Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Are the gods good?

It is very rare for the gods of the ancient Near East to be described as good, though the hope is commonly expressed that the god will do good to the worshiper—that is, act favorably or for their benefit. This is an expression of favor rather than a sense of intrinsic goodness. More than any other attribute, goodness, in the abstract sense, implies correspondence to an independent standard of goodness. The existence of such a standard in the ancient Near East is arguable. Insofar as it exists, it may be different in different cultures, just as in the ancient world it may be considered differently than it would be today.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 69

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Are the gods just? Is God just?

We can now identify several ways in which one might consider whether a deity is just:
1. Deity is just (inherent quality).
2. Deity administers justice consistently (though actions are sometimes opaque).
3. Deity intends to administer justice but does so imperfectly.
4. Deity is corrupt, with only a secondary interest in administering justice.
In Mesopotamia the discussion hovers between options two and three. In the Hebrew Bible the discussion hovers between options one and two. Yahweh is at times declared to be just. Job calls Yahweh’s justice into question based on his experience (Job 40:8), but the book exonerates Deity in the end.

Another aspect of justice concerns acts of judgment. In Israel much of the prophetic literature is taken up with oracles of judgment, and both in the covenant curses and in the historical literature we see Yahweh as proactive in punishing his wayward people. In Mesopotamia it is more common for the judgment of the gods to be seen in their abandonment of subjects. Loss of the care and protection of the deity would expose the city, king, or individual to evil forces, whose activities would constitute punishment. Nevertheless, many texts speak of the gods imposing punishment on people (often in the form of illness or disease).—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 68

Monday, February 25, 2019


Indeed, as much continuity as Christian theologians have developed between the religious ideas of preexilic Israel and those of Christianity, there is probably not as much common ground between them as there was between the religious ideas of Israel and the religious ideas of Babylon. When we think of Old Testament religious concepts such as ritual sacrifice, sanctuaries/sacred space, priests and their role, creation, the nature of sin, communication with deity, and many other areas, we realize that the Babylonians would have found Israelite practice much more comprehensible than we do.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 13

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The flashy and powerful

Like the Israelites who showed a preference for leaders like Jephthah and the later Gideon who used excessive force to battle the external enemies, we demonstrate a preference for the flashy and powerful leadership qualities that our culture prizes, rather than the courageous, servant leadership of the early Gideon who exposed and dismantled the enemy within the gates. If there’s one thing we learn from Gideon it is that messing with people’s idols is an unpopular and potentially life-threatening business! Are our leaders inspiring and equipping us toward a more faithful, undivided witness to the power of the gospel, or are they inadvertently setting up idols in our midst that all of God’s people “whore after” (8:27, 33) or themselves sacrificing family and other God-given gifts to further their own ends (11:39).—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Not an even exchange

Israel’s rejection of Yahweh’s rule is not fundamentally an exchange of one divine rule (the rule of Yahweh) for another divine rule (the rule of one Canaanite god or another); rather, their allegiance to the foreign deities (and thus disloyalty to Yahweh) exposes their fundamental drive to chart their own course, realize their own destiny, and set the standard for their own conduct apart from God. Idolatry and autonomy, thus, are intricately intertwined, two sides of the same coin.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


Our time and culture are no less violent than those of ancient Israel. On the one hand, we live in a culture that celebrates and consumes violence in film, video games, and sport. On the other hand, we lament the violence that plagues our city streets, hides behind the closed doors of our homes, enters our schools and claims our children, feeds on racism and other forms of prejudice, wreaks havoc on the global political stage, and dominates our media coverage. Violence breads violence and creates a culture of fear and anxiety; the cycle seems unbreakable. As valuable and worthwhile as they are, anger management seminars, violence awareness, counseling, and diplomatic peace talks cannot eradicate the violence that plagues a society like ours in which everyone does what is right in their own eyes. And like Israel in the settlement period, any hope for change must begin with the people of God, radically committed to the divine king and unswervingly motivated to live out his kingdom principles.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Monday, February 18, 2019

It's not just personal, it's structural

In this fallen world, allegiance to God and King Jesus does not guarantee life and flourishing this side of eternity, but disloyalty that breeds sin will only in the long run produce disharmony, fear, oppression, misery, death—all those things that are opposed to life and flourishing. Accordingly, Judge’s full-orbed instruction on sin also implies something about the doctrine of salvation. Along with the thrust of the biblical story, Judges communicates (albeit as a subtext) a longing for deliverance that extends as wide and as deep as the pervasive spread of sin. Judges provides a stark and sobering picture of sin and its consequences, and thus stands as a vital source for a multidimensional doctrine of sin, but also implies a cosmic redemption that heals the ills of human immorality, institutional corruption, economic oppression, and societal breakdown—thus, it stands as a vital source for a multidimensional doctrine of salvation.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The root of sin

At its root, then, sin is a disposition in the hearts of the people of God, and not specific acts that transgress a moral code. That is not to say that actions and behavior are irrelevant. In fact, this disposition of disloyalty to Yahweh manifests itself in actions that transgress Yahweh’s will.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming) (emphasis original)

Friday, February 15, 2019

The real cancer

The stranglehold of sin not only creates a context of widespread immorality, but also produces an environment of uncertainty, division, oppression (economic and other), fear, suspicion, false hospitality, cowardice, and familial and social brokenness. Sin is like a cancer that literally sucks the life out of its host. Not content to be confined or limited, sin, once taken root, spreads in such a way that it saps the energy and life that feeds cells and organs. The result is that the cancer (sin) thrives and grows while the host environment of the cancer deteriorates and eventually dies.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Right in the eyes of whom?

In the context of the sins of Micah and the Danites, of the atrocity of Gibeah and the resulting disasters (chs. 17–21), the refrain “doing evil in the eyes of Yahweh” gives way to people “doing right in their own eyes.” The moral standard has shifted from divine to human, and the resulting moral relativism leads to chaos. As I have argued throughout this commentary, the people (individually and collectively) doing what seems good in their own eyes is bound up with their rejection of Yahweh as king (“There was no king in Israel”), so again these narratives underscore the connection between divine allegiance and sin.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

He exists—but what does that mean?

It is worth clarifying that we never encounter Israelites (individually or collectively) denying his [Yahweh] existence or alternatively acknowledging his existence but then consciously rejecting his divine authority. Instead, we have plenty of examples of a syncretistic blending of Israelite and Canaanite “religion.” This religious syncretism is quite evident at a number of places, not least in the example of Gideon’s patriarchal household and in Gideon himself. Gideon’s father maintained a shrine to Baal and Ashtoreth (6:25–32), and yet his father must have passed down something of the tradition and history of Israel because Gideon recalls some of them (6:13). Gideon himself rightly acknowledges the rule of Yahweh but then immediately fashions an idol and sets up a shrine that “all Israel whored after” and that “became a snare to Gideon and to his family.” When it comes to dividing divine loyalties, like father, like son. Indeed, according to the pervasive polytheistic cognitive environment of the ancient Near East, paying homage to Yahweh and also serving the local deities would be the most natural thing for the Israelites to do. And yet, Yahweh was unique among the gods of the nations and by virtue of his special relationship with them and his redemptive and preserving deeds on their behalf, Israel was called to be a unique people. Accordingly, there was to be no division of loyalties—service to foreign gods is implicitly a rejection of Yahweh.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The gift of the Spirit

Gideon and Jephthah demonstrate that the endowment of Yahweh’s Spirit to achieve salvation can produce an enduring confidence that is self-serving and opposed to God’s will.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Monday, February 11, 2019

Actions versus essence

When we read the hymnic and petitionary literature from the ancient Near East, we discover that the gods are praised for their majesty, glory, beauty, and splendor on the one hand, and for their power, authority, and deeds on the other. These are qualities manifested in exterior ways rather than interior attributes. It is no surprise then that we find little evidence in the ancient Near Eastern literature that the ancients consider their gods to be just, wise, good, faithful, gracious, and so on, though they often express hope that the gods will act in those ways.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 66

All gone astray, everyone…

Besides the bizarre nature of the events of chapters 19–21, another curiosity of these narratives is worth noting. With one notable exception, not a single individual in this long complex of stories is named. This anonymity serves a number of purposes, but most importantly it universalizes the experience and actions of the characters: “What better way to portray that every Levite, every father-in-law, every host, every single man with that society committed such barbaric atrocities ‘from Dan to Beersheba’ (20:1) than by allowing every perpetrator in the narrative to exist nameless?” [Hudson, “Living in a Land of Epithets,” 59] The one man doing right in his own eyes represents everyman doing right in his own eyes. [footnote: My use of “man” here is deliberate, as the events in chs. 19–21 portray men perpetrated death and destruction, specifically at the expense of women.]—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Sunday, February 10, 2019

And the conclusion of the matter is that

The series of Spirit-endowed judges concludes with Jephthah and Samson whose lives and behavior mirror the collapse of Israel. Despite their charismatic endowments, these judges are unable to control the wandering passions of Israel; in fact, they cannot even control themselves. At the end of Judges we are confronted with human frailty, and we are forced to cry out only to God for salvation, because, in the words of James Crenshaw, “he alone can deliver Israel once and for all time, for he does not sleep on Delilah’s knee” [Crenshaw, Samson, 135].—Lee Roy Martin, “Power to Save!? The Role of the Spirit of the Lord in the Book of Judges,” JPT 16 (2008): 50

Friday, February 08, 2019

Irony abounds

The irony here is astounding: Israel’s would-be deliverer is bound by the people he is meant to deliver, and they deliver him over to the oppressors from whom he is meant to deliver them. The hand motif emerges in 15:13, and it reinforces the sense of irony. Elsewhere in the book either Yahweh gives the Israelites into the hand of foreign enemies or gives foreign enemies into the hand of Israelite armies or often the judge/deliverer. Here the men of Judah express twice that they intend to bind Samson and give him “into the hands of the Philistines” (vv. 12a and 13a). Here in the final cycle is the first and only time in the book that Israelites deliver a fellow Israelite (let alone their chosen deliverer) into the hands of their enemies. Moreover, the Judahites’ assertion that the Philistines are ruling Israel should not come as a shock at this point, as the narrator expressed this in 14:4 using almost the exact phrasing as in 15:11. However, that Judah is so willing to accept this reality and will go so far as to deliver Samson to the Philistines to maintain Philistine rule is unthinkable and marks an all-time low in the book of Judges.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Thursday, February 07, 2019

About those fleeces that you put out…

The need for two signs of the fleece may point to Gideon’s ineptitude. According to the natural order of things, the wool fleece would have absorbed the moisture from the dew so that when the morning came the sun would have dried the ground, but the fleece would have naturally remained damp. No doubt realizing his blunder, Gideon requests a second sign that would require a miracle. Things are not boding well for Israel’s new leader. All of these subtleties of the text and the broader context should probably give contemporary readers pause before drawing in the fleecing test as a paradigm for discovering God’s will today.—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The inner life of the gods

Assuming that the perceptions of self as applied to the gods, as in every other area, mimicked humanity, we may then propose the following formula: If ontology were defined in relation to ones function and actions, and if “self” were defined as largely exterior, then personal attributes (whetber divine or human) could only be discerned at the level of one’s actions—that is, they would not necessarily be seen as abstractions.

If the formula holds, the description of a god as good or wise would signify only that the deity was acting in what were perceived to be good or wise ways rather than implying that the inherent essence or nature of the deity was to be good or wise. The affirmation or conviction that a deity consistently acted in good or wise ways, or the observation that goodness or wisdom persisted in all of the deity’s behavior, could suggest that such an abstraction might have been accurate but falls short of suggesting that the ancients would have been inclined to draw conclusions in the abstract realm.

If this assessment is accurate, we should ask whether there is any concept in the ancient world of an inherent essence of the deity—or can we only say that deity is as deity does? A thorough search of the literature suggests that the latter is the case. There is little interest expressed in penetrating the inner psyche of essential nature of any deity.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., pages 65–66

Be careful what you sing

I cannot help but agree with Gregory Wong that the role of Yahweh [in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5], although present, is indeed eclipsed by the role of the human agents. Is this the kind of identity-forming song that would arouse unswerving commitment to Yahweh and his covenant, or would it simply reinforce the ambivalence of God’s people to be the people he was calling them to be? If the rest of the book [of Judges] is any indication, we might be inclined to conclude that this song was of the latter kind. There may be enduring instruction here for contemporary people of faith about the kinds of worship songs we sing—are they theocentric songs that inspire commitment to God and a more faithful witness to him or are they anthropocentric songs that celebrate human achievement and leave us comfortable with the status quo?—David J. H. Beldman, Judges, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming)

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Transcendent? Not really…

Cosmically bound. The cosmic gods were bound to particular cosmic phenomena and therefore had little jurisdiction over other cosmic phenomena. Gods who were not cosmic gods would have no jurisdiction in the cosmic realm. Beyond this level of categorization, the gods were also bound within the cosmos. They did not transcend the cosmos but operated only within it. We could perhaps think in terms of a company’s board of directors and CEO. They have a great deal of power within the company (= cosmos), but they have to operate within the national and global economic situation. They run the company, but they are within the economy and subject to its status.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 63

Monday, February 04, 2019

The gods

Divine Features

Anthropomorphic. The important aspect of anthropomorphism is not the physical shape but the presumed nature, character, and personality of a god. Many of the features in the rest of the list could easily be viewed as further defining what this entails. In short, in the literary portraits of the gods they were viewed as having all of the same qualities, good and bad, as humans but without as many limitations. They had more power and a longer span of existence than people. They were not better than people; they were simply stronger than people—all shared basic human traits.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 63

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Don't sell people short

"The way you honour a human being is to ask of him an effort. In the hopeless popularization and down-marketing of our crafts we don’t honour the student. We condescend to him and that is a hideous contempt. You honour him by what you ask and demand."—Grammars of Creation, by George Steiner, available here

Friday, February 01, 2019

Power is seductive

Calypso, the nymph who keeps Odysseus locked up on her island for seven years, is making a comeback. As are some of the women in the Iliad and Odyssey. But, some feminists are raising a word of warning, see, most recently, this article Is Homer’s Calypso a Feminist Icon or a Rapist? The subtitle says is it all: "‘Odyssey’ translator Emily Wilson called her a ‘passionate model of female power,’ but not every powerful woman deserves praise." Here's the final paragraphs of this excellent article, which you really should take the time to read (otherwise you won't understand the reference to Odysseus):
o quote Mary Beard, “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently.” Calypso offers not a hopeful possibility for women but a warning to any woman who climbs the tiers of power without questioning or transforming the asymmetrical system that keeps women as a whole in check. If the structure is not changed, in can waltz Hermes, armed with Zeus’s authoritative command, to overpower you in turn. As long as it is built upon the oppression of others, the same hierarchy that at one moment works for you can now work against you. Unlike Odysseus, we can choose to really see ourselves in the disempowered and by doing so change who we are for the better. That is the challenge for anyone reading the Odyssey today.

While I wholeheartedly embrace the refashioning of myth’s female monsters as our own, I do not want to find feminist empowerment where it should not be, a new female face superimposed upon the same old tale. As much as I love these old Greek stories and always will, we all desperately deserve a new one.

<idle musing>
I would say that the new tale she is longing for is the Kingdom of God as manifested in Jesus. He had all the power in the universe at his fingertips, and he chose to be the servant of all. That's a real role model that we would do well to emulate—male or female. But especially the males!
</idle musing>

Sacred? Secular? Huh?

There is no such word as “religion” 1n the languages of the ancient Near East. Likewise, there is no dichotomy between sacred and secular, or even between natural and supernatural. The only suitable dichotomy is between spiritual and physical, though even that would be a less meaningful distinction to the people of the ancient Near East than it is to us. In the end, there is a distinction between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, but events in the two were often intertwined or parallel. It would be difficult to discuss with ancients the concept of divine intervention because in their worldview deity was too integrated into the cosmos to intervene in it. For the most part, deity is on the inside, not the outside. The world was suffused with the divine. All experience was religious experience; all law was spiritual in nature; all duties were duties to the gods; all events had deity as their cause. Life was religion and religion could not be compartmentalized within life.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 47