Author Archives: catholicbiblestudent

Saint Augustine and Demons on Pillars

augustinedemons1

Yesterday, I picked up my copy of Augustine Confessions from the Penguin Classics series, translated by the most splendidly morbid translator, R.S. Pine-Coffin. The cover has a picture of Augustine as bishop taken from a “French illuminated manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale” in Paris. What struck me as a little odd, however, were the pillars standing behind the great saint. Each pillar had a human figure on top, with a winged demonic creature behind. So, I asked my colleague, Dr. John Sehorn, “What do these demon figures on pillars mean?” After some digging, he found a good explanation, while I found more versions of our given picture. Unfortunately, none of the online versions of this illuminated page are both complete and high resolution, so I’m including a couple different versions in this post.

The artwork that I saw on the book cover omitted much of the page. In fact, the page actually has two illuminated scenes. Top register include St. Augustine with attendants talking with a pagan. The pagans are saying, “Quare Romani tanta mala paciuntur” or “Why have the Romans endured such great evils?” St. Augustine responds “Propter mala culpe perpetrata per vos sugestione demonum,” or “Because of offenses perpetrated by you at the suggestion of demons.” This little conversation leads to an explanation of the whole image. On the left hand side, a group of pagans is confronting St. Augustine with a challenge to faith—very similar to challenging questions raised today like “why do bad things happen to good people?” Their question is a bit different, simply, “Why would a just, loving, merciful God such as you proclaim, if he were really all powerful, allow such a great civilization such as Rome be destroyed by the barbarian hoardes?” It is a question that Augustine himself asks in one of his most famous works, The City of God. Augustine’s response here is a paraphrase of the book, where his answer is that God is bringing judgment on the sins of Rome. In particular, I think the artist is point to Book II, chapter 26.

This brings us to the background of the image, where we see a bunch of people robed in brown, kneeling down and looking at the figures on pillars. The kneeling people represent the pagans of Rome and the human figures on idols represent the gods of Rome. The demonic whisperers are animating these false gods, like St. Paul teaches “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God” (1 Cor 10:20). Thus the answer to my question is that the winged demons are the spiritual powers behind the false gods of Rome like Saturn, Vesta and Venus.

augustinedemons

The bottom register depicts St. Orosius, a student of St. Augustine, preaching to the Romans while demons dance around the city. Presumably, the demons represent the evil barbarian forces which are about to overrun the city. The demons are celebrating the downfall of the great city and the spread of chaos. The saint meanwhile is telling the Romans, “Roma destruetur propter peccata hominum,” “Rome shall be destroyed because of the sins of men.”

In this explanation and even in the transcription of the words, I am relying heavily on Les manuscrits à peintures de la Citè de Dieu de Saint-Augustin by Alexandre Laborde, vol. II (Paris: Société des bibliophiles François, 1853-1944; 1909), pp. 408-409. Here is his text in full:

LIVRE II. – fol. 23. – H. om, 325× om,230. – Saint Augustin et les païens, Orose et les Romains. – Deux registres.

I° Dans une sale spacieuse, aux fenêtres grillagées, dont le sol est recouvert de dalles vertes, des colonnes en marbre de couleur, places contre le mur de droite, soutiennent des idoles qu’assaillant des diables. Dans le fond, un groupe de païens implorent à genoux ces divinités. Au premier plan à gauche, les Romains debout discutent. Le chef du groupe déploie une banderole et s’adresse à saint Augustin: Quare romani tanta mala paciuntur. En face à droite, saint Augustin, en évêque, recouvert d’une dalmatique rouge et suivi de huit ecclésiastiques, répond: Propter mala culpe perpetrata per vos sugestione demonum.

2° Nous sommes à Rome, ville française du xve siècle, aux maisons rouges et jaunes, entourée de murs crénelés que le Tibre, mince filet bleu, baigne de ses eaux. Six diables se tenant par la main deansent au dehors. Sur une place publique, à l’intérieur, un docteur, probablement Orose, barbu et tête nue, vêtu d’une robe brune, s’adresse à un groupe de vingt Romains des deux sexes, richement vêtus et leur dit: Roma destruetur propter peccata hominum.

I don’t know if you had the same question as I did when looking at this picture for the first time, but I do think that the illumination does a great job of visually summarizing St. Augustine’s argument. Good job, Anonymous Illuminator!

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The “Finger of God” in the Bible

The “finger of God” in Exodus

The first time the “finger of God” appears is during the plagues of Egypt, specifically during the plague of gnats. Pharaoh’s magicians are frustrated in their attempts to produce gnats by their magical arts and tell Pharaoh: “This is the finger of God” (Exod 8:19). Of course, he does not believe them and continues in his famous obstinance. But the point is, in this instance it seems that “finger” means power. I’ll quote the UBS Handbook on Exodus on this point:

This is the finger of God is a literal translation. The expression finger of God, however, is usually understood to mean the power of God in the same way that “hand of God” is often used (for example, 3:20; 7:4; 9:5). This type of figure of speech is known as “synecdoche,” meaning that a part represents the whole, a finger or hand here representing the full power or the full person. And so this may be translated dynamically as “This is the power of God,” “This is an act of God,” “God has done this” (8:19 TEV), or “God has shown his power by doing this” (N. D. Osborn & H. A. Hatton, A Handbook on Exodus, [New York: United Bible Societies, 1999] p. 188).fingerofgod (Small)

Ok, while the UBS Handbook goes on to discuss other possibilities, for example, that the magicians identified Aaron’s staff as the “finger of God,” here the idea of finger=power seems to work just fine. So far, there is no distinctions between “finger” and “hand” as far as denoting abstract ideas.

Yet if we jump ahead just a bit to Exodus 31:18, then we see that the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are “written with the finger of God.” Here, rather than indicating raw power, the “finger” is connected with the activity of writing. The same idea reappears in a parallel discussion of the tablets in Deut 9:10.

 

Later in the Old Testament

While the largest share of the “finger” references in the Old Testament have to do with blood manipulations rituals in Leviticus, God’s “fingers” reappear in Psalm 8:3

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place

Here, one could equate “finger” with power, but I think it would be better to go with the poet and see God as setting the various heavenly bodies in the canopy of heaven, almost like one decorating for a party. The psalmist is not describing God’s capability to create, but his artistry, his dexterity, if you will.

(While not divine fingers themselves, Isaiah criticizes those who bow down to idols made with their own fingers [Isa 2:8, 17:8].)

The next, and I think most telling, example comes from Daniel, where the “fingers of a human hand” (Dan 5:5) appear and write a terrifying inscription on the wall of the palaWriting-on-the-groundce during King Belshazzar’s sacrilegious romp, where he and his frat buddies are drinking wine from the sacred vessels of the Temple. This divine hand writes out a death sentence for Belshazzar: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN (v. 25). Here, clearly, the fingers of God are connected with the concept of writing, as they were in Exodus 31 and the stone tablets.

 

New Testament Fingers of God

Jesus uses his fingers to cure a deaf man (Mark 7:33), which seems to indicate they have to do with power. In addition, he refers to how “it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,” (Luke 11:20). Here, we could easily equate finger and power: “it is by the power of God…” Yet, I think there might be one slightly hidden example in John 8:6, where Jesus writes “with his finger on the ground.” It is during the scene where an anger mob is trying to stone a woman caught in adultery and get Jesus to sanction their action. He instead writes on the ground. If the writing is anything like stone tablets or even worse, the cryptic phrase on Belshazzar’s wall, Jesus could be writing the condemnation of the woman’s accusers in the dirt.

 

In sum, when the “finger” of God appears in the Bible, as opposed to his “hand” or “arm,” it seems to indicate the writing of God and therefore his intentions—whether in law, creation or judgment. Jesus exemplifies this meaning when he writes with his finger in the dirt, perhaps listing off the sins of his opponents.

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Seasoned with Salt

I like to season my salads with salt, but the Bible has different ideas. I came across an odd connection here that I thought I’d share with you. St. Paul says:saltysalt

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one. (Col 4:6 RSV)

It is kind of a weird idea. I mean, how do you put salt on your speech? And if you could, what would that even mean? I know Jesus tells us “you are the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13). He seems to mean that believers, disciples, make the world tasty to God. That is, the followers of Jesus enhance the world, make it better, spread the tastiness of the gospel and shed light through their preaching. Even then, he warns that salt can lose its flavor and be good for nothing (Mark 9:50||Luke 14:34). In both cases, Jesus and Paul, salt indicates the relation of the believer with the world–enhancing one’s conversation with the world or enhancing the world as a whole.

Yet the connection I found was more textual. Only one other place in the Bible does the phrase “seasoned with salt” appear. Here:

and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; (Exo 30:35 RSV)

It’s part of one of the few recipes in the Bible. This recipe is for the incense which will be used in the tabernacle and temple sanctuary. If Paul is alluding back to this Exodus recipe, what could he mean? Is he highlighting the sacred nature of Christian speech, that conversation with unbelievers takes on an almost prayerful/worshipful aspect, so much so as being similar to the holy incense offered in the temple?

frankincenseSome offerings are also seasoned with salt (Lev 2:13) and the Lord even makes a “covenant of salt” (Num 18:19), but I think the main thrust in Paul here links up nicely with Exodus 30:35. Strangely, the Hebrew alone preserves the idea that Paul references. The Hebrew has memulach, which is a pual participle meaning “seasoned with salt.” This is rendered in LXX as memigmenon, which simply means “mixed.” Paul’s phrasing in Colossians 4:6 is halati ertumenos, which clearly relies on the Hebrew, not the Greek. The participle here is from artuo, which means “to make salty” and halati means “with salt.” So we could translate Paul’s phrase as “to make salty with salt.” (One could easily think up some late nineties references here.)

I think the point of Paul’s encouragement is relatively simple: that our spoken words be kind and Christlike, “in grace” and not in malice. The connection with incense highlights the holiness, purity and God-directedness of our speech, but the connection with Jesus’ salt sayings, like “have salt in yourselves” (Luke 14:34), emphasizes the good effects our salty words can have in the world around us.

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What is the Catholic/Ecumenical “Message”?

I just received a copy of the new Catholic/Ecumenical Messsage Bible from the publisher. It came out in 2013, so I have no idea why they’re promoting it right now. This book includes Protestant seminary-professor-turned-pastor Eugene Peterson’s very loose translation of the Protestant canon and a new translation of the deuterocanon by the Catholic William Griffin.message

The Message and Canon Law

I have to say the first thing that struck me was the blurbs on the back include two Catholic priests and an Episcopalian bishop. Notably absent was the endorsement of a Catholic bishop. That’s probably because under Canon Law Catholic Bibles are supposed to be approved by the national bishops’ conference. In the case of the U.S., that means the USCCB. The relevant canons are as follows:

Can. 825 §1. Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them. For the publication of their translations into the vernacular, it is also required that they be approved by the same authority and provided with necessary and sufficient annotations.
 2. With the permission of the conference of bishops, Catholic members of the Christian faithful in collaboration with separated brothers and sisters can prepare and publish translations of the sacred scriptures provided with appropriate annotations.

These laws mean that a private Catholic individual is not supposed to publish his own translation of the Bible without appropriate ecclesiastical permission, even if that person is working on a Bible-publishing project in conjunction with Protestants.

When I asked the publisher of this Catholic/Ecumenical Message about this, I was told that they didn’t feel the need to request permission from the USCCB because the Message is a a “paraphrasal translation” only meant to supplement more formal translations. But in fact, Eugene Peterson is no slouch in biblical languages. He used to teach Greek and Hebrew and so the Message is not really a paraphrase at all, but a very, very loose (like spaghetti-noodle-knot-loose) translation of the original languages.

Canon law does not grant a dispensation, exception or legal loophole in the approval process to “informal” or “paraphrasal” translations of the Bible. Beyond that, since 1984, canon law has insisted that Catholic Bibles have “necessary and sufficient annotations.” That doesn’t mean that every Bible has to be a 3,000 page study Bible, but that Bibles do need to include some notes on the difficulties and obscurities in the text, particularly at places where people could easily get confused. The New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible and even the RSV-CE provide these types of annotations.

Now, I’m no canon lawyer, but I must admit I do have misgivings about the publication of this “Catholic/Ecumenical Message” Bible without the approval of the bishops’ conference and with no imprimatur (The imprimatur indicates ecclesiastical approval for other religious books and is different from a bishops’ conference’s approval of a Bible translation).

 

The Message and Original Languages

            While Eugene Peterson translated from the original languages, the Catholic scholar who translated the deuterocanon, William Griffin, chose a different tack. I’ll give it to you in his own words:

            For my primary text, I could have used the Hebrew or, where necessary, the Greek manuscripts; but I didn’t. As I’ve already indicated, they seem to me to be the exclusive possession of the biblical scholars. Instead, I chose the Latin Vulgate—not the one put together by Jerome in the fourth century, but the revised and expanded edition called Nova Vulgata (New Vulgate) published in 1998.

Pope John Paul II wrote a brief preface to that translation in which he declared and proclaimed that the Nova Vulgata may be used as the authentic text when translating into English, especially in the Sacred Liturgy. And so that’s what I used.

Um, well, this is an interesting perspective, but I cannot agree with it. While Latin is the liturgical language of the Western Chruch, none of the Bible was written in Latin, so it’s a bit tendentious to suggest that it’s the best source for our vernacular translations.

Griffin refers to this little line in John Paul II’s Scripturarum Thesaurus (Apr 25, 1979):

This New Vulgate edition will also be of such a nature that vernacular translations, which are destined for liturgical and pastoral use, may be referred to it.

This line does not make the Nova Vulgata the base text for new Bible translations. It certainly does not override earlier magisterial statements about the importance of going back to the original languages. In fact, the Vatican has repeatedly encouraged the study of original languages and has often mandated that all vernacular translations of Scripture start with the Greek and Hebrew.

Pope Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (Sep 30, 1943) insisted on the primacy of the original languages:

 …therefore ought we to explain the original text which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern…

Pius XII is gentle in his mode of expression, but he’s basically saying that the original Greek and Hebrew texts of Scripture trump the Latin Vulgate (an “ancient translation”). His encyclical set off a tidal wave of new translations from the original languages.

Dei Verbum from Vatican II takes a similar line:

 …the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books…

A pope and a Council both point to biblical translation from the original languages. Most Catholic Bibles now published all draw from Greek and Hebrew directly.

Late in the pontificate of John Paul II, a further instruction on translation for liturgical purposes was given. This document, Liturgiam authenticam (Mar 28, 2001), mandates:

Furthermore, it is not permissible that the translations be produced from other translations already made into other languages; rather, the new translations must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture.Furthermore, in the preparation of these translations for liturgical use, theNova Vulgata Editio, promulgated by the Apostolic See, is normally to be consulted as an auxiliary tool, in a manner described elsewhere in this Instruction, in order to maintain the tradition of interpretation that is proper to the Latin Liturgy.

In case there was any lack of clarity on this point, the Congregation for Divine Worship (Nov 5, 2001) issued a letter where they further clarified the mandate

Given the nature of certain statements that have entered the public domain through articles, internet postings and the like, the scope for misunderstanding of the Instruction on the basis of a superficial reading has unfortunately increased. Indeed, some even seem to have reached the erroneous conclusion that the Instruction insists on a translation of the Bible from the Latin Nova Vulgata rather than from the original biblical languages. Such an interpretation is contrary to the Instruction’s explicit wording in n. 24, according to which all texts for use in the Liturgy “must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture”. The Instruction in fact provides a clearer statement on the use of the original biblical texts as the basis for liturgical translation than the norms previously published in the Instruction Inter Oecumenici, n. 40a, published on 26 September 1964 (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 [1964] 885).

The point of piling up all these quotations is to say that the Catholic approach to Bible translation is to go back to Greek and Hebrew and then translate directly into the vernacular. The Nova Vulgata is helpful for indicating which books are to be included and which verses (where there are textual problems), it serves as the norm for traditional liturgical formulation, but it does not serve as the basis for new translations and it has not been commended to us as such by the magisterium. In fact, quite the opposite! Catholics should be reading Bibles translated from Greek and Hebrew.

 

The Message and Translation Philosophy

I readily admit that there are different legitimate translation philosophies and goals. They are usually put on a spectrum between the woodenly literal (like the NASB) and dynamic equivalence (Jerusalem). Usually in a separate category are the paraphrases like the Living Bible, which is truly a paraphrase of an English translation (the ASV). The Message tries to walk the line between paraphrase and dynamic equivalence. The point is to deliver to modern readers an intelligible, readable Bible that makes more sense than the supposedly clunky language of a typical Bible translation. Even Eugene Peterson did not want The Message to replace other translations or even to be read aloud in church services. He intended it as a study tool.

Just to give you a sense for how The Message upends traditional Catholic phrasing of biblical passages for a rather underwhelming “something else.” Take a look at the angel Gabriel’s greeting to theVirgin Mary:

The Message
RSV (for comparison) – Luke 1:28
Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
Hail,
full of grace,
the Lord is with you!

 

Need I say more?

The Catholic/Ecumenical Message does not carry ecclesiastical approval, translates the deuterocanonical books from a Latin translation and embraces a dubious translation philosophy. I’d spend your next Amazon gift card on something else.

Oh, and if you do need a very simplistic translation for a young person or someone who has trouble with English, take a look at the Good News Translation (also known as Today’s English Version) or the Contemporary English Version, both from the American Bible Society and both with ecclesiastical approval from the USCCB.

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My New Article in JSOT – Song of Songs and Canonicity

JSOT-CoThe Journal for the Study of the Old Testament just published my latest academic article on the canonicity of the Song of Songs. Full citation is:

Mark Giszczak, “The Canonical Status of Song of Songs in m. Yadayim 3.5,” JSOT 41 (2016): 205-220.

Right now, you can read the full text of it on their website here:

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0309089215641395 

PDF here: Giszczak_CanonicitySongOfSongs_JSOT

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The Ethics of Decoding the Brain

Unless you’ve been binging on Netflix the last ten years, you’ll have happened to notice that the neuropsychologists among us have been making a lot of progress. The main progress has come from scientists utilizing relatively new fMRI technology to glimpse a person’s brain activity while they are in the midst of a task. These brain-peepers can then take the data and say things like: “When a person looks at a picture of a cute puppy, this part of their brain lights up. But when a person looks at a picture of a grizzly bear, this other part of their brain lights up.”

Science is Fun (or is it?)

human-brain-1443446941h0AAt the first, all of this new information that’s pouring forth in study after study and book after book seems totally harmless, interesting and even fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know what makes their prefrontal cortex “light up”? And, even from an ethical standpoint, as long as the scientists are just looking, no harm is done. But it will not be long before they go from passive bystanders, merely peering into the brain, to in fact being able to manipulate the brain for their own purposes. To me, the prospect of decoding the brain, much like scientists have  decoded DNA, has serious repurcussions from an ethical standpoint. Now, I realize that what I’m talking about might sound like science fiction right now, but in a few years, with a few scientific leaps forward, we will arrive at a brave new world not of brain scanning, but of brain programming. If the neuropsychologists decode the brain sufficiently, then they will be able to hack it–and who could resist the temptation? Here are my chief ethical worries about what lies ahead:

#1 – Tinkering With the Will

So far, the brain scientists have not been able to discover the keys to the human will. If you poke a person’s brain or jolt it with current–even if it forces the subject’s hand in the air or prompts him or her to spew curse words–the person will still be able to say, “Hey, you did that to me!” But what if the scientists decode the brain so much that they can access the will and reprogram it? Of course, such a trend would start as a noble effort–to reprogram the brain of an addict to quit smoking, reprogram the brain of a morbidly obese patient to stop eating so much.

tinkerBut what if, after this technique has been perfected, a new patient arrives in Dr. Brain’s office and says, “Doc, I’ve got a hard life. Things haven’t worked out so well for me. I have a terrible job that I hate, but I know I need to stick with it for the sake of my family. Can you help me?” At this point, it would be very tempting for Dr. Brain to tinker with the patient’s will so that the patient wants to stick with the job that he actually hates. Perhaps the doctor can even cause him to like it.

Again, you might say that that’s not so bad. Maybe it will all be for the good. But what if this technology can be deployed by the government–any government–to make willing soldiers out of a revolutionary population or to bureaucratically pacify people. (“Oh, I see you got a 500 on the SAT. We’ll fix your brain so that your aspirations don’t climb too high. You’ll be happy being a janitor and never want anything more.”) They could neurologically “fix” people to want the careers that nobody wants.

#2 – Tinkering with the Memory

Elephant_walking_ArMNext, if they decode the brain, the scientists could tinker with our memories. It would start with noble therapies like lessening the impact of painful memories for PTSD patients or those with a traumatic childhood. Yet if they become truly capable of erasing memories from our brains, look out! A person could go to an unscrupulous brain doctor and ask that their memory be wiped of unpleasant memories like their last dating relationship or their bad debts or their failures as a child. Again, while such a technology could be used for the good, it could also lead down a dark path. What if oppressive governments could wipe revolutionary memories from citizens or use memory-wiping as a punishment for crimes?

#3 – Downloading the Brain

DNA_orbit_animated_smallIt is possible, even now, to get your entire genome sequenced. The computers produce a giant file, a BAM file, for each genome sequenced. This huge 65GB file can be used to analyze a person’s DNA for defects and inherited traits. But what if, in the near future, all of the data in a person’s brain can be downloaded to a similar file? For research and diagnostic purposes this could be a God-send. In fact, even for psychologists and therapists, such a treasure trove of data could be immensely helpful. Who wouldn’t want access to a downloaded copy of all of their memories ever–complete with pictures and movies?

Yet, even if it were possible, just imagine all of the non-research oriented abuses that could creep in. Prospective employers could demand a copy of your “BRAIN” file before you get hired. A college you applied to could ask for your BRAIN file to check that you have the right knowledge. Heck, even the NSA would probably store a copy of your BRAIN file on their giant servers in Utah. The brain files of geniuses like Stephen Hawking would be studied and prisoners’ brain files might be taken by the government in order to solve more crimes, but just imagine what might lurk in the brain files of certain politicians and how hungry the media would be to get at them!

#4 – Uploading to the Brain

upload-1118928_640In this fictive future we are imagining a world in which scientists have successfully decoded the brain, found a way to download its data into a computer file. But surely, if they are able to accomplish all of this, then they will make a way to upload to the brain. Just imagine a micro-USB port behind your left ear. Again, on the one hand, this sounds rather nice. If you wanted to learn Japanese or read Moby Dick, all you’d have to do is plug in for a second or two and–presto!–you’ve got it in your mind.

Such a technology would be revolutionary for education. You could get a whole college education in just a few gigabytes of data and upload it to your brain. In fact, if you feel indecisive about your major, you could major in everything and have it all uploaded! But imagine being operated on by a surgeon who went to “USB Med School” and only had knowledge uploaded to his brain, but had never actually performed a surgery before. Yikes! Or worse, what about a young man contemplating the priesthood? Instead of taking a few years to carefully discern and to undergo seminary training, he could just have all the knowledge uploaded to his brain and get ordained right away.

brainusbRather than simply wiping away bad memories, you could upload good ones. If you had a bad childhood, that could be swapped out for a good one in your memory. If you didn’t get to take a vacation, you could upload one to your brain. The possibilities are endless!

Worrying About Today and Tomorrow

The scientists have not gotten this far yet. Right now, they are limited to peering into the brain and trying to influence it with drug therapies, electricity and even surgery. Right now, they cannot download or upload. They can’t erase memories or create fictitious ones. And they certainly cannot tinker with the human will. Yet if the decoding of the human genome is an object lesson in the power of science when faced with a complex problem, the brain could follow suit. It could be that a few decades from now instead of going to get your genome sequenced at 23andMe, you might be getting your brain analyzed and downloaded instead. I just hope that the scientists are thinking carefully about these things as they proceed and don’t allow their curiosity to lead us down a dark alley.

 

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Abraham’s “Promised Lamb”

Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg

When it comes to the Bible, I have never ceased to be amazed at the number of interconnections. So often, one can draw out a web of links from one passage to a thousand others through themes, prophesies, anticipations, foreshadowings. The possibilities are endless! Rather than giving me a sense of unease or haphazardness, these connections continue to inspire me as planned, perfect and beautiful. The more points of contact we find, the more the whole thing hangs together, the more impressive it is. It is like taking apart a Swiss Guard’s handsome uniform to realize that it has been sewn together from one hundred and fifty-four pieces![1]

 

One of those connections starts with an odd hanging question that Isaac asks his father when they are hiking up Mount Moriah: “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (I apologize for starting in the middle of things, but if you need a refresher, check out Genesis 22 where God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son and then stops him at the last minute.) Essentially, Isaac, the ostensible victim of the imminent sacrifice is a bit concerned about the fact that his dad has all the appropriate sacrificial implements, except one: the all-important sacrificial animal. Isaac even goes through a verbal checklist with his dad, “Fire, check. Wood, check. Lamb, nope!”

 

Now if you read to the end of the chapter, which you should, you’ll find out that at the end of the story, God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and instead provides a ram for sacrifice that had gotten stuck in a nearby bush by its horns. There are a couple juicy exegetical tidbits that can be extracted from Isaac’s exchange with his father. Most importantly, it seems that God does not actually fulfill Abraham’s prediction. Abraham predicted a lamb, but God provided a ram. So…where’s the lamb?? Then, over a millennium later, Jesus walks by the Jordan and a prophet points a bony finger at him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29). It would be very tempting to say that John is referring back to Abraham’s prediction that God himself would provide the lamb for sacrifice and since the ancient prediction was never fulfilled in Abraham’s life, it is now coming to fruition in Jesus, the ultimate “lamb” of sacrifice.

 

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg

Bear with me, here. I like this line of thinking and it has been adopted by quite a few Christian interpreters,[2] but we have to put the brakes on first and go back to the original language to see if we can really find warrant for this direction. Otherwise, we could end up on an exegetical gangplank.

 

First, if you go back to the original father-son Q&A, maybe we don’t have such a strong contrast between prediction and fulfillment after all. Isaac asks where the sheep (seh) is (Gen 22:7). Seh is the all-purpose word for sheep and goats. It is not very specific. Normally, the word, which appears 47 times in the Hebrew Bible, is translated as “sheep.” However, Isaac’s question is the first occurrence of the word in the Old Testament and seh can refer to a lamb, as we can see in Lev 5:6-7, where the word seh in v. 7 refers to the lamb previously mentioned in v. 6. In addition, though, it can refer to a young animal when specified as such (see Deut 14:4).

 

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

Second, there is another word in Hebrew for lamb, a more specific vocabulary choice: kebes. This word occurs 107 times (or 108 if you include the sole feminine occurrence in Lev 5:6). If Genesis were trying to be very specific about making a distinction between Isaac’s question and the seeming fulfillment later in the verse then kebes would be the obvious choice. There’s some great online discussion about the terms here.

 

Third, the term used to describe the animal Abraham finds later in the chapter is ayil. This term is a subset of seh and simply means “ram.” So Abraham ends up sacrificing the ayil in place of his son, Isaac, which seems to fulfill his prediction that a seh, sheep, would be provided by God. Abraham himself seems to think his prophecy fulfilled in that he proclaims the place “yhwh-yireh,” the Lord provides (Gen 22:14).

 

So, that brings us back to the original question. Can we say that the promise or prediction Abraham makes is not fulfilled until the time of Jesus? Not really. On the other hand, I think we can say with confidence and faith that the ram caught in the thicket serves as a type of Christ. Rather than being a “throwaway” miracle, the ram itself is significant as a foreshadowing and precursor for Christ. In the same way that the ram took Isaac’s place on the altar, Jesus takes our place on the cross. He is the true lamb/seh/ayil who takes our sins upon himself. Like Isaac, we get to go free.

 

Wait, there’s on more exegetical nugget here! In the lead-up to the sacrifice, Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac “will come again to you,” knowing full well that he planned on sacrificing his son on the mountaintop. While you could take this phrase multiple ways—perhaps Abraham was covering for the fact that he would return alone and was planning on making up a story about what happened; or maybe he was doubting his own resolve—some of the Jewish rabbinic tradition saw this phrase as indicating something unheard of: that Isaac would die on the altar and then rise from the dead![3]

 

Well, there you have it. Abraham not only received the promised land, but he predicted the “promised lamb”—which in one way is the ram stuck in the thicket, but in a bigger more magnificent way is the one Lamb of God who took our sins upon himself, actually being sacrificed on a mountain and, like Abraham expected of Isaac, rising from the dead.


 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/11/1118_vaticanswiss.html
[2] See, for example: https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/blog/ram-or-lamb/
[3] See http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2011/11/more-or-isaacs-resurrection.html or http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/Summaries/Vayera/Akedah/akedah.html

Photo Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

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On TV This Week

Johnette Benkovic and Mark Giszczak

This week, I’ll be appearing on Johnnette Benkovic’s TV show, Women of Grace, on the EWTN channel. The 30-minute shows will air at 11:00am Eastern and 11:30pm Eastern Monday-Friday. We’ll be discussing my recent book, Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture. If you miss the TV broadcast, you can always watch the shows online on the Women of Grace website. The shows are entitled, “Light in the Darkness: A Look at the Dificult Passages and Themes of the Bible.” Let me know what you think of the shows!

 

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Wisdom 18:9b

Image: Wikipedia

I was studying this Sunday’s first reading, Wisdom 18:6-9 while working on my weekly column and noticed something rather odd: The second half of Wisdom 18:9 is simply missing from the text. The full verse in the NAB is:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,
So that your holy ones should share alike the same blessings and dangers,
once they had sung the ancestral hymns of praise.

Yet the English Lectionary only includes:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,

Now, often the Lectionary will include partial verses, but they are always indicated by a letter, so you might have Gen 18:1-10a, for example. But in this case, there is no letter indicated by the verse reference. I thought this mystery might call for a little Catholic Bible Student investigation, so I dug up a copy of the Ordo Lectionum Missio, editio typica altera from 1981. This is the official Latin listing of the Lectionary readings. And sure enough for Lectionary #117, Wisdom 18:6-9 are listed not 18:6-9a.

OLM81_117

The abbreviation “Sap” is for “Sapientia,” Wisdom. After seeing this, I thought that the difference might be in the versification of the Nova Vulgata, on which the 1981 Lectionary is based. But no, the verse appears in full in the Nova Vulgata:

Absconse enim sacrificabant iusti pueri bonorum
et divinitatis legem in concordia disposuerunt;
similiter et bona et pericula recepturos sanctos
patrum iam ante decantantes laudes. (Wisdom 18:9)

You’ll also notice that the Ordo Lectionum also gives an “incipit” (Nox liberationis…) that clarifies the subject of the first line by adding a single word and omitting the first word of verse 6.

But in the end, we’re left with a puzzle. Why would Wisdom 18:9b be omitted from the reading in the English translation? Here are possible theories: (a) the Latin Lectionary actually omits the lines and the English translators followed suit, (b) the English translators made a mistake by omitting them, (c) the lines struck the English translators as problematic, so they deliberately omitted them. If we go with Theory C here, I still don’t understand why the lines would be problematic–perhaps because they mention the fact that the saints will share in dangers as well as good things?

Yet many other parts of Scripture talk about us sharing in suffering, so I can’t think that’s the issue here. In fact, the lines are included in the Spanish edition of this reading. I’d be curious to look at Lectionaries in other languages to see if these lines are present or omitted, but for now we’ll have to chalk this one up as a mystery!


 

Owl image credit: By Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg: Trebol-a derivative work:Stemonitis (Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 

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