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Zephaniah as the link between Babel and Pentecost

Exegetes and theologians have long argued that Pentecost should be seen as a reversal of Babel – the scattering of the human race through the proliferation of languages healed through the unifying power of the outpoured Spirit. But, if these are two events are key bookends in redemptive history, doesn’t it seem odd that relatively little is said about this in the intervening narrative? Does the OT have any concept of Babel as a problem in need of resolution, or is this a brand new theme suddenly tossed into the mix at Acts 2?

These are the questions that Paul Pastor raised in the paper he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Paul is an MA student at Western Seminary, and the paper was a summary of his MA thesis, “Echoes of ‘Pure Speech’: An Intertextual Reading of Gen. 11:1-9; Zeph. 3:8-20; and Acts 1-2.” Paul has graciously allowed me to upload the complete thesis here.

The basic thrust of Paul’s argument is that Zephaniah 3:8-20 provides the intertextual link between Babel and Pentecost. As  he summarizes:

Pentecost as a reversal of Babel has been widely seen by exegetes since the early days of the Church. However, these two stories are by no means simple “bookends” with empty narrative space between them. Rather, it shall be shown that an extremely significant instance of textual connection comes from the often overlooked text of Zephaniah.

It will be argued that the Babel narrative of Genesis 11:1-9 is accessed and developed by Zephaniah 3:8-20; and that that text in turn provides a guiding paradigm of Babel-reversal that is utilized by Luke in the Pentecost account of Acts 2. Seen in this way, Zephaniah’s prophecy provides an indispensable link between the two texts of Genesis and Acts; simultaneously looking back into the seminal history of the covenant community and forward to the radical in-breaking of the Spirit at the harvest feast of Pentecost.

Intertextual “echoes” of themes and motifs will be traced at length through the three texts, noting linguistic parallel, narrative similarity, and intertextual dependence for the developing trans-biblical narrative.

The thesis that follows is a fascinating example of intertextuality in biblical exegesis. After a brief summary of his intertextual method, Paul argues that the Babel narrative itself is “incomplete,” leaving the reader in suspense as the story never comes to satisfactory resolution. Paul then argues Genesis forms the clear backdrop for much of Zephaniah, setting the stage for identifying further intertextual connections between the two books.

The heart of Paul’s argument comes in the third part of the thesis, where he identifies a number of textual connections between Gen. 11 and Zeph. 3. In my opinion, intertextual linkages like this always bear the burden of proof as they need to establish real textual connections rather than mere linguistic or thematic similarities. And, Paul does a remarkable job of identifying and defending the connections at work, though you’ll have to read the thesis for yourself to follow all the different lines of argument that he offers.

Finally, Paul turns his attention to Acts 2, arguing that Acts 2 bears many of the same textual markers as the first two passages. Given the strong thematic and linguistic connections, Paul concludes that Luke intends for his readers to see Acts two as the conclusion of a narrative arc that begins in Gen. 11 and runs through Zeph. 3.

And, to wrap everything up, Paul offers a few closing words on how a study like this can impact the life and praxis of faith communities:

It is my sincere hope that this study may also impact the thinking and practice of our local churches and communities of faith. I believe that when scripture is seen with the literary intricacy and vitality that a study of this type highlights, it is compelling and powerful for those who cling to the scriptures as the word of God. The narrative excellence in view here, the thorough intentionality, and the development of a single coherent narrative across the span of centuries and as the product of three very different communities of faith should capture the attention and imagination of modern believers.

Here are a few brief ideas for what the practical and responsive outworkings of this study could look like: Our thoughts about national and international unity should be profoundly influenced by the paradigm offered in these texts. True unity is only possible across ethnic, social, lingual bounds by the power of the Spirit and for the purpose of a shared service and worship of God.

This study is a reminder that truly, “All scripture is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). The Hebrew Bible is frequently under read by Christian readers, and the Latter Prophets even more so. This section of our Bibles is rich with powerful imagery, concept, and nuance, coloring our theology and worldview. It ought to be increasingly read.

In addition to this, it ought to be increasingly taught and preached. Our pastors and teachers ought to carefully interact with this literature both for its compelling content, as well as the dramatic role that it plays in the over arching scriptural meta-narrative.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Is Objectivity lost, or just playing hide-and-go-seek? Smith, Derrida, Carson, and maybe even Sailhamer

[This is a guest post by Tim Hankins and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

In the second chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-modernism, Smith argues that Derrida‘s assertion “there is nothing outside the text” is not the villain that the caricaturization by some in the Church have made it out to be. He does so by examining “whether Derrida’s claim that everything is interpretation is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.” Indeed he posits that Derrida’s assertion is appropriate and useful. His argument can be framed in the contrast between his fictional renditions of the events of the cross as seen by two fictitious natives of Jerusalem. The first is from the perspective of a Jew who saw Jesus as a pathetic Nazarene whose followers were deluded, the second from the perspective of a Roman centurion who proclaimed that truly this man is the son of God. He argues that both saw the same events and yet each had differing interpretations of those events. From this model, Smith argues that the Gospels themselves are interpretations and that is a good thing.  Conversely, Smith disagrees with Carson’s argument in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, that if the Gospels are only an interpretation then we can’t know if they are true. Smith pronounces that Carson’s argument “simply conflates truth with objectivity”. He posits that truth does not require objectivity.

I will readily admit that I have not read a translation of Derrida’s On Grammatology in English much less in Derrida’s French, so I have to assume that Smith accurately represents Derrida. Having said that, Smith presents Derrida as arguing against the trend to get at the events behind the text, that the reader’s access to those events is through the text itself, so that “there is nothing outside the text” (p.38). At this point it seems that Derrida is in cahoots with Sailhamer, so that Sailhamer’s Text or Event argument in Introduction to Old Testament Theology is simply a biblical application of Derrida’s principle. Yes the events themselves happened, but scripture is the divine interpretation, the “God’s Associated Press” news articles on (then) current events. This idea does have much to commend it. First and foremost, as Derrida and his sidekick Sailhamer profess, attempts to reconstruct the events from the accounts given in the text miss the point, it is the text that informs us, the text that is inspired, the text that we learn from, not the events. We cannot access the events themselves. We have no window, no fourth dimensional rewind to use to go back and watch the events of which the Bible speaks for ourselves. What is more, even if we did, we might have a very different take than what is written in scripture!  So we necessarily are to rely on the text because it is God’s interpretation on those events, and thus by definition TRUE. Apologetically then this view might provide Christians a way to refute differing claims, other interpretations of the events depicted in scripture; that just because someone else interprets the events differently does not invalidate the divine scriptural interpretation or make it any less TRUE.

I am quite comfortable with Smith’s argument thus far, at least assuming I am correctly understanding and representing him here. But within the larger discussion of subjectivity and objectivity, Smith is identifying the events as the objective, and interpretation of those events as subjective interpretation. Yet it is at this point in his argument that I find Smith’s argument to become a bit . . . squirrely. Up to this point he has pretty solidly used the events as the object, text as subjective interpretation, but without warning he shifts the object to the text (scripture) and the subject to the readers of scripture (p.51 Texts in Community). He suddenly starts “applying” his principle in interpretation of scripture, a distinctly different subject than scripture as the interpretation of events. Yet he does not even camp out here, but the shifts once again (p. 54 Seeing the World through the Word) so that the object is the world and we are the subjects interpreting the things we see, which he argues should be through the interpretive lens of scripture. While objectivity is not necessarily Smith’s main point, he makes enough of an issue about it that I am surprised that he abandons it without much ado.

While I agree that scripture is a TRUE “subjective” interpretation of “objective” events, when we shift things to look at scripture as the object, would scripture not then be “objectively TRUE”? It would seem that Carson’s argument is not necessarily antithetical to Derrida’s (as presented by Smith). They simply have differing objects. Carson (again as presented by Smith) seems to be arguing that when it comes to scriptural interpretation, reading and understanding the Bible, that the authority lies in the object, the Bible. which is TRUE. This means that scripture can be both the subjective divine interpretation of events, without threatening its truth as the object of Christian study. Thus the Bible remains objectively TRUE and subjective interpretation simultaneously.