Shir ha-shirim, The Song of Songs

“[T]he title is not simply the word ‘Song,’ but ‘Song of Songs,’ a detail not without significance. For though I have read many songs in the Scriptures, I cannot recall any that bear such a name. Israel chanted a song to Yahweh celebrating his escape from the sword and the tyranny of Pharaoh, and the twofold good fortune that simultaneously liberated and avenged him in the Red Sea. Yet even though chanted, this has not been called a ‘Song of Songs’; Scripture, if my memory serves me right, introduces it with the words: ‘Israel sang this song in honor of Yahweh.” Song poured from the lips of Deborah, from Judith, of the mother of Samuel, of several of the prophets, yet none of these songs is styled a ‘Song of Songs.” (Bernard of Clairvaux, The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux: Song of Songs I, translated by Kilian Walsh with an introduction by M. Corneille Halflants (Kalamazoo, MI:: Cistercian Publications 1971), 4).

It does not seem like a daring claim to say, the Song of Songs could literally fall out of the canon of most western Christians, it could have never been written, and it would not effect the doctrine/theology or behaviors of most modern western Christians.

Song of Songs does not, apparently, affect the view of what it means to be a human being. It has no discernible impact on the view many have of women. It has no discernible impact on our theology of God and creation.

This is not to say that Song of Songs does not in teach doctrine on these matters, it just means the Song is … ignored. If we acknowledge the Song it is usually as a use for premarital counseling. The Song is trivialized.

But on the whole there is a “hush-hush” approach to the book.

And it shows. The Song conflicts with the views of many have of women, of the relationships between men and women, of sexuality, of the goodness of creation and matter (sexuality, wine, food, being a mere human, etc).

But Song of Songs is Scripture. No one in the ancient world read Song of Songs in the privacy of their own home (privacy is in fact a very modern and very western idea!). They did not sit in the corner and make sure no one saw them reading it. No one went to a counselor’s office to have portions of the Song given to them for “private” meditation.

The Song of Songs was read out loud corporately. The Song of Songs was read out loud, publicly. The Song of Songs was read before everyone. The Song of Songs was read in worship. The Song of Songs was read from verse 1 to the last verse in 8.14 out loud, in the assembly, with all the children present on the holiest day of the year … Passover!

Some read it in Hebrew.
Some read it in Greek.
Some read it in Latin.
Some read it in Syriac.

But they all heard it read. It was regarded as the greatest of all treasures, the greatest of Songs. It is the Song of all Songs after all, as Bernard tells us.

But since we do not read it in our churches, and rarely read it secretly, the gift of the message of the Song is lost on our churches, our worship, and our corporate lives together. We have lost its “daring speech” that express holy longings in our lives. (I borrow the phrase “daring speech” from Walter Brueggemann).

This loss is, in my opinion, correspondingly seen in our loss of the “daring speech” in the lament Psalms. Who dares to talk like the Woman (most of the book is in fact from the Woman), she is no “Victorian.” Who dares to speak like the Man in the Song? Who dares to talk to God as the Israelite does in the Psalms (or Job)? Some trivialize the “talk” in the Song of Songs as teenager kind of talk. I think the Song scoffs at that claim and dares to assert that rather than teens this relationship is what a genuinely good and holy relationship like the very adult first couple enjoyed is what God intends. Naked and Unashamed.

The Psalms are no more “private” than the Song of Songs. No one had a personal Bible in the ancient world. Scripture was encountered in public gatherings almost always for worship.

The woman’s and man’s conversations are not “private.” They are shared with every person, old to young, in the oral reading of the text in the public gathering. The Song of Songs graciously breathes the fresh air of Eden back into a world full of shame, full of power plays, full of abuse, full of misuse, full of manipulation.

Song of Songs shows us what oneness looks like. Control and manipulation are subverted by mutuality and vulnerability. There is no power over the other but there is sweet surrender to one another. They are “naked and not ashamed” and it does not bother either that the whole world knows it. Oneness is not one ‘adam reigning over the other ‘adam who is in subjection. Genesis 1 and 2 do not exhibit even a hint of such and neither does the Song of Songs. No wonder the text is ignored by many.

The bleak world that resulted from “the Fall” in Genesis 3.14-19 is shown to be what it really is not the way it was supposed to be. The fresh air of Eden in the Song reveals:

– there is no enmity in the Song between creation and humanity (Gen 3.14f). Rather creation is like the Garden of Eden lush, pleasant, joyful, a place for “Adam to know Eve.”

– there is no childbearing in Song of Songs at all. The intimacy between the woman and man has nothing to do with procreation. It is not even hinted at. Intimacy does not result in painful childbearing but in mutual joy, celebration and honor.

– there is no enmity between the Woman and Man in Song of Songs. There is no “ruling” over her as a consequence of the Fall (Gen 3.16). The complete opposite is in the Song. Instead we find, 2x, the declaration “I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine” (2.13; 6.3) and the stunning reversal of Gen 3.16, even using the same Hebrew word, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (7.10).

The shalom of Eden was vandalized by sin. Genesis 3.14-19 reveal the sad reality of the fallen world. But God did not intend the world to be that way. God intended Genesis 2 … not Genesis 3. Song of Songs takes Genesis 3.14-19 and turns it inside out. Song of Songs is God, in God’s grace, reminding us that Eden was the intent and humans can still experience Eden. Relationships the way they were supposed to be. I say again, the world of Genesis 3.14-19 is not the world God intended for creation. When Jesus himself pointed to Genesis 1 and 2 not Genesis 3 when he said to certain males “at the beginning” (Matt 19.4). In fact Jesus quotes Genesis 1.27, “he [God] made them male and female;” and “and they become one flesh” Genesis 2.24).

Interestingly enough the very next line in Genesis 2 is “And the man and the woman were both naked and were not ashamed” (v.25). Jesus points to the world of Genesis 1 and 2, the world of the Song of Songs as the “pattern” for the Woman and the Man. Genesis 3 is an aberration that will be cast out of God’s good creation.

But because we ignored the Song of all Songs we make Genesis 3 a prescription of how it is supposed to be. But Jesus came to prove Genesis 3 is not how it is supposed to be. And long before Jesus, God gave the world a Song, a song of all songs to help us see how the world is supposed to be.

No wonder Israel sang it. No wonder it was (and is) read out loud and publicly in Jewish worship to this day.

No wonder it was read during the Passover … because the Passover celebrates God reversing the curse.

Maybe we should let Song of Songs describe our world more than Genesis 3. When Moses said to “love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” he had something akin to the passion in Song of Songs in mind.

Sing the Song.

I have decided to share this post in the spirit of feasting and thanksgiving (I actually wrote this in November). Most of our homes this time of the year are filled with aromas. Bread, pies, turkey, stuffing, and some times ham. The mention of them brings wonderful associations to our minds.

The psalmist implored Yahweh in prayer,

open my eyes so that I may
behold wondrous things in your torah

(Ps 119.18).

The Lord of the Word will do just this when we are disciples (i.e. learners).

As I’ve been working my way through the wonderful text in Isaiah 11, I have been stumped at verse 3. The NRSV and NIV read

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

Translation is a tricky business. It is far more complicated than looking up a supposed definition in the back of Strong’s Concordance (Words do not have a single definition rather they have semantic range, the words relate to one another grammatically which impacts the meaning of the sentence as a whole).

Several questions come to the forefront in verse 3. Is this describing the “shoot’s” (v.1) own sense of duty before God? Or is it describing the “shoot’s” happiness in finding the fear of the Lord in others?

That was my initial question. But my question only got more complicated when I decided to dig. When you look at the Hebrew of verse 3 it is difficult to figure out what is going on.

The word “delight” in the NIV/NRSV and others was not what I was expecting. “riyah” is a word that is related to “ruah” (breath/spirit) that is used four times in the context. Isaiah seems to be playing around with fact.

riyah, in various forms, is used in relation to aromas like incense associated with sacrifices. It highlights the sense of “smell.” Aromas associated with sacrifice are called “pleasing aromas” throughout the Hebrew Bible. The term is used seven times in Song of Songs describing the oils and perfumes of the woman. Thus in Song of Songs 4.10 we read,

How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the FRAGRANCE of your oils than any spice!

Sometimes the opposite can also be said. God does not like stinking odors. God declared, through Amos, that he will not “smell” Israel’s sacrifice because they are now odious (Yahweh does not accept them is the lame translation). Injustice makes worship “stink” and Yahweh reject it (just as we would a skunk).

The sense of smell is pretty powerful in most of us. We react strongly to both unpleasant odors and pleasing aromas. At Thanksgiving and other times of cooking, with turkeys in the oven, stuffing, bread, pies and lots of other delights fill our nostrils with wonderful aromas … most of us will go out of our way to inhale the pleasing “delights” of the smells. “Delight” is a good word for our emotional response to the aromas, the smells, we inhale.

Isaiah says the “shoot” (11.1) smells the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is an aroma. Like God delighting over a pleasing sacrifice, so the shoot delights, his nostrils sense the aroma of devotion to Yahweh. Aromas draw us in just as the Man found the aroma of the Bride “intoxicating” in Song of Songs 4.10.

This is a Spirit inspired gift. It is this endowed gift that enables the shoot to judge not by his eyes or ears but by what he smells (the rest of verse 3).

The old Geneva Bible in 1560 rendered the text as “shal make him prudent.” The Tanakh “he shall SENSE the truth.”

The Spirit endowed Shoot can smell those whose lives, regardless of appearances, are pleasing sacrifices to the Lord. Paul, that dyed in the Hebrew Scriptures Pharisee Apostle, twice uses the Septuagint’s translation of our term. Once to describe the aroma of Messiah’s own sacrifice and the invitation to imitate King Jesus’s smell (Eph 5.1-2) and the generosity of the Philippians is this pleasing smell to God (Phil 4.18).

I always find the aromas of the grill and kitchen to be a “delight.” And when they hit my nose, I inhale deeply and want more.

I am so glad I dug into this text … I can almost smell it.

Marriage is not about being “The Boss”

Can you imagine how different sermons on Ephesians 5 (husbands and wives) would be if the preacher had spent the previous month preaching the Song of Songs?

“Traditionally,” preachers begin with the “prescription” for a successful marriage by quoting 5.22,

wives, submit yourselves to your husbands …”

This is then “married” to Genesis 3.16,

Your desire [tesugah] will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

In my own wedding, many years ago, these texts were read. Some (not all) when preaching on these texts then define submission in terms of subjugation. Indeed it is not really uncommon to hear terminology like “women/wives are to be in subjection to men/husbands.” This is her “place.” I am sure you have heard it.

There are multiple problems with this.

First. Ephesians 5 is quite literally not even about marriage in the first place. Paul is not presenting a doctrine of marriage in Ephesians 5, that is not the point by any means. Paul’s only comment on marriage is actually in v.33, is an aside, when we have something like a “nevertheless.” Paul, after saying “ok I am talking about Christ and the gathered people” (v.32) he gives his “nevertheless” directive which is husbands love your wife and the wife should respect her husband.

Second. The kind of love that characterizes marriage is not rooted in who is the boss. Paul actually says, “submit to one another” v.21. We begin reading to late.

See marriage, like all Christian relationships, are rooted in mutuality not subjugation. “Submission” and “Subjugation” are not the same thing. Submission is voluntarily done from a place of strength. Subjugation is the use of physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual force upon another. Subjugate is what the US Army does to enemies.

But Paul looks at the female/male relationship through a book he was nourished on from childhood, Song of Songs. Song of Songs is Ephesians 5.21, not 5.22 (which we use out of context and redefined!). The Song is not only mutuality but egalitarian. The man is not the woman’s “boss.” If anything she commands him.

The relationship as envisioned in Song of Songs is playful. It is exclusive. It is focused upon the other. It is egalitarian as the woman states, reversing Genesis 3.16,

I am my beloved’s
and his DESIRE
[tesugah] is for ME” (7.10, the Hebrew is the exact same).

She speaks out of a place of full equality and literally turns Genesis 3.16 on its head. Genesis 3.16 is a text that speaks of a relationship grounded in the Fall. Song of Songs as a whole and 7.10 specifically envisions the world of Eden before the Fall. She sees herself as an equal partner in the relationship. Thus in the Song she is a bold, powerful, personality in the Song. The “submission” goes both ways. There is no subjugation in the Song of the woman to the man.

Most of the time we do not read Song of Songs at all, much less as the lens through which to read Paul. Paul actually, in context, uses this tidbit from marriage to teach God has healed the world and brought it back to a state better than creation. That is the argument.

In Ephesians 1.10, God “unites” in the Messiah “heaven and earth.” God has made them “one” in Messiah.

In Ephesians 2.11-22 (actually through 3.11), the ethnic division of the fallen world is overcome. Jews and Gentiles are now “one” as in “one new humanity.” Again harking back to the Edenic oneness of humanity. The division has been overcome. The whole human race is one again when male and female are now one in Christ, just as in the beginning.

In Ephesians 5 the division between male and female is healed in the Messiah. Man and Woman are made “one” once again through the Messiah Jesus. King Jesus has removed the division between creation and Creator; he has removed the division and animosity between the nations by making them one; he has removed the war of the sexes by restoring the image of God in men in women.

Heaven/Earth = united (One).
Jew/Gentile = united (One).
Male/female = united (One).

The world is “healed.” Creation is “saved” through the blood of Jesus, the King of the Jews. The church is the place on earth where that new/renewed creation thrives. The church is the temple filled with the glorious Presence of God. The church is where humanity in all its creational diversity stands in its oneness as the the occasion of praise rather than hatred and division. The church is the place on earth where God original creational oneness of male and female as equal imagers of God has been restored and glorified in work of King Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The Song of Songs helps us hear these gospel truths.

Heaven and earth were one in creation. The human race was one in creation. Male and female were one in creation. And in the Messiah God has healed all creation. So Paul’s real point in this aside is in fact that women are once again, in the messianic community EQUAL, they are one. There is no superior. No boss. Except “Christ/Messiah.” The Song of Songs had already passionately proclaimed this gospel truth.

So again, what if we read Paul’s oblique comment on marriage (recognizing he was not in fact talking about marriage as the topic under consideration), through the lens of the Song of Songs …

I suspect some sermons would be changed drastically.

Further Reading

Returning to Eden: The Song of Songs, Sexuality & Spirituality

Worshiping Through Ephesians: Dwelling in God’s Temple

Not the image of Torah in Scripture.

“Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.”
(Psalm 32.1-2)

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”
(Psalm 130.3-4)

See all of Psalm 107.

A Problematic View: Historically and Theologically

I grew up, as I have mentioned several times, in a religious body that had (has?) a “love-hate” relationship with the “Old Testament.” I mean no disrespect to any of my fellow disciples, I held these views myself for a long time.

We in Churches of Christ often shared typical Protestant views of the Hebrew Bible and all things Jewish. The “Old Testament” was ritualistic, legalistic, and above all, a heavy burden. There were after all 613 commands that Jews had to keep precisely, perfectly, in order to be saved (that thrown around number has nothing to do with what is actually in the so-called OT however). The apostle Paul is quoted to support this view. Romans 7 is read as if Paul is this tortured human begging for God to do something to deliver him from the curse of the law!

There are fundamental flaws with this point of view. It ignores the Hebrew Bible itself, which we surely believe was given by the same Holy Spirit as any text in the “New Testament.”  It ignores vast swaths of Jewish literature from the times of Jesus.  It also ignores quit a bit of what Paul himself actually says.

But interestingly enough no one ever understood Romans 7 to have remotely this meaning until Augustine of Hippo got into a debate with Pelagius in the fifth century. A thousand years later, Martin Luther latched onto this reading of Romans and it has become canonical among Protestants.

But did Paul, and more specifically did Jews, imagine that “salvation” was gained by perfectly obeying 613 commands? Did they walk around thinking the Old Testament was a killer of life and joy. Did they have tortured consciences and sleep with one eye open at night because they knew Yahweh had not forgiven them.

The answer is no. And Paul did not either.

The 613 commandments that is often hurled around by ministers is a complete caricature of the Law of Moses and what the Hebrew Bible says. The vast majority of commands in the torah itself are only applicable on certain occasions and under certain conditions. Large segments, like in Leviticus, are given expressly for the priests, not the average “pew packer” Israelite.  And a large amount of these, again, only applied in the course of performing duties or while in the confines of the Tabernacle. 

The Law, and Moses himself, explicitly “reduces” the number of commands that are aimed at the “average” Israelite.  We find these in the “Ten Words” (Exodus 20/Deut 5) or in places like Deuteronomy 10 where we read, “And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you?” (Deut 10.12; see vv.12-22). Here Moses “reduces” the torah to essentially two things: circumcise your heart and love the aliens

The above view flies in the face of what Paul says elsewhere in Romans itself but his claims in Philippians and the evidence we have from the Hebrew Bible and myriads of other texts.

Paul does not consider the law a curse. In fact, the Pharisee who happens to be an apostle, says some stunning and often forgotten things about the “law.” 

What is the value of circumcision? Much in EVERY WAY” (Rom 3.1). That is a shocking text to many who only know Galatians 5.1-6 (context matters!).

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3.31).

So the law is holy … just … GOOD” (Rom 7.12). 

we know the law is SPIRITUAL” (Rom 7.14).

Like the author of 4 Maccabees, Paul confesses, “in my mind I delight in the law of God” (Rom 7.22). 

In Messiah, with the Spirit, we disciples of Jesus fulfill the “righteous requirement of the law” (Rom 8.4).

In Romans 9.4-5, Paul lists gifts of grace given to Israel: adoption, the glory, the covenantS [plural], the giving of the law, the worship [the temple liturgy], the promises, to them belong the patriarchs, and from them comes the Messiah. Not one of these is negative.  They are, to use language from Romans 3.1-2, the advantages of the Jews. Interestingly enough Paul uses the present active indicative here. These are, present tense, blessings of grace. Paul does not use past tense. 

In Romans 13.8-10, Paul cites representative commands from the Decalogue. “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not covet.” And in good Mosaic fashion “summarizes” the expectation of what the law is aiming at, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Paul is citing Exodus 20 and Leviticus 19.18). This is not substantially different than what Moses did in Deuteronomy 10.12-22 referenced above.

So, Paul explicitly names the “law” as a gift of grace (Rom 9.4). Paul, especially, when we bring in what Luke in Acts quotes from the lips of Paul, has a very positive view of the Law of Moses and even follows it. Paul believed Psalm 1, Psalm 19 and Psalm 119. It is easy to project upon the biblical text our own prejudices and problems. 

Reasoner has enriched us. In this work we are allowed to see how Christians for almost 2000 years have interpreted Romans. Of particular interest are the first five centuries. Many early Christians did not understand Romans the way Martin Luther and his legacy did. Good resource for serious wrestling and checking our own unexamined assumptions.

Did Paul or Jews Have a “Burden” Problem”?

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
    and drippings of the honeycomb
(Psalm 19.7-10)

This Psalm is not about Romans, Galatians or Ephesians, it predates any of the New Testament writings by half a millennia or more. It is about the “law.” 

When Paul, the Pharisee apostle, wanted to teach Gentiles that humans were saved by grace through faith he turns to a, seemingly, unlikely source for confirmation: The Hebrew Bible.  The Law of Moses in fact. And then the Psalms.  This move is outstanding Jewish methodology. Things have to be established by two or more witnesses and Paul brings in his two witnesses, the law and the Psalms.

Paul quotes from Psalm 31 (quoted at the head of this article). He could have quoted a dozen such texts from the Psalter. 

blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven …
blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not reckon
” (Rom 4.8).

The person is forgiven, and they know it. The ancient Israelite was saved by grace not works. The Israelite was in fact forgiven. If David was a singular exception in this blessing then the entire point Paul is making falls flat on its face. Paul’s claim is that the Law and the Psalms proclaim grace through faith.  And he had already cited Habakkuk 2.4 in 1.17. 

Far from having a “troubled conscience,” Krister Stendahl reminds us that no one read Paul that way until 500 years after he died for the Messiah.  Indeed, Stendahl writes, Paul had a “robust conscience.” We see this with clarity in his testimony in Philippians 3 where he says he was “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (The old NIV had, “legalistic righteousness” with no basis in the Greek text. A classic example of prejudice and projection of that prejudice upon the biblical text.).  Paul could view his walk in the torah as “blameless.” (Blameless is not a claim of sinlessness either in Paul nor the Psalms where we encounter such language regularly. Paul knew, as did every Israelite, that no one is ontologically “righteous” before God. Paul quotes Psalm 143.2 in Romans 3.20).

No one can read the Psalms (not only Psalms 1, 19 and 119) and imagine that Jews were unaware of grace, mercy and the astonishing freshness of being made new in relationship with Yahweh (Psalm 51 for example). I could further quote dozens of texts from the Hebrew Bible from Ex 34.6 to 1-2 Chronicles and everything in between.

The Witness of the Apocrypha

But I am going to quote texts we probably do not know. They come from the Apocrypha. Do these texts reveal a picture of a people being crushed under the weight of guilt or do they reveal a picture of people extremely grateful because they were conscious of the grace, mercy, goodness and love of God? I will let you decide.

The Wisdom of Solomon

Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect.” (3.9)

the people saw and did not understand,
or take such a thing to heart,
that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect,
and that he watches over his holy ones” (4.15)

O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy” (9.1)

But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things,
and you do overlook people’s sins,
so that they may repent.
For you love all things that exist
and detest none of the things that you have made,
or you would not have made anything
if you had hated it …
You spare all things, for they are yours,
O Lord, you who love the living.” (11.21-26)

Although you are sovereign in strength,
you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us …
and when we are judged we, we may
expect mercy” (12.18, 22b)

But you, our God, are kind and true,
patient, and ruling all things in mercy.
For even if we sin we are yours,
knowing your power … (15.1-2)


You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy,
do not stray or else you may fall.
You who fear the Lord trust in him,
and your reward will not be lost.
You who fear the Lord, hope for good things,
for lasting joy and mercy.
Consider the generations of old and see:
has anyone ever trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?
Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord
and been forsaken?
For the Lord is compassionate and merciful,
he forgives sins and saves in time of distress.”
(Sirach 2.7-11, The alert will notice the reference to the God Creed (Ex 34.6) in v.11).

Let us fall into the hands of the Lord
and not in the hands of humans,
For equal to his majesty is the mercy that he shows;
his works are in keeping with his name
(Sirach 2.18).


And now, O Lord God of Israel, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and with signs and wonders and outstretched arm, and made yourself a name that continues to this day,

“we have sinned,
we have been ungodly,
we have done wrong,
O Lord our God,
against all your ordinances …

“O Lord look down from your holy dwelling, and consider us, Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord and see, for the dead are in Hades, whose spirit has been taken from their bodies, will not ascribe glory or justice to the Lord; but the person who is deeply grieved who walks bowed and feeble, with falling eyes and famished soul, will declare your glory and righteousness, O Lord.

“For it is not because of any righteous deeds of our ancestors or our kings that we bring before you our prayer for mercy, O Lord our God.”
(Baruch 2.11-19).

Prayer of Manasseh

Immeasurable and unsearchable is
your promised mercy,
for you are the Lord Most High,
of great compassion, long-suffering,
and very merciful,
and you relent at human suffering …
For the sins I have committed are
more numerous in number than the
sand of the sea;
my transgressions are multiplied,
O Lord they are multiplied!
I am not worthy to look up and see
the height of heaven …

And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring your kindness,
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
I earnestly implore you,
Forgive me, O Lord, Forgive me!

Do not destroy me with my transgressions …
Unworthy as I am, you will save me
according to your great mercy,
and I will praise you continually …”
(Prayer of Manasseh 1.7-15)

Wrapping Up

Many other texts can be cited. The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Jews, the first 22 verses, is awash in these themes. Though there is no possibility even of sacrifices (for they are in a furnace in Babylon), God accepts “a contrite heart and a humble spirit as though it were a burnt offering of rams and bulls” for the Lord is the God of mercy.

When Paul taught salvation by grace through faith he grounded his doctrine explicitly in the Hebrew Scriptures. And in particular he cites the Law of Moses and the paradigmatic story of Abraham. He cites David. And he cites Habakkuk. The Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. The whole sweep of Israel’s scripture. The “law” was never a means by which Israelites could save themselves by works of Precision Obedience. The law was graciously given to people who had already been saved by Yahweh’s astonishing grace: Exodus Comes Before Sinai. A redeemed by grace Israel entered into a “covenant of love” (Deut 7.7-9, 11) and certainly had no “righteousness” to brag about (Deut 9.4-7).

Jews knew the God of Israel to be supremely a God of Hesed, faithfulness, and mercy. They knew the joy of forgiveness. If only today disciples of Jesus had the confidence in God’s grace as did the saint who cried out the Prayer of Manasseh.

Romans 7 is not talking about Paul’s personal experience. It is not talking about Luther’s vision of Christians being simultaneously sinners and saints. Paul may have considered himself to the “chief of sinners.” But it was not because of the Hebrew Bible and failure to please a “Technical God” with Precision Obedience (Paul and Moses agree there is no such thing) … but rather because he stood nearby while Stephen was beaten to death with rocks confessing the Jewish Messiah as he died. This did trouble Paul. 


See the following Related Articles

New or Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 1)

Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 2): Law and the Story of God’s Love

Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 3): Happy are the Blameless

Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” (Pt 4): Blameless, What is It?

Romans is Not Galatians: Welcome to the Most Jewish Letter in the NT

Peter and the “Heavy Yoke:” Acts 15.10, Law of Moses or Pharisaic Oral Law?

Boethius (AD 480-524)

For approximately 1600 years or more, disciples of Jesus have prayed the “O” Antiphons leading up to “Christmas.” Ancient disciples did not use that term which was introduced many centuries later. They spoke of “advent” or the coming/appearing.

In the ancient church there were no trees. No commercialism. No corporations used by the pagan god of Capitalism, Mammon, to hijack the celebration of the Incarnation of God, the coming of Immanuel. The “commercialization” of “Christmas” is largely a capitalist event that began in the early 20th century in North America. (Trees became part of northern European celebrations in the 16th century [1500s]).

There was however, prayer, worship, acts of service, and a yearning for the Coming of the Lord. The seven short prayers of the “O’s,” the O Antiphons as they are called, helped disciples, for centuries on end, to focus upon the Story and the Hope.

Boethius was an orphan, became a genuine scholar and senator in the Ostrogothic Kingdom. He was imprisoned in AD 523 for severe criticism of the governmental abuse of power and corruption and was executed in 524. While waiting for death, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy which includes numerous meditations on Christian faith.

The “O’s” are first mentioned by Boethius in his classic, The Consolation of Philosophy written while in prison in AD 524. But scholars believe they are not original with him because he presents them as a known and established tradition. The “Seven O’s” are part of Boethius’s “self talk” to faith as he awaited his fate. That collection exercised enormous influence upon believers for 16 centuries following. But as a younger disciple, I confess, I did not even have a clue they existed. But it is a practice that is one of the diamonds in the great Christian tradition.

In Boethius’s time, the disciples in what we call Italy today spoke Latin .The Scriptures they heard in worship was in Latin (recall no disciple owned a Bible yet, not for another 1000 years). The “O’s” are based upon the Latin Scriptures that he knew nearly by heart. Most modern English speakers are vaguely familiar with the Great O’s through paraphrase we sing of them in “O Come, O Emmanuel.”

The “O’s” are a response to Mary’s (Miriam’s) prophetic song in Luke 1.46-55. Each prayer addresses God with a different biblical name and ends with a plea for the Lord to come.

The Antiphons are arranged in a sequence and prayed/sang on days leading up to Christmas day. They begin on December 17 and run to December 23. The sequence is as follows.

December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adoni (O Ruler)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dawn of the East)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
December 23: O Emmanuel (God with us)

I will give the Antiphon and the text upon which the prayer was based. There are seven. Many today forget (or never knew) that at “Christmas,” we do not just celebrate the first coming of the Messiah. Rather we wait and pray in eager expectation for his Second Coming. In many ways the “church” is in the exact same position as God’s People before the “advent” of the Word in the Jew from Nazareth. They lived in expectant hope, we too live in expectant hope. The Seven “O’s” are: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia.

1) “O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and tenderly ordering creation:
Come and teach us the way to salvation

(Isaiah 11.2-3; Sirach 24.1-5; Wisdom of Solomon 8.1; Sirach and Wisdom were in the Greek and Latin Bible. If you come from an Evangelical or Restoration background you may not know Sirach and Wisdom. I encourage you to look up the references).

The O’s

2) O Adonai, ruler of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the burning bush,
and gave him the holy law on Sinai:
Come and Redeem us with an outstretched arm
(Isaiah 11.4-5; 33.22; Exodus 3.2)

3) O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign to all the peoples;
rulers stand silent in your presence;
to you the nations make their prayers:
Come and deliver us, delay no longer
(Isaiah 11.1; Romans 15.12)

4) O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
controlling the gate of heaven:
Come and lead the prisoners out,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
(Isaiah 22.22; Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 42.7)

5) O Morning Star,
splendor of light, sun of justice:
Come, enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

(Isaiah 9.2; Isaiah 60.1-2)

6) O King of the nations and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from the clay
(Isaiah 9.6; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 64.8 )

7) O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver;
the hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

(Isaiah 7.14)

These Antiphons can be a valuable aid in focusing our own prayer thoughts. We, too, can praise the One who is Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, the Morning Star (light of the world), Ruler of nations, and Emmanuel (God with Us). The “Great O’s” help us pray for King Jesus’s future coming/advent, not just remember his past coming. We too can pray … Come!

These petitions are so biblical.

And we join Paul and all the early Christians in praying:

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

Hanukkah and Christmas

Finding of the Baby Moses, Wall painting Dura-Europos, Syria. Copy in tempora on plaster AD.

The month of December on the Gregorian Calendar contains two seasons that traditionally have been important for the children of Abraham. The two seasons often overlap but are always in close proximity. The first is called Hanukkah or the Feast of Dedication. The second is called Advent or popularly known as Christmas (The word advent comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word, parousia. It means “coming” or “appearing”). Christians in the East observe Christmas on January 6 (again these different dates are rooted in calendars). Hanukkah runs from December 18 to December 26 here in 2022. Advent runs from November 27 to December 24 (technically Christmas runs December 25 to January 8 and is called Epiphany). Hanukkah is a season on the calendar celebrated by Jesus in John 10.

The close proximity of Hanukkah and Christmas provide a good opportunity to remind Gentile believers of the messages of the Christmas season … The Christian faith is deeply intertwined with Judaism (the Hebrew Scriptures) from beginning to end. I would go so far as to say that Paul would say one cannot be a Christian (he never used that term though) without Judaism. Paul, James, and the Jerusalem Council do insist that Gentiles believers in the King of Israel do not become ethnic Jews (that is what circumcision did, it made a Gentile a Jew). But they also insist they become citizens of Israel, thus heirs to a common heritage (cf. Acts 15.13-21; Romans 11.11-23; Ephesians 2.11-3.11; etc). That heritage shapes our faith and mission. The NT writers assume Gentiles have had their imagination baptized into the history of Israel (to use a metaphor).

Baby Boys, Moses and Jesus

Today I highlight our unrecognized Hebraic heritage that is written in plain view in the pages of the Gospels. Christianity is Jewish at its heart and soul. The depth of the Spirit inspired Jewish character of the Gospels is frequently missed because we do not know the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish world of Jesus. Today we will look at how Matthew thinks we are experts in the Exodus and have lots of Jewish tradition floating in our heads (the fact that we do not says more about us than the disciples for whom Matthew wrote).

The existence of the Gospel of Luke teaches us there was more than one way to tell the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Both Luke and Matthew are stunningly Jewish in their writing though they tell the story quite differently. I will focus on Matthew.

For Matthew, the history of Israel is encapsulated in Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. We might want to say that Matthew believes that Israel’s history is recapitulated in King Jesus. For example it is difficult to know the story of Moses in any detail and miss how Matthew uses it to shape the story of Jesus in chapter 2. Note these rather remarkable parallels, a Mosaic pattern, that Matthew fully expects us to know.

1) Matt 2.13-14, Herod desires to slay Jesus so Joseph take him and Mary away

Ex 2.15, Pharaoh desires to slay Moses, so Moses goes away

2) Matt 2.16, Herod commands all male boys of Bethlehem, 2 and under, murdered

Ex 1.22, Pharaoh commands all male Israelite boys to be killed in the river

3) Matt 2.19, Herod dies

Ex 2.23, Pharaoh dies

4) Matt 2.19-20, Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, ‘go back for those seeking Jesus’s life are dead’

Ex 4.19, Lord speaks to Moses, ‘go back for those seeking your life are dead’

5) Matt 2.21, Joseph took Jesus and Mary back to Israel

Ex 4.20, Moses took his wife and children and returned to Egypt

As significant as these are, Matthew is not done. It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Moses in the biblical and Jewish tradition. Lots of traditions grew up about Moses just like they do every notable person.

The “Nativity” of Moses

The writing known as The Antiquities of the Jews, written by the Jewish historian Josephus, retells the “nativity” of Moses. Josephus does not tell this as a tale, or legend, but seems to think it is history. The story, not something Josephus invented, reveals what Jews of the first century believed about the birth of Moses. Here are the basic tenets of the story told by Josephus.

1) Pharaoh learns the Hebrews constitute an existential threat to himself and the Egyptian Empire

2) This knowledge comes via a “sacred scribe” with prophetic insight. The scribe had a vision that foretold the birth of an Israelite boy whose name would be remembered through all future generations.

3) When Pharaoh hears this news “fear and dread” come over the Egyptians. So fearful of this vision is Pharaoh that he decrees all male Israelite boys to be thrown into the Nile in an effort to circumvent the prophecy.

4) The boy’s father, Amram, prays to the Lord when he learns of the decree. God appears to Amram in a dream and promises safety for the child who will grow to be a savior of the people. Part of God’s speech to Amram is worth quoting as it appears on Josephus:

Know, therefore, that I shall provide for you all in common what is for your good, and particularly for thyself what shall make thee famous; for that child, out of dread of whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelite children to destruction, shall be thine child and shall be concealed from those who desire to destroy him. When he is brought up in a surprising way, he shall deliver the Hebrew nation …” (Antiquities of the Jews 2. IX, 3, Whiston’s translation).

5) Pharaoh’s plan to destroy the child is thwarted. Ironically, the Pharaoh himself saves baby Moses from certain death from the “sacred scribe” who recognized the child.

6) At this point Josephus presents Moses’s genealogy just as Matthew does.

(For a detailed study of Moses and Jesus parallels in the birth narrative of Matthew see Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 112-119).

Anyone who has read Matthew chapters 1 and 2 surely recognizes at least some remarkable parallels between the birth of Moses and the birth of Jesus. What are we to make of all of this?

Madonna and Child by
Patricia Brintle


First, is the fact Christian faith and the Gospel message regarding Jesus simply cannot be divorced from its Jewish soil. This is a truth “Christmas” simply insists upon. To do so does incredible violence to the message that the Holy Spirit gave. Our Jesus is a Jew, remains a Jew, and will forever be a Jew. If our Jesus is not a Jew in every respect then we have a Marcionite or Gnostic Jesus but we do not have Matthew’s Jesus. It is hard to get more Jewish than being circumcised on the eighth day of life as the Christmas story insists Jesus was. He is after, born King of the Jews (Mt 2.2).

Second, Matthew is making a claim. Every Jew knew the amazing story contained in Exodus. It was deeply embedded in the psychology of Jews in Jesus’s day. The Exodus is a story of divine power being exercised in astonishing and pure grace on behalf of powerless slaves. The Exodus was “unique.” It was unparalleled before and since. But Matthew’s claim is that now the God who acted then, is acting in Exodus fashion again. A new Moses is here to save God’s people.

The Exodus did not end with the crossing of the Red Sea. Exodus ends with Immanuel. The coming of God to dwell with his people! That is God living with the redeemed slaves (that beloved is what the Tabernacle is all about!). God does not merely save, God dwells with his people. From the beginning Matthew tells us that the Exodus acting God is doing it again. God is not merely saving (as glorious as that is) but God is dwelling with us! “Immanuel” has come, Matthew insists (Mt 1.22-23). God is dwelling with his people, not in a tent but in a person! The temple that was rescued and rededicated to God on Hanukkah comes to its fullest expression in the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth, who is Immanuel. God with us.

Baby Moses and Baby Jesus are powerful messages of redeeming and dwelling God. Maybe for Christmas we need to remember that even in the New Heavens and New Earth all God’s People will sing the Song of Moses and the Lamb. Even on the renewed earth we will not be free from the “Old Testament.”

Happy Hanukkah & Merry Christmas

Further Reading on Christmas and Hanukkah

Jesus the Jew and Hanukkah

Book of First Maccabees: God’s Family of Deliverance

Emmanuel: Why Christmas is Essential to Christian Faith

A Doctrinal Christmas? Two Theological Gifts of Christmas

Rachel, Mary, and the Lament of the World

Miriam (Mary) clearly knew the Psalms

Psalms, the Poor and Miriam/Mary (Jesus’s mother’s name is Miriam, like the Prophet who led worship in song)

Today’s (December 2, 2022) Psalm reading is Psalms 6-10. Being Advent on the traditional Christian calendar and what is generally known as the Christmas season, I could not help but imagine a young Jewish girl singing and praying (these are not two different activities) these Psalms this morning. It is interesting to me anyway what can come out of this exercise.

Luke begins his story of the Messiah with deep interest in the poor, powerless and least of these. Women are the embodiment of these social realities in Luke’s Gospel. They also represent the perennial theme in the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha of widows, orphans and aliens. Luke tells us about an older Jew, Elizabeth. She is barren. Luke tells us about another older Jew, Anna a widow and Prophet who breaks bounds by preaching publicly in the temple for decades. And in between he tells us of Miriam (Mary) who is a young Jew who is poor and quite familiar with oppression and subsistence living. She knew well the meaning of “daily bread.”

Mary/Miriam, like her ancient namesake (Exodus 15) breaks out in classic Jewish song (Lk 1.46-55), which quite literally sets the agenda for the Messiah’s mission in the Gospel of Luke. She describes herself as “lowly” (NRSV) or “humble state” (NIV) in 1.48 and 52. The term used by Miriam/Mary is an interesting one. In the Greek Septuagint, the term refers to barren women such as Hannah (1 Sam 1.11) or Rachael (Genesis 29.31f). It is also used by Judith in her prayer (Judith is a story Luke clearly knows and expects his readers to as well) describing not the barrenness of herself but the people of God who have been humiliated and brought down low (Judith 6.19). It is a word that describes people who, according to the world, do not count! It is a fitting word for Elizabeth, Anna, Judith (who is a widow in her story), Miriam/Mary and especially the people hidden in plain sight: the poor who are humiliated by the haves. Miriam/Mary speaks of those who are “hungry” (1.53) which is no mere metaphor. These are people who are literally hungry. But God has “remembered his servant Israel” because of his “mercy” (1.54).

Miriam/Mary is deeply immersed in the Hebrew Bible. When we read through our lection today (Psalms 6-10) we find many prayers by those who knew the fragility of life on the ragged edge. They cry out “how long” (6.3). In Psalms 9-10 we find the poor, the least of these, front and center. Like Miriam/Mary the psalms confess and praise with a “whole heart” (9.1). Yahweh is the “stronghold for the oppressed” and absolute “trust/faith” is placed in God (9.9).

But the poor have been forgotten. Not by God but by the powers that be. By the people who claim to worship the one true King. Yet sometimes, yes even sometimes, Miriam/Mary as a ten or eleven-year-old or even a fourteen-year-old, and food was scarce and clothes were scarce and no help could be found, might wonder if God had also forgotten. The prayer may ascend in the middle of the night,

Why do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
” (10.1)

She may have reminded the Lord, just as she had heard from the psalm,

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor” (10.2)

They act as if God does not see (10.4, 9, 13).

But you do see!” (10.14).

So, she, along with Elizabeth, Anna the Prophet, and the Jewess called Judith, pleads even though tears “flood my bed” (6.6), “Rise up, O Lord … do not forget the oppressed” (10.12).

Miriam/Mary was among the oppressed. She confessed it outright. But her song, saturated with the words of Israel, says, that God “remembered.”

God has heard!

God has come to deliver and show the lie to those who think God does not care about what the Have’s do to the “Have Not’s” (sometimes what is done is just ignore them!).

These texts mean everything to Miriam/Mary, and they would to her son as well. They are the voice she cried to heaven. They are the words used by Elizabeth. They are sermons of Anna in the temple (that is if her sermons look anything like those from Huldah, Amos, or Isaiah).

For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish forever.” (9.18).

Because Miriam’s son heard her pray and sing, so he came to proclaim Good News of God’s favor to the Poor (Luke 4.18). The songs of Miriam break forth in Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain (in fact they are shot through the Nazarene’s teachings).

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh

(Luke 6.20-21).

Clearly, Jesus hears his mother sing. He too was immersed in the Psalms. Maybe we should be too. I end my reflections today with this prayer,

Father, may we hear Miriam/Mary’s prayer. May we be the answer to the cries that she, Elizabeth, Anna and all those we turn a blind eye upon. May we be the Good News to the poor, may we be the evidence that Miriam’s Son has come just as we claim to believe during Advent and Christmas. Amen.


Why Some Choose 1950 over AD 60

To be honest is to confront the truth. However unpleasant and inconvenient the truth may be, I believe we must expose it and face it” – Martin Luther King Jr.

I grew up in a “non-denomination” denomination that claims to be “first century Christianity.” As far back as I can remember, we sloganized with Back to the Bible. Speak where the Bible speaks, Silent where the Bible is silent. Call Bible things by Bible names and do Bible things in Bible ways.

Perhaps you have heard these slogans yourself. I doubt I am alone in hearing them. What may surprise many outsiders is that a group with this kind of agenda, that claims the first century is normative, is almost completely ahistorical. That is we often have no interest in history at all. In fact it may be a detriment to our faith according to some.

But we have become so Americanized in our view of the “Bible” and “Christianity” that most all of us would not recognize first century Christianity as any expression of Christianity we have encountered in our lives. So for today I offer a handful of surprises about first century “Christianity.” Most of us when we get into our DeLorean to find first century Christians, worshiping in first century ways, are nothing short of shocked and left wondering if we have even found “Christians.”

So lets get into our DeLorean time machine, fire up our Flux Capacitor and hit 88 mph and head “Back to the Past!” That is AD 60 and take a look. Buckle up!

1) Among the biggest surprises when we return to AD 60 we discover no one speaks English. Neither are the vast majority of the people “white.” As our DeLorean takes us through the regions of Jerusalem and Galilee we encounter brown to dark brown people. As we move into Galatia, Asia and Greece we run into sort of a greenish brown olive complexion for most of the people. We decide to head off to center of the Roman Empire, Italy, and we see many of the same shade. But we do come across a band of Germanic people, from beyond the Empire, and they are fair skin. But regardless of where we find ourselves we find people who are bilingual at least and many speaking multiple languages. But we do not find anyone, not even the Britons from the furthest northern part of the Empire, who speak anything remotely like “English.” Our discovery is that early “Christianity” was darker than we in America tend to imagine. And though multilingual it never heard of English.

2) Among the major surprises, as our DeLorean takes us to congregations in Judea and the Aegean, is no one has a “Bible.” In fact no one knows what “the Bible” is. No one, from the apostles to the common disciple in the corner, has ever heard the term “Old Testament.” And perhaps the biggest shocker is not a single person has ever heard of “Christianity.” Suddenly “calling things Bible names” seems problematic. (The irony of the slogan “Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” dawned on my years ago when I realized that neither the word “Bible” nor “Christianity” ever occur in the Bible!).

3) Probably as unsettling as the above discovery in AD 60 the biggest surprise of all is that the believers almost never called themselves “Christians” (the word “Christianity” did not exist until the second century). First century writers like Paul, Peter, James, John and Clement almost never use the first term. Luke used the term 2x and Peter 1x. But neither Peter nor Luke call anyone that, though they accepted it (with conditions) if someone called them such. Instead all these writers used traditional Jewish nomenclature from the “Old Testament” to identify themselves:

the brothers and sisters;
the saints;
ekklesia (a frequent term in the Greek LXX);
the people;
the exiles; etc.

We decide to consult the Yellow Pages and Yelp while in Corinth but find no listing for Corinth Church of Christ. In fact we cannot find any congregation called “Church of Christ.” Rather what we discover is “church of God.” “Church of the Galatians.” “Church of the Thessalonians.” “Church of the Judeans.” “Exiles.” This is disorienting.

4) The next biggest surprise is that these first century believers, in AD 60, did not carry around pocket New Testaments. In fact no one had New Testaments. Indeed, no one has heard of the Book of Acts and a good portion of “books” we call “the New Testament.” When we do find a group of “messianics” and worship in first century ways, we are overwhelmed by how much time is spent reading Moses, Psalms and the Prophets. In fact the songs sung are almost all from the Book of Psalms. Someone gets up and tells a story about Jesus. But what is read by the reader is Moses. Suddenly we recall an elder at our home church saying, “why are you teaching Psalms, we are New Testament Christians.” Oh the irony. The first century saint would not have a clue what that elder was saying.

5) Another big surprise for most in our day, if our DeLorean stopped in AD 35, AD 45; AD 55; AD 75; or even AD 90 … they would not find a single church building. If the earliest writers are to be believed then we would find believers in King Jesus gathering in three primary locations: the Temple of God; synagogues; and homes/apartments.

6) Some contemporary believers, who think the first century “church” was basically all made from cookie cutters to be identical, will be nothing short of stunned and even shocked when their DeLorean brings them to the Jerusalem church in AD 60ish. Our eyes and ears are eager to see James and Paul together! Both look nothing like classic paintings we know. They are wearing prayer shawls, tzitzit at least one was blue. Paul looks like a Pharisee and James looks like a High Priest. And what do we see our brothers doing? In nothing short of stunned disbelief, we see James and Paul go through a mikvot to ceremonially cleanse themselves, then enter the temple with hundreds of Levites playing instruments on the steps in the Court of Women, then we see them offering an actual sacrifice! We simply do not have a category for that kind of worship in Why I am a Member of the Church of Christ. We do not know if we should upload this for YouTube or not because it clearly is beyond our thought pattern. Then it dawns on us that there was no single cookie cutter used to define “Christian” worship in the first century at all.

7) Another major surprise for us when we arrive in Corinth in AD 55 is the Lord’s Supper is part of a full meal. Much like the sacrificial meals, the Passover and weekly Sabbath meal out of the history of Israel. No one is concerned about who serves and who does not serve. They share the whole meal in honor of the living and present Lord. We are surprised when people are not stone dead quiet and that there is no such thing as tiny unleavened wafers and Welch’s juice … it is tasty loaves of leavened bread and real wine!! No wonder we are giving God thanksgiving!

8) One of the major surprises for American believers transported back to AD 60 in our DeLorean, is just how at odds the Way of Jesus is with the national government and the general tenor of culture as a whole. Disciples of Jesus simply do not fit in with anyone of the major groups and we certainly do not sing the national anthem. In fact they are killing some of us as atheists, enemies of the State, and haters of humanity! One of the prophets, John, even called on them to “come out of” the Roman ways of living. So much for needing a “Christian” nation to practice our faith.

9) Another major surprise has been that one of the women at the table (which seems to be the focal point for Paul’s house church in Corinth) speak and pray. We ask who she is, some one whispers she is Phoebe a visiting deacon from the church of God in Cenchreae/Corinth. She reads and explains a long letter from Paul the Pharisee Apostle. Another shares a recitation of Scripture from Moses, the Psalms or Prophets for the edification of the gathered body. No one gets up and says that was unusual or out of place. Indeed we see that women among these first century saints are some of the most prominent folks in the Way!

10) Another major surprise is just how diverse the family of God is. It is as if the social structure of the old age has simply been jettisoned. Greeks and Jews; Romans and Germans; Slaves and Masters; Males and Females; ‘Whites” and Blacks; Rich and Poor not only claim to be equals pledging allegiance to the Messiah King of Israel who is Lord of the Nations. And it actually looks like they actually believe it. Status has been given to the lowly! And the ones with “status” have become servants of the body. It is a complete overturning of what the world says about how things should be. The Table of Jesus, King of the Jews, is the most integrated place in the Roman Empire!

Just a few interesting observations about a trip to the first century to see the beginning of The Way.

Related Articles

Acts: A Jewish Story, James & Paul’s Animal Sacrifice

Reading Luke-Acts: Thoughts on Luke’s “Patternism”

Aroma of Incense: Shadow of the Temple in Luke’s Story of Jesus and the Way

21 Nov 2022

Women and Didactic Teaching: A Note on 1 Timothy 2.12

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Timothy, Amos, Church, Exegesis, Paul, Women

First Timothy 2.12, as it is traditionally translated in the King James Version, is used as the one insurmountable text forbidding women from leadership roles among God’s people. It is claimed the text forbids women from didactic teaching of males.

From the outset it must be admitted, if this text as traditionally translated were not present it would be nigh impossible to make such a claim about women from the rest of the biblical canon. It would be impossible in fact. The Bible is full of “counter evidence” to the claims based on traditional translations of this text.

Counter Evidence

For example there are numerous women prophets in the biblical narrative in both Testaments. But some claim that prophet and preacher are not the same. I do not think this will bear the weight of examination. I suggest that a prophet, biblically, most certainly teaches didactically. Prophets were preachers, they proclaimed the word of the Lord. They are not primarily predictors of the future. This is seen clearly in Amos 7.16

You [Amaziah] say, ‘Do not PROPHESY against Israel
and do PREACH against the house of Isaac

The synonymous parallelism shows the terms “prophesy” and “preach” have the same meaning.

But we also know the prophet teaches from the work of the prophets themselves: Moses, Deborah, Huldah, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, John the Baptist, Anna. If someone can show that Moses, Huldah and Elijah are not teachers they are more creative than me. If Moses is not preaching and teaching the Book of Deuteronomy then there is no such thing as preaching. A prophet, biblically, is a proclaimer of the Word of God.

If we link Amos 7.16 with what Paul says in 1 Cor 14.3-4, prophecy is for the building up the church of God.

Those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the assembly/church.”

“Prophecy” is no private enterprise and it is no mere prediction of the future. And Paul states explicitly – though simply ignored by most – women are both public prayer warriors and prophets at Corinth (1 Cor 11.4-5,13) just as both Joel and Peter stated they would (Joel 2.28-29 & Acts 2.17-18).

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
” (Acts 2.17-18)

Second, women were sages in Israel. There could not be a more didactic enterprise. Why is it in Proverbs, chapters 1-9, chooses to have all teaching done through the voice of a woman (Lady Wisdom)? I include them on the list of “roles of women.” See A Biblical Register of Roles God Has Called Women. But Wisdom herself is both Woman and a Preacher throughout the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. See Women, Caricatures and Lady Wisdom (Thoughts inspired by Daughters).

First Timothy 2.12 Does Not Say That …

Finally, 1 Timothy 2.12 does not prohibit women teaching for at least two reasons. First, it sets Paul in explicit contradiction with the entire biblical narrative where women are teachers and explicitly direct the worship of Israel, Esther directs the worship of Israel with “full authority” (Esther 9.29, 32). The Septuagint that Paul and so man early Christians quote from makes it even more explicit by saying that “Esther established it [Purim] by a COMMAND” (Esther 9.32, LXX). I can only assume that Paul, and even Jesus himself were faithful Jews who obeyed the commands of Esther.

Second, the phrase “teach and have authentein” is not two different functions but one. It is regarded as a hendiadys which Blass, Debrunner and Funk discuss in their classic A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, pp. 227-229. That means the conjunction “and” here has these terms expressing a single idea, a single function is in view. Paul is not prohibiting teaching at all. He is forbidding “authentein.”

Third, when we look at this word it is plainly evident that “authentein” does not mean authority. This word occurs only here, nowhere else, in the entire New Testament. That is itself significant. So significant that we should say it again, this term occurs only here, nowhere else, in the entire New Testament.

Paul uses the word “authority” several times, either “exousia” or “proistemi.” But Paul suddenly pulls a word out of the thesaurus that never is used by any biblical writer and is even quite rare outside the biblical corpus. Paul is simply not talking about “authority.” The related noun occurs in 3 Maccabees 2.29, where Jews who resisted Ptolemy’s demand that Dionysus be worshiped are publicly either put to death, branded on their bodies with fire, they shall be “authentein” – “reduced.” (cf. NRSV). They are in some manner humiliated and gutted of life. The term occurs in Wisdom of Solomon 12.6 where the sins of the pagan Canaanites are described in brutal detail, among those are child sacrifice. “these parents who MURDER (authentein) helpless defenseless children” (TEV, cf. NRSV, KJV).

There is no way we can read these texts and simply say that Paul suddenly decides to use this extremely violent word and then say he is talking about mere authority. If a judge tells a robber to stop murdering people no one would imagine the judge was telling the robber to stop exercising authority! If the police tell a person to stop beating their partner, no sane person would imagine the police were saying stop exercising authority! We would never confuse beating someone, humiliating someone, and even killing someone with the exercise of authority. Yet that is exactly what we do when we come to 1 Timothy 2.12, we take a term that refers to abuse and even murder and then claim Paul is forbidding authority. This is bizarre linguistics.

But Paul uses this word here, and only here, because of the historical situation of the church in Ephesus.

Paul is not forbidding teaching, he is forbidding the violent dehumanization of males in Ephesus. Paul is forbidding domination, or dictate like a dictator (see TNIV’s footnote) as many scholars have suggested as the translation here. For much greater detail on authentein see First Timothy 2.8-15 & the Silencing of Women in Worship.

When this text is examined there are so many unusual things about that it demands that we examine it carefully. I mean after all most completely ignore the verses around it.


Human blindness is proverbial. Blindness is even more profound where oppression and injustice is perpetuated. The oppressor, short of a miracle, without fail will minimize, deny, or justify what they have done. It is not unusual for the oppressor to blame the oppressed and even claim it was for their good. The Bible testifies to this truth over and over again. One of the most frequent exhortations (or lament) is some variation of the people having eyes to see and ears to hear.

Yahweh said, through the prophet Isaiah, his people are

ever hearing,
but never understanding;
ever seeing
but never perceiving” (Isa 6.9-10).

This truth is never more true than when God’s people contemplate race, racism, and racial justice.

I first “met” James Baldwin about twenty years ago when I discovered The Fire Next Time. I wrote my first blog on Baldwin in February 2010 when I “meditated” on Nobody Knows My Name: Thoughts Prompted by James Baldwin and Black History Month. Not only is Baldwin, literally, one of the greatest American writers in our collective history, he is an amazing speaker. Baldwin wrote both fiction and essays. His language is elegant, even beautiful. He is among the most profound thinkers I have ever engaged. I do not know why I was not introduced to Baldwin in high school. Given the “blind” rage going on in our public schools right now, Baldwin ought to be added to the curricula not removed.

Years before I was born, in 1965, William F. Buckley engaged Baldwin in a debate at Cambridge University that I only discovered 7 or 8 years ago (the entire debate is on YouTube). I went down the rabbit hole. Nicholas Buccola traces the events leading up to debate and then traces how Buckley and Baldwin pretty much set the parameters for discussion on race relations basically to this day in the United States. Buckley exerting heavy influence through such persons as Ronald Reagan. The sheer moral force of Baldwin destroyed Buckley. But 57 years later it amazes me how many Christians still sound like Buckley. I cannot recommend The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr and the Debate over Race in America enough. (This book also contains a full transcript of the debate).

Buckley did not want to “hear.” To this day, even those of us who claim we want to hear, often do not. Too much self-investment is at stake.

In July 1968, about two months after Martin Luther King Jr was murdered, Baldwin was interviewed by Esquire magazine. The magazine wanted Baldwin to reflect on King’s murder and the hell that erupted in America. Baldwin sounds like the beautifully poetic Isaiah himself and spoke words we still, 54 years later, do not want to hear.

I’m not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have a lot to face … All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history … which is not your past, but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history had led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself and save yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.

That is quite a profound statement. It is one that many will deny. Buckley did. But it certainly describes what is happening in our country right now.

In Isaiah’s day, people with no eyes to see and ears to hear thought Israel was declining because they did not spend money enough on the army or they did not have powerful alliances with Egypt to face Assyria. Even though Isaiah, along with Amos and Micah and the rest of the prophets, explained clearly that was not the issue. Israel was in the predicament it was in not because the army budget, but because of the country was fundamentally greedy and full injustice toward the widows, orphans, aliens. Israel was not serving the least of these.

cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead the cause of the widows” [in court]

(Isaiah 1.17)

You are doomed!
You buy more houses and fields to add to those you already have.
Soon there will be no place for anyone else to live,
and you alone will live in the land.
I have heard the LORD Almighty say,
‘All these big, fine houses will be empty ruins
(Isaiah 5.8-9, TEV, read verses 8-30)

They covet fields and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress families
and steal their inheritance

(Micah 2.2, BV translation, “inheritance” refers to ancestral family land)

Greed driven injustice towards the poor and the powerless. The wealthy never had enough so they find ways to take the little the poor have. And they even seem to find “legal” ways to do this, which is Isaiah’s point about defending the cause of the poor and powerless in court. This is why Israel is doomed. God is the God of the Oppressed, this is “inscripturated” into Israel’s very foundation in the Exodus story memorialized in Sabbath and Passover.

It is only after this condemnation of oppression on the widows, orphans and aliens by those who had enough but wanted more, that we get the “call” of Isaiah. It is in that call that Yahweh told the prophet, they will never open their ears. They will never open their eyes to see what they are doing and have done. Israel will not “confront” its history.

Periodically women and men appear before the human family and tell us the truth. One of those men was James Baldwin. And Baldwin said many of the same things as Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and even John the Baptist. But Israel did not want to hear that “your history has lead you to this moment.” Neither do we!

Baldwin, in 1969, about a year after King’s murder and the soul of America was in the balance, sounded not merely like Isaiah, but Yahweh.

A Man we Should Read

It began to be very clear to black people in the United States that what Time magazine calls ‘the troubled American’ is not going to listen, does not want to know, does not want to hear the truth about the situation of the American black.

Israel never did “hear” and never did “perceive.” Jerusalem was destroyed not because Israel did not have a big enough army but because Israel refused to accept responsibility for her actions (or non-actions) toward her greed and injustice in the land.

Baldwin is one of the reasons I believe Black History Matters. We must know that our history has brought us to this moment. We must confront it. We must SEE and HEAR and then we will finally recognize the truth. It is the truth that will set us free. We can find healing. As Maya Angelou said so beautifully,

History, despite its wrenching pains cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.