Thursday 14 February 2019

Bethlehem, the Other City of David

I'm writing a series of theological reflections on key Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. Here is an attempt at a "Biblical theology" of Bethlehem.

Perhaps no other town is as strongly associated with Jesus in the Western Christian imagination as the “little town of Bethlehem,” and this despite the fact that Jesus had to be called a “Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23) and had to die in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). The association is largely generated by the way the Western church celebrates Christmas, which has developed a variety of rituals, songs, and art forms to commemorate the mysterious events of Bethlehem. But what do we discover afresh if we lay aside popular piety for a moment—as valuable as it may be—, turn once again to the plain sense of Scripture, and ask ourselves, “Is the town of Bethlehem itself part of the message? And if so, what does it communicate?”?
As the following will show, a glance at the key texts indicates that Bethlehem does develop a distinctive theological profile within the Bible as a whole. Perhaps the best avenue into the material is to start with the two most famous Bethlehem texts, the birth narratives in Matthew (1:18—2:18) and Luke (2:1-21). There we will identify two distinct perspectives on the meaning of Bethlehem. We will then discover that these two perspectives have their roots in the Old Testament, which provides a broader context for understanding their significance. In the final step, we will attempt to synthesize these two perspectives in order to attain a more adequate, three-dimensional view on the meaning of Bethlehem.
Let us start with Luke and see where he takes us.

Luke: Bethlehem as the City of David

The emphasis of Luke’s opening chapters is on the Davidic lineage of Jesus. He stresses that Joseph is “of the house of David” (1:27); Joseph is forced to register in the Davidic town of Bethlehem because he is “of the house and lineage of David” (2:4). Indeed, Luke first identifies the city as “the city of David” before adding as an afterthought that its name is “Bethlehem” (2:4). It is thus clear that in Luke’s mind the primary significance of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus is that it associates him with the town’s most famous inhabitant and Jesus’ most famous ancestor. But Jesus’ association with David through Bethlehem seems to be more than just a matter of genealogy. As one born “in the house of [God’s] servant David” (Luke 1:69), he did not actually have to be physically born in Bethlehem in order to make a dynastic claim to the Davidic throne (2 Samuel 7:13-14). After all, all of David’s sons after him were born in that other city of David, namely “Jerusalem,” the city that David conquered and in which he established his royal house (2 Samuel 5:7). So why couldn’t Jesus be born there? Why did God have to move a Roman emperor to force his subjects to register in their ancestral homes (Luke 2:1-3) so that Jesus could be born where the story of David began?
The answer is surely that part of Jesus’ mission was not just to ascend the Davidic throne but to re-live and re-do what David did, albeit in greater perfection and universality of scope.  In other words, Jesus had to retrace David’s steps from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, so that his kingdom in Jerusalem could be more perfectly established. The Davidic patterning of Jesus’ ministry can be seen when the two stories are compared: Both Davids, new and old, were men after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; 16:7), born in obscurity in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:11), associated with literal shepherds (David was a shepherd boy; Jesus was visited by shepherds [Luke 2:8-20]) yet called to be shepherds of God’s people; they were secretly anointed in Bethlehem to rule  (1 Samuel 16:13), became victorious over Israel’s greatest enemy due to their trust in God (1 Samuel 18), and yet they faced constant conflict with their own people (1 Samuel 19—2 Samuel 1; 12—18); both were rejected, persecuted and exiled before returning to establishing a kingdom of peace, one that has its epicentre in Zion but which extends beyond the borders of Israel (2 Samuel 5—10; 19).
An initial answer to the question of the meaning of Bethlehem, then, is that it marks  the place of Davidic beginnings, the opening scene of a narrative plot comprising humility and greatness, faith and victory, rejection and acceptance, a plot that finds its resolution in another city of David, Jerusalem, with the conclusion of redemption for all. Jesus’ birth there casts him as a second David.
Now Jesus’ Davidic identity does not exhaust all that Luke wishes to communicate about who Jesus is. There is another aspect, again presented in terms of genealogy, which casts Jesus not only as a son of David but also the son of a far more ancient ancestor, namely “Adam, the son of God” (3:8). This connection is made at the end of a long genealogy that spans the entirety of human history, bringing us right back to its roots in the Garden of Eden. And by bringing us to the roots of human history, it also brings us to the root problem of that, humanity’s failure to truly be that Adamic “son of God.” In this connection, Jesus did not just come to do what David did (but better), as a second Adam he came to do what Adam ought to have done but failed.
A review of the Old Testament story from Adam to David (Genesis—Kings/Chronicles) reveals the true nature of the problem and the kind of solution sought by God. Yet at this point we might ask whether we runs the risk of leaving our theme behind us, for what does Adam have to do with Bethlehem? Interestingly, quite a lot. For in two sets of stories set at a critical junction of that Old Testament narrative, Bethlehem becomes a stage upon which both the problem and the solution of Adam’s condition are enacted with paradigmatic clarity. So let retrace the story from Eden to Bethlehem:
In Eden we catch a glimpse of the purpose of creation: communion in paradise between God and the human creatures created in his “image” (Genesis 1:26; 3:8). As his creatures they are to love, trust, and depend on him for all things. But something goes wrong: the relationship is undermined when Adam attempts to switch roles and himself become “like God” (3:5) by eating from the tree that promises divine “wisdom” (2:17; 3:22; see Proverbs 8); yet as a creature he cannot take on this role, and so his misplaced wisdom becomes a tool for destruction and alienation. The only solution is to practice his wisdom as a creature, and that means in an attitude grounded in the “fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7).
Rather than destroying his children, God makes provision for them by promising the coming of new offspring, the “seed” of Eve (3:15) created in the likeness of Adam (5:3), a humanity that would re-enact the divine-human relationship as it should have been,  thereby restoring Adam’s likeness to God (5:1) and thus destroying his satanic accuser (Job 1:9; Genesis 3:15). This new seed is the hope of both humanity and the cosmos.
The ensuing drama of humanity and, in more concentrated form, that of Israel can be read as the story of the tortuous struggle for this “seed” to appear on the stage of history in the face of a now-inherent human impulse to fear anything but the Lord, with disastrous consequences (Genesis 20:11). Generations come and go but their behaviour consistently brings divine judgement followed by God’s merciful granting of new chances (Genesis 6—11). Through the seed of Abraham a particular slice of humanity is carved out, given the task to truly know God through his word and deed and thus respond to him the way that is appropriate (Genesis 12—Deuteronomy). The early career of this new covenant community had its ups (Joshua) and its downs (Judges), but the overall trajectory was so far down that a prophet could summarize the behaviour of these first generations with the following words: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
We here come to that critical juncture in Israel’s history, and thus a step closer to Bethlehem. Given Israel’s failure, a new act of divine intervention was necessary. Israel needed a king (Judges 21:25), someone who would represent the people (as Israel should have represented humanity) and embody the faith and obedience needed to overcome their alienation from God, bringing them back into the fullness of his presence. During this period of the “judges,” Bethlehem is the place where both the failure of Israel and its future hope is dramatized. 
In terms of failure, Bethlehem is one of a number of key regions chosen to illustrate in paradigmatic manner the depravity of Israel and thus its distance from becoming the true “seed” of Eve. These stories are bundled together at the end of the book of Judges (17—21). In one, Bethlehem is home to a renegade Levite, a member of an elite tribe charged with teaching and guiding Israel in the truth. He establishes an idolatrous cult in Ephraim and then joins a band of murderous thugs (the tribe of Dan) in order to start a new colony by wiping out an innocent city (Judges 17—18). In another, Bethlehem is the home to a concubine belonging to a man from Ephraim. She flees to her father’s house. After consenting to return, her master delivers her to a gang of rapists from Benjamin who abuse her to death (Judges 19). This triggers a civil war in which Benjamin is almost wiped out, necessitating the kidnapping of more women to stop the tribe becoming extinct (20—21). Here Bethlehem provides a snapshot of the “kingdom of Adam” when Adam himself takes on the role of God.
In terms of hope, during this same period (Ruth 1:1) Bethlehem also sets the stage for the emergence of an alternative kingdom—one headed by a second Adam whose life conforms more to his true identity as a creature in the image of God. This development is found in the book of Ruth, a short novella telling a heart-warming story of tragedy and loss reversed by divine providence at work through the loyalty, boldness, and nobility of a Moabite woman, Ruth, and a Bethlehemite farmer, Boaz. In this narrative we see how the divine virtues of Ruth and Boaz redeem the life of the widow Naomi. But their actions have a redemptive significance that goes beyond the life of this one widow. This is made clear by a genealogy that is tacked on to the end of this story (4:18-22). Here we see that the fruit of their marriage union will issue into a future seed who will display the same moral characteristics and thus become God’s vehicle for establishing a kingdom more in line with one original envisioned in the Garden of Eden. This future seed, is of course, David, Bethlehem’s most famous son until the birth of Christ.
But if David is the redeemer, why the prophetic hope that a new David will have to arise? The rest of the history of Israel from the middle of David’s career until the exile and beyond (see the books of Samuel; Kings) make the reason clear: though Israel’s greatest role model (see especially the Psalms and Chronicles), David was not ultimately above grasping at god-like power and usurping the throne of Israel’s true king (the story with Bathsheba is paradigmatic for this: 2 Samuel 11). Almost all of his sons did worse (see the books of Kings and virtually all the prophets). Israel’s prophets saw only one solution: another David would have to arise, one that would truly enact the drama of Eve’s seed and thus as a true Adam more perfectly establish the kingdom of God (e.g. Isaiah 9:7; Jeremiah 30:9; 33:15; Ezekiel 34:23-24).
This brings us back to Bethlehem in the gospel of Luke. Once again a critical juncture in the history of Israel and the world has been reached. The seed of Eve is still waiting to be born and do his work. Bethlehem’s previous inhabitants made a good start, though ultimately failed. In Jesus, the story will be re-enacted and brought to perfection.

Matthew: Bethlehem as the other City of David

There is one last twist to this tale of the emergence of a Seed in Bethlehem. If Luke and the Old Testament texts discussed above highlight the continuity of the seed from Adam and David, Matthew and two key Old Testament prophecies point out the need for discontinuity. In a paradox difficult to grasp, the future redeemer of Israel and the world must be from David but yet, at the same time, not of him … This becomes clearer if we move from prophecy to fulfilment. In the process we will see that the image of the town of Bethlehem is central to the way the message is rendered. 
We noted above that the Bible knows of two cities of David: Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The one marks the beginning of David’s career, the latter its climax and resolution. David of Bethlehem saved his people and consolidated his empire by creating Jerusalem as the centre from which he, ideally as God’s vehicle, would rule a kingdom of peace. Jerusalem thus became the source of Israel’s blessings and greatest joy as well as object of greatest hope (e.g. Psalms 68; 122; 128; 147).
But what happens when Jerusalem’s Davidic rulers chronically fail to be what they need to be so that Jerusalem can become what it ought to? What if the problem is located in the genes of the genealogy itself, in the Davidic and Adamic bloodline?  We’ve already noted the prophetic promise of a new David to rule on the throne, one different in kind from all the Davids before, one who will have a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19), upon which is written the law of God (Jeremiah 31:31). Two unique prophecies push this element of difference further, making clear that the one to come will have a source both somehow within yet also without David.
The first announcement is made by Isaiah, who talks of God’s complete destruction of the Davidic line. It will be like a tree that has been felled and then burnt for good measure; all that remains is a stump (6:13). And then, miraculously, hope nevertheless sprouts:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1).
At first glance this may look like a simple reaffirmation of the Davidic covenant, but notice how Isaiah interrupts the linear genealogy of DavidàMessiah that the Davidic covenant would lead us to expect (2 Samuel 7:12). Jesse is the father of David, he precedes him genealogically. This is one metaphorical way of saying that the Messianic “branch” will have its source in the historical David but it will also have its source beyond him—or to put it differently, as our next text does, “his coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2; English version [Hebrew 5:1]).  
The prophet Micah develops a similar idea using different imagery, the imagery of David’s two cities: Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The logic of their relationship is that of the role they play in David’s career: Bethlehem is the source of the dynasty, Jerusalem its final home. Jerusalem is the city of Israel’s salvation; Bethlehem is the city of the means to get there. In 4:8—5:6 Micah picks up this configuration and re-applies it in his own day, a time when Jerusalem has already long had a Davidic king on its throne but desperately needs a new one from a different stock. His message is packed into a series of juxtaposed messages that, when read together, generate a pattern. This pattern can be summarized as follows:
1.       The focus is the salvation of Jerusalem (4:8, 10b, 12-13), which matters because Jerusalem is the epicentre of the salvation of “the ends of the earth” (5:4). 
2.       As Micah speaks, however, Jerusalem is in the process of being judged: “Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, … you shall go to Babylon” (4:10). God’s instrument of judgement are “many nations” which he has brought upon her to lay “siege against” her (4:11; 5:1); Jerusalem’s current Davidic king has been humiliated and rejected (“with a rod they strike the judge of Israel on the cheek,” 5:1; see 2 Kings 25:4-7). The cause is the rebellion against God of both king and nation.
3.       Yet there is hope. In a mysterious way, Jerusalem’s destruction is actually for its good. The evil empires “do not understand [God’s] plan” (4:12); they “assemble against” her to “defile” her, but through the destruction they wreak they both judge themselves (4:12) and pave the way for the redemption of the city of David (4:13). And so God can address Jerusalem directly with the promise:
“to you shall it come,
the former dominion shall come,
kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem” (4:8).
What was lost shall be restored. But where shall it be restored from?
4.       The kingship cannot come from the current, humiliated dynasty (5:1) which has been felled like a tree (Isaiah 6:13; see Jeremiah 22:30). Instead, God must go back behind it in order to make a new start. This new king’s source will be “from of old, from ancient days” (5:2), a primordial beginning not symbolized by ancestry, as with Jesse in Isaiah’s prophecy, but by social geography:  “Bethlehem Ephrathah” (5:2;), the place of David’s roots from which now a different David will come to replace the current David sitting on the throne.
5.       This new shepherd will recapitulate a central quality of the original David, and indeed his grandparents Ruth and Boaz, but which was forgotten by his descendants: he will be weak and dependent on God (1 Samuel 16:7, 11; see Genesis 3:5). This quality is symbolized by “Bethlehem Ephrathah” itself, “Ephrathah” referring to the Davidic clan of the Ephrathites, which is “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (5:2). Like other leaders from weak clans chosen by God in the past (Gideon [Judges 6:15]; Saul [1 Samuel 9:21]), this new David will be a true “ruler in Israel” (5:2), precisely because he knows where his true strength lies: outside himself and within his Creator. If we set this image within Biblical story outlined above, we can say that this new David will re-enact the drama of Adam in Eden and succeed in not “grasping” at “equality with God” (Philippians 2:6).
How is this particular version of the Messianic promise taken up in the Gospel of Matthew? In the first instance we can simply note that Micah 5:2 is explicitly cited in Matthew 2:6 as an explanation for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (the changes in wording do not change the message). The immediate function of the prophecy is to provide straightforward evidence of the fulfilment of an ancient promise: the Christ will be born in “Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet …” (2:5). As it was predicted, so it came to pass. At first glance, there seems to be nothing more to it, no symbolism or deeper layers of meaning, just a piece of predicted geography that could be used hundreds of years later by local “Biblical scholars” to guide foreign pilgrims to the Messiah’s expected birthplace.
But when we look at the structure of the birth narrative as a whole in light of the broader context of the prophetic citation (Micah 4:8—5:9), it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that something more is going on than just proof-from-prophecy: as in Micah, the significance of Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth only comes to light through its unique relationship to that other city of David, Jerusalem. In short, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem not only marks him as the predicted Messiah, as a second or new David, it marks him as an alternative David, one whose mission is to enact judgement on the current ruling dynasty and replace it with something entirely new. Let us unpack the correlations:
For start, as with Micah (4:8), the initial focus of the Christmas story is not on Bethlehem but on Jerusalem. This is where the magi from the East first arrive, and the reason they choose to go to Jerusalem is that the star they had seen portended the birth of a Jewish king. Where else does one go than Jerusalem if one is looking for the “king of the Jews”? The search for the true king of Jerusalem thus sets the tone for the rest of the narrative.
Upon arrival in this city we encounter another Micah motif: the rebellious nature of its inhabitants. The magi do indeed meet a king of the Jews, “Herod the king” (2:1), but as will become clear in his slaughter of the innocents in order to remain in power (2:16-18), this evil figure is far removed from the figure these Gentiles wished to submit to. And it is not just the king who is the problem, “all Jerusalem” is troubled with him (2:3), including the chief priests and the scribes (2:4), who know their Bible’s well enough to locate the birthplace of their true king yet show no interest in going to see him.
Again, Jesus shares the same context that occasioned Micah’s prophecy: not only is Jerusalem currently in rebellion against God, God’s judgement of the nation is already underway. The occupiers are now the Romans rather than the Assyrians (Micah 5:5) or Babylonians (4:10), but the cause and the effect are the same. Already “the axe is laid to the root” (Matthew 3:10), the final destruction is yet to come (Matthew 24). And yet, of course, there is also hope for Jerusalem, for God has provided her with a true king who will finally bring back “the former dominion … , kingship for Daughter Jerusalem” (Micah 4:8). Yet this king is unlike the current pretender to the Davidic throne. He is of Davidic stock (Matthew 1; Luke 3), yet at the same time his roots go way back before David, they are “from ancient days” (Micah 5:2), indeed they are also located in God himself (Matthew 1:18, 20). And so for this reason the magi cannot remain content with the current order reigning in Jerusalem, they need to go to Bethlehem, the place where the whole history once began and is now about to begin anew, albeit in a different key.
This brings us to a final observation: the character of this new son of David, son of Adam, yet also son of God. We have noted above that since Adam’s attempt to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), God has sought for a human response that lets God be God. With this new beginning in Bethlehem, he gets what he was looking for. Jesus Christ, precisely as one who was “in the form of God,” “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). It is through this weakness that he fulfils the promise of a seed to Eve and thus earns to right to bear the name to which every knee will bow (Philippians 2:10). The whole of Matthew’s gospel provides a vivid illustration of what this embodiment looks like in the life of Jesus.
In conclusion, how can we summarize Matthew and Micah’s contribution to a “theology of Bethlehem”? If Luke and the traditions he draws on use Bethlehem to focus on the linear continuity of the seed from Adam through David to Christ, Matthew and Micah use Bethlehem to testify to a deeper problem with the fallen constitution of that seed and the need for vertical divine intervention.  The paradox is that both views are true: the Messiah is both of the seed of Eve through Mary yet also born from above through the Holy Spirit. John the Seer captures both aspects in his contradictory image: Jesus is both “the root and the descendant of David” (Revelation 22:16). Bethlehem is used to symbolize both.

The path to Jerusalem still passes through Bethlehem

A final question may be asked: what does this have to do with us today? As is often the case in Biblical theology, the answer as to do with the “already” and the “not-yet.”
In one sense, the Christ of Bethlehem has already completed his entry into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey, where he was greeted with “hosannas!” by the inhabitants (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-15). Here he waged his decisive battle to claim the throne of the city and thus the keys of the kingdom. His enemy, however, was not the flesh and blood enemy of Jerusalem’s Jewish inhabitants and Gentile occupiers but the enemy of all humanity, the “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9; Genesis 3:1). His battle tactic was to take Jerusalem’s punishment as prophesied by Micah upon himself: it was his cheek that was struck and humiliated; he was the one driven out of the city and caused to descend to his spiritual Babylon. And just as Micah had predicted regarding Jerusalem, this act of defilement of Christ by his enemies turned out to be the means of their own redemption (Micah 4:11-12; Isaiah 53). Only in this way could the gates of Jerusalem be opened for all to enter and find peace.
And yet the pilgrimage of King Jesus’ people to his city has not yet been completed. We are still on the way, waiting to cross the threshold of the heavenly Zion to be fully re-united there with our Lord (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21—22). When we arrive, the entry requirements will be the same as those imposed upon Adam and Eve in the garden: do not grasp at equality with God; reflect his image as his creature and entrust your life to him. Or, if you cannot do this (Romans 3:23!), make sure you pass through Bethlehem first and meet the one who did this in your stead. From there he will lead us to his new city, open the gates, and take us through (Psalm 24).

Thursday 3 July 2014

My ISBL Vienna papers

I fly to Vienna tomorrow to take part in the International Society of Biblical Literature conference. I'll be giving three papers. For one of them I will be part of a panel reviewing Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation: III/1: The Nineteenth Century (ed. Magne Sæbø; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). Other panel members will be Mark Elliot, Michael Legaspi, and Manfred Oeming.

Here are the abstracts of the other two papers:

Comparison of Childs’ Exodus and Isaiah Commentaries: continuity and development

A common misconception of the development of Brevard Childs’ thought is that he first started out as a historical critic, interested in diachronic questions and the history of tradition, and later took a more theological turn, eschewing diachronic analysis to focus exclusively on the final form of the text. This view, however, misunderstands the way Childs’ appreciation of the final form was grounded in a certain kind of diachronic consideration, one which factored the reality of the theological source of the tradition into his appreciation of its nature. It was this that led to his later development of final-form interpretation. As such, Childs’ later work as an interpreter of the canonical context is a natural extension of his earlier work as an interpreter of the development of that context. Yet these two dimensions—the “diachronic” and the “synchronic” (terms Childs hardly used)—remained intimately connected throughout his career. My thesis is that the real development in his thought involves less an abandonment of the uncertainties of speculative reconstructions in favour of the church’s traditional and apparently more objective text than a growing appreciation of and confidence in talking about the ontological reality of God as a factor in the Bible’s creation. This thesis can be illustrated by comparing the only two full-length scholarly commentaries written Childs, both of which roughly bracket his career. His first commentary on Exodus was written during 1970s before he had even coined the term “canonical approach,” the second on Isaiah was written in 2002 towards the end of his life, at a time when the term “canonical” had started to become problematic for him. This paper will demonstrate that in both commentaries Childs worked with the same exegetical logic. The difference is that in the latter commentary Childs’ relative decrease in confidence about the reliability or usefulness of diachronic reconstruction is accompanied by an increase in his confidence in using theo-ontological categories to describe the forces at work in the production of the text.

The Canonical Function of Psalm 24 and Isaiah 33

Scholars have long noted a generic connection between Psalm 24 and Isaiah 33: both texts appear to have drawn on a now lost liturgical ritual associated with the temple in order to render a new message. Yet how are we to gauge that new message?  Over the last few decades there has been an increasing awareness that often latterly textualized Biblical traditions received their form and function within the context of a broader literary whole, relating to that whole in various ways. The argument of this paper is that Ps 24 and Isa 33 not only draw on a common generic source, they have also received a similar canonical function within the context of their respective books, the first book of the Psalter and the book of Isaiah. This thesis will defended by describing how this ancient liturgical pattern has now been rendered according to a similar eschatological schema in both texts, and how these texts now function as summaries and hermeneutical horizons within their respective literary contexts for the material that both precedes and follows them. In conclusion the question will be raised as to the relation between cultic experience and canonical form.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Conference: Christianity and Freedom

This Thursday I will be flying to Rome to participate in a conference on Christianity and Freedom, sponsored by Georgetown University as part of the Religious Freedom Project. The sessions will be streamed live on the Internet; those who are interested can watch it here: My colleague Duane Alexander Miller and I are on the panel called "Religious Freedom in the Lion's Den?" and it starts at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. The agenda for the entire conference can be found here: What we say will be based on our experience of living in Israel and field work carried out in the West Bank in 2013. The research will then be published in the ensuing conference volume.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Bibliography for Arabophone Christianity in Israel-Palestine

I have just spent the past eight months working at Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary. One task I set myself was to compose as exhaustive a bibliography as possible on "contextual Palestinian theology." On closer analysis this category turned out to be too vague, so I renamed it "Bibliography for Arabophone Christianity in Israel-Palestine." It's published in the seminary's journal Mary's Well Occasional Publications and can be downloaded here:

I've already started working on a revised edition. Please do share anything that I have missed. I would particularly welcome material in Arabic and Hebrew. Please read the introduction, however, in order to understand the parameters I have set myself.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Forthcoming article: The Coherence of Psalm 24

JSOT have accepted an essay of mine for publication. Here's the title and the abstract:

The Coherence of Psalm 24

Psalm 24 is often seen to be a ‘baffling’ psalm due to the juxtaposition of what seems to be thematically and structurally disparate material (creation, vv. 1-2; torah and sanctuary vv. 3-6; divine warrior and sanctuary, vv. 7-10). Most unusual, however, is the juxtaposition of the final two stanzas, for they seem to cancel each other out. In vv. 3-6, human beings desire access to God within the sanctuary, whereas in vv. 7-10 God himself is about to access the same location. Various poetic clues indicate that these two entrance scenes have been intentionally brought into parallelism with each other, yet no satisfactory answer has been presented as to the meaning of this manoeuvre. In this article, a poetic analysis is proposed that goes beyond those proffered thus far by looking at the way in which the ‘poetic function’ creates a degree of ‘narrative’ self-referentiality within the psalm, in particular through its representation of time and space. The conclusion is that the Psalm is a recalibration of liturgical material in terms of a grasp of the structure of the divine economy.
Key words: Psalm 24; Hebrew poetics; tradition history; theological interpretation; divine economy; synchronic/diachronic; creation; torah; eschatology

Sunday 30 December 2012

Structure and Theology of Psalms 15-24

An essay of mine of the subject of the title will be published by Biblica in 2013. Here's my conclusion:
Conclusion: Structure and Theology in Psalms 15–24
This article has sought to contribute to our understanding of the final form of Pss 15–24 by drawing our attention to significant features of its structure and thematic arrangement and by analysing these elements in terms of Brunner-Traut’s theory of ancient “aspective” perception. The initial observation that Pss 15–24 consists of a chiasm set up the framework for identifying sets of inter-psalm relationships. The theory of semantic intensification as a characteristic of Biblical parallelism helped us identity a series of consistent semantic shifts between the parallel psalms within this arrangement: In short, the content of each psalm was consistently set within a more developed theological context. Finally, Brunner-Traut’s thesis that juxtaposition functions to elucidate a single reality helped us identify the presence of a single pattern underlying the diversity and thereby unifying it, namely the eschatological narrative of God’s consummation of creation by bringing his righteous king, and with him the people of whom he is a type and for whom he is a redeemer, into the reality across the threshold of his temple.
When read on their own as self-contained units, this theological context escapes the reader’s attention. When read with an eye for unifying thematic arrangement, however, we can begin to see how the editors of this collection perceived its fragmentary elements to cohere within a greater theological reality that encompassed their own day and age, namely the divine economy. In short, the bridge between the past and present was ontological, for it was grounded in God’s unchanging ways. If my reading holds any water, then it can help us understand the ways in which Israel’s literary heritage was shaped in order to function as scripture for future generations of the faithful. In its interplay between the framing psalms of theological orientation (Pss 15; 19; 24) and those dominated by disorientation and reorientation (Pss 16–18; 20–23), future readers were provided with a means for contextualizing their own faithful struggle, regardless of their shifting historical, cultural, and institutional contexts. 

Saturday 28 April 2012

SBL Chicago

It looks like I'll be visiting my first American SBL this year. The Institute of Biblical Research has a so-called "Friday afternoon session" designed to support budding scholars. It works differently to a typical SBL session. Instead of giving papers, the participants write an article which is then posted on the IBR website for all to read. Here are some papers from last year's session. At the meeting we each provide a summary of the content of the paper and then the rest of the time is dedicated to discussing the paper with those who have read it. My paper is on "The Coherence of Psalm 24." It would be nice to see some of you there! (Oh, and I'd appreciate any tips on cheap accommodation ... ).

Wednesday 7 March 2012

How does Psalm 2 relate to Psalm 1?

It is now generally accepted that the opening two Psalms of the Psalter function as a "gateway" to the book as a whole. Not only do they contain the two main themes that will be unfolded in what follows (Torah, Ps 1, and kingship, Ps 2), shared vocabulary and themes indicates that they have been purposely juxtaposed with each other. The most evident example is the framing function of the felicitation "Happy is the one who ... ."

If we have a case of two "Zwillingspsalmen" (twin-psalms), how are they to be related? Matthias Millard (in Die Komposition des Psalters) argues that Ps 2 specifies the identity of the righteous one in Ps 1: The righteous one is the king. The consequence is that he evil ones of Ps 1 are the enemy kings of Ps 2.

But is this correct? I would have thought that the parallel created by the framing אשרי ("happy who") clauses means that it is the torah and the king that are being set in parallel and not a would-be righteous individual and the king. What is being juxtaposed are two means of "redemption": kingship and torah. Happy is the one who imbibes the Law and happy the one who seeks shelter in the (Messianic) King.

In other words, the function of the juxtaposition is to portray two sides of a single coin answering the question: "How can we be happy?" [*]

What do you think?

[*] This also implies that Patrick Miller's interpretation does not go far enough. He argues that Ps 1 qualifies Ps 2 Deuteronomy-like by saying that whoever the king is, he must be like the individual in Ps 1. This is no doubt true, but I don't get the impression that this is the function of the juxtaposition. The issue is how the reader may be happy, not what is the nature of true kingship.

Monday 5 March 2012

Betet für die arabischen Christen

Der arabische Pastor einer Gemeinde, die mit meiner Gemeinde verbunden ist, hat dieses Video weitergeleitet und ich leite es auch gerne weiter.

Hier ist ein Artikel über Youcef Nadarkhani. Der Artikel informiert auch, wie man eine Petition an die deutsche Regierung schreiben kann. ICGM haben einen Appelvorschlag hier. For a detailed Wikipedia on the man, go here.

Ich habe in meinem Leben bisher fünf Iraner kennengelernt, die aus ihrer Heimat aus Glaubensgründen geflohen sind, und zwei irakische Familien, die aus den selben Gründen ihre Heimat verlassen mussten. Ich kenne auch zwei ehemalige Muslime, die in sehr westlichen Familien aufgewachsen sind. Sie haben die leichtere Variante bekommen: Ausschluss aus der Familie und offizielle Enterbung. 

I recently watched this interesting debate between Dawkins and a Muslim. Dawkins asks the cleric what the punishment for apostasy (i.e. ceasing to be a Muslim) is. It is interesting to see how both he and another interlocuter avoid the question until forced to answer it in the end. 

According to Wikipedia, this mainstream cleric's view is the majority position.

I'd be delighted is someone more informed than I could tell me if this is a misrepresentation of mainstream Sharia on this issue.