Who is the Son of God?

Son of GodNot a bad question if you live in the first century. Most Christians today will tell you without hesitating that the answer to that question is Jesus. What’s interesting is the diversity of meaning once held by a title that today has so singular a meaning. Even though in the Old Testament no individual ever addresses God as “Father”, the reality is that the term existed before the incarnation (and was sometimes used of ‘incarnate’ pagan gods). The question is, if we were to ask a Jew in the first century BC who the son of God was, what would s/he tell you?


The easiest answer to comprehend or accept for us 21st century Christians is probably the idea that Adam was understood to be the son of God. Consider Luke 3:38, the end of Jesus’ genealogy. Having listed off the various sons of sons through David, Abraham and Noah we come to the last father: Adam. Except Adam is not the last Father. Because we read that Adam is in fact, “the son of God”. The surprise here is not that Adam is the Son of God, but that Jesus is and that Jesus is a son like no other (see Luke 3:22)!


In Job 1:6 we read that “the day came when the sons of God presented themselves before YHWH and the Adversary was with them” and as we continue reading we realise that we are watching a scene unfold in the throneroom of heaven and these sons of God must be angels with Satan/the Adversary, the angelic being, among them. The NET Notes on this verse are illuminating,

They are not actually “sons” of Elohim; the idiom is a poetic way of describing their nature and relationship to God. The phrase indicates their supernatural nature, and their submission to God as the sovereign Lord. It may be classified as a genitive that expresses how individuals belong to a certain class or type, i.e., the supernatural (GKC 418 §128.v). In the pagan literature, especially of Ugarit, “the sons of God” refers to the lesser gods or deities of the pantheon.

In his Study Bible, John Macarthur claims that sons of God are “identified elsewhere almost exclusively as angels” and cites the three occurrences from Job. This is, however, an overstatement. Job is the only clear biblical presentation of this usage. Nevertheless, to an ancient Israelite “sons of God” could be an angelic reference.


Perhaps one of the surprising answers to the question posed is that the nation of Israel is understood to be the son of God. In Exodus 4:22 YHWH is telling Moses how the plagues will play out and it culminates in the instruction to tell Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” and on that basis, Israel should be freed to worship. The final plague, the death of the firstborn is, therefore, justified on the basis of aspect of Israel’s identity “since you have refused to let him [my son] go, I will surely kill your son, your firstborn!” (Exodus 4:23).

Likewise Jeremiah 31 expresses the same understanding of Israel’s identity. The images are mixed among the picture of Israel as a virgin but in 31:9 we read,

I will bring them back praying prayers of repentance.
I will lead them besides streams of water,
along smooth paths where they will never stumble.
I will do this because I am Israel’s father;
Ephraim is my firstborn son.

So in addition to Adam and angelic beings, Israel is also on occasion referred to as God’s son.


As we read the Old Testament we discover one further somewhat unexpected referent of “son of God”. While the Psalms are littered with this sort of reference the most evocative reference is surely 2 Samuel 7 in which YHWH promises David in verse 12,

When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom.

But most significantly verse 14,

I will become his father and he will become my son.

So the King of Israel, God’s king for God’s people could also be referred to as the son of God.


Finally, one important factor that we would be remiss to overlook is the fact that first century Israel was under Roman occupation. This meant that the idea of who the son of God was did not stem only from Jewish tradition but also from the Graeco-Roman context. NT Wright puts it beautifully in his Simply Jesus saying that Octavian, having won the power struggle,

He declared that his adoptive father, Julius, had indeed become divine; this meant that he, Augustus Octavian Caesar, was now officially ‘son of god’, ‘son of the divine Julius’.

Wright continues, describing a coin on his desk engraved with a depiction of Tiberius,

On the front, encircling Tiberius’s portrait, is the abbreviated title: AUGUSTUS TI CAESAE DIVI AUG F, short for, AUGUSTUS TIBERIUS CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS, “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”. On the reverse is a picture of Tiberius dressed as a priest, with the title Pontifex Maximus. It was a coin like this one that they showed to Jesus of Nazareth, a day or two after he had ridden into Jerusalem, when they asked him whether or not they should pay tribute to Caesar.

In other words in the first century, one important answer to the question, “who is the son of god?” was certainly, “Caesar”.

Nephilim & the sons of God (Genesis 6)

NephilimNow when we reach Genesis 6 and we read in verse 2 that, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose,” we need to figure out who the sons of God are. Especially since the passage continues with one of the most enigmatic biblical references, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days … when the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children.” So the question “who were the Nephilim” is entwined with the question of who the sons of God were.

MacArthur explains Nephilim by the etymological root of the term as “fallen ones” and therefore also explains sons of God as fallen angels (he cites Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4,5 – neither of which are clearly about this passage let alone use parallel terms). It is doesn’t make much sense to think of angelic beings and humans reproducing.

Another popular explanation is that the sons of God are the ‘godly’ line of Seth – as opposed to the godless line of Cain. Of course, this use of the term is entirely unattested. Diving into such a view also suffers the theological belly flop of producing sinless people after the fall.

To interpret the sons of God as kings, however, parallels its later usage and makes pretty good sense of the text. We find that the mighty men, men of renown, are their descendants. What we often forget is that the primary measure of leadership today has nothing to do with physical strength because today brain normally beats brawn. In the ancient world, however, this would not have been the case. So if the sons of God were kings they would have probably been tough guys, probably bearing the genetic material to produce “men of renown”. The one thing left unsolved by this explanation is the reason for the term “Nephilim” but since the meaning “fallen ones” is basically a guess, I don’t think it’s a major loss to say we’ve lost the significance of the term.

So there you have it, the simplest and neatest (and most Ockham’s Razorly) explanation of the sons of God in Genesis 6 is that sons of God refers to kings and the Nephilim are their big children. There is, however, something far more exciting that we find by tracing the uses of sons of God.

The Son of God in Biblical Theology

Golden Icon: Jesus crucifiedWhile there is diversity to the term “son of God”, within the diversity there is something quite spectacular going on with this elusive character. You see ultimately Christians have forgotten all these other usages in favour of one much later usage: Jesus.

The cool thing about Jesus being the son of God is that he is the second Adam. That’s important because in Adam all die and in Christ all are made alive. So Jesus needs to be the son of God like that.

Another cool thing is that Jesus being the son of God lines up pretty neatly with his representative headship over the people of God. Calling Israel the son of God is kind of like calling Jesus the son of God because the significance of the designation is in the special calling and relationship with God.

Similarly, calling a king the “son of God” had to do with the king’s position of headship over God’s people. In the case of Jesus, Jesus as the true king of Israel is again in this sense the “son of God”.

Jesus completes each of these meanings by bringing them to fulfilment in himself. He is the true Adam who never sins, the true Israel who never rebels and the true king of God’s kingdom who leads rightly. Jesus walks righteously with God and earns his headship and our righteousness, qualifying him as the son of God. But he is more than any of these shadows because Jesus is, in all his fullness, ultimately God the Son.

Risks in Reading for the Art of Biblical Narrative

Poetry is a dangerous game-by-whitefeatherGraham has recently written a couple of posts (here and here) on Alter’s seminal work, “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. The “New Literary Criticism” movement is not new any more although it certainly retains its exciting lustre for Bible students. This is true because the literary movement (the “new” one anyway, as opposed to the old “redaction critical” type of “literary movement”, in case any nerds were wondering) has a number of great strengths over its predecessors.

First, I love the fact that we are encouraged to view texts as a whole, assuming the author/editors were not idiots and were constructing something coherent. I love the fact that discernible shifts that would previously have caused scholarship to break texts apart now inspire attention to why they would have been brought together and how they build on one another.

Second, because the shift (especially in Old Testament studies) has been from a “looking through the text at the period in which it was written” kind of approach to an analysis of the text itself, I appreciate the new focus. Now the text is at the forefront. This is great news for people who think the Bible is living and active and suitable for training in all righteousness. It great news for people who think Scripture is God’s Word and has something to say to us today.

Third, studying the Bible does not have to be an obscure scholarly discipline dependent on thorough knowledge of original languages, etymology and some strongly held opinions on historical reconstructions that are mostly best guesses. It is something anyone can do because much of what should be gleaned from a narrative can be gleaned in a secondary language. It’s like the reformation or the translation of the Bible into English that saw the lay person empowered to interpret Scripture for him/herself. Of course it comes with its own set of problems but they’re a better set of problems than the alternative. One thing to note is that this is less and less the case as literary techniques are carried over and the field once again becomes filled with jargon and defined methodologies not apparent to the lay person. Nevertheless, pointing someone to the text and saying, “read it and try to make sense of why it was written” is not a bad start and it’s encouraged by the literary movement.

There are, however, two dangers associated with literary techniques. If you’ve read this far, you should check out Longman’s article, “The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls” which I have found valuable to my own thinking and has been formative in my thinking on the subject. The critiques I’m raising are not ground breaking nor are they necessarily the most significant. They are simply the concerns that are at the forefront of my mind and are simply raised to contribute to the discussion Graham has started.

1. Loss of Grounding in History

Well GroundedI think the most disturbing trend in literary readings is the willingness to abandon external objectivity. If all that matters is the text and its effect on me today, then reference to anything historical loses significance. One of the most disturbing features of The Art of Biblical Narrative is Alter’s dismissal of David’s historicity. As far as Alter is concerned, there was perhaps a king named David but all that stuff about giant slaying (and most of the rest of his life actually) is myth built up around him so that Israel have something in their history to be proud of.

Alter’s perceptive observation of type-scenes, while insightful, results in a further severing of text from history. Now every time we find a meeting at a well we know that we are not reading actual occurrences, it’s just the “ol’ hookup at the well scene” – the Hebrew idiom for engagement. To be honest, this doesn’t seem like much to lose – and it’s not if the well scene is just the Hebrew idiom for engagement – in fact it’s a superior reading, but only if we are right that an account couched in historical setting is really idiomatic. The advantage is that we realise how often historical grounding doesn’t matter much (and so we don’t have to fight to the death over how many years the Judges period covers, for example) but the danger is that we similarly don’t worry when it does. The question is, are we losing something if we read the stories of David as ahistorical? It’s a question that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time but not one I think is anywhere near being solved.

Down The Rabbit HoleNevertheless, in his article, Longman (1985:394) quotes Frye, “The Bible possesses literary qualities but is not itself reducible to a work of literature.” This seems an important corrective. As we venture down the literary rabbit hole – often in flight from historical-critical methodologies – we need not (perhaps, we must not?) let go of history. In their major contribution to the subject Provan, Long and Longman (2003:81) write, “The ahistorical path is a dead end. Where biblical texts make historical truth claims, ahistorical readings are perforce misreadings – which remains the case, whatever one’s opinions may be regarding the truth value of those claims.”

If in our quest for literary readings, we gain textual unity and prominence but lose its historical roots I think the quest will, in the end, have been futile.

2. Loss of Stability in Interpretation

JengaLongman’s (1985:391) fourth concern is “the danger of moving completely away from any concept of authorial intent and determinant of meaning of a text.” In recent years the idea of textual meaning outside of its reader has been radically challenged. In “Narrative in the Hebrew Bible”, Gunn and Fewell’s follow up to Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative”, we find one of the more eloquent defences of reader response interpretation. We read (1993:xi), “Most significant, however, it differs from all these books in its hermeneutical assumptions. Unlike the others … our book understands interpretation to hinge crucially upon the reader, and not just in terms of a reader’s ‘competence’. Meaning is not something out there in the text waiting to be discovered. Meaning is always, in the last analysis, the reader’s creation, and readers, like texts, come in an infinite variety.”

To be fair, my experience of Gunn and Fewell has been that they are pretty responsible. The point is that when the author’s stabilising influence is lost, the stabilising influence of the text is lost for the same reasons. In the end, the many and varied interpretations of the reader(s) are all that is left. This means that there is no stability to meaning. Whether or not this matters is the topic for another oversized post, I’m going to assume that it is.

An example of this was given in a recent Christianity Today article about the Bible and Technology,

Bible tech has provided personal epiphanies, such as when he [Evans] learned the Hebrew word for bread, lehem. “Lehem is bread! Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’! Jesus is the Bread of Life! Hebrew is magic!” But the same software that draws such connections also taught him to think more skeptically—even about the very connections that got him so excited, Evans said. “What we’re doing here makes it very easy to run with theological scissors.” The tools can be used, to use an example several people referenced, to develop an intense numerological theory about the significance of the 153 fish caught in John 21. It’s kind of a throwback to the early church, when preachers loved pontificating on repeated words, images, and numbers in disparate biblical books. But database-driven interactive text seems to especially encourage this kind of reading, where one simple mouse click pulls up thousands of pages of cross-references and commentary on each word. It’s an awful lot like 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, where Nobel laureate John Nash is able to see real patterns no one else had seen—but also sees patterns that don’t really exist.

In his small masterpiece, Exegetical Fallacies (an absolute must read), Carson speaks of “Verbal Parallelomania” in which the “bare phenomena” of verbal parallels are said to “demonstrate conceptual links or even dependency” (2nd Ed. pg43). Carson is particularly critical of these parallels when they are found in extra-biblical literature (à la Babylonian creation myths?).

It is remarkably easy to find parallels (in fact Carson speaks of “conceptual parallelomania” later in Exegetical Fallacies as yet another way of finding dubious parallels) especially with the power of Google on your side. In the era of literary readings, it is difficult to critique the abundance of parallels that can be discovered because those parallels are discovered by the reader and, for better or worse, the reader has become the hermeneutical pivot around whom meaning revolves. Maybe it’s just that I’m a stodgy conservative but that is a bit of a problem for me. Carson noted that of the 300ish parallels found by Bultmann and Dodd in the prologue of John there was only a 7% overlap.

Running with ScissorsThis is not to say that parallels never exist and certainly not that they never matter. It is, however, a caution to this author. I have often found myself making the argument “the writer of this passage of Scripture has the entire corpus of biblical literature memorised, so of course when he says this similar sounding thing he has in mind that primary idea which he is extending”. It is very easy, by means of methodologies introduced by the new literary criticism, to introduce radical instability into textual exegesis or to, “run with theological scissors”.


The loss of history and the loss of stability in meaning are not inevitabilities in literary readings but they are both pitfalls into which literary critics have already fallen. In our era it is in vogue to be a sceptic but I am confident that as the philosophical tides change we will look like real plonkers if we are found to have succumbed to absolute relativism, having detached everything from anything. In the process of investing our time and energy into the new literary criticism which, as has been seen, promises much fruit, we must coordinate our text with history and we must not descend into a myriad of meanings that leave us in a sea of meaninglessness waiting and hoping the tide will carry us back to land.

Readings Cited

Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 1996.

Longman, The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls JETS 28:4 pp. 385-398.

Provan, Long, & Longman, A Biblical History of Israel.  2003.

Yee, The author/text/reader and power: suggestions for a critical framework for biblical studies eds. M. A. Tolbert, F. F. Segovia – pg109-118.


Daniel 7: The Kingdom will be Given to the Saints

Chris Koelle - History of redemptionDespite the difficult details and apocalyptic flavour of Daniel, the overarching theme is not too complicated and I think correctly summarised as: “God is sovereign. He overrules and eventually will overcome human evil” (Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament). In my previous post, on Daniel 6, I attempted to highlight the book’s juxtaposition of Yahweh’s divine sovereignty and humanity’s derived power. Kings delude themselves into believing that within their remarkably brief lives they possess omnipotence, answering only to themselves. As each bright human star fades from view, Daniel’s point is clear: Yahweh alone rules forever and because he gives dominion to mankind, every person is answerable to him. Commenting on Daniel 4, Ernest C. Lucas writes that the imago Dei means humans have the right to rule (and much good is achieved by human rulers who recognise Yahweh’s rule over and through them) yet when humans try to be God they forfeit that right, becoming “bestial.” The desire to rule autonomously has corrupted our God-given rule over the rest of creation. And I think Daniel 7, undergirded by covenant theology, presents the Lord’s plans for our glorious reinstatement.

If we follow covenant theology, in Genesis 1-2 Adam and Eve who are made in God’s image and likeness were commissioned to work as Yahweh had and, following the pattern set by their Creator, bring their work to completion and ultimately rest (VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, p40). The conclusion of the Eden narrative, the telos of creation, was something not fully present in the Garden. VanDrunen writes, “The first Adam did not bear God’s image in order to work aimlessly in the original creation but to finish his work in this world and then to enter a new creation and to sit down enthroned in a royal rest.” As image bearers our future was always to carry out Yahweh’s dominion as co-regents in the new creation once we had fulfilled our task given in the covenant of creation. Michael Horton (Introducing Covenant Theology, p106) puts it like this: “Humankind would lead creation into a triumphal procession into the consummation, represented by the Tree of Life.” Horton utilises Ancient Near Eastern language to develop this idea, saying that Adam and his posterity were to take their place as vassal rulers beneath the great Suzerain King. But this work, perfectly assigned to those in God’s likeness, was frustrated through and ultimately fails because of sin.

Book of Revelation - Chris KoelleThe reversal of mankind’s rebellion and their reinstatement towards an eschatological reign is looked for throughout Scripture (see this theme in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce). One allusion to this theme found in Daniel 7 is, in my opinion, often overlooked as the mysterious “son of man” steals our attention. This figure is presented before the Ancient of Days and invested with everlasting dominion (7:13-15). Far from being some abstract divine transaction, this vision anticipates the eternal destiny of man. N.T. Wright (Simply Jesus, p158) says this enthroned “son of man” is literally a human being and stands as a symbol of the faithful people of God. It is through this figure, who we might call a “figurative head”, that the faithful saints will receive everlasting dominion (7:18, 22, 27). God’s faithful people are not only vindicated in the book of Daniel but the glorious promise of reinstatement is clearly reiterated, through the reign of the Son of Man. Read Paul’s wonderful juxtaposition in Romans 6:17, ‘as death reigned through Adam, those who receive abundant grace the free gift of righteousness will reign through Jesus Christ.’ The reversal of the fall in Eden will be achieved and rest will be attained through the mysterious and powerful Son of Man; when he receives the kingdom of the Most High, all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the saints.

Revelation 21-22 - Chris KoelleFor the original readers of Daniel, the Son of Man was a momentously encouraging figure, for he shares his dominion with God’s people. It is an important point because Daniel’s vision also looks forward to ferocious and violent human kingdoms that stand opposed to Yahweh and his people. Very similar imagery can be seen in Revelation 13 where a bestial human kingdom makes war on the saints, and John records, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” While ultimate triumph is secured in Christ’s headship, that day is yet to come. I am sure this is why Daniel closes with the promise that God’s faithful people who die, sleeping in the dust of the many troubles history throws up, will awake to everlasting life (Daniel 12:1-3). We wait, with the many who have gone before us, for the consummation of Jesus’ enthronement that is still to come. “Night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and forever” (Revelation 22:5).

Irony Abounding to the Chief of Persia

Ironic; ironyI few weeks back I posted in the wake of completing Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, noting his method and drawing out some theological conclusions. The experience implicit throughout that work, along with his explicit conclusion to it, is that reading narrative should be enjoyable. Alter argues, and I would agree, that we must allow biblical narrative to impact us as story; C.S. Lewis called this being vulnerable to the text. Thus the aim of narrative criticism is to gain a better understanding of the text by being sensitive not only to what is communicated but how the author communicates it. In this post I want to discuss irony, a prominent literary feature in biblical narrative, and explore one if its occurrences in the book of Daniel.

As we start: what is irony? Many wrongly reduce it to, ‘A meaning that opposite to what is said.’ Others misunderstand it as bad luck, ‘rain on your wedding day.’ But in its most basic sense, irony is a disparity of understanding, when the true interpretation of speech or action is contrary to its apparent meaning (Mark Allan Powell, What is Narrative Criticism?). Boris Uspensky, quoted by Powell, says irony is the “nonconcurrence” between point of view and character actions, events, speech, motives or beliefs. A basic distinction is also necessary when discussing irony: it is generally grouped under either verbal or dramatic irony. Verbal irony is a “nonconcurrence” between a character’s speech and its actual or intended meaning. Dramatic irony is when characters are unaware of the discrepancy between how they perceive a situation and the true situation.

Robert FowlerWhat is the function of irony? In my reading I reached three helpful conclusions regarding the purpose of irony, though there are no doubt many more. Firstly, irony forges a special community. Its indirection means that readers may misunderstand or miss what the author is communicating, so an intimacy is created between the author and perceptive reader, as well as between reader and others on the inside. Robert Fowler, in Let the Reader Understand, says irony results in “benighted outsiders” and “privileged insiders.” And this, he believes, causes the reader to stick closely to the author and the community created through reading. Secondly, as a result of this new community, irony draws the reader into accepting the narrator’s point of view. The reader is shown truth that runs deeper than the unwitting characters realise. We might even say that there is an element of superiority felt by the reader, something Wayne Booth calls gratifying, “implicit flattery.” The narrative works subtly to convince us of the author’s perspective. Lastly, more a point of pragmatics, irony creates suspicion of the straightforward. Irony makes us careful and trains us to become better readers. Irony encourages rereading because we can never be sure if we have received all the signals the text is sending. Fowler says that we are taught as readers, newly formed in a community, to move beyond surface appearances as we constantly encounter indirection.

As we close: irony in Daniel 6. My church has been making its way through the book of Daniel and in preparing chapter 6 I was struck by the dramatic irony of the situation. The story of Daniel and the lions’ den barely needs any introduction, but like most well known tales we often allow our knowledge to replace careful reading of the text. So I want to point out two linked ironies. The first is that Darius, co-regent of the Medo-Persian Empire that had recently conquered the Babylonian Empire, possessed absolute human power. But like Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3, he demonstrates the delusion of divine power. Whereas Nebuchadnezzar demanded worship (3:5), Darius decrees that he all prayers and petitions must come to him alone (6:7); both kings claim a divine status. Yet when Daniel is indicted by his faithfulness to Yahweh, Darius the divine is impotent to reverse the sentencing (6:14-15); he is a powerless deity. Secondly, Darius standing over Daniel in the den offers a petition, “May your God deliver you” (6:16). Not only is Darius unable to reverse the effect of his own words, but he also implicitly admits what we already know from reading Daniel: Yahweh alone is sovereign and therefore powerful to answer prayer. After sealing Daniel’s fate by stone and signet (6:17), Darius withdraws to his palace for an undistracted night of fasting (6:18). Whether Darius fasted in order to pray or not, he endures a sleepless and anxious night hoping that Yahweh will deliver Daniel from the death he could not. Darius’ irreversible decree underlines his finite power and his desperate petition highlights Yahweh’s sovereign power.

Daniel 6In closing, Darius’ second decree calls all people in his kingdom to tremble and fear before the absolute and divine power of another King: “He is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end” (6:26).

Basic Exegesis Diagram in isiZulu

Zulu Bible: iBhayibheli ElingcweleOne of the most exciting elements of my ministry this year is that of training lay preachers. In South Africa many rural churches share a pastor who alternates visiting churches under his leadership and so sees each once a month (and sometimes less frequently than that). As a palliative measure (which has turned out to be permanent), lay people generally preach on the Sundays the pastor is away. The lay preachers often have very limited biblical literacy and so depend more heavily on their abilities as public speakers. It is, therefore, an enormous need and an enormous opportunity to train people to whom the preaching of God’s word is entrusted most weeks of the month.

I am covering Bible Handling skills and in the first lesson I presented, I included the following diagram which may be useful to others doing exegesis or hermeneutics courses in Zulu so I thought I’d put it online.
Indlela Yokuhluza iBhayibheli
Each step involves looking somewhere:

  1. Up: Prayer
  2. Down: Studying the words
  3. Back: looking at the text’s Biblical Theological context
  4. Forward: Looking to where it points
  5. Here: Applying the text to the present day

I hope it’s useful to someone out there.

The Lord is With You: Idiom Observations

GabrielSomehow the inevitable reading of an account that has likely been read or heard every year of my life was nevertheless fresh on Sunday. The reading was from Luke and covered Gabriel’s appearance to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). Perhaps it is because I have been reading Ruth recently but I particularly noticed Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favoured one, the Lord is with you!” (NET). The reason that reading Ruth has any relevance to this greeting is that the narrative of Ruth reveals a Semitic greeting, “… Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “May the Lord be with you!” They replied, “May the Lord bless you!”” (Ruth 2:4, NET). Semantically, “May the Lord be with you” and “The Lord is with you” barely differ (if you’re that way inclined; the former’s Hebrew is simply “יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם” which the LXX translates as “κυριος μεθ’ ὑμων”, Luke 1 has “ὁ κυριος μετα σου”).

A while ago I posted on another expression that I noticed because idioms are one of the major barriers when trying to understand a language. It’s no use being able to understand the Zulu for “the cat is sleeping in the fireplace” and then offering to get it a blanket when the idiom means that there’s no food (otherwise there would be a fire in the fireplace on which to cook the food). In the case of “The Lord is with you” it’s useful to note that this is a simple greeting. This realisation has a couple of applications:

First, we shouldn’t heap up theological meaning on every occurrence. While it would certainly be useful to ask the significance of the greeting – did surrounding nations have similar greetings or was Israel unique in understanding God as near and did this theology filter into everyday speech? – it is not the point every time we find it. We shouldn’t, therefore, read Mary’s “trouble at the angel’s words” as being the result the sudden revelation of her Lord’s immanence.

Second, we should read in light of it’s actual meaning. When the angel says to Gideon, in Judges 6:12, “The Lord is with you, courageous warrior!” (NET) we should read it as saying, “Good morning, imposing soldier!” Gideon’s response is, then, amusing and a bit cynical in that he doesn’t question his designation as a courageous warrior (even though he is not – and strikingly so); rather, he responds with something like, “You think it’s a good morning? What are you smoking? How is this ruddy morning good when everywhere I look I see disaster”.

gabriel2The phrase can be found in a number of Pauline epistles (e.g. 2 Tim. 4:22, 2 Thess. 3:16) and he seems to have modified it slightly to “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (1 Cor. 16:23, 1 Thess. 5:28, 2 Thess 3:18). 2 Thess 3:16,18 have both of these versions and it seems that Paul may have personally written verses 17 and 18 which means that his scribe would have written v16 and “signed off” and Paul concluded with his own greeting.

In the case of Luke 1:28, Mary’s trouble is not the result of the “hello” but of the idea that she is “one who is favoured” – a recipient of grace – (contra Gideon) it makes sense that she would then wonder what this grace was. In an unrelated note; I suppose that, like Zechariah, the source of her fear would be the sight of Gabriel.

So next time you see “The Lord [is/be] with you” ask yourself what would be different if the passage read “Hi!”.