Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Invested in Inaccurary--Zion Oil and Well-Intended Misinterpretation

Recently I reacquainted myself with the work of Zion Oil & Gas, a company dedicated to discovering petroleum in Israel. The company was founded by John Brown, an American Evangelical Christian who believes that the Bible prophesies the discovery of oil in the region where he's drilling. He's been at it for over 30 years, but he's not yet found the black gold he's looking for. Nonetheless, he's been able to find investors and donors willing to follow him in his venture of faith.

Unfortunately, this merger of business and faith is a flawed one. The oilman has based his venture on a misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 33:24, "Of Asher he said, 'More blessed than sons is Asher; May he be favored by his brothers, And may he dip his foot in oil'" (NASB).

In this passage, Moses pronounces prophetic blessing on each of the tribes about to enter the Promised Land. The error in interpretation is two fold. First, and most importantly, it misunderstands "oil" to refer to petroleum instead of olive oil, the most common form of oil used in the ancient world. Ancient peoples had virtually no use for petroleum, and most didn't even know it existed. But olive oil was a staple of society. It was used for many necessities of life, from cooking to personal hygiene. It could also be processed into things like luxury bath items. To see here a reference to petroleum is to introduce an idea utterly foreign to Moses and gives a sense to the passage that he did not intend. While it's true that biblical prophets did not always understand all that they prophesied, in this case, the imagery Moses used was readily understandable in his own day. It's not a cryptic image at all.

Second, it misunderstands the reference to Asher's "foot." This is not, as the oilman has supposed, a reference to the southernmost tip of Asher's tribal allotment. It's an actual human foot. In this dreamscape, Asher is dipping his foot in olive oil luxuriant which could then be rubbed and massaged in to soothe his foot. The image is one of abundance, ease, and peace. He has so much olive oil that there's plenty to use for pampering his feet. His feet need not be hardened and crusty from much toil and travel. Of course, Asher himself had been dead for several centuries. Moses is using his name to speak of his tribal descendants. The thought is that the people of Asher would one day enjoy tremendous peace, ease, and comfort.

What saddens me most about Zion oil is that this well meaning Christian businessman has invested almost three decades of his life and money from his own coffers and that of investors in a misunderstanding of Scripture. Unfortunately, he's not the only one to be taken in by this misreading. He's made the rounds on various Christian television networks where's he's been applauded as a man of conviction (which he is) and faith (which is partially misplaced). Even some well respected pastors have been caught up in this misreading of Deuteronomy.

For what it's worth, I do think that the richness of this passage is something yet to be fulfilled. The territory of Asher was rarely ever under Israelite control. Joshua's forces never took the territory, and it wasn't brought under Israelite control until another 400 years in David's day. And even then they didn't enjoy the sort of abundance of which this imagery speaks. As a premillennialist, I believe this prophecy will find its fulfillment in the golden age to come.
Don't get me wrong. In general, I support the nation of Israel. If oil is found there, it could potentially become a positive game changer in the region. But if they find oil in Israel, it won't prove that Moses prophesied it. The interpretation of this verse in Deuteronomy--and every other passage in the Bible, for that matter--needs to stand on its own.
And this interpretation is on slippery footing.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Avoid the Void View of the Word

Anyone who's had even the most basic training in Bible study knows that studying the context is rule number one for understanding any passage. But following this rule seems to be much easier said than done for many of us. The fact is that from time to time all of us proof-text, using a verse in a way which would make the author of the passage scratch his head. One of the clearest examples of this involves a very well-known verse amongst Bible-believing Christians, one that pastors often repeat from the pulpit.

Isaiah 55:11 (NKJV)
This verse is often used as an encouragement to believers who share the Word with others. From this passage, pastors and well meaning Christians challenge believers not to be discouraged when others reject what they share from the Bible. Supposedly, this verse encourages us that God is nonethless at work and will eventually do something wonderful in the hearts of those who hear the Word.

While this is an extremely common use of this verse, there are real problems with understanding it this way. The context is not about believers spreading the Word but about believers needing to believe God's promise. In this context the phrase "My word" refers not to the Bible in general but to God's promises in particular. More specifically, God's promises in this passage are that God will restore His people Israel, return them to their land, and renew their hearts.

Isaiah wrote chapters 40-66 of his book largely for the benefit of generations after his time, particularly the generation that would live in the Babylonian exile. In this second half of his book, he foresees that in time God would bring the Jews back to their land and back to their God. God also promised that He would eventually redeem them from their greatest captivity--the bondage of their own sin. These promises of Hebrew salvation and restoration are the essence of the phrase "My word" in Isaiah 55:11. Though the fulfillment of that promise might be a long time in coming, Isaiah urges his listeners to wait on the Lord and trust Him to fulfill His good word.

Many Christians understand the verse as if it says this: "So shall My word be which goes forth out of YOUR mouth; it shall not return to Me void...." But this idea is foreign to the passage. The verse says nothing about believers repeating God's word to others (something we should do, or course). No, in this passage the focus is on the fact the GOD has promised to keep his promises, that what He has said will come to pass. But this is not a promise that if we repeat His Word to others that it will do something in their hearts. It may very well do so, and we should pray that is does, but that's not the point in this verse.

The misuse of this verse is deeply engrained in many Bible believing Christians. In one sense, that's representative of something good: a high view of Scripture and a firm belief in the power of God's Word. But it's also representative of a problem that we have with the way we use the Bible, something I call "innocent proof-texting." When we hear a verse used in a certain way over and over again by people we trust, we assume that that understanding of the verse has been properly vetted. But the example above illustrates how very careful we need to be with context. As the old saying goes, "A text used out of context is a pretext."

* Though I've argued that many Christians innocently misuse this passage, I'm convinced that it is very relevant for believers today. And it's real relevance is right in line with what Isaiah originally meant. As New Covenant believers, we are awaiting the Second Coming of our Redeemer who will redeem not only His people Israel but also resurrect our bodies and renew the world, bringing to completion the fullness of our salvation. That's one promise among many others that will never be voided for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Careful with that Sword!

Welcome to the inaugural post of "Careful with that Sword!" CWTS is a blogsite where I post comments on commonly misunderstood and misused Bible verses. My hope is that my readers won't feel like this is a "gotcha" site, but a place where they can be challenged to think more biblically about the Bible.

My inaugural post is about Hebrews 4:12-13, a passage Christians often use to instruct others in the power of the Bible.

Hebrews 4:12-13 is one of the most visceral and emotionally charged passages in the Bible. It uses the graphic military imagery of a sword slaying and splaying an enemy. But it does not slay flesh and blood. Instead it splays open the soul of man, and with painful sharpness eviscerates its inner motives. Not even the most secretive of thoughts is safe from the severing power of God’s incomparably sharp two-edged sword.
Most often this passage is used to describe the convicting power of the Bible in people's lives. But is that really the point in this passage? As with many references in the Bible to "the word of God," the "word" here is not the Bible in general but a special revelation in particular. In our passage the "word" is actually the Gospel. You see, the Gospel contains both a blessing and a curse. Those who receive and believe the Gospel inherit the blessings of an everlasting new life, but those who reject it inherit everlasting destruction away from the presence of the Lord. The Lord Jesus said, "He who rejects me and my sayings has one who judges him; the word I spoke will judge him on the last day" (John 12:48).

Hebrews 4:12-13 is part of a larger section in the book which warns its readers about turning away from the truth. In chapter 3, the author mentions the generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt with Moses. While they all experienced national salvation in being delivered from their overlords, it seems that very few of them experienced spiritual deliverance from their sins. The majority of that first generation perished in the wilderness under the judgment of God, and, it would appear, in a state of spiritual unbelief. Hebrews 3:17 describes that generation as those "whose bodies fell in the wilderness." The author warns his Hebrew readers that they must beware of committing an even worse error in turning away from the truth of the Gospel. In Hebrews 4:11, he uses the term "fall" again: “Therefore let us be diligent ... so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” The danger is not merely of falling away from the faith but also of falling under the judgment of God. The instrument of that judgment in Hebrews 4:12 is the sword of God's Word.
In Hebrews 4:13, the imagery shifts slightly, describing not so much what the Sword of God does, but the absolute control of the One who wields it—God himself. All persons, actions, and thoughts are fully known to him. Before Him all people are essentially naked and powerless before His seat of judgment with no way and nowhere to hide. The term rendered “laid bare” actually means “to be grabbed by the throat.” The exact meaning of the term here is debated, but it was used in the world of Greco-Roman wrestling for disabling neck grips. It depicts someone in a powerless position, waiting to receive his death blow or be released in mercy.

Does this verse have any relevance to the Christian’s daily experience with the Scripture? Yes, sort of. That's because what God has already revealed in the Scripture will be the measurement by which His final judgment is made. We don’t have to come to the Day of Judgment to realize that God’s revelation in Scripture has piercing power. When we responded to the Gospel and felt our need of Christ, we felt something of the piercing power of the Word. When our hearts are convicted of sin, we feel something of its pointed blade. But the real force of this verse is to confront pretending Christians with the reality of final judgment. We must be careful to teach the main point of this passage: the Day of Judgment will be pointedly painful experience for pretenders. This verse has particular relevance for pretending Christians, those who have not really entered into a New Covenant relationship with Jesus Christ.

As right as it is for us to celebrate the penetrating, convicting, and transforming power of the Bible in our lives, this verse isn’t about that. This verse is not about Christians becoming skilled in their use of the Bible, like a swordsman learning to use his blade. There are other verses which are more relevant for that (e.g., Ephesians 6:17). Hebrew's depiction of God's Sword splaying souls open is not a thing for us to desire. God Himself will wield this sword on the Day of Judgment, exposing the thoughts and motives of those who claimed to be God’s people but who had actually turned away from the Gospel of grace.
The well-intended misuse of this passage is but one example of how easy it is to proof-text well-known verses with the best of intentions. We all do it from time to time, perhaps much more than we realize. When we hear a verse used over and over a certain way--especially by people we've come to trust--we naturally assume that this way of understanding the text has been properly vetted. But in Bible interpretation, context must be king. Unfortunately, we're all too prone to use the Bible as like a book of inspired quotes instead of a collection of inspired texts with contexts. We all need to be careful with that sword.