“Lots” in Translation!

Question from WCC, USA

When I read stories in the Old Testament, especially wars and battles, it appears the number of persons killed in a day or in a battle, is unreasonable. For example, 1 Kings 20:30, a city wall fell and killed 27,000 warriors. Is something different about the O.T. numbering system or translations?

The unfeasibly large numbers, usually relating to people, found in the Old Testament are usually attributed to errors in textual transmission or problems with the original, vowel-less Hebrew that the Old Testament was written in. Comparable passages often have different numbers – e.g. In 2 Kings chapter 24, Jehoiachin is 18 when he ascended the throne of the Southern kingdom of Judah, while in 2 Chronicles chapter 36, he is only 8. Besides missing digits, there are instances of added noughts (hundreds become thousands) and even places where the number disappears altogether. The original text reads: “Saul was years old” in 1 Samuel chapter 13, verse 1.

The main problem arises with the military ‘statistics’ surrounding the various battles of the Bible and the censuses taken of Israel during the Exodus and subsequent time in the Wilderness. Here the simplicity of the archaic written Hebrew is probably to blame. The word ‘eleph is the ordinary word for ‘thousand’, but was also used as a technical term for a military unit. Unlike the Roman ‘century’, which nearly always contained a hundred men, the ‘thousand’ was not always so big, sometimes just relating to the men of a particular clan or who had a particular leader. The word ‘alluph means ‘leader of a thousand’ (i.e. a military unit) or ‘chieftain’ and came to be used to describe the professional, fully-armed soldier. Without vowel points above the words, which were only put into the text much later, these words look exactly the same: ‘lp (the apostrophe is the Hebrew letter aleph).

Without going into too much detail, most of the large numbers involved in battles or censuses can be explained this way, which gives a much more coherent view of Israelite history. It is believed that when the accounts were written up or the censuses recorded, they would list the people involved in the order of professional soldiers, then military units of drafted men. So, for example if there were 50 professionals, leading 20 military units, that would be written as 50 ‘lp and 20 ‘lp. If a later scribe took it upon themselves to ‘tidy up’ the text, it would make sense to add these together as 70 ‘lp. If the distinction between the armed men who were known as ‘thousands’ and the ‘thousands’ themselves was not noted, a vastly inflated figure of ‘70,000 men’ would be preserved for future generations.

When this numerical increase is taken into account, Israelite history makes much more sense. The censuses in the book of Numbers can be reconstructed to their original levels, with a number for the Exodus of about 72,000 people, far more manageable that the sum of three million found in the current text. Most battles were little more than skirmishes; a large army would be a few thousand drafted men with everyday weapons such as slings, with a few hundred fully-equipped and trained professional infantry. The wall that fell at Aphek (in 1 Kings chapter 20, verse 30) killed 27 Aramean ‘alluph (professional foot-soldiers), not 27 ‘eleph (thousand) Arameans. The census conducted by David did not list in excess of 1 million men of fighting age – that would mean an unsustainable population of over 5 million people in the area of Palestine – but 120,000 possible soldiers, with a projected population of half a million.

The textual confusion surrounding numbers, and the current translation of the text, does throw some doubt onto the provenance of the Old Testament records. The development of the Hebrew language and the confusion of the copyists and editors of the Old Testament combined in this case to make the accounts harder to believe. In one sense, this is understandable. Writing from the point of view of someone who believes his nation is especially favoured by God, the Biblical historians would prefer to believe that Israel inflicted a crushing defeat on their enemies by killing 100,000 of them, rather than a mere 100. Similarly, the Exodus becomes far more impressive with several million forefathers on the move.

The people writing this did so from the vantage point of belief and there is no evidence to suggest that they deliberately ‘bigged up the numbers’ to intentionally mislead anyone. The question, though, is why, with these numbers so easy to accurately reconstruct, do modern Bible translators insist on sticking to the obvious erroneous numbers? That’s a question that only the Bible translation committees can answer, but until these inaccuracies are ironed out, many people will find the impossibly huge numbers in the Old Testament a convenient means of dismissing the Bible as unbelievable.

Is ‘Worship’ more than singing (part 2)

Recently freelance theology received a slightly negative comment from somebody who had asked a question and did not like the reply. As freelance theology is about freedom of expression, the complaint is printed below, followed by a response from Jon the freelance theologian.

Comment from AH, United Kingdom

I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with how my question was answered, the importance of corporate worship disappeared in an air of political correctness about worship as a lifestyle, something that I severely agree with. However, my concern and what I wanted to highlight with the question was actually the fact that worship, the corporate singing version of it, plays an important part in our lining up with God and each other. Joining the angels, like the crowd in heaven. I could be wrong, I’ve been wrong before. I don’t know. I just felt that that it wasn’t really a thorough answer to my question.

A response from Jon the freelance theologian

The original answer noted that sung worship has almost always been part of the way Christians worship God. However, the equally valid point was made that it was not the only way.

The concept of having a ‘time of worship’ during a religious service can be open to misinterpretation. There is a tendency in Christianity to divide the ‘sacred’ from the ‘secular’, but Paul’s instruction in Romans chapter 12, verse 1 is to “…offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” This implies that worship affects every part of a Christian’s life, not just the physical things that occur during church services.

If corporate sung worship is called just ‘worship’, that implies worship only happens at certain times on certain days, which can lead to the idea that whatever happens during the rest of the week is unimportant.

Of course Christians gathering together is important. Songs and music may help Christians ‘line up’ with each other. There is a long-standing Christian tradition of corporately singing praises to God, a tradition that works so well at bringing people together that Marxists decided to copy the Christian idea and sing their own hymn, The Red Flag, together at their meetings. However, again the point must be made and it was said in your original comment, singing is only part of this. Most Christians also engage in religious rites (communion being the prime example), many speak creeds together, celebrate Christian festivals in special ways and a few choose to live in actual community together. All these activities bring Christians into line with each other and with God and they could all be viewed as acts of worship.


Carbon E-Missions

Question from RC, United Kingdom

I’ve heard a lot about the various forms of Christian mission today – some say that mission is merely proclaiming God’s word, yet others would say that mission is taking care of the world we live in (e.g. Green Peace). What does God’s call want us to be involved in when it comes to spreading His word and mission, and does our environmental concerns come under the umbrella of mission today?

Christianity has been an expansionist religion ever since the recorded journeys of the apostle Paul in the book of Acts. Paul’s ‘missionary journeys’ when preaching and proclamation seemed to take precedence have become the blueprints for people as diverse as the Celtic saints like Columba, David and Patrick, the Roman Catholic monastic order known as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), evangelical protestant heroes like C.T. Studd and Hudson Taylor and trailblazing non-conformists like John Wesley. In each case the ‘missionaries’ involved have been keen to ‘take the gospel to people’, especially to foreign lands as new worlds of exploration opened up.

Certainly a number of missionary societies in evangelical protestant Christianity regard ‘mission’ in these terms – the stereotype would be to ‘proclaim the gospel and convert the heathen’. But there has been a broadening of horizons in the last half of the twentieth century, with mission seen less as ‘proclaiming the gospel’ and more as ‘showing the Kingdom’. This perhaps stems from the rise in post-modernism. The ‘modern’ world-view is characterised by expansion and conquest. The ‘missions’ of the nineteenth century that piggy-backed European political imperialism were certainly ‘modern’ in that sense and have recently been subject to much unfair retrospective criticism as a result. Post-modern mission, if it even exists, would see itself as presenting a better way of doing things; an exemplary gospel that encouraged people to ‘live like this’.

Certainly the growth of the environmentalist movement is directly linked to the emergence of post-modern culture and considerations. The environmentalist agenda often includes an interest in the ‘spiritual’, but many Christians dismiss this as ‘New Age’ and are unwilling to engage with people who may be looking in the wrong places, but are at least looking for something. It could be argued that the Church generally is locked in a modern mindset, fighting ideological battles on rational and semi-scientific grounds, which would explain why Christians missed the opportunity to introduce Christ to those people rediscovering the beauty of creation.

If Christians are serious about mission today, then a move away from ‘modern’ methods would result in a more holistic approach to mission as ‘life in the Kingdom of God’. It is fair to say that environmental concerns would come under that umbrella, simply because the Kingdom is about doing things differently, according to God’s agenda. Pollution, global warming, wanton destruction of the natural world and the extinction of species are not part of God’s Edenic ideal. Nor do they feature in any ideal habitat for human beings.

Who the Hell is going to Hell?

Question from MF, USA

When we say we are certain of God’s will (“Hitler/Liberals/Suicides are all in hell”) are we not taking the knowledge of God upon us, and thus sinning?

In an excellent study of Christianity on the cusp of post-modernism, Brian McLaren makes one of the characters in his dialogues state the bold comment that: “It’s none of your business who goes to Hell”. McLaren then outlines the different doctrines about hell as a continuum stretching from Universalism on the one extreme, through Inclusivism (‘anonymous Christianity’) towards Exclusivism (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, Jossey-Bass 2001, p124ff). Regrettably, some Christians tend to make it their life’s work to decide exactly who is going to hell.

Within Christianity there has always been a tendency towards the politics of exclusion. This is partly because early Christians set themselves over and against the prevailing pagan religions of the time and also due to the isolationist mindset carried over from Judaism; the idea of being a people called out and chosen (“citizens of Heaven” – Philippians chapter 3, verse 20). Given the historical precedents, it should come as no surprise that Christians find it easier to define themselves ‘against’ something, be it other religions, scientific humanism, secular liberalism or any of the other ‘foes’ of the faith.

Christianity has only ever stagnated as a movement during the medieval period, when it had few heretics within and only political enemies outside (there was little serious theological discourse with Islam during the period of the crusades). It took the Renaissance, sectarian Reformers and the growth of science that culminated in the Enlightenment to kick-start theological creativity. Christians need enemies, it would seem. At present, this ‘defining against’ is, of course, more likely to happen in authoritarian structures (e.g. fundamentalist Protestantism), which discourage questions and discourse with the unbeliever. After all, if you talk to your sworn enemy, you might find out they’re not so bad after all. The decline of liberal theology can be traced to the fact that liberals wanted to propose ideas, not impose them.

Of course, there is a New Testament precedent for saying exactly who will come under judgment and end up in Hell. In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul states that the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunks, slanderers, or swindlers will not inherit the Kingdom of God (verses 9-10). But he adds a caveat, telling the Corinthian Christians that they had been people just like that (verse 11). They had been ‘washed and sanctified’, meaning they could enter the Kingdom, but deep down they were no better than the sinners around them. According to Paul, there is no cause for pride in being saved; it is a case of literally ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. That’s a humbling warning not to be too keen to declare anybody as bound for Hell, because they are not so different from us.

Faith and Fairy Rings

Following on from the question posed by CF about creating a God-honouring society, JE from the United Kingdom engaged Jon the freelance theologian in the following dialogue.

On creating a God-honouring society I agree with your wise remark that people trying to blend religions together only end up creating a new one. I was wondering what other approaches there might be – perhaps less intellectual ones. Many people nowadays think in terms of common experience, rather than orthopraxis/doxy. There are the 12 step programmes, which work by thinking of a higher power, which can save us from addiction (and we are all actual or potential addicts). Generally, there is the idea that if we call out, there is someone who listens and who cares.

There is the approach of finding things we can all laugh about, cry about and dream about from the depths of our hearts. Living in pluralistic society one can look for the spark of life inside everyone and try and connect with others at the deepest levels one can. All this could sound rather new age-y, but what do you think about these ideas?

A reply from Jon the freelance theologian

Common experience can provide the grounding for a deep understanding of other human beings. However, the problem is that, sooner or later, people are called upon to make a judgment call regarding those experiences.

I’d like to illustrate this using the analogy of a ‘fairy ring’. In the garden of the house where I grew up, there was a ‘fairy ring’ – an almost perfect circle of mushrooms growing in the grass lawn. It was an interesting phenomenon, called a ‘fairy ring’ because of an old superstition that it was created by the faeries as they danced during the night.

To a believer in faeries, it was all the evidence needed to prove the existence of the little people. After all, it made a certain sort of sense and explained the phenomena quite neatly. Belief in the faeries meant that the ‘fairy ring’ was proof that they existed.

Now we could both stand in the circle, with me explaining what created the ‘fairy ring’. You, on the other hand, might think the idea of fairies living at the bottom of my garden as being preposterous. You might posit other theories to do with spores, fungus beneath the ground, animal activity, even just that it was a fluke of nature. Our shared experience, namely both of us standing inside the ring, will not mean we come to the same inevitable conclusion. Our beliefs and prejudgments, including our societal upbringing, will mean that we interpret the experience differently. We may initially agree that the ‘fairy ring’ is interesting, but our different responses to it will probably drive us further apart, if anything.

Incidentally, the ‘fairy ring’ analogy is one that explains why the classic arguments for the existence of God are so convincing to the believer, yet seem fallacious to the non-believer.

Even without common experience, seeing the humanity in other people and respecting them as fellow human beings is important, if difficult sometimes. However, there is an element within all human beings that works against this, namely self-interest. Unfortunately, a cynic would probably be right in saying that the unerring ability of most humans to assume they are right about everything precludes the idea of ever finding common ground.

This is the problem with looking for the ‘spark’ in people (which sounds more Gnostic than new age). In the Christian conception of the world there is the element of human sin, which would presumably cancel out that spark or lead humans off into blind alleys when it comes to honouring the divine. Human-authored religions (theosophy, scientology etc.) may have their adherents, but the history of religion shows that only those religions that claim transcendent authority through ‘revelations of the divine’ will survive.

Word made Flesh, literally

Question from MF, USA

Why do we speak of three persons or incarnations of God, when the OT cites numerous different and separate incarnations of God between Creation and Christ? I.e., as the voice speaking to Abraham, the burning bush, as angels, and so on. Each time this happened, God needed in some way to be “incarnated” to be seen and heard in the physical realm. Why do we distinguish between these incarnations and the life of Jesus?

This is a very technical question and it helps to understand that theological terms tend to be very precise in their usage. The Christian concept of the Trinity is ‘God in three persons’, not three incarnations. The Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity (the eternally begotten Son) as Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth, meant that God became a human being, i.e. took on a body. The phrase from the prologue of John’s gospel ‘the Word became flesh’ sums up the idea of ‘incarnation’. ‘Incarnation’ means ‘in flesh’, from the Latin word ‘caro’ (‘flesh’).

In theological terms, the other ways in which people ‘meet God’, e.g. through a disembodied voice or a voice heard through a burning bush, or in a dream are known as ‘theophanies’, from the Greek words ‘theos’ (God) and ‘phainein’ (to show or reveal). In those instances in the Old Testament where humans interacted with God in His own nature (e.g. Adam in Eden, Moses on Sinai, the high priest in the Holy of Holies in the Temple), there is no mention of God having a physical body.

Thanks for your question, MF.

Religious Experience

Question from JF, USA

If you had a vision of Krishna that said you were going to be reincarnated would you believe it to be real or hallucination? If you had a vision of God where he told you that you were definitely destined to go to Hell would you believe it to be real or hallucination? If you had a vision of God where he tells you that Jesus is the true saviour and to put your faith in Christ would you believe it to be real or hallucination? How can someone differentiate between which religious visions are real, and which are hallucinations?

A ‘religious experience’, by virtue of its very nature, remains subjective. Without going into too much detail, there are some obvious tests relating to a person’s psychological state, whether the experience matches up to previous claimed phenomena and enquiries from an objective point of view.

If a person claimed to have had all three experiences listed in the question, or similarly a series of experiences that contradicted each other, then it would be legitimate to critique the experiences and the individual claiming them. Simple questioning would uncover whether the individual was telling the truth, in that they had really experienced something they believed to be true, or whether the person was psychologically unbalanced.

In terms of Christian theology, several ‘supernatural’ phenomenon are recorded in the Bible and Christian history. These include encounters with God (theophany), visions, interpretation of visions, prophecy, fore-knowledge or revelatory knowledge with no other means of verification, manifestations of God’s power (revivalism), personality changes, instantaneous transportation, healing through prayer, coincidental occurrences, the resurrection of dead people and changes in the physical world and the nature of things. The disturbing thing for some Christians is that most, if not all, these phenomena have been recorded in other religious systems as well. It seems arrogant, and a touch disingenuous, to dismiss the things experienced in other religions as being false, while ‘Christian’ experiences are true.

It is common now, within Christian theology, for many of these things to be explained in a scientific manner. Frequently the stories found in the Bible, or early Christian literature, are regarded as parabolic stories. So, for example, when Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth in John chapter 9, the author deliberately contrasts the restoration of physical sight with the ‘spiritual blindness’ of the religious leaders of the day (verse 30). Most of the miraculous stories found in the Bible may have this intent of revealing a certain truth and can be interpreted this way.

However, it must be noted that this modern way of interpreting supernatural phenomena is a product of the Enlightenment scientific rationale and deciding to interpret religious experiences using that outlook is a value judgment made by the individual. But the advantage of doing this is that it discounts phenomena experienced in all religions, leaving Christians arguing for the truth of their worldview on the basis of reason and historical accuracy. The only question that then remains is how true can a religion be, if it relies on manufactured stories of miracles to convey truth?

Accepting that religious experiences may happen, it is worth analysing those experiences from a critical standpoint. It is a noted fact that those undergoing ‘religious’ experiences are usually people who go looking for them. To illustrate this, the likelihood of a person ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) increases greatly if they belong to a church that actively encourages it, perhaps even claiming that it is a hallmark of genuine salvation. Precedent causes phenomena – whether that is visions of the Blessed Virgin at a Catholic shrine, or people falling down under the influence of ‘the Spirit’ in a Bible-belt tent meeting. Even people who would claim that they were not looking for a religious experience, may have been subconsciously desiring one. Unfortunately there is no way of analysing those subconscious desires after the event, because they will have been met and eradicated through the experience, so the thesis that there is a subconscious desire can never be proved.

Real problems start when individuals believe that they have received ‘new’ revelations about the nature of God. It is hard to contradict somebody who believes that God has ‘told’ them something – it is self-authoritisation of the worst kind. Perhaps the solution to the problem is to recognise that ‘religious’ experiences are valid, because the person who experienced them believes they had a religious experience. As it is a totally subjective event, it leaves other people free to accept or reject it, based on any means of judgement they choose. The safeguards for Christians remain 1) weighing experiences against Biblical accounts, 2) Christian precedent and 3) God-given reason.

Assessing experiences has been a problem for Christians since the earliest Christian communities formed (see Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 5, verses 19-21 and the first epistle of John, chapter 4, verse 1) and, in all honesty, as long as there are people looking for a religious experience, this will probably always be a problematic area for the Christian community.

Thanks for your question, JF.

Is ‘Worship’ more than just singing?

Question from AH, United Kingdom

I was curious to hear how the word ‘worship’ is used in the Bible. Some people seem to say that singing is not worship, because worship is about your whole lifestyle. But in Amos 5 the word ‘worship’ is used for congregational singing, which sort of tells me there is still a place for calling worship by its proper name. I think you take away from ‘worship’ if you call it singing and just go for the worship is a lifestyle kind of thing. If we refer to sung worship as just ‘singing’ does that make it less important?

The interesting thing about this question is the underlying assumption that the fairly modern, Western way of conducting a Christian meeting is Biblical. While songs have always been part of Jewish and then Christian worship, the Bible does not indicate that they are more important than any other means of worshipping God. In fact, the prime means of worship under the Mosaic covenant, and in Jesus’ day, was through sacrificing animals or birds in the Temple gathering.

The reference in Amos to “the noise of your songs!” (Amos chapter 5, verse 23) follows prophetic utterances regarding ‘religious feasts’, ‘assemblies’, burnt sacrificial offerings, ‘grain offerings’ and atonement (fellowship) offerings. Songs and music feature last in the list. The whole point of this passage is that all these religious actions were meaningless if performed in the wrong spirit, which is why after the prophet dismisses them he issues this statement: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (verse 24)

In the fourth gospel, when Jesus is asked about the correct method of worship, his famous reply is “the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John chapter 4, verse 23). This reflects an attitude towards life, not an instruction to break into song or to perform any other religious function which would then be called ‘worship’. Unfortunately, in many churches, the idea that Christians indulge occasionally in a ‘time of worship’ (e.g. on Sunday mornings) has taken hold. This is not a Biblical principle and has the added effect of separating life ‘in church’ (the sacred) from life outside (the secular).

Music has the power to move and songs remain a vital means of imparting Christian truth. Kierkegaard, one of the pioneers of what became known as existentialism, wrote that “Music is the abstract made concrete”, meaning that feelings and emotions could be expressed and understood through the medium of music, even though they could never be adequately vocalised. Church leaders through the ages have recognised the importance of songs. Arius, the arch-heretic of early Christianity used songs put to popular sea-shanties to propagate his doctrines, a technique used centuries later by William Booth and his Salvation Army, who ‘borrowed’ music hall tunes for the same purpose. (NB: Booth was not a heretic, though). It would seem that sung expressions of worship will remain part of the Christian tradition, but the fact is that singing is only one aspect of Christian worship.

Thank you for contributing to freelance theology, AH.