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Note of the Day – September 16 (Revelation 7:1-8)

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Revelation 7:1-8

The relationship of chapter 7 to the seal-visions in chapter 6 is problematic for readers who might be inclined to view these chapters as representing a strict chronological sequence of events. There is, however, a definite kind of (visionary) logic at work, as we shall see. More significant as a connecting point between the two chapters is the closing question in 6:17: “who is able to stand” in the face of God’s approaching Judgment? Chapter 7 gives the answer to this.

First, it is important to keep in mind the structure of the vision-cycle:

  • Group of 4 visions (seals 1-4)—horses and horsemen
  • Group of 2 visions (seals 5-6)
    {interlude}
  • The concluding vision (seal 7), which opens up into the next vision-cycle

The fifth and sixth visions involved, respectively: (i) the persecution of believers, and (ii) disruption of the natural order marking the beginning of the great Judgment by God. Chapter 7 combines both of these themes.

Rev 7:1-3

The theme and setting of the sixth seal-vision continues in verse 1:

“With [i.e. after] this, I saw four Messengers having taken (their) stand upon the four corners of the earth, holding firm(ly to) the four winds of the earth, (so) that the wind should not blow upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon all tree(s).”

The sixth seal had a cosmic orientation, involving the universe (heaven and earth) as understood by ancient cosmology. Now the visionary setting has shifted to the surface of the earth. In ancient (Near Eastern) cosmology, while the universe was more or less spherical (or a hemisphere), the earth itself was essentially flat, typically envisioned as a disc or cylinder. There is no reason to think that this traditional image is not being followed here (the picture used at the top of the header above is quite inaccurate in this regard). The idea of four “corners” does not require a square shape; the number four is again traditional. Winds could be seen as coming from the ends of the earth, also identified as four (Mark 13:27; cf. Psalm 135:7; Jer 10:13; 25:32, etc). God’s power and control extends to the “ends of the earth” (Job 28:24; Psalm 46:9; 59:13; 72:8; Prov 30:4; Isa 40:28, etc), and His destructive Judgment both comes from the ends of the earth and goes out to them as well (Deut 28:49; 1 Sam 2:10; Isa 5:26; 13:5; 41:5; Jer 25:31f; 50:41). Similarly, God’s salvation extends to the ends of the earth, a motif found often in the book of Isaiah, which came to be part of the Messianic imagery (Psalm 2:8; 46:9; 65:5; 98:3; Isa 41:9; 43:6; 45:22; 48:20; 49:6; 52:10; 62:11; Jer 31:8; Mic 5:4; Zech 9:10; and cf. Acts 1:8; 13:47; Rom 10:18).

“And I saw another Messenger stepping up from the rising up of the sun [i.e. the east], holding (the) seal of the living God, and he cried (out) with a great voice to the four Messengers to whom (it) was given to them to take away the right (order) of the earth and the sea, saying: ‘Do not take away the right (order) of the earth, nor of the sea, nor of the trees, until we would seal the slaves of our God upon the (space) between their eyes [i.e. their forehead]!'” (vv. 2-3)

This makes clear that the (four) winds coming from the ends of the earth have a destructive power, and their unleashing by the Messengers (natural celestial forces were typically seen as being controlled by heavenly beings or Angels) is to be part of, and/or symbolic of, the great end-time Judgment upon the world. The adjective a&diko$ fundamentally means “without (a)) justice (di/kh)”, and the verb a)dike/w “be/act without justice”, sometimes in the sense of “take away [i.e. remove] justice”. However, here such a translation would be quite misleading; di/kh must be understood in the broader sense of “right (order)”. Thus the verb a)dike/w would be rendered “take away the right (order of things)”. In English, this is often translated more simply as “injure, harm”, but, in light of the theme of the disruption of the natural order in 6:12-17, it is perhaps best to retain this wider aspect.

The verb sfragi/zw is related to the seven-fold seal (sfragi/$) upon the scroll in chapters 4-6. As previously noted, it refers to the act of stamping an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) upon a seal of clay or wax (or lead). This stamp marks the ownership (of the document, etc) by the one who has the signet (ring). Here it is stated that the winds will not be released (to disrupt/destroy the surface of the earth) until the “slaves of God” are stamped with the “stamp/seal of the living God” (v. 2). It is possible that this alludes to the marking/branding of slaves, such as occurred in Roman society (and many other cultures); if so, then it is a mixing of images with the sealing (through wax/clay/lead) of a document or object. The primary motif is doubtless the same, however—that the “slaves”, like the scroll, belong to God, who is their owner/master. In Romans 4:11, Paul refers to circumcision—the essential sign (shmei=on) of God’s binding agreement (covenant) with Israel—as a seal (sfragi/$) of God’s righteousness. As applied in an early Christian context, this seal marks believers as the people of God. Much the same is stated in 2 Tim 2:19:

“Yet (truly), the firm (foundat)ion set down by God has stood, holding this seal [sfragi/$]: ‘The Lord knew the (one)s being [i.e. who are] His (own)’…”

The theme of sealing will be used further in the book of Revelation, including a contrast between those sealed by God (true believers) and those stamped by the mark of the “Beast”. In this regard, it is quite likely that the stamp/seal here also is meant to indicate God’s protection. This seems to be the point for the way this detail is included in verses 1-3—the seal gives God’s “slaves” protection from the natural disasters (and other suffering) to come in the time of Judgment. The precise significance of this will be discussed and clarified in the upcoming notes.

Who are these “slaves”? The word dou=lo$ means “slave” or “(bond)servant”, but, to avoid confusion with certain historical occurrences and modern conceptions of slavery, it is often translated as “servant”. The word was regularly used, by early Christians, as a self-designation for believers—i.e. those belonging to God (and Christ), and bound to serve him (Acts 4:29, etc, and see earlier in Rev 1:1; 2:20). It could also refer specifically to one chosen by God for special service (as apostle, minister, etc). Paul uses it frequently to refer to himself (and his fellow ministers)—Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; cf. also James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1, etc. Here in the book of Revelation, the point of reference is expounded in the verses which follow.

Rev 7:4-8

“And I heard the number of the (one)s having been sealed: one hundred and forty-four thousand, (one)s having been sealed out of all the offshoots of the sons of Yisrael—…” (v. 4)

A more precise syntax would have been “…out of the all the offshoots of Yisrael”, i.e. the tribes of Israel; we might paraphrase the actual wording here as “…out of all the tribes which make up the sons of Israel”. This brings up a somewhat difficult question of interpretation—do the ‘tribes of Israel’ here refer (1) to ethnically Israelite believers, or (2) to believers in Christ generally? The question is complicated by the relationship between vv. 4-8 and the description which follows in vv. 9-17. The answer may also depend, to some extent at least, on the orientation of the author and his audience. Was he writing (primarily) to Gentile believers, Jewish believers, or a mixed audience? On one level, it would seem that vv. 4-8 definitely refer to Israelite believers, in an ethnic sense. This would be confirmed by: (a) the combined use of “tribes (of Israel)” and “sons of Israel”, and (b) the ‘census’ in vv. 5-8, listing out the specific tribes. At the same time, the relationship between believers (Jews and Gentiles both) and the ethno-religious identity of Israel as the people of God, was extremely complex in early Christianity, and could be expressed in a number of ways. Even limiting ourselves to Paul’s letters—the most complete evidence we have from the first century—there is a wide range of images and concepts. We must be cautious in how we approach this religious dynamic in the New Testament. I would suggest three avenues for interpretation which, I believe, are supported by the 1st-century evidence:

  • Historical—Nearly all of the earliest believers were Jewish (and, presumably, Israelites); from this standpoint, Christianity was seen as a natural extension (and fulfillment) of God’s covenant with Israel—i.e. Israelites who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. Only after the Gospel began to be proclaimed farther afield, in the Greco-Roman world, did this understanding change (and not without some difficulty) through the inclusion of significant numbers of non-Jewish believers.
  • Pauline—Paul’s letters give us a vivid picture of the formation of a new, and distinctly Christian, religious identity, in the years 50-60 A.D. Especially in Galatians and Romans, Paul forges this through a rich and complex series of arguments and illustrations. Even when writing primarily to Gentiles, he draws upon the Old Testament and the covenant traditions related to Israel as the people of God. All of this is redefined, as the “new covenant”, strictly in terms of faith in Jesus Christ, accompanied by the presence/work of the Spirit (of God and Christ). It is, however, also the fulfillment of the original covenant (with Abraham, etc), one which many Israelites and Jews have rejected. According to Romans 9-11, Paul views this as temporary—a brief period during which Gentiles are included (with Jewish believers) as the people of God; ultimately, at the end of this period, the Israelite/Jewish people will come to accept Christ in larger numbers. It is possible that Rev 7:4-8 reflects a similar eschatological idea.
  • Restoration Imagery—According to at least one line of tradition (and interpretation), believers represent the “restoration of Israel” at the end-time. This is symbolized through the tradition, fundamental to much eschatological and Messianic thought, that Israel—the twelve tribes—will be restored, coming back to the land (and to Jerusalem) from the surrounding nations. As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus’ selection of twelve apostles likely has this idea in mind. Certainly, it features in the eschatological awareness of the book of Acts (cf. the upcoming article on this subject). Only, instead of the emphasis being on the twelve tribes (and, eventually, the nations) coming to Jerusalem, here the twelve apostles (representing the tribes), along with others, go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel into all the nations.

All three of these approaches have merit and value in understanding the symbolism of Rev 7:4-8. And, it should be stated in passing, that there can be little doubt as to the symbolic character of the numbering (a)riqmo/n) here—144,000 = 12 x 12 x 1000. We will look again at the interpretative possibilities when we turn to vv. 9ff (in the next daily note).

Finally, it is worth considering two peculiarities in the list of tribes here in vv. 5-8:

  1. The order does not match that of the traditional lists elsewhere in the Old Testament (Gen 35:16-26; 46:8-27; 49; Deut 33; Num 1:5-15; Ezek 48, etc). Placing Judah first has obvious Messianic significance (Rev 5:5, etc); but otherwise, there does not appear to be any clear meaning to the ordering of the rest of the names.
  2. The tribes of Levi and Joseph are not included in the tribal allotments of land, etc, but would be included in any proper genealogical list of the tribes which make up the “sons of Israel”. However, the list here in Revelation, curiously, includes Joseph’s son Manasseh (half-tribe for Joseph), but leaves out Dan. While there are negative traditions associated with Dan in the Old Testament (Gen 49:17; Judg 18:30, etc), it is by no means certain that this is the reason for the exclusion here. Some early Christian commentators came to adopt the explanation that the ‘Antichrist’ would come from the tribe of Dan (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.30.2; Hippolytus On Christ and Antichrist 14:5ff; Koester, p. 418); but there is nothing in the book of Revelation itself to confirm this.

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (continued)

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Deuteronomy 32:1-43

This week we continue the previous discussion of the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, where we looked at the passage from the standpoint of textual criticism. Now we move into other areas of analysis—form, source, and historical criticism.

Form Criticism

The “Song of Moses” is a poem, and, as poetry, represents a distinct form (and genre) in comparison with the surrounding material (forms of narrative prose, etc). It essentially follows the style and pattern of much early Hebrew poetry, as preserved in the Pentateuch and other historical books, as well as in the earlier layers of the Psalms. It also shares many features in common with ancient Near Eastern (especially Canaanite) religious poetry. The poetic texts from Ugarit (14th-13th cent. B.C.) provide a rich source for comparison with the oldest Hebrew poems in the Scriptures, of which the “Song of Moses” is a clear example.

We find here two primary features characteristic of early Hebrew poetry: (1) a bicolon format and meter with three beats (or stress units), and (2) linguistic and thematic parallelism in each line (bicolon). On the first item, even if you do not read Hebrew, you can see the 3:3 bicolon format presented clearly in modern editions of the text. The half-lines (cola) are set side by side; for example, here are the opening lines (first three verses) in Hebrew, followed by the same text in transliteration:

You should be able to see the three stress-units in each half line (colon), often visible as three words; this meter in a bicolon format is typical indicated as 3:3.

The second characteristic mentioned above is parallelism; that is, the second half line (colon) is parallel to the first, restating the idea or image, with some variation or difference in emphasis. This can be seen in an English translation of the first four bicola (vv. 1-3, see above):

  • “Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
    —and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth!
  • Let my instruction drip as rain-fall,
    —let my speech trickle down as dew-cover,
  • As showers upon the sprouting grass,
    —as (many rain)drops upon the fresh plants.
  • For the name of YHWH I call (out)
    —(You) set (out) greatness for our God!”

There are different sorts of parallelism. Most common is synonymous parallelism, where the second half-line is more or less equivalent in form and meaning to the first. This properly characterizes the first three bicola above. Often the parallelism extends to each of the three elements (or stress units) in order. I indicate this by color-coding the first line and adding the Hebrew (in transliteration):

  • Give ear [ha°¦zînû], O heavens [haš¹mayim], and I will open to speak [w~°¦¼abb¢râ],
    and hear [w®¾išma±], O earth [h¹°¹reƒ], the words of my mouth [°imrê-¸î]!

The fourth bicolon above is an example of synthetic parallelism, where the the second half-line builds upon the first, intensifying the thought, and, occasionally, pointing in a slightly different direction—”I call the name of YHWH”, and so you, also, must “set/give greatness to our God”! The third type of parallelism, antithetic—i.e. the second half-line making an opposite (though related) point from the first—is rather rare in the poem; an example would be verse 27b:

  • “Lest they say, ‘Our hand raised (this)’
    —and ‘It is not YHWH (who) has done all this (work)’!”

The formal structure/meter and parallelism, when applied consistently throughout a poem (as here in Deut 32), actually proves quite useful for commentators and textual critics, since it allows them to detect places where the text, as it has come down to us, may be confused or corrupt. A disruption in the poetic pattern can be an indication of possible corruption (see the previous discussion on verse 43). Caution is required in this area of analysis, however, since poetry is not always absolutely consistent, and a poet may, on occasion, break or bend the rules to achieve a certain effect.

For Christians who read the Scriptures largely (or entirely) in translation, there is a tendency to focus on the underlying message of text, rather than the form and style in which the message is expressed. And yet, the form and style are important, and cannot be ignored. If the inspired author and/or speaker made use of poetry, this is certainly significant, and is, in fact, fundamental to the meaning of the passage. However, many poetic elements and characteristics (in Hebrew poetry, especially) are almost impossible to preserve in an English translation, without seriously distorting the sense of the text. These features include wordplay, assonance (i.e. similar sounding words), alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme. A couple examples of alliterative wordplay are (note the bold italics):

  • V. 17a:
    yizb®hû laš¢¼îm lœ° °§lœah °§lœhîm lœ° y®¼¹±ûm
    “they sacrificed to spirits (that are) not-God(s),
    (to) Gods they did not know”
  • V. 21a:
    h¢m qin°ûnî »®lœ°-°¢l ki±¦sûnî b®ha»lêhem
    “they provoked me (to jealousy) with (what is) not-God,
    (and) provoked me (to anger) with their empty-breaths”

Many other examples could be given; an instance of end rhythm/rhyme can be seen in verse 2b (above):

  • ki´±îrim ±¦lê-¼eše°
    w®½ir»î»îm ±¦lê-±¢´e»
    “As showers upon the sprouting grass,
    and as (many rain)drops upon the fresh plants”

All of this becomes lost in translation, but it is important to keep it in mind, and to study these features as part of the passage, as far as it is possible for you. The wordplay and alliteration in vv. 17a and 21a (above) is used to make an ironic contrast, and to drive home a vital point. Moreover, the various instances of rhythm, rhyme, and assonance, etc, apart from their artistic significance, were valuable as a way to help people learn and transmit the poem. If you read Hebrew at all, I am confident that careful study of these poetic details in the text will help you learn it better as well.

Next week, we will continue on, examining the poem in terms of source- and historical-criticism. In preparation, you should study chapters 31 and 32 in context. Does anything you find in the Song of Moses surprise you in light of its place within the structure of the book? What are the key themes and how are they expressed in comparison with the rest of the (prose) narrative? Keep these things in mind as you study the text…and I will see you next Saturday.

Note of the Day – September 14 (Revelation 6:9-17, continued)

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Revelation 6:9-17 (continued)

Rev 6:12-17

The vision coming from the sixth seal moves us closer to the actual appearance of God’s end-time Judgment. As I noted previously, there is a similar sequence in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, which continues here:

On the last item, the parallel can be extended to include:

  • Similar allusions to the Old Testament Prophets (cf. below)
  • An illustration involving the fig-tree (v. 13, cp. Mark 13:28f)

The signs of severe disruption in nature, here in the vision, begin:

“…and there came to be a great shaking [i.e. earthquake], and the sun came to be black as a cloth of hair (for mourning), and the whole moon came to be as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell unto the earth, (even) as the fig-tree casts (down) her unripe (fig)s (when) being shaken under a great wind…” (vv. 12-13)

The language and imagery is similar to certain passages from the Prophets—cf. Joel 2:10, 31; Isa 13:10; 24:18b ff; 34:4; 50:3. It has ancient roots in the language used to express the idea of nature being affected by the appearance/manifestation of the Deity (theophany, esp. the storm-theophany motif). The earth is said to shake and tremble at God’s approach, affecting all areas of nature (Judg 5:4-5; Nah 1:5-6; Hab 3:5-6ff, etc); this became part of the imagery associated with the “day of YHWH”, a time of Judgment to come against the wicked nations, etc (Isa 13:13; Jer 51:29; Ezek 38:19-23). The darkening of sun and moon was a common motif in this regard (Joel 2:31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Isa 13:10; 24:13; Ezek 32:7-8). This came to be traditional eschatological language, referring to the end-time Judgment, in Jewish apocalyptic literature (Testament of Moses 10:4-6; Sibylline Oracles 5:512ff, etc), and Jesus utilizes it in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:24-25 par). Such natural phenomena were, of course, depicted and interpreted as signs of divine wrath, etc, in many cultures (see, e.g., Ovid Metamorphoses 15.785; Lucan Pharsalia 1.536ff; Koester, p. 402).

The destructive signs in nature continue:

“…and the heaven made space away [i.e. separated] as a paper-roll [i.e. scroll] being coiled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of their places.” (v. 14)

The motif of the heaven/sky “rolling up” like a scroll is found in Isa 34:4, being repeated a number of times in apocalyptic writings (Sibylline Oracles 3:83; 8:233, etc). This could mean that the sky is no longer visible, though the verb a)poxwri/zw literally indicates a separation—i.e. the sky/heaven becoming detached out of its place—which is in keeping with the idea that the mountains and islands are “moved out of their places”. Clearly, this reflects an extraordinary disruption of the natural order. The point of it all is as a sign that the end-time Judgment by God is beginning:

“And the kings of the earth and the greatest (one)s and the (leader)s of a thousand [i.e. military commanders], and the rich (one)s and the strong (one)s, and every slave and free (person alike), hid themselves into the caves and into the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and the rocks: ‘Fall upon us, and hide us from the face of the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and from the anger of the Lamb!…'” (vv. 15-16)

The call of frightened humanity for the hills and rocks to bury them is an echo of Hos 10:8, and is also used by Jesus (in an eschatological context) in Luke 23:30. Death within the very rocks were they are hiding would be preferable to facing God Himself. That this involves the manifestation and appearance of God is clear from the phrase “hide us from the face [pro/swpon] of the One sitting upon the throne”. At once the people on earth recognize the presence of God, and that he is the true Ruler of all. This, of course, relates most definitely to the vision of chapters 4-5, and demonstrates an example of how this central theme is developed and applied in the remainder of the book. While all of humanity is affected (“slave and free”), it is the rich and powerful who face the brunt of the Judgment—their positions of earthly/worldly power are reduced to nothing. This is all the more appropriate, since it is the powerful ones who played leading roles in both the destructive period of warfare (vv. 1-8) and the persecution of believers (vv. 9-11). Readers of the book would immediately have recognized that the Roman imperial government, and the rich and influential in society who chiefly benefited from it, were primarily in view.

Verse 17, in the context of the vision, continues the declaration of humankind, yet it actually functions as an objective statement (by the author/seer), announcing

“that the great day of His anger came [i.e. has come], and who is able to stand?”

A fundamental tenet of early Christian belief was that trust in Jesus, following him faithfully, would enable believers to “stand” in the Judgment. Paul alludes to this a number of times—cf. Rom 5:2; 14:4, 10; 1 Cor 10:12; 15:1, etc. Ephesians 6:11-14 seems to extend this idea, naturally enough, to the faithful endurance of believers, during the time(s) of testing as the end approaches (cf. Mark 13:13 par, etc). Only through faith in Christ can human beings be saved from the coming Judgment; otherwise, as the Scriptures indicate in many places, it is impossible to stand before the presence of God (1 Sam 6:20; Psalm 76:7; Job 41:10; Nah 1:6; Jer 49:19; 1 Chron 5:14; Ezra 9:15); the declaration here in v. 17 is perhaps closest in tone to Malachi 3:2.

It is also interesting to note that, here again, Jesus Christ (the Lamb) has been included alongside of God (cf. the discussion on chapters 4-5), being embedded within the declaration:

  • “the face of the One sitting upon the throne”
    —”the anger of the Lamb”
  • “the great day of His anger”

Early Christian tradition held firmly to the idea that Jesus, as God’s representative (His Anointed One), would judge the earth, when he appeared/returned at the end-time. This is indicated by Jesus himself through the identification with the heavenly/divine Son of Man figure (Dan 7:13-14, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) in Mark 13:26; 14:62 pars. At best, this is only alluded to here in Rev 6:17; it will be expressed more directly later on in the book.

This brings up the observation that, based on a comparison with the sequence of events in Jesus’ “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. above), we would expect, at this point in the book of Revelation, a description of Jesus’ return (Mk 13:26-27 par). After all, when nature itself is falling apart, and humankind realizes that God’s Judgment has come, what is left to narrate? Indeed, the first readers/hearers of the book would doubtless have been expecting this as well; and yet much more is recorded before that moment is reached, building considerable suspense. This is a powerful dramatic (and literary) device, but it also reflects the inspired artistry of the visions of the book. The three great vision-cycles do not simply narrate a straightforward linear sequence of events, but function in parallel, with overlapping elements and details. This will be discussed as we proceed through the remaining chapters.

Note of the Day – September 13 (Revelation 6:9-17)

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Revelation 6:9-17

The visions from the first four seals (cf. the previous note)—the horses and their riders—deal with the theme of warfare among the peoples on earth, along with the suffering and death that results from it. The fourth rider was actually identified as “Death”, bringing people down to the grave (the “unseen realm” [a%|dh$] of the dead). Death from the sword (i.e. war) was widened to include death from hunger, disease, and attacks by wild animals (verse 8). Now in the vision from the fifth seal, the death-motif is extended to include believers in Christ who are put to death for their faith.

Rev 6:9-11

“And when he opened up the fifth seal, I saw down below the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] the souls having been [i.e. that had been] slaughtered through [i.e. because of] the account of God and the witness which they held.” (v. 9)

Here the slaughter from the nations at war is replaced by the slaughter of believers in Christ—specifically, those put to death as a result of proclaiming the Gospel (“the account/word [lo/go$] of God”), and acting as witnesses of Christ. This represents one of the earliest instances of the word martu/$ (“witness”, here the related noun marturi/a) in the technical Christian sense of one who is put to death for his/her faith in Jesus (the word[s] being transliterated in English as “martyr”, “martyrdom”, etc). It is described in terms of ritual slaughter—i.e., a sacrificial offering, just as Jesus’ own death was understood as a sacrifice (Passover, sin/guilt offering, or the sacrifice establishing the [new] Covenant). The altar-image seems to draw upon aspects of both altars in the Tabernacle/Temple design—(a) the altar of burnt offering in the sanctuary courtyard, and (b) the altar of incense in the shrine. The allusions for these two aspects are:

  • The position of the souls down at the bottom of the altar (v. 9)—In the ancient sacrificial ritual, blood from the slaughtered animal was poured/thrown down at the base of the altar (Lev 4:7, etc). The souls of the believers put to death are closely connected to this image of blood—since blood was typically understood as representing the life-essence of the person (much like the soul). Moreover “blood” can be synonymous with “death”, regardless of the extent to which a person’s death involved actual bloodshed; violent and/or wicked action leading to death of the innocent could be described simply as “bloodshed”.
  • The cry (i.e. prayer) of these souls (v. 10)—The connection between prayer and incense was traditional, and was established earlier here in 5:8.

The position of the souls (“down below the altar”) may also express the idea of taking refuge (with God) in the holy place. A temple sanctuary often served as a place of refuge or asylum—near the altar, in particular (1 Kings 1:50). For a similar image of souls (of the righteous) waiting in the heavenly sanctuary, cf. 2 Baruch 30:1-2; 2/4 Esdras 4:35; 7:32 (Koester, p. 399).

The cry of “how long…?” (Grk e%w$ po/te, “until when…?”) in verse 10 reflects passages in the Old Testament such as the Psalmist’s lament in Ps 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5ff (cf. also Zech 1:12, etc). It expresses two underlying thoughts: (1) the idea that justice has been denied or was not established during one’s life on earth, and (2) a desire to experience God’s deliverance in time of trouble. Here the emphasis is decidedly eschatological—i.e., waiting for justice to be done (by God) at the end-time Judgment:

“And they cried (out) with a loud voice, saying: ‘Until when, O master, the (One) holy and true, do you not judge and work out justice (for) our blood out of [i.e. from] the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth?'” (v. 10)

The verb e)kdike/w is sometimes translated “avenge”, but it is better here to maintain its fundamental meaning “work out justice” (i.e. on behalf of someone). Justice was not “worked out” for these believers during their time on earth, when they were put to death unjustly; it waits to be established at the end-time Judgment. A basic premise of justice in such instances (murder, bloodshed, etc) is a requital for the death (“blood”) of the innocent. This idea is most ancient, expressed famously in Gen 9:5-6, but was given a new formulation by Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Matt 23:29-35 / Lk 11:47-51)—the blood of the prophets put to death (by Israel) serves as a pattern for the execution of Jesus and his followers (cf. Matt 5:12; 11:12-14 par; Mark 9:12-13 par), and will bring judgment upon the people and the city of Jerusalem (Matt 23:36-39; Lk 13:33-35).

This introduces another interesting parallel between Revelation 6 and the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In both passages, a period of war among the nations/peoples (Rev 6:1-8; Mk 13:7-8 par) is followed by a reference to the persecution (and death) of believers (Rev 6:9ff; Mk 13:9-13 par). Also in both instances, the reference ends with a call for patient endurance (Rev 6:11; Mk 13:13 par). Here in verse 11, it is a response to the heartfelt cry of believers, longing to see justice done by God:

“And white dress was given to each of them, and it was uttered to them that they will rest up (for) a little time yet, until their (fellow) slaves with (them) and their brothers should also be fulfilled—the (one)s about to be killed off, even as they (were).”

On the significance of white garments, cf. the notes on 3:4-5, 18; 4:4, and further in 7:13-14. It is declared that justice will note be done—that is, the end-time Judgment will not come—until a “little time” (xro/no$ mikro/$) has passed. Based on 11:2-3; 12:6ff; 13:5, it is possible that this is equivalent to the (symbolic) period of 3½ years. In any case, based on the imminent eschatology clearly expressed in the book up to this point (cf. 1:1, 3, 8, 19; 2:16; 3:3, 10-11, 20), this declaration indicates that the end-time Judgment will take place very soon (though not immediately). This is confirmed by the announcement that the other believers, who will join them as martyrs for Christ, are “about [me/llonte$] to be killed”. This time, however short, or whatever the precise length, will be fulfilled when these other believers are put to death, completing their life-mission. On similar (and roughly contemporary) language, see, e.g., 1 Enoch 47:4; 2 Baruch 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 2:41; 4:35-37 (Koester, p. 400).

Clearly, the book of Revelation expresses the idea that the persecution (and execution) of believers is about to intensify and increase. While individual instances are mentioned, or alluded to, elsewhere in the New Testament, there is no real indication in the first century A.D. of widespread persecution. The opposition and attacks of early believers by Jews was most intense in the earliest years, but it was still experienced by Christians in Asia Minor toward the end of the century (as attested in 2:9-10 and 3:9). In terms of action against believers by Roman imperial authorities, this appears to have been sporadic and relatively infrequent. There were, of course, the famous (though very brief) state-sponsored executions under Nero’s reign (c. 64), which almost certainly influenced the imagery in the book of Revelation. However, the extent of persecution in the reign of Domitian (81-96), the period often thought to provide the setting of the book, does not appear to have been nearly so widespread as was often thought. Indeed, the evidence from the letters to the churches here in chaps. 2-3, suggests that executions were relatively infrequent in Asia Minor at the time of writing; imprisonment during interrogation would have been much more common. In the subsequent centuries (mid-2nd through the early 4th) there would be more intense periods of state-sponsored persecution, conducted on a wider scale.

Note of the Day – September 12 (Revelation 6:1-8)

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With chapter 6 the great 7-part vision cycles, which form the core of the remainder of the book, begin—the next cycle unfolding out of the seventh vision of the one prior. This triadic (3 x 7) visionary (and literary) structure, is tied back to the seven seals on the scroll at the right-hand of God’s throne (cf. the previous notes on the throne-vision of chaps. 4-5). From a rhetorical, epistolary standpoint, I had mentioned earlier that chapters 4-5 could be regarded as the propositio—the central proposition which is argued or expounded in the body of the letter. The proposition, if you will, might be stated as follows: even though Rome may seem to rule on earth at the present, in its socio-political and economic power, accompanied by corruption and wickedness, it is God and Jesus Christ (the Lamb) who truly rule over the peoples and nations. This “proposition” is implied in the words written on the scroll; the breaking of the seals, making these words known, is the exposition (probatio)—the “proof” of the proposition lies in the fact that the coming events, establishing God’s ultimate rule over humankind, have already been “written” and are destined to take place.

Revelation 6:1-8

Verse 1 shows the connection with the previous vision:

“And I saw (that) when the Lamb opened up one out of the seven seals…”

Interestingly, the visions which follow in chapter 6 do not necessarily correspond with anything written on the scroll as such; rather, they are preliminary, being revealed when each of the seals is broken (“opened up”). Only after the seven seals have been broken, can the scroll, properly speaking, be read. The opening of each seal is accompanied by the voice of one of the four Living Beings around the throne. The voice has the heavenly/divine characteristic of sounding like thunder (bronth/); recall that in Hebrew the common word for thunder (loq) literally means “voice” (i.e. thunder as the ‘voice’ of God, drawing upon ancient storm-theophany). Each Living Being announces “(you must) come! [e&rxou]”, creating a most effective visionary dynamic.

The first four seals (and visions) involve horses (and horsemen)—”see, a horse…and the (one) sitting upon it”—resulting in the traditional designation of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, immortalized in artwork such as Dürer’s famous woodcut:

The first horse is white (leuko/$), and this has caused some confusion among readers and commentators. Because Jesus is depicted as the rider on a white horse in Rev 19:11ff, it is often assumed that he is rider here as well. But that is most unlikely, given the character of these four horses/horsemen when taken together as a group. It is true that white is typically the color associated with the divine/heavenly realm, representing holiness and purity, in particular (cf. the earlier use in 1:14; 2:17; 3:4-5, 18; 4:4). However, it can also symbolize victory (i.e., in warfare other contests), and, indeed, it carries this association in chapters 2-3. Moreover, a victorious military leader was frequently depicted (or presented) on a white horse—cf. Herodotus Histories 7.40; 9.63; Virgil Aeneid 3.537, etc; Koester, p. 393. Thus it is probably best to view this horse and rider as symbolizing military conquest, as emphasized by the double use of the verb nika/w in v. 2—”…and he went out being victorious, (so) that he might be victorious”. It is also suggestive of an overwhelming military strength, or as referring to one destined to conquer. The use of the bow (i.e. by mounted archers) does not appear to have been commonly employed by Roman forces at this time, being more typical of people outside the empire, or on its borders, such as the Parthians and Sarmatians. This likely is intended as a contrast to Roman Imperial control and security (cf. the beginning of the next note), but may also indicate the swiftness of the attack which could be carried out by mounted archers and cavalry units.

I believe that all four of the horses/horsemen primarily relate to the image of warfare; it is worth looking at them in summary:

  • White (leuko/$, v. 2)—military conquest, indicated by both the color, as well as the weapon (bow, to/con) and wreath (ste/fano$) in honor of victory
  • Red (purro/$, v. 4)—violence and death (red connoting blood, etc) as the result of military action (sword); a period of intense warfare is indicated:
    “…and it was given to him to take peace out of the earth, even (so) that they will slaughter each other, and (indeed) a great sword was given to him”
  • Black (me/la$, vv. 5-6)—which I take as symbolizing the darkness which follows in the wake of war, as when the sun turns dark (v. 12, etc) being obscured by smoke, and so forth. Here it seems to be defined in terms of socio-economic distress and oppression, i.e. the disruption of the balance of social order, indicated by the scale-beam (zugo/$) the rider holds in his hand. Verse 6 describes this two ways:
    (a) food shortage, growing in severity—”a choinix of wheat-grain for a denarius, and three choinixes of barley for a denarius”
    (b) the increasingly precious nature of olive oil and wine—”do not take away justice (from) [i.e. injure/mistreat] the olive (oil) and the wine”
    Koester (p. 397) gives the plausible explanation that these references express the burden placed on the populace as the result of constant warfare. The need to provide food for armies, in addition to the effects of war itself (siege/destruction of cities and villages), would result in shortages of food. Funding the military might also require increased production of oil and wine to meet the costs, making these commodities even more precious.
  • Green (xlwro/$, v. 8)—the rider is identified specifically by the name “Death” ([o(] qa/nato$), which, of course, is the most terrifying and traumatic result of war. The association with the color green is not entirely clear; it could be related to death and the dead in ancient tradition, but here more likely it refers to the fear (pale greenish look of the face, etc) with which people respond to death’s approach (cf. Homer, Iliad 7.479; Hippocrates Prognostikon 2, etc; Koester, p. 397). Death is followed by the “unseen realm” (a%|dh$, ‘Hades’) of the Dead, just as death (from warfare, etc) sends countless dead to the grave. In v. 8b, the scope widens from the effects of warfare (“the warfare”) to death from other factors—hunger and disease, and being killed by wild beasts (“under the beasts of the earth”), which could also occur with greater frequency as the result of war. One might also view warring parties symbolically as “beasts of the earth”.

In the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel Tradition, a period of intense warfare is also predicted (Mark 13:7-8 par), at the beginning of the distress and suffering which precedes the coming Judgment—”these are the beginning of (the birth-)pains”. Jesus likewise describes this in terms of constant war involving many different nations and ethnic groups, etc. The visions of the first four seals here in the book of Revelation seem to expand upon this idea, intensifying it further, so that death would come to a fourth of the earth’s territory and population (v. 8b). While this is almost certainly a symbolic number (related to the four Living Beings, seals, and horses/horsemen), it is most striking as an indication of the sheer number of people who would suffer death during this period.

The warfare (and its effects) described in these visions is probably meant as a contrast to the peace and security which was thought to be the beneficial product of Roman Imperial rule. The ideal of Pax Romana, immortalized by the many Imperial shrines (most notably the Ara Pacis Augustae [“Altar of the Augustan Peace”] in Rome), is shattered, even as the rider on the second horse is given the authority to “take peace out of the earth”. The bow held by the rider on the first horse might also allude to warfare/attacks by non-Roman peoples on the surrounding border territories (e.g., the Parthians), which also would threaten the security of the Empire. Ultimately, true peace can be established only through the appearance of Jesus Christ on earth, as the book of Revelation will described in its later chapters.

The visions related to the fifth and sixth seals (vv. 9-17) will be discussed in the next daily note.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

Note of the Day – September 11 (Revelation 5:1-14, concluded)

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Revelation 5:1-14 (concluded)

Rev 5:11-13

Following the song sung by the Living Beings and Elders (cf. the previous note on vv. 9-10), a vast multitude, both in heaven and on earth (and below the earth), joins in the singing. First we read of “many Messengers” (i.e. Angels, heavenly beings), almost beyond numbering—indicated by the expression “ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands (more)”. As they add their voices, it is as though we are hearing a refrain to the song in vv. 9-10, as it follows a similar pattern:

“…a&cio$ [i.e. worthy] is the Lamb th(at) has been slaughtered to receive the power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and esteem and (a) good account!” (v. 12)

Not coincidentally, there are seven attributes listed here, in keeping with the seven horns and eyes possessed by the Lamb, as well as the seven seals on the scroll. In some ways, the sequence of seven is more important than the individual attributes, as it clearly indicates the divine status and character of the Lamb, who is worthy (on a&cio$, cf. the previous note) to receive the same declaration of praise, worship and homage that the heavenly beings would give to God on His throne. This is a fundamental theme of the chap. 4-5 vision, as well as the book of Revelation as a whole. The seven attributes are traditional, and require little comment; I begin with the first four, which properly reflect divine attributes:

  • du/nami$ (“power”)—For God (or Christ) to receive power from others is a reflection of the (ritual) language and imagery of vassalage. The beings around the throne receive their position of rule/power from God, and thus give it back to him, as an indication of their submission and obedience, etc. It is also a natural characteristic of (religious) praise to emphasize the greatness of the Divine. The word du/nami$ indicates not only strength, but also the ability or authority to do something.
  • plou=to$ (“wealth, riches”)—This is a collective noun related to the verb plh/qw (“filling, fullness”). The customary translation “wealth” or “riches” can be somewhat misleading, suggesting a static possession, whereas here it denotes the fullness of God’s presence, power, etc—the source of all life and blessing. To recognize this of God (and Christ) effectively gives “wealth” back to him.
  • sofi/a (“wisdom”)—In its more original (and practical) sense, sofi/a refers to a thorough knowledge or skill in a particular area. Eventually, it came to have a more strongly intellectual denotation. Among early Christians, in particular, the word took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. True knowledge and ability comes from God, through Christ, by way of the presence of the (Holy) Spirit at work in and among believers.
  • i)sxu/$ (“strength, ability”)—Fundamentally, this refers to something which a person holds, or possesses—the ability to do something, in terms of capability. It is tied more directly to a person’s life-force, than is the similar term du/nami$ (above). The declaration here recognizes God (and Christ) as the source of life, and our own (natural) strength and ability which we give back (through worship, service, etc).

The final three words are, in a sense, synonymous, forming a triad which reflects how devout religious persons (believers) view God/Christ:

  • timh/ (“honor”)—This word fundamentally means “value” or “worth”, but is usually translated in the New Testament as “honor”. It refers to the worth we place on God and Jesus, i.e. the extent, or the way in which we value them.
  • do/ca (“esteem”)—Often translated “glory”, the word more properly refers to the way in which we consider or regard someone/something. However, in traditional religious usage, this represents only one side of the equation. How we regard God and Jesus is based on the nature and character which they possess—i.e., they are esteemed because they are worthy of esteem. In Hebrew, the word typically translated as “glory” actually means “weight” (db)K*), i.e. the weight or value which God possesses in His person.
  • eu)logi/a (“good account”)—The word is derived from eu)loge/w, “give a good account”, i.e. “speak/think well (of someone)”. Customarily, eu)logi/a is translated as “blessing”, but that covers up to some extent the concrete sense of the word. Because of their nature and character, and what they have done for us, God and Jesus are deserving of good words (of praise, proclamation of the Gospel [“good message”], etc) from us.

In verse 13, all creatures—in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (cf. verse 3)—join the song, further expanding the vast number of voices. Their refrain serves as a climax to the entire vision of chaps. 4-5, joining God and the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) together as the focus of worship:

“To the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb—(be) the good account and the honor and the esteem and the might [kra/to$] into the Ages of the Ages!”

The three attributes (cf. above), which reflect how created beings (should) view and respond to God and the Lamb (Jesus), are repeated here; and a fourth is added: kra/to$. I am inclined to view this word as a summary of the four divine attributes in v. 13 (cf. above); in which case, the multitude of living creatures here echoes that earlier refrain. The meaning of kra/to$ (often translated “might”) differs somewhat from the words du/nami$ (“power”) and i)sxu/$ (“strength”)—I would define this as signifying the manifest presence of power and strength. As such, it is commonly used in reference to Deity. It is rather rare in the New Testament, occurring just 12 times, but its earlier use in Rev 1:6 is worth noting. Indeed, it may well be that its presence here, following do/ca, is meant as a deliberate echo of the closing words of 1:6. The entire greeting of 1:4-6 has the same two-part structure as chaps. 4-5, and shares many of the same phrases and ideas.

Rev 5:14

This verse serves as a coda to the vision, repeating the gesture of homage by the four Living Beings and twenty-four Elders. In 4:9-10, it was given to God on His throne, while in 5:8, it is directed toward the Lamb; now, here, we must understand it as an act of worship for them both, together. It is a solemn and fitting conclusion to the grand dual-vision in chapters 4-5.

Note of the Day – September 10 (Revelation 5:1-14, continued)

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Revelation 5:1-14 (continued)

The vision of the Lamb in chapter 5 climaxes with the song in verses 9ff, just as the throne-vision of chapter 4 concludes with a similar song—the parallelism between the two halves of the chap. 4-5 vision were discussed in the previous daily note. The song begins in vv. 9-10, sung by the four Living Beings and twenty-four Elders, before being taken up by the heavenly multitudes in vv. 11-13.

Rev 5:9-10

“and they sang a new song, saying, ‘a&cio$ are you to take the paper-roll and to open up its seals, (in) that [i.e. because] you went to the market-place [i.e. bought] for God in [i.e. with] your blood, (purchasing) out of every offshoot [i.e. tribe] and tongue [i.e. language] and people and nation, and you made them a kingdom and sacred officials [i.e. priests] for our God, and they will rule as king(s) upon the earth’.”

It is worth noting again the opening word of the song, which begins as in 4:11, to be repeated here in 5:11. The adjective a&cio$ is rather difficult to translate literally in English. Fundamentally, the underlying idea is of bringing something into balance (i.e. being weighed/measured on the scales), as, literally, “bringing [vb. a&gw] up” the beam of the scale. The adjective itself signifies something which is thus of an equal, or proper, weight. As an honorific, especially when used in a religious context (in reference to God, etc), it indicates that someone is deserving of honor and praise, etc, and so should be given the appropriate reverence and respect. It is typically translated in such instances as “worthy”. However, in this case, the parallelism between chapters 4 and 5 connotes a deeper theological meaning—that the Lamb (i.e. the exalted Jesus) is of the same “weight” (Heb. db)K*) as God, and, in his divine position/status, shares with God the Father the ruling authority, etc (including effective ownership of the seal on the scroll). It is possible that this is what is signified by the characterization of the song as “new” (kaino/$). A song of praise and worship to God is obvious and natural for any religious person; it is the extension of this song to the Lamb (Jesus) which is new. On the motif of a “new song”, cf. Psalm 40:3; 96:1; Isa 42:10).

The emphasis on the blood of the Lamb helps to clarify the sacrificial image. In the previous note, on verse 6, I outlined three sacrificial motifs with which Jesus’ death is associated in the New Testament: (1) the Passover Lamb, (2) the offering for sin/guilt, and (3) the sacrifice at the establishment of the Covenant. The Last supper scene, before Jesus’ impending death, blends together all three of these:

  • The context of the Passover meal (Mark 14:1, 12ff, 22ff par); in John’s account, Jesus is put to death on the day of Passover eve, identifying him more precisely with the Lamb that is slain (13:1; 18:28; 19:14).
  • The establishment of the (new) Covenant—the wine-cup is identified specifically as “the blood of the [new] covenant” (Mark 14:24 par)
  • A sacrifice for sin (Matt 26:28; cf. also John 1:29)

While the Lamb’s blood features prominently in the Passover narrative (Exod 12:7, 13), symbolizing God’s deliverance of his people and their protection (from death), here there is a more precise connection with the Covenant scene in Exodus 24. The blood thrown upon the people (v. 8), identifies that they are bound to God by the agreement (covenant) that has been established. The blood marks them as His people and consecrates them as “a holy nation” and “a kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6). This is exactly the tradition which is being referenced here, and it is also the primarily meaning of the Last Supper symbolism—”this is my blood of the covenant th(at is) poured out over many“. Only here in Revelation, the “many” (polloi/) have been expanded and given a universal scope: “out of every tribe/race and tongue and people and nation”. According to the tradition of the (old) Covenant, Israel was purchased by God, from among all the other peoples/nations on earth, to be his own chosen people (Exod 15:16, etc). Now, the new people of God (believers in Jesus), have been similarly purchased, but as individuals taken from every conceivable ethnic and racial background. In order to preserve the etymology and concrete sense of the verb a)gora/zw, I have given it an excessively literal translation above. It signifies a person going to the market-place (a)gora/) and purchasing something. In this case, the “market-place” is the entire inhabited world—all peoples and nations, etc.

As mentioned above, verse 10 draws upon the ancient covenant tradition, and especially, the language in Exodus 19:6. The same wording and imagery is used in 1 Peter 1:5, 9—believers in Christ are the true people of God, fulfilling the very characteristics previously applied to Israel under the (old) Covenant. We are a “holy nation” and a “royal priesthood” (“kingdom of priests”). This is stated succinctly here in v. 10a, as it was earlier in 1:6. However, special attention must be given to the concluding statement in v. 10b:

“and they will rule as king(s) upon the earth”

First, one should note the variant readings involving the verb basileu/w (“rule/reign as king”). The textual evidence is divided between the present tense (basileu/ousin, “they rule as king[s]”), and the future tense (basileu/sousin, “they will rule as king[s]”)—the difference being a single letter (s). It is an important distinction, since it effects how one should interpret the nature and character of the believers’ reign. The present tense (supported by A 046 1006 1611 and other minuscules and versions), indicating that believers currently rule as kings on earth, would suggest a symbolic, or spiritual reign. By contrast, the future tense (read by a P 1 94 1854 2053 2344 and many other MSS and versions) most likely would be understood in an eschatological sense—in the Age to Come, believers will rule (with Christ). Moreover, the specific phrase “will rule upon the earth” would seem to indicate a concrete manifestation of the Kingdom of God (and Christ) on earth at the end of the current Age. For some commentators, this is readily identified with a (literal) Millennial Kingdom, in light of 20:1-6. Verse 6, in particular, is emphasized, though it should be noted that it applies specifically to those who were put to death for their faith in Jesus—following the resurrection, “they will be sacred officials [i.e. priests] of God and of the Anointed (One), and they will rule as king with him (for) a thousand years”. By contrast, 5:10 indicates that all believers will function as priests and kings. This will be discussed further when we come to 20:1-6; the question of the precise eschatological expectation, in terms of God’s Kingdom being established on earth, will also be addressed at several points as we continue through the book.

In the next daily note, we will look at the concluding song in verses 11-13.

Note of the Day – September 9 (Revelation 5:1-14)

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Revelation 5:1-14

Revelation 5:1 begins the second half of the vision in chapters 4-5. If chap. 4 was devoted to a vision of God (the Father) on His throne, chap. 5 is a vision of Jesus at the right hand of the Father—that is, sharing the ruling place with God. The parallelism between these two halves is unquestionable, and reflects a central theme of the book, theological and christological, which was already introduced in the opening words, and the first vision, in chapter 1. The key points in parallel are:

  • The central presence of the Throne, representing the seat of ruling-power in heaven. The Lamb has a place near and/or on the Throne.
  • Both God and Lamb are surrounded by the “seven Spirits” and have authority/control over them.
  • The Living Beings and Elders likewise surround both figures and give homage/praise to them, in a similar fashion.
  • The Song of praise that is sung to each uses similar language and form, beginning with the word a&cio$, usually translated “worthy”—i.e. “Worthy are you…”
Rev 5:1-4

The chapter begins with a narrowing of focus for the vision, closing in on the image of the throne:

“And I saw upon the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, a paper-roll [i.e. scroll] having been written (on the) inside and on the back, (and) having been sealed down with seven seals.” (verse 1)

Here we have the central motif of the “right hand” of God. The adjective decio/$ literally means “giving”, referring to the right hand as the auspicious (or giving hand)—i.e. the hand or side from which blessing comes, where symbols of power and authority are focused, etc. A fundamental element in the early Christian view of Jesus, and the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), was that, following his death and resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a position at the “right hand” of God in heaven—cf. Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22. In terms of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, this motif was largely drawn from Psalm 110:1, and its application goes back to Jesus’ own words (Mark 12:36; 14:62 pars). The viewpoint here of the right hand of the throne of God prepares the reader for the appearance of the exalted Jesus.

Another important detail in this verse is the seal or stamp (sfragi/$) on the scroll. Typically, a papyrus or parchment scroll (bi/blo$, here the diminutive bibli/on) would be tied up with a string, upon which a clay or wax (or lead) seal was applied, and then stamped down (vb. katasfragi/zw) with an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) to indicate ownership. God, as the Ruler, is the one who has stamped down his signet onto the seal, indicating his ownership. No one could tamper with (i.e. break) this seal; only the owner (God himself) has the authority to open the scroll, or someone who possessed the same authority (from God). The divine character of this seal is further emphasized by the plural (“seals”) and use of the number seven. This is the point of the solemn declaration which follows in verse 2:

“And I saw a strong Messenger proclaiming in [i.e. with] a great voice, ‘Who is a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and to loose(n) its seals?'”

This is the same adjective (a&cio$) applied to God in 4:11, and which will similarly be applied to the Lamb in verse 9. I have temporarily left it untranslated (cf. further in the next note), but will mention here the fundamental meaning of something which is brought into balance (i.e. being of equal/appropriate weight). The significance of this is brought out vividly in verse 3:

“And no one—(not) in heaven, and not upon the earth, and not down under the earth—was able [i.e. had power] to open up the paper-roll and to look at it.”

The implication, of course, is that no one in all of creation possessed the personal authority of (or from) God in order to be able, rightly, to break the seal. The verb du/namai literally means “be (en)powered, have power”, but is often better rendered in English as “be able (i.e. to do something)”. The emphasis is not on a test of strength or power as such, but on a person’s authority (i.e. ability) to do something. This scene becomes personalized when the visionary (seer) gives his own reaction:

“And I wept (very) much (at this), that no one was found a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and (so) not to (be able to) look at it.” (v. 4)

The importance of looking (vb. ble/pw) at the contents of the scroll is emphasized repeatedly, though it is not immediately clear why this would be so. On the one hand, it can be regarded as a literary/narrative device, building suspense—the reader is waiting and eager to find out what is written on this scroll (v. 1). At the same time, the ability to look at its contents implies someone with the authority to open the scroll and read it, which, again, anticipates the appearance of the Lamb (Jesus), building narrative suspense. The person allowed to open a sealed scroll would be: (a) the owner of it (or his/her representative), or (b) the person to whom it was rightfully sent (and intended to be read). Both aspects of meaning are present here, though it is the former which is emphasized.

Rev 5:5-8

In these verses, we find a precise response to the scenario established in vv. 1-4—no one in all of creation is able to open the scroll. There is a chiastic structure to vv. 1-8 which I outline as follows :

Indeed, the answer comes in verse 5:

“And (then) one out of the Elder (Ones)s said to me: ‘Do not weep! (for) see, the lion th(at is) out of the offshoot [i.e. tribe] of Yehudah, the root of Dawid, (he is able) to open up the paper-roll and its seven seals!'”

On these “Elder Ones” (presbu/teroi), see the previous note on 4:4. His response is characteristic of heavenly beings (Angels) when they appear to chosen ones among God’s people (i.e., “Do not be afraid!”, etc). The declaration which follows is among the most overtly Messianic in the book of Revelation, expressed very much in traditional language, specifically related to the Davidic Ruler figure-type (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Two expressions are involved:

  • “the lion out of the tribe of Judah”—The lion commonly symbolizes power, but also a leading/regal position among all the other animals (i.e. ‘king of the beasts’); lion images were frequently used in the royal iconography of the ancient Near East. Here the expression is derived primarily from Genesis 49:9-10, part of Jacob’s testament (“last words”) to his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12). These verses were given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus, as we see from the Qumran texts (4Q252 5:1-4), and other writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. The ruling staff (tb#v@) in Gen 49:10, was blended together with that of Balaam’s oracle (Num 24:17), to form a dual Messianic reference, prophesying the coming of the (end-time) Davidic Ruler.
  • “the root of David”—This expression comes from Isaiah 11:1: “A stick/twig [rf#j)] will come forth from the stem [uz~G#] of Yishai {Jesse}, a green shoot [rx#n@] will bear (fruit) from his roots [vr#v, pl.]”. The Septuagint (LXX) translates both uz~G# (“stem”) and vr#v# (“root”) as r(i/za (“root”), which is used here in Revelation. Isaiah 11:1-4ff was one of the key passages interpreted as prophesying the coming of the Davidic Messiah. With its military allusions, which could only be realized for Christians at the return of Jesus, it is generally absent from the New Testament, except for 2 Thess 2:8 and (here) in the book of Revelation. David himself was more properly referenced by the “branch” [rx#n~/rf#j)], which, under the influence of the similar expression “sprout/branch of David” (dw]d*[l=] j^mx#) in Jer 23:15; 33:5 (cf. also Zech 3:8; 6:12), gave rise to rich set of Messianic motifs—see the Qumran texts 4Q161 7-10 iii 22; 4Q174 1-3 i 11; 4Q252 5:3-4; 4Q285 5, and other writings of the period.

In verse 6, this Messianic description (of the exalted Jesus) gives way to the image/vision of a Lamb (a)rni/on):

“And, in the middle of the ruling-seat and the four Living (Being)s, and in the middle of the Elder (One)s, I saw a Lamb having stood as (one) having been slaughtered, holding seven horns and seven eyes, which are the the [seven] Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”

The repeated use of e)n me/sw| (“in the middle [of]”) is a bit confusing, but I believe it is meant to emphasize two things: (1) the central position of the Lamb in the heavenly scene, and (2) his close proximity to the throne of God. There are four visual attributes or characteristics of this Lamb:

  1. It is standing (i.e. alive) even though it appears to have been slain. The paradox of this image may be conveyed by the sequence of perfect verb forms—”having stood”, “having been slaughtered”. This aptly reflects the dual-aspect of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the importance of both to his exaltated position/status as Messiah and Son of God.
  2. It has been slaughtered (vb. sfa/zw). This refers to ritual slaughter, i.e. a sacrificial offering. There are several possibilities:
    (i) The Passover lamb (Exod 12:6, etc), the blood of which symbolized God’s protection/deliverance for the faithful ones among His people.
    (ii) A sacrifice for sin/guilt (Lev 14:12-13), though lambs were more commonly used in the daily offering, etc, and not regularly connected with atonement for sin/guilt.
    (iii) The sacrificial offering at the establishment of the Covenant between God and His people—according to Exod 24:5-8, this was a sacrifice of “good will”, utilizing an ox/bull for the partial burnt offering.
    Jesus’ death is associated with all three of these, at various points in the New Testament. Probably the connection with the Passover is most clearly in view, as also in 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19, and, presumably, John 1:29, 36 (cf. the details in 13:1, etc, 19:14, 29[?], 31). There may also be a allusion here to Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:32-33).
  3. It has seven horns. The horn of a powerful animal, like the lion itself (cf. above), was a common ancient symbol of the strength and authority to rule; as such, it was natural as a Messianic motif—i.e. Luke 1:69 (cf. Ps 132:17; 92:10; 148:14; Ezek 29:1; 1 Sam 2:1, etc). The number seven here indicates divine power and authority, that the Lamb shares rule with God the Father (on/at His throne).
  4. It has seven eyes. These are identified specifically with the heavenly beings or Messengers (“Spirits”) which surround God’s throne and which “are sent forth into all the earth”. This imagery seems to be drawn from Zech 4:2ff, in which the “lamps” (Angels/Spirits) are described as “the eyes of the Lord” which travel back and forth in all the earth (v. 10). Here they are the eyes of the Lamb, indicating again the close relationship between the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) and God the Father.

Verse 7 narrates simply how the Lamb approaches the throne (at God’s right hand) and takes the scroll from God (“the One sitting on the ruling seat”). This action triggers an explosion of praise from the heavenly beings around the throne (vv. 8ff), similar to that which they offered to God in 4:8-11 (on this, cf. the previous note). It is an elaborate and dramatic scene, as the Living Beings and Elders again fall down to give homage—this time to the Lamb. They hold musical instruments (the kithara, a six- or seven-stringed harp) and golden dishes containing fragrant smoke (incense), identified as the “prayers” of the holy ones. These represent different aspects of worship—music and ritual offerings, only in the latter case the offerings, in a Christian context, have been defined in terms of prayer (largely eliminating the sacrificial/ritual dimension).

The Song sung by the heavenly beings will be discussed in the next daily note.

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 4)

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The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 4)

  1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist
  2. References to the coming of the Kingdom, with a clear eschatological emphasis
  3. References to the coming Day of Judgment
  4. Specific references to the coming of the “Son of Man” (Judgment context)
  5. References indicating a(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers
  6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

The first four areas of study were addressed in the previous articles (Parts 2, 3); here we will be examining the final two areas (#5-6, in italics above).

5. A(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers

One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’ eschatology is whether, or to what extent, he affirms the traditional idea of the restored Israelite kingdom, which is central to much Jewish eschatological thought, from the (later) Prophets, down to Jesus’ own time. Not surprisingly, this idea gradually disappeared from early Christian writings, as the Church took on a more universal, non-Jewish (Gentile) coloring. Even where the idea of a concrete “Millennial Kingdom” was preserved, it typically was detached from its nationalistic roots. Only relatively recently has the distinctly Israelite/Jewish background of early Christian eschatology been re-affirmed, largely through two quite different avenues: (1) Dispensationalist interpretation of Bible prophecy, and (2) Critical scholarship which, in the past 50+ years especially, has emphasized both the Jewish background of the New Testament and the Jewishness of the historical Jesus. Greater awareness in Western society of Jewish customs and traditions in general, including from the time of Jesus (through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc) has also contributed in this regard.

There can be little doubt of the nationalistic, ethno-religious dimension to Jewish eschatology and Messianic thought. According to at least one major line of tradition (centered primarily on the Messianic figure-type of the Davidic Ruler), the end-time deliverance of God’s people, connected with the great Judgment, will involve (and/or be preceded by) the defeat of the nations and the re-establishment of the Israelite Kingdom. This eschatological scenario brings together a number of separate, but related traditions:

  • The return of Israelites from being dispersed among the nations
  • The re-establishment of Jerusalem as the religious center, with a renewed (and/or new) Temple
  • The inclusion of Gentiles, who will come to Jerusalem (and the Temple) to worship the one true God and pay homage to Israel
  • In more elaborate, developed versions, a period of this Kingdom rule (on earth) precedes the final Resurrection and Judgment in Heaven. At any rate, these represent two distinct eschatological ideals (restored Kingdom on earth, rule in Heaven) which were combined various ways by both Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

It is not necessary to document here all of the relevant passages which reflect this basic expectation (of a restored Kingdom). An essential formulation is found in Micah 4:1-4 (note the overall context of chaps. 4-5), par. Isa 2:2-4; it was an important theme in (Deutero-)Isaiah, including key passages such as 49:5-6ff; 56:1-8; 60:1-16ff; and 66:18-24. Among the many passages in the later Jewish writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D., I might point out Tobit 13:11-17; 14:4-7; 2 Macc 1:27ff; Jubilees 1:15-18; Testament of Benjamin 9:2ff. Especially noteworthy is the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st century B.C.), which provides the classic portrait of the militant Davidic Ruler who will subdue the nations, deliver God’s people, and rule over the kingdom (of God) on earth. The Messianic expectation of many Jews at the time of Jesus would certainly have included the basic idea that the kingdom of Israel would be restored and God’s people delivered from the wicked (nations), and should be recognized in such statements as Mark 15:43 par; Luke 1:32-33; 2:25b, 38. Indeed, it is stated precisely in Acts 1:6, indicating that Jesus’ disciples expected that he would fulfill this traditional role as the Anointed One (Davidic Ruler). A number of other references in the Gospel Tradition suggest a similar expectation—Mark 11:9-10 par; Luke 19:11; John 6:15. The circumstances of Jesus’ death, as recorded in the Gospels, make no sense unless the Roman authorities were concerned about the possibility that he might be identified as a Messianic figure (“King of the Jews”) who would attempt to liberate Judea from Roman rule.

The question remains: to what extent did Jesus confirm this particular view of the Kingdom as a restoration of the Israelite kingdom, or as a concrete kingdom/government established on earth? Many who heard the proclamation that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mk 1:15 par), echoed variously throughout Jesus’ ministry (cf. Part 1), doubtless would have understood it in such a light. Even Jesus’ disciples appear to have had it in mind (Acts 1:6, to be discussed). A number of critical scholars accept the proposition that Jesus expected to inaugurate a Messianic kingdom on earth. For traditional-conservative readers and commentators, especially those who follow a Dispensationalist mode of interpretation, such a kingdom, it is believed, will still be established at some point in the future. It must be said, however, that there is little clear evidence in the sayings of Jesus which supports the idea of a Kingdom to be established on earth. Most of the Kingdom-sayings and teachings are ambiguous in this regard. As far as I am able to determine, the emphasis appears to be twofold: (1) the coming Judgment, and (2) heavenly/eternal reward for the righteous (believers/followers of Jesus). The scene of this Judgment, which, in its most ancient context, would have referred simply to the afterlife, appears to be in the Heavenly court (cf. the sayings surveyed in Parts 2 and 3).

There are several sayings which do allow for the possibility of an earthly, Messianic kingdom, ruled by Jesus and his disciples, but even these are not entirely clear.

Mark 10:35-40ff par.

In this tradition, two of Jesus’ disciples (the brothers Jacob [James] and John) make the following request:

“Give to us that, one out of your giving [i.e. right] (hand), and one out of (your) left (hand), we might sit (with you) in your splendor” (v. 37)

At the historical level, it is most unlikely that Jesus’ disciples would have had any real understanding of his impending resurrection and exaltation to heaven; rather, they were presumably referring to the idea of a kingdom on earth which would be ruled by Jesus (as Messiah). This is perhaps confirmed by the Matthean parallel (20:21), which reads “in your kingdom” instead of “in your splendor”. His response is significant in the way that he directs them away from the motif of Messianic splendor, and toward the idea of his suffering and death—something which would not have been expected in regard to the Messiah at his coming (vv. 38-39). It is clearly expressed that the disciples, like Peter in the Transfiguration scene (9:6 par, cf. also 8:32-33), did not understand the implications of what they were saying. The following section (vv. 41-45) draws out this contrast even further—one should not be seeking for honor and rule, but to give sacrificial service to others, following Jesus’ own example. At the same time, Jesus does not deny the essential thought underlying their request—to sit alongside of him in the glory of his rule—but he has redefined it in terms of reward for faithful discipleship. It is interesting to compare the similar way Jesus responds to the disciples in Acts 1:6ff.

Matthew 19:28 / Luke 22:28-30

In close proximity to Matthew’s version of the above traditions (20:20-28), is another saying related to the ruling position of Jesus and his disciples. It is possible, in the Matthean narrative at least, that the request in v. 21 is in response to the earlier declaration by Jesus in 19:28:

“Amen, I relate to you, that you, the (one)s following me, in the (time of) coming to be again [i.e. rebirth/resurrection], when the Son of Man sits upon the ruling-seat of his splendor, you also will sit (as one)s upon twelve ruling-seats, judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

The basic idea suggests a concrete kingdom, such as the traditional restored/Messianic kingdom on earth. However, the context of the saying clearly sets it in the time of paliggenesi/a (“coming to be again”). This word came to be used as a technical term (in Greek philosophy, etc) for the rebirth of the world at the end of the current Age, or, in particular, the rebirth of souls in the future Age. The latter would have been understood in terms of resurrection for Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D., with the end of the current Age being associated specifically with God’s coming Judgment. The word paliggenesi/a thus is eschatological, related to the end-time Judgment and the resurrection. Interestingly, Josephus does use the word in a figurative sense to convey the idea of the restoration (from exile) of Israel as a people (Antiquities 11.66). The only other occurrence in the New Testament (Titus 3:5) is also figurative, symbolic of the believer’s spiritual “rebirth” in Christ, where the setting is the Baptism ritual. It is, however, likely that the Baptismal use of the term draws upon the earlier cosmic sense of the world’s rebirth, such as took place after the great Flood (which prefigures the end-time Judgment)—cf. Philo Life of Moses II.65; 1 Clement 9:4; and note the association between baptism and the flood in 1 Pet 3:20-21.

The context of the Synoptic saying in vv. 29-30, as formulated in Matthew’s version, emphasizes heavenly/divine (eternal) Life in the Age to Come (cp. Mk 10:30; Lk 18:30). If the request in 20:21 is in response to this statement, then the disciples (or their mother, in Matthew’s version) may well have misunderstood the thrust of the saying. Certainly the focus, as in 20:22ff, is on true discipleship—following Jesus to the end, regardless of the cost.

Luke records a similar saying, though in a very different context, as part of the Last Supper scene (Lk 22:28-30). The overall narrative in 22:24-30 seems to draw upon both traditions cited above (Matt 19:28 [Q?] and the Synoptic Mk 10:35-45 par). Whatever the original historical setting, the inclusion of these sayings by Jesus in the context of the Last Supper—his impending death and the betrayal by Judas—results in a most powerful association, contrasting false discipleship (Judas and the dispute in v. 24) with the true. The disciples who remain (after Judas’ departure, cp. John 13:27-31a) are regarded as Jesus’ true followers; the words which follow in vv. 28-30 must be understood in this light (the italicized portions parallel Matt 19:28, above):

“But you are the (one)s having remained through(out) with me in my testing; and I will set through for you, even as my Father set through for me, a kingdom, (so) that you may eat and drink upon my table in my kingdom, and you will sit upon ruling-seats judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

This indicates a promise of fellowship (eating and drinking), similar to that of the Passover meal of the Last Supper, but also reflects the formal relation of vassalage—the faithful vassal is allowed to eat at the suzerain’s own table, and is given a subordinate kingdom, ruling under the authority of the suzerain. The disciples receive this ruling authority from Jesus, just as Jesus received it from God the Father. The image of eating and drinking in the Kingdom draws upon the tradition of the Eschatological/Messianic meal or banquet, indicated already in Old Testament passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14 (cf. also 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4; 3 Enoch 48:10; Sayings of the Fathers [Pirqe ‘Abot] 3:20, etc; Fitzmyer, p. 1026). Jesus uses this tradition a number of times in his parables (to be discussed in the next study).

How should we understand this declaration that Jesus’ faithful disciples will judge the twelve tribes of Israel? We must consider both the scenario which is being depicted, as well as the relationship between the disciples and the (twelve) tribes of Israel. There are several possibilities:

  • It is the scene of the Judgment (of all nations/peoples), and the disciples have the privilege of sitting as judges over the people of Israel. We find the idea of believers participating in the Judgment several times in the New Testament (1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 2:26-27; 20:4), but nowhere else in the Gospel does Jesus mention his disciples serving in this role.
  • The (twelve) disciples have a special place of honor and rule in heaven. Here the meaning of kri/nw is broader than a judicial role, extending to other aspects of ruling power and authority. In the book of Revelation it is extended still further, being granted not only to the apostles, but to other/all faithful believers (2:26-27; 3:21; 20:4 [?]). The limitation to the “tribes of Israel” may simply reflect the scope of Jesus’ own ministry; eventually, the image would become universal, with believers coming from all the nations.
  • The reference is to a Messianic kingdom on earth. The nations will have been defeated and made to submit to the authority of God’s Anointed One, but will still exist on earth similar to the way they do now (or in Jesus’ time). As such, an earthly kingdom over many different groups of people would require a governing structure. The (twelve) disciples govern (kri/nw again meaning “rule” as much as “judge”) Israel. Many commentators feel that this indeed is what (the historical) Jesus had in mind. The problem is, it is extremely difficult to find any other clear examples which refer to an earthly (Messianic) kingdom governed by disciples/believers, either in the Gospels or in the remainder of the New Testament (Rev 20:4-6 being a possible exception, cf. also 5:10).
  • It is largely symbolic, with the twelve disciples representing the twelve tribes, particularly in the sense of a restored/reconstituted Israel—the people of God who accept Jesus as God’s Anointed One. In my view this is perhaps the best explanation, as it would seem to confirm the obvious association between the Twelve and Israel (almost certainly intended by Jesus in the selection of the Twelve). The symbolism is unmistakable in the book of Acts (1:6 through chapter 2, and further), though it must be admitted that the theme of the “restoration of Israel” is not as explicit in Jesus’ sayings and parables.
  • It is symbolic of eternal/heavenly reward, the emphasis being not so much on the function of judging/ruling the twelve tribes, but on their sharing the honor and power which belongs to the exalted Jesus. This would seem to be the main point in several of the parallel references in the book of Revelation (esp. 2:26-28; 3:21).

With regard to the last interpretation, a special point of interest—occurring in both the Lukan version of the saying (22:28-30) and the verses in the book of Revelation cited above—is the chain of relation, which is both hierarchical and reciprocal:

God the Father
¦
Jesus (the Son)
¦
Disciples/Believers

Jesus receives a kingdom from the Father, and, in turn, gives a kingdom to his faithful followers. As noted above, this reflects the ancient and traditional concept of vassalage, whereby there is a distinctive socio-relational component (dynamics of friendship and loyalty) to governmental structures. The same structure occurs frequently throughout the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, where the reciprocal aspect comes more clearly into view: (1) the Disciples give honor and power back to Jesus, i.e. recognizing his kingly rule, and (2) Jesus gives the kingdom/kingship back to the Father (on this point, see esp. 1 Cor 15:24). From the standpoint of early Christology, it is after his death and resurrection that Jesus receives his Kingdom from the Father, expressed especially through the idea of Jesus being at the “right hand” of the Father in heaven (but cf. also the beginning of the parable in Lk 19:12, to be discussed).

If the image of eating and drinking in the Kingdom were to be taken literally, in a concrete sense (i.e. ordinary physical food and drink), then it would confirm the idea of an earthly kingdom. While this generally conforms to certain strands of Old Testament tradition (i.e. the coming Age as a time of peace/prosperity on earth), and may well reflect popular expectation (Lk 14:15), it is rather difficult to sustain when one considers the sayings and parables of Jesus carefully. The illustration in Matt 8:11-12 appears to be proverbial, but otherwise reflects the setting of the Judgment (brought out more clearly in the Lukan parallel, 13:28-29); cf. also Matt 22:2ff. Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper (Mk 14:25 par) is somewhat ambiguous, though the narrative context assumes his impending death and resurrection. The Matthean version emphasizes a meal that is to be shared with his disciples, indicating a heavenly setting (“…when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom”). Luke records two such parallel statements, in addition to the reference in v. 30:

“I should (certainly) not eat it [i.e. the Passover meal] (again) until (the time in) which it should be fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (v. 16)
“I should (certainly) not drink from the produce of the vine from now on, until (the time at) which the kingdom of God should come” (v. 18)

I take the first reference to mean that the Passover meal will be fulfilled in the Kingdom—almost certainly in the sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but with a possible allusion to the idea of the eschatological/Messianic banquet (cf. above). The expression “…when the kingdom of God should come” is best understood in relation to the coming Judgment, and the heavenly/eternal reward which follows; however, the wording does at least leave open the possibility of referring to a Messianic kingdom on earth.

6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

There are relatively few other sayings which reflect an eschatological meaning or understanding. The parables will be examined in the next study.

Mark 10:29-30 par.

There are several interesting variations in this Synoptic tradition, located at the conclusion of the episode with the “Rich Young Ruler” (10:17-22ff par). The saying clearly refers to reward for those who have followed Jesus faithfully, in an eschatological context (“the coming Age”); but there is some confusion as to the exact nature of the reward, and the extent to which it is earthly, heavenly or ‘spiritual’:

“…there is no one wh(o has) left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or offspring or fields for my sake, and for the sake of the good message, (that,) if (so,) he should not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and offspring and land—with pers(ecution)s, and in the coming Age, (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

Mark’s version emphasizes the suffering of the disciple in the present age (“…with persecutions”). Luke’s version (18:29-30), on the other hand, seems to give a more positive balance of heavenly/eternal and earthly reward:

“…there is no one wh(o has) left house {etc….} for the sake of the kingdom of God, who should not (indeed) receive many (more) in this time, and, in the coming Age, (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

It is by no means clear what disciples will receive (from God, some MSS use the verb a)polamba/nw, “receive from“) in the present time. Perhaps it refers to special blessing which attends their fellowship with Jesus, along the lines of Lk 10:23-24 par; Mk 4:11 par, etc. In either case, the reward in “this time” (the present) is clearly distinguished from the eternal reward in “the coming Age”.

Matthew’s version (19:29) removes the specific mention of reward in the present time:

“And every one wh(o has) left houses {etc….} for the sake of my name, will receive a hundredfold and will receive the lot of [i.e. inherit] (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

However, this has been prefaced by the saying indicating a specific reward for the twelve disciples/apostles (v. 28, discussed above). The emphasis on “eternal life” in v. 29 increases the likelihood that the reward in v. 28 is also heavenly/eternal (and not related to a Messianic kingdom on earth).

Mark 12:18-27 par

This Synoptic tradition records a discussion between Jesus and certain Sadducees on a point related to the resurrection, meant to test him (v. 18). Jesus dismisses the elaborate scenario they set forth (vv. 19-23), making the important point (v. 25) that, upon the resurrection, the righteous will live/exist like the heavenly beings (Messengers/’Angels’). They will not marry, nor, one may assume, be engaged in other sorts of physical pursuits as would take place during their life on earth. According to traditional (Jewish) eschatology, the resurrection would occur at the end-time, prior to (or after) the Judgment. Originally, resurrection was thought to be limited to the righteous, but, eventually, the idea developed that all human beings—righteous and wicked both—would be raised and enter into the Judgment. This idea is expressed by Jesus elsewhere, in John 5:21-29.

Matthew 9:37-38 / Luke 10:2

Here the saying more properly relates to the actual ministry of Jesus and his disciples—preaching the good news, etc. However, the thrust of this preaching had to do with the coming of the Kingdom, and there is almost certainly an eschatological allusion implicit in the harvest imagery used here. This is traditional, going back to the Old Testament Prophets (e.g. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12). It was used as a clear eschatological image by John the Baptist (Matt 3:12 par), and also by Jesus in his parables (Mk 4:29; Matt 13:30, 39).

Matthew 11:12 / Luke 16:16

In this saying, which is formulated quite differently in Matthew and Luke, one detects something of a distinctive eschatological orientation. Luke has it in a detached context; it reads:

“The Law and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] (were) until Yohanan; from then (on) the kingdom of God is (announc)ed as good news, and every (one) forces (his way) into it.” (16:16)

In Matthew, the sense is quite different, the eschatological context—the proclamation of the impending coming of the kingdom of God, following John the Baptist’s ministry—is coupled with the motif of suffering and persecution, as in the Synoptic Mk 9:11-13 par. Note the Matthean formulation:

“And from the days of Yohanan the Dunker until now, the kingdom of the Heavens is treated with force, and forceful [i.e. violent] (person)s grab (hold of) it.” (11:12)

Luke 12:49-51ff par

These sayings on discipleship (cp. Matt 10:34-37) also have an eschatological tone. This can be seen by the parallels with John the Baptist’s declaration (Luke 3:16-17 par), as well as the themes of persecution and social division in other teaching by Jesus in an eschatological context (Mk 13:9-13 par; Matt 10:16-23; Lk 12:4-12). The verses which follow (vv. 54-56 par) also serve as a kind of eschatological warning.

Matthew 23:37-39 / Luke 13:34-35

Matthew’s version of this foreboding declaration comes at the climax of the great Woes-section in chap. 23, especially vv. 29-36 which prophesy the coming judgment upon Jerusalem. In the Eschatological Discourse (to be discussed), the fate of Jerusalem is tied closely to the coming Judgment and end of the current Age.

Luke 19:41-44; 23:28-31

These sayings follow the same theme as 13:34-35; they will be discussed in more detail in the study of Luke’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Several other sayings should be mentioned:

  • Luke 10:18—The declaration “I observed the Satan falling as a (lighting) flash out of heaven” remains somewhat mysterious. It may well have eschatological significance—i.e., Satan’s control over the earth in the current Age has come to an end.
  • Luke 12:2-3—There would seem to be an eschatological aspect to the warning in this saying; compare the different emphasis (and wording) in the Matthean parallel, 10:26-27.
  • Matthew 28:20—In the closing words of the Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples “I am with you all the days, until the completion (all) together of the Age”, i.e. the end of the current Age. The reference to the disciples’ mission into “all the nations” (v. 19), along with the expression “all the days”, seems to modify the sense of imminence which pervades much of the eschatology in the Gospels. This will be discussed in a separate article.

Finally, though it does not actually count as a saying of Jesus, we should note the request by the “good thief” on the cross in Luke’s version of the Passion narrative (Luke 23:42). It involves a significant textual variant:

“Remember me, when you should come into [ei)$] your kingdom.”
This is the reading of Ë75 B L al
“Remember me, when you should come in [e)n] your kingdom.”
The reading of a A C2 R W Y 0124 0135 f1,13, etc

The first follows the basic early Christian proclamation that Jesus received his kingdom/kingship from God after his death and resurrection (exaltation to the “right hand” of the Father). The second reading could be understood in the sense of Jesus’ return at the end-time Judgment—coming in/with the Kingdom. The reading of Codex Bezae (D) would seem to confirm this meaning: “…in the day of your coming”. The first reading (of Ë75, B, etc) better reflects Jesus’ response, promising that the “good thief” will be with him in heaven (Paradise, i.e. the ‘garden of God’).

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1-43

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A Monday (Labor Day) edition of the Saturday Series…

Deuteronomy 32:1-43

I have chosen the great poem in Deuteronomy 32 as a way to demonstrate Old Testament criticism involving Hebrew poetry. It is often referred to as the “Song of Moses”, while in Hebrew tradition it is known by the opening word Ha°¦zînû, “Give ear…”. As with our earlier study on Exodus 32-34, I will be examining this section according to different areas or aspects of Biblical criticism—

  • Textual criticism
  • Form criticism
  • Source criticism
  • Historical criticism

followed by a brief exegetical survey of the text as it has come down to us, according to what is typically called Literary criticism.

Textual Criticism

An important component and emphasis of textual criticism is the determination, as far as it is possible, of the most likely original form of the text. This is based on the fundamental premise that the text has experienced corruption at numerous points during the process of transmission. The word “corruption” can be misleading, suggesting a moral failing; but this is not at all what the word means in the context of the science of textual criticism. Textual corruption simply means that the original text (as authored/intended) has been altered in some way at various points (variation units). This alteration may have been intentional, or, much more frequently, occurred by accident. The alteration may be limited to particular manuscripts (or manuscript groups), or, in some instances, has been preserved in the main line of transmission of the text as it has come down to us. In the case of the Old Testament, this main line of transmission is identified as the “Masoretic Text” (MT). Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially the texts from Qumran), the oldest copies of the Hebrew text were from the 9th-10th century A.D.—many centuries after even the latest of the Scriptures were composed. The Dead Sea Scrolls have changed the textual picture considerably. While the Scripture texts from Qumran (and other sites) have confirmed the general reliability of the Masoretic Text, they have also brought up many differences, including numerous points at which the Qumran MSS agree with the Greek version (and/or the Samaritan Pentateuch) against the MT. In such instances, the readings of the Qumran copies must be given most serious consideration.

A particular problem related to Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament, is that the poetic portions often contain older or archaic language which can be difficult to recognize and interpret. This was probably as true for ancient copyists, working centuries after the poems were originally composed, as it is for scholars today. There are many points in Old Testament poetry where the text appears to be corrupt. It is often difficult to be sure, since the confusion may be the result of a genuine word, phrase or syntactical construct, which is unknown or unintelligible to us today. However, a comparison with the Greek version (Septuagint), and, more importantly, the Dead Sea Scrolls, can help to clarify some of these difficulties, and to confirm points at which the Masoretic Text may indeed be corrupt.

There are three points in the Song of Moses were there is evidence for textual corruption, and/or variant readings. Let us look briefly at each of them in turn.

Deut 32:5

The first line (colon) in verse 5 appears to make very little sense as it has come down to us:

Šiµ¢¾ lô lœ° b¹n¹w mûm¹m
literally: “he made ruin to/for him his sons their blemish”

If you go to this verse in your English Bible, you will likely see a footnote indicating that the Hebrew is obscure or uncertain. As noted above, this is frequently the case in Old Testament poetry. There are hundreds or verses or lines where we simply do not know for certain what the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text (MT) means, or how to translate and interpret it, or whether the apparent confusion is the result of textual corruption. The Rabbis noted the difficult syntax of this verse and sought variously to explain the MT, without any emendation. For example, Nahmanides explains it along the lines of: “their blemish caused them [i.e. the Israelites] to act corruptly toward Him” so that, as a result, “they are not His sons”.

Many critical commentators believe that the verse, as it has come down to us, is corrupt. One suggestion (cf. J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary [1996], p. 301) is that originally the line read something like—

šiµ¦¾û lô b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“His sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

or, possibly:

šiµ¦¾û lœ°-b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“(the ones who are) not-His-sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

Admittedly, this would make a better fit with the second half of the line, but it remains quite speculative.

The Greek version (Septuagint, LXX) is somewhat confusing as well:

h¢mártosan ouk autœ¡ tékna mœm¢tá
perhaps: “they sinned, children (of) blame (who are) not to me [i.e. not mine]”

Unfortunately, verse 5 is not present among the manuscript fragments of Deuteronomy preserved at Qumran, so there is no help from that side in elucidating the Hebrew syntax. One must always be cautious in emending the text that has come down to us (i.e. the Masoretic text), especially when there is no clear manuscript support for such emendation. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to accept the MT blindly, ignoring places where the received text is difficult or unintelligible. Here textual criticism reaches it finest, and most challenging, point.

Deut 32:8

The Masoretic Text (MT) of these lines in verse 8 reads:

B®hanµ¢l ±Elyôn gôyim
b®ha¸rî¼ô b®nê °¹¼¹m
yaƒƒ¢» g®»¥lœ¾ ±ammîm
l®mi´par b®nê Yi´r¹°¢l

“In the Most High’s giving posessions (to) the nations,
in His breaking apart [i.e. separating] the sons of man,
He set the boundaries of the peoples,
to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of Israel.”

The last line has always struck commentators as a bit peculiar. Since the context overall suggests the dispersal of the nations (following the traditions in Genesis 10-11), occurring long before Israel was a people, establishment of the traditional number of nations (seventy, according to Gen 10) in terms of the number of Israel’s descendants (Exod 1:1-5; Deut 10:22, etc) seems somewhat out of place. Many commentators were drawn to the alternate reading in the Greek version (Septuagint, LXX), which, instead of “according to the sons of Israel”, reads “according to the Messengers of God” (katá arithmón angélœn Theoú). This version of the text finds confirmation in one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutj):


l®mi´par b®nê °E_lœhîm

“…(according) to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of God

The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic term for divine beings—”gods” generally, in Canaanite religion. Within the context of Israelite monotheism, this idea was modified so as to refer to heavenly beings, i.e. Angels (“Messengers”), who are not to be worshiped as gods. A traditional number of seventy such beings goes all the way back to ancient Canaanite religious lore, and was preserved in Israelite and Jewish writings. This variant reading would seem to be confirmed again by the context of verse 8 within the Song. An important theme throughout, as we shall see, is the need for Israel to serve and worship only Yahweh, and not to follow after the other nations, who worship other ‘deities’ (such as represented by the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies). While the other nations may have been allotted to various heavenly beings, Israel is God’s own portion (v. 9). Elsewhere in Deuteronomy (4:19-20) we find similar language to 32:8-9, which suggests again that the reading of 4QDeutj may be original (see further below, on verse 43). Indeed, a tradition reflecting this reading is preserved in Jewish writings, such as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the “Sayings of Rabbi Eliezer” (chap. 24). The Targum makes reference to “the seventy angels, princes of the nations”, in the context of the the Tower of Babel episode and the dispersal of the nations. For a good discussion, see J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary (1996), pp. 514-5 (Excursus 31).

Deut 32:43

Here is another example where the Masoretic text appears to be corrupt, in this instance due, it would seem, to a portion of the verse having dropped out. Here is the MT as it has come down to us (for the moment, I give it only in translation):

“Cry out, O nations, (to) His people!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants
and return vengeance to His opponents,
and will cover [i.e. wipe away, cleanse] His people’s land.”

Commentators have noticed the lack of poetic parallelism in the first lines, quite in contrast to the style and technique used consistently throughout the poem, and raising the possibility that the MT is incomplete. Indeed, the Greek version is more complete, and, in part, this has been confirmed by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, where v. 43 reads as follows (note the differences in italics):

“O heavens, cry out [i.e. rejoice] with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all gods [lit. Mighty Ones]!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to His opponents,
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will cover [i.e. wipe away, cleanse] His people’s land.”

This preserves more accurately the three-beat bicolon (3:3) strophic structure and parallelism characteristic of the rest of the poem. The Septuagint Greek is more expansive, which could indicate its secondary character. The first lines, in particular, appear to conflate (combine) the text from 4QDeutq and MT:

“Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O heavens, with Him,
and kiss toward [i.e. worship] Him, all (you) sons of God!
Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O nations, with His people,
and let all the Messengers of God strengthen themselves in Him!
…”

It is easy to see how the word °§lœhîm (“gods”, LXX “sons of God”), along with the line containing it, might have dropped out or been omitted during the process of transmission. It could have been misunderstood as supporting polytheism in some way (i.e. the existence of other deities), even if here the plural °§lœhîm (lit. “mighty ones”, in the sense of “divine beings”) is referring to heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) and not pagan deities as such. The LXX wording (“sons of God”) more accurately reflects the typical Hebrew usage in the Old Testament (see Psalm 29:1, etc; but note Psalm 97:7). In favor of the Septuagint reading is the close association of the nations and the deities (or Angels), such as we saw in what is likely the original reading of verse 8 (above). Yet the Qumran text strikes me as being more precise and favorable to the ancient poetic (and religious) outlook. The call to the heavens also serves as a fitting conclusion, functioning as a parallel to the opening words of the poem (v. 1, “Give ear, O heavens…”).

I hope that this demonstrates some of the issues involved with the study of Old Testament poetry, especially in a poem as old as the Song of Moses appears to be. Textual and interpretive difficulties abound, and must not be glossed over or ignored. Continue to study and meditate on this great poem, and we will continue with our discussion next week (Saturday, I hope), picking up with the remaining areas of critical analysis which need to be explored (such as form- and source-criticism). I will see you here again next week.