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Notes on the Bible and Religion

A Column Appearing in the Newspapers of Coastal Bend Publishing

I welcome questions for possible comment in my column.
Online content may differ from what appears in newspaper editions.

 

08/04/2022

How Weird is the Number 42?

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a rather silly science fiction romp. In the story, 42 is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

All sorts of theories as to why “42” was chosen by Adams have been given, and an online search will reveal all sorts of possibilities—from mathematical equations to refraction angles.

The mathematician Lewis Carrol, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, dropped references to the number in that and other works. 42 seems special, almost mystically so.

Ironically, Adams silenced much of the conjecturing about the meaning of his 42 when he wrote in a message, “The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense.... End of story.”


Even so, the number appears important in some literature from antiquity. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of magical texts intended to assist the dead in the afterlife. In that mythology, the soul must stand trial before the gods. The person’s heart will be weighed against a feather on the scales of justice. Sins weigh it down. There are 42 judges and 42 sins about which the soul declares its innocence. Being light-hearted is a good thing!


Numerology is the study of the meaning of numbers and their combinations. Some have applied this to the Bible. While many would call this a pseudoscience at best, there does appear to be some symbolic “meaning” to some numbers in the Bible. The numbers 3, 7, 12, and 40, for example, have been given some special meaning.


The number three may suggest completeness or fullness. In Amos, a formulaic pronouncement is used several times against nations because of their injustices: “Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions … and for four, I will not revoke the punishment…” (Amos 1-2). The formula is akin to: “If I told you once, I told you a thousand times!” In other words, three transgressions is enough to deserve punishment; four straight out tips the scales against you!

Back to 42. After mocking a prophet, 42 lads are cursed and torn apart by she-bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). In the Psalms, there are 42 worship songs known as the Elohistic Psalter. Interestingly, the first such psalm is Psalm 42.

In the heavily symbolic Book of Revelation, 42 is used twice as the number of months allotted for destructive violence (Rev 11:2; 13:1-7). And In Matthew, the root of the word translated as “begat” appears 42 times in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1-2).

And so, 42 is a peculiar number. Does it pertain to calculations of great consequence? Or is that just nonsense?

07/21/2022

Don't Lose Your Head!

Have you seen those black chokers some young ladies are wearing? The velvet ones remind me of a story I heard on a record album when I was in elementary school. I believe it was called “The Velvet Ribbon”.

It is about a young woman who always wears a black ribbon around her neck. Her husband pesters her about it and demands that she take it off. “You’ll be sorry if I do,” was her only response. Eventually, the man has had enough. While the woman sleeps, he snips off the black ribbon. Her head falls and goes rolling on the floor! “I told you, you’d be sorry,” the head cries out.

The origin of this and similar stories appears to be the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793-1794), when some 10,000 persons were executed by means of the guillotine. One of the first to die was King Louis XVI, who lost both his crown and his cranium—his head!

Many languages use the word “head” as a metaphor for authority, and this may be the case in ancient Israel as well.

In the Old Testament, there is quite a bit of damage done to the heads of opponents of King David, whose lineage the New Testament traces even unto Jesus (e.g., Matthew 1:1).

Take for instance the story of young David. He was the newly anointed king when he met the giant Goliath in combat (1 Samuel 17:48-54). Remember the cranial violence? David’s sling stone sinks into Goliath’s forehead. His head is then severed and brought to Jerusalem. Don’t mess with the Lord’s anointed!

Saul, a tragic figure and rejected king, opposed David. He loses his head, too (1 Samuel 31:9).

In the ensuing civil war, Saul’s son, Ishbaal, is proclaimed king over Israel, yet King David holds onto one tribe, Judah. Opposing forces meet at Gibeon. A contest of sorts is declared: twelve young men of Ishbaal would fight against twelve young men of David.

In an almost comical, albeit gruesome, image, each of the twenty-four warriors grabs at the same time his opponent by the head and runs him through with a sword (2 Samuel 2:7-17). Controlling another’s head gives a tactical advantage, but this event is extraordinary!

Eventually, Ishbaal is beheaded, having been assassinated during his midday nap. (2 Samuel 4:5-12).

Civil war continues. David’s own son, Absalom, is in opposition to David. Fleeing a battle upon a mount, Absalom’s head becomes caught in the branches of an oak tree, suspending him “between heaven and earth” (2 Samuel 18:9). Trapped in such a way, he is killed by David’s general and his armor bearers (v. 14).

  

And so, many biblical characters in opposition to David, the King of Israel, suffer cranial problems. Seems fitting, seeing as they’re up against the LORD’s anointed.

07/07/2022

When a Book is a Library

Did you ever read one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” kids’ books? You get to decide some of what happens in the story. You don’t change any words or anything, but you make choices at major plot points and then jump to designated pages to continue reading. Two or more endings were possible! How would your book end?

The Bible has something almost similar going on. Allow me to explain.

Writing was around for thousands of years before a “book” was invented. Oversimplified, the writing surface technology progressed as follows. First, there were clay tablets (think “Ten Commandments” tablets), each typically only about the size of a human hand.

Next came scrolls (or rolls) made of papyrus (kind of like paper) or of parchment or vellum (often made from calf skin). Although scrolls could accommodate somewhat long texts, it took time and effort to roll to distant passages.


Enter the codex—basically our “book”. Passages could be found quickly. Early Christians made use of the relatively new technology to collect their scriptures.


The Bible is a library of sorts. It is a collection of many shorter books, many of which were originally scrolls. The Protestant Bible of the Old and New Testaments has 66 books. The codex could hold this library together!


Eventually, the Old Testament of 39 books ended up being the same as the 24 books of the Tanakh, the Bible of Judaism written in Hebrew. The two collections are basically identical. The books are reordered a bit and they are numbered differently. Two “libraries” hold the same books.

Malachi is the last book in the Christian organization of the Old Testament. Malachi is full of expectation: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (3:1). Many Christians read this “ending” as having anticipated both John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah. Promises are about to be fulfilled. Quite an ending!


In the Jewish organization, the last book is what Christians call 2 Chronicles. It is reaffirming of Judaism: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you—may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up’” (36:23). With the punishing Exile over, Judaism is restored to Jerusalem. Quite an ending!


And so, the Old Testament and the Tanakh are two libraries of the same books. And which one you read determines how the story ends.

06/23/2022

The Father's House

Last Sunday was Father’s Day. I am grateful for my father. Not everyone can say that about theirs. I offer a note on fatherhood in the Bible.

The first child, Cain, is born to Adam and Eve. The three natural elements of reproduction are identified: “Adam knew (had sexual relations with) Eve, who conceived (became pregnant) and bore (delivered) Cain” (Genesis 4:1). Before the verse ends, however, Adam declares that he received Cain “with (the help of) the LORD.”

God is somehow involved in the process. And life is good (e.g., Genesis 1:30-31). Here seems to be the concepts behind the commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:12). In the Book of Sirach, a collection of ethical teachings dated to about 175 BCE, there is a call to honor one’s parents and to consider how one could ever repay them for the gift of life.

One of the important roles of fathers as described in the Bible is leading a family in belief in God (cf. Joshua 24:15). Fathers were essential for social cohesion.

In early Israel, the phrase “Father’s House” identified a basic familial group for purposes of census-taking and taxation. Evidently, it designated an extended family that was descended from a particular ancestral house (see Numbers 1:2, 4; Ezra 2:59; cf. Luke 16: 27-28). In other words, in a “Father’s House” there may be numerous households. Fatherhood was of great importance, and family groups would hold onto the name of an important ancestral father.

God as “Father” in the Old Testament appears in covenant contexts. Israel is the firstborn son of God (Exodus 4:22). As king of Israel, David becomes son of God with God as “Father” (2 Samuel 7:14).

We sometimes think of “covenants” (treaties) as ceremonially created relationships that set up religious, social, and/or political expectations among the groups involved. While this is true, what is increasingly clear in the research is that ancient Near Eastern covenant ceremonies served to establish kinship relationships (blood-ties). Covenant members became parts of a greater household, with equal partners being brothers and sisters, with the father being the authoritative head.

It is no wonder that “Father” became a term of address of God in Jewish and Christian prayer. Consider for example the most famous Christian prayer: the Lord’s Prayer, also called “the Our Father”. The “our” is both personal and relational. 

In the New Testament, the “Father’s House” can refer to the temple in Jerusalem (John 2:16), but it also points to heaven: Jesus states that “In my Father's house are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you (14:2).

And so, Jesus describes a heavenly “Father’s House” in which many people from many different households form a huge, heavenly kinship under a caring Father. We can be grateful for that.

06/09/2022

Beaches, Cliffs, and Legions

It is Memorial Day as I write this column. Seventy-eight years ago this June 6th, Allied forces invaded Europe on the beaches, hills, and cliffs of Normandy, France. “D-Day.” On the first day alone, over 4000 landing craft carried over 150,000 troops to those shores. They were met by a capable enemy force under a leadership gripped by a dark ideology.

I am not a fan of war films. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) was enough for me, and I do not enjoy imagining the horrors of war.

As a boy growing up during the Cold War, however, I played war. I remember taking my BB gun up the hill behind our house and imagining a Soviet invasion. I’d envision aiming for the eyes. With two quick shots I could overcome my foe! And I would survive. Heroic!

But age and such memorials as the Normandy American Cemetery speak against one’s ideas of invincibility. I wonder what I would have done as an eighteen-year-old in one of those landing craft on that gloomy day. Would I fail those other boys beside me? Could I even make myself step off the boat?

When I was a graduate student at Duke University, my brother paid for the two of us to go to Israel. In a rented Peugeot and with a little tent, we improvised our own tour.

One night we camped at the base of some cliff-like hills on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Unbeknownst to us, we were at a place called Kursi, the traditional site of a story found in the Gospel of Mark of a demon-possessed man. The next morning, we visited the ruins and crypt of a Byzantine monastery built on the site.


Mark 5:1-20 recounts an invasion of sorts onto the beaches of a dark power. With at least three boats, Jesus and his disciples sail to this “other side” of the Sea of Galilee (4:36).

Just as Jesus steps out of the boat, a man rushes up (5:2, 7). He was demon-possessed and would howl in the crypts, bruise himself, and break the bonds with which people tried to restrain him (vv. 3-5). The demons’ name was “Legion” for there were many of them, numbering perhaps in the thousands (vv. 9, 13).

Mark never states that the disciples stepped off the boat and joined Jesus on that dark beach with its hilltop tombs and a man howling with a legion of demons. Were the disciples afraid? Might Jesus fail?

He didn’t. Encountering Jesus, the demons leave the man, who was soon found to be in his right mind and seated near Jesus (vv. 13-15).

And so, the Gospel of Mark teaches us that despite some dreadful darkness ahead, Jesus is victorious before we even step out onto the gloomy shores to join him.

05/26/2022

When a Hero Found His Voice

Joseph Campbell’s study of world mythology suggests that many myths share common themes.

In summarizing the “Hero’s Journey” type of stories, Campbell writes, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

“Boons.” Now that’s a word we don’t often hear. The root word originally meant “prayers” or “petitions,” but it came to mean the good things received. The hero brings boons home.

Even so, some heroes are reluctant to start the journey.

Consider Moses, a man at the forefront of Israel’s deliverance from slavery and oppression in ancient Egypt. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam consider Moses important. That’s half the world.

Much of the story of Moses fits the pattern of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” Moses encounters the supernatural in a call to adventure (Exodus 3:1-10). He is reluctant to take up that call, in part because of his inability to speak well (3:11; 4:10). He also experiences a series of trials in which he receives supernatural aid (e.g., chapters 10-14). These are all common themes in Campbell’s study of myths.

Then, on a mountaintop where the divine and human worlds touched, Moses receives the Ten Commandments. These laws have been considered the “boon” of Moses’ experience of the divine. Here was a man who experienced God speaking to him "face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (33:11).

And as these commandments are foundational for many peoples, they are a boon not only for Israel, but for the world.

But is there not another boon?

Speaking with God, Moses is delayed on the mountaintop, and the people turn to idol-worship, constructing and worshiping a golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6). God says to Moses, “Your people that you led out of Egypt have acted perversely” (v. 7). God’s anger flares against the people of Israel, and he states that he shall wipe them out and then make a new great people starting with Moses (v.10).

Did you catch what God just tried to do? Moses did! And he will have none of it!

Moses talks back to God, stating that it is not his people but God’s people that God led out of Egypt (v. 11). He also makes it clear that God’s reputation would suffer if he delivered them only to slay them (v. 12). God must remember his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (v. 13).

Score one for Moses! God relented (v. 14). Moses found his voice.  

And so, speaking face-to-face like friends, Moses tempers God. The result is the survival rather than the annihilation of Israel. What a boon!

05/12/2022

Ladies First

It was once expected in many circles that a man should stand when a woman entered a room, or that a man on a bus should give up his seat for a lady or hold open a door for her.

Some twenty years ago, a young man said to me that he didn’t know if he should hold a door open for a lady anymore. Some doorway event had taken place, he said. I didn’t know what to say, but I continue to hand over an opened door to any approaching person. It seems most people extend that courtesy.

You’ve probably heard the saying “women and children first,” which is a bit of lingering chivalry. Evidently, the phrase is first attested from 1840, when a ship was afire and in danger of sinking. This chivalric ideal was popularized in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

Statistics show that in custody battles, mothers are more likely than fathers to win custody of their children. According to 2018 US Census Bureau data, approximately 80% of custodial parents were mothers. At least in some aspects of life, women continue to receive preferential treatment.

Mother’s Day was a few days ago. In honor of mothers, here are some “ladies first” from the Bible.


In the story of the Garden of Eden, Eve is described as the “mother of all life” (Genesis 3:20). That’s quite a first, but there is at least one other significant first that she holds. She was the first to have an understanding of morality, having eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (v.6).


Setting aside matters of transgression, for a time the woman had a moral wisdom that Adam, the man, did not have. Of course, she shared this fruit with Adam, bringing him up to speed.


The virgin Mary also had a first. She was first to experience Jesus. In utero. A babe growing within her! There must be some preciousness of pregnancy unbeknown to any man. Mary’s womb held Jesus. 


And now from a womb to a tomb. A burial. Last month was Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. With a tomb door rolled open, it was women who first saw evidence of a resurrection (e.g., Mark 16). And it was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who in the tomb garden first encountered the risen Christ (John 19:41; 20:14-16).


And so, it was a female in a garden who first comprehended morality. A female who first experienced the physical presence of Jesus. Females who first saw evidence of the resurrection. And a female in a garden who first experienced the risen Christ. These are major moments in Christian theology! And in each of these, ladies have pride of place.

Happy Mother’s Day!

04/28/2022

Looking to the Heavens

Remember the original Star Trek TV series? As a boy, I’d huddle close to my twelve-inch black and white television screen and watch the reruns.

Just a few months ago, William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in the series, took a short hop into space at the age of ninety! I watched that too.


In his near Zero-G moments, Shatner spoke few words. “Weightlessness,” he said, followed by light laughter. Then, staring through his window into space, he declared quietly, “No description. . ..”


Another crew member, Audrey Powers, stated, “God” and “Holy hell” as she looked out her window.


The event had a profound effect on Shatner. After returning to earth, he made clear the need to protect our little, fragile blue marble that we call home.


Shatner also reckoned with the blackness of space. “Is that death?” he asked. “Jesus,” he added, with hands upon his face. “It was so moving to me.”


Did you know that from beginning to end, the Bible makes note of the heavens? Literally, beginning and end. In the first chapter of the first book, lights and stars in the night sky are created. They will be for signs and seasons (Genesis 1:14, 16).


The heavens are also mentioned in the last chapter of the last book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation, which is full of symbolism. Around the throne of God, no light from the sun shall be needed and there will be no night (Rev 22:5).


And the heavenly bookends don’t stop there! Setting so-called “deuterocanonical” issues aside, in the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament we find that a “sun of righteousness” shall arise (Malachi 4:2). And In the Jewish arrangement of the same books, the last chapter of the last book makes mention of “the LORD, the God of Heaven…” (2 Chronicles 36:22).


The New Testament begins with an account of the genealogy of Jesus and a story of wise men following an astrological sign to his birthplace (Matthew 1; 2:1-2).  


Clearly, the writers of scripture took an interest in the heavens. And surely, people from time immemorial have huddled on dark nights and gazed up in wonder.


In what one of my professors called the “Buck Rogers” psalm, we read: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars… What are human beings that you are mindful of them? ...You have given them dominion over the works of your hands… (Psalm 8:3-6).


And so, the Bible both reflects the wonder of space and makes clear that we are caretakers of creation. And whether caretakers here and now on this fragile blue orb or upon other worlds in times to come, the Bible challenges us to be good ones.     

04/12/2022

Can You Yell at the Lord?

Recently, I was asked to talk with a Sunday School class about Jesus’ loud cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (e.g., Matthew 27:46). Jesus appears to be quoting Psalm 22, which includes the phrase. The Hebrew word translated as “forsaken” in the psalm has a connotation of being forgotten or being left behind and abandoned. It is a word of desperation from some remote place.

I was asked to assist in the discussion of whether it’s okay to yell at God during times of seeming God-forsakenness. Some people think it is inappropriate to talk angrily to God. “Lightning might strike you,” one person half-chuckled.

I am reminded of the movie “The Apostle” (1997). Robert Duval plays Eulis “Sonny” Dewey, a Texas preacher. He is devout and far from perfect. When alone, he makes clear in a middle-of-the-night shouting prayer that he is angry with God. You might want to search YouTube for “The Apostle - Yelling at the Lord” to see what I mean. He’s honest and direct with God. He’s talking to God, not about God. And he’s not struck by lightning.

The Bible recounts much of this kind of talk. For instance, there’s this guy named Job, who was upright and blameless. He comes to suffer so greatly that he accuses God of being his enemy more than once (Job 13:24; 33:10).

The prophet Jeremiah had similar accusations (e.g., Jer 15:18; 20:7). Psalm 73 is perhaps the best example of a psalm with the theme.

When harsh reality crashes against belief, the faithful cry out for change.

In the book A Whirlpool of Torment, my teacher James Crenshaw writes, “The freedom with which believers speak their piece within the Hebrew Bible is remarkable.” Read that again. That’s simply and profoundly true.


It is the attempt to silence language coming from the depths of despair or from unjust injury that is irregular in the Bible. The believer resists being silenced.

There is a tendency, I believe, for people to build a fence around what we find precious or holy or dangerous.


Consider the first prohibition in the Bible. God states that Adam shall not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). It seems that Adam shares this declaration with Eve. But has he added to it? In Genesis 3:3, she states that one should not even touch it! Who said they couldn’t touch it? God didn’t say that! Some human added that fence. And soon after, they hid from God (3:8).

And so, straight away the Bible shows how we put up fences around the holy even though we are free to confront God honestly, directly, and sometimes, like Eulis “Sonny” Dewey, even angrily. God’s tough enough to take it.

03/31/2022

The Reading of Banned Books

Have you seen an uptick on social media about the reading of banned books? I have. Some of my Facebook friends have recently shared or commented on posts advocating the reading of banned books. Some have even suggested prioritizing the reading of them. Okay. Great. Read.

One of the most controversial books in the United States has been J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It was banned from numerous public schools, although not from the free market, of course. I think I read it in high school, but just last week I read it again, because I thought I might mention it in this column. Its main character, Holden Caulfield, has become an icon of teenage angst and rebellion.


Rebellion against the establishment is a common theme in storytelling. According to myth, Zeus rebelled against his father, Kronos, who, by the way, rebelled against his own father. Rebellion against leadership and authority is an archetype, an ancient pattern. And that’s rather ironic, because “archetype” basically means “leading pattern”. Rebellion is a leading pattern in human stories! 

In any event, the most banned book worldwide is the Bible. Today, dozens of countries ban it outright. In some countries, getting caught with a Bible could get you imprisoned. Or worse. Many oppressive societies want to suppress its message. Others have manipulated its message for harm. In this regard, it may be considered a dangerous book—although hardly an evil one.

Written over many hundreds of years, with some of its earliest portions perhaps over three thousand years old, the Bible is made up of several dozen smaller books. It contains a wealth of ideas.

Peculiarly, the Bible is both the most published book and the most banned book in history!

C. S. Lewis wrote that we have entered the post-Christian era, a cultural period in which a smaller and smaller percentage of the population of the Western world identifies as Christian. For Lewis, Christian theology remains true, yet the culture is increasingly less identifiably Christian. As part of this, the Bible is losing its authoritativeness for many people. I know many people who reject both organized religion and the Bible. Some can articulate several reasons why they do so. Others cannot or do not.

There is an impulse in humanity, I believe, to reject old, established ways. Whether with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or with Zeus against Kronos, rejecting leadership is not an uncommon theme. These are rebel stories that continue to be told.

And so, perhaps this theme bodes well for the Bible! If it’s trendy to read banned books, then why not read the most banned book of them all? Pick up a Bible. You might be surprised by what you find.

03/17/2022

Fragments of Truth

Whether as an instructor of religion classes at the college level or as a Sunday school teacher, I have often been asked, “How do we know that the biblical text we read is the same as when it was first written millennia ago?” It is an important question.

A related concern is that many people seem to be under the impression that much of both the Old Testament (also referred to as the Hebrew Bible and, in the Jewish tradition, the Tanakh) and the New Testament have become corrupt over time.

It is true: we do not have the original texts. But we do have thousands of early fragments and many early copies of books and even larger portions of the Bible that we can study. And the wealth of data can give us confidence that today’s copies reflect the original text.

I had an opportunity as a graduate student to compare selected biblical psalms (Old Testament worship songs) with some of those same psalms found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are ancient texts that were hidden away in caves in Israel and only discovered about seventy-five years ago. I was surprised at how very few differences were to be found! Line after line after line went by, usually with no difference whatsoever.

From before the time of Jesus, through the entire rabbinic and Christian scribal traditions during the Middle Ages, and all the way to the invention of the printing press in about the year 1440, biblical copyists have taken great care of the text. Their work was important.

Of course, scribal error occurred from time to time. Even so, when existing copies differ in a word or two—or even a sentence or two or more—the evidence available typically points us toward a more original reading. Most every modern version of the Bible takes this wealth of evidence into account. This area of study is called biblical textual criticism, and it is a helpful tool.

In short, your modern version of the Bible likely reflects the original text. Of course, the biblical texts were not written in English, so translation is also important. But that topic must be saved for another day!

In closing, I leave you with a so-called “Fun Fact”. The earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament is known as the St. John Fragment (Rylands Library Papyrus P52). It is delicate, written in Greek, and only about three inches by three inches in size. The fragment includes on one side only fourteen or so words from the Gospel of John 18:37-38, which is part of the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion. One of those fourteen words is the Greek word for truth, and it is spoken by Jesus (see v.37).

And so, in the earliest surviving New Testament fragment, “truth” is found. I find that interesting. 

02/24/2022

The Rainbow: A Beautiful and Dangerous Sign

Have you seen any of those YouTube videos in which a person with red-green deficiency (“colorblindness”) is given a special pair of glasses that can help them see more colors?

Often, the person’s eyes will well with tears upon seeing colors that until then were unseen! I remember one youth putting the glasses on and asking as he started to sob, “Is this what the world looks like?” Another pointed to something pink and asked in sudden wonder, “What color is this?”

Oh! Imagine someone seeing a rainbow’s glorious spectrum of color for the first time. What a heavenly sight!

Chapters 6-9 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is sometimes called the Flood Narrative. In this story of “Noah’s Ark”, a flood destroys the world population, although Noah, his extended family, and mating pairs of all the critters of the earth are saved. A rainbow appears in the sky as the sign of God’s covenant with Noah that never again will the entire world be destroyed by flood (Genesis 9:7-17). What a pretty thing for a sign: a water-and-sunlight symbol that a global deluge need never be feared!

But there is more to this sign than might meet the eye. In Biblical Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), the word qeshet is used both for “rainbow” and for “bow”—as in bow and arrow. This “bow” is the sign of the covenant.
  

Covenant is another word for treaty, and in the ancient world, like today, treaties were used to establish the expected behaviors among treaty members and the consequences if those behaviors were not carried out, that is, what would happen if the treaty were to be broken. In the ancient Near East, from which this story emerged, the sign of the treaty often included the ritual destruction of animal life. We know this from numerous Assyrian and Aramaic texts from over 2,600 years ago! We also have evidence of this in scripture (see, e.g., Genesis 15:7-19; 17:11; Exodus 23:5-8; cf. Matthew 26:26-28). The sign became a threat of death, a warning not to break the covenant.

Consider again the bow of the Flood Narrative. Who is threatened if God breaks his promise never to destroy the whole earth through flood? If an arrow were shot from that bow, where would it go? Not toward someone on earth! The bow points to the heavens, to the very place that the ancients would understand God to reside! The consequences appear dire for God if he were to destroy the world through flood again.


And so, by the end of the Flood Narrative, we have one story among many in the Bible in which God is portrayed as limiting God’s own freedom and power so that his creation might be preserved. Beautiful.