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Don’t Pray Like a Pig

Joey Dodson —  November 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

PigI was reading The Epistle of Barnabas[1] (a letter by one of the early Church Fathers) this week and came across this curious argument. According to Barnabas, Israel misunderstood the food laws given at Mt. Sinai. Moses wasn’t referring to actual food. He was speaking “spiritually.” God’s intention wasn’t to forbid people from eating pork. “Bacon tastes good! Pork chops taste good!” Rather, with this law, Moses meant believers should not associate with piggish people—those who only acknowledge the Lord when they are in need. Such folk are like swine that squeal until they are fed, students who oink for extra credit the week of finals (okay, that last bit is my addition). Barnabas goes on to interpret all the food laws in this manner.

Although I think Moses did actually endorse a literal prohibition from pork, I do appreciate Barnabas’ admonition for us not to be “little piggies” who only talk to God when we are in need. Prayer should be an ongoing conversation more than a 911 call. In short, even if you eat bacon: do not pray like a pig.

 


 

[1] The Epistle of Barnabas is an early Christian document written in the Second Century. Scholars debate whether the author was a Jewish-Christian or a Gentile one. It reminds me a lot of Hebrews. You can read the letter here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-lightfoot.html

 

 

FootballThe passion for college football in Arkansas amazes me. What happened the previous Saturday on the field and what will happen the next one saturates life in between. It even seeps into my classes. For instance, my first year as a prof, the Razorbacks and their new coach were having a lousy season. 1-6 in conference play! This particular week, the Hogs were scheduled to play their hated rivals: the infamous LSU Tigers.

We were covering Exodus 17 in class. It’s the chapter that recounts when the Amalekites ambushed the Israelites. As you remember, Joshua responds by taking up arms and leading Israel into the valley to fight. But Moses goes the other direction. He ascends the mountain and raises his arms. As long as Moses held his hands high, the Israelites were winning. Whenever he lowered his arms, however, the Amalekites got the upper hand.

I asked my students what they thought Moses was doing when he lifted his arms. Some suggested he was praying, while others suspected that he was worshipping the Lord.  Then one student—fueled with football frenzy—blurted: “I think he was calling the Hogs!” The student raised his hands and cheered the University’s trademarked cheer: “Woooooo! Pig Soooie!”[1]  As a longtime Hog fan, I appreciated the student’s enthusiasm. I also chuckled at the notion of Moses, the great Jewish lawgiver, praising pigs. I thanked the student and reinforced that the patriarch was more likely interceding on Israel’s behalf.

I used the droll distraction to inform the class that this student wasn’t the first to apply a little eisegesis[2] to Exodus 17. In the second century, an early church father filled with Christian passion wrote that Moses went upon the hill and raised his hands to form the symbol of the cross (Epistle of Barnabas 12:2). Rather than to tell of Joshua’s battle in the valley, the story was meant to foreshadow Jesus climb onto Golgotha’s hill.  Whereas in Exodus 17, Joshua[3] was introduced as a son of man, “the son of Nun”, Jesus would be declared the “Son of God.” Therefore, for this church father, Moses wasn’t so much worshipping the Lord or praying for Israel (or cheering for his favorite team): he was sharing the gospel of Christ. To be fair, the author of Barnabas read the entire Old Testament cross-eyed.[4]

I admitted to my students that as much as the New Testament scholar in me liked this interpretation, I am ultimately skeptical of this option as well. Of course, if we are going to allow something to influence our reading of the Old Testament, our love for Christ and the church are better options than football and nationalism.[5] I ended the discussion by saying that no matter what Moses was really doing, my prayer for believers is that—on this side of Moses and Jesus—we will be passionately and invariably involved in all three of our best interpretative options: worship, witness, and prayer.

(Nevertheless, maybe Moses was praying for the Razorbacks that week. In almost miraculous fashion, the Hogs went on to upset the Tigers.)[6]

 

[1] Here is an example of fans “Calling the Hogs”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyY8oUXaTio .

[2] OED: ‘The interpretation of a word or passage (of the Scriptures) by reading into it one’s own ideas.’

[3]Joshua is spelled the same as “Jesus” in Greek.

[4] Unfortunately, Barnabas’ resentment for the Jews sullied his reading too.

[5] If you’ve never read Richard Hays’s book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, I recommend it.

[6] Here’s are the highlights of that game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVlqcM2125s

My daughter’s great grandfather, passed away while we lived in Scotland. I came home from the University where I was pursuing a PhD to receive the sad news. My little girl began to ask me some big theological questions to help her process Pop’s death. “Can Pop see us right now?” “Does he still look the same age in his new body?” “What exactly is he doing at this moment?”

booksTo these questions and to most of them that followed, I could not answer. I kept saying, “Baby, I don’t know.” “Honey, I’m not sure.” Finally, with a look of frustration mixed with pity, she blurted: “So what are they teaching you at that school?!” Since, I was a post-graduate student in New Testament studies, she expected me to know a lot more than I did (so did my professors there!).

The truth is the Bible doesn’t give us much to go on concerning the Zwischenzustand—the technical word for the “intermediate state” (see I did learn something!). Most of Scripture is even silent with respect to what Jesus was doing from Friday night to Sunday morning. (Although my eight year old son once suggested that Jesus played Angry Birds all weekend.) The passages that do mention Jesus’ activity during this time are apocalyptic and vague.

But the New Testament is clear when it comes to what happened on Easter morning. As the hymn proclaims:

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Because of this resurrection truth, there was one certainty that I could tell my daughter. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those, like Pop, who have fallen asleep in him. The dead in Christ will rise first and we will all be with the Lord forever.

As a Greek prof, I have fun “cold busting” my students reading contraband Bibles: namely, English translations. Some give me the old lame excuse: “But I was reading the Old Testament.” On cue, I launch into my lecture about how reading the Greek Old Testament is just as valuable because (1) it predates our current Hebrew text and (2) was the version that the NT authors chiefly quoted. I teach them Greek so that they can read both the Old and New Testaments. To drive this point home, I often begin class by having my students compare a Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) to our Hebrew text (MT). Here’s an example from my class this past week. Before you read my comments below, what differences do you see between the two versions?

 

Ps 85:6-8 (NIV based on the Hebrew text—MT) Ps 84:7-8 (My translation of the Greek OT—LXX)
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people,
his faithful servants but let them not turn to folly.

 

God, after you turn to us, you will revive us,
and your people will rejoice in you.
Show us your mercy, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.I will listen to what the Lord God will say to me;
for he will speak peace to his people,
his faithful servants who are turning their heart to him.

After we translated the two versions, my students said they enjoyed how the LXX turned the rhetorical question from the MT into a confident pronouncement. That is, the MT asks God whether he will revive his people so that in return they would be able to rejoice in him. But in the LXX, it is not a matter of “if”: it’s a matter of time—“after God turns” he will give new life to his people and they will delight in him.

The students also liked how the Psalmist in the LXX makes the song more personal. In the LXX, God won’t just speak: he will speak “to me.” And finally, my students said they actually preferred the happier ending of verse 8 in the LXX to that of the MT. Rather than a prohibition to avoid turning to folly (MT), the LXX gives the positive promise to those who turn to the Lord.

A couple of my students expressed a bit of fear that I was trying to undermine their Old Testament translations. To allay their concerns, I contrasted the LXX with Siri on my iPhone. Just a few days before that class, I had decided to take a powernap. I grabbed my iPhone, pushed the button for Siri and said: “Wake me up in 25 minutes.” I am not sure what happened, but something went terribly wrong. Siri responded in her feminine robotic voice: “Okay, playing Keith Sweat songs for 25 minutes.” Wait…what? That wasn’t even close to what I said!

I told the students that unlike Siri in this instance, the LXX doesn’t totally miss what the MT was saying. Rather, it often nuances the MT and sometimes even enhances it. Some of our English translations and paraphrases do the same thing as they look for the best way to express a Hebrew word, phrase, or concept in English. To be clear, I am not arguing that we should read one over the other—just that there’s value in reading them both side by side.

(And for the record, I do not have 25 minutes worth of Keith Sweat music on my phone. Five maybe, but not 25.)

If you’d like to try it, you can read the English translation of the Greek OT here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/ or here http://ecmarsh.com/lxx/.

I recommend starting with the popular Psalm 23 (which is Psalm 22 in the LXX).

No matter how many times I read the Bible, no matter how many times I teach a class on it, I see things that I have never seen before. For instance, until recently, I had missed a fascinating (and convicting) connection between Jacob and Joshua.

Towards the end of his life, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) gathers the people at Shechem. There, he commands them all to bury their idols (Genesis 35). In response, the people offered Jacob all their foreign gods for him to bury under the oak at Shechem (v. 4). As a result, the fear of God fell on all the foreigners around them so that no one pursued them (v. 5). Now fast forward to Joshua 24—to the familiar “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house…” passage. Before Joshua issues that powerful charge, he calls Israel before him—at Shechem of all places. And what perchance does Joshua command the people to do at Shechem? To get rid of their gods.

Although Joshua nails the role of Jacob, it is unclear how well Joshua’s people play the part of Jacob’s household. Even though Joshua implores them twice to cast aside their gods, there is no mention of anyone burying their idols—not even of a shallow grave.[1] Perhaps this is also why—in contrast to the first congregation at Shechem—there is no mention of Israel’s enemies shaking in their sandals. It also sheds some light on the summary of the rampant idolatry in Judges 2. As the story of Israel unfolds it becomes clear, as with Joshua’s generation, it’s one thing for her to promise to serve the Lord, but quite another for her to bury her gods.

And then the personal conviction hits. How often have I publically ‘committed’ my life and my family to the Lord while hiding false idols behind my back? And of course, it’s one thing to express grief over our sins, but quite another thing to bury them once and for all.

As you make your New Year’s resolutions, consider a trip to Shechem.

 


[1] For more on this see Rick Hess, Joshua (Grand Rapids, IVP, 1996).

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