Dr. Walter Kaiser Lectures on Answers to Assumed Errors in the Old Testament
By: The John Ankerberg Show
|By: Dr. Walter Kaiser, Jr.; ©1991|
|Did God deliberately make some things in the Bible difficult to understand? How can we sort out error from false assumptions and interpretations of the Bible?|
Assumed Errors in the Old Testament – Difficult by Design?
The information in this program was taped live at The Ankerberg Theological Research Institute’s Apologetics Conference in Orlando, Florida.
Our instructor for this session is Dr. Walter Kaiser. Dr. Kaiser is Academic Dean and Professor of Semitic languages and Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Dr. Kaiser received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University in Mediterranean studies and he’s the author of numerous books, including The Old Testament in Contemporary Preaching, Toward an Exegetical Theology, Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching, A Biblical Approach to Suffering, which is a commentary on the Book of Lamentations, Toward Old Testament Ethics, The Uses of the Old Testament in the New, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Back Toward the Future: Hints for Interpreting Biblical Prophecy, and “Exodus: A Commentary” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary.
In addition, he has written a number of other titles for both popular and scholarly audiences.
What’s more, Dr. Kaiser has contributed articles to a number of periodicals, including Moody Monthly, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and Evangelical Quarterly.
Dr. Kaiser is a widely respected conference speaker and an enthusiastic and skilled teacher.
[Ed. Note: The above biographical information was valid at the time this program was taped in 1991.]
Dr. Kaiser’s topic for this session is: “Assumed Errors in the Old Testament.”
Dr. Walter Kaiser: Thank you for this opportunity to address you on this wonderful topic. There are just loads of things we could do together, but let’s begin by talking about this theme which we have tried to work on in some detail. There’s another volume…. I usually introduce this by saying this is a text that is the favorite author of my wife. She recommends —since I am the author—Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. There is another volume to follow very shortly in which we have taken up almost 150 ethical, moral, theological problems that have been introduced in the text. So frequently, historical issues have been raised and numerical, chronological, genealogical; but we’ve needed one that actually spoke of ethical and moral and doctrinal kinds of problems.
So today I’d like to work on some of those and I’ll be taking some illustrations from this particular set.
First of all, though, why should we even get into the topic? Why contemplate the whole topic of errors or alleged errors in the Bible and hard sayings? And I think, first of all, it is because the serious reader of the Bible actually wants to understand. They want to say, “Look, there is something here that is difficult.” Just because we have come to new faith in Christ and are believers doesn’t mean automatically that everything in the Bible is easy. Even the apostle Peter said in his writing, [2 Peter 3:15-17], he said there are certain things in Paul’s writings which are hard to understand. So being an apostle he didn’t say, “Well, this is just easy as taking candy from a baby.” It was hard. As a matter of fact, taking candy from a baby is hard anyway, so even the expression is very poor.
But then a second reason seems to me it’s the result of, I think, divine design. I think our Lord deliberately made some things in the text more difficult in order to arouse our attention. What we need to work for more diligently and to put more effort in usually we understand better and longer, and therefore it seems that it has a greater effect on us. And I think therefore it’s part of the Lord’s design.
Some, of course, say, “Yes, but don’t we have—what’s that big word? —perspicuity of the Scriptures?” That they are perspicuous, that is, clear? And doesn’t that mean that anyone can open up the Bible, even, said Tyndale, “a plowboy and read the Bible and understand it”? Yes, if you remember the context in which that was said—in the Reformation. That is, the essential message of salvation and coming to faith in Christ is so elementary, so clear, that indeed it could be understood by anyone and literally, everyone. But that doesn’t mean everything in the Bible therefore is like Watson said, “Elementary.” It’s not elementary. There are some things that are more difficult and therefore require time.
And, I think, thirdly, another reason is that it proves there is no collusion between the writers. Sometimes our problems come up because one writer puts it one way; another writer puts it another way. If this was a book that had been designed by the writers getting together, then certainly you would have none of this. They would have ironed it out and would have stated it so that there were no apparent contradictions on the surface. But as it is, there are.
Then, it seems to me, a fourth reason; that is, simply to test our commitment to Christ. Because if some wish to beg off, they can. They can beg off from following Christ by saying, “Well, there are problems there in the text and here’s my reason why I don’t come anymore.” Therefore, they always dangle this in front of you and say, “If you want me to be a Christian, you’ve got to solve this problem.” Well, if they genuinely doubt and care, we’re in good shape. But if they doubt and don’t care, then we’re in trouble. And that, I think, is another reason why I think we need to watch that.
So it’s strong medicine for some, but I think that there it really should rest. There’s been a long history in the Church in responding to these errors or alleged errors, for I don’t think there really are errors in the text. But at least there are questions that come up in some of these hard and difficult sayings.
The first four centuries saw the Church Fathers, like Eusebius and Augustine and Chrysostom and Theodoret, four fairly well-known Church Fathers. In the first four centuries they constantly were responding to things like this for the believing community. But then we have a kind of a gap, a hiatus, from the fifth century all the way up to the sixteenth century when this subject dropped. But then, from the Reformation up to our present day, the magisterial work in this area was done by John W. Haley. Haley’s 1874 Magisterial Study on this, probably still being reprinted, still one of the best, is called, An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, 1874. Now, well over a hundred years later on, it’s still being published. And that one goes by historical errors, chronological errors, alleged errors, and then doctrinal alleged errors. Usually doesn’t get into ethical and moral kinds of things, but he cites in the back 42 books from the Reformation and post-Reformation era up until 1874 dealing with our topic. So there is a good bibliography that exists.
But enough discussion about that. Let’s get into some of those texts and go immediately to them.
The first one I’d like to turn to, of at least ten texts that I propose to look at and to sort of treat in some depth each one, is, first of all, Genesis 22. This is the very famous one that comes up quite frequently about Abraham sacrificing his son. How could God tell Abraham, after he has waited 25 years and is 100 years old and his wife was 90 when they finally had a son now in approximately his teen years, to tell him in chapter 22 of Genesis, “Some time later, God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham.’ ‘Here am I,’ he replied. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering.’”
Now, how can you have God commanding a man to do what he had, as a matter of fact, told the children of Israel later on in the Law they must not do? That is, he told them that they were not to have human sacrifices. But, lo and behold, this looks like a human sacrifice.
First of all, we need to see in verse 1 that the Bible says, “The Lord tested Abraham.” Now, what Abraham did not know is what we as the readers know. Just like they say on radio, where you know they give you that sort of buzzer sound, “The following is a test. In the event of an emergency you would be told to turn to such and such.” You know how that announcement goes. We’ve all heard it a billion times now—I think by accurate count. But at any rate, here this text says, “The Lord tested Abraham.” “The following is a test. In the event of an emergency….Abraham would be told, ‘Do not do this.’ But the following is a test.” I think you need to know that. The reader is told what Abraham was not told.
Then it seems to me that there is something more going on here, because it is clear, of course, that God is against human sacrifice. As a matter of fact, the prophets condemned it in Jeremiah 19:5 and Ezekiel 20:30-31, and again in Ezekiel 23:36-37. And the Law prohibited it, too, where indeed they had the offerings of children to the god Molech. Molech, which is probably Hebrew Melek, but they took the word bosheth, shame, the o vowel, and the e vowel, and changed Melek into Molech by saying, “Shame, shame.” That’s the way they stigmatized that name. And that god, the Moabite-Canaanite god, had a kind of big picture of him. Their altar was with him with his mouth wide open, his arms out like this, and they used to put the baby on the end of the hands. Then as they rolled the drums, there was a big fire down on the side of the god like a potbelly stove, and this child would go, “Whoom, whoom, whoom, bang!” into the fire, while they sang hymns to Molech. A very dangerous thing. It’s no wonder that when they finally came to that place where it was, out in the valley to the south of Israel in the Hinnom Valley, they turned it then into Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom, which became the picture of hell, where the fires do not go out and they burn day and night.
Well, the point here, it seems to me, is that it was a test. Genesis 22, when God called for Abraham to offer his son Isaac, it was a test; and then it seemed to me there was more, though, here. Because you recall that later on in John 8:56, it said that “Abraham rejoiced to see my day.” The day of Jesus. Jesus is speaking here. When did Abraham see, indeed Christ?
And the Jewish people of that day in the audience, they said, “You’re not 50 years old! How could Abraham see you!?”
See, they understood the word “see” and said, “This is impossible. He couldn’t have seen you.”
And Jesus’ response back, I think, is in terms of the word “day.” “They rejoiced to see My period, My time, My era,” the things there just like he uses later on where he prayed that the hour might pass from them. Or that he spoke of the day or the time in which he was going to come.
So indeed here, nothing in the Old Testament says in so many words that Abraham saw the death of Messiah as the Savior of the world; but apparently in this event Abraham saw something that indeed pictured what Christ was going to be. The place of binding. Where was it that he was bound? Mount Moriah. Where is Mount Moriah? That is Calvary, the very place where our Lord was taken out.
And also, the distance to which he had to go. Abraham and his servants had to go three days’ journey. Verse 4 of Genesis 22 was “on the third day.” Abraham looked up and he saw Mount Moriah in the distance. Then he told those, the servants that were with him, “Stay here with the donkey.” Verse 5, “I and the boy will go…. We will worship and then we will come again.”
“We will come again?” What did he think God was going to do? The text said Abraham believed that God was able to bring his son back from the dead again. But our Lord stopped him in the midst of that, when they were up the hill—you remember Isaac was more than a foil, he is a teenager here at this point and he says, “Dad, we’ve got the wood. We’ve got the fire. We’ve got the knife. Isn’t there something missing?” Can you imagine this scene?
And then the father starts wrapping him up in rope and he’s saying, “Dad, are you okay?”
“Don’t worry, son. Lie down here on this altar.”
Yes, I’m adding this for a little bit of flourish but there must have been some of that. Of course, some of my remarks are marginal but basically, the text, though, has him lying down and then he stretches forth the knife and as he is ready to come down, a voice comes from heaven and says, “Abraham, Abraham, don’t do it. Don’t do it.”
And the Lord tested Abraham. So I think that what we have here is something altogether different than child sacrifice. As a matter of fact, Isaac himself was the promise of everything God was going to do. If Isaac had died at this point, this class is cancelled. If Isaac had died, Christmas and Easter are no longer negotiable; they’re over. You ought to read it with bated breath. This could have been it. This could have been it. It could have been the wrong moment altogether.
So I take it that what could have been an ethical problem, a moral problem, was not intended by God. For the Lord said, “Now I know that you fear me.” It’s one of the first times where the “fear of God,” which doesn’t mean biting one’s fingernails or being scared, is used. The same word has antonymic, that is, opposite meanings in the Bible. That is, Exodus 20:20, “Fear not, only fear the Lord.” You say, “Would you run that by me again? Am I supposed to or not? Am I supposed to fear the Lord?” No. Don’t be afraid, but rather, have total commitment of faith in the living God. Fear, as being an attitude, a wholistic attitude of faith and confidence in the living God.
Well, let’s go to a second one which I think is always one that comes up, “And the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” How many times have you heard that particular text? Exodus 9:12, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron just as the Lord had said to Moses.”
Well, this question brings up the whole question of sovereignty and free will. Is God sovereign? Now, that may be hard for some of you, so let me just say it plainly: “Is God God?” And, of course, everyone would say, “Yes” to that one, so there, gotcha.
But then, also, what about the other aspect of it. Are human beings responsible? Oh yes. Well, then how do you put the two here together? Wasn’t Pharaoh sort of like a fall guy? I think there is a thing I didn’t approve too much of, Jesus Christ, Superstar, you will remember, some years ago. It had Judas as the “fall guy” who is necessary for all the good that was going to come into the world because he had to kiss Jesus and do the kiss of betrayal. So we needed Judas, therefore we need a Pharaoh, right? God says, “Oh, I can waste him!” But that’s not what the text is saying here at all. It is not that he could “waste Pharaoh.” As a matter of fact, he sent him ten good reasons why he ought to believe. The plagues were sent 10 times, the text says, so that Pharaoh and the Egyptians “might know.” And the word there “to know” is experiential knowledge. It wasn’t just cerebral. Oh yeah, true or false. Yeah, true. He is God. That wasn’t it. So that they might from their whole being know. That they might know that He is God.
So what shall we say about this hardening? The word “harden” occurs 20 times in the text. The interesting thing is, the first ten times on the first five plagues, so it’s almost twice for each of the first five of the ten plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. You’ve got to see this in the text. I won’t take time to read verse after verse, but they’re there. And starting with that passage that he begins in the Exodus 6 passage on through chapter 14 you will find in those first five plagues consistently and without exception Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
Now, it is true that there were two other verses, Exodus 4:21 and Exodus 7:3 which were prophecies or predictions before this took place. Indeed, this would be Pharaoh’s own response. However, you must understand that in no way conditions Pharaoh, nor does it lock him in. It is only on the basis of the foreknowledge of God that he now decrees that, knowing the man that he is dealing with, that’s what he was going to do. You say, “Well, what else could he do?” Well, picture it this way. Draw a circle and call that circumscribed freedom. It’s circumscribed because there is a circle that is the outer limits. Within that circle, all men and women operate with an enormous amount of options. Now draw a line that comes up to the edge and then pick it up on the other edge with an arrow going out and put the Exodus. That’s the plan of God. There’s going to be an Exodus.
Now, within that circumscribed freedom there are several ways in which Pharaoh can go. Pharaoh can say, “I’m going to be a good guy. You know, my policy is, repatriation. I like to see people go back home and I’m going to help them get back. As a matter of fact, I’ll make a donation to their chapel fund. I’ll see that a temple or tabernacle is built.” Now, that would be great. But you know who did that? Cyrus did that later on. In the Babylonian captivity that’s exactly what Cyrus did—Isaiah 45—so I know there is another option.
But in this case, Pharaoh said, “Who me? Let them go?! Over my dead body!”
The Lord said, “Not a bad idea.” So indeed you have here an option. There are two options and there are different ways in which you can kind of bring it out.
Well, in this particular case, then, it seems to me that in the first five plagues and in the prophecy before you have a little contrast. God warns Moses, given this man’s response, I tell you, he’s not going to let you go. But, let’s test him. So God sends plague #1, and Pharaoh’s own magicians replicate it. They duplicate the exact same thing. Plague #2; Pharaoh’s magicians replicate it. You say, “How can they do this?” Well, there are other supernatural powers in this world beside God. Plague #3, the magicians come to Pharaoh and they say, “Listen, this is the finger of God. This is the power of God. I’m warning you, don’t mess with this.” But Pharaoh doesn’t listen. Plague #4; he still doesn’t get the point. Plague #5. And the text keeps saying that God is doing this so that Pharaoh might know, might believe. But he’s a slow learner.
And then we go to plague 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. And in those plagues, it says, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” God hardened. Only in the last five plagues do you have ten times where God hardens his heart. So God is not the author of evil. In this case, he seconds the motion made by the man originally. And I take it that in this particular instance, then, that God is not, as it were, making a fall guy or wasting some people or just because he’s Egyptian he doesn’t have respect for him. You’ve got to know that there were some Egyptians that were impressed. There were some that believed. For in terms of Exodus 12:38 there is a mixed multitude that went out of the land of Egypt and who were some of those people that left with them? Egyptians. Egyptians who said “this is the finger of God.” And they were impressed by the works that God had done.
Well, let’s go to another one and that is in Exodus 12:35-36. There the Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold, for clothing. And the Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people so that they gave them what they asked for, so they plundered the Egyptians. From this has come our famous expression of “plundering the Egyptians,” which generally means, “Take all of the secular things that are true and everything that you will find in the enemy’s camp and then try to use that as best you can to the glory of God.” Well, in this particular instance, I don’t think it was necessary for us to really see a problem because generally what’s said here is that the Israelites were begging and borrowing. That’s usually how this word sha’al is used. It means “to borrow” in a few cases; but the majority is just simply “to ask.”
So the question is, did they ask or did they borrow? What does it mean, “They plundered the Egyptians”? I would like to suggest to you here that there are three passages where this so-called spoiling of the Egyptians comes up, Exodus 3:21-22; Exodus 11:2-3; and then this passage that I’ve just read for you, Exodus 12:35-36. In all three passages what is abundantly clear here is that indeed there was no borrowing or deceit or guile. They didn’t say, “Do you have something for a nice Passover Feast? We’ll get it back to you tomorrow.” And then they beat it out of town as fast as possible. That is not what is involved here.
Some have suggested that or meant to say that this is what the text taught, but there’s no word for that whatsoever. So again, the alleged error here or that sort of trying to attribute to God some kind of moral fault doesn’t work out. For in this text it seems to me it just simply means that they asked. Notice also that the Lord gave them favor and that the Egyptians pitied them, say these texts, too, as well, and I take it that in part that what is happening here is that they are acknowledging that in all that has been forced upon them for these 430 years in bondage, the Egyptian people said it wasn’t fair and they had a sense of rightness about this whole thing.
So I think that what we’re getting here is a sense in which they say, “Look, you deserve this. Let us give you here our articles.”
Psalm 106:46 I think also shows that God favorably disposed the Egyptians toward them. It said, “God caused the Egyptians to have pity on Israel.” That’s in Psalm 106:46.
And again, in Psalm 105:37 to avoid all suggestion that they took any weapons or armor or cattle or food supply or goods from the home, those things which generally go with plunder in a war, it even leaves out the word “articles” before the words “silver and gold.” So that what they asked for were things which later on the Israelites will turn around and dedicate in a voluntary offering to build the tabernacle and the things that went with the tabernacle.
So this type of “spoiling,” so called, is not your usual term for plundering someone in battle of what is taken when the battle is over. And when one adds that the Egyptians willingly surrendered these jewels and these articles of gold and silver, then it seems to me that you are sensing that the Egyptians viewed their gifts as partial compensation for the grief and toil that the Israelites had endured these centuries.
Let’s turn to another one, and that is the famous text, “To obey is better than to sacrifice,” the text that occurs in 1 Samuel. Here, particularly, I’m interested in 1 Samuel 15:14-15 and then verse 22. You recall that Samuel had told the new king, Saul, he said, “Wait for me and be sure to wait. Don’t offer sacrifice and don’t bring anything back from the battle.” This is herem, almost like our English word, “harem.” I’ll explain that in just a little bit later on when we come to another problem.
But, lo and behold, when Samuel came, he said, “What’s this bleating of the sheep,” verse 14, and “What’s this lowing of the cattle that I hear?”
Saul answered, “Oh, the soldiers brought them from the Amalekites. They spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord.” You can almost see him with righteous sort of, “Isn’t this a real super idea that I had?!”
And Samuel replied, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than to sacrifice and to harken than the fat of rams.”
Now, this text has led a large segment of the non-evangelical, or let’s just say it pointedly, the liberal community to say God never called for sacrifice. He said he didn’t want sacrifice but what he wants is obedience. And so you had the prophetic era and the pre-prophetic era as being non-legal. Legalism and the priestly materials come later on. What’s the use of B when there’s no A? Why would you sacrifice when there is no obedience, no heart attitude? And this was the great problem throughout all of biblical revelation and is still a problem today. I’d rather sing a solo for the Lord, than get ready myself in my own heart.
I often tell people, “Before you put anything in the offering plate, jump in yourself.” I don’t mean this literally. This would put undue pressure on the ushers. But what I am trying to say is, you’ve got to give and I’ve got to give myself before I give anything. God looks at my heart before he listens to my lecture. God looks at my heart before he looks at what I put in the plate. God looks at me before he looks at any Christian service. Why the paraphernalia if there is no back-up of life?
And so he puts it in this proverbial form. “What’s the use of B when there’s no A?” “To obey is better than.” It doesn’t mean, “Do A, skip B,” or “Do A, I never wanted B.” But it’s hard to get across to some people who just don’t understand this. And when you speak proverbially, I suppose some people really do get into difficulty.
I’ve had students come to me and say, “Prof, should I get married?” Well, I’ll look at them and I’ll give opposite advice, depending on what I think of them and what I know of their life.
I say, “Well, he that hesitates is lost.” See, that’s the advice.
And they understand that and say, “Oh, thank you.” And then they go to another Prof just to check it out, you know, and they say, “Do you think I should get married? I was in to see Kaiser and he said, ‘He that hesitates is lost.’“ And they say, “Well, I’ll tell you, ‘Look before you leap.’“ And they give another sort of advice here you know. But each one of them are not meant to be contradictory. They focus on particular aspects and personalities.
And they go to a third one and they say, “Happy is the wooing that is not long in doing.” And there’s another kind of proverb, too. You try to sweep up as much as you can when you speak in this way. “To obey is better than to sacrifice and to listen than the fat of rams.”
So what’s the use of “this” without “that”? The prophets had this all along. You have it in Isaiah 1. The Lord said, “I’m sick and tired. I’m up to here with your bulls and new moons and sacrifices and calling of assemblies.” The Lord said, “Take it away from me! I can’t stand it. I’m fed up.” Literally, says chapter 1:12-15. And he said, “When you come before me, who has called upon you to lift up your hands in prayer?”
You say, “Now, shall we pray.”
The Lord said, “I’m going to hide my eyes. Go ahead, you do your little thing. You do your little thing. I’m going to hide my eyes.”
Honestly look at the text. I know I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a pretty good paraphrase. It’s out of the Living Kaiser. So you can sort of get here the flow of what he is saying.
And he said, “Do you want to know what’s right? Come now, let us reason together. Though your sins are scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
And then he goes on to set the grounds for any kind of worship. Jeremiah 7:21-23. He said, “I didn’t speak to you for the sake of sacrifices but this I said to you…” and then it goes on to speak of obedience of the heart and a full life of faith that is the undergirding principle.
Micah said, “Wherewithal shall I come before the Lord?” Micah 6:6. “Shall I give him thousands of lambs and rams? Shall I give him rivers of oil? Maybe I should even take my firstborn son like Molech says”—they really get the thing confused—“and give him to God?” And he says, “Oh, man, he has showed you!” And what has the Lord wanted but “justice and mercy and walking humbly with our God”?
Jesus said, “If you want to understand the Old Testament, go home and think about that,” Matthew 9, Matthew 12, Matthew 23:23. Why don’t you think of the weightier matters of the Law? Some things are heavier. And think about that, he said. Think about that.
So you have that phrase over and over again. David had to learn that. He said, “Boy, I’ve tried toughing it out. That thing with Bathsheba. I went nine months. I’m just going to stonewall it. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to stonewall it. And he tried to pretend like it wasn’t there but he said, Psalm 32, he said, “Boy, I tell you, I was drying up inside. My bones felt like brittle; they were going to come apart. He said, then I said to myself, “Look here, confess it.” I confessed it. Oh, the relief.
Talk about the ad, you know, “How do you spell relief?” We had a Chinese student come from Hong Kong that said, “I listened to television. I learned my first English word to spell, it’s relief, R O L A I D S.” That’s not the way you spell relief in the Bible. The way to spell relief in the Bible is, “Confess—C O N F E S S.” Oh, the happiness. Oh, the relief that comes.
And David says in Psalm 51, a parallel Psalm to that, he said, “Listen, sacrifice and offerings, you didn’t want, O Lord, but a broken and a contrite heart you will not despise.” Next verse down, “Then wilt thou be pleased with sacrifices.” That’s always been God’s order. Psalm 50, “I own the cattle on a thousand hills. If I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you. I didn’t say to bring me a gift, bring me a gift.” He said, “I own all that. You’re giving back to me. A lend/lease program. I own you, I own the hill and I own the cattle, and the banks thereof.” The whole thing is owned by the living Lord.
Well, we can get carried away here, but there are a number of different passages like that and I think that it is a great principle and we misunderstand it if we say, “Do A and forget B. Listen to God and don’t bother sacrificing.” But it’s a both/and rather than an either/or; it’s a priority thing, rather than a contrasting thing.
Let’s go to another problem that occurs here. Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 may not be well known but it always comes up as a problem. Uzzah reached out to keep the ark of God from falling off the cart and he stretched out and the text says here, “When they came to the threshing floor of Machon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God” —this is 2 Samuel 6:6—“because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of this irreverent act. Therefore the Lord struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.” And you ought to hear the tears and the letters that come and the commentaries and the liberals and it just goes on and on, and my work is difficult. Well, at any rate, for those who know, the more we know the more accountable we are.
In 1 Samuel 6, in contrast to this passage in 2 Samuel 6 which is easy to remember, there the Philistines made a cart, put the ark of God that they had taken in battle long before and was going from city to city down there from one to the other of the five cities of the plain. It had gone to three cities and a bubonic plague had broken out. Why bubonic plague? Because they made five golden rats. There is no word for rat in Hebrew. Mice or rat, same thing. And five emerods or swellings which come in the warm parts of the bodies. And they would get this huge swelling. Well, that is connected with the bubonic plague. So here goes one city, second city, third city and they kept handling it like a hot potato. They said to the other two cities, “You have just won the ark.”
And they said, “Oh, no. Oh, no.”
They said, “Well, we wonder if this is by chance or not?” Some people think the primitives were, you know, you could put anything over on these people. They believed everything was just chance. Well, then, how about this, he said, let’s take a cow that’s just had a calf, that’s never been harnessed to a cart before and build a new cart and then we’ll put the ark of God, we’ll put the five rats, five golden rats and the five swellings on there and let’s see which way it goes. Pretty good thing.
I was raised on a farm. I tried to take a Guernsey cow out of the barn one day that had a calf in there. Now, you just don’t do that. I got that cow to the barn door and she put it in reverse and I wasn’t going to pull her. I lassoed her around the barn door and went down. I said, “You’re coming. I’m going to get a tractor.” So I got the tractor. Backed it up to the barn, put her on the draw bar and she locked all four knees. I had four skid marks down the barn hill around and the old tractor, that Ford Ferguson, an old 27-horse, went ping, ping, ping, ping. And I was giving it all the gas I could in low gear and she was determined, just a hollering an antiphonal response back and forth to the barn and to the calf, you know. And I don’t know what they were saying, but it wasn’t something they learned in Sunday school, I suspected. And there it was. And all of a sudden, that tractor stopped with a finality. If you’ve been around motors you know that there’s no sense trying. But I tried. It didn’t start. So that cow looked at me and just gave me the raspberries which I think meant, “That’ll learn you.” And they just sort of gave it to me, you know. You can’t take a cow away from its calf.
But they did there. And that cow went mooing all the way up the valley and they went running from rock to rock to see where it was going to go, and it went into the Israelite territory. They said, “This is not by chance. That was God speaking to us down there. Good thing we got the smarts to get that out of here.” But they handled the ark of God. Did they die? No. Why? They had no information. But how about Uzzah. Now, Uzzah probably was part of the Levites from the tribe of Kohath, and what had God said in Leviticus? They were to bear the ark of God on their shoulder on poles. Why? Because it was holy.
You say, “Oh, this secular, holy, I feel authentic before God I’m going to come the way I feel.” No, no, no. If you know something about God. He is a loving Lord but he’s separate, he’s distinct.
And so he told Moses at the burning bush, “Take off your sandals.” Who me, Lord. Yeah, take them off. Lord, I don’t feel like taking them off. I feel authentic in these things. I’ve been trucking around for 40 years in the Sinai Desert. I’m not going to take them off. Take them off, Moses. Why? Because it’s holy ground. Holy ground? It’s regular, I mean, it’s sand here. And besides, no disrespect, but sheep and goats were by here yesterday. Do you understand? I don’t understand this holy ground. Take them off, Moses. Why? Because I’m present. The presence of God means something different.
Does it mean I’ve got to be artificial? No, not artificial, but recognize the difference between the secular and the sacred. There is a difference. We had cut-off jeans at another generation and we were turning up at the house of God with anything because we thought that was authentic. That’s part of it, but what about the other part? God is different, separate, holy and so he taught Israel here, too, as well.
And this man, who should have had better information, did not know, or at least he didn’t practice that. And so our text to help us to sense the separateness, the differentness and to sense that there’s something altogether unusual about God over against the common or the profane, he therefore intervenes at this particular moment. Had nothing to do with his salvation but you see, he violated the holiness of God when he knew and should have known.
There are other passages like this, too. In 1 Samuel 6:19, 30 men at Beth-shemesh gawked at the ark and looked in the ark when they should have known this was set apart separate to the living God. They, too, perished.
And Jeremiah 25:6 warns, “Do not provoke me to anger, then I will not harm you.”
The same could be said of David’s response to God’s action. “My son, do not make light or despise the Lord’s discipline.”
So once again, I think we’re being taught, please observe the difference between the sacred and the secular. There is a line to be drawn. God is the author of everything because of the doctrine of creation, but there is a distinction that is to be made here in this particular text.
Well, let me try another one. This one is a very, very famous one that will be known instantly by everyone. And this is the story in 2 Kings 2:23-24 where the two bears came down and mauled the 42 children. Here the story, as some would tell it, is that a crotchety old prophet named Elisha, a little short on hair as well as on humor, walked up the road and these little toddlers came out from their beginner classes and said something in their sweet little way. They said, “Go up, baldy. Go up, baldy.”
And he couldn’t take a joke and he said, “Roar!” And with that he called out these two bears, they mauled them and someone said, “Well, there’s your Old Testament for you.” And that’s the way it’s been depicted. Tom Payne depicted it that way. Some of the great lecturers against the Bible used this story with great effect on a lot of audiences.
But I think it’s wrong on all accounts. This is not an old man. He saw Elijah go up into heaven and had 55 more years of ministry beyond that. So he’s not old. He is rather young, I would think, at this point. And this comes right after the ascension of Elijah up into Heaven. And the word for “little children” here, the word for “children,” is an unfortunate translation because we know, for example, that Isaac at his sacrifice was described in Genesis 22:12 by the same word, and Isaac was easily in his teens or early 20’s. And Joseph is described in chapter 37 of Genesis, verse 2 when he was seventeen years old by this same word. And it’s the same word used in 1 Kings 20:14 for those young men who are in the army. So, this can’t be children who are in kindergarten who come out there and happen to stumble across the fellow who looks rather odd. And therefore, they got caught in this. And even the word “little” here, which is a word that goes along with children or young men, it should be translated as the “younger” men rather than being “little.” And there are good examples of that. For example, David is called the youngest in his family, same word, in 1 Samuel 16:11-12. And there are other examples of it too as well.
So, what shall we say then? What was the basis of it here and what is happening? Well, these young men came out and they said, “Go up, go up!” Modern translation: “Blast off! Blast off!” In other words, what they’re saying is, it’s mocking Elijah’s translation up into Heaven. They’re saying, “Why don’t you go to Heaven, too, and get out of here?” It’s the opposite of consigning a person to the Netherworld. “Go to Heaven!” You see? And they were trying to use that in a negative pejorative way. And then when they called him “Baldy,” this was a mark of scorn in the Old Testament. Isaiah 3:17, 24. It implied in the Old Testament times—I’ve got to make that distinction so I don’t get in trouble here with my audience—but he said there at that point that it implied something that there was a suspicion of leprosy. But I don’t think that he was prematurely bald or bald at all. As a matter of fact, in Israel this was extremely rare at this time; did not exist. So, I think that it was a mark of reproach. “Blast off, Baldy!” Blast off, Baldy!” And you would have to think of some very bad terms to equal in our day what they were saying in their day.
Well, I think that what Elisha does here at this point is that he sends to God a prayer and asks God to do what he had promised. Leviticus 26:21 says, “If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will send wild animals against you and they will rob you of your children.” That had been the Law. That had been the threat. Don’t stand in opposition. Where was he coming to? He was coming up to Bethel. What was at Bethel? There was the whole institution of the northern religion that had been set up by Jeroboam where he said, “This is your god that brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” and pointed to the calf. And so they were afraid that he was going to attack the national religion and the idolatry that was installed there at that point.
Well, what about an even more difficult passage, and that is Psalm 137. Psalm 137, I think, is a text that also has been used numerous amounts of time to sort of bring charges against the gospel. There are about five Psalms that have Psalms of cursing or imprecation, as we say, the imprecatory Psalms. And many a tenderhearted believer has read these last verses of Psalm 137:8-9, “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
And you say, “Yipes! Did God say that?” And I think immediately where it looks as if he is saying, “I hate all the people in Iraq. I hope all the baby coaches and all the babies there are slammed into the pavement.” No. That would be bad if that’s what it said. But it does not say that at all. I want to assure you right from the very beginning.
There are at least five or six major Psalms, Psalm 55, Psalm 59, Psalm 69, Psalm 79, and Psalm 109, and then this Psalm 137, that have any element of imprecation, but David is the writer of the majority of these Psalms. The very same David whom we meet in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel who, when he had an opportunity to really right his bad treatment under Saul, he refused to do so. Remember?
David was in the cave and his men said, “Ah! ha! God has delivered him into your hands. Use your spear and point out a few things to him. This is your time. Do it! I mean, he made you king. Are you anointed or not?”
But David said, “I won’t touch the Lord’s anointed.” He never took it as personal vendetta. He never made it personal revenge.
So these Psalms are not personal revenge any more than another saying in the Old Testament, which I wanted to deal with, and that is, “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” This doesn’t mean that if someone in the Old Testament knocked out your tooth and you say, “Hold still!” and then you hit him and he says, “Wait. You’ve got two teeth. Hold still till we get even!” And we keep it up until we both have only four teeth. That’s not what it means at all. It says there these are the judgments for the judges.
In other words, he is giving there a stereotype formula: bumper for bumper. Compensation for injury, but no additional kind of trying to make a killing out of it.
Don’t say like the man when I was studying for my graduate degree, for my doctorate, the man said to me, “I’ve had two accidents and it has paid for my first two years at Harvard Law School.” He said, “Why don’t you have an accident. I can tell you how.” He said, “Make a turn”—in Massachusetts there’s a rule—“make a turn from the right hand lane left and make sure the fellow hits you behind the center posts. It’ll be his fault.” Then he said, “Stay in bed for three weeks and get a doctor to sign it.” And he said, “You can get tuition, too.”
The Bible says no. Bumper for bumper, fender for fender, but not also tuition. You’re not supposed to get that. Ox for ox, plow for plow. So when he says, “Eye for an eye” or “tooth for tooth,” he didn’t mean, “Hold still,” and you’re supposed to pop him one and get the identical number of teeth.
Well, same thing here, too, it seems to me, that what you have are prayers to God. And they’re mainly by David. Almost all, except this Psalm, is usually attributed to David. And I might also call to your attention, too, that in these very Psalms, David protests his kind thoughts toward his enemy.
In Psalm 35:12 David said, “They repay me evil for good and leave my soul forlorn, yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting; and when my prayers returned to me unanswered I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother.” He said, “That’s how badly I felt for my own enemy.” So he protests that he loves his enemy.
What are these, then? They’re longings for God’s people to see God’s righteousness done, and the attack that is coming to David is an attack not to him personally but to him as he is at the center of God’s kingdom and God’s program. So that’s why the pressure is coming to him, and they are praying not for personal vindication but for God’s vindication. And they only repeat in prayers—this is important—what God has already promised in the indicative statements of what would be the judgment of the wicked. It is not as if they are praying, “Do something new.” They say, “Lord, you promised that right will not forever be on the scaffold. Wrong won’t always be in the bad situation. Demonstrate that justice and right are worthwhile” and they ask God to step in.
“Yeah, but,” you say, “I still don’t understand about babies.” Well, the word here “happy” is used 26 times in this book of Psalms. It is used of individuals who trust in God. It’s not an expression of sadistic joy, “Oh! the pleasures! to see something like this.” It’s not sadism here at all. And then the words, “that dash your infants against the rock.”
Interestingly enough, you say, “Boy, I’ll bet you’d never get something like this in the New Testament.” The interesting answer is, “Yes, you do.” In Luke 19:44, there the very same verb, once in the Old Testament, Psalm 137:9, and Luke 19:44, there our Lord says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets….” Do you remember that? He said, “I see this…they’ll take you and dash you against the rocks.” Same passage. Same sort of saying there.
So, what is the word here? The word “infant” is misleading. Again, it does not specify the age. It may be used all the way of a grown child. And the word for “rock;” do you know there’s not one rock in all of Iraq? To put us between Iraq and a hard place, as someone said. The truth of the matter is that you’ve got to make brick there because they are devoid of rock or stone. So it is a metaphorical statement of judgment but it does not specify the method here. Just because of the fact that the terrain is altogether different.
So what is the point? These psalms of cursing do not contain wicked or immoral requests or desire. They only plead that God would let the office of Messiah and Messiah’s Kingdom not be trampled underfoot. “Don’t let your cause go down the drain,” is what they pray. That’s what they’re praying there. And they don’t want arrogant despisers who currently hold that office or throne or the position of ascendancy to be above them.
One last one I have time for and that’s in the book of Ecclesiastes. And here I would tell you about this one, “Eat, drink, and enjoy your paycheck, for this is the gift of God.” Many people say that this is the kind of thing that comes up; Ecclesiastes is a book of no-no’s. That it was written perhaps on Monday. The fellow really had a bad time. “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” Forty times. And you say, “Well, I know what he’s getting at. This is the natural man.” That’s how we’ve taught the book. But that’s wrong.
He said, “Now, hear the conclusion to the whole thing. Okay, if you add up zero plus zero plus zero plus zero forty times, even on new math it ought to be zero. But he didn’t come to that. Hear the conclusion to the whole matter, Ecclesiastes. 12:13-14, “Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole”—he didn’t say the word “duty” there. You say, “It’s italicized in my Bible.” I know it’s italicized. That’s because it isn’t there. That’s not because the Holy Spirit underlined it; that’s because the translator added it. See, he says, “This is what a man and woman is all about. Do you know that? Believing him and listening to his words.” Did you get that point reading this book? No, frankly I didn’t. Well, go back to “Go” and you must start all over again because you’ve not understood the book.
So what is the book all about? The book then is about life. Did you understand even secular life, eating and drinking and enjoying the benefits of my paycheck? You say, “I earned it the old fashioned way.” No, no. He said, “You didn’t earn it. It’s the gift of God.”
Twelve times over in this book it emphasizes the gift of God, the gift of God, the gift of God. So what’s the point to the book? Ecclesiastes 3:11 where he says there, “Listen, here’s the heart of the whole matter.” He said, “God has put eternity in the heart of a man or woman so they can’t know the beginning from the end until they come to know Him.”
Did you know that even eating doesn’t make sense? Do you know that even having a nice cool and refreshing drink, do you know that comes from God? You’ve got to know him to really enjoy that. Do you know that having possessions are gifts of God? They’re not only gifts of God but God gives the gift and God gives—Ecclesiastes 6:1—the power to enjoy it.
One of the tragedies of life is to see a man go down the road in a Rolls Royce complaining because he doesn’t have the gift. He has the gift of the car but he doesn’t have the gift to enjoy it. That comes from God and God has kept the one from the other so that we would say this life is idiocy until we come to know Him. I’ve got to know who built the world if I’m going to come to know the mundane, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road issues, where it is right down here.
So, these are some of the themes that I wanted to give to you and they’re only illustrations, almost ten of them, with regard to this particular session here. I hope that they at least have given you some cause for thinking through them and that you will say, “Yeah, these are some typical things that have come up.”
The truth of the matter is, when we handle contradictions from the Bible, we need to go back, first of all, to context. Context. Go out on the football field. Girls run out and the cheerleaders go out and they say, “Give me a D. Give me an E. Give me an F….Defense! Defense!” you know? Oftentimes I’ve wanted to run up on an interpreter who was teaching the Bible or in the church and say, “Give me a big C. Give me an O. Give me an N. Give me a T….Context! Context!” I could plead for context.
The second thing is, not only context but there also is the great desire in handling these things to come back and listen patiently to what the text says before we project onto them what we think they said. Listen to the author first who has the right to say. Then we can interact and then we can apply it to ourselves.