Shelf Life Book Review: Letters to the Church

Stephen M. Vantassel

Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles
Zondervan, 2011

letterstothechurch.jpg

Hebrews and the General Epistles (James, 1–2 Peter, Jude and 1–3 John) are considered letters written for the Church universal, since they weren’t addressed to a specific church. In this book, Karen Jobes summarizes the content of each letter, and then reviews disputes surrounding authorship, genre, date and audience.

Like a college textbook, each chapter in Letters to the Church opens with “knowledge objectives” and closes with a list of key terms, review questions and suggested additional resources. Jobes explores themes in each letter, from the Christology (Christianity’s claims regarding Christ) and Soteriology (theology of salvation through Christ) of Hebrews to the ethics of James. Words throughout the book are defined in the glossary. Tables compare literary devices and list passages on specific topics; maps, artifacts and biblical scenes accompany each chapter. Christian iconography and Renaissance paintings show how Christians throughout the centuries reflected on biblical concepts.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 4

From Baal-istic to Yah-wistic

Sherilyn Grant

Israelite life was marked by rebellion and idolatry during the monarchy period, as the kings of Israel turned from the Lord. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah lays out the consequence for serving another god: drought was coming, and the dew and rain would not return until God gave His word (17:1). Then, in an apparent about-face, Elijah performs miracles that bring sustainment and life to a widow who wasn’t an Israelite. We can’t ignore these contrasts: death and life, a punishment for Israel and provision for a Baal-worshiper. To understand this passage, we’ll need a Bible dictionary and a commentary.

Use a Bible Dictionary for Background Knowledge

baal.png

First Kings 16:31–34 provides the backdrop for these miracles. King Ahab was not only worshiping Baal, a pagan god, but he also built Baal an altar and a house. Using The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, we read that Baal was known as the storm god who controlled the rain. He was worshiped for the fertility of the land—for growing the crops that would sustain the life of the people. From the time the Israelites first settled in the promised land, this fertility religion posed a major threat to Yahweh worship.

Observe Common Themes throughout the Text

First Kings 17 moves through a progression of miracles that bring life in the midst of death. After Elijah foretells the drought, God tells the prophet to live by the brook of Cherith, where He provides him with food from ravens (17:1–8). When the brook dries up, God instructs Elijah to visit a woman in Zarephath, Sidon—in Baal country (17:8–16). Elijah finds her preparing what little food she has left for her and her son, that they “may eat it and die” (17:12). But their lives are saved because the “Lord, God of Israel” provides a continual supply of flour and oil to sustain them (17:14). When things are going well, death strikes again. The widow’s son becomes sick to the point that “there was no breath left in him” (17:17). Both the widow and Elijah acknowledge that God took the child’s life. Elijah prays, asking the Lord for the child’s life to return. In a final declaration of triumph, Elijah says to the widow, “See, your son is alive” (17:23).

These miracles show that the God of Israel is the giver of life. The Israelites should have known this truth. Before they entered the promised land, God told them He was the one who “put[s] to death and give life” (Deut 32:39). But why did Elijah go into Zarephath, Sidon, to display God’s power?

Consult a Bible Commentary

We know from the text that the drought extended to Sidon—beyond Israel and into Baal country. The fertility god of Sidon was unable to overturn the drought sent by the God of Israel. But God didn’t simply bring death and drought. He extended mercy and life to the foreign woman, who was neglected by her own “life-sustaining” god. Yahweh beat Baal in his own territory, at his own game.

That’s not all. If we consult the New American Commentary on 1-2 Kings, we find that Sidon was also the hometown of Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, who ruled Israel at the time. With Ahab’s blessing, Jezebel promoted Baal worship in Israel—priests, a house and an altar for Baal. While Israel turned its back on God, led by a faithless king and his idolatrous wife, God was showing compassion in response to a Sidonian widow’s simple statement: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD (Yahweh) in your mouth is truth” (17:24). It’s a confession that even the king of Israel couldn’t muster.

» Quickbit:
Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is God” (‘lyh, הילא)—appropriate for the prophet who repeatedly spoke out against Baal worship. He is introduced in 1 Kings 17 without explanation or reference to family background. His name assumes his mission.

Biblical references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 3

Cutting a Covenant

Calvin Park

Every time a new ruler is introduced in 1-2 Kings, the metaphorical ax hangs in the air. Will he do good or evil in “the eyes of the Lord”? An especially scathing postscript is added to Manasseh’s introduction. Not only did he do evil; he led the people “according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Kgs 21:2). Every ruler receives the judgment; it’s pertinent because wherever the king leads, the people follow.

cuttingacovenant.png

When Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, takes the throne in Judah, it’s soothing to read that “he did what was right … he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kgs 22:2). Josiah’s first recorded act is asking a high priest to help him repair the temple of God. During the renovation, the high priest finds the “Book of the Law.” When the book is read aloud, Josiah realizes how far Judah had fallen from worshiping Yahweh. He begins a series of reforms; first, making a covenant with Yahweh (2 Kgs 23:3).

The Cultural Context

If we look up the word “covenant” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, we learn that it’s an “agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions.” Covenants and covenant ceremonies were integral to the political makeup of the ancient Near East. Animals were often slaughtered as part of a covenant ratification ceremony.

The Biblical Context

Using the ESV English-Hebrew Reverse Interlinear, we find that the phrase “made a covenant” is a translation of two Hebrew words: berith (ברית), meaning “covenant” and karath (כרת), meaning “to cut off, cut down.”

We can search for other passages using karath with the Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB). Here we find that karath is often used in a literal context—to describe cutting down trees (Deut 19:5), cutting cloth or clothing (1 Sam 24:4), or even cutting off a body part (2 Sam 20:22). However, karath can also be used metaphorically to indicate the destruction of someone or something (e.g., Deut 12:29).

In the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), we find that the use of verbs meaning “to cut” in a covenant context is not unusual in other ancient Near Eastern languages. Karath often appears alongside berith in both the Old Testament and in other ancient documents. The two words together are commonly rendered “to make a covenant.”

In Genesis 15, karath and berith appear together to describe a covenant ratification ceremony. Yahweh makes a promise to Abram that He will give him land, descendants and blessing. When Abram wonders how he will know this for certain, Yahweh instructs him to cut various animals in half; Yahweh then passes between the pieces of the animals.

By being the one who passes between, Yahweh places the penalty of violating the covenant on Himself. He is showing Abram how serious He is about His promises. Genesis 15:18 summarizes the story, “on that day Yahweh cut a covenant with Abram.”

Why Is All of This Significant?

By cutting the animals in half during covenant ceremonies, the parties making the covenant were effectively saying, “Let this be done to us if we break the terms of this covenant.” In the ancient Near East, this type of covenant would have defined the relationship between a king and vassal; in 2 Kings 23, the covenant Josiah renews will define the relationship between Yahweh and His people.

Josiah is faithful to the covenant. He destroys the high places and restores the Passover. He is remembered as the king “who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might” (23:25). But he is also remembered as the king that had no equal. Those that follow are like those that preceded him. While the imagery of “cutting a covenant” was supposed to help Judah remember, they continued to do evil and are taken captive by Babylon just a few generations later. It’s a reminder that Yahweh takes loyalty very seriously. We should take loyalty to Him just as seriously.

» Quickbit:

Genesis 9:11 is the first time that karath and berith appear together. But in that verse, the traditional language of cutting a covenant is not used. A different Hebrew word (kum, קום) is used for God establishing His covenant. Why? Because God is promising that He will never again “cut off” (karath, כרת) all flesh from the earth. The traditional phrase is avoided because of the use of karath later in the verse.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 3

Only the Very Beginning

Rebecca Van Noord

Hosea 3:1–5:15; Acts 2:1–41; Job 15:10–20

Beginnings are exciting. The freshness of a new project or a new relationship sharpens our senses. When that novelty diminishes, though, it’s difficult to maintain the same level of excitement.

Acts_2_4-1920x1080.png

Acts 2 is all about beginnings. In this passage we get an inside view of how God worked to gather a new community of believers to Himself. Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit signaled a new era and produced a new community, as both Jews and “devout men from every nation under heaven” converted to the Christian faith (Acts 2:5).

From where we stand, it’s easy for us to see Pentecost as the pivotal moment in the history of the Church—an unparalleled event that changed the world forever. Magnificent things happened. Peter gave a moving testimony. Three thousand people came to faith.

When we celebrate the holiday of Pentecost, however, we are remembering the firstfruits of the harvest—the coming of the Holy Spirit and the original community of believers under Jesus Christ. Firstfruits are only the start of a harvest; they hint at future abundance. The wonders that began at Pentecost are still happening today. God is active and present in our lives, just as He was gathering His Church then. We need a fresh perspective. We need the motivation and the boldness of Peter.

We need to rekindle our original excitement when announcing that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, because He is at work, in us and around us.

How are you sharing this hope?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

Shelf Life Book Review: The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible

Stephen M. Vantassel

The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible
Eerdmans, 2011

From design to writing, this book was written to be easy to use and comprehend. The first section introduces readers to the historical, cultural and literary background of the Bible with chapters on languages, archaeology, weights and measures. Chapters cover theological topics such as interpretation, inspiration and the formation of the Bible.

In sections two and three, each biblical book is summarized in a way that helps us grasp the narrative structure of the Bible. Articles placed throughout the text provide background on historical, literary or theological topics. The final section introduces us to the Church’s use of Scripture as a source of doctrine and ethics. The authors explain that interpreting Scripture requires consideration of genre, tradition, historical distance, cultural differences and context. It also involves acknowledging our sinfulness.

This companion contains indexes for Scripture, subject, people and places, making it especially useful to those who are unfamiliar with the Bible.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 4