrelevant. Moses' leaving it out in this speech would be glaringly obvious to the Israelites, who had just spent 40 years wandering around because their parents and grandparents had heeded that report.

Numbers 30 deals with Israelite vows to God, i.e. declaring something to be dedicated to God. This would usually involve vowing something to God that one would give to the tabernacle or temple system much later, e.g. a certain percentage of the harvest that hasn't arrive yet or something of that nature. Some of the Pharisees in Jesus' time abused this system by vowing things to God that were necessary for caring for their parents, and thus they used these laws to get out of more important ones like honoring father and mother.

Jephthah in Judges 11 vowed whatever first came through his door, and it turned out to be his daughter. In that case, he tragically honored his vow when he shouldn't have done so, although if he had broken it he would have needed to make atonement. But other vows could be rash and should never have been made that nonetheless have to be honored. Typically if a man made a vow, he would have to honor it even if it was rashly made and burdensome to honor.

The regulations in Numbers 30 relate to girls and women making vows when under the authority of someone else. Normally a man would be responsible for his own vows. A girl under her father's authority would also normally be responsible for her own vows, provided that her father, when hearing about it, said nothing. But he did have the authority to cancel her vow. The same is true of a husband of a married woman. The father or husband would have to cancel the vow immediately when hearing about it, but the authority to cancel the vow came with being the father of a minor girl or the husband of a wife.

What interested me in reading this chapter recently was how it treats widows and divorced women. There were cases of widows and divorced women going back to live with their father, but there were also cases of widows retaining the property their husbands had inherited and serving as a head of household. These cases would have to have involved children, since otherwise the property might leave the clan, and property ties to tribes and clans was a very big deal in ancient Israel. But what's notably absent in this chapter is any statement about such women being under the authority of their father in terms of vows. As far as this chapter is concerned, a widow or divorced woman was simply responsible for her vows, and no one had the authority to cancel them.

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