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Attributes of God

December 14: Names of God (‘Elyon)

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In the final article of this series on the Names of God, I will be looking at two names—±Elyôn (/oyl=u#) and ±Ôl¹m (<l*ou)—both of which were mentioned in the earlier article on °E~l. Indeed, each of these names function as a title of the Creator God (°E~l), as well as being attested as a separate name, or, possibly, as the name of a distinct deity.

±Elyôn

The word ±elyôn (/oyl=u#) is an adjective with the basic meaning “high” (cf. the verb hlu, “go up, ascend”), and often used in the figurative sense of “exalted, great, mighty”, etc. It occurs more than 50 times in the Old Testament, including a significant number (around thirty) where it is used as an epithet of God (Yahweh/El). As a title of God, it is found primarily in older or archaic poetry (esp. the Psalms, cf. 9:2; 18:13; 21:7; 46:4; 50:13; 73:11; 77:10; 78:17, etc), and several times in the Pentateuch (Num 24:16; Deut 32:8). In a few of these instances, the title is used in combination, either with °E~l (cf. below), °E_lœhîm (Ps 57:2; 78:56), or Yahweh (Ps 7:17; 47:2); however, more often it stands alone as a name or title.

This latter point is significant, since ±Elyôn is known as a separate divine name in the Semitic world, attested, for example in an old Aramaic inscription (Sefire I), as well as in the (Phoenician) Theogony of Sakkunyaton perserved by Philo of Byblus and cited by Eusebius (Preparation for the Gospel I.10). In the Sefire text, °E~l and ±Elyôn appear to be regarded as a pair of closely related deities. The close connection of these names is no doubt due to several factors: (1) the similar sound, (2) a partly synonymous meaning (“Mighty/Great” and “High/Exalted”), and (3) similar concepts or characteristics of Deity (associated with the Sky/Heaven).

The combination °E~l ±Elyôn also occurs in the Old Testament, in two passages—Psalm 78 (v. 35, an example of relatively old Hebrew poetry), and the Abraham narrative in Genesis 14. In the setting of this latter passage, following his military victory over a coalition of cities, a campaign to rescue his nephew Lot (vv. 1-16), upon his return, Abraham meets Melchi-Zedek the king of Šalem (vv. 17-18), who is also said to be the priest to (or for) °E~l ±Elyôn. Translating into English, literally the compound name would be something like “Mighty (God), the High(est) One”, but it is typically rendered more simply as “God Most High”. Melchi-Zedek offers a two-fold blessing—both to Abraham and to God—and twice uses the name °E~l ±Elyôn (vv. 19-20), including the longer formula (repeated in v. 22):

°E~l °Elyôn, Creator [Qœnê] of Heaven and Earth”

This establishes and confirms the primary role of God (°E~l) as Creator, the verb hn`q* (q¹nâ), fundamentally meaning “bring forth, produce”, i.e. “create”. This verb, not to be mistaken with a similar root meaning “possess, acquire”, had become more or less obsolete at the time the Scriptures were written, being preserved here (and in Psalm 78) by way of older tradition.

The word ±elyôn was typically rendered rather literally in Greek by the (superlative) adjective u%yisto$ (“highest”), especially when rendering ±Elyôn as a name/title of God, as a substantive with the definite article—o( u%yisto$ (“The Highest”). As such, it occurs in the New Testament in Mark 5:7; Luke 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17, and also Heb 7:1 (referring to Gen 14:18ff). It appears three times in the Lukan Infancy narrative—1:32, 35, 76 (cf. also 2:14)—and will be discussed in the notes on these verses.

±Ôl¹m

The word ±ôl¹m (<l*ou) is somewhat difficult to translate into English. The root ±lm (<lu) may signify primarily something which is hidden, often in the temporal sense of something “hidden” in the distant/indefinite past or future. When applied to God, it should be understood in an intensive sense—i.e., of extending back in time to the very beginning (of Creation), or ahead indefinitely (“forever”). These two aspects combine in the usual rendering of ±ôl¹m as either “ancient” or “eternal”. It was regularly applied to God by the Canaanites and elsewhere in the Semitic world (cf. Cross, pp. 17-19, 46-50). It occurs as a divine name in a 7th-century B.C. Phoenician inscription (from Arslan Tash), most likely as a title of °E~l, as also attested in a 10th-century Egyptian list of Palestinian place names. In a (14th-cent.) text from Ugarit, °E~l is called malk ±ôlami (“ancient/eternal king”), and the specific title °E~l ±Ôl¹m may be found as early as the 15th-century proto-Canaanite (Sinaitic) inscriptions at Ser¹b£‰ el-–¹dem. A portion of one inscription (Mine M no. 358) has been deciphered to read °il ¼¥ ±ôlami—i.e., “°E~l the Ancient/Eternal (One)” (cf. Cross, pp. 18-22).

In the Old Testament, the compound name °E~l ±Ôl¹m occurs in Genesis 21:33 as part of an Abraham tradition associated with the site of Beer-sheba. The inclusion of the name Yahweh (hwhy) in the text probably reflects a subsequent interpretation, identifying Yahweh specifically with the (one) Creator God worshipped by the Patriarchs (cf. the earlier article on °E~l). Apart from this reference, the word ±ôl¹m is used frequently of God, in various ways. It can refer specifically to attributes or characteristics of God (Deut 33:15, 27; Isa 9:6; 26:4; 40:28; 60:19-20; Jer 10:10, etc), or to his actions toward his people, i.e. his love, covenant, and so forth (Gen 9:16; 17:7-8ff; 2 Sam 23:5; Psalm 105:10; Isa 24:5; 45:17; 54:8; 55:3; 61:8; Jer 31:3; 32:40, etc). Especially noteworthy for an understanding of the basic meaning of ±ôl¹m is the idiom “from ±ôl¹m unto ±ôl¹m“, indicating all time, from the very beginning into the far distant future (cf. Psalm 41:13; 90:2; 103:17; 106:48, etc). Reference should also be made to the use of term in connection with the Kingdom of God, especially in an eschatological and/or Messianic sense, drawing upon Psalm 145:13; Isa 9:6; Jer 10:10; and the book of Daniel (4:3, 34; 7:14, 27; 9:24).

In Greek, as in English, the word ±ôl¹m was rather difficult to translate; more often than not, some form of the noun ai)w/n or the related adjective ai)w/nio$ was utilized. The Greek word ai)w/n usually signifies a period of time, often a long time, and so is typically rendered in English as “age”. While the various Greek idioms involving ai)w/n, including those in the New Testament, can correspond to the Hebrew term ±ôl¹m generally, a very definite eschatological sense and context developed among Jews and early Christians. There was a strong belief that the current “age” was coming to an end, to be followed by a future/coming Age in which God Himself would rule over the earth directly, or through His representative the Anointed One (Messiah). The ushering in of this future Age would involve the great (Last) Judgment upon humankind, which, among early Christians, was associated specifically with the (impending) future return of Jesus. In a sense, the New Age of God had already begun with the first coming of Jesus (at his birth and earthly life), but would only be realized completely at his return. The word ai)w/n occurs several times in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:55, 70), but most importantly, as part of the Angelic announcement to Mary of Jesus’ coming birth. This will be discussed in detail in the note on Luke 1:33.

References above marked “Cross” are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997).

Note of the Day – October 26

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Romans 3:21

Today’s note is on Romans 3:21, and, in particular, the expression “(the) justice/righteousness of God” (dikaiosu/nh qeou=). In the New Testament, this expression is virtually unique to the Pauline letters, with a close parallel in 2 Pet 1:1 (cf. also Matt 6:33, and James 1:20; 1 Jn 3:10). Nor does it appear in the Greek version [LXX] of the Old Testament, though God’s “righteousness” [usually Hebrew qdx/hqdx] is referred to in the Psalms (Ps 35:24; 40:10; 50:6; 71:16, 19; 72:1, also 45:7) and in the Prophets (Isa 46:13; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10, also 5:16; 61:11; Zech 8:8, etc), and may be inferred throughout much of the Scriptures. Paul first uses the expression in Rom 1:17, which, because of its close formal and thematic parallel, will be discussed along with 3:21 below.

The genitival relationship in this phrase (“of God”) may be understood in three ways:

  1. As a subjective genitive, i.e., where God is the subject and “justice/righteousness” is an attribute or quality which he possesses, or which characterizes his action, etc.
  2. As a genitive of origin or source—i.e., “justice/righteousness” that comes from God. This is clearly what Paul describes in Phil 3:9, where he uses the preposition e)k: “the justice/righteousness (which is) from [lit. out of] God [e)k qeou=]” (cf. also Phil 1:11).
  3. As an objective genitive—where “justice/righteousness” is a divine quality or power possessed by others (i.e. believers), or realized in them, i.e. as a gift from God. This would seem to be close to the sense of the expression in 2 Cor 5:21, where  it is stated that we (believers) become the “justice/righteousness of God” in Christ.

In addition to Rom 1:17; 3:21, and 2 Cor 5:21 (mentioned above), Paul uses the specific expression only in the 3rd chapter of Romans (Rom 3:5, 22, 25) and again in Rom 10:3. All of these instances in Romans are best understood primarily according to sense #1 above, a quality or characteristic of God’s own person and action. This is indicated both by the immediate context as well as the Old Testament background of the expression. Consider, in particular, the verbs used in Rom 1:17 and 3:21—a)pokalu/ptw (“uncover, reveal”) and fanero/w (“shine forth, manifest”), especially in relation to Rom 1:18-32, which emphasizes the character and nature of God evident in creation. Yet, the parallel in 1:18, the “passion/anger of God” (o)rgh\ qeou=), also suggests action—God is about to judge the world; he has also acted on behalf of human beings in the person and work of Christ.

I have already discussed the background and semantic range of the dikaio- word-group in Greek (see the article “Justification“), and the challenges involved in translation. The verb dikaio/w carries the relatively straightforward meaning “make right”, though it can be difficult to capture the various legal-judicial and religious-ethical nuances, which are perhaps better rendered by the term “just” in English (i.e., make [or declare] just). The situation is even more problematic with regard to the noun dikaiosu/nh, usually translated either as “righteousness” or “justice”—both of these renderings are generally valid, but neither fits entirely. Something like “just-ness” or “right-ness” would be better, but these do not really exist in English; “uprightness” is perhaps closer, but still awkward and archaic sounding, and a bit misleading as well. For Jews and early Christians, the usage was also influenced by the corresponding Hebrew words derived from the root qdx, which, more than the dikaio- word-group in Greek, carries the idea of faithfulness and loyalty—especially in terms of God as one who fulfills his promises and covenant obligations.

The main occurrences of the expression dikaiosu/nh qeou= are in Romans 1:17 and 3:21; it will be helpful to examine these together:

Rom 1:17

“for in it [i.e. the Gospel]

(the) justice/righteousness of God

is (being) uncovered…”

Rom 3:21

“now apart from (the) Law

(the) justice/righteousness of God

has been made manifest [lit. made to shine forth]…”

The parallels are clear and precise; Rom 3:21 is virtually a restatement of 1:17 (part of the main proposition [propositio] of Romans in 1:16-17). There can be no doubt, either, that Rom 3:21ff must also be understood in relation to the theme of God’s judgment in Rom 1:18-3:20; note again the parallel:

Rom 1:18

“the passion/anger of God [o)rgh/ qeou=]

is (being) uncovered

upon all lack of fear (of God) and injustice/unrighteousness of men…”

Rom 3:21

“the justice/righteousness of God [dikaiosu/nh qeou=]

has been made to shine forth [i.e. made manifest]…

unto all the (one)s trusting (in Christ)… (v. 22)”

According to this comparison, the “justice/righteousness of God” is practically a reversal of the judgment/anger; similarly, the lack of (godly) fear, which leads to injustice/unrighteousness (1:18ff), corresponds to the trust that believers have in God (in Christ).

As indicated, above, dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) is a fairly wide-ranging term; there are a number of relevant aspects which should be considered here:

  • Retributive justice—in the sense that God judges sin and punishes guilt. This very much characterizes the overall theme of judgment on human wickedness in Romans 1:18-3:20 (esp. 1:18-32).
  • Distributive justice—God judges each person (and/or nation) as he/she/it deserves. This is very much the emphasis in Romans 2 (see esp. 2:6-10), that all people (Jews and Gentiles) will be judged by their deeds, according to the Law (of God).
  • Fairness and equanimity (lack of partiality)—stated of God specifically in Rom 2:11; this relates to the principal theme throughout chapters 2-3, that Jews and Gentiles are equal before God.
  • Faithfulness and loyalty—as indicated above, this is more appropriate to qdx/hqdx in Hebrew than the corresponding dikaio- wordgroup in Greek. It characterizes particularly God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his promises and covenant obligations—an important theme in the Scriptural argument (involving the blessing/promise to Abraham) in Rom 4:1-25.
  • Fulfilling the Law—an important part of justice is the correct and proper observance and application (fulfillment) of the Law, by all persons and parties involved. Paul makes a long and challenging argument in Romans (also touched on in Galatians) that true fulfillment of the Law (the Torah and “Law of God”) only takes place in the person and work of Christ; as such, the justice/righteousness of God is ultimately manifest in Christ, as stated decisively in Rom 10:3-4.
  • Freedom and acquittal—this is another aspect of justice/righteousness (“making right”), especially in terms of exercising fairness and mercy on behalf of those charged under the law. This applies primarily to the person judging, as well the legal advocate/representative. It especially relates to God’s work in the death/sacrifice of Christ on behalf of sinners, as described by Paul in Rom 5:1-11, and is a theme throughout chapters 5-7.
  • Reconciliation—the related idea of opposing parties (“enemies”) being reconciled is likewise an important aspect of justice/righteousness (cf. Matt 5:9, 21-26, 38ff), and it is another theme expressed by Paul in Romans 5.
  • Uprightness/rectitude—that is, right or proper moral (and religious) behavior (including the underlying attitude and motivation). This signifies “righteousness” in its traditional, conventional meaning (cf. Jesus’ usage of dikaiosu/nh in Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33); and it may also be said to reflect the “righteousness of God”. Typically, however, God’s righteousness may be defined by what it is not—contrasted with human wickedness and faithlessness, and so forth. See Rom 1:18-32; 2:1-10ff; 3:10-18, etc.
  • Holiness—the justice/righteousness of God ultimately is tied conceptually to his holiness or “wholeness” (i.e. what is perfect, complete), cf. Matt 5:48. Interestingly, Paul makes relatively little mention of (God’s) holiness in Romans (Rom 1:4; 7:12; 11:16; 12:1), as he tends to concentrate it in the presence and work of the Spirit. “Righteousness” for believers is very much realized in Christ, through the power and presence of the Spirit (Rom 14:17; Gal 5:16-26, etc).

The next daily note will look at Rom 3:21 more closely, within context and structure of vv. 21-26ff.