Saturday, June 27, 2009

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: The Sharing Knife: Vol. 1: Beguilement

I just finished listening to this on CD today. I had read it previously, but had enjoyed it, and when I saw it at the library, figured I'd listen to it. Sometimes you pick up things listening to a book that you didn't pick up reading it.

To set the context: This is fantasy, set in a world where some centuries prior to the start of this story, the world was much more populous, and a class of sorcerers ruled. In the course of time, as people will, they went to war, and for this war they created a sort of creature called a malice which sucks the life out the area where it resides. The war ended, and the malice was killed, but not without it having left "eggs" all around. After several centuries, bringing us to the time of the story, the much reduced population is divided into lakewalkers and farmers. The lakewalkers are probably descendants of the sorcerers, and they have a sort of sixth sense (called "groundsense") that enables them to locate malices that have hatched and begun to prey upon the surrounding country. Thus the lakewalkers spend their time on regular patrols, trying to find malices and kill them before they get too big. The farmers are farmers and small town and city folk. They don't trust the lakewalkers, considering them to be practicioners of black magic, though they call on them in time of need. In like manner, the lakewalkers don't much care for the farmers, treating them as if they were children, though sworn to protect them from the malices.

The story: A farmer girl named Fawn has left home because she is pregnant by a neighbor boy who now doesn't want anything to do with here, because he is pledged in marriage to another girl from a wealthier family, which will raise the status of his own family. Fawn is headed to the city of Glassforge to seek her fortune. In the process, she runs into a lakewalker patrol, and becomes involved in the killing of a malice. In the process of this, due to the malice, she miscarries. She also meets one of the lakewalker patrolers (Dag) who saves her life. This first volume in the series (it is now up to four: vol. 2 is Legacy; vol. 3 is Passage; and vol. 4 [now in print] is Horizon) takes Fawn and Dag from their meeting to their return to her home, their marriage, and ends with their headed to his family.

All in all a highly recommended fantasy series (I also generally recommend other titles by the author, Lois McMaster Bujold).

Song of Songs: Response to Chris Carter, Part 1

Chris raises the valid question of whether or not I have made a false dichotomy between literal and allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs. In a certain sense, he is correct, as I deliberately omitted what is usually called the typological or symbolic approach, which seems to be what Chris is pushing. That is the view that E. J. Young argues for in his An Introduction to the Old Testament. In this view, sexual union is a type of spiritual union. To quote Chris, "between both the man and wife, and therefore simultaneously preaching the same between Christ and the church to the believing participants." The problem I have with that is that I don't think Chris's "therefore" follows. What it says is that sex is a type of the spiritual union of man and wife, and that the spiritual union between man and wife is a type of the relationship between Christ and the church. Thus, the sex is a type of a type of the real thing. This, I think, further weakens the connection between the apparent eroticism of the text of the Song of Songs and the "spiritual" meaning of the text.

I avoided the typological approach in my post because I wanted to focus on what I see as the real problem with the literal reading: the problem of authority. If the Song is literally about sex, then in what way is it authoritative for the believer? Are the practices described in the text "law"--in other words, we married believers are required to repeat them in our own lovemaking? Or are they merely observations about one particular couple, thereby reducing the Song to a narrative.

Another problem I have with the typological approach is as follows. Once we have said that sex between a married couple is a type of the spiritual union they enjoy, and (following Chris's argument) that spiritual union is a type of the relationship between Christ and the church, then what do the details of the text have to say? For example, Song 3:7 says, "Behold, it is the litter of Solomon! Around it are sixty mighty men, some of the mighty men of Israel." How does this connect with sex? How does this connect with the spiritual union of man and wife? In other words, what is the type here?

To be continued.

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: 1844: Vol. 1, Religious Movements

This work, which is the first of a three-volume set, was written by Jerome L. Clark in 1968. He was at that time Professor of History at Southern Missionary College, a Seventh-Day Adventist school, now renamed Southern Adventist University. Clark held the Ph.D. in History from the University of Southern California. Volume two of the set deals with areas dealing with man's physical or mental development. Volume three deals with philosophical and cultural movements.

The title 1844 comes from the fact that most of the movements dealt with had some particularly significant event transpire in 1844. Thus, the first chapter, deals with the Millerite movement, which predicted Christ's Second Coming in 1844. The non-appearance of Christ in that year became known in Millerite circles as The Great Disappointment. It was out of the remnants of the Millerite movement that Ellen G. White and Seventh-Day Adventism sprang, probably explaining Clark's interest. The second chapter deals with the rise of Mormonism. 1844 was significant for Mormons because that was the year that Joseph Smith was murdered. The Third chapter deals with the Stone-Campbell movement. The relation to 1844 here is less definite, but some of the Stone-Campbell people were involved in the Millerite movement, and hence affected by the Great Disappointment. Chapter four deals with the rise of anti-Catholicism in the wake of increased immigration from Catholic countries. The 1844 connection here was the extensive anti-Catholic rioting that took place in Philadelphia in the summer of that year. The events were so extreme that the anti-Catholic cause was embarrassed and discredited. Chapter five deals with higher criticism and the Bible. The connection to 1844 is somewhat tenuous, but Julius Wellhausen, who penned the most enduring form of the Documentary Hypothesis, was born in that year. In addition, 1844 was the year that Tischendorf discovered the Codex Sinaiticus at the St. Catherine's Monastery. The final chapter is titled "Mental Phenomena and Psychic Cults." Covered in this chapter are the Shakers, Swendenborgianism, Mesmerism, and phrenology, among others. Again, the connection to 1844 is tenuous, but certainly all these movements were active at the time.

The book is breezily written, much like the modern works of history written by journalists. I have in mind here the works of David McCullough (John Adams and 1776) as well as other writers. It reads easily, almost like a novel, and I would call it semi-scholarly in tone. Clark had clearly done his research, but in many cases what he writes is condensed from secondary sources.

What it shows is that America was a great boiling stew of ideas and movements in the decades leading up to the War Between the States, a fascinating period of American history.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: Assorted Books

This is summer, and I am working my way through a combination of books. As I have mentioned, I am about halfway through Beale's The Temple and the Church's Mission. Overall, it's a good book, but it could do with some judicious editing (there is a lot of repetition in the first four chapters) and some rearrangement of material (the ANE material and the Judaica could be put in two appendices, which would help relieve some of the repetition).

I am also reading One Step Behind by Henning Mankell. This is part of a murder mystery series featuring the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. PBS has recently aired a few of the mysteries, which got me interested.

I also started (as lunchtime reading) Jim Butcher's Turn Coat. This is part of a fantasy series featuring the wizard Harry Dresden (the only wizard listed in the Chicago Yellow Pages). Full of dark humor, the books are an entertaining read.

I am also reading Walter Kaiser's A History of Israel. Yes, I know I should have read it eleven years ago when it first came out, but I had other things to read then. It's typical Kaiser--solid and workmanlike, but not exactly exciting. He argues for the early date of the Exodus, and does a decent job of defending against the so-called "biblical minimalists" who hold that nothing in the Bible was written before the Persian period, and that all the "history" before the Persian period is completely made up.

I am also looking forward to reading the trilogy 1844. It looks at religious, political, and social movements in the US in that particular year. I ordered it from inter-library loan, and I will have it tomorrow.

Exegetical Notes; The Song of Songs: Is it Literal?

For over a century scholars, including many conservative Reformed ones, have been saying that the Song of Songs is not an allegory, and ought to be interpreted literally. One of the criticisms that has been levelled against the allegorical approach is that there is a great deal of diversity in the interpretation of particular verses. Most of the opposition to an allegorical approach seems to spring from a modern opposition to the whole idea of allegory, or a reaction against the very real abuses of the medieval four-fold meaning approach to Scripture.

The recent material emanating from Mark Driscoll, however, simply makes obvious some of the very real weaknesses of the "literal" approach to interpreting the Song of Songs. First, there is the simple crassness of Driscoll's material, and that of others like him. Second, there is the question of how one approaches the book "literally." Is it a random collection of love poetry? That's the view of Tremper Longman in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. he says, "The Song of Songs, a sensual psalter, is composed of a number of different poems. Like the Psalms, they were written by a number of different authors, and bound together into a loose literary unity by a single editor" (341). Is it a collection of songs organized as a set of wedding songs (the traditional Arabic wasf) as some nineteenth century scholars claimed? Is it a "dramatic pastoral" as Delitzsch asserted? Is it none of these? Is it something else entirely? A look at Marvin Pope's commentary on the Song (Anchor Bible) will quickly educate the reader regarding the welter of profoundly different "literal" approaches to the Song that dot the interpretive landscape. And each difference in approach will result in different interpretations for particular verses. In other words, the charge levelled against the allegorical approach is equally valid against the "literal" approach.

Then there is the canonical question. Why is it in the canon? Did it make it into the canon as "literal" or as "allegory." If the latter, then are we justified in taking a "literal" approach? But if the former, then how do we explain the universality of the allegorical approach not only in the church, but in Judaism as well?

Then there is the authority question in application. When Paul says, "Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor," we know that we are required not only not to steal, but to labor to provide not only for ourselves, but for others, as Paul goes on to explain. But when the Song says, "Sustain me with cakes of raisins" must we have groups of women providing us with raisin cakes as we meet with our spouse? Does 5:5 describe some sort of sexual play that we are required to emulate? And for that matter, how do we know (if the Song is "literal") that this is even talking about married folk? It's possible to infer marriage from a few select passages, but those passages are also capable of other interpretations. So some "literal" interpreters argue that what is depicted in the Song is simply sexual activity between consenting adults, with no implication at all that they are married.

On one hand, I can sympathize with the anti-allegorical tenor of the present age (something addressed quite well by George Burrowes in the introduction to his commentary). I can also recognize, given the character of our age, the interest in having a canonical "sex manual." But there are two considerations in regard to the Song that are often passed over. The first is that marriage is for time, not for eternity (Matt 22:30). Second, the Song begins with the statement, "The song of songs, which is Solomon's." Anyone who has had elementary Hebrew knows that a noun followed by its plural is one way in Hebrew of expressing the superlative. That's why the New Living Translation reads, "This is Solomon's song of songs, more wonderful than any other." The Holman Christian Standard Bible says, "Solomon's Finest Song." Marriage is a great thing. But it is not the greatest. marriage is a great love. But it is not the greatest. The greatest love is that of Christ for his church. It is that which the Song celebrates. The intuitive sense of spiritual men is that the depiction of that love, in all its complexity, is the purpose of the Song, that it is in its very character, an allegory.

So my challenge to you readers is to take a couple of allegorical interpretations of the Song (I would recommend as a starting point those in the Banner of Truth Geneva series by George Burrowes and James Durham). Read through them. Then ask yourself the question, which is true, Durham or Driscoll?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

I just finished listening to this on CD (library copy). In this book the journalist Charles C. Mann summarizes and presents the conclusions of the current crop of archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, ethnologists, and epigraphers who have bee studying the pre-colonial situation in the Western hemisphere. These conclusions can be summarized as follows. First, the pre-Columbus population of the Americas was orders of magnitude larger than what we were commonly taught in public school, with the population of North and South America perhaps being as large as the current population of the United States. That population was quickly reduced dramatically by smallpox and other imported diseases for which the native populations had no natural immunities. The other conclusion is that the so-called primeval forests (to which modern ecologists want us to return) were more likely than not the result of human design and intervention, and not the "natural" state imagined by Thoreau and others.

The other primary point that Mann makes is that these conclusions are widely debated, and the debates often spring at least as much out of politicized academia, environmentalism, and liberal guilt as they do out of a reasonable interpretation of the data available to us.

As a journalist, Mann is a better writer than most academics, and I particularly liked two phrases that came out of the latter part of the book. The first is "dialogues of the deaf," which refers to the fact that often in these encounters people are talking past one another (as in so much modern political discourse). The second is "the earnestly opaque language" of academics. Anyone who reads modern academic writing in any field knows how fairly that phrase categorizes almost all academic writing today.

The other consideration for me has to do with studies of the Ancient Near East. Current scholarly estimates of the population of the ANE are fairly low, certainly as contrasted with the kinds of numbers given not only in the Bible but in other ANE sources. Those high numbers are ordinarily explained either as hyperbole on the part of the writers in order to make wars and victories seem more impressive, or as a misunderstanding of the meanings of the terms used (for example, in the Book of Numbers, it is usually argued that 'eleph (usually translated "thousand") doesn't actually mean thousand, but refers to a much smaller military unit, so that estimates of the size of the Israelite group that came out of Egypt range from 3,000-5,000 on the lower and and about 25,000 on the upper end. This book raised the question for me as to whether it was possible that the ANE population was actually fairly represented by the numbers in the Bible and other ANE sources.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Exegetical Notes: ThePatriarchal History

In outlining the Book of Genesis, the difficult part is subdividing the patriarchal history. We know that it covers the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, but where do we draw the lines between them?

My division is as follows. Abraham occupies chs 12-23. It is true that Abraham does not die until ch 25. However, Sarah does die in ch 23, and ch 24 is devoted to the finding of a wife for Isaac. Ch 25 has the account of Abraham's death and burial, overseen by Isaac and Ishmael. It also contains the account of Esau's selling of his birthright to Jacob. However, I consider chs 24-28:9 to be the Isaac cycle, because throughout the section, Isaac remains a major player. The Jacob cycle runs from 28:10 through ch 35. Notice that 28:10-22 and 35:9-15 form an inclusio (a sort of narrative parenthesis) that sets off the beginning and end of the focus on Jacob. In both places, God appears to Jacob at Bethel. In both sections, God gives the land promise to Jacob. Finally, in both sections Jacob sets up a memorial pillar and pours oil upon it. Ch 36 gives the genealogy of Esau. Then chs 37-50 are the story of Joseph, ending with his death in Egypt.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: The Peculiar Life of Sundays

I have just finished the book and found it to be something very useful for those of us who are Calvinistic sabbatarians to read and consider. As I noted previously, the book begins with a chapter that sets the mood for the book, then moves on to a brief discussion of Sunday in antiquity, focusing on Augustine. This is followed by four chapters on the observance (or non-observance) of Sunday in England from the Elizabethan through the Victorian eras. Miller does this by sampling the writings of three sorts of people and the manner in which they practice Sunday (see my previous posts on the book).

Miller then devotes two chapters to sampling American practices of Sunday, ranging from Jonathan Edwards to the modern poet Robert Lowell. The final chapter surveys the state of religion in America (with a useful discussion about the difference between "religious" and "spiritual"). He concludes with a section on the future of the Sabbath, concluding that it is an almost lost force in American culture, and that that fact is unlikely to change. In the early chapters of his book, Miller makes the distinction between those who see Sunday as a holy day,a Sabbath;  those who see Sunday as a holy day/holiday combined, and those who see Sunday as a holiday. We currently face the fact that Calvinistic sabbatarian denominations make up about 1 to 1.5 percent of the population of the USA. And even in our circles, most members (and at least a large minority of ministers) see Sunday not as a Sabbath, but as a holy day/holiday. 

Two further observations: First, quoting from Craig Harline's history of Sunday, Miller notes that in "1890 there were 660 Sunday papers in the United States" (264). I thought Harline should have looked to see if he could have found six more. Second, many of the non-observant and lapsed Christian writers that Miller quotes spent their Sundays as children in a painful sort of forced inactivity or in a painful sort of forced activity (extended church services, extended catechizing, etc.) that made me wonder about what we are doing to our own children on our Sabbaths. Are we making our Sabbaths a day that our children hate?

(See also my Amazon review under "otrabbi.")

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: "Sunday" Update

Thanks to a nice note from the author, I now understand the difference between non-observant Christians and lapsed Christians. The former are those who don't go to church but have never made any public move away from the church. The latter are those who have publicly moved away from Christianity. Emerson and Thoreau would be examples of lapsed Christians.

Leviticus 18:9-11, or What Constitutes Incest?

This post is pursuant to an issue that a former student raised. I thought somebody might profit from it.

Leviticus 18:9-11

Literal Translation

9. The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father or the daughter of your mother, born in the house or born outside, you shall not uncover their nakedness.

10. The nakedness of the daughter of your son or the daughter of your daughter, you shall not uncover their nakedness; for they are your nakedness.

11. The nakedness of the daughter of the wife of your father, born of your father, your sister she is. You shall not uncover her nakedness.


The key term here is moledet, which I have translated as “born.” In the twenty or so occurrences of this word in the Old Testament, it appears to have two distinct senses. The first is roughly equivalent to the English “kin,” as for example in Gen 12:1, “Go from your land, and from your kin (moledet), and from the house of your father.” Thus moledet is something between immediate family and  the larger group land or people (see also Esther 2:10, 20). The other sense of moledet is as the feminine participle “born.” That is clearly the meaning in Lev 18:9 and probably the meaning in vs 11. Even if it means “kin” in vs 11 (which I think is unlikely), it still seems to imply a blood relationship.

 The key verses here are 9 and 11. Verse 10 was perhaps included at this point due to the mention of “daughter.” The essential concern is to prohibit the marriage of brother and sister. However, recognizing the complexity of family relations in ancient Israel, the prohibition is given greater specificity. (The statement that “The Scripture does not present a class of people known as step-anything” is erroneous. It does, in fact, recognize such relationships, even though it may not give those relationships a technical name.)

 This greater specificity is as follows: Verse 9 prohibits a man’s marriage to his sister. Obviously the initial reference is to a sibling that shares the same two biological parents. It also prohibits marriage to a step-sister that is the daughter of the man’s father, but not the man’s mother. This was the case of Amnon and Tamar (2 Sam 13). They had the same father (David), but different mothers. The third prohibition is marriage to a daughter of the man’s mother, even though she is not the biological daughter of the man’s father. The verse also rules as irrelevant any consideration of where the “sister” was born. If she is the daughter of the man’s father, or the daughter of the man’s mother, he may not marry her.

 Verse 11 does not appear to add anything to verse 9. It seems to be equivalent to the second prohibition of verse 9. This accounts for the lack of clarity and consistency among the commentators.


The text does not seem to include a situation where man A, who has son a, marries woman B who has daughter b, with b being utterly unrelated to A. However, if the ESV rendering is correct, then the passage does address this situation. The problem is that the ESV rendering implies that what makes a and b effectively brother and sister is the fact that they were reared together. That is not true with the case under consideration. In the case under consideration, the children were raised apart, and did not enter into the same family until they were both of marriageable age.

 The WCF says only the following: “Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden by the Word.” 


My conclusion is that on the basis of a strict exegesis, the text at most can be read to imply that the marriage of a and b is prohibited. But it does not clearly so state. There may be other considerations that would oppose the marriage of the two, but I don’t see how it can be done on the basis of this text. There may be family considerations and dynamics involved in this particular case that would make the marriage of the two unwise, but on reconsideration, I don’t think Morecraft has an airtight case.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: "Temple" Update

I've now read the first four chapters of G. K. Beale's The Temple and the Church's Mission. I find myself in general agreement with his positions, but wish that he had spent more time in the exegesis of particular texts, and less with Ancient Near Eastern parallels. Plus, I think he is backwards on the idea that the Garden of Eden is a temple. Rather, the temple is a Garden of Eden. The temple points back to the pre-Fall state, and forward to the New Heavens and the New Earth. After all, the point of Revelation 21-22 is that in the NH & NE, there is no temple. The temple is a temporal institution that is intended to point to eternity.

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: The Hunted

Another Elmore Leonard book. I had listened to most of this in the car over the weekend, but finished it Tuesday. Take a businessman who has testified for the grand jury in a federal corruption case. The case never made it to trial, so the federal witness security program has moved him to Israel under a new name. Add a hotel fire at an inopportune time, a Marine sergeant about on leave, about to exit the Marines, a group of hoods out to kill the businessman, and you have the plot of a typical Elmore Leonard book. I've given you about all the plot you need. Just remember, Elmore Leonard is no Carl Hiassen. That is, his books are not usually comedies. That's all you need to know.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: Killshot

I listen to books in the car. When I go out of town on the weekend for a preaching assignment, I usually get a whole book done. Otherwise, it takes a couple of weeks to get through a book; depending, of course, on how long the book is. Usually, this means fiction, because I get the books from the library, and they don't seem to have a good selection of non-fiction available. It would be nice to get some good theology in audio book form. If anyone knows of such, let me know.

I just finished listening to Elmore Leonard's Killshot. It is actually an older book (1989) that I've read at least once before, but not for a long time. The movie version is out on DVD now (never made it to the theaters, even though it stars Mickey Rourke and Diane lane) and is on our Netflix playlist. So I thought I'd listen to it in preparation for the movie. If you don't know anything about Elmore Leonard, he is an older writer (born in 1925) and got his start writing Westerns in the 1950's. He made the move to crime fiction in the late sixties and never looked back. He became a fixture on the New York Times Bestseller List in the late eighties, and several of his books have been made into movies (mostly not nearly as good as the book). Perhaps two of the best-known movies are Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and Get Shorty starring John Travolta. Leonard writes crime fiction, not murder mysteries. What that means is there is usually no mystery, though there may be murders, and usually other crimes involved. The characters mostly function either on the wrong side of the law, or around its fringes, but they are always interesting. Leonard also has a real knack for dialogue.

Killshot focuses on a hitman teamed with another criminal, up against an iron worker and his wife, due to circumstances that bring them all together. I won't tell you more about the plot, because that's part of the fun of reading an Elmore Leonard. It's definitely worth a read.