Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Persistent Prayer?

Many translators understand that the Bible teaches the need of persistent prayer. Luke 18:1 - 8 says (KJV):

And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?

But, an accurate translation of this passage, brings to light a nuanced meaning.

And He also spoke a riddle to them to teach it is always right to pray, and not to be remiss, saying, A certain judge was in a certain city, not revering God and not respecting man. And a widow was in that city, and she came to him, saying, defend me from my adversary. And at first he would not. But a bit later he said to himself, Even if I do not revere God, and do not respect man, yet because this widow hands me sorrow, I will defend her, so that in the end she will wear me down. And the Lord said, Hear what the unrighteous judge says; and will God not at all execute the defense of His chosen (those crying to Him day and night) and will he hesitate with them? I say to you that He will defend them immediately.

The intent of the parable is not to teach persistence in prayer, but prompt regularity. The message is not that God will respond to annoying persistence, but that, if a unrighteous man will respond promptly (if only to avoid an annoyance), all the more so will God respond immediately.

The parable follows a similar (and similarly misunderstood) parable, the parable of the persistent friend (Luke 11:5-10):

And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

In the Hebrew culture, if a stranger (much less an acquaintance) arrived at your door in the middle of the night, hospitality was mandatory. Anything less would be certain shame to a host. A better translation of this parable is:

And He said to them, Who of you shall have a friend come to him at midnight and say, Friend, lend me three loaves. For a friend of mine has arrived to me from a journey, and I do not have anything that I may set before him. And answering from within you would say, Do not cause me troubles. The door has already been shut, and my children are, like me, in bed. I cannot rise up to give to you. I say to you, Even if he will not get up and give to him because he is a friend, yet because of his shame, he will get up he will give him as much as he needs. And I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For each asking receives, and the one seeking finds, and to the one knocking, it will be opened.

The point that Yeshua makes is not persistence, but, again, the opposite. If a human will rise in the middle of the night to help a friend (if for no other reason but to avoid shame), how much more will God, who loves his people, go out of his way to give to the asker?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

About my Father's business?

At, Luke 2:41 through 2:49, the evangelist recounts a curious event in the life of Yeshua (the only event from his youth recounted in the Gospels.)

"Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Yeshua tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? But, they understood not the saying which he spoke to them. "

My Father’s business - Some think that this should be translated “in my Father’s house” - that is, in the temple; that Yeshua reminded them here that he came down from heaven; that he had a higher Father than an earthly parent; and that, even in early life, it was proper that he should be engaged in the work for which he came. But, the key to beginning to understand this story in the final sentence. "But, they understood not the saying which he spoke to them." Another clue is in the Greek word anazēteō "to search diligently," which appears four times in the last six verses.

If Yeshua had intended his parents to understand that he was in temple, he could have said so and they would have had little trouble understanding this. Particularly, since they were from a pious family who "went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover." In fact, the Greek words en to iero "in the temple" appear in verse 2:46 to describe where they found him. But, Yeshua was not talking about where he had been, but what he was up to.

To understand this saying, it is important (again) to realize that Yeshua was not a Greek speaker, but an Aramaic speaker. The Peshitta (and Old Syriac Gospel) render this verse (2:49) as:
amr (and he said) lhwn (to them) mna (why) beyn (seeking) hwytwn (you all are) ly (for me) la (do not) ydeyn (know) antwn (you all) dbyt (that of the house) aby (my father) wla (it is right) ly (for me) dahwa (to be)
Greek writers (and later English translators) seem to have understood the difficulty of this particular turn of phrase. Some have rendered it "in my Father's house," while others have rendered it "about my Father's business," or "in the things of my Father."

In Aramaic the words beyn (to seek) and dbyt (that of the house or "amongst") are related. The word beyn literally means "to divide" or "to sort," and the word dbyt literally means "that of the house," or "amongst," and denotes a mingling or intermixing with distinct or separable objects. The word beyn means to separate out dbyt objects. To the Aramaic sage, the concepts of beyn and dbyt were thus entangled. To understand God, one must "sort out" God's wisdom from "that of the house" of God and "that of the house" of man. This was the true calling of the sage.

Because of this unusual Aramaic word, this verse has often been mis-translated and therefore misunderstood to mean that Yeshua belonged simply "in the temple." This is not exactly the case. A paraphrase of what Yeshua is saying is (in a clever way), "why are you separating me into your house and from the house of God's word?" This is the earliest appearance of the wisdom tradition from the mouth of Yeshua himself. At the age of 12, he seemed to have understood himself to be (like chokmah) entangled with Yahweh.

The verse would better be translated:

And, he said to them, why are you sorting me out? Do you not know that amongst my father it is right for me to be.
a truly mature wordplay from a twelve-year-old.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Only Begotten?

In an earlier post, I pointed out that, in the Hebrew culture, the inheritance of land, titles and other property as well as the responsibilities for caring for an individual family was channeled along patrilineal lines using a system of modified Primogeniture, or succession by the eldest son. The institution is explicitly promulgated in Deuteronomy 21:15-17. In part, because paternity cannot be certainly known (like maternity), the Hebrews had two "firstborn" traditions. One, the peter, or "opener" of the womb, referring to the firstborn of the mother. The other, was the bekor, ("he bursts forth") referring to the firstborn "or choicest" of the father.

The bekor was also referred to as the yachiyd "the only one." Genesis 22:2 records the fact that Isaac, the second son (but heir) of Abraham was referred to as "your only one whom you love." Matthew 3:17 refers to Yeshua as the primogenitor of Yahweh, saying, "and behold! A voice out of the heaven saying, This is My son, the loved one, in whom I delight." "Delight" (Hebrew chaphets) was a idiomatic phrase as well that marked primogeniture (see 1Sa 18:22).

In John 1:14, the writer refers to Yeshua as the monogenes, a word which has been greatly debated. Most translators render the translation as "only begotten" (only sired), but this tradition follows the misunderstanding introduced (probably intentionally) by Jerome to conform to his theology. Pre-Jerome, the word was translated as "unique." It means "the only one," or "one of a kind," and refers to Yeshua in his role as Primogeniture of Yahweh. Hebrews 11:17 uses the same word to refer to Isaac: "By faith, being tested, Abraham offered up Isaac; and he receiving the promises was offering up the monogenes," and Isaac certainly was not the "only begotten" of Abraham.

John 1:14 would be better understood to say:

"And the logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us. And we perceived his glory (glory like that of the Father's firstborn), full of grace and of truth. "

John 1:18 says: "No one has seen God at any time; the only son, who is "in the bosom of the Father", this one draws him out." The term "in the bosom of the Father" is also an idiomatic phrase referring to the primogeniture.

From a theological perspective, the first-century Hebrews would have understood Yeshua to be the primogeniture (legal heir) of Yahweh on Earth, legally responsible for carrying out his will and caring for his affairs.