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Joshua 10 (The Sun Stilled)

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And welcome back to the Internet’s greatest Bible commentary, in which Yours Truly reads through the Bible and explains its many mysteries as best my limited education allows. I encourage you to read the Good Book along with me, because my time’s too valuable to write summaries. Here we go!

10:1. [The Amorite kings learned that]...the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel, and were among them;

10:2. That they feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all her men were mighty.

In these setup verses lies another hint that the various episodes of Joshua's campaign were originally standalone stories. We have here five Amorite kings going ape over Gibeon joining Israel, "because it was greater than Ai" - a comparison which should mystify any reader who recalls how Ai is described only two chapters ago: "they are but few" (7:3). Ai is understood by the writer of Joshua 8 to be a pathetic distraction that unfortunately develops into something bigger due to Achan's sin, but here the writer - be he the same man or another - is clearly imagining a city of somewhat more repute.

10:3. And Adonizedek, king of Jerusalem...

Adonizedek is the second king of Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible, after Melchizedek, and his name merits some attention. Most believe it translates into English as "My Lord is Righteousness" just as Melchizedek's does "Righteousness is my king", but both meanings may be the result of reinterpretation by later Hebrew and Christian thinkers. "Tzedek" could also be the name of a deity, possibly a second name for the Canaanite god El _before he became the _Elohim we all know and love, and if so that would fit very well with the naming practices of Canaanite kings, including the Israelites themselves. They often incorporated their patron deities' names into their own.

10:5. And the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, the king of Eglon, gathered together and went up, they and all their camps, and encamped on Gibeon, and made war against it.

The Amorites were a powerful people who are nevertheless well past their heyday here, at least if we're assuming that this war is really happening when the Bible says it is. From 2000-1600 B.C.E. they were so dominant in Mesopotamia that scholars sometimes refer to that cultural and political phase of the Levant as the Amorite Period. Hammurabi, the famous king of Babylon, was an Amorite. Their hegemony was eventually broken by the Hittites, who themselves imploded before the time of Joshua's invasion.

5:10. And the Lord confused them before Israel, and slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and they chased them by the way that goes up to Beth-horon, and smote them to Azekah, and to Makkedah.

"Confusion" might better be read "chaos". I've heard on more than one occasion a historian say that casualties in ancient warfare were usually light until for whatever reason one side broke formation and ceased to function as a unit. At that point people really started dying in large numbers - mostly on the side which had caved. The Lord is simply being credited here with the breaking of the Amorite ranks.

5:11. And it was as they fled from before Israel, and were in the descent of Beth-horon, that the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them to Azekah, and they died. There were more who died with the hailstones than whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.

What do we make of this record of a miracle?

Christian apologists bristle when skeptics dismiss accounts like this one out of hand, but I don't think they're fairly acknowledging the propensity for absolutely bizarre embellishments to which ancient scribes apparently leaned. An Egyptian pharoah had it written down (prior to winning the actual fight) that the gods had drowned his opponents in a giant tidal wave. Jewish writers claimed that an angel saved Jerusalem by striking down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers... after which Hezekiah apparently bribed Sennacherib to leave out of pity. Other examples abound. It wouldn't be unfair to suggest the stones raining down from Heaven in this story are a complete fabrication. It certainly wouldn't be unfair to suggest that they're just embellished hailstones, taken as a sign.

5:13. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is this not written in the book of Jashar?

Creation.com has done its homework on other cultures' versions of this famous miracle, while of course remaining predictably certain that the Book of Joshua's version is the true account. I'll quote it here:

"[Many] cultures have legends that seem to be based on this event. For example, there is a Greek myth of Apollo’s son, Phaethon, who disrupted the sun’s course for a day... In fact, the New Zealand Maori people have a myth about how their hero Maui slowed the sun before it rose, while the Mexican Annals of Cuauhtitlan (the history of the empire of Culhuacan and Mexico) records a night that continued for an extended time... It should also be noted that the Amorites were sun and moon worshippers."

I'd append to the last sentence of the above paragraph: "Like everyone else." Sun worship is so prevalent a feature of ancient religion that it's almost not worth noting the Amorites practiced it.

It's even found in the religion of the Hebrews, in this very story. Joshua's demand of the celestial bodies to freeze takes the form of a poetic couplet in the midst of a story otherwise composed of prose, which is about as big a hint as there can be that Joshua's words pre-date the story around them. Divorced of its context the quotation suggests itself to be a pagan incantation, famous saying, or both; the exact words of miracle workers, including Jesus, were often repeated verbatim by magicians in an attempt to achieve the same results. The couplet can also be taken as Exhibit B in the case that Joshua as a character pre-dates his Biblical incarnation (see Joshua 1 in this series).

Concerning the "book of Jashar" (also spelled "Jasher") mentioned in 5:13: while many think the book is the source for this story and simply no longer exists, Orthodox Judaism identifies it as another name for the Torah.

5:14. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened to the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel.

The writer of the Book of Judah now has to cover for the fact that he just quoted a man's successful ordering around of the sun and moon: really, of course, God did it.

Whew. I knew this was going to be a long entry. I got to get to bed.

NEXT TIME: We continue our daringly sequential exegetical escapade with Chapter 11.

Bible Translation: Judaica Press's Tanach with Rashi commentary, courtesy of Chabad.org.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Joshua 9

Joshua 7-8

Joshua 5-6

Joshua 2-4

Joshua 1

Joshua 7-8 (Casting lots, Mt. Ebal)

Picture of dice on a lotto card.

Uh oh, there's a lot to cover here. We'd better jump right into it.

When last we left our hero (as my old O.T. professor always likes to say), Joshua has successfully destroyed the city of Jericho and now has his eye set on its neighbor, Ai.

7:2. And Joshua sent men from Jericho, to Ai, which is beside Beth-aven, on the east side of Beth-el, and spoke to them saying, Go up and spy out the land. And the men went up and spied out Ai.

7:3. And they returned to Joshua, and said to him, Do not let all the people go up; but let about two or three thousand men go up and smite Ai; do not trouble all the people there; for they are but few.

We're starting to get a sense of Joshua's M.O. here: always start by sending spies to check out the enemy's defenses.

In this case, the spies' report is meant to make the Israelites' upcoming defeat even more humiliating. The town of Ai is not a tough target. Joshua shouldn't need to send more than a sliver of his army to take it.

  1. And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty-six men; and they chased them from before the gate to Shebarim, and smote them in the descent; and the hearts of the people melted, and became as water.

The men of Ai whup the ever-loving bejeezus out of Joshua's men, chasing them all the way back down the hill (most cities were built on top of hills back then so that they could be more easily defended). Notice that despite suffering total defeat, the Israelite force of three thousand men only suffers thirty-six casualties.

There are several ways to explain that strangely low figure. First, you could just accept that war is a strange art and sometimes you get these results. For instance, in the famous Battle of Trenton, George Washington attacked 1,500 Hessian soldiers with 2,400 men, but only two American soldiers and twenty-two Hessians died in the fighting. Second, you could take this as evidence that the number of Israelites listed in the Bible is heavily inflated (which is true, as I've previously discussed), since thirty-six is only a realistic number of deaths if there were far fewer participants.

7.1. And the children of Israel committed a trespass in the consecrated thing, for Achan the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the consecrated thing; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel. (Joshua 7.1)

Notice the collectivist mindset of the ancients here: one soldier angers the LORD by taking home some of the nice things the Israelites find in Jericho, but this verse accuses all of "the children of Israel" - and an apparently like-minded God punishes the entire army. The sin of the individual is the sin of the community. You are indeed your brother's keeper.

7.14. [God says:] In the morning, therefore, you shall be brought near according to your tribes; and it shall be, that the tribe which the Lord takes shall come near by families; and the family which the Lord takes shall come near by households; and the household which the Lord takes shall come near man by man.

This is a very unclear verse, perhaps purposefully so; a later redactor of the text might have been embarrassed by the method which the Israelites use here and purposefully obscured it. What happens is that the priests cast lots - basically, roll dice - in order to figure out who is guilty. Probably they are specifically using Urimm and Thummim a holy pair of divination stones in the possession of the high priest. These particular stones are the Israelites' primary means of communicating with God after Moses dies: Joshua asks what he should do next and the high priest pulls out the stones to find out.

So: first the high priest rolls to see which tribe is at fault (Judah), then he rolls to see which family of that tribe is at fault (the Zarhites), then he rolls to see which household in that family is at fault (Zabdi), and finally he rolls to see which of Zabdi's people is at fault (Achan, Zabdi's grandson), after which Achan (whose name basically means "trouble-maker") confesses.

If this doesn't sound very different from seeking the advice of someone who gazes into crystal balls or reads tea leaves, well, let's face it: it's not.

7:25. And Joshua said, Why have you troubled us? The Lord shall trouble you this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, [after] they [had] stoned them with stones.

A friend (actually he's more of an enemy, but we keep in touch) who has visited Israel and who majored in Religion tells me that the Hebrews usually didn't throw rocks at somebody until they died; that might take too long. Instead they brought the criminal to a cliff and then stoned him until he fell. Since the tribesmen of Judah (which wrote most of the Tanakh) mainly lived in the mountains, they had plenty of cliffs available.

I'm going to skip most of chapter 8 because while it's fun stuff, it's also pretty self-explanatory. God is happy with Israel again, so Joshua conquers Ai, and this time everyone keeps their hands in their pockets.

8:30. Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel on Mount Ebal.

8:31. As Moses, the servant of the Lord, commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, upon which no (man) has lifted up any iron. And they offered upon it burnt-offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace-offerings.

8:32. And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel.

8:33. And all Israel, and their elders and officers and their judges, stood on this side of the Ark and on that side, before the priests the Levites, the bearers of the Ark of the covenant of the Lord, the stranger as well as the native born, half of them over against Mount Gerizim and half of them over against Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded, to bless the people of Israel first.

8:34. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the Torah.

This scene may seem familiar to you. In the Book of Deuteronomy, a still-living Moses orders the people of Israel to perform this ritual after they enter the Promised Land. The Book of Joshua's record of the people doing so is actually considered the older account by scholars, however; that is, the story of the Israelities performing the ritual is older than the story of Moses telling them to do it.

Both stories may actually be incorrect, though. The Samaritan version of the Torah says that Mount Gerizim - the other mountain that the tribes stand on - is the original site of the altar, as well as the place God has truly designed for His worship. This disagreement may be why both mountains are used, but blessings are pronounced from Ebal and curses from Gerizim: the writers of Dueteronomy and Jonah, southerners who would have disagreed with the Samarians, are trying to bring northern and southern Hebrews together while still subtly asserting their chosen mountain's superiority.

Here's a picture of both Ebal and Gerizim:

Picture of the landscape where Gerizim was.

On the archaeology side of things, a structure which may well be an altar has been discovered on Mount Ebal. The only problem is it's facing the wrong direction - away from Mount Gerizim, north instead of south. Wikipedia says that "the excavating archaeologist proposed that this could be resolved by identifying a mountain to the north as Gerizim rather than the usual location, [but] the suggestion was ridiculed by both the Samaritans, who found it offensive to move the centre of their religion, and by other scholars and archaeologists."

So take from all that what you will.

Fin.

As usual, all Biblical quotations are from the Tanach published by Judaica Press, courtesy of Chabad.org.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES: Joshua 5-6 Joshua 2-4 Joshua 1

Joshua 5-6 (Jericho)

A sea of rabbis

Above: Family photo! Brooklyn, NY. 2007.

The version of the Hebrew Bible we will use today is once again brought to you by Chabad.org, the website of our favorite Hasids, the Chabadniks (pictured above). They should all live and be well.

Let's see what their ancestors are doing in the Book of Joshua, chapter 5.

5.13. And it was when Joshua was in Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and saw, and, behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand; and Joshua went to him, and said to him, Are you for us, or for our adversaries?

5.14. And he said, No, but I am the the captain of the host of the Lord; I have now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and prostrated himself, and said to him, What does my lord say to his servant?

5.15. And the captain of the Lord's host said to Joshua, Remove your shoe from your foot; for the place upon which you stand is holy. And Joshua did so.

When reading this passage, I always assumed "the Lord's host" is a reference to God's army of angels. Rashi, however, is convinced that "the Lord's host" is a reference to Israel, and on reflection he's more likely to be right. I think he and other religious Jews are almost certainly wrong, however, in identifying the captain as the archangel Michael; Michael's name doesn't pop up in the Tanakh until the Book of Daniel, which means he probably didn't have a place in Jewish mythology until the Exile.

This should go without saying, but the captain's not Jesus, either.

And naturally, that means the Mormon idea that the captain is both Jesus and Michael is right out.

No - the captain is God Himself. Notice that Joshua is told by the captain to remove his shoes, just as Moses was once told. Notice also that Joshua prostrates himself before the captain; the Jews who edited the Book of Joshua were fierce monotheists and never would have allowed this scene to remain if they thought Joshua was bowing to anyone but the LORD.

The Walls of Jericho

Picture of Jericho's walls today.

Above: The ruins of Jericho's walls. Cool, huh?

6.2. And the Lord said to Joshua, See, I have given into your hand Jericho and its king, the mighty warriors.

6.3. And you shall circle the city, all the men of war, go round about the city once. Thus shall you do six days.

6.4. And seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the Ark; and on the seventh day you shall encircle the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets.

6.5. And it shall be that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down in its place and the people shall go up, every man opposite him.

Jericho's walls really did fall and the city was indeed destroyed, but not by Joshua; the city was burnt down roughly 150 years before the Bible's dating of the Israelite invasion. Joshua would have arrived to find the city abandoned. Jericho's sudden, violent ruin was more likely a famous story which the writers of the Book of Joshua attached to Joshua's conquest.

But wait! Don't get too depressed! There is indeed evidence of attacks from across the Jordan River in the fifteenth century by "shashu (Egyptian for wanderers) of YHW", whom the Egyptians list in their records as one of their many enemies. Anson Rainey of the Biblical Archaeology Review writes in an online article:

"A text in the hypostyle hall at Karnak that can be dated quite precisely to 1291 B.C.E. (to the reign of Seti I) tells of shasu pastoralists on the mountain ridges of Canaan. They have no regard for the laws of the Egyptian palace. A similar text locates a clash with shasu in northern Sinai or the western Negev."

"These shasu were the main source of early hill-country settlements in Canaan that represent the Israelites’ settling down."

These nomadic shashu attacked cities in Canaan during the Late Bronze Age and eventually settled in the highlands where the nation of Judah arose, all in the right time period. That's pretty exciting, isn't it? Even more exciting, writes Israel Finkelstein in The Bible Unearthed, is the fact that when archaeologists dig through these settlements, there's one usually common discovery which they just can't seem to find: pig bones.

OK, enough historical fact-checking. Back to the story.

6:17. And the city shall be devoted; it, and all that is in it, to the Lord; only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all that is with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent.

Notice the verb "devoted" basically means "kill/burn". We're talking about violent blood sacrifices here to the LORD, not only of animals and treasure but of people. The real difference between sacrifices to Yahweh and other gods isn't that Yahweh doesn't demand human flesh, but that the Israelites only have to kill enemies and not their own people. This is because of the Israelite system of redemption. Instead of having your firstborn son sacrificed on the altar of the Tabernacle, you're allowed by Yahweh to redeem (that is, buy back from Him) the child with a dove or bull. The Bible's first example of this substitution system is when Abraham receives a ram with which to replace Isaac.

Aaaaaand I think that'll do for today.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES IN THIS SERIES: Joshua 1, Joshua 2-4.

Joshua 2-4 (Crossing the Jordan, Rahab)

Picture of the River Jordan

Above: The River Jordan in all her glory.

Hm. I left my JPS Tanakh at home today and the only JPS version of the Jewish Bible I can find online is the 1917 release. Well, let's try using Judaica Press's version today, helpfully available on Chabad.org. It could be fun, since it comes with Rashi's commentary, one of those rabbis who never met a question about the Bible for which he couldn't bend over and pull out an answer.

2:1. And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly, saying, Go see the land and Jericho. And they went, and came to the house of an innkeeper named Rahab, and they lay there.

According to Jewish tradition, the two spies are Phinehas and Caleb. In theory that can't be true, since only Caleb and Joshua survived the Israelites' forty years in the desert. Phinehas should have died with the last generation. However, he actually does appear later in the Book of Joshua and gets rewarded with his own mountain, so apparently he's not.

This first verse is a good example of what I mean about Rashi's commentary: while you might only take from the above verse that Joshua sent two spies, Rashi informs us that he specifically told the two spies that they should pretend to be either deaf-mutes or potters.

And ah, yes - Rahab. I once heard someone refer to her as "the original hooker with the heart of gold." What a thought: the storytelling tradition that climaxed in 1990 with Pretty Woman begins here.

What I only noticed while studying for this post was that her reputation as a prostitute may be undeserved. Let's read that verse again.

2:1. And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly, saying, Go see the land and Jericho. And they went, and came to the house of an innkeeper named Rahab, and they lay there.

Who knew? The word for "prostitute" in Hebrew is apparently similar to - or even the same as - the word for "innkeeper". I'll bet that's gotten a lot of Hebrew men in trouble over the years.

JOSEPH: Finally! We've made it to Bethlehem. You stay here, Mary. I'll go find a prostitute.

MARY: At least you've finally admitted you see them. I knew you couldn't deal with this.

It's nice to see that the translators at Judaica Press give Rahab the benefit of the doubt.

Jewish tradition also says that Rahab not only gets to live as a reward for helping the Hebrew spies, but also gets to marry Joshua.

3:17. And the priests that bore the Ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm arranged on the dry land in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel passed over on dry ground, until the whole nation had completely passed over the Jordan.

In chapter 3, God repeats the miracle He did for the last generation, parting the waters of the Jordan River for Joshua's forces. The miracles in which God parts the waters are probably His most important ones in the Bible because of their symbolism. They represent God's greatest power and recall the story of Creation.

...the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. (Genesis/Bereshit 1:2)

To understand why there is water in the world before God has created anything, you need to know about other stories of how the world was created, specifically the Sumerian and Babylonian myths (remember, Abram's father Terah is from the city of Ur, which lies in that part of the world). In many mythologies but specifically these Middle-Eastern ones, water represents chaos and disorder; it has existed forever, like we think of outer space existing now. The gods make the world by creating order out of that chaotic, immortal substance. For instance, in Babylonian mythology the god Marduk creates the world by killing the ocean goddess Tiamat and splitting her in half.

In Genesis, God creates the world in a similar way (after He finishes turning on the lights so He can see what He's doing), creating space in which to work by parting the waters. His parting of a sea (or lake, or whatever) in Exodus and a river in Joshua are reminders to that.

OK, that's Joshua 2-4. Here, by the way, is a map showing where all of this is happening:

Map showing geography around River Jordan

You can see Jericho, but Abel-Shittim's too small to be on this map. The Jordan River is the blue river feeding the Dead Sea from the north. The Israelites cross more or less directly east of Jericho.

While today's archaeologists dismiss a lot of the Biblical account, almost all of the ones I've read do agree that the Israelites came to settle Canaan through its eastern border, so I think the Book of Joshua does get its geography right here.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES IN THIS SERIES: Joshua 1.

Joshua Chapter 1

Picture of a statue of Dagon

Like many other books of the "Old Testament", Joshua is grouped differently in the Hebrew canon; it's considered the first book of the Prophets. The best bet is that the earliest recognizable version of this book was prepared by the scribes of either King Hezekiah of Judah or his descendant King Josiah. They wrote it because their king wanted to reunite all of Israel under Jerusalem's rule. The story of Joshua conquering Canaan was the perfect story with which to inspire the people, to convince them that the LORD would bless Judah's liberating Canaan from the Assyrians if only they would believe and be faithful.

I should just go ahead and say it now: from what archaeologists have discovered, Joshua's invasion of Canaan can't possibly have really occurred - any of it, at all. Egypt actually ruled Canaan during the traditional time period (the Late Bronze Age) in which the Israelites are supposed to have invaded. None of the less traditional ideas about when the Israelites might have attacked work either, for various reasons.

More than that, details like the number of Israelites with Joshua (Numbers 1:26) are transparently untrue. The tribe of Judah, for instance, is listed as contributing almost 75,000 soldiers to the Israelite army, but archaeologists can't find evidence in the land it settled for a larger population than 12,000. For another comparison, consider this: Rome is known to be the first city to ever reach a population of one million people, which it did over a thousand years after Joshua's day - but a conservative estimate of the Israelite "camp" under Joshua would have to at least exceed 3 million. For the Late Bronze Age, that's just crazy talk.

But not necessarily for scribes living five hundred years later, who might at least have imagined such fantastic numbers. And the reason why we can finger those later priests of Judah as the writers of Joshua is because the Canaan which Joshua is depicted conquering corresponds nicely with Canaan as the priests would have known it in the time.

Summary:

  • The Book of Joshua was written in the 700-600s B.C.

  • It was written to serve as an example to the people, so they would support the king of Judah's plans to overthrow the Assyrians and unite Israel. The people who read the book were supposed to see their current king as a new Joshua and themselves as God's new army.

It's quite possible a lot of events written about in the Book of Joshua really happened, but probably not in the context in which they're presented.

Alright, that's it for preliminary discussion. Let's move onto the content.

1:1 Now it came to pass after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, that the LORD spoke unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' minister...

The most interesting thing about Joshua, from a biologist's perspective, is how he could have a fish for a father.

Because apparently he did: "Nun" means "fish" in Aramaic (it's not a Hebrew word). And while the Israelites often gave their children strange names, "fish" is still too odd to be one of them.

Most scholars don't find that interesting, but at least one of them does: Dr. Robert M. Price wonders if Joshua, clearly a famous figure in ancient Canaan, originally had no place in the Israelite genealogies at all, but was once instead a legendary half-god, half-human warrior like Hercules or Achilles. His father would have been one of the elohim of the waters, someone like (but not) the Philistine sea god Dagon (pictured above).

According to this theory, the Israelites retooled Joshua's legend after they switched from polytheism to henotheism (and from henotheism to monotheism): Joshua became simply a hero and nobody paid any attention to his father, who was presumed to just be some poor jerk who spent most of his life as a slave in Egypt.

This theory also explains the miracles that God performs for Joshua: originally, Joshua performs the miracles himself.

The rest of Joshua 1 isn't very interesting, just Joshua giving Team Israel a pep talk before the big game, so we'll stop here. Hope you had fun.

NEXT: Joshua, Chapter 2. Maybe.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES: Joshua 9 Joshua 7-8 Joshua 5-6 Joshua 2-4

Political and Economic Wrangling Over the Pentateuch

It wouldn't surprise me a bit to learn that Adam already knows about this theory. But it was news to me and fairly fascinating to boot.

I just finished Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? It's a classic popularization of the Documentary Hypothesis, which claims that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is actually a medley of four earlier sources called J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist), and P (the Priestly source). Friedman's survey of two centuries of Biblical detective work is quite fascinating. What truly shocked me, however, was learning that a bunch of liberal theologians converged on a vulgar Public Choice theory of the evolution of their most sacred book.

Friedman begins by explaining that J and E are the earliest sources. The most obvious difference between the two is that J always calls God "Yahweh," while E initially calls him "Elohim." But it's the non-obvious differences that are telling. He presents strong evidence that the author of J came from Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom, while the author of E came from Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom. J elevates Aaron and slights Moses; E does the opposite.

What's going on? Friedman explains that these two countries had conflicting religious establishments. Those in the north - or at least a major faction - were Mushite (claiming descent from Moses); those in the south were Aaronite (claiming descent from Aaron). Through this lens, J and E turn out to be thinly-veiled bids for money and power. Here's one example of how E tries to push Mushite interests:

Recall that the [Mushite] priests of Shiloh suffered the loss of their place in the priestly hierarchy under King Solomon. Their chief... was expelled from Jerusalem. The other chief priest... who was regarded as a descendant of Aaron, meanwhile remained in power... The Shiloh prophet Ahijah instigated the northern tribes' secession, and he designated Jeroboam as the northern king. The Shiloh priests' hopes for the new kingdom, however, were frustrated when Jeroboam established the golden calf religious centers at Dan and Beth-El, and he did not appoint them as priests there. For this old family of priests, what should have been a time of liberation had been turned into a religious betrayal. The symbol of their exclusion in Israel was the golden calves. The symbol of their exclusion in Judah was Aaron. Someone from that family, the author of E, wrote a story that said that soon after the Israelites' liberation from slavery, they committed heresy. What was the heresy? They worshipped a golden calf! Who made the golden calf? Aaron! [emphasis original]

--The Public Choice of the Ancient Hebrews, Bryan Caplan

You may want to click through to EconLog to read the rest of Bryan's summarization. It's all fascinating.

The Earth is the Lord's

In Calvinism Continued, Adam argues that it's nonsense to suggest that all sin is really a sin against God.

A Christian might also suggest that all sins are sins against God, not men - but that is simply nonsense. Whosoever harms me, harms me (a better argument is the idea that God wants you to forgive as you were forgiven, but that proves a lack of need for blood). God is by all accounts undamaged. Indeed, the only crime against God must be simple, completely ineffective rebellion - which we must assume does not hurt God's feelings, because that would suggest we have some power over Him - and the idea that God can't put up with that suggests He's not merciful at all.

I disagree, for perfectly valid libertarian reasons. But to follow the logic, you'll have to temporarily assume that the Bible is what it claims to be: God's attempt to reveal who he is and what he's all about.

Propositions:

  1. God created the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
  2. God created man (Genesis 2:7-8)
  3. Ownership comes from mixing labor (John Locke)

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

Conclusion: God owns the earth and everything in the earth -- including us. Further conclusion: Because God owns us, he can do with us as he likes. He has, in fact, done so by giving us the Law and requiring us to obey it. I'd say that most of the Old Testament assumes this point of view.

Deuteronomy 10:12-14

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.

1 Samuel 2:8

He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's,
and on them he has set the world.

1 Chronicles 29:11

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.

Nehemiah 9:6

You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.

Psalm 24:1-4

The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.

To repeat my argument: God created the world and everything in it, including us. Therefore, God owns us and is perfectly justified in doing with us as he likes. God has designed his world (his universe) to run according to certain laws. Every violation of those laws is a violation of the "natural order" of things and a rebellion against God. Rebellion is nothing more nor less than taking that which doesn't belong to you, namely power.

True, your sin of theft is between you and your victim. He's harmed by longer having that which once belonged to him. But your theft is a crime against God: you've also usurped his power to decide what is and isn't right. You've placed your own judgment and desires above his.

Jonathan Edwards makes the argument that punishment must be proportional to the degree of sin. He goes on to argue that sin is a crime against an infinite God and deserving of infinite punishment.

A crime is more or less heinous, according as we are under greater or less obligations to the contrary. This is self-evident; because it is herein that the criminalness or faultiness of any thing consists, that it is contrary to what we are obliged or bound to, or what ought to be in us. So the faultiness of one being hating another, is in proportion to his obligation to love him. The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another, is proportionably more or less heinous, as he was under greater or less obligations to honour him. The fault of disobeying another, is greater or less, as any one is under greater or less obligations to obey him. And therefore if there be any being that we are under infinite obligations to love, and honour, and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty.

Our obligation to love, honour, and obey any being, is in proportion to his loveliness, honourableness, and authority; for that is the very meaning of the words. When we say any one is very lovely, it is the same as to say, that he is one very much to be loved. Or if we say such a one is more honourable than another, the meaning of the words is, that he is one that we are more obliged to honour. If we say any one has great authority over us, it is the same as to say, that he has great right to our subjection and obedience.

But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.

So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.

Therefore, I argue, God is perfectly justified in any punishment he cares to deal out.

Re: Is Joe Wasting His Life?

Adam is right, of course. The crucial question about whether or not I'm wasting my life -- about whether or not anyone is wasting his life -- is "what exactly [is] a good Christian supposed to do with his or her new life in Christ?" I posed the original question (am I wasting my life) as a result of reading and listening to John Piper. Adam answered the question from his own perspective, I'll start by answering it from Pastor John's perspective.

Pastor John has written a short pamphlet entitled, appropriately enough, "Don't Waste Your Life". His intro to the book provides a succinct answer to the question:

God created us to live with a single passion: to joyfully display his supreme excellence in all spheres of life. The wasted life is the life without this passion. God calls us to pray and think and dream and plan and work, not to be made much of, but to make much of him in every part of our lives.

Later in the second chapter, he expands on that a bit more:

God created me--and you--to live with a single, all-embracing, all-transforming passion--namely, a passion to glorify God by enjoying and displaying his supreme excellence in all the spheres of life. Enjoying and displaying are both crucial. If we try to display the excellence of God without joy in it, we will display a shell of hypocrisy and create scorn or legalism. But if we claim to enjoy his excellence and do not display it for others to see and admire, we deceive ourselves, because the mark of God-enthralled joy is to overflow and expand by extending itself into the hearts of others. The wasted life is the life without a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

The book itself attempts to answer the question "What does this mean I should do?" He says:

It has become clearer that God being glorified and God being enjoyed are not separate categories. They relate to each other not like fruit and animals, but like fruit and apples. Apples are one kind of fruit. Enjoying God supremely is one way to glorify him. Enjoying God makes him look supremely valuable.

And, later:

Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). Daily Christian living is daily Christian dying. The dying I have in mind is the dying of comfort and security and reputation and health and family and friends and wealth and homeland. These may be taken from us at any time in the path of Christ-exalting obedience. To die daily the way Paul did, and to take up our cross daily the way Jesus commanded, is to embrace this life of loss for Christ's sake and count it gain. In other words, the way we honor Christ in death is to treasure Jesus above the gift of life, and the way we honor Christ in life is to treasure Jesus above life's gifts.

... But what I know even more surely is that the greatest joy in God comes from giving his gifts away, not in hoarding them for ourselves. It is good to work and have. It is better to work and have in order to give. God's glory shines more brightly when he satisfies us in times of loss than when he provides for us in times of plenty. The health, wealth, and prosperity "gospel" swallows up the beauty of Christ in the beauty of his gifts and turns the gifts into idols. The world is not impressed when Christians get rich and say thanks to God. They are impressed when God is so satisfying that we give our riches away for Christ's sake and count it gain.

This was part of what gave rise to my original question. By this definition, am I wasting my life? I'm rich. Historically speaking (as we've previously discussed, Adam) I'm ridiculously, fabulously wealthy. I can listen to almost anything I want -- spoken or musical -- at any time. I can watch nearly any form of any entertainment at any time. I have access to thousands of books within days or minutes. Most of the world's knowledge is at my fingertips, thanks to the Internet.

I'm pretty well-off by American standards as well. Our household owns 3 computers, 2 iPods, 2 completely paid off cars, 18% of a house, lots of nice clothes, and plenty of food. We can eat out nearly anytime we want to, we can and do fly around the U.S., we rent nice cars and stay in nice hotels on vacation. I have a beautiful, helpful wife who loves me. We have two beautiful daughters. All four of us are in perfect health. In short, I'm doing pretty well at doing as Voltaire's Candide said: "', i.e. enjoy your work, wife, and life - in short, function as you were made to function - and leave the rest up to God."

But, so what? Is that really all there is? Just be thankful that I'm one of the lucky ones and enjoy my wealth? Most days, I'm very tempted to say "yes". God gave it to me, why should I complain about it? But other days I wonder -- am I wasting His gifts? Am I wasting my life?

If, tomorrow, everything were to disappear in a Job-like orgy of destruction, how would I react? Would I praise God and say "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21)? Put differently, is God the most important thing in my life or are my things the most important thing in my life?

My original post also referenced the Rwandan genocide. Many Rwandan Christians reacted as violently and savagely as non-Christians when everything was stripped away from them. I'd like to think I wouldn't do the same thing in the same situation. I'd like to think that my reaction would show that God is the most important thing in my life -- even more important than my family.

God willing, I'll never have to go through that situation and I'll never have to find out the hard way. But it's something I think about as I examine my own priorities and how I react to my stuff.

Now, you also mentioned Luther's solution of passive righteousness to the dilemma of how to improve yourself -- how to become more like God and less like a sinner. And, Luther is right. The two opposite extremes are excessive pride in your accomplishments and excessive despair at your failures.

Personally, I've found Tim Keller to be a big help in understanding how this works. I'll quote from his book The Reason for God. He says:

Religion operates on the principle "I obey--therefore I am accepted by God." But the operating principle of the gospel is "I am accepted by God through what Christ has done--therefore I obey." Two people living their lives on the basis of these two different principles may sit next to each other in the church pew. They both pray, give money generously, and are loyal and faithful to their family and church, trying to live decent lives. However, they do so out of radically different motivations in two radically different spiritual identities, and the result is two radically different kinds of lives.

The primary difference is that of motivation. In religion, we try to obey the divine standards out of fear. We believe that if we don't obey we are going to lose God's blessing in this world and the next. In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude for the blessing we have already received because of Christ. While the moralist is forced into obedience, motivated by fear of rejection, a Christian rushes into obedience, motivated by a desire to please and resemble the one who gave his life for us.

I've long lived my life with a constant fear of failure. I'm afraid to try new things because I'm afraid of the consequences of failing at them. That's carried over into my Christian life. I've been afraid to do things for God because I've been afraid of lousing them up and making a bigger mess. Keller (along with C.J. Mahaney and John Piper) has taught me that I can't possibly be any worse than I am. I don't have to worry about God's unhappiness if I fail to live up to his standards and I don't have to bend myself into a pretzel trying to be perfect. Jesus already paid for every single one of my rebellions and moral failures.

I am free to live out my life without endless agonizing over every decision. I'm free to go out and "just do it". I don't have to figure out how to be perfect before doing "it". Whatever I decide I want "it" to be. In a way, I feel like my options are opening up for the first time ever.

Will I do it? Will I step out and do something for God? Will I prove that God is more important than my stuff? Or will I still refuse to take risks, because I don't want to endanger my stuff? Will I use my life profitably or will I waste it?

Live in Grace

Between Two Worlds: All of Grace:

Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace (p. 19):

Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace.

And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace.

And from pp. 22-23:

Pharisee-type believers unconsciously think they have earned God's blessing through their behavior.

Guilt-laden believers are quite sure they have forfeited God's blessing through their lack of discipline or their disobedience.

Both have forgotten the meaning of grace because they have moved away from the gospel and have slipped into a performance relationship with God.

Together for Adoption: The Forgotten Part of James 1:27

The world tells us that our fundamental identity is determined by our performance not by the performance of another (i.e., Jesus). It seduces us to believing (often unknowingly) that our main sense of significance is found in what we do or in what we're involved in.

It might look like this: "God is pleased with me because I have given my life to caring for the least of these." Now, does God smile at us when we care for orphans? Yes, but if the main way we sense his smile is by our efforts to care for orphans, then chances are we've become stained by the world.

If our primary sense of God's smile upon us comes from our involvement in caring for the least of these, then it's highly likely that to some extent our lives are performance-based rather than grace-based. In other words, it may be that my functional paradigm of Christian living is: "I share God's heart for the orphan; therefore, God is pleased with me," rather than "God is pleased with me because of Jesus; therefore, I am freed to care for the orphan." There is a massive difference between these two ways of thinking. To think the first way is to be stained by the world. To think the second way is to be unstained by the world.

Visiting Sin to the Third and Fourth Generation

John Piper offers some helpful insight on some confusing Bible passages.

Does God visit the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation? Some texts seem to say he does and others seem to say he doesn't. Our job is to figure out the sense in which he does and the sense in which he doesn't.

How do these passages fit together? This matters for the sake of God's character, and the Bible's coherence, and how we counsel those whose parents were wicked or just garden variety sinful.

This entry was tagged. Bible John Piper Sin

The Problem with Gender Neutral Bibles

I stumbled across a very interesting essay by Vern Poythress. In it, he talks about gender neutral Bibles (like the TNIV, the Good News Bible, the CEV, etc) and how they can change the meaning of the Biblical text in subtle ways.

Language nerds will probably understand and enjoy it the most, but I think his examples are worth thinking about it -- even for those of us who aren't language nerds.

We may illustrate by considering the complex challenge of translating sentences with gender-marked generic pronouns. In English the issue comes to a head only with the third-person singular personal pronoun, because all the other pronouns are unmarked for gender. The third-person singular has three genders, "he," "she," and "it." Until recently the masculine forms, "he/him/his/himself," served as default forms in generic statements. But now some people frown on this use, and so-called gender inclusive translations have sought substitutes.3

Changing from "he" to "you"

One possibility they have tried is the use of the second person "you" instead of the third-person singular.4 Consider Proverbs 12:14. The New International Version (NIV) reads: "From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things as surely as the work of his hands rewards him." The Good News Bible (GNB, 2d ed.) reads: "Your reward depends on what you say and what you do; you will get what you deserve." The NIV and the Hebrew, by using the third person, invite readers to see a sample case "out there," and then to apply the truth to anyone whatsoever. Certainly each reader may apply to the truth to himself. But he may also apply the truth to others whom he is counseling, just as the father counsels his son in the early chapters of Proverbs. By contrast, the second-person in the GNB invites each reader to apply the truth first of all personally. Applying the truth to others by offering them counsel is an afterthought. The directness of focus on application to the individual reader is different in the two cases. The same differences crop up again and again in changes from third person to second person in Proverbs.

Read -- or at least scan -- the whole thing.

(And, yes, it's one reason that I'm reading out of the ESV and not the TNIV these days.)

Single Column Bibles

I'd really like to buy a single-column Bible in the near future. Of all of my Bible wants, I think this is the biggest. Of course, I also want a black letter Bible, that's printed in a paragraph-by-paragraph format rather than a verse-by-verse format. Here's a quick rundown of the major candidates:

ESV Study Bible (Crossway)

  • 9-point type, single-column layout for the Bible text; 7.25-point type, double-column layout for the notes
  • Size: 6.5" x 9.25"
  • 2,752 pages

It looks like a good candidate and I'll probably buy a copy just for all of the "study Bible" features. But the pages themselves look really busy and distracting. That's mostly due to those same "study Bible" features.

ESV Literary Study Bible (Crossway, Amazon)

  • 8.5-point type
  • Size: 6" x 9"
  • 1,952 pages

The ESV LSB is smaller than the ESV Study Bible, with a slightly smaller font size. The text is printed in a paragraph-by-paragraph format rather than a verse-by-verse format. The font size is slightly smaller than I'd prefer, but I don't think it would be too small (sample pages).

I'm afraid that I'll get annoyed at the embedded literary study notes. I have no doubt that they'll be very useful and educational. Unfortunately, they break up the text and make the Bible larger than it otherwise would be. That will distract me from using this Bible as a pure reading Bible.

ESV Personal Size Reference Bible (Crossway, Amazon)

  • 7.4-point type
  • Size: 5" x 7.25"
  • 1,308 pages

I think this Bible is exactly what I want -- except for the tiny font size. (Sample pages.)

TNIV Reference Bible (Zondervan)

  • 9-point type
  • Size: 6.9" x 9.8"
  • 1408 pages

I generally prefer the ESV over the TNIV. This Bible would have to really impress me, for me to purchase a TNIV instead of an ESV. This Bible comes close, but I think the verse numbers and footnote letters are distracting. (Sample pages.)

Conclusion

Right now, I think I'd like to purchase the Literary Study Bible as a "bedside" Bible and an ESV Personal Reference Bible as an "out and about" Bible.

Reading and Understanding the Bible

The Bible is old and complex. How can I possibly expect to understand it? Every time a pastor gets up, he seems to teach something from the Bible that I've never even seen before. Why should I even bother trying to read it myself?

The truth is, I can learn to read the Bible for myself. It takes practice -- but I have my whole life to get it right. I don't have to develop into a theologian overnight. My church recently taught a session on how to read the Bible. I wasn't able to attend, but a friend did. I'll share a portion of her notes.

  1. Begin with the context: historical - the writer - the audience - the culture - other events
  2. Read headings before/after this chapter. What is going on? Whose life is being chronicled?
  3. Is this a minor or major incident?
  4. What else do we know about the people involved?
  5. List questions that occur to you as you read this passage. Try to forget past messages you have heard or books and studies you have read about this. Read with fresh eyes and think about someone telling you this story. What would you ask them before you go on? What do you need further clarification on?
  6. What?
  7. Why?
  8. When?
  9. How?
  10. Where?
  11. Who?
  12. Look for repeated words, details, unfamiliar terms.
  13. What are differences/similarities between the original audience and us.
  14. What principle(s) cross cultural divide? What is applicable to us in our culture?

I'm not a Bible expert. Answering the Who, When, What, Why questions can be tough. It can even be tough to know who the writer and audience are or what the culture was. Even with those principles, how can I really know what's going on?

I start with the realization that the Bible was written for me, but it wasn't written to me. I first heard this idea when Dr. John Walton spoke at Blackhawk. His sermon -- Why Didn't God Call the Light, Light helped me to see that the Bible doesn't necessarily speak in the way that I expect it to speak. I can't simply pick it up and read it the same way that I would read a novel or a science textbook. I have to read it the way that the original audience read it.

Fortunately, Dr. Walton helped me to do just that. He didn't personally help me, but one of his books did. Old Testament Today is an Old Testament overview that helped me understand the Old Testament in a way that I never had before. It has a very unique style:

Old Testament Today is unique among Old Testament surveys. It not only provides an orientation to the world of the Old Testament but also builds a bridge between the original audience and modern readers, demonstrating why the ancient message is important for faith and life today.

Old Testament Today goes beyond basic content to help students understand what the Scriptures mean and how to apply them personally. [T]his text takes the reader section by section through the Old Testament using a progressive, three-step format:

  1. Original Meaning presents the details of the content, focusing on the story line, historical background, and literary information that address the original setting and audience.
  2. Bridging Contexts focuses on theological perspectives and on issues of the authors purpose and the universal message of the text, building a bridge between the original audience and todays audience.
  3. Contemporary Significance develops an understanding of the relevance of the Old Testament writings to todays Christian, showing how they can be applied in personal faith and practice.

It covers the major sections of the Old Testament: the Fundamentals of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, Historical Literature, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, Psalms, and a wrap-up. It really helped me to understand where each book fits and how the different parts of the Old Testament mesh together. (Google Books will give you a bit of a sneak peak at the book.)

After reading Old Testament Today and seeing how the three-step process worked, I wanted to get more than just an overview of the entire Old Testament. I wanted to understand each book, using that same method. The NIV Life Application Commentary series fills that need perfectly. Each commentary focuses on one book of the Bible and uses the same three step method (Original Meaning, Bridging Contexts, and Contemporary Significance) to explain what's happening in the text.

If you're like me -- you want to both read and understand the Bible, I'd highly recommend buying a few of these books.

This entry was tagged. Bible Christianity

Designing the Perfect Bible

As I've started actually reading my Bible more, I've become pickier about which Bible I read. Since this is my blog, I'm going to spend some time talking about what goes into my decision. Be warned: this is slightly long winded.

Translation

I prefer the English Standard Version. The ESV website describes the translation this way:

The ESV is an "essentially literal" translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on "word-for-word" correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.

Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between "formal equivalence" in expression and "functional equivalence" in communication, and the ESV is no exception. Within this framework we have sought to be "as literal as possible" while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence.

Therefore, to the extent that plain English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original; and, as far as grammar and syntax allow, we have rendered Old Testament passages cited in the New in ways that show their correspondence. Thus in each of these areas, as well as throughout the Bible as a whole, we have sought to capture the echoes and overtones of meaning that are so abundantly present in the original texts.

That's very important to me. I've read other translations that chose to emphasize readability and understandability instead of literalness. They weren't bad translations -- I liked them. But when it came to "difficult" passages (such as the issue of women in leadership), I felt like the translation was hiding the author's original meaning. After a while, that started to bother me. I feel that the ESV strikes a decent balance between being understandable in the 21st century and staying true to the original text.

Black Letter

Whichever translation I use, I want a black-letter edition of the Bible. Many popular editions of the Bible choose to print Jesus's words in red. I don't like that practice, for two reasons.

Printing the words of Jesus in red implies that they are more important than the other words in the Bible. It sets them apart from the rest of the text and draws extra attention to them. The publisher, in effect, chose to highlight those words for you. But I don't think that's what God intended. Paul and Peter explicitly say that all of the Bible comes from God.

[esvbible reference="2 Timothy 3:16" format="inline"]2 Timothy 3:16[/esvbible]

[esvbible reference="2 Peter 1:21" format="inline"]2 Peter 1:21[/esvbible]

Secondly, printing the words of Jesus in red assumes that the Gospel quotations are direct quotations. I don't believe that they are. First century writers weren't concerned with getting direct quotations or properly attributing every source. They didn't make material up, they just weren't as rigorous as we are about documenting it and relaying it precisely. We can also see that the quotations aren't exact. Compare Matthew 9:4-6 with Mark 2:8-11.

[esvbible reference="Matthew 9:4-6" format="inline"]Matthew 9:4-6[/esvbible]

[esvbible reference="Mark 2:8-11" format="inline"]Mark 2:8-11[/esvbible]

The differences are subtle but real. While the gist is the same, the exact words differ. Both texts were inspired by God, but related by men. I want a Bible that prints the Jesus's words the same as everybody else's words.

Not Distracting

I want a Bible that doesn't distract me from the meaning of the text. Chapter headings, subheadings, and chapter / verse divisions are all modern innovations. People throughout history created multiple different ways of breaking up and organizing the text. Our modern chapter and verse divisions first appeared in the Geneva Bible in 1599.

Chapter and verse divisions are necessary, to quickly locate a given passage. But they can break a text in the middle of a narrative, leaving the reader with a false impression about where a thought begins or ends. Headings and subheadings can be even more intrusive and distracting.

One example: the parable of the prodigal son. Many people are familiar with the parable, from [esvbible reference="Luke 15:11-32" header="on" format="link"]Luke 15:11-32[/esvbible]. Most Bible editions have a helpful subheader that indicates "The Parable of the Prodigal Son". But that subheader hides the fact that the parable was told as the third in a series.

In [esvbible reference="Luke 15" header="on" format="link"]Luke 15[/esvbible], the Pharisees complain about Jesus choosing to hang out with non-religious people. Jesus responds to them by telling three parables, each with a different point. Jesus intended each parable to be a partial response. We misread the text if we try to take the parables one at a time and read them separately.

I think we also risk misreading the text if the publisher formats the text in a verse-by-verse style instead of a paragraph-by-paragraph style. In a verse-by-verse style each verse starts on a new line. This unnecessarily -- and arbitrarily -- breaks up the text. It destroys the flow of the narrative and makes the text harder to read. Conversely, a paragraph-by-paragraph style combines multiple verses into one block of text. It is much more natural to read and helps to keep the text as a series of coherent thoughts.

Headers, subheaders, and intrusive verse divisions can encourage misreading. I prefer a Bible edition that formats the text into paragraphs and has few headers dividing up the text.

Readability

I want a Bible that's easy to read: not too heavy, not too thick, and easy on the eyes. I have two primary criteria for readability: single column pages with at least a 9pt font. I take this preference from J. Mark Bertrand. In this review of The Message: Remixed Bible, he explains his fondness for single-column layouts.

The fact that The Message Remix is laid out in single columns deserves a point all its own. This is what readers are accustomed to, and it makes more visual sense than the traditional double column layout. I don't know why so many publishers are committed to double columns. The practice creates all sorts of problems. For example, the ESV's narrow columns force unintentional line breaks on passages set in verse. The problem is solved in the standalone edition of the Psalms, which is set in a single column. But for some reason, the single column format that works so well in the ESV standalone editions of the Psalms and the Gospel of John is not available in a complete edition of the Bible. Designers take note: single-column formatting makes a world of difference in terms of the reader's experience.

If a Bible is going to have a single column layout, the lines need to be kept relatively short. Studies have shown that most people prefer reading text that has 60-75 characters per line. (About 12 words per line.) Using a larger font is the best to keep the lines short and the text easy to read.

As someone who loves to read, I prefer single column text. As someone who loves to read for long stretches of time, I prefer text that's large enough to read without requiring me to squint or strain to see the text.

Binding

Finally, I want a strong binding that will last for a while. My goal is to find a Bible that I'll use daily for the next 10-20 years. The binding should last as long as the Bible does. Ideally, I'd like pages that are sewn together, not glued together. Again, J. Mark Bertrand explains why:

This means that the pages are folded over into little booklets called signatures and then the signatures are stitched together. The individual page -- say page 993 -- is actually one of four pages that are printed together on a single sheet, then folded. What's the advantage of this? For one thing, the pages don't fall out with heavy use the way adhesive bindings do. For another, a sewn binding has the potential to be more flexible in the hand.

To be honest, I'm not yet sure what the Bible cover should be made out of. I'm not up on the differences between genuine leather, calfskin and TruTone materials. Rest assured, I'll have an opinion soon and I'll let you know what it is when I discover it.

Summary

Here's the short version of my "perfect" Bible checklist.

  • ESV
  • Black letter
  • Paragraph layout, not verse layout
  • 9+ pt font
  • Single Column
  • No subheadings
  • Sewn, not glued, binding

Yes, that's very picky. As I write this, I'm incredibly grateful that I live in a society wealthy enough to enable me to be that picky about my copy of the Bible. I'm thankful that not only do I have access to a complete copy of the Bible -- something that many Christians worldwide still don't have -- but that I can be discriminating about what that copy looks like. As I read each day, I thank God for the text I have and the freedom I have to worship Him.