Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tense, Aspect, and Mood in Biblical Hebrew Verbs

One of the problems encountered by the beginning student of Biblical Hebrew is the lack of clarity regarding tense, aspect, and modality in the verb system of Biblical Hebrew. Tense denotes the location in time of the event or state expressed by the verb. Aspect has to do with the way in which the event or state expressed by the verb is viewed as progressing within time, while mood or modality denotes the attitude of the speaker to the reality, necessity, possibility, or probability of the event or state expressed by the verb.

The best way of understanding the verb in Biblical Hebrew is to see it in the light of how it developed historically. It is generally held that Proto-Hebrew (on analogy with Ugaritic) had three major conjugations: the perfect yaqtul, the imperfect yaqtulu, and the suffix verb form qatala. The perfect was used for events viewed as a simple whole (i.e., perfective or aoristic aspect). The binary opposite of the perfect was the imperfect. The imperfect was used for events that were viewed as being non-perfective (i.e., as somehow unfolding in time, whether continuous, habitual, iterative, or future). The suffix verb form qatala seems to have been primarily used with stative verbs (without regard to time), but it was also used with dynamic verbs in the apodosis of conditional constructions. There was also a jussive conjugation that was identical to the perfect (yaqtul) in form.

Over time, it seems that the imperfect lost its final vowel. This resulted in the imperfect coming to have the same form as the perfect yaqtul and the jussive (i.e., they all had the form yaqtul). This in turn resulted in a restriction in the use of the perfect yaqtul to clause-initial position with a vav prefix in prose (i.e., wayyiqtol in Biblical Hebrew). The use of the suffix verb form qatala was expanded with it being conscripted to be used in place of the perfect yaqtul in non-clause-initial situations in prose. In this way, the suffix verb form qatala came to be fully perfective (i.e., used for states and events viewed as a simple whole regardless of time). The similarity in form between the imperfect and the jussive also led to the imperfect taking on board the non-indicative modal senses of ability, necessity, and possibility of the jussive, leading to the situation in Biblical Hebrew where the imperfect is used to express non-indicative modality as well as non-perfective aspect. On analogy with the clause-initial use of the wayyiqtol, it seems that the weqatal form developed from the sequential sense of qatala in the apodoses of conditional constructions. The weqatal construction ended up becoming, therefore, the imperfective verb in clause-initial position.

The verb system of Biblical Hebrew, therefore, is best thought of as primarily marking aspect. Tense has to be determined primarily from the context, although it should also be said that, because the imperfective aspect marks verbs as unfolding in time, perfective verbs naturally gravitate to the past while imperfective verbs gravitate to the future.

The end result in Biblical Hebrew can be summarized as follows:

perfective yiqtol: either as wayyiqtol in prose, or yiqtol in poetry;

qatal: perfective, usually non-clause-initial;

imperfective yiqtol: imperfective aspect or non-indicative modality, non-clause-initial;

imperfective weqatal: imperfective aspect or non-indicative modality, clause-initial;

participle (qotel) = continuous or gnomic aspect, or else used in place of a relative clause whose aspect must be picked up from the context.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Idolatry of Israel in Ezekiel 8

When you go sightseeing, you normally have a general idea of what you want to see. Japanese tourists coming to Australia like to see the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and koalas! If a Japanese tourist came to Australia, and didn’t see the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, or a koala, I reckon they’d go back home very disappointed.

Well what about a sightseeing tour of Jerusalem? I reckon you can’t go to Jerusalem without seeing the Temple Mount, the place where the temple of God used to be. I had the opportunity to do that back in 2004, and going up to the Temple Mount was definitely the highlight of my trip, even more so because back then, due to the sensitive political situation, the Temple Mount had been closed to visitors. One day I was visiting the Wailing Wall with my sister and brother-in-law when all of a sudden we saw the Israeli police open up the gates of the ramp way leading up to the Temple Mount. We decided to go for it, and in the space of a few seconds not knowing where I was heading, all of a sudden I found myself virtually alone standing on top of the Temple Mount in brilliant sunshine. It was definitely the highlight on my trip, not only because the Temple Mount is the most famous place in Jerusalem, but because actually getting there was so unexpected.

In the year 592 B.C., Ezekiel was in Babylon, some 1,000 km away from Jerusalem. He had been taken there by the Babylonian army, and had been away from Israel for six years, when all of a sudden God gave him the opportunity in a vision to go back to Jerusalem, and visit the temple. What an opportunity! The chance to go back home, and visit the holiest place on Planet Earth.

Well, after being transported to Jerusalem by “Holy Spirit Airways” (according to Ezek 8:3), Ezekiel finds himself back where he wished he could have been all along … in the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel was of priestly descent, so the temple was the place for him to be. If he hadn’t been taken off into exile, he would have been working there. So you’d think that this opportunity to go back to the temple should’ve been a wonderful journey for him. You could imagine how happy he would have been at the prospect of going back.

He turns up in Jerusalem, and rocks up to the northern gate to the inner court of the temple. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there (Ezek 8:4)! The same vision of the glory of God that Ezekiel had witnessed in ch. 1 was the vision of God that was facing him in temple. How wonderful! Perhaps Ezekiel was feeling a bit like the psalmist who wrote in Ps 63: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.”

How wonderful to see God’s glory again! But wait a minute. Behind Ezekiel was something that shouldn’t be there in the temple. In fact it was God who pointed it out to Ezekiel. There, north of the altar gate, was something grotesque: the image of jealousy. It was called the image of jealousy because it made God jealous. It was probably a statue of Asherah, a Canaanite fertility goddess; but whatever it was, it shouldn’t have been there, and it made God jealous.

English speakers generally grow up with the idea that jealousy is bad, so this idea of God being jealous sometimes sounds a little strange. Was God right to be jealous of this image? Well, the short answer is yes! God was right to be jealous. Here we need to remember what God had done for Israel previously and the nature of their relationship. We need to remember that when God saved Israel out of Egypt, Israel entered into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai, and God appeared to them on the mountain, and said to them: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2). And then he gave them the Ten Commandments, with numbers one and two as follows:

(1) “you shall not have any other gods before me” (Exod 20:3): in other words, God alone was to be Israel’s God; this was an exclusive relationship with no space possible for any other gods.

And (2) “you shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod 20:4–6): in other words, no worship of idols was permitted in Israel. No image or any other object was to be worshipped as a god. Israel was to worship the one true God, Yahweh, and him alone.

But here was Israel sticking up a statue of a Canaanite fertility goddess in the temple, the place that was meant to be the exclusive domain of the worship of God. No wonder God was jealous! He had every right to be! Doing what Israel did in the temple is akin to a married person brazenly committing adultery at home in the marriage bed.

But that wasn’t all. In Ezek 8:7–12 we see that at the entrance to the court, after Ezekiel dug through a wall, seventy of the elders of Israel were worshipping idols made in the image of various creepy-crawlies and other kinds of disgusting beasts that had been engraved on the wall. The leaders of Israel were in the dark secretly worshipping animal idols. And they were doing this because they thought that God hadn’t seen their difficulties but had abandoned Israel in the face of the Babylonian armies (Ezek 8:12).

But that wasn’t all! At the entrance of the north gate, Ezekiel saw women were “weeping for Tammuz” (Ezek 8:14). They were weeping as part of the worship of this goddess, their tears representing the rain that they hoped Tammuz, a Babylonian fertility god, would send.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Ezek 8:16–17 goes even further. In the inner court, 25 men had their backs turned to the Lord’s temple. They were facing east, worshipping the sun! They had turned their backs and their backsides on God, literally as well as figuratively!

Israel had become idolatrous, unfaithful, and had filled the land with violence; and because of this God had been provoked to anger (Ezek 8:17). Israel had provoked God’s jealousy and anger so much so that God said to Ezekiel: “I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. Even if they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them” (Ezek 8:18).

With idolatry rampant in the temple, Ezekiel’s sightseeing tour must have been a terrible disappointment. But what is the significance of all of this?

The message of Ezek 8 is clear. God can get angry with his people if they turn their backs on him and engage in rampant idolatry. Chapter 8 is significant in the flow of the book of Ezekiel because it precedes the vision of the glory of God leaving the temple, which is recorded in ch. 10. In other words, we find here in ch. 8 the key reason why God allowed the Babylonian army to capture and destroy Jerusalem. It was because of their idolatry. It was idolatry that led to God’s presence withdrawing from his people. It was because the people of Judah followed the practices of the peoples around them, and worshipped what everyone else worshipped, different gods, each under the form of a particular image, that led God to give effect to the sanctions of the Mosaic covenant. Just as had been agreed upon at the foot of Mount Sinai, if Israel did not want God, then God would leave Israel, leaving her to her own devices. Israel would be easy prey for the next strong army that came along, and this is exactly what happened. In the year 586 B.C., the Babylonian army came and captured Jerusalem; and the temple, the symbol of God’s presence among his people, was destroyed.

The awful picture of a city destroyed speaks powerfully of the consequences of idolatry for God’s people. Idolatry is like a deadly infectious virus against which we must strive to protect ourselves. The sin of idolatry is deadly serious. All sins are bad, but the most serious sin of all is actually the sin of idolatry. The first two commandments of the Ten Commandments come first because they are the most fundamental in terms of our relationship with God. Idolatry is like unfaithfulness in a marriage. There is no faster way than unfaithfulness to destroy a marriage, because the act of unfaithfulness itself is a repudiation of the relationship, which is by definition an exclusive relationship. In a similar way, idolatry strikes at the heart of our relationship with God. If left unchecked and unrepented of, it has the potential to lead to apostasy.

And idolatry was not just a problem for the Old Testament people of God. It is also something that affects Christians today. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 10:1–21: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12); “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor 10:6); “therefore … flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14). “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor 10:21–22).

Like the Thessalonian Christians, being saved means that Christians have turned away from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess 1:9). The problem is, however, that idol worship is all around us, and it can easily creep up on us. John Calvin, the famous Reformer, once said: “Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” What idols have we been tempted to craft for ourselves lately?

Westerners have traditionally not been tempted to worship physical idols of gods on a large scale. But if we look around at Western society today, there are many idols being worshipped. We may not see many temples with images of Buddha, Shiva, or other gods very often in the West; but they do exist. Around Cabramatta in Sydney where I normally go to church, and where there are many people of Chinese and Vietnamese background, there are lots of Buddhist temples, for example. But just because most Westerners don't see statues doesn’t mean that our society doesn’t have idols. The well-known American evangelist D. L. Moody has said in an American context: "You don’t have to go to heathen lands today to find false gods. America is full of them. Whatever you love more than God is your idol.”

These words apply just as equally to any Western country, not just America. The famous Reformer, Martin Luther, said: “whatever man loves, that is his god. For he carries it in his heart; he goes about with it night and day; he sleeps and wakes with it, be it what it may: wealth or self, pleasure or renown.” As was his want, there’s a bit of overstatement in the teaching of Luther just quoted, but what he is saying is that whatever one loves more than God, that is one’s god.

Is there anything or anyone you love more than God? Luther mentioned wealth. In Col 3:5, Paul describes greed or covetousness as being idolatry. If you find yourself thinking all day about money, chances are you’ve got a problem with the idol that many Westerners worship today: the idol of wealth. Or perhaps your idol is your self? Or perhaps pleasure? Or renown (otherwise known as fame)? Perhaps even your wife or husband? Or your children’s scholastic achievements? Maybe it’s real estate.

If there’s anything that we love more than God, it’s actually an idol! But the message of Ezek 8 is warning us not to turn our backs on God. It is warning us not to engage in idolatry. Idolatry has the potential to destroy our relationship with God, so we need to be extremely careful here. Whatever idol we are tempted to worship, we need to turn our back on it, and make sure that we stay true to the one true and living God, the God who has revealed himself to humanity in Jesus.

Whatever we are tempted to worship, even if it’s a good thing in itself, God calls upon each one of us today to get rid of it! If the idol is something bad, then we’re to get rid of it from our lives. But if the idol is something good, then what we need to do is to put it back in the place it belongs, somewhere below God on a scale of priority.

Idolatry is deadly serious. In Gal 5, Paul lists as one of the works of the flesh, idolatry. He then warns his Christian audience: “I warn you, as I warned you before … those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21). A similar message emerges in 1 Cor 10. We need to be careful that our lifestyle or what we do is not provoking the Lord to jealousy.

Christians have been saved to worship the Lord! Christians have been saved to have God as our number one! But idolatry has the potential to destroy this relationship. We need to make sure, therefore, that we do not endanger our heavenly inheritance, but to repent of any idolatry that has been in our life recently.

Paul said: “you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (1 Cor 10:21). A person cannot worship God and follow demons. May God give each of us the strength and wisdom to ruthlessly root out idolatry from our lives, and to be committed to the pure worship of God instead. We don’t want to provoke the Lord to jealousy, do we?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Theme of the Glory of God in Ezekiel

One of the major themes of the book of Ezekiel is the glory of God. In the English mind, when we think of glory, we usually think of something that is bright, something that has a radiance to it, something or someone with magnificence and splendor, like a king, for example. This is reflected in Chinese culture as well. In the word rong yao (荣耀), the Chinese word for glory, the longer form of rong has a double fire above a crown. The word yao has guang or light as one of its components, and itself means to shine. The etymology of the Chinese word for glory suggests that glory from a Chinese perspective was originally thought of in terms of brightly shining, majestic light.

The book of Ezekiel reminds us that the God of Israel is a glorious and majestic God. He is the King of glory, who is in and of himself magnificent, majestic, full of glory and splendor. He is the God who, as the Apostle Paul teaches, is the true God, Creator of the universe, “who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, which no person has ever seen, nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16). The true glory of God is something that no mortal person can fully observe.

Yet God is not a God who has hidden himself away, but a God who reveals his glory. Ezekiel’s vision in Ezek 1 is an example of the fact that God is a God who reveals his glory to his people. The revelation of God’s glory is developed in four stages in this chapter.

The first stage is the vision of the cherubim in Ezek 1:4–14. Ezekiel observed a black storm cloud coming from the north. This massive cloud had brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually within it, and in the middle was something like gleaming bronze. From this Ezekiel could make out the shapes of four strange creatures, whom we learn later on were cherubim. These four creatures are described as having four faces: the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. The four faces, enabling 360° vision, emphasize the global perception of the cherubim. The faces of the man, lion, ox, and eagle are also all symbols of strength. The human being is the pinnacle of creation, and the lion, ox, and eagle are the rulers of the domains of the wild, domesticated, and winged animals respectively. This global perception and great strength on the part of the cherubim is particularly appropriate given that their job is basically that of being the guardians of God’s holy space. The cherubim function as the bodyguards standing around God’s throne. Not that God needs bodyguards. However, the presence of the cherubim shows that access into God’s holy presence is ordinarily restricted.

The second stage of the vision is recorded in Ezek 1:15–21. These verses describe the wheels upon which God’s throne was transported. This vision of the glory of God is nothing other than a vision of God as a King seated on his throne. The only thing is that God’s throne is able to move around in accordance with the promptings of his Spirit. God’s throne is not fixed in one place (unlike the throne of most kings), but it is pictured in Ezekiel’s vision as being mounted on wheels. Each wheel is described as being composed of two wheels placed at right angles. This symbolizes the omnipresence of God, that God moves easily wherever he wants to go. He does not have to waste time doing a U-turn as it were, but moves straight to wherever he wants to go. The fact that the wheels have rims filled with eyes also symbolizes the all-seeing ability of God. There is nowhere that God cannot go, and nothing that God cannot see.

The third stage of the vision is recorded in Ezek 1:22–25. These verses zoom in to look at what lies above the cherubim and the wheels. The firmament of crystal above the cherubim is nothing other than the floor of heaven. The floor of heaven is often pictured in the Bible as a crystal sea, like in Rev 4:6.

The fourth and final stage of the vision is recorded in Ezek 1:26–28. These verses focus in on what is found in heaven itself. Above the firmament was a likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire, and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness of a human form. Ezekiel could see a human form, but it was just so bright that he could not really see the figure with any great clarity. Apart from God’s waist, all that Ezekiel could see was something like gleaming bronze and burning fire, and around the figure was a brightness like the brightness of a rainbow.

This wonderful vision functions as a prelude to Ezekiel’s call to the office of prophet (recorded in ch. 2). It is definitely a spectacular call to the ministry, but it is necessary at this point to recall that the description of God’s glory in the form of a bright cloud has links back earlier into the Old Testament. The cloud of God’s glory is symbolic in the Old Testament of God’s presence with his people. After God manifested his glory to Moses in the burning bush, God saved his people Israel from slavery, and led them out of Egypt by a fiery cloud. This was the same fiery cloud that came down upon Mount Sinai. The people saw something of God’s glory then, but it was really only Moses who was allowed to see God’s glory up close every time he went up the mountain to meet with God. Then, after the tabernacle was built, God’s glory resided in the tabernacle; and when the tabernacle was replaced by Solomon’s temple, God’s glory filled the temple.

The glory cloud seen by Ezekiel is the same glory cloud that was revealed to Israel in earlier generations. It is significant, however, that, as we read on in chs. 9 and 10 of Ezekiel, it is evident that God’s glory was slowly moving out of the temple. The significance of Ezekiel’s vision in the historical context of his day is that the collective sin of God’s people had become so bad that God was at the point of abandoning his people to their enemies. They wanted to live like the nations around about them? Well, God would deliver them over to the nations. He would even let his temple be destroyed by the Babylonians. In fact at the time of the vision in Ezek 1, sometime around 593 B.C., Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon, some six years before the final fall of the kingdom of Judah. In six years time, the temple, the symbol of God’s presence among his people, would be totally burnt to the ground.

Because of the great idolatry of God’s people, which took place even within the temple precinct itself with the worship of images of animals and foreign fertility gods, God was going to withdraw his presence from his people. God’s glory can only reside among his people provided that they are holy. But because Israel was not holy, and because they had abused God’s grace, God’s glory left the temple; and the Jews were defeated by the Babylonians, and taken off into exile.

This vision of the glory of God in Ezek 1 is basically a wonderful beginning to a sad story! Separation between God and human beings because of sin is always sad. The resultant distance between God and his people meant that Israel would not experience the blessing of life in all its fullness, the blessing of life which stems from living in proximity to God himself. Separated from communion with God, Israel would suffer the full extent of God’s curses rather than his blessings.

Now it would be very sad if all that there were to the theme of God’s glory in the book of Ezekiel was God packing up and leaving his people—God’s glory leaving the temple—never to come back. But in a wonderful way, the book of Ezekiel is sandwiched by two great visions of God. If the first is a vision of God’s glory leaving his people, then the other slice of the sandwich is a quite magnificent vision of a new temple, to which God’s glory cloud returns. Ezekiel 43–44 records how God’s glory came back and “filled the temple” with God’s presence once more, this time eternally. God would never have to leave his people again. According to this final vision, the new temple filled to overflowing with God’s glory would be the centerpiece of the new city of God. This city would no longer be called Jerusalem, but instead it would be called Yahweh-shamah, which means Yahweh is there. The final prophetic vision in the book of Ezekiel, therefore, is a wonderful picture of a relationship restored. God would deal with the sin of his people, and would come back to dwell in their midst again … eternally!

A Christian response to the theme of glory in the book of Ezekiel should note that Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as being the fulfillment of this prophetic vision about the return of the glory of God to be among his people. As the Apostle John taught: “the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, full of grace and truth. We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” The Apostle John in penning those words was asserting the idea that God’s glory has returned to his people in the person of the Lord Jesus. Because God has dealt with the sin of his people in the death of Christ, through his resurrection and ascension into heaven the relationship between God and humanity has finally been restored. Seated in the heights of heaven, humanity in Christ is now dwelling in the glorious presence of God.

The magnificent glory of God is also what Christians have been and will be privileged to behold. For all the splendor of Ezekiel’s visions of God’s glory, that, says Ezekiel, was merely “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezek 1:28)! It was not the real thing, but only the likeness of the real thing. Now if that wonderful vision was only the likeness of the glory of the Lord, then imagine how magnificent, how splendorous, how absolutely blindingly bright must be the true vision of God’s glory! This is why the Apostle Paul could describe the light of God’s glory as unapproachable. Even the darkest of sunglasses will not be enough to deal with the brightness of the glory of God.

Yet this is the true glory of God that Christians are privileged to observe and behold on the face of Christ. Although in this world we behold Christ’s glory through the eyes of faith, we do so in the sure hope that one day we will see him face to face. On the day that Christ returns in glory, we shall no longer see from a distance like Israel before Sinai, but face to face! And it will not be like Moses who only got to see God’s glory occasionally every time he went up the mountain or into the tent of meeting; but rather, from that day forth, God’s people will have the privilege of beholding the fullness of God’s glory constantly and forever more.

If this is true, then we need to live our time on earth in the hope that as we have beheld the glory of God in the person of Jesus in the gospel story, then so also there will come a day when we shall be invited into the very presence of God, where we will behold the fullness of his glory, and be changed fully and completely by the experience.

The famous Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, once said: the glory of God “is the business of life.” The glory of God is what life is about. The whole purpose of creation is for God to reveal his glory, and share it with his most special creature, us human beings. In the end, God’s plan for the glorification of humanity will be fully realized.

David Livingstone, the famous missionary to Africa, once wrote: “Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger ... may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this be only for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in, and for, us.” Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger … nothing compared to the glory of God.

If anyone could write about “anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger,” it would be David Livingstone. He travelled over six thousand miles in Africa during the nineteenth century. He had to endure debilitating illnesses, and put up with danger from wild animals and hostile tribes. At the end of his life, he was found dead kneeling at his bedside, still in Africa yet still in prayer. It was the vision of God’s glory that kept Livingstone going through all the difficulties of life; and even at the end, it was the vision of God’s glory, and the hope of sharing in this, that inspired him on. I believe that meditating on Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God can also inspire God’s people today to pursue the true business of life.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Content and Central Concern of the Pentateuch

The central concern of the Pentateuch is God’s relationship with the people of Israel. The Pentateuch is basically a story about the establishment of a covenant relationship between God and Israel. The covenant in question is the Mosaic covenant. The term the Mosaic covenant (also known in the Bible as the old covenant) is used as a shorthand way of referring to two covenants: the Sinaitic covenant and the Deuteronomic covenant (see “Mosaic Covenant or Covenants?”). The Sinaitic covenant, as its name suggests, is the legal agreement that God and the people of Israel entered into with each other at Mount Sinai (Exod 24:1–11), whereas the Deuteronomic covenant is effectively a confirmation and expansion of the substance of the Sinaitic covenant in a manner appropriate for Israel’s life in the promised land (Deut 29:1). The account of the establishment of the Deuteronomic covenant is recorded in Deut 29–32. This covenant was established by God with the people of Israel in the desert of Moab, opposite the promised land.

Apart from the traditional division into five books, the Pentateuch can be divided into six main sections (as per D. A. Hubbard, “Pentateuch,” NBD2): the origin of the world and the nations (Gen 1–11); the patriarchal age (Gen 12–50); the exodus from Egypt (Exod 1–18); the Sinaitic legislation (Exod 19:1–Num 10:10); the wandering in the wilderness (Num 10:11–36:13); and the final speeches and death of Moses (Deut 1–34).

The climax of the Pentateuch is Israel’s encounter with God at Mount Sinai (Exod 19–24). Leading up to this point, the Pentateuch describes the circumstances and reasons that led to the establishment of the covenant relationship between God and Israel at Sinai. Having recorded the establishment of this relationship at Sinai, the Pentateuch is concerned to explore the nature of this relationship in more detail and the beginnings of the historical outworking of this relationship for Israel. Standing at the heart of this relationship were the promises of God. God’s promises are referred to in the Pentateuch under the terms blessing and curse (e.g., Deut 28:2, 15; 30:1). The term blessing describes the positive benefits that would accrue to Israel if the nation as a whole was committed to the covenant relationship with God, whereas the term curse denotes the negative consequences of disobedience. The terms or stipulations of the covenant spelled out God’s promise to Israel, and Israel’s obligation to respond in covenant faith, i.e., faithfulness. God promised to bless Israel on the condition of obedience (i.e., faithfulness) to the stipulations of the covenant revealed in the law of Moses (Exod 19:5–6; 23:22; Deut 28:1–14). But God also promised to punish Israel on the condition of disobedience (Exod 23:20–21; Deut 28:15–68). In a nutshell, God promised that if the people of Israel would obey his commandments (i.e., be faithful to the covenant), then they would live in his presence, and experience blessing in close communion with him in the promised land.

The concern of the Pentateuch with tracing the historical background, the establishment, and the initial stages in the subsequent outworking in history of the covenant relationship between God and Israel means that the backbone and dominant genre of the Pentateuch is historical narrative. Interspersed within this narrative structure, we also find the genres of law, prophecy, and poetry. The genre of law is particularly significant. Within the Pentateuch, this genre relates especially to the stipulations of the covenant, and highlights the significance of the concepts of covenant and obedience in Israel’s relationship with God.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Meaning of Pentateuch

The word Pentateuch denotes the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The word Pentateuch has come into English from Greek via Latin. It is an uncommon yet appropriate word to use of the five books of Moses, because the etymological meaning of the word is five books.

According to Jewish tradition, the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Christian Old Testament) is divided into three main parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Pentateuch corresponds, therefore, to the Jewish canonical division of the Law, also known as the Torah. The Law is considered in Jewish tradition to be the foundational and most important part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

God, Jonah, and the Great City of Nineveh

The book of Jonah describes the city of Nineveh as “a great city.” The phrase a great city occurs once in the book (Jon 3:3), and the phrase the great city three times (Jon 1:2; 3:2; 4:11).

Archaeological research has shown that Nineveh was indeed a great city comparatively speaking. The city enclosed by its walls was roughly rectangular in shape. The four lengths of the city walls were around 2 km, 5 km, 1 km, and 5 km, giving an area of about 8 square km inside the walls. There is also strong evidence of settlement occuring outside of the city walls. The walls included fifteen monumental gates, and inside the city were magnificent temples and a royal palace. Nineveh was definitely a very large city in the timeframe of the eighth century B.C. when Jonah was sent by God to warn the city of his intention to destroy it (2 Kgs 14:25; Jon 3:4).

The size of the city is significant in the narratorial world of the book of Jonah. A narratorial aside at the end of Jon 3:3 tells us that “Nineveh was an extremely large city (עיר־גדולה לאלהים), a journey of three days.” It is interesting that the translations of Jon 3:3 have generally taken the phrase לאלהים as an adverbial intensifier, even though the phrase literally means to God.

So should עיר־גדולה לאלהים be translated as an extremely great city or as a city great in the sight of God? We need to keep in mind at this point that Hebrew is a very contextual language. A lot of exegetical decisions in the Hebrew Bible are decided by context. The focus of the disjunctive clause in Jon 3:3 is on the size of the city. The immediate context suggests, therefore, that it makes sense to translate לאלהים as an adverbial intensifier: Nineveh was “an almighty great city” to put it in more colloquial terms, where the word almighty also captures something of the etymological connotation of strength or importance that the אלהּ root possibly communicates.

But at the same time, the immediate context needs to be viewed in the light of wider contextual considerations, where it is to be noted that the three instances of the phrase the great city in Jonah all occur on the lips of … God! It is also clear from Jon 4:11 that the 120,000 person population of Nineveh, and its many animals, were a key component of the greatness of the city from God’s perspective. The wider context, therefore, pushes us in the direction of the LXX translation: that Nineveh was a great city to (i.e., in the sight of) God.

So how is this to be resolved? I take it that the ideal reader of the text (an orthodox Israelite with an intimate knowledge of ancient Hebrew culture and language) would understand the phrase לאלהים in Jon 3:3 as being a case of double entendre. Nineveh was almighty big, and big to the Almighty! Its large human and animal population meant that God was rightfully concerned about the fate of the city, and that it should rightly experience God’s pity upon the condition of repentance. After all, those people and animals were created by God in the first place (note the logic of God’s argument in Jon 4:10–11).

The effect of the double entendre is to help us to realize that the almighty large cities of our world are important to the Almighty.