Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Reading the Old Testament as a Hispanic (ETS/SBL papers)

I think we all recognize now that who we are shapes how we read the Bible. A white, middle-class American evangelical (me) necessarily reads the text differently than a 15-year old Arab Christian living in Syria (not me). But what exactly does this mean? How does ethnic and cultural context affect our reading? How much should it? And how much hermeneutical diversity are we willing to accept along the way?

Those are some of the questions that Daniel Carroll explored in his paper, “Reading the Bible through Other Lenses: New Perspectives and Challenging Vistas.” And, as a Hispanic scholar, he specifically looked at the question what it looks like to read the Bible from a Hispanic diaspora perspective.

1. The Need for Multiethnic Readings of the Bible

Unsurprisingly Carroll began the paper with a brief argument of the necessity of multiethnic approaches. He pointed out that the church does not have a good track record for appreciating the value of diverse ethnic perspectives, tending instead to identify one approach as the normative one to which all others must conform.

But we live in a different world. At the very least, the rapidly changing demographics of the western world are pressing us to take ethnic perspectives more seriously. It’s one thing to view my reading of scripture as normative when everyone around me is just like me. But when I finally notice that the room is full of people very different from me, it’s harder to think that mine is the only appropriate way to do things. (Indeed, the room has always been full of people different from me, but in the past it was easier to ignore these “marginal” voices.)

And Carroll took the time to make a few comments about how this should affect ministry training. Although he doesn’t think that seminaries need to reshape the entire curriculum such that multi-ethnicity becomes the lens through which we see everything, he does think that seminaries in general need to do a far better job of training students to understand their own cultural biases and to appreciate other ethnic perspectives.

2. Methodological Suggestions for a HIspanic Diaspora Reading

In the second section, Carroll argued that a “diaspora hermeneutic” needs to read the text in ways that are “sensitive to the diaspora experience.” So a diaspora hermeneutic will look for “diaspora texts” in the Bible, those that appreciate the particular needs of dislocated peoples.

And he specifically identified five essential features of that experience and how they shape Hispanic diaspora hermeneutics:

  1. Marginality: Identify characters on the “margins” of the biblical texts.
  2. Poverty: Be aware of poverty/economic issues in the text and society.
  3. Mestizaje: Recognize the ethnically “mixed” nature of biblical characters and societies.
  4. Exile and alien: Understand how central these two themes are to the overall biblical narrative and particular stories.
  5. Solidarity: Focus on things like family and community and the shared life of the global church as the extended family of God.

He concluded this section with an appeal for “hermeneutical charity.” Diaspora readings like this will necessarily produce readings of scripture different form those commonly accepted by dominant cultural interpretations. And he specifically warns against two faulty responses to such new interpretations: exclusion and inclusion. The first is obviously problematic in that it rejects other perspectives entirely. But the latter is equally problematic (possibly even worse) in that it simply incorporates the “minority” interpretation into the already existing paradigm of the dominant culture. Rather than letting this new interpretation speak with its own voice, such an “inclusive” approach actually silences these other perspectives even while ostensibly giving them a place at the table. Neither approach is adequate. Instead, we must respond to new voices with “hospitality and engagement.”

3. Readings of the OT from the Hispanic Perspective

This final section would take far too long to summarize. Here Carroll offered specific examples of a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic at work, focusing on OT stories like Abram and Sarai, Joseph, Ruth, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

Here are two of the more interesting thoughts he shared in this section:

  • In the story of Abram and Sarai, he pointed out that Abram’s deceit was “the kind of ruse employed by the powerless.” It’s easy to criticize him from our comfortable and secure position, but Carroll argued, “If this is what you need to do to feed your family, then this is what you do. Hunger makes too much at stake for easy moral discourse, and women have the most at stake.” So he suggested that a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic helps us see that the line between “truth and trickery” is more nuanced than we often appreciate.
  • Similarly, he read the store of Ruth through the lens of immigration and cultural assimilation. He pointed out that many aspects of the Ruth narrative have to do with a person who comes from one culture to another and has to navigate the (often unfriendly) institutions and relational networks of the new culture. And he noted that the closing genealogy, far from being merely a device for connecting Ruth to the later story of David, serves as a way of demonstrating the diaspora readers that they are part of a larger narrative.

He offered similar examples from the other stories, each time showing how diaspora Hispanic interests draw insights and observations from the text that are often quite different from what we’re used to.


This was a fascinating paper. The first section was pretty standard fare for anyone accustomed to such appeals for multicultural readings. But I appreciated that Carroll took the time to lay out the specific hermeneutical methodology that would guide his particular approach. That is something that is not always articulated as clearly. And it raises the question of whether those of us from “dominant” cultures need to be equally clear about the cultural presuppositions driving our own exegesis – instead of simply assuming that ours is the standard and theirs is the “ethnic” perspective. And the concluding section where he actually put the methodology into practice was very helpful.

I was frustrated, though, that he said nothing about the giant in the room: How do we determine if a particular reading is or isn’t legitimate? Once we’ve acknowledged that different cultures read the text through different lenses and generate different interpretations, are we simply left with one big mass of difference? We are still reading the same text, so shouldn’t there be some way of navigating the difference? The German Christians of the mid-twentieth century also had a particular way of reading scripture. And I’m sure we’d all way to say “Nein!” to that cultural reading. But how do we do that without “exclusion” or “inclusion”? Unfortunately, Carroll’s paper didn’t touch on this question even briefly. (Of course, it was late on Friday night. So it’s entirely possible that I just missed it.)


My Little Ponies of the Apocalypse (revisited)

Famine Pony. War Pony. Pestilence Pony. And, most importantly, Death Pony. I’m teaching a class on Revelation 6 for my high school group on Sunday, which means I get to talk about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. So, I will almost certainly introduce the lesson with this fabulous little video. I’ve posted this before, but I thought it was worth reposting in honor of the upcoming lesson.

Make sure you catch Death Pony. That’s my favorite.

Forced Choices: OT Genre

In last week’s Forced Choice, Eastern Orthodoxy seriously trounced Catholicism with nearly two-thirds of the votes (64%). I may write a post sometime on why I think that is, but now it’s time to move on.

So, this week we’re going to jump back into the Bible and look at the major OT genres. As always, use whatever criteria you want to make your selection (e.g. you think one is more important, more fun to read, more interesting to study, whatever). And, you don’t have to leave a comment explaining your choice, but feel free to if you’d like.

An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Biblical Scholar.

Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar by Ben Witherington (Zondervan, 2011)

What does it take to be a biblical scholar, teacher, or serious student of the Bible? Ben Witherington addresses this question in his latest book, Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar. He answers the question by sharing part of his own story of how he became one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, publishing nearly 40 books to date. The reader is invited in, as Witherington opens his heart; even sharing his own poetic reflections to express the sounds of his soul. The book is a very easy read; even accessible to the budding bible student in high school.

He addresses a topic which one will undoubtedly face as a Christian. Is critical thinking at odds with biblical faith? Many Christians choose ignorance; however, he shows us that “critical thinking is not only not at odds with biblical faith, it is required.” Throughout the book the motto of Anselm resounds, “Faith seeking understanding.” Not that one understands in order to believe, but that one value reason to help understand what is believed.

For the M.Div. and Th.M. student there stands great practical advice: how to choose a school for your PhD; how to get a job; the importance of singular focus; counting the costs and not just financially; tidbits on the art of rhetoric; importance of reading classical literature; importance of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, English, French, and German languages; why one should avoid ad hominem argumentation; the fact that only 10% of biblical scholars end up teaching in their dissertation area; and an amazing ego-shattering “illustrated guide to a PhD.”

One will find that there are certain aspects of this book which are perhaps dated, even though it was published in the year 2011. For instance, Witherington is opposed to Kindle usage, doesn’t allow students to use computers during lecture, still types with 2 fingers, and speaks about a typewriter ball, which most everyone under 30 years old has never have heard of. These dated aspects do not detract from the flow of the book; they are more humorous than anything.

The main disappointment I had in this book was the breadth of target audience. The title makes one think that it is intended for M.Div. and Th.M. students; however, the book is actually intended for lay persons, students, and biblical scholars, which is a very broad audience. Graduate students already pursuing biblical studies do not need entire chapters devoted to biblical context, the importance of original languages, OT/NT, Ancient Near East history, etc. Much of the book was an exhortation to study and read everything possible if it has anything to do with the Bible.

Because the book is an easy read I would recommend it to anyone who is considering a vocation in biblical scholarship. It will either scare away or encourage one into the world of biblical scholarship, as the mental, spiritual, physical, and economic costs associated can be quite intimidating. It will only take a few hours to read; don’t bother taking detailed notes as this book is not intended for study. Rather, it is simply the tale of a biblical scholar. And as said before, one must read this book simply to see the “illustrated guide to a PhD,” it is the sort of illustration which one will remember and use throughout the rest of one’s life.

[Many thanks to Zondervan for generously providing us with a review copy of Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar.]

Forced Choices: the Gospels

Last week’s forced choice pit J. R. R. Tolkien against C. S. Lewis. And, although Tolkien led big at the beginning, Lewis slowly caught up, before pulling ahead for good late in the week. So, after one week, the tally stands at Lewis 55% and Tolkien 45%.

Since we’ve been talking about Matthew a lot this week, I thought it would be appropriate for today’s Forced Choice to focus on the Gospels. So, make your choice. Which Gospel do you like better? Feel free to make a comment explaining your choice, but you don’t have to.

What do you do with zombies in Matthew? A call for help

I can just imagine it. I’m hanging out at home, trying to relax, when someone knocks on my front door. Normally I would just sit quietly and hope they go away. But, for some reason, this time I actually get up.



Aren’t you dead?

Yup. Now be quiet and pay attention. I have something important to tell you.

Okey dokey. Dead guy tells me to pay attention. I’m paying attention. Of course, I’m also reaching behind the door for my pitchfork, or whatever zombie killing devices they used in ye old Israel.

The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Mt. 27:52-53)

There’s been a lot of discussion about this passage in the last few days. And, I have to admit, that I’ve never been terribly comfortable with it. What exactly are we supposed to make of a bunch of dead people who suddenly walk out of their tombs and go sight-seeing in Jerusalem?

Some years back I got into a discussion about this passage with a friend. And, I argued at the time that I thought maybe this should be interpreted non-historically. I hadn’t really studied the passage, so it was just speculation, but I pressed on it a bit and tried to argue that Matthew was using this as a symbol of a deeper theological truth. Many friend kept pushing back, though, and after a while I realized that I was only doing that because this passage seemed too weird to be true. Zombie sightseers? Really? That’s just too weird.

But, here’s the problem. “Too weird to be true” just isn’t a very good argument.

Of course, the story raises some interesting questions. Why don’t the dead come out right away? Why do they wait until after the resurrection? What happens after they go into Jerusalem? Do they just hang out for a while, or do they turn to dust at midnight? And, why doesn’t anyone else talk about this stuff? Shouldn’t more people be commenting on such an amazing event? Why is it only in Matthew?

But, although those are interesting questions, none of them really say anything about whether this actually happened. They just re-emphasize how weird this story is. And, I believe lots of things that seem pretty weird to many people: the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection being rather high on that list. Those are weird, but I still believe them. Why is this any different?

Too-weird-to-be-true isn’t going to cut it.

But, quite a few people think there are reasons for reading this text non-historically. And, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their arguments go beyond my feeble too-weird-to-be-true “argument.” As we’ve seen over the last few days, Michael Licona holds this position, and both Mike Bird and John Byron have stated that they agree.

So, my question is: Why? Can anyone provide a good reason for reading Mt. 27:52-53 non-historically? I’m not even all that concerned with whether you agree with the argument, as long as it’s a good (or at least interesting) one. What are the best reasons for reading this passage as anything other than historical narrative? And, just to be clear, it has to be better than too-weird-to-be-true.


When is an inerrancy debate not really about inerrancy?

Most of the time.

I hadn’t intended to write more about the Licona controversy and the inerrancy debate (here’s my first post), but I’ve gotten enough questions that I think I need to say a bit more. If you’d like to read more about the discussion, I’ve included some of the more important links at the bottom of this post.

The Basic Issues

  • Michael Licona understands the dead rising in Mt. 27:52-53 as a non-historical literary device rather than an actual historical event.
  • Many have argued that this is incompatible with inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) because it’s an example of “dehistoricizing” (see Article XVIII).
  • Licona claims that he believes in inerrancy and that his position on Mt. 27 is not incompatible with inerrancy. (I do not know whether Licona affirms inerrancy as defined by CSBI. But, for the sake of this post, I’ll assume that he does.)
  • Somebody is wrong.

According to CSBI, to affirm that the Bible is “inerrant” means you affirm that because God only speaks truth, and because the Bible is fully and wholly inspired by this truth-speaking God, the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority” and is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” And, this infallible inerrancy extends to everything that it touches on, including “the events of world history.” So, for example, if the Bible makes a historical claim like “David was the king of Israel,” then it either must be the case that David was in fact an actual and historical king of Israel or inerrancy is false.

And CSBI is very clear in rejecting any attempt to “dehistoricize” scripture by turning historical events into non-historical events. In other words, you don’t get to dodge the Virgin Birth by turning it into a mere symbol of Christ’s unique significance. If the Bible presents it as an historical event, then it was one. You can reject the CSBI definition of inerrancy, but you can’t slip around it quite that easily.

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Like most things, it’s a bit more complicated in practice.


The Real Crux of the Problem: Hermeneutics

All of this hinges on whether the Bible does in fact present some event as an actual historical event. Take, for instance, the six days of creation. Although many hold that Genesis 1 is historical and must be read that way, many other evangelicals disagree. Instead, they contend that Genesis 1 is doing something else (e.g. giving theological truths about the origin of the universe, offering a poetic account of creation, etc.). But, and this is key, when evangelicals read Genesis 1 in these ways, they are not rejecting inerrancy. They can still hold that Genesis 1 is infallible and inerrant in every way. They are simply arguing that the biblical authors never intended anyone to read Genesis 1 as describing literal, historical events. So, to read them that way is to misread the text.

In other words, it’s not that they think Genesis 1 tries to describe history and fails. They don’t think it is even trying to describe history, or it’s describing history with highly poetic language. It’s not wrong; it’s just doing something different. And, whatever it’s doing, it’s doing it inerrantly.

Now, is this an example of dehistoricizing a text? Are these people simply taking an obviously historical text and turning it into non-history so that they can avoid its clear implications? If so, then even though these people might still use the word “inerrancy,” it would not be the CSBI kind of inerrancy.

I don’t think so. I think we should reserve “dehistoricizing” for situations where a story that gives no indication of being anything other than historical is suddenly re-read as being non-historical. So, for example, to read the story of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and conclude that this never really happened, and that the story actually refers to the spiritual gathering of believers in heaven, that would be an example of dehistoricizing. (I don’t know anyone who actually does that with this story.) There’s nothing in the text to suggest that this is anything other than an historical account of a real event (though described, of course, from a particular perspective). But, regardless of how you read Genesis 1, I think we should all recognize that there are reasonable arguments for reading it as something other than six literal days of creation. You can disagree with those arguments, of course. That’s where the fun is. But, let’s at least acknowledge that these people can point to many elements in Genesis 1 as indicating that this text was never intended to be read as literal history. So, they’re not simply dehistoricizing; they’re trying to read the text the way the authors intended.

In other words, this isn’t a debate about inerrancy. It’s about hermeneutics. What is the proper way to understand Genesis 1, and are there indications in Genesis 1 that it is anything other than straightforward history? What is the genre of Genesis 1, and how did the original authors intend for it to be read? These are all hermeneutical issues. And, they’re all worth discussing. But, none of them necessarily undermines inerrancy.

Now, CSBI does deal with issues of hermeneutics, but not very thoroughly. All it says is that Scripture is “to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis.” And this doesn’t really solve our problem. As CSBI recognizes, grammatical-historical exegesis takes into account things like genre and literary devices. So, a grammatical-historical method could still read Genesis 1 as poetry (or whatever) if there are indications that this is how the text should be read.


Hermeneutics & the Licona Debate

What does any of this have to do with the Licona debate? Quite simply, this is not a debate about inerrancy either. Everyone involved in the discussion affirms inerrancy. And, I haven’t heard anyone say that they’re defining inerrancy in any way other than that affirmed by CSBI. So, let’s take them at their word and assume that they do in fact believe what they say they do.

As with Genesis 1, this is a debate about hermeneutics. Licona claims that Matthew intended for us to read 27:52-53 as an “apocalyptic” device that highlights the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. According to him, this was a common literary device in Greco-Roman culture and that Matthew would have expected his readers to know this and read the text accordingly. In other words, he’s not saying that Matthew claimed that people rose from the dead and that Matthew was in fact wrong about this. He’s saying that Matthew never intended us to think that people actually rose from their graves.

So, the question is not whether Licona rejects inerrancy, but whether he is correct in his interpretation of Mt. 27:52-53. Does he in fact have good evidence for maintaining that this is how Matthew and his readers would have understood this text? In other words, can he demonstrate that “rising from the grave” was a literary device and would have been understood as such in Matthew’s day? That’s a hermeneutical question.

Now, I’ll have to be honest here, I’m not convinced by Licona’s argument. Mt. 27:52-53 sure looks and feels like a seamless part of the historical narrative in which it’s contained. So, I’m having a hard time seeing the basis for saying that these verses are a non-historical literary device, while the surrounding verses are historical. But, I haven’t studied the text myself. So, maybe there’s more to the argument than I recognize.

The point is, this is a debate about hermeneutics. It is not a debate about inerrancy. It could end up having implications for inerrancy if the hermeneutical issues are resolved and it’s concluded that this was not an accepted literary device in Matthew’s day. To continue reading the text as poetic then would be to dehistoricize the text and reject inerrancy. But, that is not where we are in the discussion at this point.

So, let me say it again. This is not a debate about inerrancy. At least, it shouldn’t be. And, escalating it into a debate about inerrancy at this juncture is neither wise nor helpful. It distracts from the real issues and prevents people from taking an honest look at what may be a legitimate interpretive possibility.


For More Information:

I’m sure there are many others, but this should be more than enough.


Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).


Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.


With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).


The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.


Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.


One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

Women in the Roman World

It always makes me nervous to post videos I haven’t had a chance to watch yet, but when they look like interesting resources, I’m willing to take the chance. And, these certainly fit that bill. Thanks to Brian LePort for pointing out these videos of Linda Cohick, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, discussing women in the ancient Roman world. Her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians has gotten some really good reviews. So, I can only assume that the videos will be interesting as well.

Here’s the first one. You can view the other two at the Center for Public Christianity.

Don’t Grab Me There! A response to Paul Copan

I will probably regret this, but I’m going to weigh in on a debate that broke out while I was on vacation. As a warning to those of you with sensitive souls, I’m going to take umbrage in this post. I’m rather excited about that. I don’t get to take umbrage very often. (I’m actually not sure what “umbrage” is. But, whatever it is, I intend to take it and take it good.)

The debate has to do with the proper understanding of Deuteronomy 25:11-12:

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity. (NIV)

Hector Avalos started things off with a critique of Paul Copan’s interpretation of Deut. 25:11-12. (Actually, things started earlier with an exchange between and Avalos and Matthew Flanagan. See Flanagan’s Hector Avalos and Careful, Non-Selective Citation of Sources for links and comments on that part of the discussion.)  Specifically, Avalos argued that in Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? ((Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2011), 121-122) Copan sets aside the obvious meaning of the text (i.e. that the woman’s hand should be cut off for grabbing a man’s genitals during a fight) in favor of a non-literal meaning of the text (i.e. that the woman’s pubic hair should be shaved as a humiliating punishment for the action), and that he does so with little or no exegetical support. Avalos apparently sees Copan’s interpretation as an attempt to soften the text and avoid its obvious (and brutal) meaning.

Paul Copan responded earlier today with Deuteronomy 25:11-12, An Eye for an Eye, and Raymond Westbrook: A Reply to Hector Avalos. He explained why he thinks his reading of the text is the most obvious and natural. Rather than setting aside the “literal” meaning in favor of some “non-literal” and softer reading, he contends that he is simply reading the text the way that it was meant to be read.

In the process of making his argument, Copan offered some rather strong criticisms of my article “The Law on Violent Intervention: Deuteronomy 25.11-12 Revisited,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30:3 (2006), 431-47. Avalos had cited my article in support of his argument, so Copan felt it necessary to explain why he found my argument unconvincing.

You should, of course, read Copan’s post for yourself, but here is a quick summary of his criticisms:

  1. I failed to engage Jerome Walsh’s article “You Shall Cut Off Her…Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12,” Journal of Semitic Studies (2004): 47-58, in which Walsh argues that kaph refers to the woman’s groin, rather than her hand, and that qatsats in the qal means “to shave” rather than “to cut off.”
  2. I failed to provide any real reason for the shift from the yad (hand) that grasped the man’s genitals to the kaph that gets cut off. If this is an example of the lex talionis such a shift seems odd.
  3. I failed to deal with the semantic distinction between the qal and piel forms of the key verb. Copan follows Walsh in arguing that although the piel form refers to “cutting off”, the qal means “to shave.” By not recognizing this difference I missed the meaning of the text entirely.
  4. Basically, Copan summarizes his critique by saying that I have not “looked at the words” (emphasis his).

Before I respond, I should point out that Copan also quotes Walsh on some very nice things that Walsh says about my article. So, apparently if you can set aside the fact that I was completely wrong about the text at almost every point, it was still a good article. That’s nice to hear.

And, I should also say that I find the Copan/Walsh argument very interesting. I’m still not convinced that they’re right. But I do think that they offer a legitimate exegetical option that is worth considering. So, my responses to Copan below will be more points of clarification than any attempt at refutation.

I’ll deal with Copan’s criticisms in order:

  1. He’s right. I did not interact at all with Walsh’s article. Of course, that’s because I wrote my article before Walsh’s was published. Although my article wasn’t published until 2006 (two years after Walsh’s), I wrote it in 03/04 during the last year of my Th.M. program at Western Seminary. For a variety of reasons, it took a while for the paper to get published and I wasn’t able to keep an eye out for articles published in the meantime. If I had it to over again, I would love to have engaged Walsh’s argument, but such is life. Nonetheless, it’s not as though I completely ignore other possible meanings of kaph. Indeed, I explicitly dealt with Eslinger’s argument that kaph refers to female genitalia at some length.  The fact that I did not find any convincing reason for understanding kaph as referring to the groin was not because I didn’t bother to look. I simply wasn’t convinced by the arguments that I found.
  2. I have to object here. Copan makes it sound like I explain the shift from yad to kaph by saying “why not?”, as though I completely ignored the problem. Yet, I clearly state in the paper that I think this is an important issue that is often ignored by exegetes and has not yet received satisfactory explanation. I then argue that because the author is drawing on the talionic principle rather than quoting a talionic formula, some verbal flexibility is not surprising. (Interestingly enough, it might be possible to cite Copan’s own post in support of my interpretation. If kaph refers to the hand “as an instrument of…hitting,” as he states, it would be seem quite appropriate to focus on the instrument of offense in the punishment as the text does.) So, rather than just dismissing the question, I offered what I thought was a reasonable explanation. Anyone can certainly disagree with my explanation, but I would prefer that they at least acknowledge that one exists.
  3. Again, he’s right. I did fail to notice that the qal form of the verb in this passage is exegetically significant. As penance, I will step on my wife’s cat when I get home.  I thought this was the most interesting contribution of Walsh’s article. But, Avalos argues in his post that the qal/piel distinction is rather different that Walsh suggests. According to Avalos, the distinction is one of singularity vs. plurality: “That is to say the qal is found primarily with singular objects, while the piel is most often found with plural objects or where objects are cut into many pieces.” Thus, the use of the qal here is explained by the fact that a grammatically singular object is being cut off (hand). Given that the qal/piel distinction is quite significant for Copan’s argument, I find it surprising that he has not responded to this particular. (Granted, I haven’t read all of the comments involved in this discussion, so it’s possible that Copan has responded and I just haven’t seen it yet. If so, I hope someone will point it out.) If someone has a convincing reason that Avalos’ argument on this point is wrong, I’d love to hear it.
  4. Now I really have to take exception. (This is where the “umbrage” totally kicks in.) I have not “looked at the words”? Really? May I inquire, then, precisely what I was looking at? Other than not engaging the qal/piel question (an unfortunate omission), I believe that I engaged the most significant exegetical issues in the text. I understand and appreciate the fact that Copan and I disagree. That’s fine. I enjoy a good disagreement. And, I look forward to having someone correct me and offer a better understanding of some issue. That’s a good thing. But, I don’t appreciate someone suggesting that I’m simply ignoring the text. Feel free to disagree with me, but please don’t insult me.

Finally, I’m also not excited about some of Copan’s rhetoric. Looking at uses of kaph in Genesis and Song of Solomon, Copan claims that these parallels are “very clear” and that they “make it clear” that such is the meaning in Deuteronomy, suggesting that anyone who does not agree is simply ignoring the obvious. Even if groin is a legitimate possibility in those contexts, it’s hard to see how either of them are “very clear.” (That, by the way, is exactly the rhetorical ploy that Copan finds objectionable when Avalos refers to his positions as “literal” and dismisses Copan’s as “non-literal.” I don’t like it any more than he did.) At best, Copan draws on two other difficult passages to explain a third. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s acknowledge the challenges involved and not imply that other people are simply blind to the obvious.

However, now that I’ve taken umbrage (it’s fun; you should try it), I’d like to return to what I said at the beginning. Walsh/Copan have offered an interesting argument worth considering. But, at this point, I’m still not convinced. I don’t find the parallel uses of kaph sufficiently clear to warrant seeing kaph as ”groin.” So, unless someone can convince me that Walsh’s qal/piel distinction is definitive, I don’t see enough reason to understand the text as Walsh and Copan suggest. I’d like to, but I can’t.