Richard W. Coffen | 24 March 2020 |
It’s interesting that Scripture has numerous passages which we remain completely ignorant of—even though we’ve all at least scanned the Bible numerous times. In this essay, we’ll consider some of these verses and wonder why “The Bible tells me so!”
What to Do With Tithe
Brother Franklin Greene served as the pillar of the Burrillville, Rhode Island, Seventh-day Adventist church. His wife, also a staunch supporter, was an exceptional cook, and as a teenager I enjoyed dining at their house. Brother Greene had only a high school education, if that. He worked in a local factory and had a reputation for citing Bible verses and giving short Bible studies during noontime. Truth be told, some of his coworkers considered him an annoyance, though they also respected him.
One noon, a coworker accosted Brother Greene with a proof text. “Hey, Greene,” he shouted. “Here’s a Bible text for you. You don’t have to pay tithe to your church.” The coworker had memorized this coup de grâce. From the King James Version, Greene’s favorite, he recited Deuteronomy 14:26. “Thou shalt bestow [your tithe] for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink.”
He eyed Greene smugly. This would surely set his opponent back on his heels. Quickly, Greene parried. “Thanks for bringing this to my attention. As you know, I’m a vegetarian so don’t lust after meat of any kind. Never did; never will! Similarly, I’ve no craving for alcoholic beverages. Never imbibed. But,” Greene continued, “I’ve always had a problem with lusting after women. Now I know that the Bible gives me the right to indulge this lust despite having been married for 35 years!”
This alarmed the coworker, and he hastened to dissuade Brother Greene from spending his tithe money on extramarital affairs.
But there it is: the Bible tells me so!
There’s a photo with fading colors among the rogues’ gallery in our master bedroom. It dates to 1963, and portrays Rosalia and me when we were united in Holy Matrimony. Her physique hasn’t changed much since then, but mine… I’m no longer that scrawny kid who, as my dad used to say, looked like a thermometer whenever I drank tomato juice!
I would have graduated summa cum laude from college had it not been for the grades I “earned” in physical education classes. Swimming in the unheated pool in December? Yikes! Tumbling? Help! As the years have progressed so have I. I’ve donated numerous suits to Goodwill because they’ve mysteriously shrunk while hanging in the closet.
So, here are two of my favorite verses. You might not have noticed them. First: “Eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness” (Isaiah 55:2). Amen! I resemble that remark!
And the other? “Bodily exercise profiteth little” (1 Timothy 4:8). Take that, Mr. Renzi, PE teacher! I’ve never excelled at sports—and that’s an understatement.
Both prooftexts have afforded me much solace in my advancing years during which “I’ve wandered far away” from my 1963 body.
And the Bible tells me so!
Like the old Postum slogan: “There’s a reason.”
As for Isaiah 55:2, on average, about every three to four years the Promised Land suffered a significant drought. Additionally, most people in the ancient Near East barely eked out a subsistence living. Estimates for the first century are startling.
- Thirty percent of newborns died at birth.
- Thirty-three percent of children who turned 1 died before their sixth birthday.
- Sixty percent of those who remained died before their 16th birthday.
- Seventy-five percent of survivors were buried before they reached 26.
- Three percent of live births made it to 60.
Because most people (there was no middle class as we know it) were little more than skin and bones, being obese signified wealth, such as kings (and later priests) had. Hence the approval of corpulence.
What about 1 Timothy 4:8 and its assertion that “bodily exercise profiteth little”? It can best be understood when read together with the preceding verse. “Exercise thyself rather unto godliness. . . . Godliness is profitable” (verses 7 and 8). In the Greco-Roman world, physical exercise was deemed highly desirable to help form a well-developed physique. Gymnasiums existed in many, if not most, cities. However, the apostle insisted that developing godliness is much more desirable than forming a well-muscled body. Regardless of how desirable being physically fit might be, it’s far more important to be spiritually healthy.
The Case of 32 Virgins
Not all problematic pericopes are so easily rationalized or even clarified. So, let’s move right along. Other verses await our incomprehension, or at least our bemusement.
Terry and I worked side by side at the college bindery in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. I inserted the cover material (buckram, plasticized cloth) through the glue machine and situated coverboards onto the buckram. Terry then folded (in bindery jargon, “flopping”) the buckram over the edges of the coverboards.
Both of us were theology majors. However, our home lives had been very different. My father was a beloved Adventist pastor. Terry’s dad was an atheist and had tried to indoctrinate his son into some of the fine points of unbelief. Terry’s unbelieving father enjoyed regaling his son with a favorite scriptural passage.
The Hebrew people had fought the Midianites. The victorious Israelite soldiers brought back considerable booty, which was divvied up among not only the warriors but also among the Levites as well as the general populace. Among the plunder were large numbers of livestock as well as 32,000 virgins (Numbers 31:35). Of these 32,000 virgins (most likely 13- to 14-year-old girls), half belonged to the soldiers (verse 36). That left 16,000 virginal girls for the rank-and-file Israelites. Of these 16,000 virgins, 32 belonged to YHWH (verse 40).
Terry’s dad always gloated, “And what did God do with his 32 virgins?”
It may be that, as in verse 29, YHWH donated his 32 virgins to Eleazar, the high priest. If that were the case, then what did Eleazar do with those 32 Moabite girls? Did they form part of the terûmâ offering that he was to make? The terûmâ offerings appear to have been “raised up” and were offered “in ritual contexts.” We know little more about such. Were they “devoured” in some way?
YHWH got his own 32 virgins. The Bible tells me so!
A Beatitude Predating Jesus
Another interesting passage is a beatitude—an expression of blessedness shading into happiness found in Psalm 137:9. “How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock!” (NET). The Bible tells me so!
We sometimes try to extract theology from poetry, such as the songs written by David or by others credited in the book of Psalms itself. Not wise! We use language in various ways. It’s usually wise to limit theological extraction to either informative or cognitive discourses. Songs, however, such as the psalms, are affective language. They express and/or evoke emotions. Such verbal ejaculations don’t allow substantial doctrinal mining!
Perhaps we should forget about Psalm 137:9 and concentrate on Mark 10:14, which records Jesus’ reprimand to his disciples. “Suffer the little children to come unto me, . . . for of such is the kingdom of God.”
The Case of David v. Goliath
One of the songs we used to sing in Sabbath school was “Only a Boy Named David.” We sang with gusto about the little boy with a sling(shot) who, with a single stone, killed Goliath the ogre. Once Goliath crashed face first into the dirt, that “boy” ran up to the fallen body, yanked the giant’s sword from its scabbard, and hacked off Goliath’s head. The Bible tells me so! I wonder how many whacks it took for David to have severed that head, which he then boldly carried, dripping blood, to King Saul?
I’ve often wondered if this story is proper spiritual fodder for youngsters. Maybe we’d be more psychologically prudent to emphasize: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you” (Luke 6:27).
But let’s not get too moralistic and self-righteous here. Imagine my surprise when I read “There was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan . . . killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (2 Samuel 21:19, NRSV).
Huh? The King James Version (KJV) has in italics “the brother of” Goliath. Why the italics? For emphasis? No. One of the most misunderstood conventions of the KJV is the use of italicized words. Italics mean that the words were added by the translators of that version, and aren’t in the Hebrew text!
Not to worry! More than a century later, the unnamed person known in scholarly circles as The Chronicler saw the contradiction in First and Second Samuel (originally a single book). So he emended the text. “There was war again with the Philistines; and Elhanan . . . slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite . . .” (1 Chronicles 20:5). Note that there is no italic font here. The words are in the Hebrew text. It is generally believed by scholars that a pious scribe took it upon himself to harmonize the written word.
How Tall Was Goliath?
The Vacation Bible School materials arrived, and we opened the package with eagerness. Among the visual aids was a template for footprints supposedly approximately the size that a 9-feet, 9-inch tall Goliath would have made. His height is given in 1 Samuel 17:4 as “six cubits and a span,” which converts to 9 feet, 9 inches.
Rosalia has a cousin who stands 7-feet, 2-inches tall! Yes, I look up to him! The tallest giant on historical record was Robert Wadlow, who grew to a height of 8 feet, 11.1 inches. Almost 9 feet tall! Nevertheless, he was nearly 10 inches shorter than the alleged height of Goliath!
The Bible tells me so!
But wait! Other textual evidence, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, an edition of the Septuagint, and Jewish historian Josephus, puts Goliath’s height at a “mere” 6 feet, 9 inches. Such a figure would, indeed, have towered over David, who was probably about 5-feet, 3-inches tall!
By the way, you’ve been duped if you’ve fallen for the supposed photographs of extremely tall people in the ancient Near East. Such “evidence” has been fabricated.
More Will Come Later
When Emperor Joseph II of Vienna heard Mozart’s 1782 opera, “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” he criticized the composer for using “too many notes.” Well, in this essay, I’ve used too many words. So, in another essay, we’ll explore some additional surprising biblical passages.
- Some scholars have inferred from the various verses mentioning tithe that Scripture demanded as many as three different tithes. This distinction, of course, isn’t specified, although it may be possible or even probable. Nonetheless, it is scholarly eisegesis. Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, pp. 578, 579 provides an interesting discussion regarding the rules for tithing. ↑
- Willem A. VanGemeren, editor, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 4, pp. 335-337; R. Laird Harris, editor, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. II, p. 838. ↑
- Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the Holy Bible: The Net Bible® (New English Translation®) copyright © 1998, 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org. All Rights Reserved. ↑
- Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. ↑
- Another misunderstood convention of the KJV is the use of all capital letters: LORD. Yet sometimes the word is merely Lord. Why the difference? Because LORD is code for the word YHWH. ↑
- Http://www.historyrundown.com/5-largest-giants-in-history; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Wadlow#Height_chart. ↑
- (Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goliath#Goliath’s_height; see also https://www.gotquestions.org/how-tall-was-Goliath.html; ABD, vol. 2, “Goliath,” p. 1073). ↑
- Https://ancientneareast.org/2012/10/01/a-giant-misconception. ↑
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.