Biblical studies: July 2009 Archives

Jerome Walsh's commentary on I Kings is probably the best thing out there on narrative issues in I Kings. I've heard good reports on it from several commentary reviews, and two people who have used it in their sermon preparation for our current sermon series in Kings have found it very helpful. It's fairly rare that he says anything that evangelicals would find problematic with regard to the nature of scripture, but I did identify one thing when reading his commentary on I Kings 11, and I don't think he can consistently maintain it given other things he says.

When discussing Solomon's failures as a king, Walsh says the following about the narrator's perspective underlying the critical account (from p.136):

Yahweh is described as "the God of Israel" to contrast with the other national deities named in verses 5 and 7. The concept here is very different from our own. The narrator presumes a polytheistic worldview: other gods besides Yahweh existed, and each deity had its own national sphere. The text does not understand Solomon's apostasy as turning away from the only true God to worship false gods. Solomon's evil is that he supported in Israel, Yahweh's own nation, the worship of Yahweh's rivals.

First of all, Walsh uses the wrong term. The view that there are other gods that you shouldn't worship and only one you should worship is not polytheism, which is the worship of many gods. It's called henotheism. There's evidence within the Bible itself that some people in ancient Israel were henotheists. There's actually more evidence that many were polytheists, including Solomon himself according to this passage. But the consistent message of the biblical narrators and prophets is not of henotheism but monotheism. The book of Kings is actually a pretty clear case of this. Solomon's speeches and prayers at the temple dedication are pretty clear that there is just one God who is sovereign over all the earth.

In fact, even four pages later Walsh seems to recognize this. In his discussion of the rebellions Solomon faced from two subjugated peoples (Edom and Aram) and one internal rebellion (Jeroboam), he emphasizes the narrator's theological perspective of Yahweh's sovereignty over the doings of those in other nations (p.140):

The effect of this heaping up of parallels is to recall that both Moses' and David's careers were divinely directed, and thereby to intensify considerably the impact of the claim that "God raised up" Hadad and Rezon. The same Yahweh who raised up Moses as Israel's savior, the same God who raised up David to be Israel's ideal king, now raises up adversaries to oppose Solomon. The punishment of Solomon and the impending disintegration of his empire become part of the sacred history of Yahweh's dealings with Israel, on part in importance with the Exodus and the covenant with David.

Such a view of Yahweh's role with respect to other nations doesn't necessarily require thinking the other gods don't exist. They might just be fairly impotent beings in comparison with Yahweh's sovereign might. But it's hard to see it as consistent with the view that the only reason to worship Yahweh is because he's the god who happens to be Israel's god, whereas other nations have real gods who happen to be their gods. It's very hard to put Walsh's own view of the narrative position of Kings together with his statement that Solomon's sin is disloyalty to the god who happens to be Israel's god. The text itself commands the view that Yahweh is sovereign over other nations in a way that there's no reason to consider worshiping them even if they do exist. In fact, any acknowledgement of their existence is consistent with thinking of them as something like demonic beings whose existence and actions are all subject to divine sovereignty in the same way the human figures in these accounts are.

Now I'm well aware of the view in scholarship that takes some of these accounts to have been written from different theological perspectives. The idea is that earlier materials assume many gods, and later authors added stuff that assumes one sovereign God. Walsh indicates agreement with this elsewhere (e.g. in note 9 on p.112). But Walsh is a narrative commentator, committing to dealing with the final form of the text. Surely if the final compilers agreed with the orthodox view that there is just one sovereign God, they would not have meant the discussion of Solomon's sin to reflect henotheistic concerns but monotheistic concerns. Anyone who could endorse the understanding of Yahweh's sovereignty over foreign kings could not think of those kings as properly worshiping their own gods over Yahweh, since Yahweh is the supreme God. Such a compiler/narrator would therefore not accept the view Walsh attributes to the narrator, and this is true even if many in Israel did hold such a henotheistic view at the time these events are describing. (Since many actually held full-out polytheism, which is what the text is criticizing, it's not a major concession to think many were henotheists as well.)

So I think Walsh's contention is extremely hard to reconcile with what he himself recognizes about the narrator's theology, and that's even conceding for the sake of argument that the original narrator of some passages was a henotheist (which I don't think is true to begin with).

I noticed an interesting translation issue as I was reading Jerome Walsh's commentary on I Kings. The longstanding debate between favoring the grammatical form vs. favoring the sense of a text comes up full force in I Kings 11:1-4. Consider the NRSV translation of these verses:

King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods"; Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.

Walsh makes the following comment in a footnote (p.134, n.2):

Hebrew uses the same word (nasim) where English has two different ones, "women" and "wives." The NRSV tries to capture the proper nuance to translate each case. My discussion tries to reflect the way nasim becomes a motif word in the Hebrew text.

Some people favor the sense over the form, most noticeable in translations sometimes called dynamic equivalence (e.g. in Bible translation, the NLT is a good example, and the NIV and TNIV tend in that direction often). One good thing about this kind of translation in cases like this is that you get to capture the nuance of the word in different contexts. The same Hebrew word can mean both "wife" and "woman". In different contexts, it might have the flavor of one of those rather than the other, and here it has each flavor a verse apart. If you translate them both the same way, that's harder to capture. In particular, if you talk about Solomon's women rather than Solomon's wives, in English you get the sense that it's talking about his harem. But then with Solomon you actually are talking about his harem, so maybe it's not that big a difference in his case. Still, one might argue for translating the word as "wives" in all of its occurrences so as to avoid that sense instead of translating it consistently as "women" the way Walsh does. You lose something either way, but you lose something if you translate it differently in different instances also.

I think it's easier to tell from the context what the sense might be, so it's less necessary in these verses to seek to distinguish between the senses the word can have by translating as the NRSV does, as one in one verse and the other in the other verse. What Walsh points out, though, is that you miss something important about this passage if you emphasize sense over form. The repetition of the word conveys something in the Hebrew that you lose in an English translation if it distinguishes between different senses the word can have throughout this passage. There's a literary element of the passage that the NRSV translates away.

This sort of thing often happens in the so-called dynamic translations. Translations that emphasize form, while sometimes missing elements that a sense-for-sense translation will convey, does capture some elements like this that you won't see in a translation like the NLT and often won't see even in the NIV or TNIV. There are those who regularly deride translations like the ESV or NASB as if they have no positive features as translations, seeing them as wooden artifacts of archaic language that barely make sense as English and are too hard for the average English speaker to understand. Whatever element of truth there is in that characterization, there are certainly things that the ESV and NASB preserve that you don't find in the sense-for-sense translations, and it's one reason I always like to have one around.

(The ESV does translate them the same way the NRSV does, as "women" and then "wives", I should note. This is a theoretical point about Bible translation, not an argument for a particular translation as a whole.)

I've been accused by some Christians of having skewed judgments because I've drunk deeply from the well of academia. I've also been accused by atheists of having skewed judgments because I'm too willing to let my religious views shape how I think about issues where an unbiased person would come to an obvious conclusion opposite my own. So maybe I'm just suspect from both ends, but I wonder if in some ways I'm in a more ideal position to be able to see through ways people in both sides have allowed their preferences, value judgments, and assumptions to shape their thinking in non-rational and perhaps even irrational ways.

I spent a good deal of time last summer in commentaries on Proverbs, and my daily Bible reading has taken me back to Proverbs again, so I've been thinking about the secular basis of this fairly large biblical book. Scholars have found similar collections of proverbial material in Babylon and Egypt, and it's pretty clear that both wisdom traditions predate the biblical proverbs. Some of these proverbial collections include material that's extremely close to particular proverbs in the biblical book. The biblical narratives about Solomon, one of the few places outside Proverbs to discuss the content of the book, seem to indicate that had access to the wisdom traditions of other nations.

Daniel reports the righteous behavior of Daniel and his three Hebrew friends who were exiled to Babylon. They refused to worship other gods and insisted on keeping Torah dietary restrictions as much as possible, even to the point of eating no meat at all since they couldn't guarantee any of it had been killed properly. One thing they didn't do is refuse to learn the Babylonian wisdom traditions.

On the other hand, the prophets roundly condemn pagan prophets as unedifying and full of lies about false gods. They're not worth listening to. Paul speaks of the philosophy that the Colossians had been listening to as empty and something to avoid (though it's not clear that he says this of philosophy as a discipline or field of study, as most translations wrongly convey). Pagans like Ruth are perfectly kosher for intermarriage when they convert but completely forbidden when they don't, as the concluding evaluation of Solomon in Kings makes clear. Rahab seems to be another example.

What should we conclude? There's a spiritual threat from listening to false statements that have a bearing on important spiritual matters. But the biblical picture is not to avoid that at all costs. There are certain settings where avoiding it is the only thing to do, but those settings involve marriage and worship. There are other settings where learning it and considering it, as long as it's with discretion, are presented as entirely unproblematic. There are even strong indications that an entire book of the Bible derives from material that includes a significant amount of secular reflections on life.

As with many things in Christian life, there's a tension here between two principles that are both morally important. God created humans with the ability to reason and to arrive at truths about life and reality, and fallen humanity has found ways to corrupt and avoid using that capacity, in some cases leading to an ability to see the truth at all. One case that's especially so is our ability to come to understand the good news of the salvation God offers to us in Jesus the Messiah. But even with an inability to appreciate the gospel message apart from the Holy Spirit, that doesn't mean we're incapable of coming to understand true things that are related to that issue, and we're also talking about Christians who do have the Holy Spirit, who can indeed and according to Jesus' teaching are in fact guided into truth by the Spirit.

So why the absolute prohibition on drinking from the well of academia, whose secular assumptions and goals can certainly be obstacles to the truth but whose God-given abilities and resources for understanding the truth are nonetheless present? Why even the extremely strong resistance, even if not absolute, that many Christians have? Surely there's a need for discernment, and for some people that discernment might require staying away entirely from certain kinds of things, as with anything. But it seems to me that a lot of the resistance I see is highly unbiblical, despite its appearance of piety.


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