by Richard W. Coffen  |  8 July 2020  |  

I enjoyed writing my two essays (here’s the first, and here’s the second) on puzzling or misunderstood Bible texts. So here’s a third essay on this theme: that we must take Scripture seriously, although not always literally.

God Hates Sinners

A few years ago, I began reading the psalms in the New Revised Standard Version. Very quickly, I came across this strange theology:

“He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them [conspiring nations] in derision. . . . Serve the Lord with fear . . . or he will be angry, . . . for his wrath is quickly kindled” (Psalm 2:4, 11, 12, NRSV).

Note, too:

“Rise up, O Lord! . . . You . . . break the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 3:7, NRSV).

Surely such an attitude on the part of God was an exception. Not in the Psalms!

“God . . . has indignation every day” (Psalm 7:11, NRSV). 

The Bible tells me so!

What can we make of this inspired vitriol? As mentioned in the previous essay, we are dealing with poetry. Such literary endeavors consisted of affective communication, which expresses and/or evokes emotion. Judicious theologians do not extract prooftexts from biblical poetry.

The Jews Married Dead People?

Ezra 9:1, 2 says “The people of Israel . . . have not separated themselves from . . . the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons.”

Taking the verses just as they read, then the Jews had married Hittite, Perizzite, Jebusite, and Ammonite girls. Here’s the problem: the Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Ammonites had long ago disappeared! (Mark A. Throntveit, Interpretation Series, Ezra-Nehemiah, p. 51).

Necrophilia? Of course not! The names of these long-gone people groups were imported by the writer. He introduced them into the story from Deuteronomy 7:1-3 and 23:2-7 (David J. Shepherd & Christopher J. H. Wright, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 40.) Doing so is “literary license.” Authors Arthur S. Maxwell, Eric B. Hare, Josephine Cunnington Edwards, and many more took similar liberties when writing the storybooks we relished.

Who Was That Virgin?

It was 735/734 B.C. King Ahaz of Judah was scared. Because of his idolatry, God had allowed his kingdom to be attacked by Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria (2 Chronicles 28:5). Rezin “carried away . . . a great multitude of captives,” depositing them in Damascus (2 Chronicles 28:5). Pekah in a single day slaughtered 120,000 “valiant men.” 200,000 “women, sons, and daughters” became POWs (2 Chronicles 28:6-8). The invaders intended to ensconce one named “Son of No Good” (Hebrew: Tabeel; contemporary idiom: SOB) on Ahaz’s throne (Isaiah 7:6, NIV). Ahaz and his people trembled like “trees . . . shaken by the wind” (7:2, NIV). 

Through Isaiah, God gave Ahaz a sign. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14, NIV). The problem is the Hebrew word rendered “virgin” in many versions. ‘almâ generally denoted a young woman about to be a mother (Willem A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 3, pp. 416, 417). A different Hebrew word (betûlâ) more properly, though not always, denoted a virgo intacta (Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 782ff; R. Laird Harris, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, pp. 137, 138). The age or virginity of the female matters little for the “sign.” The omen specifically given to Ahaz, which would occur soon—surely within nine months!—was that a young woman would deliver a baby boy. The baby would bear the theophoric name: “God is With Us.” Before the baby of omen would know “enough to reject the wrong and choose the right [age 12 or 13?], the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” (7:16, NIV). Good news!

Isaiah adds in chapter 8: “Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son” (8:3, NIV). Isaiah, at God’s behest, named this child Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, meaning “Quickly [the] Plunder; Hurries, [the] Loot” (NET). In the immediate context, this may merely be a second name for tiny Immanuel. Could this second baby, as Isaiah’s child, be the same baby as the first? Perhaps. It wasn’t unusual then for a person to have several names. 

But of course King Ahaz isn’t what most of us think of when we hear these passages. Nor do we think of the mother as a “young woman” who had a baby because she made love to the prophet Isaiah. 

According to various online sources, there are 365 Old Testament messianic “promises.” Among those is Isaiah 7:14, cited by Matthew. Mary’s pregnancy, the conception of which took place without the participation of a man, “took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matthew 1:22, 23, NIV). 

How could a sign specifically given to provide reassurance for King Ahaz end up some 730 years later as a messianic prediction? Only because Matthew (emulating the rabbis) wrenched Isaiah 7:14 out of its original context, repurposing it as a reference to Jesus’ birth. (This reminds me of Herbert Douglass’ admonition to us, his students: “It’s OK for an inspired author to use a passage out of context; it isn’t OK for those of us who aren’t inspired.”)

The Bible tells me so!

Jesus Lied?

In 1999, Sissela Bok, professor at Harvard University, wrote a book titled Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. I found her book challenging but was not sure I could accede to her adamant stance against all untruthfulness. After having read about attempts by the Nazi SS to track down Jews hidden by friends and neighbors, I have always insisted: “Never trust your life to someone who won’t lie to protect you.” I stand by my conclusion! After all, Scripture honors Rahab, who lied to save the Israelite spies (Hebrews 11:31). Later, God sent a lying spirit to deceive King Ahab (1 Kings 22:22, 23; 1 Chronicles 18:19-22). Is lying OK for God but not for us? John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in “The Eternal Goodness”: “Nothing can be good in Him/Which evil is in me.”

But Jesus?

Jesus’ brothers had urged him to trek to Judea, where he could attend the Festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (John 7:3). He responded, “You go. . . . I am not going” (John 7:8, NIV). So, they traveled to Jerusalem on their own, believing that their brother would absent himself from Sukkot. “After his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went” (7:10, NRSV). Jesus suddenly appeared in the Temple, teaching there (verse 14)!

Jesus had intoned in his Sermon on the Mount: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37, NRSV). Can it be that he who claimed to be “the truth” (John 14:6) failed to tell the truth?

The Bible tells me so!

In kinship systems such as existed among first-century Jews, not everyone was considered to be worthy of receiving the truth. Truth-telling was expected among one’s kin, but even then, only if they merited the truth. Remember that climactic line in the movie A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”? That is how first-century people regarded truth-telling. Normally, one’s brothers would merit the truth. However, Jesus’ step brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5), and, therefore, could not “handle the truth!”

What Was Nailed to the Cross?

The obvious answer: Jesus and two thieves, and a placard proclaiming Jesus as king of the Jews. 

Growing up in the Adventist community, I learned that along with Jesus, the ceremonial law had been nailed to the cross. Of course, Jesus had been literally crucified, whereas the ceremonial law had only been figuratively nailed to his cross.

Then, as an adult, I reread Colossians 2:14, which plainly identified what had been nailed to the cross—something “against us” (Colossians 2:14). I wondered: How could those ceremonial laws, which we have always insisted foreshadowed Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, have been “against us”?

Specifically, says the text, it was the “handwriting” that was against us. What had been written by hand? The answer was the Mosaic ceremonial laws, of course! Not the moral law—the Ten Commandments! 

But wait: what about Exodus 31:18, which affirms: “. . . The Lord . . . gave [Moses] the two tablets of the covenant law, . . . inscribed by the finger of God” (NIV).

Who actually did the writing? Scripture may indicate that the second edition of the Ten Commandments was handwritten by Moses. He [Moses] “was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. . . . And he [who?] wrote on the tablets the words of . . . the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:28, NIV). The issue pivots on the antecedent for the “he” who did the handwriting. Some scholars reason that Moses did the writing. Others insist that the antecedent is YHWH. Who else could have chiseled those words into stone? 

Regardless, the Decalogue was a handwritten document. 

But there is more. The word Paul used is cheirographon, “a document . . . written in one’s own hand as proof of obligation, e.g., a note of indebtedness” (Geoffrey Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 1312).

There is one more important word Paul used. He wrote that this IOU (Greek: cheirographon) had been “canceled” (verse 14, NIV). The Greek word is exaleiphō. It meant “cancel” or “abolish” (Franco Montanari, The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, p. 711). Promissory notes have been found with a huge X (Greek: chi, letter of the alphabet) across them, signifying “paid in full.” 

Undoubtedly a coincidence, but later, among Christians, that same letter chi marked the initial consonant of “Christ” and also served as a symbol of Jesus’ cross (Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East, pp. 332-334). Scholars now understand that what had been against us but had been marked “Paid in full” and nailed to the cross was our IOU to God for our sins.

Because our moral indebtedness has been washed out, rubbed out, marked with an X, and crucified with Jesus, we must not criticize others regarding their religious observances. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you . . . with regard to a religious festival [annually], a New Moon [monthly] celebration or a Sabbath day [weekly]” (Colossians 2:16, NIV).

Surely, there is nothing wrong with observing yearly, monthly, or weekly holy days. Some Seventh-day Adventists celebrate the “Jewish” yearly festivals. Despite how appropriate keeping the biblical Sabbath is, such a celebration does not save us. Sabbath-keeping (or any other behavior) is not a supererogatory deed that contributes one whit to our salvation. Salvation is God’s gift via Jesus, who bridges any moral gulf between divinity and humanity.

The Bible tells me so!

Paul says “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8, NRSV). That is why Paul could affirm in Romans 3:24 that God constantly pronounces (present tense) innocent not just Adventists, not merely Protestants, not simply Christians but “all” (verse 23)—everyone who sinned (past tense) and keeps on dishonoring (present tense) God! Yet God keeps on (present tense) generously (Greek: dōrean = freely) declaring us to be innocent!

An excellent theological place to end this essay.

Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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