via Ethical Ocean – eco friendly products, fair trade and vegan shopping.
During the ferry trip there, we came across a pod of dolphins – there must have been around 20 to 30 of them – and they were very keen to play with the boat! It was an awesome sight – although pretty hard to get on camera, they move so quick.
Tiri totally delivered! We signed up for a guided tour with a very knowledgable guide, Derek, who took us on a 2.5 hour exploration of the island, pointing out the flora and the fauna. I was most impressed with Dereks level of knowledge regarding not just bird song but also their taxonomy, and ecological specifics. In addition, Derek was also very knowledgeable on the plant life – what species and family they were from, their “siblings” and “cousins”, and their characteristics. Not bad for a volunteer!
After our guided tour, we decided to do some further exploring ourselves. We headed round to the north eastern side of the island, where we saw some impressive cliffs and land formations, as well as a whole swarm of Tui! Not a normal sight, even for someone like me who grew up in the NZ bush.
We were at Tiri for about 5 hours. There was still plenty (perhaps even the majority of the island, actually) we didn’t explore, but the guided tour was quite slow – not a complaint though! We learnt so much from Derek. Next time though, we will probably go for an explore by ourselves instead of taking the tour. You can also stay the night at Tiri, in the “bunk house” – which would be a pretty awesome experience.
Anyway, I have added some of my photos here – nothing fantastic in terms of my camera work – but hopefully it gives you a sense of some of what Tiri has to offer!
>The formatted version can be downloaded in ePub format here: http://bit.ly/8YnEv1
What is christian systematic theology, and what does it have to do with being the church?
Systematic theology1 has a long and venerable past, and at times enjoyed a privileged position amongst society and academia.2 As society has become increasingly secularised, systematics has fallen from the public eye. Sadly however, this same trend is witnessed in the church. Systematics has been labelled as impractical, western, or modernist, and thus of little or no use to the contemporary christian, let alone a contemporary world.3 In this essay, I seek to expound a view of systematics that is of immense significance and use to the contemporary church and world.
Orthodoxy forms Orthopraxy
By far the biggest use for systematics to a contemporary world and church is the fact that orthodoxy will dictate and shape orthopraxy. Put another way: what you believe will shape how you live, either consciously or unconsciously. As the maxim goes, “show me what you do, and I’l tell you what you believe”. In fact James says “I will show you my faith by what I do”.4 This is because an individual’s core beliefs, values, and how they see the world works itself out in their actions. As C.B Kruger has put it, “We live from the inside out”.5
Thus it is imperative that a Christian’s “inner circle of being”6 is – at the least – theologically informed, but far better, is theologically orthodox. As already noted, James exhorts the believer to demonstrate their faith (belief, theology) by what they do, and thus calls for orthopraxy. However it seems that in James’s mind, this is impossible without first having an orthodox worldview from which to operate.
Thus systematics, when approached correctly, should not become ‘impractical’,7 but immensely practical. Thus the role of the theologian is not that of a monk in an ivory tower, but instead, someone who is deeply involved in community,8 culture,9 and the ‘Theodrama’ of God.10 It is their role to expound the drama in such a way as to generate a correct (orthodox) understanding of the characters, the plot, and the stage in the hearers, so that they may play their part in the drama with accuracy (orthopraxy). Furthermore, the actors must study their script themselves if they are to carry the part with accuracy.11
Providing answers to life’s questions
One of the benefits and uses of systematics is found in its ability to provide answers to many of the tough questions in life. Questions such as ‘do infants go to heaven’, are decidedly theological questions, but also decidedly systematic. In fact, many (most?) of life’s questions must be answered from a theological standpoint because scripture does not readily speak explicitly to today’s questions, challenges, and ethical dilemmas. Theology is also not just for Sunday.12 We are reliant upon theology (and theologians) to faithfully summarise13 the message of scripture, to enable us to discern how God would have us act, think, or respond to the circumstance. This also needs to be a consistent response, therefore, the theology needs to be systematic.14 However, Anselm’s definition of theology, “Fides quarens intellectum” (faith seeking understanding) can be applied more broadly to the church as a whole, who, because they have faith, personally seek to understand how their faith works itself out in daily life. Healy calls this ‘ordinary theology’,15 and notes that this is usually related to some ‘cognitive dissonance’ we have encountered, such as a different interpretation of scripture, or a new church.16 Ultimately this leads both the ‘professional’ theologian, and the ‘ordinary’ theologian back to the Bible, back to the tradition, and back to reason and experience to discern for themselves what to do with this new information.
Thus, ‘theology is the ministry of the Word to the World – the application of the Bible to all areas of life’.17 Fiddes calls this a ‘connectional theology’,18 which is a helpful concept for pastors and theologians alike.
In addition, systematics also provides answers to many of the difficult questions of faith itself, (e.g – ‘how can Christ be 100% man and 100% divine?’). This is useful because it demonstrates that faith and belief are not without reason, logic, or intellect – in fact, the very opposite – and thus provides a solid grounding for apologetics and discussion with those from other faiths.
Lastly, systematics is an essential and useful tool to the exegete. Many (most?) texts in the Bible are ‘open’ texts, which necessitate that the reader must interpret them, in light of some larger picture.19 As an island, any text can ‘say’ any number of things, and thus to be coherent, must be interpreted with a guiding system or theme. Although a two-way street,20 the exegete’s theological system that they bring to the exegesis will be highly influential in how they understand and interpret the text.
Teaching and Instruction
The third use of systematics for the church is its benefit for teaching. Teaching is something that the church is exhorted to do (Eph 4:11-14,21 also Matt 28:19-20) as it is a means of God’s self revelation through those whom he gifts as teachers. Clearly, Paul places a high level of import on teaching, ‘So that the body of Christ may be built up’, and also so that “we will no longer be… tossed back and forth…and blown here and there”. It is obvious that in Paul’s mind, and in the minds of the church Fathers, that solid biblical teaching was necessary for a solid faith. Grenz notes that teaching new believers the fundamentals of the faith is especially important,22 but the author of Hebrews also urges the readers to move on from ‘spiritual milk’ to ‘solid food’, so that they ‘can distinguish good from evil’.23 The author knows that a diet of milk cannot sustain long term. Thus solid teaching is imperative within the church, and thus must have a biblical backbone to it. This in turn requires exegetical understanding and, as argued earlier, this requires a theological interpretation. This interpretation needs to be consistent, so as to not become hypocritical, thus requires a systematic understanding. Webster argues that what we think, say, and do ‘strive[s] for coherence and consistency’, and thus “any complex and comprehensive set of beliefs and practices is required to articulate itself in systematic form”.24
A perimeter fence of safety
The fourth use of systematics to the contemporary church is as a ‘fence’ around the perimeter of what is considered orthodox, trustworthy, and correct, in the form of the early church creeds.25 This fence functions to continually guide the church and theologians as they progress into new days and new ways. In fact, the church has worked hard over the last 2000 years to maintain this ‘fence’ around orthodoxy as it provides a wide arena to think, to imagine, to critique, and to synthesise, whilst all the while remaining within the borders of what has been considered correct.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, since orthodoxy should lead to orthopraxy, the opposite is also true – unorthodoxy can lead to unorthopraxy. Thus the early church fathers were well aware that certain departations from orthodoxy could lead to some very negative outcomes. Therefore the role of the theologian, the pastor, and the church leader is to continue to maintain this fence around their flock, who can be easily lead astray, and who also often need to be guided to safe pastures.26 As Bishop Victoria Matthews so deftly put it – “Not knowing the story of salvation, any critique of it is convincing”.27
Doing it anyway
The final importance of systematics for the church is largely a pragmatic reason – many (most?) christians are doing it anyway. The question is whether they are doing it well. Kathryn Tanner has noted that “everyone is likely to do some theology if they are a believer and if they think about their faith at all”.28 I would contend that they need not to have thought about their faith per se, but rather about life, to be ‘doing some theology’. As Christians walk through life and make decisions, pray, worship, and serve, it is all motivated, directed and influenced by their theology (whether they know it or not). As has been mentioned earlier, we ‘live from the inside out’,29 and so our actions will be shaped by our beliefs. Thus the reason that systematics is important to the church is because, although everyone is acting out their ‘theology’, is it correct? Thus systematics is essential to the church to continually critique and inform our decisions (both private and congregational), our practices (both private and congregational), and our lives (both private and congregational).
In this essay, I have shown that systematics plays an integral role in the development and sustenance of a healthy church – both visible and invisible. Systematics provides the framework for the ‘actors’ to understand the script, and to act accordingly. Systematics keeps the church grounded in what has been understood as correct and true for 2000 years. Systematics gives us hope and clarity for dealing with the ‘rough and tumble’ of daily life. Systematics keeps us growing, stronger in our faith and deeper in our relationship with God. And finally, systematics helps us always critique and modify our private and communal practices. This is what keeps the body together. Without these integral threads, parts of the church have become wayward and ceased to be Christ’s body. Thus systematics is immensely useful to the church, as it keeps us faithful to our calling and the reason for our existence.
Beeley, C. A. ‘Theology and Pastoral Leadership.’ Anglican Theological Review 91:1 (1992): 11-31.
Fiddes, P. S. ‘Concept, Image and Story in Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 3-23.
Grenz, S. J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 2000.
Healy, N. M. ‘What is Systematic Theology?’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 24-39.
Kruger, C. B. God is For Us. Jackson, MS, Perichoresis Press, 2000.
McGrath, A. E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford, Blackwell, 2001.
Vanhoozer, K. J. ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World’. In Always Reforming. Edited by A. T. B. McGowan. Downers Grove, IVP, 2006,
Vanhoozer, K. J. ‘A Readers Guide: How to use this book’. In Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. Edited by K. J. Vanhoozer, C. A. Anderson and M. J. Sleasman. Grand Rapids, Michagan, Baker Academic, 2007,
Webster, J. ‘Principles of Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 56-71.
1 Hereafter referred to as ‘Systematics’
2 For example, the Doctor of Theology was the highest qualification (from Wikipedia). Also see A. E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 139.
3 K. J. Vanhoozer, ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World.’ In Always Reforming, Ed. A.T.B McGowan (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 181.
4 James 2:18bβ
5 C. B. Kruger, God is For Us. (Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2000), 59.
6 A phrase borrowed from Kruger. Ibid.,
7 Often referred to as ‘wissenschaftlich’
8 Grenz states: “Theology is a community act”. In S. J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 5.
9 Vanhoozer, ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World.’ 163.
10 Ibid. 181.
11 Ibid. 181..
12 K. J. Vanhoozer, ‘A Readers Guide: How to use this book.’ In Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, Eds. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson and Michael J. Sleasman (Grand Rapids, Michagan: Baker Academic, 2007), 7.
13 Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 6
14 J. Webster, ‘Principles of Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 66.
15 As distinct from ‘Professional Theology’. See N. M. Healy, ‘What is Systematic Theology?’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 28.
16 Ibid. 29.
17 Vanhoozer, ‘Everyday Theology.’ 7.
18 P. S. Fiddes, ‘Concept, Image and Story in Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 4.
19 T. Fretheim, ‘Guidelines for Interpreting Scripture’, Pacifica Synod, Accessed on 20/10/10 at http://www.pacificasynod.org/TerryFretheim_DOTR.pdf
20 That is, the text should also critique and shed light on the interpretation and understanding of the theological system.
21 (11) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, (12) to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (13) until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (14) Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
22 Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 6.
23 Hebrews 5: (13) Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. (14) But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
24 Webster, ‘Principles.’ 66.
25 The apostles Creed, the Nicean Creed of 325, and the Contantinople-Nicean Creed of 381.
26 Grenz calls this “Choosing in the context of alternatives”. See Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 6. Also, Beeley points out that for the early church, the rise and fall of a bishop was based entirely on the truth of their doctrine. Thus the bishop was, by necessity, also a theologian. In C. A. Beeley, ‘Theology and Pastoral Leadership.’ Anglican Theological Review 91:1 (1992): 19.
27 Victoria Matthews, cited in Ibid. 14.
28 Cited in Healy, %
>I am quite new to the McIntosh Style Guide, but being all for ‘making computers work for me’ rather than grinding away aimlessly ‘working for the computer’, i decided to harness the power of endnote and see if i could make it ‘do’ McIntosh.
I have uploaded it here, but be warned – CHECK IT OVER! I also have only made templates for three reference types [edited book, book, journal article] (so far) although I will update it as I make more when I actually need / use more.
“…Doctrine directs the church faithfully to embody the way, the truth and the life defined by the history of Jesus Christ in fresh, contextually appropriate ways – in a word, to triangulate.”
In any theology, understanding and critiquing the hermeneutic in use is essential. The place of scripture, the Holy Spirit, the church community, the history of Jesus Christ, the tradition, and the current culture can all take varying degrees of import and therefore influence. In the past, various criticisms have been made of systematic theology, usually as a result of the priorities assigned to the above elements. In his essay, Vanhoozer seeks to unpack, analyse and critique these priorities, and in the process demonstrate that the best way to view systematics is “theodramatic triangulation”. In this essay I will summarise the content of Vanhoozer’s essay, and then offer some insight of my own.
In his chapter “On the Very Idea of a Theological System”, Vanhoozer offers a lengthy but thorough examination of the bread and butter of systematics – conceptual schemes – whilst paying special attention to which elements in any scheme hold epistemic primacy, who is the subject, and what is the object. Vanhoozer’s chapter is triadic in structure, which covers, firstly, three criticisms leveled against systematics, secondly, three contemporary theologians (and the historic theologian who most influenced them), and thirdly, the explanation and analysis of Vanhoozer’s creative proposal and central thesis: “Theodramatic triangulation”.
So what is Theodramatic triangulation? The answer is twofold. According to Davidson, subject-object dichotomies prevent a transcendence of the conceptual scheme to ascertain it’s truth or correspondence to reality. Thus Davidson argues that it is only via triangulation that such transcendence of the scheme can be achieved. Vanhoozer agrees, although posits that within systematics the question of epistemic primacy needs to be answered, because not all corners of the triangle are equal in this regard. Thus he invokes his earlier survey of the three contemporary theologians to illustrate this point. Each placed a different item on the points of the triangle, and each weighted each point differently.
But what are we to triangulate? According to Vanhoozer, Theodrama. Vanhoozer defines Theodrama as “God’s words and actions on the world stage, with us and for us”, as opposed to a philosophy, or a system of morality. More specifically, we are to triangulate the authoritative script (God’s Word), the belief practices of the church, and the world made new in Jesus Christ.
Vanhoozer argues that the three most common critiques of systematics (systematics is modern and hence reductionistic; systematics is western, and hence imperialist; systematics is wissenschaftlich, and hence impractical), are answered by the thesis of Theodramatic triangulation. Firstly, modern reductionist tendencies are countered by the notion that “The norming norm of theodramatic systematics is Scripture, the Spirit’s polyphonic and multi-personal speaking, a rich and imaginative resource for cultivating canonic sense”. According to Vanhoozer, this philosophy prevents scripture being reduced to a set of inert propositions, and a trove to be mined. Secondly, western biases are tempered by the fact that “Theodramatic systematics is enriched by the polyphonic and multi-perspectival scripted-yet-spirited performances that comprise church tradition, a rich resource for cultivating catholic sensibility”. Vanhoozer points out that one of the positive aspects of the postmodern movement is the understanding that location plays an influencing factor in any science, interpretation, or method. Thus systematics can benefit from the diversity of voices that are found within catholicum, both east and west. Thirdly, the practicality of systematics can be found in the fact that “Theodramatic systematics is sapiential, a form of practical wisdom that seeks to embody the mind of Christ in new situations”,1 thus redefining theology as ‘faith seeking theodramatic understanding’, where the theologian is constantly required to find ways to participate in God’s ongoing drama, in new cultural situations. Thus Vanhoozer posits that the end of theology ‘is not mere knowledge but understanding’, and a ‘sense of where one fits in the Theodrama’.
In any debate, discussion, or disagreement, the question of hermeneutics and epistemic primacy must be settled upon for there to be any further discussion! Thus a discussion on these fundamentals is of significant import.
Ultimately I agree with Vanhoozer’s hermeneutic, and think that this brings a refreshing air to a field where modernity has run unabated and unquestioned for too long. Not every impulse of the postmodern movement is praise worthy, but (as Vanhoozer has quite rightly pointed out), the awareness of the observer in the equation is a welcome breeze. Furthermore, the acceptance (and thus celebration) of the observer in the equation brings a greater diversity (as Vanhoozer puts it – polyphony) to the understanding, and thus makes the drama much bigger than ourselves, or even our immediate context.
However, the point about Vanhoozer’s proposed hermeneutic that excites me most is the idea of Theodrama – God’s words and actions, throughout history, culture, context, and culture. I am excited by this view as it places the emphasis in the correct place. It is God who is doing the action, it is Christ who is working in the world (via the Spirit), and we are to participate in that action, not conjure it up out of ourselves. Furthermore, it is God who is revealing himself to us in this drama! In addition, this alleviates the notion that scripture is a set of propositions that can be mined, with or without the Spirit’s illuminating presence. Theodrama captures the idea that this is a great epic, a story that has gone on for thousands of centuries before us, and if we are to play our part, then we must “become apprentices to the script”. Thus to be excellent at theology is to be able to indwell the script, the drama, the action so fully that we understand the storyline, the characters, their roles, their goals, and the plot and logic of the masterpiece, no matter what context we find ourselves in. And thus as we interpret the drama in our local contexts, through the power of the Spirit (‘through his internal witness in one’s conscience and through his corporate witness in the tradition of the church’). And this can only be achieved, not by an empiricism, nor by a subject-object dualism, but by a triangulation.
Theodramatic Triangulation therefore represents an extremely helpful methodology for systematics. One that is in keeping with contemporary thought, but one that also places the emphasis in the correct places. As Vanhoozer has demonstrated in his essay, a model like theodramatic triangulation helps avoid the pitfalls that have snared systematics in its history, whilst still providing a meaningful, valid, and important place in catholicum for systematics.
Bloesch, Donald, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation, Downers Grove, IVP, 2006, 48.
Davidson, Donald, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd Edition, Oxford, Clarendon, 2001, 183.
Kruger, C.Baxter, Founder and President of Perichoresis, Inc. ‘You’re Included’, a Series by Grace Communion International. Interview by J.M.Feazell (available from http://www.gci.org/yi/kruger5).
Purves, Andrew, Professor of Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. ‘You’re Included’, a Series by Grace Communion International. Interview by J.M.Feazell (available from http://www.gci.org/yi/purves100).
Torrance, Alan J., Professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews. ‘You’re Included’, a Series by Grace Communion International. Interview by J.M.Feazell (available from http://www.gci.org/yi/torrance75);
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World.’ In Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology. Edited by A.T.B McGowan. Downers Grove, IVP, 2006, 125-182.
What was the sin of Babel, if any? In ‘Vertical or Horizontal: The sin of Babel’, P.J. Harland seeks to demonstrate that the Babel’s sin was horizontal, an act of disobedience to the divine command to ‘fill and subdue the earth’. This is based on a canonical reading of Genesis, as opposed to reading the Babel narrative in isolation. Here I review Harland’s article and show that whilst compelling, his argument still does not preclude other interpretations, and offer an interpretation of my own that takes into account a source critical approach as well as a canonical approach.
Summary of the Article
In this article, P.J. Harland seeks to discuss and ultimately answer the question – “What was the sin of Babel, if any?”. This is achieved by demonstrating that the ‘complete text is more than the sum of its parts’, and when read with the surrounding material, rather than in isolation from, the meaning is significantly altered. Harland does this by examining the arguments for and against two main methodologies.
First, the ‘source critical approach’, where the account in Genesis 11:1-9 is read as passage that has undergone a number of edits (ranging from two to four), but is ultimately read on it’s own, as an awkward insertion during the compilation process of the primeval history. This has the net effect of making Genesis 11:1-9 a ‘textual island’ – read in isolation from the surrounding passages, and thus the resultant sin is a vertical sin – hubris.
The second approach seeks to read the story of Genesis 11:1-9 in situ, and thus also understand what meaning is derived from its location in Scripture. To Harland, under this methodology, the implied sin is horizontal – direct disobedience to the Genesis 1:28 (&9:1) command to “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”. Harland argues that under this interpretation, the people of Genesis 11:1-9 “have a fortress mentality which seeks to survive by its own resources, not on the will and purpose of God”.
Harland thus seeks to unpack and critique both understandings, based on their methodology.
The source critical approach:
When investigating the Source Critical methodology, Harland makes two central points. Firstly, he is not convinced by recent and also older arguments that Genesis 11:1-9 is a compilation or a weaving of two stories. Although scholars such as Uehlinger have argued that 11:1-9 is actually a story that has moved through multiple edits, Harland (and other scholars) point out that although coherent, this minute dissection presses on the limits of credibility, and also reduces the original ‘layer’ to such a bare structure that it hardly resembles a story! Furthermore, Harland and Wenham both argue that the story demonstrates a chiasmatic structure, and thus is unlikely to have been a story edited four times, as the chiasmatic structure would require a single author. In fact Wenham in the opening lines of his commentary on chapter 11:1-9 states: “The tower of Babel is a short but brilliant example of Hebrew story telling. The compositional techniques…word play, chiasmus, paronomasia, and alliteration are just some of the devices used to unify and accentuate the message of the tale”. Thus it seems clear in Wenham’s mind that a single author devised and wrote this passage.
Thus Harland concludes that the text need not be split or separated, but can legitimately be read as unity.
Whilst many of Harland’s critiques of this theory are compelling, not all stand up for themselves. For example, whilst it is hard to split v3 into two separate stand alone stories, this does not rule out the possibility of a later source adding more information, or of an editor ‘splicing’ two traditions together to generate a syncretic whole. Furthermore, the change in point of view that is evident in v3 and v4 seems to lend further support to this idea. In my opinion, theories like Uehlinger’s four layers still seem compelling, and fit with this model, however Wenham’s argument regarding the chiasmatic intent and literary ingenuity are not easily resolved if this is a spliced story.
Secondly, Harland points out that the greater issue here is that of the interactions of Gen 11:1-9 with the surrounding material. Many scholars (such as von Rad) have argued that Gen 11:1-9 is ‘irreconcilable’ with Gen 10 especially, and have also demonstrated that Gen 11:1-9 does not ‘fit’ well with other parts of J. This has previously lent support to the idea that this passage is a textual island, and although Harland goes on to challenge this notion, he does recognise the rationale for this position.
Thus it is likely in Harland’s mind that more than one source was involved in compiling the primeval history, although some times not in a seamless manner. Harland concludes, and I would concur, that “the combining of the traditions does not appear to have been fully integrated”, but that this passage is intended to be read in a wider context.
The Yahwist’s portrayal of the sin of Babel
Given that it is largely accepted that Gen 11:1-9 originated from the J tradition, Harland then seeks to unpack and investigate the story of Babel from the Yahwist’s perspective, in isolation, as has been the norm. In this, Harland examines the evidence that links Gen 11:1-9 to Babylon, and the Ziggurat structures that were common place. Under this interpretation, the sin being committed was one of hubris, rebellion, or some form of idolatry. Other interpretations have also focused on the vertical aspect, arguing that the sin was similar to that of Gen 3:5 and 6:1-4, where humanity desires improper intercourse with the divine. Once again, Harland is not convinced by arguments that create this link, instead arguing that although plausible, too much is being read into the text here.15 Harland notes that “no mention is made by the people that they intended any proper worship or idolatry”, and later goes on to demonstrate that the word used for tower, mgdl, is used in other places in the Old Testament to refer to a citadel or a tower in the city wall, rather than a Ziggurat, Pyramid, or Cultic symbol. Wenham, in his commentary on this passage, points to a similar notion, and argues that although this passage may contain motifs that bear some similarity to babylonian stories such as that of Etemenanki, they should not be interpreted as direct references, but just influencing motifs. Furthermore, scholars (including Harland) argue that the story of Babel is intended as a global story, not limited to a certain race or civilisation.
While Harland’s warning about eisegetic tendencies occurring must be heeded, it is similarly unwise to also overlook the many links and parallels between this text and the Babylonian texts (such as Enuma Elish), which speaks of brickwork, and a tower with its head in the sky. Wenham’s interpretation of influencing motifs seems more reasonable, however this must be tempered with an understanding that this raises a multiplicity of dating conundrums, and any theory must be able to account for these.
Thus the sin of Babel, like Eden, under this methodology, is one of hubris and rebellion. When read as a textual island, the sin being committed seems vertical. However Harland remains unconvinced by this interpretation, and therefore goes on to offer an alternative, where he shows parallels (or echoes) from an earlier Genesis text – the Garden of Eden. These echoes are an important motif, and are emphasised, rightly so, by many scholars. Harland argues that the repeated motif here is one of trying to break the divinely imposed limits on humanity, and ‘grasping’ at being like God (cf. Gen 3:5, 3:22, also 6:4). This interpretation is not new, and can be found in ancient literature.
This methodology of isolation is unconvincing, not because the motifs mentioned are not real nor important, but I believe there is a wider series of motifs to pull into this text that are lost when Gen 11:1-9 is examined as a self-contained unit, and therefore the interpretation that the tower is a Ziggurat and is representative of hubris and rebellion, seems narrow. However, this does not rule out Walton’s interpretation of idolatry.
Ultimately, with Harland, I am not compelled by this method as I believe that more is to be gained from a canonical reading, as the next section goes on to demonstrate.
Reading J & P together:
Here Harland makes his case that the original meaning of Gen 11:1-9 is to demonstrate the disobedience to the divine command given in Gen 1:28 and in Gen 9:1 – “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”. This is based on three main points.
Firstly, when read canonically, and in light of these divine commands, the tower of Babel appears to be a point of unification – “lest we be scattered across the face of the whole earth”. Harland argues that this phrase forms a direct link between Gen 11:1-9 and the earlier divine commands, as the motif of filling / scattering is employed in both. Harland posits that the tower and the city are built not as an act of pride, nor as an attempt to overstep creaturely limits, but as a way of staying in one place. Furthermore, and importantly, in this case we see the typical response of the culture where the punishment fits the crime. The fact that the punishment for their sin was a confusion of languages and a consequent scattering strengthens the argument that the sin committed was one of disobedience to a dispersal edict.
Secondly, there is a focus in this text on scattering, as has been highlighted by both Gunkel and Uehlinger’s layer’s theories. Harland points out that the word for scatter (pws) is used both positively and negatively in the Old Testament, but in all cases refers to God’s desire for the earth to be filled. In addition, Harland points to the use of the word pn here, which is used to demonstrate fear, indicating a lack of trust in God’s command to spread.
Thirdly, Harland builds his case on the use of the word mgdl in other Old Testament texts referring to a citadel or a fortress. Harland uses the example of Judges 9:50-7 where the people flee to the mgdl when the city is taken.
So was the sin of Babel a horizontal or a vertical sin? Ultimately, I think there is much to be gained from a canonical reading of scripture, and examining the chapters in relation to the surrounding material. When this approach is taken, we see a wider range of motifs being employed in this text, which ultimately become not “either/or”, as Harland has portrayed, but more of a “both/and”. For instance, whilst we do see motifs of scattering, we also see motifs of pride, rebellion, and humanity striving to overstep human limits, followed by a divinely enforced ‘return to their proper place’ (as we saw in Gen 3). However there are other motifs too, such as sin and grace, where humans sin and God responds with judgement but also grace. There are motifs of a God who continues to relate to and ‘walk in’ his creation, not remaining aloof but interacting with it at a personal level. And there is the obvious but ingenious motif of babbling, which as Wenham points out is woven throughout the entire passage, and reaches its climax in v9.
In addition, there is also much to be gained from the source critical approach, and we would be foolish to disregard these theories. There is certainly compelling evidence regarding semantic fields, point of view, layers, doublets, and the lack of neat integration with the surrounding texts, that indicates that perhaps more than one tradition or source was involved in the forming of this story. However, Harland’s assertion that a source critical approach will result in a ‘vertical sin’ interpretation, is a non sequitur argument. What will result in a vertical sin interpretation is reading the text as an island, isolated from the surrounding scripture, and independent of its canonical context, but this is not implicit to the source critical method. But it must also be stressed that Harland’s counter argument is also not convincing. Although the evidence for Harland’s interpretation is coherent and cogent, it fails to preclude all other interpretations, thus making Harland’s claims that “the meaning is significantly altered” when read in a wider context, unconvincing. At best, the meaning is nuanced, or broadened, but ultimately not dramatically changed. Thus in my reading of Gen 11:1-9, the sin of the people was both horizontal and vertical. As with the rest of Genesis 1-11, mankind is seen to be intent on rebellion. Rebellion against the divinely instigated creaturely limits, and also rebellion against the divine command to ‘fill and subdue the earth’. Thus in this rebellion they plotted to ‘create a name for themselves’, by building a city and a tower that would not only protect them, but also enable them to ‘become like God.’
So was Babel’s sin one of hubris, rebellion, or disobedience? In my interpretation, all three.
Childs, B. Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
Harland, P.J. ‘Vertical or Horizontal: The Sin of Babel’, Vetus Testamentum 48, (1998), 515-533.
Walton, J.H. Genesis, The NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Wenham, G. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary, 1. Waco: Word Books, 1987.
Genesis 20 presents to us a story with multiple interpretations, each with their own specific focus, and therefore implications. In this passage, we see Abraham pretending that his wife is his sister, and God intervening twice. But what is the purpose of this passage?
Genesis (‘beginnings’), tells the story of how God’s chosen people, the Israelites, came to be. We come to chapter 20 having journeyed from the initial call of Abram to leave his father’s house, and set out “for the land I will show you” (Ch 12), through the famine in Egypt (12:10), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Ch 19), and finally into Gerar (Ch 20), which is thought to be on the southeastern border of Canaan.1 Throughout this journey, God has been slowly ‘establishing a covenant‘ with Abram (Ch15, Ch17), and gives Abram his new name, Abraham (17:5).
In chapter 20, we see Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech, who has been deceived by both Abraham and Sarah, and is informed of the deception by God in a night dream. This encounter with Abimelech echoes similar stories in chapter 12 and 26, and introduces to the reader another ‘obstacle’ to the fulfillment of the Abramic covenant. Importantly, the paternity of Isaac is at stake here, and is alluded to in verses 17 & 18.
It is uncertain as to whether this King’s name actually was Abimelech, as this name can also be translated “my father is King”, “my father is MLK”, and “my father is mulku/milku”. Thus it has been suggested that this was instead a title, rather than a name. However, other historical documents also record a King of Tyre named Abimilki during a similar time period, and it has been suggested that these may be the same King.
Looking a little deeper into the history, we find that this passage is found in the Tôledôt [account of] Terah (Abraham’s father), although some scholars contend that the Tôledôt are instead colophon’s (conclusions), making this passage fit within the account of Ishmael. Derek Kidner addresses this issue, and points out that the use of Tôledôt as a conclusion does not make grammatical sense when it is used in Ruth 4:18. Furthermore, the usage of Tôledôt in Genesis is followed by “an account of what issued from the point just named”, (e.g. – ‘This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created’).
Genesis 20 also is the second of the three ‘wife-sister narratives’ in Genesis, a subject of much source-critic speculation. It is contended that the repetition of a story with such a similar plot must be oral variants on the same incident. However many commentators disagree with this contention, specifically on the grounds of verse 2 (“She is my sister”). Van Seters argues that this verse presupposes the account in Chapter 12, which explain Abraham’s motives.
It is unclear who authored this passage, however it is generally accepted that Moses had some role to play, either in an editorial or an authorial function. Traditional source criticism ascribes this passage to the Elohist (E), although they argue that v18 has been edited later due to a different name used for God (“The Lord”, as opposed to “God”), however this is now disputed.
The actual original meaning of this text is also under much discussion, and no single consensus has been reached. Most commentators do agree that this passage is one of many passages demonstrating God’s providence and protection despite many obstacles, whilst simultaneously showing yet another example of how Abraham doubts God ability and takes things into his own hands. However what is disputed is Abimelech’s role in this narrative. Two options are possible. Either, this story is intended to demonstrate that Abimelech is a morally earnest, upright leader, although pagan, illustrating the fact that godly people do exist outside of Israel; alternatively, the Abimelech story is intended as comic relief, and Abimelech is portrayed as a fool. These views will be discussed here.
Wenham argues that the striking thing about Abimelech in this text is his piety and earnest righteousness. In fact, as the narrative continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Abraham’s surmise “There is surely no fear of God in this place” is quite misplaced. Abimelech’s reaction to the revelation in the dream is one of true repentance (“Early the next morning”) , and also of genuine horror (“you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin?”). His moral earnestness is also shown is his questioning of Abraham (“How have I sinned against you?”) as well as his repentance being evidenced in the giving of plentiful gifts (e.g. – 1000 shekels of silver was more than the average lifetime wage). Wenham compares this reaction of Abimelech’s to that of Pharaoh in Ch 12, demonstrating that Abimelech’s reaction is intended to generate sympathy towards him. In particular, Wenham points to the fact that Pharaoh did not take any blame, did not let Abraham explain himself, and expelled Abraham immediately (cf Abimelech’s response).
In addition, Wenham argues that the use of the word “nation” (גּוֹי גּוֹי (gowy)) instead of ‘Man’ in verse 4 is the correct translation, based on the earlier question, “what have you done to us?”, indicating that Abimelech bears the weight of the nation on his shoulders.
Finally, Wenham argues that the hinge point of this passage is v8, (the summoning of the officials) based on a chiasmatic structure, and thus “Abimelech’s fear is the consequence of all that precedes, and the presupposition of all that follows”.
In contrast, Tzvi Novick argues for a different interpretation, whereby Abimelech becomes the fool of the story. This is based primarily on two main pillars – firstly, (as with Wenham) a comparison between Pharaoh and Abimelech, and secondly, on what Novick claims is the central verses in the passage (verses 17 and 18).
For Novick, verses 17 & 18 reveal the real surprise, and also the real plot, of this narrative. In this view, when we place these verses as the centre of the passage, Abimelech’s “righteousness” vanishes, for we suddenly realise that it was not moral restraint, nor perhaps even lack of opportunity, that has retained his innocence, but rather, an intervention of God. Of critical importance here is the understanding of the phrase “closed fast the wombs”. Many commentators, regardless of their view on Abimelech, agree that this phrase is likely to mean sexual dysfunction of some form, most notably because Abimelech himself requires healing too. Thus Novick concludes that the real plot here, is that upon taking Sarah into his harem, Abimelech is struck with impotency, thus barring intercourse. However, unlike Pharaoh, who instantly realises the reason for his malady, Abimelech does not. Thus God also comes to Abimelech in a dream. Central to Novick’s case here is the idea that Abimelech is intended not as a righteous example, but instead as a comic figure, and this becomes evident here. Novick contends that embarrassed by his impotency, Abimelech tries to cover it up, first to God (by protesting his lack of knowledge, rather than his lack of deed), and secondly to Abraham. Novick draws support for this view from the fact that Abimelech speaks to Abraham as if he had committed ‘a great sin’ (“You have brought so great a guilt/sin upon me and my kingdom?”). Novick also posits that the gifts given to Abraham were to continue the charade that some wrong did occur. Thus verses 17 & 18 suddenly become the punch line of the whole joke – just when Abimelech thinks that his secret is safe, the narrator, unable to contain himself, blurts out the truth. Novick also cements this interpretation by arguing that the setting, Gerar, is conducive to comedy, as opposed to Egypt which is “fraught with national-historical import”.
This passage takes the form of a narrative, as evidenced by the string of facts and events connected by a plot, yielding a ‘story’, and has a characteristic Narrative-Dialogue-Narrative-Dialogue pattern. There is disagreement as to whether this passage is intended as a historical record, or rather is intended to illustrate some critical points of Abraham, Sarah, or Abimelech. However it is important to not to reduce the passage to moralistic examples, and make it about mankind. Ultimately, the bible is about God.
In many respects, the contemporary significance of such a contested passage will depend on the readers interpretation of the story. A number of possible interpretations were mentioned here, although only two were discussed in depth, and there are no doubt others.
In my opinion however, regardless of the reader interprets the main character’s actions, there is a central point to this text: Even though to us it may look like a disaster, God has a plan, and keeps his promises.
Indeed, we must not lose sight of the fact that, as Walton reminds us, the covenant with Abram is a revelatory covenant. As the Word of God (incarnate and Scripture) is God’s self revelation of himself to mankind, so too, God uses the covenant with Abram to reveal himself to Abram, and then also, to us. Walton puts this nicely:
“Since people had distanced themselves from God and knowledge of God had become distorted and corrupted, reclamation was necessary and required God to reveal himself to people. The chosen instrument for this self revelation was a covenant made with one elect individual, Abram. This covenant was made through many difficult circumstances and overcame many stumbling blocks. In the process the faith of Abram and his family was strengthened, evidenced, and demonstrated, and the faithfulness and sovereignty of God was maintained as many of the promises of the covenant were brought to reality.”
Byers, G. ‘Tyre and the Tell El-Amarna Tablets’. Bible and Spade 15; 4 (2002).
Hirsch, E.G., Bacher, W., et al. ‘Sarah (Sarai)‘. In The Jewish Encyclopedia. Edited by. I. Singer, C. Adler, et al. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1901–1906.
Keil, C.F. and Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.
Kidner, D. Genesis : An introduction and commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. London: The Tyndale Press, 1967.
Moran, W.L.. The Armana Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Novick, T. ‘Almost, at Times, the Fool’ : Abimelech and Genesis 20. Prooftexts 24.3 (2004): 277-290
Walton, J.H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Wenham, G. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary. 2 vols. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.
“Abimelech”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abimelech
Newsflash! Focusing on youth as a problem marginalises them while working with their strengths and talents has a positive impact.
This might seem obvious, but new research into three grassroots programmes has demonstrated a ‘truism’ that’s frequently ignored by those focusing on so-called ‘youth issues’.
“Confidence changes everything,” according to a young member of the Naenae Boxing Academy, one of the three projects evaluated. The others are Streets Ahead 237 which provides alternatives to joining gangs, and the Dziah Dance Academy using Hip Hop to develop young people in South Auckland.
Massey University’s Whariki Research Group has evaluated these programmes which work within the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa (YSDA) framework for supporting positive youth development. Each has been supported in their work by the Vodafone Foundation.
Social acceptance, capability building and health and wellbeing are key parts of their approach and the research has shown the programmes share some common traits:
– Providing safe and supportive environments
– Providing safe and supportive people and relationships
– Providing positive activities and opportunities
Against a back-drop of negative publicity about so-called ‘youth-issues’ the research shows young people are essential to finding solutions and opportunities for their own future.
According to Whariki researcher, Hector Kaiwai, the work has provided some great case studies to provide evidence for what many youth-sector workers already know.
“Our young people are the ones who are best placed to create and improve their own destinies.”
Vodafone Foundation Chairperson, Michael Stanley says the evaluation has been groundbreaking for the Foundation and will hopefully help the whole sector.
“The successful focus point this research has shown is our partners’ ability to hook young people into learning and development,” he says.
A full copy of the Whariki Evaluation can be downloaded from www.vodafoneNZFoundation.org.nz