The Structure of Genesis (The Covenant & the Cross #23)

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Today’s passage of Scripture is John 6:63 which reads: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from John Quincy Adams. He said: “So great is my veneration for the Bible that the earlier my children begin to read it the more confident will be my hope that they will prove useful citizens of their country and respectable members of society. I have for many years made it a practice to read through the Bible once every year.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Structure of Genesis” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin.

It would seem that when God gave the Israelites their first canon on Mount Sinai, it was designed to answer several questions. One of the key concerns in their minds probably was, What does God now expect from us? God’s answer is evidenced by various lifestyle issues set forth in what we call the “Law.” But there must have been other questions. Two that readily come to mind are, Why us? and Why is God doing this? Both of these are answered in the book of Genesis. But before they are addressed, a prior issue is dealt with — one of the key questions about life: Where did it all begin? As we will see, this topic is foundational to all others.

The Bible begins with a basic answer to that question, although it does not give us anywhere near the detail we would like, and even the information we have is debatable. Rather, it records just enough data to demonstrate two key points: (1) the universe in which we live was entirely created by God, and (2) the world in which we live is not the way God created it. To understand these ideas, we need to appreciate how Genesis is organized

From a literary perspective, Genesis is a well-structured book. The author uses a stylistic marker to break the book into sections. This structural indicator, which clarifies the author’s intentions, is the Hebrew word “toledot,” often translated “generations.” For example, if we look up Genesis 5:1 in most English translations, we find a phrase like “Now these are the generations of Adam”; a list of some of Adam’s descendants (a genealogy) follows.

However, the word must mean more than a list of descendants. For example, in the “toledot” of Noah in Genesis 6:9, we find not a genealogy, but an account of the Flood. Likewise, in Genesis 2:4, a reference to the “toledot” of heaven and earth is followed by a recap of Creation. Here, modern translations read something like “This is the account of the heavens and the earth…” Therefore, a better translation of the phrase “these are the toledot of…” might be “this is what became of…”

The term “toledot” appears 10 times in Genesis. It normally seems to serve as a marker introducing each section. The key exception is the opening for the creation account. Given the overall pattern and the subject matter if each section, the opening account would then be an introduction to the whole book. This understanding will prove important when we look at the relationship between the first two chapters, a key factor leading to the modern liberal interpretation of the Bible.

In terms of the overall structure of the book, we might also group these various “toledot” segments together into three major sections based on their general focus. The first major section, Genesis 1:1-11:26, sets the stage by explaining where life, the universe, and everything came from. It also explains how the perfect world God created became the mess we struggle with today. The second major section, Genesis 11:27-37:1, tells of God selecting from humankind a single man who was to be an instrument of God. The author’s purpose seems to be to show how God began to fix the mess the world is in. The process begins by establishing a line of individuals who had a special relationship with God. The final segment, Genesis 37:2-50:26, shows the purpose of that relationship as it began to transform an individual into a nation that was to mediate between God and humanity. In other words, these three sections answer the three questions we noted earlier.

The first question is, Where (or How) did it all begin? As we look at the issues involved in how we got the world in which we live, Genesis 1-11 focuses on three lessons: Where did the world come from? Why is the world in such a mess? and What happens when you ignore God? This section of Genesis only gives broad answers to all three questions, leaving many more questions in our minds. Still, there is enough information to point us in the right direction as long as we keep the issues in perspective.

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The Accuracy of Our Modern Bible (The Covenant & the Cross #22)

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Today’s passage of Scripture is John 6:68 which reads: “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Thomas Jefferson. He said: “I have always said that a studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Accuracy of Our Modern Bible” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin.

One concern often expressed is, How do we know that the Bible available to us has been preserved accurately? Modern critics have noted that because the Bible was copied by hand so many times, differences arose in the manuscripts. Therefore, they have concluded, that the Bible cannot be trusted. However, careful study and evaluation shows just the opposite. While there are textual differences, for the most part, they are spelling or grammatical variations, easily explained. Further, when we examine the text carefully, we find that the foundational beliefs of Christianity are based on solid textual evidence; moreover, doctrines usually arise from a wide variety of passages.

Let us consider first the Old Testament text. Until just after World War II, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts we had for the Old Testament dated from about 900 AD. We did have several copies from this general time period, including the Leningrad Codex (named after its location in a museum in Leningrad) and the Aleppo Coda (from the city in Syria where it was found). These followed what is called the Masoretic text, named after the scribes who meticulously transcribed copy after copy.

The Old Testament books, of course, were written from about the fifteenth to the fifth century BCE. Because more than thirteen hundred years had passed between the completion of these writings and the oldest manuscripts available to us, the common accusation by modern scholars was that the text had changed substantially over the centuries. In 1948, however, the academic world was astounded by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Since then, many other manuscripts have been discovered in the Judean desert. Among these, every book of the Old Testament has been identified except Esther. One of the most significant is the Great Scroll of Isaiah, which was found to include the entire book of Isaiah. This scroll has been dated to about 150-100 BCE. Its text is “almost identical” to the text in the Hebrew Bibles.

Turning to the Greek New Testament, an astounding point from an archaeological perspective is the number of manuscripts available. More than five thousand have been catalogued, some of which have been dated to within a century of the claimed or traditional date of composition While this material would lead us to assume that we have an accurate picture of who Jesus was and what He did, there are still people today who deny the New Testament accounts. Typically, such people begin with the assumption that Jesus was solely human and then try to manipulate the data to fit that theory.

The Idea of Canon (Part 6) (The Covenant & the Cross #21)

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Today’s passage of Scripture is John 1:14 which reads: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Abraham Lincoln. He said: “I am profitably engaged in reading the Bible. Take all of this Book that you can by reason and the balance by faith, and you will live and die a better man. It is the best Book which God has given to man.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Idea of the Canon (Part 6)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin.

Because most of the New Testament books are letters to various churches throughout the Mediterranean region, it took some time for all of the churches in various cities to amass a complete (or nearly complete) collection. For example, Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Colosse with instructions for them to pass it on to the church in Laodicea (and likewise for the Colossians to read the letter to the Laodiceans). Similarly, the letter we call Second Corinthians was also addressed to all of central Greece. Each individual church that received a letter would either hand-copy it and then forward the copy or have the other church send a scribe to make a copy to take back. In this manner, copies of the individual letters gradually spread throughout the early church. By 70 AD there apparently were local churches all the way from Spain to India and from England to Ethiopia.

As can be imagines, hand-copying these letters would be a slow process. Still, indications are that by early in the second century, most of the local churches within the Roman world were largely in agreement as to which writings should be included in the New Testament canon. This agreement was not formalized, however, until the third council of Carthage in 397.

The authors of the Old Testament canon are often considered prophets, that is, God’s spokesmen. (Prophets performed other roles besides giving predictions about the future, so books written by them were not necessarily “prophetic,” that is, predictive in character.) This concept also applies to the New Testament authors, although for them we generally use the term “apostle” (“sent one”), which usually refers to the original twelve disciples of Jesus. Paul was not part of this circle but was marked out as an apostle in his calling. Not all of the New Testament books were written by apostles, however. Mark and Luke were were two key authors who do not appear to meet any criteria of apostleship, although they are often considered spokesmen for the apostles Peter and Paul respectively.

The Idea of Canon (Part 5) (The Covenant & the Cross #20)

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Today’s passage of Scripture is Isaiah 28:9-10 which reads: “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Billy Graham. He said: “The word of God hidden in the heart is a stubborn voice to suppress.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Idea of the Canon (Part 5)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin.

The focus of the Gospels is on Jesus and His claim to be the Messiah. As such, they omit much of what we would like to know about the life of Jesus. What was He like as a child? How did He play with other children? What kind of student was He? How did His parents treat Him? How did He relate to His brothers and sisters? He is termed a carpenter, but we know nothing about His work. He is called a Nazarene, but we know nothing about His hometown. Thus, as biographies, the Gospels leave a lot to be desired. However, the way they are structured gives us a hint that their purpose is something else. For example, the bulk of each gospel (from about 27 percent of Luke to almost 40 percent of John) covers the last week of the life of Jesus (less than one-tenth of one percent of His life).

John’s gospel gives a hint as to what this purpose is. He writes that he only included a few miracles that Jesus had performed in order that the reader “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” The key word is “Christ”, the Greek equivalent of “Messiah” (they both mean “Anointed One”). Thus, a good definition of a gospel might be “a book that proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah and gives evidence to demonstrate that fact.” The primary evidence that Jesus is the Messiah was His crucifixion and resurrection, which is why the Gospels spend so much time on the last week of Jesus’ life. He presented Himself as Messiah and was crucified for making the claim; however, the resurrection vindicated Him.

The Idea of Canon (Part 4) (The Covenant & the Cross #19)

Today’s passage of Scripture is Proverbs 2:1-5 which reads: “My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Martin Luther. He said: “You may as well quit reading and hearing the Word of God, and give it to the devil, if you do not desire to live according to it.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Idea of the Canon (Part 4)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin.

It is important to realize that Christianity began with the assumption that the Jewish canon was authoritative. This point is often overlooked, but it is crucial. First, the concept of Messiah (or Christ) comes from the Jewish canon. Jews who knew Jesus measured His life against that standard. A number of Jews rejected Him, but that was because of preconceived notions of what the Messiah was to do. Many looked at the data and agreed that Jesus met the standards of the Old Testament. Those who accepted Him became the first church—a significant community of Jews. Second, early followers of the Messiah (or the Christ) measured New Testament writers against the Old Testament standard and used the same process of guidance by the Holy Spirit to validate the new writings.

So the New Testament was written and accepted in a manner similar to the Old Testament, but with several key distinctions. First, while the Old Testament was primarily written to God’s people when they were concentrated in the land of Israel, the New Testament was primarily written to groups of God’s people throughout the Roman Empire where they had scattered. For this reason, the New Testament books were written in Greek instead of Hebrew. These New Testament books also took somewhat longer to be accepted by the overall community of God’s people, for it was more widely dispersed. Second, while the Old Testament focused on God’s work of deliverance of the nation from Egypt and the implications of that event in terms of a future Messiah, the New Testament was written to demonstrate that the Messiah had already appeared as a historical figure and to explain the significance of His coming. The focus of the New Testament is therefore on the resurrection and the implications of that event for the relationship of humanity to God.

As mentioned before, the church accepted the Old Testament canon from the beginning. After all, the Christian community was totally Jewish for at least eight years and predominantly Jewish for another decade or so. Individual New Testament books were clearly accepted at a very early stage. By approximately 64 CE, Peter was referring to Paul’s letters, written mainly during the previous decade, as Scripture. This important detail is reminiscent of Daniel’s similar reference to Jeremiah.

The Epistles primarily deal with the implications of the gospel that was being proclaimed. Many of them pre-date the written Gospels, probably for two reasons. The early church was convinced that the return of Jesus was right around the corner and thus, at first, a written argument that He was the Messiah did not seem to be needed. Moreover, evaluating the implications of the gospel was the first need of the church. The Gospels, in the form they have come to us, were written down as the church gradually realized that the second coming of Christ was not going to be as soon as anticipated, and the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection began to be martyred and otherwise die off.

The Idea of Canon (Part 3) (The Covenant & the Cross #18)

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We always like to start out with the Word of God, and today’s passage of Scripture is Psalm 119:17 which reads: “Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Jeffrey E. Ramey. He said: “Who decides what is right and wrong in the world? Who has the authority to define morality for all of creation? It is not the courts, congress, the media, public opinion, the “politically correct” police, the “tolerance” brigade, or even the church. The only answer has been, is, and always will be Jesus Christ. You can find His opinion on a great variety of subjects in His best seller, the Bible.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Idea of Canon (Part 3)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin

Joshua followed in the footsteps of Moses and wrote the book of Joshua, which was included in the canon. Evidence suggests that these later canonical books were, from the time they were written, accepted by the community as inspired because they measured up to the original standards. We see this point illustrated in Daniel 9:2, where the author identifies the writings of Jeremiah, a contemporary of Daniel, as Scripture.

Today, we really don’t understand how the early Jews distinguished between the canonical and the noncanonical, although in many cases the qualitative differences are very clear. For example, the apocryphal book, Bel and the Dragon, reads more like a Hardy Boys mystery than a scriptural account of the life of Daniel. We do know that the canon involves the concept of inspiration. As such, however, it must include two roles of the Holy Spirit: first in inspiring the writer, and then in verifying this inspiration through the community as a whole. It appears that very soon after the Exile, the books we find in our Old Testament had been widely accepted within the Jewish community as canonical.

As the canon gradually took shape, it became the standard and authority for the community and for individuals. Thus, from the time Moses brought the Law down from the mountain, the nation of Israel, then Judaism, and finally Christianity had a written body of law and standards by which behavior was measured. It was also the standard by which future writings were measured.

The Idea of Canon (Part 2) (The Covenant & the Cross #17)

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Today’s passage of Scripture is Ezra 7:10 which reads: “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Johann Goethe. He said: “Let mental culture go on advancing, let the natural sciences progress in ever greater extent and depth, and the human mind widen itself as much as it desires, beyond the elevation and moral culture of Christianity, as it shines forth in the gospels, it will not go.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Idea of Canon (Part 2)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin

When the Jews were scattered throughout the world in the Diaspora (after the Babylonian exile), they began translating the Old Testament into their everyday languages. The most important translation of the Old Testament is the Greek, often called the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a product of the Exile. Although Ezra and Nehemiah consolidated the nation after the return, a number of Jews remained scattered throughout the Middle East. After Alexander the Great, Greek displaced Aramaic as the lingua franca. Aramaic was close enough to Hebrew that literate Aramaic speaker, with some effort and help, could read Hebrew. That was not the case with Greek. Within a few generations, many Greek-speaking Jews were no longer able to understand their Bible. To compensate, the Jews in Alexandria commissioned a translation of Hebrew-Aramaic text into Greek. This translation became the text of choice of many Jews outside of Palestine and served as a background to most of the New Testament citations of the Old Testament.

After a hiatus of about 400 years, the New Testament writings began to be added to the cannon, following the same procedures: God guiding men to write books as He deemed necessary. The early New Testament books fell into two basic categories: eyewitness accounts of the Messiah (the Gospels), and letters from key witnesses written to various groups of believers (the Epistles). The book of Acts, which recounts part of the history of the early church, and the book of Revelation, which gives the church hope of the second coming of the Messiah, finish it off. The question of whether this later collection should be considered Scripture was one factor leading to the division between Judaism and Christianity (although the key issue was whether Jesus was the Messiah).

Clearly the first books of the Old Testament were accepted readily by God’s people because they were witnesses to much of what the books recorded. They had seen Moses go up the mountain, and they had heard God speak. Other books were added through the years as they were accepted by the community of believers. This addition process started soon after the initial canon. Moses wrote Numbers and Deuteronomy, and they were added in about forty years of the initial canon. But the fact that Moses wrote them was not the deciding factor. He also may have written the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” and the “Book of Jashar.” We no longer have those; they were never canonical.

The Idea of Canon (Part 1) (The Covenant & the Cross #16)

Today’s passage of Scripture is Matthew 28:19-20 which reads: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Patrick Henry. He said: “The Bible is worth all other books which have ever been printed.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Idea of Canon (Part 1)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin

Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus became the first “canon.” This concept is crucial. The word canon (referring to a group of writings regarded as authentic) is used to describe the body of literature we call the Bible or Scripture. This English term is a transliteration from the Latin, which borrowed it from the Greek, which in turn had taken it from a Semitic language, probably from Hebrew “ga-neh,” meaning “reed” or “measuring stick.”

As we look over the following fifteen hundred years of biblical history, we see that the canon as we have it today developed gradually. What we mean is that various books were added to the three given at Sinai as God deemed necessary. Most of the material was written in Hebrew. The Hebrew text of the original three books was very close to (but not exactly) what we have today. At times editorial comments were added. (For example, Gen. 26:33 states that the city of Beersheba was called by that name “to this day,” and Josh. 7:26 notes that a great heap of stones stands “to this day.”) Moreover, at times some elements of the Hebrew language were apparently updated, as is done with modern translations, though very often the community retained even archaic linguistic features. Such revisions, however, were apparently no longer being made by New Testament times.

If the book of Job was composed at an early date, it was likely included in the first canon, along with Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. The first actual new book added to this initial canon would have been Numbers, a travelogue that records how the fledgling nation journeyed from Sinai to the Trans-jordan. Numbers was followed by Deuteronomy, which records the renewal of the covenant (the treaty between God and the nation) across the Jordan River from Jericho just before Moses died. The rest of the books of the Old Testament were added over the next thousand years, as we shall trace in the following chapters.

Near the end of the process, parts of some books were written in Aramaic. This language, which is closely related to Hebrew, became the lingua franca (the international trade language) of the Ancient Near East as early as the eighth century BC, and it was adopted by the Jews at the time of the Exile. The Aramaic segments of the Old Testament are confined to three passages that apparently deal with issues of primary relevance to the Gentiles.

After the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the Israelites’ return from the Exile, the Old Testament canon was completed. This does not mean that the Jews stopped writing books. The community of God-fearers, however, did not consider the books written after this time as measuring up to the original standard. Some of these later writings constitute what we today call the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

The Recording of God’s Word (Part 2) (The Covenant & the Cross #15)

Today’s passage of Scripture is 1 Peter 2:1-2 which reads: “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Michael Phillips. He said: “The Bible is the greatest example of the whole being greater that its parts.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Recording of God’s Word (Part 2)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin

With all of the mighty acts that God had performed for the Israelites still fresh in their minds, God was going to speak directly to them. What an awesome day! The morning came, and the people had purified themselves sufficiently. They waited anxiously behind the roped-off area, and Moses stood there with them. Then they heard God’s voice. It was like thunder. “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This was followed by the rest of the Ten Commandments. The people backed away in terror from the awesome scene. When the voice stopped, they asked Moses himself to speak God’s word—it was too scary for them to hear it directly from the Lord.

So that was what Moses did. Over the next several months, he wrote down, at God’s direction, the books we call Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. Genesis gave the background to the overall situation, explaining why humankind was in trouble and what steps God had already taken to resolve it. After recounting God’s creation, Genesis cited seven key failures of humankind, followed by God’s call of Abraham. The rest of the book traced the line of Abraham to the point where it became an embryonic nation—which was taken to Egypt to incubate.

In Exodus the account quickly jumped four hundred years to the current generation. It focused on the birth of Moses because he was the next individual God spoke to. The people recalled vividly the following events: the plagues and the Exodus. They certainly would have raised an uproar if Moses had gotten it wrong. Exodus ends with an account of how the Israelites built the various items God had commanded in order to provide a focus for their religious ritual.

The book of Leviticus describes the ritual processes and the implementation of what we might call early Israelite religion, the precursor to Judaism. The whole purpose of these three books (or this three-part book) was to explain to the nation why God had intervened so mightily on their behalf and what He expected from them in response. As we will see, the purpose of God’s intervention was to set into motion a process that would profoundly affect world history by setting the stage for the coming Messiah. But that would be hundreds of years later. In the interim, God had a purpose for this group of people camped on the plains of Sinai.