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The Way Sunday School Class at FUMC Pensacola

The Way Sunday School Class at FUMC Pensacola

My wife Jody and I have started a new Sunday School class at our home church, First United Methodist Church in Pensacola. The first meeting was the third Sunday in January this year. I’ve been meaning to post something here about it, but I have been a bit busy. (How many times have you read that on a blog?)

The class is related to this blog as we’re starting with the book Learning and Living Scripture, which I co-authored with Geoffrey Lentz. Once we’ve worked our way through that book, sort of to get everyone on the same page, we’ll choose one of the Participatory Study Series study guides to do next. Right now I think Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide by Dr. Bruce Epperly has the inside track, but no decision has been made.

One of the key elements of the participatory study method is sharing. By sharing we don’t mean telling other people what you have learned, though that can be a part of it. Sharing includes hearing from others, and getting a sort of “check” on the conclusions you’ve drawn. It might include talking to others in your church or to friends and neighbors, but it also involves taking your ideas to commentaries and hearing the words of experts.

It can involve many ways of responding to the text, including art, stories, poetry, paraphrases, translations, exegetical discussions, and so forth.

For example, one exercise from Learning and Living involves Psalm 19. One class member, Jan Edmunds, painted a picture, which you can see to the left (click on the image for full size). David Blanton wrote poetry. I provided a short story. Another class member brought a photograph, which I don’t have, unfortunately.

There may be some who wonder whether we spend time actually studying the text, or whether we just respond to it. While sharing (and the associated accountability) is very important, we do indeed spend time studying the text. You can find out more about the method on the Participatory Bible Study web site (as opposed to blog).

I plan to post regularly about what is going on in the class. It won’t just be material from our responses. I may summarize our discussions of some details of the text, for example. I have the permission of the members to share. So I’m creating a new category here called simply The Way, and it will be for posts about the class. I welcome responses to what we post here.

Today we will be working on the exercises from chapter 9 of Learning and Living. (Note that all members of the class had some exposure to the method so we skipped past some earlier exercises.) We will be discussing the ways in which our expectations of a certain type of literature help shape the way we will understand it.


Re-presenting a Parable

Re-presenting a Parable

Through my watch on the lectionary tag on Technorati, I found another excellent example of finding a new way of presenting and/or thinking about a parable. In this case it’s in a sermon about the Pharisee and the Publican, and the illustration has a Red Sox fan and a Yankee fan go to Cooperstown . . .

For the rest you need to check out this sermon (Demonizing of Yankees) by Rev. Mindi on Rev-O-Lution.

It’s not just this particular presentation I hope you see. It’s the whole idea of finding new ways to present the parables, so that people identify with them and get involved in thinking about them.

Thinking and Expressing – Haiku

Thinking and Expressing – Haiku

OK, no, I’m not writing a Haiku myself, though perhaps it would be nice if I could master the form, but thus far, no, not so good . . . But I’m always looking for new ways of thinking about and re-expressing Biblical thoughts.

Through a comment on my Threads blog I found the Among the Hills blog, and an extremely interesting idea–lectionary Haikus.

Go check out Lectionary Haikus: The Persistent Widow and Lectionary Haikus: Ten. They should stimulate your imagination at a minimum.

Retelling and Rethinking the Unjust Judge

Retelling and Rethinking the Unjust Judge

This week’s lectionary readings included Luke 18:1-8, the story of the unjust judge. One of the problems many people have with this story is relating the unjust judge to God, but as I pointed out in a devotional one thing we are supposed to hear from the story is how God is different from the unjust judge.

One approach I like to reading stories, and this includes historical narrative as well as parables, allegories, and fictional stories, is to retell the story for various purposes. I decided to try this after asking the question, “What happened afterward?” The widow got what she wanted, but what happened afterward. I wrote a short story based in a fantasy background, looking at that question, and posted it on my Jevlir Caravansary blog. But since that one is there for fun, I didn’t really go into any of the thinking that went into the story or how I would use it in teaching.

I personally haven’t used this or any other stories I have written in teaching, though I’m planning to try it some time. The way I usually approach it is to call for ideas right in class, and help people use their imagination to build other stories around the one we’re studying. I think that imagination is an important element of Bible study.

Now let me make it clear that I don’t mean that you should imagine what the story might mean and take that as the interpretation. What I suggest is that you imagine how things might be, and then use that to put the story into a context. How much like our imagained story is the original story? How is it different.

The following questions won’t make sense if you haven’t read my short story related to Luke 18:1-8 or if you are not acquainted with the parable.

  1. Many people have trouble relating the unjust judge to God, while others don’t believe he is related at all, and that God is to be contrasted to the unjust judge. Do you find the character of Sir Frederick in the story easier or harder to relate to God? Why?
  2. Sir Carl in the story could be regarded as a God-figure in some ways. Does having a just judge in the story change your view? Why does Jesus leave the story so brief, with the questions open?
  3. Would you prefer if Jesus told stories that were a little bit longer with more things explained?
  4. How do you think other people would have reacted to the widow’s success, if we heard “the rest of the story”? Would it be similar to my short story in which they basically assume that hers was an isolated success? Can you relate this reaction or any other reaction you imagine to our responses to God and to testimonies about his care?
  5. Might the other people who were treated unjustly by the unjust judge have felt that the widow’s success was unfair?

Finally, of course, does answering these questions, and or reading my short story change your understanding of the parable in any way? Realize, of course, that if I were actually teaching, the alternate story would be built from questions asked of the class and combined into a story as a group. That process of thinking has value in itself, I think.

A Lab for Parables

A Lab for Parables

I like to use Luke 16 as a training ground in interpreting parables, because so many of the possible problems are presented within a few verses. On Monday, I wrote a devotional, Outside the Box, in which I use what I believe is the primary focus of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-9) in challenging Christians to think outside the box.

In my essay Interpreting Parables I state that the primary key to interpreting a parable is to discover what the single point of that parable is. This could be stated in a different way by asking just what question is the parable intended to answer.

In the case of the Unjust Steward, try reading the parable as an answer to two different questions. 1) What is proper behavior for a steward? or 2) How diligent and creative should a follower of Jesus be in building the kingdom? If the parable were intended to answer the first question it would give an answer that is contradictory to much of the moral basis of scripture. If taken as an answer to the second question, the parable tells us to exercise great diligence and to be willing to think outside of our normal parameters–outside the box–in order to build the kingdom. (Note here that I believe verses 10-13 are not part of the parable itself, but are a collection of sayings that Luke placed here because of the theme.)

An additional issue that a Bible student should address is the difference between an allegory and a parable. In simplified terms, a parable is intended to make a single point, and that other elements of the story need not have specific meaning. An allegory attaches meaning to many elements of the story.

The first response of new students is to believe that the idea is to achieve high accuracy in identifying which is which. But in fact, the boundary is not nearly so clear. The question is important because it gets the student to consider just what is and is not part of the purpose of the story.

And that is where the next parable comes in, The Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-30. Often it is interpreted more as an allegory, and arguments can be made in favor of that interpretation. In order to examine this issue, let’s ask just what it is that Jesus is trying to teach, or what question he is answering.

Let me suggest some questions:

  1. What is the fate of those who die?
  2. Can people in hell communicate with those in [tag]heaven[/tag] (or paradise as the case may be)?
  3. Is a reading of the Torah (Pentateuch) equal to the presence of someone raised from the dead in convincing someone to believe?
  4. Do riches show that one is especially blessed by God?
  5. Is indifference to the poor a sin?

Now I would suggest that Jesus is answering something between questions four and five. You can look through the parable at other elements and decide whether the parable should be regarded as the final answer on those particular points. I personally would not use this parable as a proof of heaven, hell, or any communication between them. I would say that judgment and final reward and punishment are strongly implied, but the details should be found elsewhere.

I have, however, heard this parable preached as the one final proof of an eternally burning hell. But you will not find people who make that argument arguing equally forcefully that people in heaven can communicate with those in hell. If you make one argument and not the other you should ask why one element is has meaning while the other doesn’t.

But a more interesting point is the meaning of verse 30: What is it that the brothers will not believe? Apparently the testimony of of the law and the prophets should make them believe something they will not believe even should someone rise from the dead. What is this?

It’s easy to think something like “believe in Jesus” or even “belief in God” but those do not fit with the question. How about acceptance of the truth that caring for one’s neighbor is the basis on which one will be rewarded or punished?

This is just a suggestion and hopefully a pointer toward how to work it out.

Rightly Dividing or Slicing and Dicing – Jeremiah 4:23

Rightly Dividing or Slicing and Dicing – Jeremiah 4:23

In debates on creation and evolution I have occasionally encountered the ruin and restoration theory. This view allows an old earth, but does so in a different way. Genesis 1:1 is viewed as an original creation, and then the word in 1:2 normally translated “was” is instead translated “became.” I discuss the details in the article above.

But what I find even more interesting, and certainly more relevant to this Bible study blog, is the slicing and dicing that must be done on verses elsewhere in scripture in order to make them fit with this theory. In fact, one of my major complaints about dispensationalism is that it tends to make it next to impossible to read contextually. The context is created by the dispensations, but clearly not recognized by the writers of the text.

An example of this tendency is Jeremiah 4:23. This is summarized in a note in [tag]Scofield[/tag]’s Reference Bible: “Cf. Gen. i.2. “Without form and void” describes the condition of the earth as the result of the judgment (vs. 24-26; Isa. xxiv. 1) which overthrew the primal order of Genesis i.1.”

But if you look at Jeremiah 4, you find that the topic has nothing to do with any original creation, nor with a primal judgment but rather with a judgment on Judah for its sins. The prophet goes on to depict the destruction that will come on the land. There is no literary division between verse 22, clearly about Judah, and verse 23, which Scofield is claiming refers to another time and place.

The argument is that “without form and void” refers back to Genesis 1:2, as surely it does. But for what purpose does it make this reference? It intends to compare the judgment to a removal of all the blessings of creation and to evoke that primal emptiness as a hyperbolic description of the destruction to come to Judah. Is there justification for calling it hyperbole? Absolutely. First, I would accept this as hyperbole based on the context alone. The context clearly indicates the destruction of Judah by Babylon, and “without form and void” is hyperbole in connection with that destruction. But further, in verse 27, after providing this description of absolute destruction, we find this: “. . . yet will I not make a full end.” “Without form and void” is pretty complete. This is all allowable in poetic language.

To understand this as referring to another time and place is to take it completely out of the context of Jeremiah. Such an interpretation would mean that Jeremiah suddenly, in the middle of a comparatively coherent discussion of one topic, changes subjects for several lines without any indication that the subject has changed, and then switches back. Verse 28, for example, again speaks of this destruction as future.

If one can do that, then one can take any phrase or clause of scripture and force it to mean anything one desires.

Genesis 10: The Table of Nations

Genesis 10: The Table of Nations

Genesis 10 is one of those chapters that Bible students often try to avoid, because it is filled with names that are difficult to pronounce, and it’s hard for our modern ears to hear it as anything other than an interruption. But to the redactor of Genesis, these genealogies were serious business.

Genesis 5 provides a key genealogy, and its major purpose is to show the preservation and continuity of the patriarchal line. We will see another genealogy much like it in Genesis 11. But Genesis 10 provides genealogies that deal with a number of people and nations.

The key point here, I would suggest, is to show Israel as part of the world, related to those with whom she would interact over the centuries. As suggested in the Interpreter’s Bible (Exegesis on Genesis 10:1-32), this may be the beginning of Israelite universalism. God (YHWH) is not just interested in Israel, he is interested in the whole world. All the world’s peoples are in one family, however distant they may be. This idea is fairly weak in Genesis, but it will get stronger, especially in 2nd and 3rd Isaiah (40-55; 56-66).

The Bible Knowledge Commentary comments:

The table of nations is a “horizontal” genealogy rather than a “vertical” one (those in chaps. 5 and 11 are vertical). Its purpose is not primarily to trace ancestry; instead it shows political, geographical, and ethnic affiliations among tribes for various reasons, most notable being holy war. Tribes shown to be “kin” would be in league together. Thus this table aligns the predominant tribes in and around the land promised to Israel. These names include founders of tribes, clans, cities, and territories.1

Other commentators generally agree on the purpose of the list, but vary in their view of the historicity.2

There is a final question of historicity. I think this is really the wrong question to ask here. The story thus far tells us of the population of the earth. If the flood is to be regarded as a large, but nonetheless local event, then the issue is one of the groups of people most closely related to Israel. I believe there is good reason to expect that these lists arose from traditions, and not from some kind of direct revelation, and thus should be seen to paint a general picture and not to provide historical details.

In particular, the interchange of personal names with the names of people groups is a key. The interest is less with the historical descent of the people involved than it is with the way the land is divided and their relationship to one another, and particular to the chosen people.

Chapter 10, combined with chapter 11, forms a bridge between the history of the world in general that runs from Genesis 1-11 and the very specific history of Israel that begins in chapter 12 with the call of Abraham.

I have only a small number of notes on this chapter. If you are looking for details on the various names, you will need a Bible dictionary, and even there facts will be a little bit scarce. I based the following working translation on the ASV simply to save myself the trouble of getting the transliteration of all the names in standard form. None of the transliterations are mine.

Finally, this is an excellent example of Biblical criticism, particularly source and redaction criticism, in action, though one shouldn’t assume that there is sufficient information in this one chapter to build a character of the sources. Nonetheless there is a critical pattern in the language used that helps identify the sources, in this case J (Yahwist) and P (Priestly). I will use blue text for P, and black text for J. In addition, I will underline the key introductory phrases that separate the sources.2

It is very likely that each source contained overlapping material, but the redactor combined all of this information into a single picture suitable for his purpose–displaying Israel as God’s servant in the broader world.

The translation and notes will be below the fold.

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Ben Witherington on Hermeneutics

Ben Witherington on Hermeneutics

This seems to be my day for linking, both on my threads blog and here. Ben Witherington has written an excellent basic post on hermeneutics. I’m particularly interested because of his illustrations taken from Revelation. In my study guide to Revelation, I recommend Witherington’s commentary as “the best commentary on Revelation for the serious student that is available today.”

Witherington lists three principles: 1) What it means is what it meant, i.e. the meaning is in the text; 2) Context is everything; and 3) Genre matters. I’d love to say one is more important than the other, but there may well be no “greatest of these.”

In this post Witherington demonstrates the clear exposition that makes his commentary the powerful resource that it is.

Looking at a Passage

Looking at a Passage

I’ve blogged here a few times about different ways of reading (here, for example). Lingamish has a series of posts on the topic as well that are well worth reading. They are:

I have found many partisans amongst Bible students, especially of serious, detailed reading, outlining, diagramming, phrasing, and so forth. Others are partisans for reading large sections at a time. But all of these approaches have their benefits, and it is only by looking at the text from more than one angle that we get the whole. Someone might diagram an entire passage and provide extended exegetical arguments, but if the connection to the whole is not made, then something may well be missing.

Lingamish has a “rubber meets the road” practical approach that is refreshing.

One last link to Lingamish, Grasshopper Greek: Apocalyptic Rock, in which he puts a portion of Revelation to music. The player at the top of the post doesn’t seem to work, but the alternate link he provides does.

As an occasional Greek teacher, normally of one or two students at a time, I take the opportunity both to read to them, and to have them read to me in Greek, before I ask them to translate. It takes a great deal of practice to smooth out one’s pronunciation and gain any ease in that process, but I find that students who do so can discuss the text and think about it more effectively. I’m guessing most of us who have studied Biblical languages remember a time early in our training when we would look at a word, but couldn’t really pronounce it, and then look it up in the lexicon. On failing to find it, we’d look back and realize that we weren’t looking for precisely the same word as was found in the text. Or was I the only one who ever made that mistake?

Learning to pronounce the text comprehensibly helps with that process. I’ve been reading Syriac recently, trying to revive my knowledge of that language, which was never all that good in the first place. I made precisely that mistake just yesterday, because my pronunciation has become weak, and I don’t clearly remember the form and the sound together.

I don’t know how many will take to rockin’ in Greek, but it’s an interesting idea!