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Posts Tagged ‘the Bible’

Ancient Jewish and Christian writings were rife with speculation about Melchizedek, the enigmatic king who makes cameo appearances in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110.  Philo saw him as a symbol of the divine lo,goj (Leg. All. 3:79-82).   Some Gnostic Christians thought he was an angel (Hippolytus, Haer. 7:26; Pistis Sophia 1:25-26).  Some later rabbis took him to be the archangel Michael himself (‘Abot. R. Nat. [A] 34).

Ancient interpreters loved to fill in the gaps in our narratives and the narratives involving Melchizedek were just too enticingly gapped to pass up.  Hence all of the varied and (to us) wild speculation.  It seems likely that part of what fuelled this speculation was apparently the lack of any explanation of where Melchizedek came from, nor any narrative of when, how or if he expired.  For the ancient interpreter, these gaps leave open all sorts of enticing imaginative possibilities.

Maybe he didn’t come from anywhere.  So 2 Enoch 71:2 says Melchizedek was born to the wife of Noah’s (mythical) brother Nir without any prior act of sexual intercourse.  This tradition is probably based on the Old Greek version of the LXX Psalm 110.5 (109.3) which reads,

  evk gastro.j pro. e`wsfo,rou evxege,nnhsa, se 

 I have begotten thee from the womb before the morning star.  

  The writer of 2 Enoch seems to have taken this verse to imply that Melchizedek was the product of a divine begetting, something analogous to a virginal conception  Which raises the question: Did the writer of 2 Enoch believe that Melchizedek existed prior to his conception?  It would seem that at least the traditions that understand Melchizedek to be some sort of angel would hold to his pre-existence.

And perhaps, similarly, Melchizedek never died.  So 2 Enoch also narrates Melchizedek’s rescue from the flood by the angel Gabriel and being granted entry to the Garden of Eden where he would live and be “a priest to all priests” (71.27-29).  Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls see Melchizedek as an angelic judge who will punish the guilty and rescue the righteous on the Last Day (11Q13/Melch; 4Q401.11.1-3; 22.1-3).  Presumably these and the other Melchizedek-as-angel traditions understand him to be presently alive.

Why is any of this important?  I would suggest that it is precisely in this context of Ancient Jewish and Christian Melchizedek-speculation that we must understand the comparison of Jesus to Melchizedek found in Hebrews 7.  The key verses are verses 3 and 8:

Hebrews 7:3 He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life (mh,te avrch.n h`merw/n mh,te zwh/j te,loj e;cwn), but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever (me,nei i`ereu.j eivj to. dihneke,j).  

 Hebrews 7:8 In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives (zh/|).

 Both of these verses refer not to Jesus but to Melchizedek as being still alive and verse 3 refers to him as literally lacking in origin (not merely an account of his origin, as some conservative commentators would like to say!). 

With respect to verse 3, as in 2 Enoch, Melchizedek is here understood to occupy some sort of perpetual priestly office.  Furthermore, verse 3 also precludes the possibility that the author of Hebrews might have understood Melchizedek to be a christophany, an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ.  He “resembles” (avfwmoiwme,noj) the Son of God but is not identical with Him.

 Anyways, it seems very clear to me that 1) the author of Hebrews is here engaged in the same sort of Melchizedek speculation as were some of his contemporaries and 2) that it is precisely his belief that Melchizedek never died that drives his comparison of Melchizedek to Jesus.  According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus is “another priest” who “arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.” (7:15-16)
 
 So, what I want to hear from you is this: What are we to make of this text exegetically?  What are the hermeneutical and theological challenges here, and how are we to navigate them?  What say you?

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Cute Couple

I am single.  I do not write that (entirely) for all the single ladies out there, but rather to give my readers (all eight of you) a sense of where I am coming from.  You see, when you’re single and when you attend a church that is aware of the existence of single people, you will find yourself in contexts where you will receive gobs of advice on why one should try and how to go about procuring a spouse.  Indeed, numerous evangelical leaders have made this issue one of their key emphases, making the rounds offering what amount to theological info-mercialsfor Christian matrimony at Campus Crusade events, Bible colleges and the like. 

The picture of marriage being advertised is a generally rosy one, but not naively so.  The typical line that I hear is something to the effect that marriage, while difficult and never perfect, is a God ordained picture of Christ’s relationship to His Church (Ephesians 5) and a great blessing.  Moreover, marriage serves several purposes for the edification of the Church.  Thus, Al Mohler identifies three purposes of marriage: enabling procreation, avoiding fornication and providing companionship. 

Now, I have no intention of quarrelling with the current evangelical depictions of marriage.  I mean, I’m a bachelor.  What do I know about marriage, anyways?  Rather, what has struck me about the current evangelical counsel to singles is how very, very different it is from the Apostle Paul’s counsel to singles.

We could summarize Paul’s counsel to singles in 1 Corinthians 7 (the only place where he directly addresses the matter) thus:

Ok, so I know marriage isn’t really a sin, per se, and it can definitely help keep you chaste.  But, that said, I would really strongly advise you to stay single if you can.  You see, marriage means getting tied down to the things of this world (e.g., mortgages, pets, kids, in-laws…) and, let’s face it, this world is going to end really, really soon.  I mean, look, the great tribulation is already underway and this present world is already passing away.  In fact, I expect Jesus to get back any minute now.  So really you’d be much wiser to not get tied down in long-term commitments like marriage (what’s the point?) and instead to devote your undivided attention to the things of the Lord.  Anyways, not that I have a word from the Lord on the matter or anything, just my two cents.  For what it’s worth.

Below I have included the whole passage with the advice to singles italicized and the eschatological expectation bolded for any nay-sayers out there.  It’s pretty clear from this passage that Paul expected Jesus to return within Paul’s lifetime (see also Romans 13:11-12; Philippians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17) and that he taylored his dating advice accordingly.  Notably, he says nothing about procreation as a function of marriage.  Why worry about raising a family when the world could end at any moment?

Allow me to say as clearly as I know how: While I may have some reservations about some dimensions of the Evangelical push for marriage, I think that this push is by and large the right response to our current context of cultural promiscuity and relational non-commitment.  However, I think it is important to notice that it is a response to our current context.  Evangelical leaders like Al Mohler are most definitely not simply passing down timeless, ready-made “Christian” or “Biblical” advice for the unmarried, as even a casual reading of 1 Corinthians 7 shows.

The reason why typical Christian advice for singles differs so markedly from Paul’s is that few Christians today share what was for Paul a rock-hard conviction, namely, the belief that the Lord will return within just a few years.  For Paul, writing only a few decades after the  resurrection of Jesus, such a fervent belief in the immanence of the return of the Lord is understandable.  Contemporary Christians, on the other hand, have somewhat unexpectedly inherited a nearly 2000 year history of watching and waiting for the parousia that has rendered Paul’s sense of immanence somewhat implausible.  This is not to say that contemporary Christians should drop the belief that Jesus will come again to judge the quick and the dead, quite the contrary.  What it does entail is that we should not bank on it happening within our lifetimes but should make long-term plans and arrangements (e.g., marriage).

So in comparison to Paul, contemporary Christian counsel for singles has been radically de-eschatologized.  What is interesting is that Evangelicals often cite Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7, while muting Paul’s fervent expectation of an immanent parousia.  So Mohler writes,

Marriage as a remedy for sin? This purpose is ridiculed among many, but it is honored among Christ’s disciples. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul took as his concern in writing to the church at Corinth. Confused and seduced by sexual sin, that church had compromised its own ability to represent Christ. Paul pointed to marriage as a means of channeling sexual desire into its proper context, lest believers “burn with passion” and sin against God. [1 Corinthians 7:9]

Mohler cites Paul to support the idea that marriage can help tame unruly passions (though my married friends tell me it is less of a help than we poor, beleagured singles imagine) but seems to be quite unaware of the hermeneutical maneuver he has performed in so doing.  He has extracted a benefit of marriage that Paul acknowledges from Paul’s overall discussion and discouragement of marriage.  In fact, Mohler’s advice to singles directly contradicts Paul’s.  And it’s not hard to see why.   Our circumstances are not Paul’s circumstances, nor is everything Paul believed believable for contemporary Christians.

The upshot of all this is that Evangelicals do in fact do contextual theology, especially when it comes to the sort of practical theology that directly impacts our social existence.  But many Evangelicals often cannot admit this fact to themselves because of other theological commitments, such as belief in “inerrancy” and the “timelessness” or “absoluteness” of truth.  Though they do not have a word from the Lord on this matter, they do have one from Paul.  But, realizing that Paul’s counsel is singularly unhelpful in our current context and predicated on a false belief anyways, they give their judgment as ones who by the Lord’s mercy are trustworthy.  To singles they say (they, not Paul)  that marriage is a good and wholesome gift, ordained from the creation of mankind, and it is glorifying to God.  By all means, find a spouse.  Be fruitful and multiply!  Grow old together!  In their judgment, except in special cases, a single is happier if s/he remains not as s/he is. And they think that they too have the Spirit of God. 

6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion…. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called…. 25 Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 …. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry- it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. 

1 Corinthians 7:6-40

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