1000 hits on freelance theology.

On May 31 freelance theology recorded its 1000th hit. This is a real positive achievement given that freelance theology has only been online since the beginning of 2004. Thank you for visiting and special thanks to all those who have submitted questions or comments, like the ones below!

[For answers to recent questions scroll beyond the following comments!]

Comments from freelance theology readers

“Just wanted to say I think your site is great. There has been an online debate email thing going on with the Christian network of psychologists regarding homosexuality, some of them were coming up with some pretty convincing arguments and I was a little confused. I rocked up to your site and there it was, ‘my friend is gay’. I had never considered the fact that being gay makes no evolutionary sense. Very good for all the psychologists arguing it is genetically predisposed. Keep up the good work, I’ll be back – with friends!” – SLM, United Kingdom

“Good article on Noah – I think its absolutely right to take the emphasis away from the issues of whether it could have happened exactly like that and on to what God is trying to tell us through the story. It was interesting that you focused on the 150 days and how Noah must have felt that God had forgotten him. When I think of Noah, I always focus on how much faith he must have had to build the ark in the first place and stick to his guns when everyone laughed at him. It’s good to see another perspective!” – JW, United Kingdom

Don’t forget you can ask your question or comment on any answer given by emailing freelance theology!

Can we trust the Bible?

Question from JB, Australia

I took part in an intriguing discussion when someone asked what was meant by the concept of the “inerrancy of the Scriptures”. I started off the responses, giving an answer, but later ended up modifying my view. I had previously thought it reasonable to subscribe to a belief in the inerrancy of Scriptures. Even though my view of the Bible has not essentially changed, it was a big step for me to decide that I can no longer accept the term “inerrant” as describing the Bible.

The reason it was a big step is that so many people believe in biblical inerrancy – and defend that principle as necessary to honour God – that anyone who disagrees is likely to be seen by many to be a liberal heretic. And yet my rejection of the term is only because on factual grounds the term “inerrant” is an inaccurate way to describe the Bible. I hope others will share my view that such a stance does nothing to dishonour the Word of God.

Would you like to share any thoughts on that?

The term ‘inerrancy of Scripture’ is a surprisingly late concept that seems to have developed in the nineteenth century. Given the standard evangelical position that the Bible is the ultimate source of authority for everything from moral conduct through to church structure, it is only natural that a doctrine like this should become fully articulated.

The problem originates with the belief in the ‘divine inspiration of Scripture’. What exactly is meant by that phrase has been a cause for argument down through the centuries, with extremes ranging from the liberal ‘this is what the community of faith produced’ (i.e. entirely human authorship with everything that implies), through to the ultra-evangelical concept that reduces the human element in writing Scripture to that of just holding the pen. Most theologians would occupy a mid-point ‘in tension’ between the two extremes.

What the earliest theologians wanted to assert was that Scripture was without deception (a radically different concept to the idea that it is without error, yet covering the same ground). So, for example, if God is described as ‘good’, then God must be good. The truth of Scripture lies in the ‘broad strokes’. This was all very well in the era of Neo-Classical Philosophy, but when the Enlightenment dawned and Scripture began to be subject to scientific criticism serious questions began to be asked.

It was in the realm of historical criticism that the most obvious attacks were made. A famous example includes the ‘census’ in Luke chapter 2. Caesar Augustus and Quirinius were real historical people, but no records of this census survive. The obvious question was ‘did it happen?’ As doubts began to form about the historical accuracy of some of the Biblical material (and much of it has no external authentication available), then similar doubts began to surface about the larger themes – resurrection, salvation, even the existence of Christ.

The backlash against criticism resulted in the doctrine of Scriptural Inerrancy – the statement that all of Scripture was true because it was the Word of God. This circular piece of reasoning was gradually dropped as evidence mounted up for inaccuracies and it was replaced by one of the most redundant doctrines ever in the history of Christian theology. This is the idea that the Bible was without error in the original texts, which have now been lost, so are no help to us anyway. Why anyone would bother to subscribe to a doctrine with no practical use remains a mystery, yet as you say it has become a key part of many evangelical ‘statements of faith’.

One of the key themes in recent Biblical study has been attempting to understand the context of the original audience for the material. Scholar Gordon Fee makes a distinction between ‘exegesis’ – determining what the Scripture meant to the people who originally heard it – and ‘hermeneutics’ – applying Scripture to a ‘here-and-now’ situation (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Zondervan, 3rd edition 2003, chapter 1). Fee writes: “In speaking through real persons, in a variety of circumstances, over a 1,500 year period, God’s Word was expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of those persons and conditioned by the culture of those times and circumstances” [Fee, op cit p 23]. The challenge where we are in history is to apply the broad strokes of those specific expressions of divine revelation.

As part of the search for the causes of Scripture (what prompted these people to write these things?), there is a growing appreciation for the fact that the Bible is both the testimony to God’s revelation to certain people and also a potential revelatory vehicle to every person. The Holy Spirit is both the inspirer of Scripture and the interpreter of Scripture, bearing in mind the caveat employed by Fee: “A text cannot mean what it never meant… when it was first spoken” [op cit p 30, although Fee does allow an exception in the case of prophecy].

The Bible was produced within the believing community and later the believing community acknowledged the authority it contained with the introduction of a set canon. At no point in the canon-forming process was absolute inerrancy demanded of the books included. The only questions asked regarded the inspiration of the books and their use within the community – with their use often being the ‘clincher’ in any argument.

The key question to be faced is ‘Does the Bible have to be correct in every detail to be true?’ The alternative way of asking that is ‘Do minor (and generally they are minor) inaccuracies really cast any doubt on the central theme of the Bible, namely God’s desire to see human beings saved?’ It is the opinion of this theologian that the answer is ‘No’ on both counts.

However, given the polemical nature of many who subscribe to the doctrine of Scriptural Inerrancy, it is highly likely to continue to feature in the many protestant creeds that exist.

Thanks for contributing to freelance theology, JB.

‘Being blessed’ and the ‘prosperity gospel’

Question from JM, United Kingdom

I’ve noticed that I sometimes say: “God really protected me through a difficult time or from something bad happening.” The problem is that the sub-text of what I am saying is that “God blessed me by protecting me from X, therefore if you have been through X, God obviously wasn’t blessing you.” So a person who wasn’t protected from X could think “God obviously doesn’t care about me as much…”

If we describe positive circumstances or experiences God’s blessings, then are we also saying that negative circumstances are God’s punishment or, to be less drastic, his withdrawal of blessing? This would seem inconsistent with stories in the Bible such as Job. It would also mean that those who follow Jesus would not develop the character and perseverance such circumstances bring (as pointed out by Paul).

The prosperity gospel is an obvious extreme of this mechanism at work. By stating that material prosperity is a sign of God’s favour the message conveyed is that those who do not experience such prosperity are somehow out of favour with God. If this were the case Jesus himself would appear to have been out of favour with God (“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” Luke 9:58)!!

When is it fair to describe our blessings as having been given by God, and when is it simply bad theology? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

This is a similar dilemma to one sometimes set up by critics of religion – when a highly unlikely set of circumstances results in someone being saved from certain death we call it a miracle, so why do we call an equally unlikely set of circumstances resulting in someone’s death a freak accident?

Populist preaching and teaching in Western countries has, in recent times, looked more for God’s blessing than God’s punishment. This is partly due to an unconscious adoption of capitalist cultural norms – peace, prosperity, longevity and good health are all good (and they certainly are), but the positive growth of human beings through situations of suffering has been overlooked. In fact what society is apparently reaping in the West is a generation of  obese children who are going to die before their parents. In this respect the ‘good things’ of life are turning out to be not so good.

There are several Bible passages that explain suffering as a) a punishment from God for sinful behaviour (in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verse 30 sickness and death within the church are because of sin), b) rejection from God (most of the Old Testament history books), c) something that just happens because we live in a fallen world (Luke 13 verses 1-5), and d) because God planned to use it for something good (see John chapter 9). Equally there are plenty of examples of situations where God preserves people from suffering.

One problem with ‘prosperity teaching’ is that it does not apply to the majority of Christians in the world – particularly those who suffer daily under oppressive regimes because they have chosen to follow Christ. Those Christians would, in contrast, consider it a blessing to suffer abuse and rejection for the name and in that way they are living a key theme of Scripture (Matthew chapter 5 verses 10-12 and chapter 16 verses 24-26, John chapter 15 verses 18-21). Arguably, they have more of an insight into what being blessed really means whereas wealthy Christians ‘prospering’ in the democratic West are missing out.

To answer the very last question, it is perfectly acceptable to be thankful for the times when you have been blessed. The important thing is to realise that any blessing you have received comes out of God’s grace (James chapter 1, verse 17) not because of your own faith or conviction that you should ‘name it and claim it’. The difficult part in all this is to discern the motives and reasons (even if there is no reason) when suffering comes, as it probably will.

Back to Genesis

The following dialogue about both the question and the answer regarding Genesis chapter 1 has occurred between Jon the freelance theologian and JB, from Australia.

JB wrote:

Jon, I was a little puzzled by both the question and the answer in the post on Genesis 1:
Question: “At the beginning the spirit of God hovered over the waters, but water was only created later in the genesis account. Was there a pre-genesis physical existence of the earth?”

If God hovered over the waters in the beginning, but water was only created later in the Genesis account, I’m not sure why that might seem to suggest that there may have been a pre-Genesis physical existence of the earth. To me it would seem to raise a different kind of question, such as how chronological the Genesis account is. The writer’s question, “Was there a pre-Genesis physical existence of the earth?” seems a reasonable stand-alone question, because of the contextual possibility of a passing of time between Gen 1:1 and Gen 1:2. But as a stand-alone question, it could be answered from Gen 1:31-2:2, a context that indicates the 6-day period included creation of both the heavens AND the earth – not just the earth.

But my surprise about your answer is that you don’t mention the error in the writer’s statement about water being “only created later in the Genesis account”. All of my several versions of the Bible make it clear that water was created right at the beginning, and later was only changed in the way it was arranged. None of the version wordings even suggest that water was created any later than Gen 1:1-2. I’d be interested in hearing your comments on this.

Jon the freelance theologian then responded:

Hi JB,
Well it’s really nice to get a question, even if it’s to query both the question and the answer!
The point is that our translations translate ‘waters’ as ‘waters’ when in fact it had a deeper meaning than that in the original Hebrew. I did notice the inconsistency in the question, but I think the thrust of it was about the ‘pre-existent Earth’, not the order of creation. Technically, later on (on ‘day 2’) when God ‘divides the waters’ and names the ‘waters’ sky and sea you could argue that was an act of creation.

To which JB responded:

Hi Jon,
From your comments here, obviously you know more about the Hebrew than I do. If “waters” has a deeper meaning (e.g. chaos or something similar), then my point is not quite as compelling, though I would still find it difficult to argue that the act of dividing the waters is an act of creation. Really the deeper meaning of “waters” would just mean we don’t know exactly when water was created, though obviously it still had to be before the water was divided.

This then prompted Jon the freelance theologian to reply:

Ironically this passage was one we went into in-depth when I did Hebrew at college, so I dug out my notes on it. I think if I was being asked to translate it now I might find it a bit more difficult.

I think we need to clear up a few things:
1) Genesis 1 verse 1 is an introductory line that prefaces the rest of the story. Given that, in verse 2 it does seem to imply an Earth, featuring ‘water’ or ‘the deep’, that acted as a blank template for God’s act of creation. But it only implies that if we ignore the following point.

2) ‘Waters’ represents chaos/death/evil in Hebrew thought, so although the literal translation in verse 2 is ‘water’, in effect what is being said is that nothing existed except unformed chaos (‘the world was without form’). When it says ‘the world was empty’ we do not automatically assume that it was a hollow globe. In fact that means it was devoid of life (it gets filled following God’s command in verse 28).

3) In the Genesis account God ‘speaks’ and things happen. Creation and naming go hand in hand. So on ‘day 2’ when God ‘separates the waters’, he is creating the sky and on ‘day 3’ when he names the gathered waters under the sky ‘sea’, he is creating the sea. These are the forms in which we know water – as sky and sea or anything in-between in the precipitation cycle. It is legitimate, then, to describe this as creation, especially as previous references to ‘water’ may have referred to chaos.

4) Regarding the chronological accuracy of the Genesis account, it’s probably best if that is left to the opinion of the discerning reader. However, Genesis was not meant to be read as a scientific document or a ‘How to Create a Planet’ guide. It is as much a statement about who God is as it is about what he does.

I hope that these points make sense JB. Thanks for the discussion – it’s been really enjoyable.

Stewardship II

Question from CM, United Kingdom

In response to your previous answer to my question on Stewardship, is it good stewardship to get into debt, even for something like buying a house or a car?
Is stewardship more of an attitude than a set of do’s or don’ts?

Debt isn’t clearly addressed in the Bible, at least not in the modern sense of the word. There were Old Testament laws forbidding the charging of interest (Leviticus 25 v36) or of demanding repayment and taking away a person’s livelihood (Deuteronomy 24 v6). The first 11 verses of Deuteronomy chapter 15 outlines the plan that every seven years all debts would be cancelled. The problem with all these, and numerous other references, is that they tend to apply more to the lender than the borrower, perhaps because the lender tends to have power over the borrower (Proverbs 22 v7).

The issue of debt comes down to personal choice. Some people would have no problem with it. Unless you are very fortunate, you will have to take out a mortgage in order to buy a house. It is a form of debt we are all familiar with. However, the average personal debt of an adult in the UK is running at £5500, not counting mortgages. In fact the UK’s combined personal debt is soon going to overtake the UK’s Gross Domestic Product. In other words as a society we are going to owe more than we can produce in a year.

Stewarding our resources calls for us to be as ‘wise as serpents’. We are also called not to conform to the pattern of this increasingly materialistic society. Much of that personal debt has been incurred as people try to ‘keep up with the Jones’ or to have ‘something nice’. Impressing our neighbours with our material wealth may be a valid form of witness these days, but it lacks Biblical support and could be theologically dubious as well. The ‘You’re worth it’ attitude has led to people assuming an existential position – ‘If I don’t have the best, then I’m not worth the best’. The tie-up between personal worth and material wealth is getting stronger and stronger, reinforced by advertising and the obsession with ‘celebrity’ (which has to be the most cheapened word of the 21st century).

Stewardship is clearly an attitude, not a set of rules, as you rightly pointed out, so there is no ‘should’ about getting into debt. It may be a ‘necessary evil’, but as Christians we need to make sure it is necessary, as that makes it a little less evil.

The Call of the Kingdom

Question from MRI, United Kingdom

Is there any sound theological to the idea of ‘balance?’ What I mean is when our faith is inspired, e.g. by Christians like Brother Yun (‘the Heavenly Man’) and we start consider being radical and think of living like that, but we override it with “Balance”. In what sense should we follow the call to be able to surrender where we are at in life with our work and family etc, and give up all our creature comforts and go for it, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us, and be obedient to God, even if it means being an outcast, rejected etc? Are we right to calm ourselves down and reason it out, saying ‘I’m sure that God wants us to be blessed’, but put to the back of our minds the call?

The simple answer is that Jesus urges his followers repeatedly in the gospels to think and act differently from those around them. In Luke chapter 18 Peter says “We left everything to follow you.” Jesus then tells him that “No-one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the Kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much – in this age and in the age to come” (verses 28-30). You can read those verses how you will with regards rewards for believers, but they underline a couple of important things.

Firstly, Jesus expects a change in our motivation for living. There is no higher call on our life than the call of God. He does not dismiss other responsibilities as unimportant – in fact listing them like that indicates they are not to be given up lightly. But he does want to make the point that the call comes first and that might mean giving up everything ‘normal’ in a radical life-changing way.

Secondly, there is no intrinsic worth in giving up those things sacrificially, unless you are doing it for the Kingdom of God. We can be tempted to think that subscribing to some quasi-monastic ideal will make us holier in God’s sight. Well, there’s no guarantee, so we have to be honest and ask whether giving up something is going to further the Kingdom.

Sometimes it can be harder to stay and try to live for Christ in a given situation where everybody knows your shortcomings and past mistakes. It is always tempting, when we hear or read about inspirational Christians like Brother Yun, to want to emulate them. But we have to follow our own call, not just copy what we see others doing.

I doubt the theological answer will go all the way to putting your mind at rest on this topic, but I hope it will give you a basis for discovering how you can follow the call on your life wherever you are now. Thanks for asking the question and contributing to freelance theology.

And God Remembered Noah – a Community Talk

This is the main thrust of the community talk by Jon the freelance theologian on Sunday 16 May. It was based on the reading of Genesis chapter 6, verse 9 to chapter 8 verse 19.

Noah’s Ark is a Bible story that has wormed its way into our cultural consciousness. Go into Clintons and you’ll find a greetings card with Noah’s Ark on, go into a craft shop and you can sew, stitch or knit your own ark, go into a toy shop and if you know where to look, you can buy your kids a plastic Playmobile Ark (with lots of cool Playmobile animals). Turn on the TV and even the Tweenies and Teletubbies have retold the story of Noah’s Ark and the animals going in two by two. I only know that because in the not-so-distant past I was a shift worker and saw a lot of morning telly.

In the past fortnight Noah’s Ark has been ‘disproved’ in a documentary on TV and on the news it has been announced that a geographical expedition has been launched to investigate the strange rock formations at the top of Mount Ararat. Spy satellites have spotted the formations and there’s a bit of excitement that they could have something to do with Noah’s Ark. So, even in the grown up world the story seems to go on and on.

There are a number of Christian organisations who could lay out very convincing scientific arguments proving every bit of Genesis is true, including the account of the flood. I’ve read some of their literature in the past and it’s all very interesting, but at one level it’s a bit irrelevant.

Christians spend a lot of time and effort in making sure that people can believe certain things. But the story of Noah was not included in the Bible to test our faith or our doctrinal orthodoxy. People who make it a mark of correct doctrine whether we believe in a literal Noah and a literal flood are missing the point somewhat. It is obvious that whoever wrote the story of Noah did so because they believed it was true but that person also wrote it down because they believed it illuminated a greater truth as well.

So let’s take the story at face value. Things have gone wrong in the world and God has pronounced judgement. He picks one guy and his family to survive the coming flood and orders him to build a big boat. That done, God arranges for animals to arrive and get on board and he seals Noah’s family and the animals inside the boat. Then it begins to rain.

We can only imagine what it must have been like inside the boat. It would have been fairly dark for one thing – this was the era before electric light. Gradually you could tune out the drumming sound on the roof. The animal noises would take a little bit longer to get used to. Suddenly the floor moves – the ark has begun to float. Hopefully the animals are all tied down or firmly penned in, because otherwise with each pitch and bob, everybody and everything would be thrown from side to side. From outside you begin to hear other sounds too. People are banging on the side of the ark and screaming to be let in. If you ever get to sleep – that sound will be the one that haunts your dreams.

The rain continues for forty days flat. Inside the ark nobody knows how long this is going to last. Will the food run out? Will the rain stop? Where will the ark end up?

Eventually the rain does stop and the Ark floats around for 150 days. That doesn’t sound too long, I know, so perhaps we should say it the other way – five months! Five months floating around who-knows-where, with no direction, no idea if, let alone when, this was going to end, with the food supplies dwindling and the animals getting fractious. Let’s not talk about the smell, or the heat, but you know how at a zoo if you go into the ‘night-time animal house’ where it’s overwhelmingly hot and stinks of bat-do…

There are times when we can empathise with Noah. When we seem to be floating along in the dark, with no control over our future, wondering how much longer we can carry on with it all, we are having our own ark experience. Noah is obedient – he does what God asks of him – but then it seems as if God has abandoned him, left him to sink or swim (well, float) and forgotten all about him. Noah’s story is, as it were, the archetype for all our experiences when we no longer feel close to God, despite doing everything right.

One of the things I’ve said a few times when speaking at our gatherings is that we are not called to success, we are required to be obedient. Sometimes that means we do everything that God asks of us and yet it seems like nothing happens. We do everything right, but everything turns out wrong. There’s a reason for that – God’s measure of success is how obedient we are, how faithful we are to the call. And sometimes a situation that sucks is better than the alternative. Even when he was floating along wondering if he would ever get out of this situation, Noah must have been aware that if he had been disobedient he would have been dead already.

The most encouraging sentence in the whole story, for me, is the first verse of Genesis chapter 8. But God remembered Noah and all the animals in the boat. Now at first reading, that phrase makes it look like God had forgotten about him? We mustn’t read too much into that – it’s not as if God was thumbing through his diary and then thought ‘Yikes, Noah! I ought to do something about him. It’s been, my goodness, five months. I could have sworn it was only last week.’ It’s more a question of perspective. From where Noah was floating, it must have felt as if God had forgotten him, particularly as it was five months since the rain had stopped.

But God remembered Noah and all the animals in the boat. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘God STILL remembered Noah’ or ‘God hadn’t forgotten Noah’. As the months slipped by and he was still floating around, Noah may have been wondering about whether he had slipped the Almighty’s mind, but that wasn’t the case – God still remembered him.

A wind stirs up and begins to dry up the waters. The Ark bumps down onto a mountaintop and Noah begins his experiment of sending out birds to see if it’s safe to go out yet. The next bit of the story after Noah and his family have left the ark, if you want to read on, concerns God’s further instructions to Noah and also a promise. God tells Noah that the rainbow that comes out when it rains will be a token of God’s promise to never again destroy the Earth through flooding.

In Chapter 9 God says: “I am giving you a sign as evidence of my eternal covenant with you and all living creatures. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life. When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth.” ~ Verses 9-16

The idea here is that God has set up something like a giant post-it note, a reminder that another flood won’t happen. But the implication is that when we see the rainbow we’ll be reminded of God’s promise too. It’s not as if God needs a memory aid, but as human beings, we do. So it goes in our everyday walk – there will be certain things that will spark off memories. Sometimes they will be reminders of times when God blessed us; sometimes it will be a reminder of how we failed. Sometimes it will just be a reminder of God, his grace and persevering love.

In the New Testament, when Jesus is crucified, his cross is the central one of three. On either side of him are two thieves. As the crowd jeer Jesus, mocking him and telling him that if he was the Messiah he should come down from the cross, one of the thieves joins in. The other thief sticks up for Jesus, telling his fellow criminal where to get off. “We deserve what we’ve got,” he says. Then he turns to Jesus and he says “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

It’s the ultimate cry of faith. Nothing can save that guy. He is going to hang there until he is dead, with the breath slowly being choked out of him until his strength gives in and he can no longer push himself up to breathe or until the Romans break his legs to speed up the process of asphyxiation. He knows there is no way out – and that the teacher dying next to him is the only possible source of hope. Much has been made of the thief’s penitent plea. But he doesn’t have time to ‘pray the prayer’ – and there’s nobody around to guide him through it anyway. He certainly doesn’t have time to go through an Alpha course and get baptised and attend church services. He doesn’t even have time to become a Christian – whatever that may mean. All he can do is look to Jesus and say ‘remember me’.

Jesus knows this man, what he has done, what he needs and his reply is one of hope. “Today, you’ll eat with me in Paradise.” In one sense he is telling the thief what the thief already knows – ‘You’re going to die, you’re not getting out of this one.’ In another sense he is giving the thief more than he could ever have stolen if he had been the greatest thief in the entire world. He is saying ‘Yes, I will remember you.’

Jesus tells us, his followers, to carry our cross daily, which is why sometimes our walk with Jesus feels like we are being crucified. It’s why we risk mockery, cruelty, injustice, condemnation, prejudice, persecution and hatred. “If the world hates you it’s because it hated me first,” Jesus tells his disciples. But we have that promise – that welcome to come when Jesus greets us and says ‘well done, servant.’ In a personal letter to Timothy, Paul says: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4 v7) Even though Paul’s race was long and hard and he was staring death in the face as he wrote those words, he knew that a prize was waiting for him, that Jesus remembered him.

There will be times when we will feel left in the dark, when we will wonder where we are going, how long these circumstance will last. Our immediate future may seem uncertain and we may even doubt the call of God on our lives. But our future is certain. We follow a God who will not forget us. Regardless of where we find ourselves, if we ask him to remember us, he will. And in our certain future, when we finish our race, have fought our fight, sailed the stormy waters and arrived safely on dry land, on that shore we be welcomed by the master who remembers us from before all time.

Genesis 1

Question from DM, United Kingdom

At the beginning the spirit of God hovered over the waters, but water was only created later in the genesis account. Was there a pre-genesis physical existence of the earth?

At first glance this does seem confusing, but it is not that hard to get to grips with. The first line of Genesis ‘In the beginning God made the Heavens and the Earth’ should be regarded as an introductory title to the following story. The word ‘waters’ that the Spirit ‘hovers over’ is in fact untamed chaos. Literally in Hebrew the word means ‘the deep’, which can mean the sea, but also represents this sense of chaos.

In Old Testament Jewish religious thought there was a constant battle going on between the God who brings about order and the anarchy that results in God’s absence. The sea, as something that instilled fear in the minds of people living at that time, thus became a metaphor for all the things of this world that threatened to overwhelm God’s order. Certain phrases used in Genesis chapter 1 are thus crucial – notably that God divides the waters (chaos), brings forth dry land (order) and put the water (chaos) in its place – above and below the dry land. Interestingly, in the story of Noah, the ‘waters under the Earth’ combine with ‘rain’ (the waters above) to wipe out God’s ordered world that has gone horribly wrong (see Genesis 7 verse 11). The fact that chaos ensues at God’s command reaffirms God’s control over chaos, even using it to further his own orderly ends.

Reading the passage that way it would seem here was no pre-Genesis existence of the Earth and certainly the author of Genesis was not indicating any such thing. However, we must be careful to ensure that we do not take Genesis as a literal description of the process of creation. This passage was held to be true because of what it revealed about God’s nature, not what it revealed about the world ‘in the beginning’.

[As an interesting aside, the word spirit – actually spirit of God in the text – is in a feminine form in this verse and ‘hovering’ takes a female gender as well, which is actually quite rare in the Hebrew language.]

I hope this answers your question DM.

An encouraging comment

I received the following kind words in an email from JW, United Kingdom: Managed to find the time to take a look at the site, and I was impressed – it’s good that people have a place to take their tough questions, where they have a chance of getting something other than a trite answer! You obviously put a lot of thought and research into your responses.

David and Goliath – a community talk

This is the main thrust of the community talk by Jon the freelance theologian on Sunday 9 May, 2004. It was based on the reading of 1 Samuel chapter 17.

Some of my favourite films are the Star Wars series. As a story stretching over a number of films it’s quite famous and it has its fanatical adherents. The reason for that is because it taps into the big issues of life – the conflict between technology and the force mirrors the conflict in our world between science and the soul. There are themes of redemption, self-sacrifice and risking everything for the sake of someone or something else. In a world devoid of heroes, it’s nice to enter into a galaxy far, far away where the good guys somehow always get through and win.

A few years ago George Lucas decided it would be a good idea to release some prequel films. The main storyline of the prequels would centre on a young boy called Anakin Skywalker. Now, I don’t want to give anything away, if you haven’t seen the films, but I think it’s fairly common knowledge that Anakin grows up to become the evil Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.

The first film, The Phantom Menace, introduces us to Anakin. The film itself isn’t that great, but it did have one of my favourite ever Star Wars film posters. It’s a picture of Anakin, walking along, looking at his feet the way all 8 year-old boys do, with a backpack slung over his shoulder. The sun is shining down on him and on the wall behind him it’s casting a shadow. The outline of the shadow is not that of a young boy, it is the instantly recognisable outline of the looming shape of the helmeted and caped Darth Vader.

It’s a very simple image and very arresting. Of course, from our vantage point, we know what it means. This kid is going to grow up and become a super villain. This shadow that is being cast is a shadow of the future, of what is going to happen, what we from our observation point absolutely 100% know is going to happen.

This story of David and Goliath casts similar shadows. It’s a tale that’s perhaps rendered slightly meaningless because we know it so well. It’s a story that casts shadows into the future because in it we see some of the key things that are going to be hallmarks of David’s life.

David’s Zeal for the Lord
The first thing that struck me about this story is David’s motivation. This is something we do need to be aware of when we are reading the Biblical stories because it is something we need to be aware of when we are assessing our own life following Jesus.

David could have been motivated by lots of things. He could have wanted to become the famous giant-killer. We are sometimes motivated like that. ‘If only I could read Power Evangelism and then start doing it and see lots of people become Christians and lots of people healed and drive out spiritual enemies, everybody would look at me and go, ‘Wow, he’s such a man of God!’

Does nobody else think like that? Well, I have to admit sometimes I do. And we have to be honest about that. It can be easy to love preaching more than you love the God you are effectively speaking for. There is a cult of Christian celebrity. We build people up as preachers or evangelists or worship leaders and that becomes the label we give them. And, along the way, there is the danger that a label like that is something we are hankering after as well. There is no easier way for our enemy to neutralise our effectiveness than to make us desperate to win affirmation from other human beings and, when we do that, we degrade ourselves to please the crowd.

Or, David could have been out there trying to prove himself. In the chapter immediately before this one, the prophet Samuel visits David’s family and he anoints David as King of Israel, prophesying the end to King Saul’s rule. David could have reacted to that word in his life and become arrogant. He could have decided ‘Hey, one day I’m going to be King, so I ought to show these people what I can do.’ There is nothing wrong with wanting to prove yourself as a man or woman of God, but again it can come back to the issue of how we are perceived by other people.

Then there is the possibility that David could have been merely motivated by the reward. The prospect of marrying into the royal family and a tax-free existence wouldn’t be that bad a reward today. (Of course, it would depend on who you were marrying in the royal family!) The thing is that this reward was offered to everyone, yet nobody took the King up on it. The risk was regarded as far too great. But, the air of David’s questions implies the reward wasn’t the big thing. He wanted to know what it was, but he was more concerned with what the giant is saying than with what the King is offering.

David’s motivation is selfless; it’s a zeal for what he knows is right – a zeal for the living God of Israel. What ticks him off is the fact that “this pagan Philistine” is dissing his God, Yahweh, the LORD. David has a sense of righteous anger. For him, Yahweh is real. Yahweh is the God who reveals himself in mighty acts – the God who brought the Israelites safely out of Egypt and who led them to the Promised Land. The Philistines are pagans, worshipping inanimate statues or blocks of wood. How dare this Philistine – this pagan – show contempt for Israel’s God, for Yahweh. David’s zeal for the LORD is why he starts asking questions.

It’s almost comical the response he gets. You can nearly picture it. David says: “Who does this guy think he is insulting our God?” and the other Israelites say: “Shhhh, he’ll hear you!” “Look at the size of him,” they say. There’s an undercurrent of fear running throughout the Israelite battle line. His brothers tell him to shut up – understandably! They don’t want to have to go home and tell their Dad that they failed to look after their youngest brother who has now been killed gruesomely by a hideous giant. That sort of thing doesn’t go down too well with the folks.

But David won’t shut up and soon the King gets to hear about it and sends for him.

David’s Audacity
The next thing that struck me about this story is David’s sheer audacity. He seems to have been the only person around to consider taking Goliath on and when Saul asks him about it he just says ‘Yeah, I’ll do it, I’ll kill him.

Everybody’s a bit taken aback. They think it’s ridiculous, there’s no way he can win. But once David shows that he won’t be dissuaded, they get behind him – kind of. Saul offers him his bronze armour, which would be the best armour available. They offer him the help they can, but David knows it’s not the help he needs. He isn’t to put his faith in the things that look like they could help him. If he trots out in Saul’s armour, trying to outdo the armoured man-mountain that is Goliath, then he is doing what Goliath is doing – trusting in his own strength and the strength of his armour. David decides that isn’t the way for him.

David’s Courage
David doesn’t see Goliath’s size. He’s aware of it, but the first thing he sees is that Goliath is setting himself up as the enemy of Yahweh. That’s his motivation, that’s the well-spring of his audacity and that is what gives him courage. When he goes out to face Goliath, he takes the things that Yahweh has given him in his previous battles and trusts that, as in his previous battles, it will be Yahweh who keeps him safe and wins the fight for him.

He says as much when the giant taunts him. Goliath says that he will give David’s flesh to the wild animals, David responds by saying “Yahweh will give the flesh of you and your men to the wild beasts“. David’s courage here is immense, because his faith isn’t in his own strength, it isn’t in his experience as a warrior and it isn’t in anything else other than the strength of Yahweh that is taking him into that confrontation.

I think the lesson is obvious, but let’s hear it anyway. Our boldness as followers of Jesus stems from the fact that we are followers of Jesus – not how long we have been following him or the learning we have acquired along the way. The professional soldiers in the army were looking at the strengths of Goliath, not at his weaknesses. It’s an old saying – Everybody’s looking at Goliath and thinking ‘How can I hit him?’, but David looks at him and thinks ‘How can I miss?

Keeping the Head
A ‘David-and-Goliath struggle’ has entered the English language for any meeting of unequal opponents. Usually, of course, the Goliaths win, but I had the privilege of seeing a modern day victory of a David over a Goliath in January 2003.

It was FA Cup third round day and Shrewsbury Town were playing Everton. In front of a packed full-house at Gay Meadow, the unlikeliest thing happened: Shrewsbury scored. They led at half time, then Everton scored and we all thought ‘Ah, that’s it. Well, it’s been fun.’ But then a few minutes from full time, up popped Nigel Jemson with a bullet header that carried him into Shrewsbury Town legend and knocked their Premiership opponents out of the cup.

I think that is what is must have been like for the Israelites watching that day. First Goliath goes down, then David scurries over to finish him off and then he holds up the head. Euphoria! Disbelief! That unique head-rush you get from jumping up and down repeatedly. In an intense moment a huge fat guy with no shirt takes you in his arms and kisses you passionately. It’s a great victory, so you kiss him back! You know that right there and then, in that moment, in that place, you are a witness to history. A momentous thing has happened and you have seen it with your own eyes.

Of course Shrewsbury then lost 4-0 to Chelsea in the next round.

And then got relegated from the football league at the end of the season.

But the analogy still works.

And David cuts off Goliath’s head as a souvenir. Now, when I was a kid I had a comic book about the life of David called something like David: Warrior King. I remember the picture of David winning against Goliath, with him holding up the giant’s head and all the blood and gunk dribbling out the bloody neck-stump and there’s a huge cheer from the Israelites who then rush the Philistines and slaughter them.

David then takes the head home as a souvenir. You can imagine that, can’t you? David gets home, with a big sack on his back, and his Mum and Dad say ‘Aw, you’re back are you, did you have a good time?

David says ‘It was great. I got you a present from the Valley of Elah

His Dad goes ‘Tidy, what did you get us.

A giant’s head!

Er, Ok, well best put it in the fridge then isn’t it, before it goes off.

We are allowed to take pride in our achievements. We are allowed to celebrate our successes over the Goliaths we face in our day-to-day Christian life. Too often we talk about our struggles, the temptations, the difficulties, the missed opportunities and the times we have failed God, our loved ones, our friends, the church, or even ourselves. We need to start keeping souvenirs of our victories and stop hanging onto the failures and beating ourselves up with guilt.

In our spiritual kitchen our fridge ought to be full of giant’s heads, not bitter leftovers that we reheat every time we want to wallow in self-pity. David takes Goliath’s head home to remind himself of what he has done. He would need reminding of that over the next few years. He would shortly be an outcast in the wilderness, constantly on the run from the insanely jealous Saul. Later he would even end up working for the Philistines in their outpost of Ziklag. He would need the memories of his successes to sustain him through the difficult times to come.

Shadows of the future
So, what shadows are we casting into the future? What are we doing now that, if seen by an outside observer, would be recognised as a theme in our life? Or what have we done in the past that, looking back, has influenced our life now? The things we do now impact on our future, just like the things we did then impact on us now. The way we do things now, our motivation, our guiding principles, betray the kind of life we are going to lead and where we are going to be years down the line. Why are we going to buy that? Or spend time doing this? We need to be aware, when we make decisions that might seem irrelevant, that the things we do and say can sometimes come back and bite us. That is why getting our motivation right is all-important.

David’s famous triumph over Goliath casts a number of future shadows. David’s zeal for the LORD and on being on the right side of God comes through time-and-time again in his Psalms and in the stories. God is the setter-right-of-wrongs who will account for his enemies. He refuses to kill Saul because God chose Saul first and he is not going to be the guy who ‘knows better than God’. He repents of the times he fails – when he fails to trust the LORD and orders a census be taken of the army or when he fails to be righteous and takes Bathsheba and does away with her husband. He is aware that his strength is in Yahweh alone and that theme dominates the story of what happened in the Valley of Elah.

David is audacious throughout his life. When he is working for the Philistines he uses his base in Ziklag to strike against Israel’s enemies, but then lies to his boss and says he’s been attacking Israel. He walks into the sanctuary of Yahweh and takes the sacramental ‘holy bread’ to share with his hungry men. He sneaks up to Saul in a cave in the Judean wilderness and cuts off part of Saul’s kingly robe, then confronts Saul with it. ‘I could have killed you,’ he says. There is boldness in his actions, unpredictability. Nobody really knows what he is going to do next, because he is waiting to hear what God would have him do next.

Throughout his later life, when he is an outcast, a traitor and then king over Israel, he displays tremendous courage. He has the strength to keep on going, when it all looks so hopeless. He shows the courage to forgive those who opposed him – to let the LORD deal with them. He is brave in the fight and brave enough to own up to his mistakes. And he does make some serious mistakes.

His greatest feat of courage, though, is to time-and-again rely on another person’s strength. The supremely strong personal God who’s name and honour he risks all for when he walks out to meet Goliath.

This talk was given in the context of my faith community. If you would like to ask a question about it, or any other theological query, then please email freelance theology using the ‘mail me’ button.