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What is a Parable?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

When trying to understand one of Jesus’ parables, there are four vital questions to answer about it. Let’s go over them.

Question #1: What is the nature of the details in a parable?

Is it a pure Allegory?

Allegory is an extended metaphor. Metaphor equates two things explicitly (e.g. You are a dog!) or implicitly (e.g. Tell that dog to go!) In this type of allegory, all the major components have one for one representation. In The Parable of the Four Soils, each type of soil represents a different kind of heart response to the Word/seed, preached/sowed by the preacher/sower. One must be careful not to push too hard at the details. One should not seek private meanings in any part, and should not seek out representation in the colorful details unless obviously intended. There is no reason, for instance, to discover what the sower’s bag represents.

Is it an Analogy?

Analogy makes a general situational comparison rather than a point-for-point representation. You must capture the essence of the comparison in the analogous situation without trying to exploit the details. Here, the primary dynamics involved in a situation are more important than finding specific points of representation.  We might consider the Parable of the Lost Sheep or Lost Coin, where a general situation is set forward. Something precious has been lost and then found. What kind of person wouldn’t rejoice under such circumstances? There is no reason to give, the cracks in the woman’s floor, her broom, or even her lamp representative meaning.

In the rabbinic parables of Jesus’ day, only the most essential items represented something, and only in a highly limited way. We saw this in the Prodigal Son story. The Father, the Prodigal, and the Older Brother are all caught in a complex analogical relationship to the situation in which Jesus finds Himself at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus uses the three main figures in the story to reveal the responses of grace, gratitude, and resentment from the witnesses when the MOST valuable thing has been lost and found. Nothing else needs anything more than the most surface consideration. The ring, fatted calf, and robe, for instance, are merely common symbols of restored sonship, or joy.

Is it a Real Parable?

A real parable follows the technical definition of a parable—An extended simile. In these, we should find words like, “like” or “as” used to make comparisons at multiple points. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed and is shown to be like the mustard seed in more than one way. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom starts small. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom will grow quite large.

Question #2: How is the parable structured?

Is it a three-pole parable?

Here, two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element. In the Parable of the Lost sheep, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the field to search for a lost one. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, two groups respond differently to the demands of their position in a wedding and are welcomed or rebuffed by the Bridegroom based on that response. The points of contrast expose the core of the message.

Is it a complex three-pole parable?

In these structures, we still have two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element, but one sides is complicated. In The Parable of the Talents, “A” gives money to three servants; two succeed one fails. In The Parable of the Four Soils, four receive A… the word… but three fail for different reasons and one succeeds. The point of contrast in each parable is why some succeeded and others failed. We have the same pattern in The Parable of the Vineyard workers where five different groups work different lengths of time for a vineyard owner. All get paid the same. One, however, has a really bad attitude about it. The meaning is found in the conflict.

Is it a two-pole parable?

Two pole parables focus upon two separate items that are tracked together, each one’s actions navigating the other’s. The relationship between the parts will vary, but the dual nature of the action should be obvious. Consider the Sower and the Seed, where a farmer plants a seed that goes on growing by itself as the farmer goes about his business elsewhere. In The Parable of the Unjust Judge, he keeps refusing justice to a woman who eventually wears him down. We have the Unproductive Fig Tree, where the farmer vacillates between two opinions about what to do with an unproductive fig tree.

Is it a one-pole parable?

One pole parables focus on a single subject, contrasting different actions, stages, or outcomes. These often have a second figure, but the parable focuses on a primary actor. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the smallness of the seed is contrasted with the hugeness of the plant. Leven goes into a lump affecting the whole thing. The Kingdom is a pearl and a man sells all and buys it. Would you build a tower without counting the cost of it? You might not have what it takes and humiliate yourself.

Let’s take the last two together.

Question #3: What is the parable’s topic? & Question #4: What is the parable’s purpose at the moment? To explain? To filter?

Is it a parable designed to address a personal concern of the moment?

Jesus often uses parables to bring clarity to a discussion. Here the context of the parable is all important. Jesus defends His disciple’s lack of fasting by drawing an analogy with the way people differentiate their treatments of old vs. new things. Jesus tells the stories of the lost sheep, coin, and son, to explain His attendance at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus tells the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee to shine a mirror on the Pharisees’ inner life before God.

Is it a Kingdom parable?

Kingdom parables are used by Jesus as filters for a mixed audience in which He finds selfish seekers, overt enemies, and earnest would-be disciples. These are not designed to prevent knowledge, so much as to draw in the earnest and sift out the lazy and hostile. Here we find The Parable of the Four Soils, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Net. Jesus gives the secrets of the Kingdom of God but leaves the uncommitted out of the loop. Indeed, many of Jesus’ Kingdom parables tell the listener how important it is that they listen carefully, press in, and give everything for the privilege of the Kingdom.

 

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Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The Prodigal Son Part 2

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

Jesus and The Failed Gentile Mission

When Jesus called Peter to become a fisher of men, I seriously doubt the Apostle had any thought of the role he would someday play in fulfilling Israel’s sacred mission to the Gentiles. For him, one who most closely related to the older brother in The Parable of The Prodigal Son, sharing the heart of the father for the gentiles, proved a stressful ministry challenge into his older years.

Before we are too harsh on our great brother, let me ask you a question. How many Israelite characters can you name who ministered to Gentiles?

  1. Moses came out of Egypt with a mixed multitude who were absorbed into Israel.
  2. David had Gentiles as part of his entourage… like Uriah whom he murdered after stealing the poor man’s wife.
  3. Elijah won Naaman in 2nd Kings 5 after healing him from a skin disease.
  4. Jonah was instrumental in the conversion of the sailors through both his proclamations of YHWH’s glory and his own “death” at YHWH’s hand in the midst of the storm. He also preached a message to Nineveh and turned many from their wickedness, no matter how unhappy he was about the deliverance.
  5. Daniel and his friends were powerful witnesses for YHWH even in the face of death threats… and actual murder attempts.
  6. The exile and diaspora forced Jews to spread abroad, advancing YHWH’s fame (even if by accident) through their dedication to preserving Torah and Synagogue.

The First Great Commission

When God called Israel out of Egypt and met with them at Sinai, he gave them a commission. It was the natural extension of the commission to man in the garden of Eden. (Genesis 1:26-30) God created the world with a purpose; He created it to become something, and put that “something” into the hands of His regents in the world—humanity.

It was a commission whose fulfillment was promised through THE ONE when humanity fell into sin (Genesis 3:15), that ONE person who would perfectly represent the Creator in this world. For though man should fail, God will not allow his word to return void. He will accomplish His purposes. Creation will become what God intended it to become when He made it… even if He has to come to earth as a man to fulfill it Himself… one standing in for all.

It was a commission handed off to THE ONE, Noah, and then adapted for the Seed of THE ONE, Abraham, chosen from among all the sons of men to bear it forward. Israel, Abraham’s seed, was called to be a nation of priests, holy to YHWH, fulfilling His purposes in creation, representing the Nations to God, and God to the nations. (Exodus 19:5-6)

The Commission Inverted

This commission falls on hard times, however. Isaiah 2:1-4:6 unpacks the trouble. God has called Israel to be a light to the nations, which is an ongoing theme in Isaiah, a mission to be fulfilled ultimately by THE ONE great Messiah who is to come. Israel, however, strives not to affect the nations, but to be like them. They forsake Torah and emulate the vile practices of the peoples around them; they worship idols and give themselves over to bloodshed and immorality. God, however, will fulfill His purposes in and through them. He will use exile to purge them of this tendency, to create usable instruments for His glorification the world over out of a remnant of Israel, the seed Abraham, the seed of the woman.

When Israel returns to the Holy Land after exile they are cured of Idolatry… sort of. They are so skittish about idolatry that one risked instant stoning and riots at the very hint of physical idol worship. This says nothing of the human tendency to establish idols in the heart, but there would be no truck with actual images.

Rise of the Pharisees

Unfortunately, as is the won’t of human nature, they also became so antiseptic, so paranoid, and so determined to keep themselves unstained by the world, that, far from fulfilling their commission as a nation of priests, a light to the Gentiles, they enculturated hatred for the Gentiles. It becomes a defining feature.

Pharisaic disdain for non-Jews (and less committed Jews) is expressed in their writings with enough vehemence as to make your average hate monger blush. “The Traditions of the Elders,” a stimulus for Jesus’ personal Gentile mission in Mark 7, is not a code word for Jewish oral law in general but represented 18 vigorously enforced, and newly passed, oral laws that were specifically designed to strain all Gentile Jewish relations to the breaking point. Their single aim was to drive a wedge of hatred between the Jew and the non-Jew.

The heartland of Judaism (Judea) manifests its most vicious forms. As one spreads out from Judea, the rule-keeping grows sloppier. The Pharisees work aggressively to bring the regions of Galilee and other outlying areas into line with their own rigid sense of Torah keeping. They also have strained relations with Hellenistic Jews who have been forced to live abroad in the Roman Empire… a tension that carries on within the Christian church thereafter. They also relegate classes of people like sinners whose Jewish sloppiness was unbearable to them, and tax-collectors who earned their keep working for the Roman authorities to tax their fellow Jews.

So, in the face of Jewish leadership’s failure to fulfill their commission as a people called to be a kingdom of priests, a light of the nations, not to mention their antiseptic self-congratulating trust in their own goodness before God the Father, Jesus decides to school them on the nature of the Father’s heart for all His Children and not just for those who “were born to the right parents,” and who “do everything right.”

Jesus and the Gentiles

Why does Jesus eat and drink with tax-gatherers and sinners? Why does Jesus receive them? Is that really the question? Based even on the most basic elements of human compassion, (demonstrated in the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son) which is an empty shell compared to the compassion of the Heavenly Father, the real question is, “Why don’t they?”

There are prodigal sons, prodigal daughters, prodigal people groups, prodigal nations, and Jesus arises as THE ONE son of David, THE ONE son of Abraham, THE ONE seed of the woman to fulfill Israel’s commission to the world.

He establishes a church whose own commission encompasses the others. God’s regents are meant to win the lost… everywhere. Thus, Jesus commissions, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

So, Jesus’ promise to Peter that he would be a fisher of men, is illustrated in The Parable of the Prodigal Son, calling him to share the heart of the heavenly father for the lost the world over. It is also met with the Great Commission as Jesus’ last words on earth to him.

 

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Digging Deeper: The Prodigal Son Part 1

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Allegory or Analogy?

Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 says:

THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.

The beauty of this manifesto is powerfully illustrated in The Parable of The Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

There is something in the prodigal son story that resonates with almost everyone who reads it. In one sense, every sinner who has come to Jesus is a prodigal come home, for every heart is born far from God, and it is only through repentance that we return to that place from which our first parents fled—God is our home.

Interpreting the Prodigal

The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been a powerful witness to Jesus’ mission but has also fallen victim to bad interpretation. Being imagined to possess meaningful applications to life and worship that can be found in the smallest of details, The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been picked over like a chicken carcass. Not infrequently this feeding frenzy is done without regard to the rules of parable telling in Jesus’ own day and in complete obliviousness to the context of its telling.

One of the biggest confusions is that some approach the prodigal son as an allegory while it is, in actuality, an analogy. The difference is monumental.

Now I love a good allegory (I cut my teeth on Pilgrim’s Progress) but if one treats an analogy like the Parable of the Prodigal Son as an allegory even its good things can warp into ugly things. This is because, in an allegory, we treat everything as having meaning. The smallest points suggest to our seeking minds the most significant truths… even if we have to add to the picture to do so.

Luke 4 As Allegory

In an allegorized Prodigal son, specific reference is sought in every detail of the parable. The Father represents the heavenly father, the prodigal represents the sinners and tax-gatherers, and the older brother represents the religious leaders. So far so good. How far should we push the details though?

Should we seek specific meaning in the famine? The pods of the pig slop? The pigs? What about those around the prodigal who “gave him nothing?” What specific meaning should we give to the ring? The robe? The shoes? The fatted calf? Who do the servants represent? Honestly, do we really want to go there? Do we believe Jesus intended us to go there?

More pointedly, if the older son represents the religious leaders of the day, do we really want to suggest that the father’s words to his older son in the parable are point-for-point words of Jesus to the religious leaders? Does Jesus preach to Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees, on behalf of the Father, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”?

If we go with allegory rather than analogy, is the younger son is still out of his inheritance? If all that the father has belongs to the older brother, what remains for the younger brother? “Welcome back, Son, but you are still impoverished.” “Now that the party is over, let’s talk about that new job as a hired hand.”

How much crazier could we get if we began to imagine details drawn from the world of family farms and sought meaning in them? There is no end to the possible mischief we could get up to if we allegorize. I’ve seen it… it gets ugly.

Luke 4 As Analogy

As an analogy, however, one seeks in the prodigal son story a broad situational comparison. The details are present to add commonly recognized realism to the story. In analogy, we learn simple lessons about one thing drawn from general similarities between it and some other common occurrence.

Jesus is dining with those whom the Pharisees have labeled tax collectors and sinners. These are, however, people who have become Jesus’ followers. Do the religious types want to know why he would allow them to become part of His ministry? Jesus answers their question with three connected parables. We might label these three together as—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. While there are some vague representations found in the audience (Each person in the audience is supposed to find himself or herself somewhere in the stories) the details must not be pushed too hard. The big picture speaks.

Jesus asks twice, who wouldn’t rejoice if a lost precious thing were found?

The answer is found in the final story, but the details are meant to enhance the main point rather than making independent points of their own. These are analogies NOT all-encompassing allegories.

 

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3 Disciplines That Will Strengthen Your Relationship with God

Author: Jon Slenker, M.A., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

God wants a relationship with you. A meaningful, honest, loving, and liberating relationship. The Scriptures reveal a story told through God’s relationship with mankind. God’s story is one of triumph even though many characters in the Bible lacked discipline in some way. And where discipline was lacking, so was their relationship with God. The disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and the Church revolve around communing with God and his people. A fresh look at these foundational disciplines is a great place to start when strengthening your relationship with God.

Everyone has experienced a relationship that needed to be strengthened or rekindled. Discipline is an incredible gift of grace to humanity that images God’s own character. Bible study, prayer, and engaging with the Church will not only strengthen your relationship with God, but it will also strengthen your relationship with your family and friends, even with yourself. From the beginning, Jesus displayed perfect discipline and remained steadfast to the grave. Paul modeled disciplining his mind and body and instructed Titus to be “hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined (Titus 1:8).” We must remember discipline is not only a mastery of self by our own strength but through the help of God. David wrote, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).” 

The Discipline of Bible Study

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12

The Bible was written over 1,500 years, by 40 authors, including 3 languages, spanning 3 continents and it all tells the same, brilliantly cohesive story. God is revealing himself, his name, his character, his purposes and plans for how we might be reconciled to him and join him on his mission to reconcile a lost and broken people to himself (2 Cor 5:17-20). All of the Old Testament points to Jesus, while all of the New Testament presents Jesus. Through creation, fall, rescue and ultimately restoration, Jesus is the hero of his story!

One who is disciplined in the Word learns how to rightly divide or interpret it. Inductive and discovery Bible study begins with observation, moving to interpretation, and finishing with application. A student of God’s Word is faithful to context and to the author’s original intent.

7 Questions of Discovery Bible Study

Read the passage and recite out loud from memory.

  1. What does this passage teach me about God?
  2. What does this passage teach me about man and woman?
  3. Is there a sin to avoid?
  4. Is there a promise to claim?
  5. Is there an example to follow?
  6. Is there a command to obey?
  7. What is God saying to me and how does he want me to be obedient from this passage?

By asking these questions of a passage, it not only follows a healthy scientific or inductive approach, it increases comprehension and retention. Even more, it is incredibly simple and allows the Holy Spirit to lead the discussion and learning.

According to Wycliff Bible Translators1, out of the 7,378 languages spoken across the globe, 3,011 possess no Scripture. God’s Word is a gift and we should consistently discipline ourselves to it and by it. While presenting the Bible to every tribe, tongue and nation is the goal, the fact remains the majority of people in the world are oral learners, therefore we must remember the power of Bible storying. By studying and memorizing the Scriptures we are allowing God to talk to us, telling us of his character, purposes, desires, his tenderness and strength, miracles and promises. The goal of disciplined Bible study is to grow in obedience, not to simply store up knowledge. The Word has the power to transform. The discipline of digesting the scriptures provides the sojourning Follower a map and compass of all other disciplines.

The Discipline of Prayer

…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6:8

Prayer stills and strengthens our hearts. Prayer positions a person in a posture of humility and hope. It is a weapon against the enemy and an ointment to our souls. There are many types of prayer in the Bible. There is the prayer of worship (Revelation 4:11), thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4), faith (Hebrews 11:6), intercession (1 Timothy 2:1), corporate prayer (Revelation 19:1-8), consecration (Psalm 51:10), a prayer of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26-27) and more.

Jesus modeled the practice of prayer and taught his disciples to pray earnestly and confidently. Jesus taught, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7).”

Prayer is about communing with God and aligning our minds and hearts with his. It is no wonder why every great spiritual awakening throughout history was the result of intentional prayer. Practice praying through the prayers in the Bible after studying and meditating on them to strengthen your relationship with the Lord.

The Discipline of Church

Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly, to the congregation of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven. You have come to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Hebrews 12:22-24

The discipline of church includes covenanting with others in your community for corporate worship, fellowship, discipleship, accountability, ministry, and mission. It is through the discipline of gathering and co-laboring with other believers, true and deep relationships are built. From laughing, crying, praising, and praying with others as we walk alongside them in life, we experience God in fresh ways and strengthen our relationship with him.

We share our greatest hopes and victories through Christ with our believing brothers and sisters. One of the greatest impacts on my relationship with God has come from staying in countless Believer’s homes as I have had the privilege to travel the globe. The reality is that no matter where in the world you are, every believer and church is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, glorifying one God and Father of all… (Eph 4:4-6). Our relationships with God are strengthened because he has given us a family in his Kingdom. God made us for relationship.

Strengthening Your Relationship with God

The discipline of Bible study allows God to talk to us. The discipline of prayer allows us to talk to God. The discipline of the Church allows the marriage of communing with God and kingdom family in concert.  At times, these disciplines come easy, other times it requires the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears.” The author of Hebrews reminds the disciplined one of the reward, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).”

What fresh practices/activities would you like to experience as you discipline yourself to grow your relationship with God?

1https://www.wycliffe.net/resources/statistics/

 

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How to Live For God: The Four Spiritual Secrets

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

God will demonstrate His faithfulness by showing you how you can be in Him, and He can be in you…” Pastor Dick Woodward

For over 40 years, Pastor Dick Woodward centered his ministry around four profound truths he called the “spiritual secrets”. These are not secrets in the sense that only a select few special individuals get to know about them. Quite the contrary. They are a distillation of Pastor Woodward’s study of scripture. In a way, they are a core message decoded by a serious student of the Bible walking closely with the Holy Spirit. These four truths, or secrets, can change your life and with them, you can learn how to live for God.

 

The First Spiritual Secret:

“I am not, but He is”

When you truly encounter the One, Holy Creator of everything, you realize what Pastor Woodward calls “the absolute difference between me and the God who calls Himself ‘I AM.’” Like Moses standing before the burning bush, we must understand that, in God’s presence, we are nobody. We bring nothing to the table, even if we are wealthy, powerful, or wise according to the world’s standards. God wants to show us what He will do with somebody who recognizes that he is nobody.

Moses certainly understood this when he stood in God’s presence. He had been somebody, the son of Pharaoh, in line to rule a powerful nation. Instead, God took Moses into the desert to become a nobody; a wandering shepherd. There, through 40 years of losing himself, Moses learned humility. Then, when Moses was, as Number 12:3 tells us, the most humble man on the face of the earth, God was able to use him. As a nobody, Moses did great things because God was powerful through him.

“It’s not about us and our identity, our self-esteem, our success or any feelings of adequacy, inadequacy or anything in between.” Pastor Woodward says. “It’s about God and His identity.”

 

The Second Spiritual Secret:

“I can’t, but He can.”

If you have ever had the experience of coming to the end of yourself, you will be familiar with the words “I can’t.” When you’ve exhausted your own resources, your own power, there comes a point when there’s nothing else you can do. Sometimes you might experience this in response to something God is calling you to do, but something for which you feel entirely inadequate. “I can’t” is not something anybody enjoys saying – it hurts our pride too much. But it can also be quite liberating, letting go of expectations and weights that we put on ourselves. 

Moses came to such a moment when God called him to stand before Pharaoh. God called him to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses’ first reaction was to say “I can’t” (Exodus 4:10). Moses wasn’t wrong. He had tried to stand up for his people his way and only ended up killing a man and running for his life. No, Moses couldn’t, but God could. Once Moses realized he was nobody, God used him to do amazing things. 

 

The Third Spiritual Secret:

“I don’t want to, but He wants to.”

God’s love is strange – mind-blowing might be the better word. He loves people who we don’t want to love. He loves you and me, and we all know how unloveable we are. When we stand before God and utter the famous words of Isaiah 6:8, “Here I am, send me!” we are not always prepared for what comes next. Sometimes our neighbor is unlovely. Sometimes the journey is difficult or dangerous. The truth is, when it comes to God’s mission to love people, we don’t want to do it. But he does.

Jonah found himself in exactly such a position when God called him to preach repentance to the Ninevites (Jonah 1:2). These were awful people; the worst of the worst, and God loved them. As the story goes, Jonah refused and ran in the opposite direction, but God followed him and got his attention (to put it mildly). Jonah did not want to do it, but God did.

We find ourselves in a similar situation whenever God asks us to do something, whether it is loving our enemy or repenting of sin – or even something as simple as spending time in the Word. When we follow our own desires, we run from God. Instead, we need to make His desires our own, realizing that our hearts are corrupt. God won’t make us do anything, but he will send a storm to get our attention, and a great fish to bring us to repentance. Far better that we lay down our desire at the start.

 

The Fourth Spiritual Secret:

“I didn’t, but He did.”

At the end of the day, when we have finally understood and applied the first three spiritual secrets, we are tempted to sit back and say, ‘well now I’ve done a great thing.’ But here is a great danger and we risk losing everything. If ‘I am not’, and ‘I can’t’, and ‘I don’t want to’, then how is it that I so often come to the conclusion that ‘I did’? How is it that we take credit for something that is so clearly not our doing?

After Jonah preached to the Ninevites, an amazing thing happened: they actually repented! (Jonah 3:6)  Nobody, especially Jonah, would have expected it. Jonah could never have caused that to happen, and he certainly didn’t want it to happen. (Jonah 4:1) Though he was angry, he rightly credited God with accomplishing such a miracle. How silly would it have been for Jonah to sit back and take credit for Nineveh’s sudden change of heart?

 

How to Live for God

When we finally obey God, after we have become nobody, we become vessels of His love and mercy. It isn’t our love that we show to our neighbor; it’s His. It’s not our Word that changes lives; it’s His. We are like the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. (Matthew 21:7) We merely carry Jesus with us, but He does the work.

These four spiritual secrets are meant to show you how to live for God. I’m not, I can’t, I don’t want to, and I didn’t – this is the necessary starting point for obeying and following Him. When you become nothing, God shows up. When you are nobody, God becomes somebody in your life. Put these four spiritual secrets into practice and you will see God do amazing things through you.

 

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Moses

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

God on god Violence

When going to Bible college, my professors were wont to say that God’s ten plagues against Egypt were attacks against the gods of Egypt. Did not Yahweh say to Moses in Exodus 12:12, “…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD”? Just as three meant few, forty meant many, and seven was a sacred counting, so also ten plagues, matching the ten fingers on the human hand, did represent a type of fullness… here, a fullness of judgment against Egypt and her gods. When, however, I would ask what Egyptian gods were involved and how the plagues diminished them, I never got more than one or two obvious ones tossed back at me, like “attacking the Nile (Hapi)” and “blocking out the sun (Ra).” They would usually mumble off after those and say to the rest of the class, “Any other questions before we move on?”

So that you don’t have to suffer the same unmet curiosity, let me give you a list.1 When Pharoah boasts, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Yahweh shows Pharaoh exactly who He is. He is the Lord of Lords.

1. The Nile turned to Blood

Hapi was the god of the yearly flooding of the Nile, which was the very source of Egypt’s life. Pharoah made the Hebrews cast their sons to the Nile, and when it was struck with Moses’ staff, it ran red like the blood of those drowned there and devoured by fish and crocodiles. Hapi was often called, “Lord of fish and birds and marshes,” as well as “Lord of the river bringing vegetation.” Everything in the Nile died.

2. Frogs Swarm the Land

Heket is a fertility goddess with the head of a frog. The frog was a fertility symbol. Yahweh makes them fertile indeed. Rather than rising with the Nile they exit from the Nile, swarm the land, and fill Egypt with putrefaction. Though Heket was also “She who hastens birth” it is the Hebrew women worshiping Yahweh alone, who “are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

3. Lice From the Dust

Geb was the god of the soil, i.e. the dust of the earth. Yahweh “invades his territory” and brings forth lice rather than rice. He is also regarded as the father of snakes, giving a deeper sense to Moses’ staff becoming a serpent and swallowing up the Magicians’ serpent staffs.

4. Swarms of Flies

Uatchit, also called Wadjet, was the goddess of the marshes where papyrus and swarms abound. She is the goddess of the heat of noon which empowers the swarms and was closely associated with the Sun god Ra. She both wore and was the image of Pharoah’s crown, a protector of the land. Yahweh blots out the sun with swarms and devastates the land over which the Swarm goddess stood sentinel.

5. Death of Livestock

The Cow goddess, Hathor, like many Egyptian deities, has a complicated history. She was pictured as a cow or a woman adorned with cow horns. Like other cow goddesses, Hathor is also associated with the sun and sky, and thus the symbolic mother of the Pharaohs. Cows were revered as nurturers and givers of milk. She is symbolically struck down with Yahweh’s plague against the cattle of the land.

6. Ashes Turn to Boils

Isis, the goddess who resurrected her brother, Osiris, had legendary magical powers and is commonly associated with magic spells of healing for everyone, even common people. Here, even Pharaoh’s magicians could not stand before Pharaoh because the boils were tormenting them.

7. Hail and Fire From the Heavens

Exodus 9:23 says, “Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth.” As with the swarm goddess, when swarms destroy and the frog-headed fertility goddess when frogs overrun and pollute the land, Yahweh “seizes control” over the heavens and rains down lightning and lethal hail. There are a few different sky deities at play here. Primarily, we have Tefnut, goddess of sky moisture, we have Shu, god of winds and air, we have Horus, god of kingship and sky, the spirit of Pharaoh in life, and we have Nut goddess of the sky, a nourisher suckling the world. None can hold back Yahweh’s hand.

8. Locusts Plague From a Strong East Wind

Seth was the ruler of the red land, i.e. the east and west desert regions surrounding the black land of fertile Egypt. As the desert was a protective flank, Seth was thought to play his part in warding off the chaos from Egypt. From “Seth’s desert,” however, Yahweh brings locusts to finish off what remained from the hail.

9. Blocking Out the Sun

Ra, the noon-day sun, ruler of the sky, earth, underworld, and kings. He was divine order and the source of creation. The Egyptians called themselves the cattle of Ra. Yahweh’s penultimate strike was to blacken out all the light of day and night so that painful darkness spread throughout the whole land.

10. Killing the Firstborn

Pharaoh was worshipped as the son of Ra, Horus on earth, and Osiris in death. Not only does Yahweh strike down every firstborn from beast and man, from the lowest servant to the very house of Pharaoh, but here Pharaoh is defeated in his resistance to releasing the labor force of Israel to go their way.

 

Conclusion

God said to Moses in Exodus 7:2-5:

“…tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”

Yahweh did. Egypt did. Pharaoh did. Israel did.

 

1I’ve seen some variation in the list from different scholars, particularly those who mistake Khepri for a fly-headed god, but this is a good list.

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Joseph

Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Most of us know the story of Joseph well. And there are many lessons to be learned from this historical and dramatic narrative. I want to point out one of the central ideas of this story that, despite its importance, is often overlooked. It has to do with the idea that God was with Joseph. Here’s the question I want to answer: “Why was God with Joseph?”

 

The Story of Joseph

Joseph is favored by his father, Jacob, and given a “coat of many colors.”1 Joseph also tells his brothers of dreams, dreams where his brothers would bow down to him. His jealous brothers throw him into a pit and sell Joseph into slavery. A traveling merchant then purchases Joseph and takes him to Egypt. While in Egypt, Joseph faithfully serves a military officer named Potiphar, until he is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown in prison.

 

During his 13-year imprisonment, Joseph interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants and does so accurately. When Pharaoh has a strange and unsettling dream, one of the servants recommends Joseph as an able interpreter. Because Joseph was able to interpret the dream, he is made second in command over all of Egypt. In Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph foresees a coming famine. Wisely, Joseph advises the Pharaoh to store grain before the famine hits. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food. When they arrive, they soon discover that little brother Joseph now runs the entire kingdom and doles out the food when scarcely any could be found. They end up bowing to Joseph, just like Joseph’s dream had predicted so long ago.

 

God Was with Joseph

At one of the key moments in the story, the narrator tells us this: “The Lord was with Joseph…” (Gen. 39:21a). This comment comes right after Joseph found himself unjustly placed in prison.

It is tempting to think that God was with Joseph because of what Joseph did just a few verses before. Joseph demonstrated tremendous courage and integrity by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph risked his comfortable and prestigious position to do what was right. So, when we are told that “God was with Joseph” immediately after he is locked away, it may lead some to interpret the text as teaching that God was with Joseph because he did what was right. Sometimes, though, well-intentioned people can still misinterpret the narrative.

If we read the narrative again closely, we notice a few important details. For example, the Bible never says that God was with Joseph because of what he did. If we take that view, then we must read that into the text. Instead, Joseph’s dreams show that God was with Joseph at the very beginning. Joseph’s dreams show that God had planned to bless Joseph and bring him to a position of power and influence so that his brothers and even his father would bow down to him. The text confirms that these dreams were from God when we see them dramatically fulfilled at the end of the story (cf. Gen 43:28).

But why is God with Joseph if Joseph does nothing to deserve God’s favor? Joseph himself gives an almost direct answer to this question. After his brothers discover that Joseph is a ruler in Egypt, they desperately sought his forgiveness. Joseph tells them, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Gen. 45:5). Joseph adds, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:7).

Therefore, according to Joseph, God had at least two purposes for being with him. First, Joseph’s position in Egypt and his ability to interpret dreams meant that there would be food for everyone during the famine; Joseph would “save lives.” Through Joseph, God provides physical sustenance to many nations when they need it most.

Second, through Joseph, God would specifically save the lives of Jacob’s family. This preserves  a “remnant on earth.” Understood within the wider context of the book of Genesis, we see that through Joseph, God keeps his promise to Abraham, to make him into a “great nation” (Gen 12:2). Without Joseph, Abraham’s family would have died in the famine. Ultimately, God would bless all people through Joseph because it is through his family that God would send the Messiah, Jesus, to save the world (Gal. 3:8).

 

God’s Reasons

So, God had his own reasons for favoring Joseph that had nothing to do with Joseph’s actions. God’s purpose in blessing Joseph was to bless others. God chose a particular person and God worked through the circumstances of Joseph’s life to include, ultimately, the entire world in the blessing of Abraham. Once we get a full picture of what God was doing through Joseph, we see that God blessed Joseph to bless all of us. God was with Joseph, in part, so that one day, he could be with all people through his Son.

One of the lessons we learn from Joseph’s story is that God loves humanity and that he will keep his promise to bless the world through Abraham, no matter what. In Jesus, we find the proof that promise has, indeed, been kept.

1It is likely that Joseph’s coat was a meticulously made tunic. The idea that it was a “coat of many colors” comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew versions suggest it was an embroidered tunic.

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Jacob

Author: Charles Hegwood, M.Div., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

The Stolen Blessing

When you think of Israel, look no further than the man who bears the name. He is the father, quite literally, of the twelve tribes. Such a man as Jacob should invoke great reverence. In fact, you would think that such a man should be a model for all of us to follow. Yet Jacob’s story is a story that is marked by his disobedience and God’s grace. Let’s look at the story of how Jacob, the man God chose to bless, lied to his father to steal the blessing from his brother.

 

Genesis 27: Background

First, let’s get a little background information that will help us to understand the story found in Genesis 27. First of all, Jacob’s very name means heel grabber, deceiver, or better put, usurper.  As we will see, Jacob lived up to his name. Before this chapter, Jacob steals Esau’s birthright by tricking him into giving up the birthright. We will see Jacob run at the end of this story only to wrestle with God and be given the name Israel. If you read on in Genesis, you will see Jacob get tricked and humbled when he was seeking a wife. I say all of this to say, Jacob’s story is one of God’s grace and mercy on a sinful man.

 

The Blessing

The story of the stolen blessing begins with Isaac realizing he was nearing death. Therefore, Isaac calls Esau, his oldest son, to receive the blessing. Fun fact, Isaac lives forty more years after this story happens. That is a slow death. Now blessings in the Old Testament are important. And if you recall Jacob’s birth narrative, he was supposed to receive the blessing and not Esau. This is in itself a bit of a problem and Rebekah, their mother, is concerned. What is her strategy for making sure God’s plan is followed? Her answer is to use Jacob to trick her husband and for Jacob to willingly trick and lie to his father. From the beginning of this story, we should be struck by the brokenness of all of our characters. Is this what God meant when he told Rebekah that, “the older will serve the younger?” Certainly not. Yet God does use this broken situation to bring about His plan.

Isaac wanted a meal hunted and cooked by Esau. Rebekah’s plan was for Jacob to deceive his father and usurp his brother by bringing the meal while wearing the skin of a goat and his brother’s clothes. This plan relied on Jacob’s ability to trick an old man who can’t see well. And he does just that. He masked his identity with fur to simulate Esau’s hairiness and with his brother’s clothes so that he smells like a man who has been out in the field.

 

The Deception

Upon entering the room with Isaac, Jacob announced his arrival. Isaac asked who it was. Time for Jacob to come clean. Except that is not what happens. Jacob lied and told his father he was Esau. When Isaac asked about how he could hunt and cook the meal so fast, Jacob invoked God in his lie. Do not pass over the fact that the man God chose to lead His people was using God’s name to aid him in a lie to steal a blessing. In fact, the verbiage used is striking, “the Lord made it happen for me.” God would have given the blessing to Jacob on His goodness and sovereignty and yet in the context of this story, Jacob is making it happen for himself. Brothers and sisters, we cannot make it happen for ourselves. We must obey God and let God work. Jacob does not.

As we continue to follow the story, Jacob has at least five opportunities to stop the charade and come clean with the truth. He blatantly lies three times by saying that he is Esau. Isaac then blesses Jacob all the while thinking it was Esau. Jacob, with the help of his mother, lied and manipulated his aging father. This is broken. We, as the reader, may ask, “how can God use such a broken story?” This is a great question. It is the right question. The whole reason for us digging into this episode of Jacob’s life is to see how God uses broken people. Jacob, Isaac, Esau, and Rebekah were not able to usurp God’s plan with their sin. He will work through the brokenness to bring about what He said would happen. God uses us in our brokenness. His grace is truly sufficient. Rebekah sought to obtain God’s will through trickery. Jacob lied and manipulated his father to obtain what he thought was God’s will. Yet God blesses Jacob later with many children, some of which become the fathers of the twelve tribes.

 

Brokenness and Blessing

As we begin to conclude this account let us not run past the elephant in the room. If God can use broken people, are there consequences to sin? In this story there certainly are consequences. Jacob would have to run far away to escape his brother’s wrath. Jacob never saw his mother again. She died while Jacob was in exile. A family was broken. There was a price to be paid for Jacob’s sin. Sin always causes brokenness, but as we see in Genesis 33 Jacob and Esau meet again and it is a joyful, restorative meeting.

Digging deeper into Jacob’s story, we find sin and brokenness in relation to God’s goodness and mercy. The man named Israel lied, cheated, and manipulated people. He even used God’s name to sell his lie. And yet all that his sin broke, God restored. Jacob and Esau, through the grace of God, met again and made peace. God blessed Jacob with sons who became the fathers of the twelve tribes. The story of Jacob displays God’s grace in taking a broken man and redeeming him to bring about, in his family line, salvation for the whole world through the Savior of the world; Jesus.

 

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Abraham

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

The Abrahamic Covenant is a Covenant

Oaths are self-curses made before God or gods to establish the trustworthiness of promises or testimony. Oaths were religious tools for securing good faith between potential enemies so that they might have some relationship or safe interaction. Think of our common schoolyard oath, “Cross my heart and hope to die… stick a needle in my eye.”

We’ve all seen it. Someone is called to the stand to bear testimony in a court of law. They are asked to raise their right hand and swear an oath. “Do you swear that the evidence you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” They usually reply, “I do.”

It begs the question as to the value of “testified under oath” when those giving testimonies don’t believe in God. The godless don’t fear the consequences of lying beyond the punishment that men might give them if they are caught lying.

 

What is a Covenant?

Now, Covenants are more elaborate literary frames around the making of an oath. Indeed, The Anchor Bible Dictionary defines covenant as, “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.”1

In the Ancient Near East, there were (1) different kinds of covenants, (2) different sorts of relationships between those who make them, (3) different categories of promises that covenants might contain, and even (4) different styles of establishing them. Thus, even though there are hundreds of covenants in Scripture, the average believer is not likely to be able to name more than two or three.2

Since the Abrahamic Covenant is so vital for the Jewish People, honored and sealed in the circumcision of their sons even today, let’s lay the foundation for understanding Ancient Near Eastern covenants in general, so that we can apply what we learn later to the Abrahamic Covenant.

 

The Shape of a Covenant

The standard covenant form, other than a basic oath, is called a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. An agreement made between an emperor lord and a lesser ruler, nation, or person. Think agreement between Greater & Lesser.

There are basically seven aspects involved which may or may not all be included depending on the situation. The Mosaic covenant is a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty between Greater Yahweh and lesser Israel, so let’s use it as a running example.

  1. The party issuing the treaty has a preamble or introduction. See Exodus 20:1a “I am the LORD your God…”
  2. There is a historical prologue where the mutual history of those involved is written out. It is a big “You owe me” declaration. See Exodus 20:1b “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
  3. There were stipulations listed.  See Exodus 1:2-17, which lists the ten commandments. They are expanded in the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 20:22-23:33 and expanded again through Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  4. Provisions for deposit of the text. Copies of the treaty were usually kept in sacred places such as the shrines of the gods or goddesses invoked as witnesses. See how Yahweh gives two tablets of the ten commandments in Exodus 32 (one for each party) which Moses breaks over the incident of the golden calf. Yahweh gives two more in Exodus 34. Both sets are placed, according to Moses in Deuteronomy 10:5, inside the Ark of the Covenant before the Lord.
  5. Periodic public readings of the covenant were also arranged as a reminder to both parties of the specifics of the treaty.  Deuteronomy 31:9-13 and 24-26 detail this reading as to occur every seven years. We actually find this reading in Joshua 8 and another renewal in Joshua 24.
  6. A list of divine witnesses was made. These witnesses were expected to wreak vengeance if an individual did not maintain his side of the treaty.  The Exodus version has no other witnesses given, as Hebrews 6:13 notes, “For when God made a promise to Abraham since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” The Deuteronomy version, however, does call witnesses. Yahweh calls nature itself to witness against Israel should they prove unfaithful.
  7. Blessings and curses were evoked.   If the covenant was not kept, these gods were to destroy the individual and all that belonged to him.  If the individual kept the treaty, these gods were to bless and protect. Often curses were assumed in the way the covenant is enacted. Sometimes they are painfully drawn out as we find in Deuteronomy 28.

 

Types of Covenants

These covenants usually had some form of ratification ceremony, which was often directly related to aspects of the curses. These acts often symbolized the ingestion of the curses, such as in Exodus 24, we have the communal meal on the Holy Mount before a revelation of Yahweh. Other times they acted out the violence of the curses, which we will see in the Abrahamic Covenant when Yahweh passes between the severed parts of the animals. Sometimes public pronouncements were made to accept the consequences of the covenant, such as the cry of the people in Joshua 24:24, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”

Covenants can also be made between equals. These are usually covenants of peace, like an armistice, which we see between Laban and Jacob in Genesis 31 or even covenants of familial bond like we see when Jonathan gives David his robe and armor in 1 Samuel 18.

Covenant ratification acts, i.e., the professions or antics associated with actualizing a covenant often became shortcuts to enacting commonly known covenants where all the parties understood the stipulations, curses, and blessings without having to state them publically or write them.

So, covenants of peace and protection were automatically made by eating from someone else’s table… whatever form that table took. We see this all over scripture, but most explicitly in Joshua 9 when Israel covenanted peace and protection with the Gibeonites by tasting their disgusting rations. This is the reason for Saul’s reluctance to eat from the table of the witch of Endor, in 1 Samuel 28, and the cause of her insistence that he does… given his penchant for killing witches.

Sometimes you might find someone employing family language like father, brother, etc. We see this in 1 Kings 20:32 when the king of Israel declares of Ben-hadad, with whom he’d been fighting, “Does he still live? He is my brother.”

Sometimes simple gestures enact covenant bonds, like seizing hands, grabbing someone’s garment hem, or, as noted above, giving garments.

One special form is a covenant of grant, where a Suzerain bequeaths a blessing to a subordinate who has pleased him or her in some special way. There are three powerful examples of these in Scripture: The Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15 which is a land grant; the Phinehas Covenant in Numbers 25, which is a priest grant; and the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7, which is a dynasty grant. This is an important realization when trying to interpret them in Scripture and when trying to understand their impact on Biblical theology as a whole.

Look for this discussion to be continued in the second part of this blog.

 

1The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. “Covenant” (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
2We have yet another problem in this lack of awareness, which I cannot cover in full here. That is treating covenant like an idea and not a literary or social form. Here the believer confuses promises and covenants and finds covenant everywhere some agreement is worked out. Failing to understand the nature of covenants, they fail to both see the ones that are dancing before their eyes and intuit their presence in plain sight.

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Cain and Abel

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

What did God say to Cain?

The story of Cain and Abel is usually heralded as a classic tale of sibling rivalry, hate, and murder. It is a tale of persecution, the godless hating the righteous. Is this not the very perspective of none other than Jesus Himself in Matthew 23:35?

While this is perfectly legitimate, the story has four parts, not two:

  1. God rejected Cain’s offering but accepts Abel’s
  2. God confronts Cain in his anger
  3. Cain murders Abel anyway
  4. God curses Cain. Each part has lessons for us.

Today I want to focus on God’s confrontation with Cain.

 

Another Tale of Brothers

In his book, East of Eden, John Steinbeck uses the story of Cain to address the struggle of several characters in the book. A psychopathic and perverse murderer named Cathy encounters two brothers locked in a Cain and Abel struggle. She marries one, seduces the other, and nine months later abandons her twin boys with her husband, Adam. She sets herself up as a Madam, a short way off. The twins, Caleb, called Cal, and Aron, also grow up with Cain and Abel conflicts, because Aron is beloved by their assumed father, and Cal is tortured with jealousy. When Cal discovers the truth about their mother, he uses this knowledge to destroy his brother, driving Aron to join the military during World War I. Aron is summarily killed. Upon hearing the news, their assumed father, Adam, has a stroke.

Adam has a Chinese servant, named Lee. He is fully entrenched in the lives of Adam, Cal, and Aron as well as that of Steinbeck’s grandfather, Samuel. Together, Samuel, Adam, and Lee begin a quest to understand exactly what God says to Cain in the biblical story, when Cain is in the throes of murderous jealousy. The Hebrew says, “Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but YOU timshal over it/him.” The struggle, as you might have guessed, is with the Hebrew term “timshal.” How shall we translate it?

 

What is Timshal?

The ESV translates it, “but you must rule over it,” which gives Cain a commission. The JPS runs with potential, “but you may rule over it.” The American Standard presents a command, “but do thou rule over it.” The King James Version renders it a promise or prediction, “and you shall rule over him.”1 The question is, does God command Cain, promise Cain, or offer Cain the possibility of escape from the ruinous path he has taken?

English has a long list of what we call modal verbs or helping verbs. These are special verbs that add nuance to an action’s time, tense, or relationship to reality. To say, “I can lift a car,” does not suggest that I DID lift a car. Saying “can” lift only says that I’m a braggart who claims the ability to do it. Saying, “He should be there by now,” does not mean that he IS there. Adding “should” implies that, based on known data, one is either expected to be there already, or he has disappointed social expectations by not being there. What will his mother think of that?! Indeed, there are many such words, terms like must, ought to, have, need to , used to, may, will, might; they express things like command, hope, expectation, anticipation, moral compunction, desire and so on.

Hebrew, however, uses a single verb form to express any one of these nuances for its action. An “imperfect verb,” like timshal, has the ability to express the idea that the action will happen, routinely happens, or even that it may, might, should, could, can, or would happen.

 

Can, Will, or Should?

So Samuel, Lee, and Adam discuss the matter at points in East of Eden, setting up the final scene between dying and grieving Adam and guilt-ridden Cal, who has always felt the compulsion of his own dark nature. Lee is determined to force Adam to speak words of comfort and forgiveness to his son even if it kills him. He delivers a moving speech demanding that Adam muster the strength to say something to save his remaining son.

He says to Adam as he lay on his deathbed, Cal “did a thing in anger, Adam, because he thought you had rejected him. The result of that anger is that his brother and your son is dead. …your son is marked with guilt… almost more than he can bear. Don’t crush him with rejection. …Give him your blessing! …Help him, Adam. Give him a chance. Let him be free.”

Adam does muster his strength for one last word to his broken son. Steinbeck writes, “Adam looked up with sick weariness. His lips parted and failed and tried again. Then his lungs filled. He expelled the air and his lips combed the rushing sigh. His whispered words seemed to hang in the air. ‘Timshel!2 Then his eyes closed and he slept.”

 

Timshal!

Adam gives Cal the same chance that God gave Cain. God could not have been predicting that Cain would overcome, because Cain didn’t, but fell to murder. God might have commanded Cain to overcome, but there are better and clearer ways of doing so in Hebrew. Rather, I think Steinbeck’s characters hit upon it best in the end. Earlier in the book, Lee tells Samuel and Adam the results of his Hebrew work with the Rabbis, trying to unpack God’s words to Cain:

“…this was gold from our mining: Thou mayest.   The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin… The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—3 ‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians  10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. ” One may wonder if Paul is giving commentary on Genesis 4:6-7.

Cain and Abel is not just a story of jealousy, hate, and murder. It is the story of temptation and God’s merciful provision in it. It is the story that tells us, no matter our sense of victimhood, that we are responsible for our choices. We are not beasts driven by instinct, but, as God’s image in the world, we have choice and culpability in the choice. Timshal!!! Brothers and sisters… Timshal!!!

 

1I simplified the KJV and JPS to eliminate outmoded word forms like mayest and thou.
2Sic
3Sic