Malachi on Divorce, Godly Offspring, and the Gospel

Two months ago I responded to an article posted by Tim Challies. He developed a few points made by Christopher Ash, in Married for God, arguing that it is sinful for married couples to deliberately not have children (you can see my brief response here). Another arrow in the quiver of those who are convinced married couples must at least attempt to have children is found in Malachi 2. With our home groups working through the post-exilic prophet, I have enjoyed much time for reflection on the book of Malachi. The ESV reads, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (2:15). In case you missed it: God desires children from marriage.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaHowever, a few comments are necessary before concluding what this passage might say. Firstly, the Hebrew is messier than a two-year-old’s attempt to write out a physics equation. In his technical commentary, Douglas Stuart admits: “It is not at all clear what point(s) three-fourths of verse 15 is making.” The only clause that is not disputed is the last, “Do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.” This disagreement over rendering becomes apparent when comparing the ESV (above, similarly NIV) with the NET, “What did our ancestors do when seeking a child from God?” The ESV makes God the subject of the verb ‘to seek,’ whereas the NET makes Israel’s forebears the subject. Douglas Stuart confirms this ambiguity, offering: ‘Israelites who divorced and remarried were (vainly) seeking godly offspring,’ as another potential rendering. Considering just how contested this text is, we would do well to treat it cautiously and not dogmatically.

Our second consideration is the larger context of this verse. Nearly every commentator agrees that it belongs to the larger section of 2:10-16, where Israel is being castigated for its faithlessness (2:10, 11, 14, 15, and 16). This faithlessness is expressed in two sections: firstly, intermarriage and spiritual syncretism (2:10-12); secondly, divorce without good reason (2:13-16). Our embattled verse falls into the latter. Therefore if we decide to go with the more traditional rendering of the 2:15 (ESV and NIV), which says God desires godly offspring, we must locate it within Malachi’s reproach for those who are divorcing. We could then give the general sense of our verse like this: ‘Don’t divorce because God is seeking godly offspring.’ This would mean that the emphasis is not so much on God desiring children from marriage as much as it highlights to the spiritual devastation divorce does to the effected children.

This line of thought fits with the explicit purpose God ascribes to marriage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), though undoubtedly consistent with the Old Testament (Hosea). Marriage is an expression of the gospel. Christ’s self-giving love and unconditional love for the church is an expression of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant Israel repeatedly broke. The gospel is pictured in unbroken marriages, kept vows and selfless love. God hates divorce because it is antithetical to that purpose; marriage is driven by grace while divorce in some ways denies it. A repeated contrast in Malachi is between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. Divorce is not merely an indication of Israel’s moral collapse; it is detrimental to their children’s picture of God’s faithfulness, his grace and the gospel.

Hunger will Pass

Grain FieldHave you ever read the Bible and thought, “why is this even here?” Me too… and that is especially true when I read Numbers 7. But, I have just found a way of reading at least some of it in a new light. In the NIV for Numbers 7:87 we simply read,

The total number of animals for the burnt offering came to
twelve young bulls,
twelve rams and
twelve male lambs a year old,
together with their grain offering …

Numbers 7 is (I think) the most repetitive chapter in the Bible; the offerings brought by each tribe are enumerated (for all the twelve tribes). By the time we reach verse 87, we are in the summary section that recounts (in laborious detail for the thirteenth time) what each tribe had brought. But recently I read this verse in a Rabbinic interpretive translation (the Targums), which says:

The total number of bulls for the burnt offerings came to twelve;
a bull for each leader of the father’s house;
twelve rams, because the twelve chiefs of Ishmael will perish;
twelve one-year old lambs, because the twelve chiefs of Esau will perish;
and their grain offerings, because hunger will pass from the world;

The Rabbis have added these interpretive elements to the end of each line. They’re all interesting but take a look at the end of the last line – yes, pause and re-read it. Question: Why should we offer grain offerings? Answer: because hunger will pass from the world.

because hunger will pass from the world!

That’s an awesome justification – imagine living in an evironment in which you work your land, growing all the crops you possibly can and, when harvest comes, knowing that this is what you will be surviving on until the next harvest. Before you start gathering it all up though, you take a bunch of it and offer it to God. Why? Because hunger will pass from the world. That is, because the harvest you are gathering in right now is from him and by giving an offering you are acknowledging that if you needed more, God would have given you more and, as his child, one day he will; one day hunger will pass from the world.


Doodle: Hellenism, Ethics, and Old Testament Eschatology

Max Bemis, of the band Say Anything, sings: “God and death are none of my concerns / I’m no philosopher”. And these words have often struck an uneasy chord with me, provoking much reflection. Studying philosophy at college I noticed that from the pre-Socratics through to the Hellenistic philosophers, Greek philosophy gave little thought to god, except for when a godlike being was invoked to explain their philosophy, see Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. But this is not to say that the Greeks did not believe in the gods, however anthropomorphic the Olympians were. Coming back to Bemis’ words, a difficult question to get one’s mind around is the difference between religion and philosophy, or perhaps faith and reason.

Antonio Verrio - OlympusIt seems to me, that the Greeks separated philosophy from their religious beliefs, as my lecturer Nathan Lovell said, ‘They no longer wanted to attribute the workings of their world to capricious gods seemingly little more than infantile projections of men.’ Philosophy came about to explain the world around us, what it is, why it changes, and where it comes from. And this was done with little reference to the Greek gods. Philosophy could provide epistemology and ontology, though both then and today it struggled to provide complete or consistent ethics. Furthermore the question of death, which, though running the risk of reductionism, we might call eschatology, fell largely by the way side. Perhaps these then are two distinguishing features between philosophy and religion. Only, they are not distinguishing features because philosophy does not deal with them, but because it lacks the depth to do so.

Generally, in Greek thought all the deceased went to Hades, but we must not assume that this the same as Sheol of Jewish thought. Without going into major detail, it is a well attested to fact that the Jews understood death very differently to their Greek counterparts. At the transfiguration we are shown that Elijah and Moses lived with God (Mark 9); in the Old Testament some believers did not die and went to be with God (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11); this was also asssumed of believers who died (Psalm 23:6; 16:10-11; 17:15). We are not given much explanation of it but, at the raising of Lazarus, an embryionic theology of resurrection is evident amongst the first century Jews (John 11). In Hebrew thought the great hope of a future when God would be with his people is hard to get ignore (Psalm 27:4; 73:25-26). A personal God, contrast with impersonal philosophy, offers eschatology, an answer in death. Whereas philosophy battles to provide any real answers about our future.

Raphael - AthensHow philosophers got around this is seen in the Hellenistic philosophies of the Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics. If we look at the Epicureans, their solution to this problem was extravagant and unchaste hedonism. Such an approach was (and is) not only exclusive and classist, since few could afford such an extravagent lifesytle, it was ultimately nothing more than hopeless distraction. Cynicism, on the other hand, radically devalued human life, reducing us to little more than stray dogs scrounging for scraps. But it is hard to think that the avoidance and abandonment of happiness is an argument proving that it cannot be lost. Lastly, Stoicism approached life rationally, excepting all that happened in a fatalistic manner, attempting to merely make the most of what is. This philosophy, not unlike existentialism, gives a bleak coating to life and denies questions of justice, while also leaving moral decisions to the aristocracy. It is therefore no wonder that most of these philosophies, at least in terms of their operating titles, did not last. But if we look beneath surface of how people think today we will discover more Hellenistic philosophy than we think.

When Jesus bursts onto the scene we see a major contrast to Hellenism, which was the fruition and expansion of Old Testamant eschatology. He promises a resurrection to new life, guaranteed by his own. He does not offer a pipe dream salvation or distract our eyes from the horizon, but gives us his Holy Spirit in the present who is a downpayment of our future, enabling us to live in light of it. Ethics, then, make sense, for we belong to a new kingdom; and they are not merely set forth by Scripture but are also engraved on our hearts by the Spirit who enables us to live as kingdom people. Does philosophy need god to make sense? I do not think it does. But does philosophy make sense of the burning questions that surround death? I do not think it can.

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).

More from Robert Alter: Theological Observations

The art of biblical narrativeI recently posted some gleanings from The Art of Biblical narrative by Robert Alter, highlighting his convincing exhibition of a literary approach to Old Testament narratives and a selection of his critical engagement with modern textual criticism. In this post, I am going to briefly relate some of the helpful conclusions Alter reaches with regards to Old Testament theology. And to keep this post from being nothing more than a compendium of quotes, I have tried to supplement and develop the author’s thoughts with others’. In brief, we will cover an aspect of God’s nature, the human condition, an intersection of divine will and human failure, and the need for faith.

(1) Yahweh is not manipulated. After working through Numbers 22-24, in which Balak, the fearful king of Moab, hires the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel, Alter concludes: “Paganism, with its notion that divine powers can be manipulated by a caste of professionals through a set of carefully prescribed procedures is trapped in the reflexes of a mechanistic worldview while from the biblical perspective reality is in fact controlled by the will of an omnipotent God beyond all human manipulation” (p134). Yahweh is omnipotent. He is neither conquered nor controlled. That was the unavoidable conclusion reached and application made when I preached 1 Samuel 5-7, when the Philistines capture the Ark. First, Israel thought that carrying the Ark to battle would thwart the Philistines (4:3-4), only to learn Yahweh is not controlled as they are defeated (4:10-11). Secondly, the triumphant Philistines set up the Ark in the house of their God, Dagon (5:1-2), signifying they had conquered Yahweh. But as the story unfolds the Ark is passed from town to town with alacrity for Yahweh’s hand is heavy against his enemies (see 5:6, 7, 9, 11; 6:3, 5). The reader thus observes how both the Israelites and the Philistines misunderstood Yahweh’s omnipotence. As Alter says, Yahweh is beyond all human manipulation. To quote D.A. Carson, in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God: “He is unchanging in his being, purposes and perfections.”

Wood carving - Joseph(2) Old Testament anthropology. Because the dominant communicative vehicle of Old Testament stories is dialogue and narrative we are not privileged to introspection and the thoughts behind characters’ actions, characterisation is difficult and quite often unclear. For as Alter says: acts are performed and words are pronounced. That being said, he convincingly shows how Hebrew narrative provides fine insight into the abiding perplexities of man’s creaturely condition (p220). In my previous post I highlighted one of Alter’s more novel points; he argues that whoever gave shape to the integrated Hebrew text may have chosen to combine different versions that on the surface appear contradictory but actually reveal something conflicted about his subject (p181). He models this in his brief commentary on the story of the patriarch Joseph and summates, “the Bible brings us into an inner zone of complex knowledge about human nature, divine intentions, and the strong but sometimes confusing threads that bind the two” (p219; more of this below). Wonderfully worded, he describes mankind’s inner turmoil, “Humankind is the divinely appointed master of creation and an internally divided rebel against the divine scheme, destined to scrabble a painful living from the soil that has been blighted because of man” (p183). The lives of God’s people repeatedly bring out this conflict, within each person and before Yahweh.

(3) Yahweh’s election and human failings. Flowing from the above point to the intersection the omnipotent God and his rebellious creatures, “One of the most probing general perceptions of the biblical writers is that there is often a tension, sometimes perhaps even an absolute contradiction, between election and moral character” (p147). In contrast with competing ideas in the ancient world, the Hebrew conception of man as free in God’s image is fairly unique; God affords his creatures great dignity in placing them as viceroys over his world. Only, as we know, man uses his freedom to rebel against the divine will, which would suggest a irreparable breakdown between creature and Creator, as well as an unworkable incongruence of interest. For man is not only free and rebellious, but even the elect are morally imperfect and worryingly ambiguous characters. Yet, Alter writes, “The human figures in the large biblical landscape act as free agents out of the impulses of a memorable and often fiercely assertive individuality but the actions they perform all ultimately fall into the symmetries and recurrences of God’s comprehensive design” (p141). This point is picked up by Michael Horton in Introducing Covenant Theology, “[Abraham and David’s] personal mistakes (amply recorded) are incapable of thwarting God’s purposes”, not only because of Yahweh’s omnipotence but also because by his unilateral and unconditional promises. Though God’s elect often exhibit questionable morality, inconsistent with their call, neither their status nor God’s electing purposes are endangered by the failure of God’s people.

Faith and vapour(4) Man must live before God. The biblical narratives, properly read, “tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (p235). We read in Ecclesiastes that life is a vapour, impossible to grasp and uncontrollably transient, always slipping through our hands. It is in these snatched lifetimes that, “Every human agent must be allowed the freedom to struggle with his or her destiny through his or her own words and acts” (p109). Every individual, “in the evanescence of a single lifetime” must untangle the twisted and knotted fibres of “intentions, emotions, and calculations” that constitute our human personality (p110). Alter thinks that the power and enduring appeal of biblical narrative is the translation of this human experience into story, dialogue and event, “Almost the whole range of biblical narrative…embodies the basic perception that man must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others” (p24). The answer that the Old Testament narratives supply, to how we might live in this unstable and ambiguous world, is starkly ingenuous: faith.