A Recent Article on Canaanite DNA

Canaanite Article

A recent journal article published in the American Journal of Human Genetics has made headlines in the last couple of days because of the implications that its findings might have for the historical accuracy of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.[1] The article is basically a report about five genomes that were sequenced from bones that are approximately 3700 years old from the Canaanite city of Sidon in modern-day Lebanon. These genomes were then compared to the genome sequencing of 99 modern-day people from Lebanon. The results, at least for the researchers, were quite surprising: modern-day people from Lebanon are mostly descended from the Canaanite population who inhabited the same area in biblical times.

For anyone who knows the history of this region, these findings should not have been surprising. However, the authors of this article presented their findings as though they should be surprising, at least to those who are familiar with what the Bible has to say about the Canaanites.  Partway through the article, the authors included a very curious statement – at least from the perspective of a biblical scholar – about what the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has to say about the Canaanites. It says:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.[2]

It was this statement that caught the attention of the media and caused this article to make headlines in the last couple of days. Take, for example, the article by Nicholas St. Fleur in The New York Times. This is how the article opens:

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago. “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,” God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.” But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.[3]

When I first read this article and glanced at a few other articles that basically said the same thing, I assumed that they misinterpreted something that was said in the original study. But then I read the statement from the original article that was quoted above and saw that there was no mistake: the reason why these articles were framed the way they were (i.e. the Bible is wrong because the Canaanites actually did survive) is because of the line quoted from the article above. So, in one sense, it is hard to blame articles like the one from The New York Times. On the other hand, a little bit of research or a quick phone call to a biblical scholar would have cleared up any confusion that was caused by the original article.

Let’s take a look at that statement again:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.

But does the Bible actually say that the Canaanites were completely annihilated? And would the Bible lead one to believe that the Canaanites would have made no genetic contributions to the present-day population of Lebanon or elsewhere? The answer to these questions is a complete and unequivocal “no”.

There are four main problems with the statement that was made in the article:

(a) First, the Old Testament makes it clear that the people of Israel did not, in fact, destroy all of the cities of the Canaanites or annihilate all of their people. A quick look at Judges 1, for example, shows that the Israelites weren’t able to conquer large chunks of the land of Canaan. Over and over again it says that the people of Israel failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land. And even when they did gain the upper hand in terms of power, they were only able to subject many of the Canaanites to forced labour: but they weren’t able to destroy them and they weren’t able to drive them out of the land. So the article is completely mistaken when it says that, according to the Bible, the cities of the Canaanites were completely destroyed and that the Canaanites themselves were completely annihilated.

(b) Second, the city of Sidon lies outside of the area that was conquered by the people of Israel. A common phrase in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to describe the entirety of the land of Israel is the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba”. Geographically, Beersheba lies at the very bottom of the land of Israel (i.e. in the south) while Dan lies at the very top (i.e. in the north). Sidon, however, is located northwest of Dan: it was not part of the land of Israel. So even if the Israelites had annihilated the Canaanites in territories it conquered, the people of Sidon would not have been included in that number.

(c) Third, the Old Testament is quite clear about the fact that the Sidonians continued to live and prosper long after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. In fact, according to 1 Kings 5:6, the Sidonians provided the timber for Solomon’s temple and apparently had friendly relations with both David and Solomon. According to Ezra 3:7, the people of Sidon also provided timber for the Second Temple hundreds of years later. So there is no reason from a biblical perspective to think that Canaanites from Sidon could not have contributed genetically to modern-day people from Lebanon.

(d) Fourth, as anyone familiar with ancient Near Eastern history should know, the Phoenicians, who were famous among other things for their maritime empire and the invention of the alphabet, were, in fact, Canaanites from the region around Sidon. In fact, the Carthaginians/Punics from the Punic Wars with Rome were descended from the Phoenicians. Punic is simply a dialect of Phoenician/Canaanite. The name Hannibal, which is quite familiar to anyone who knows Roman history, is actually a Canaanite name meaning “Baal is gracious”. The reason why this is important to know is because in Mark 7:24-30, Jesus is confronted by a Syrophoenician woman from the region of Tyre (in Matthew 15:22 she is simply called a Canaanite!). The NRSV is right in translating Mark 7:26 this way: “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” So the New Testament itself makes it clear that the people who were living in what is now modern-day Lebanon were descendants of the Canaanites/Phoenicians.

So this article is simply mistaken when it says that, according to the biblical account, the Canaanites were completely wiped out and that, from a biblical perspective, they could not have made a genetic contribution to modern-day people from Lebanon. Instead of making the Bible look silly, the authors of this article and every other article that was based on it only succeeded in making themselves look silly. A little bit of research, on the part of the authors of the original article or on the part of the authors who based their work on this article would have gone a long way.[4]

(Postscript #1 – I forget where I saw this but I’m pretty sure that I saw one comment somewhere that said something like, “I guess the people of Sodom did survive!” I wasn’t totally sure where they got this from until I realized that they probably mistook Sidon for Sodom. Place palm on face and shake head….)

(Postscript #2 – The value of these findings, at least from my perspective, is to dispel the popular belief that everyone in the Middle East who speaks Arabic is ethnically Arab.  While this is something that should have been known without the findings of this article, the findings of this article certainly help to dispel this myth.  If I were writing an online article for a newspaper or magazine based on the findings of this study, this is the part that I would have focused on.  I definitely would have made the connection with the biblical Canaanites, but not to show that there was something wrong with the biblical accounts.)

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Haber et al., “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” The Journal of Human Genetics (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.06.013.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Nicholas St. Fleur, “Fate of Ancient Canaanites Seen in DNA Analysis: They Survived,” The New York Times (July 27, 2017): https://nyti.ms/2tNIYNy.

[4] It should be noted that the article by Kristin Romey on the website for National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/canaanite-bible-ancient-dna-lebanon-genetics-archaeology.html) did not fall into the same mistake as the original article and the articles that were based on it (“Biblical accounts generally portray Canaanites as the arch-enemies of early Israelites, who eventually conquered Canaanite territory and either exterminated or subjugated its people.”). Romey’s article is certainly less sensational but it is more accurate.

 

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Origen’s Literal Interpretation of the Story of Lot and His Daughters

OrigenIn the introduction to his fifth homily on the book of 1 Samuel, Origen makes the following observations about the usefulness of stories interpreted on the literal level: “There are stories that do not touch us, and there are others that are a necessary basis for our hope.  I say ‘stories,’ because we have not yet arrived at elevated interpretations useful to every person who knows how to make them or who hears them.  Among stories there are some that are useful to everyone, some not to everyone.  Take for example, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-8): if it teaches something useful in an elevated sense, God knows, as does that person who has received the gift of grace to expound these matters.  As for the usefulness of the story itself, it would take quite a search to find it!  Indeed, what profit can I find from the story of Lot and his daughters?[1]

In many ways, the question that Origen asks at the end of this quotation is essentially the question that he asks for all three levels of interpretation: “What profit can I find from the story of Lot and his daughters?”  In this quotation, Origen seems to be suggesting that the story of Lot and his daughters is not useful to Christians when interpreted exclusively on the basis of the literal sense.  Any possible benefit from this story, it would seem, would have to be found on the moral or spiritual levels.  This does not mean, however, that Origen placed no value on the literal meaning of the text.  Origen’s point is that the story by itself is incapable of edifying believers without careful theological reflection.  Origen recognizes the simple fact that this story, like most stories in the Old Testament, does not explicitly state how believers can benefit from it.  The problem is compounded by the fact that the story was written before the coming of Christ, which means that any specifically Christian interpretation or application would lie well beneath the surface-level meaning of the texts.

Despite these caveats, Origen expends a great deal of effort trying to come to terms with the literal meaning of this text.  Origen does this because the moral and spiritual levels of interpretation are based on the literal level of interpretation.  This principle applies both to Origen’s interpretation as well as to Celsus’s interpretation of the story.  On the literal level, Celsus saw a level of immorality that far exceeded similar immorality found in Greek sources.  Celsus concluded that Lot’s sexual relations with his daughters met with divine approval in the book of Genesis and that Lot and his daughters were presented as models to emulate.[2]  These conclusions go beyond the literal meaning of the text and are somewhat analogous to Origen’s moral level of interpretation.  Celsus uses this as evidence for the mendacity of Judaism and Christianity.  Origen is quick to point out, however, that Celsus’ moral interpretation is based on a misunderstanding of the literal level of the text.  So the literal level of interpretation is vital for a proper understanding of the moral and spiritual levels of the text.

Origen’s literal level of interpretation may be examined under five headings, each corresponding to a major interpretive issue that Origen discovered in the literal level of the text: (1) Why was Lot was rescued from Sodom? (2) Why did Lot flee to Zoar rather than to the mountains? (3) Why was Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt? (4) Why did Lot’s daughters commit incest with their father? and (5) Why did Lot say that Zoar was small but not small?[3]  Each of these issuess will be discussed in turn according to Origen’s exegesis in Contra Celsum and his fifth homily on the book of Genesis and will be critiqued, when necessary, according to a close reading of the biblical text.

So, firstly, why was Lot rescued from Sodom?  According to Origen, Lot was rescued from Sodom because of the hospitality he showed to the angels who were sent to destroy the city.[4]  Origen knew from 2 Peter 2:6-9 and from Abraham’s prayer in Genesis 18:16-33 that Lot was a righteous man.[5]  However, the only evidence for Lot’s righteousness in the book of Genesis is the hospitality he showed toward the angels.  So Origen concluded that Lot was rescued because of the hospitality he showed toward strangers while the Sodomites were destroyed because they closed their doors to strangers.

Later on, however, Origen attributes Lot’s rescue to Abraham’s intercession rather than to Lot’s personal character.[6]  This tension in Origen’s explanation may be explained as follows.  First, when Origen attributed Lot’s rescue to the hospitality he showed to strangers it was in the context of an exhortation to his hearers not to close their doors to strangers.  So Origen emphasized the role played by Lot’s hospitality in his rescue to drive home the application he was making for his audience.  Second, the two explanations that Origen gives for why Lot was rescued from Sodom are grounded within the text itself.  While it is true that the biblical narrator attributes Lot’s rescue to the intercession of Abraham (Gen. 19:29), it is also true that God would not have rescued Lot if he had not been a righteous man since Abraham’s intercession was grounded on the belief that there were righteous people in the city (Gen. 18:23).  Origen seems to acknowledge both truths in the way he words his explanation: “For even the fact that he escaped from Sodom, as the Scripture indicates, belongs more to Abraham’s honor than to Lot’s merit.”[7]  It is not a matter of one explanation being true and the other explanation being false; it simply means that one explanation has priority over the other.  The angels went down to see if the outcry made against Sodom was true but they also went down to see if there were any righteous people in the city in answer to Abraham’s prayer.[8]  Lot was the only one they found.  So the reasons Origen gives for why Lot was rescued from Sodom, though worded somewhat clumsily for rhetorical effect, accurately represent the reasons given in the text itself.

The second issue Origen deals with is why Lot fled to Zoar rather than to the mountains.[9]  According to Origen, Lot fled to Zoar because he did not deem himself worthy to flee to the mountains.[10]  Origen’s explanation is based on his interpretation of Psalm 121:1 where the Psalmist says, “I lift my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?”  For Origen, only the perfect –in the case of Psalm 121, the Psalmist – can look to the mountains for God’s help.[11]  Lot was “somewhere in the middle between the perfect and the doomed” because he was not wicked enough to perish with the inhabitants of Sodom but he was not righteous enough to flee right away to the mountains to dwell with Abraham.[12]  If Lot had been righteous, he would never have departed from Abraham (Gen. 13:1-13) and he would never have chosen to live in Sodom (Gen. 13:10-13).  Furthermore, even though Sodom was once like the paradise of God, it fell through sin and became like the land of Egypt (Gen. 13:10).  Thus it was impossible for Lot to go directly from the sinfulness of Sodom to the mountains reserved for the righteous.  So Lot humbly asked the angels to allow him to flee to Zoar, which lies somewhere between Sodom and the mountains.

Although Origen’s explanation seems to go beyond the literal level of the text, it should be remembered that Origen believed that Scripture ultimately had only one author so passages from one book could be used to illuminate the meaning of passages in other books.  Origen is using the literal meaning of Psalm 121:1 to illuminate the literal meaning of this passage.  Thus, Origen’s appeal to Psalm 121:1 remains on the literal level and is something quite different from his moral and spiritual levels of interpretation.

However, Origen’s explanation is not justified by a close reading of the story itself or of Psalm 121:1.  In Psalm 121:1 the Psalmist is looking for help to come from the mountains but, in Genesis 19, Lot was told to flee to the mountains.  Lot’s request to flee to Zoar rather than to the mountains was motivated by fear and lack of trust in God rather than piety.  The angels told Lot to flee to the mountains so he would not be swept away (Gen. 19:17).  But Lot said, “No, my lords, please!  Your servant has found favour in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life.  But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die” (Gen. 19:18-19).  Lot failed to recognize that God was in control of the disaster that was about to overtake Sodom and that he was more concerned with rescuing him than he was with destroying the city.  The words the angels spoke to Lot concerning Zoar would have been true had he fled to the mountains instead: “But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it” (Gen. 19:22).

Origen’s explanation also runs into serious difficulties when one considers that the sinful actions of Lot’s daughters took place when they were in the mountains.  If only the perfect can find their help in the mountains then the actions of Lot and his daughters are difficult to explain.  This difficulty may be mitigated somewhat by Origen’s understanding of why Lot’s daughters committed incest with their father.  But this will be discussed further on.

There are also difficulties with Origen’s explanation of Genesis 13:10.  Origen takes this verse to mean that Sodom was once morally pure like the conditions that prevailed in the Garden of Eden but that it plunged into wickedness and became like the land of Egypt.  However, Genesis 13:10 makes it clear that the region surrounding Sodom was like the garden of the LORD and like the land of Egypt because the land was well watered.

Despite these difficulties, Origen’s explanation does capture something true about the character of Lot as he is depicted in both the Old and the New Testaments.  He was “somewhere between the perfect and the doomed.”  Although he was a righteous man who “was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8), the “dwellings of Sodom” should not have pleased him.[13] As we will see later on, Lot’s decision to dwell in Sodom would have devastating consequences for him and his family.

The third issue that Origen deals with is why Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt.  Origen notes that, while Lot was fleeing from Sodom, the two angels commanded him not to look backward on the destruction that was consuming Sodom.  But Lot’s wife violated the “imposed law” and, as a result, was transformed into a pillar of salt.[14]  When Origen looks at the punishment that was given to Lot’s wife for looking backward, he considers the punishment to be somewhat excessive.  Simply looking backward at Sodom and the terrifying destruction that was consuming it does not seem to be a crime worthy of being punished by death.  Origen is probably right to see a deeper meaning to the death of Lot’s wife.  This will be discussed further when we look at Origen’s moral level of interpretation.

The fourth issue that Origen deals with is why Lot’s daughters committed incest with their father.  As was stated earlier, Celsus objected to this story because the actions of Lot’s daughters were worse than the Thyestian sins.  Celsus is referring to the story of Atreus and Thyestes in Greek mythology.[15]  Thyestes and Atreus were sons of Pelops, the king of Pisa.  Thyestes committed adultery with Atreus’s wife and tried to usurp Atreus’s throne.  Atreus retaliated by killing three of Thyestes’s children and by serving them to him as food without his knowledge.  When Atreus revealed what he had done, Thyestes consulted an oracle to see how he might get his revenge.  The oracle said that he could get his revenge by producing a child through his own daughter.  So Thyestes slept with his daughter and his daughter bore a son who eventually killed Atreus and gave the kingdom over to Thyestes.  Celsus considered the incest committed by Lot’s daughters to have been worse than the incest committed by Thyestes, presumably because Lot’s daughters were proud of what they had done.[16]

Origen defends the actions of Lot’s daughters by appealing to Greek philosophy.[17]  The Stoics believed that actions could be good, bad, or indifferent.  The determining factor in whether or not an action is good or bad is its motivation.  The Stoics believed that it was morally indifferent for a man to commit incest with his daughter if the rest of the human race had been destroyed.  Origen argues that Lot’s daughters were doing the same thing.  They had heard that the world would end by fire so, when they saw the fire that was raining down on Sodom, they believed that they were the only human beings to survive.  So, out of necessity, they slept with their father so that the human race would not be destroyed.  Scripture neither applauds nor condemns the daughters’ actions.  Stoic philosophy would then seem to justify the actions of Lot’s daughters.

In his fifth homily on Genesis, Origen makes a similar argument to defend the integrity of the story.  He begins by pointing out that Lot did not participate in the incest willingly by that he was deceived by his daughters and taken by stealth.[18]  Since he did not consent to what his daughters did he was not guilty of lust or in taking pleasure in his daughters’ actions.  Origen notes that the text itself seems to excuse him when it says that he did not realize when his daughters lay down or when they arose (Gen. 19:33, 38).   But Origen notes that Lot was not totally free from guilt because his daughters would not have been able to carry out their plans if he had not first become drunk.  Lot is “somewhere between the sinners and the just”[19] or, as he said earlier, “somewhere in the middle between the perfect and the doomed”[20] because he descended from the same family as Abraham but took up residence in Sodom.  It is in this context that Origen states that Lot was saved more for the sake of Abraham than for his own merit.[21]

Origen’s evaluation of Lot’s culpability in the actions of his daughters seems to fit with the evidence found in the biblical text.  Origen is a close reader of the biblical text so he is aware that the narrator does not want to present Lot as being a willing party to his daughters’ actions.  But the narrator also wants to make it clear that Lot was somehow responsible for what his daughters had done.  Origen is right to point out that Lot’s daughters would not have carried out their plans if he had not become drunk.  But the text seems to go further than this and suggest that Lot’s daughters would never have formulated such a wicked plan if Lot had not taken up residence in Sodom.  Lot believed that he could keep himself from being contaminated by the sinfulness of Sodom but he did not realize the effect that living in Sodom had on his wife and children.[22]  This is suggested by the ominous parenthetical clause in Genesis 13:13.  After noting that Lot had pitched his tent near Sodom the narrator states that the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning in grievous ways against the LORD.  Later Israelites who read this story were probably supposed to learn from the story of the consequences of associating too closely with the people who lived in the land they were about to enter (Cf. Deut. 7:1-6).  Particularly relevant is Moses’s command in Deuteronomy 7:3-4: “Do not intermarry with them.  Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”  Although the book of Genesis says nothing about Lot’s daughters turning to other gods, it is clear that, having escaped the fire that rained down on Sodom, they took all that was wicked and shameful about Sodom with them.[23]  This evaluation will have implications for how Origen’s defense of Lot’s daughters should be viewed.

Next, Origen moves on to discuss the culpability of Lot’s daughters for their actions.  Origen’s discussion in his homily is quite similar to the discussion found in Contra Celsum but his arguments from Greek philosophy are missing.  However, even though Origen’s philosophical arguments are not explicitly stated, they clearly lie beneath Origen’s evaluation of the two daughters.  He begins his discussion by saying that it is important to consider the intentions of Lot’s daughters.  This goes back to the distinction that the Stoics made between good, bad, and indifferent actions based on a person’s intentions.  Origen argues that the daughters believed that the end of the world had come and that they did not know that it was only Sodom and the surrounding region that had been destroyed.  They had seen their mother killed and fire raining down on the city.  They had heard about the destruction that occurred during the time of Noah and believed themselves to be in a similar situation.  Thus they believed that it was their responsibility to repopulate the earth.[24]  The evil that would have been caused by not perpetuating the human race would have been more evil than deceiving their father and committing incest with him.  Indeed, their deception was somewhat commendable because Lot would have been tormented had he knowingly committed this sin.  Origen goes so far to say, though he hesitates, that Lot’s daughters were nobler than some Christian women because they did not continue to have sexual relations with their father once they had conceived while many Christian women continue to have sexual relations with their husbands even after they have conceived.[25]  So Origen acknowledges that what they did was wrong but he notes that their guilt was somewhat mitigated by the evil they believed would have taken place if they had not done so.

Although Origen’s discussion of the actions of Lot’s daughters has much to commend it, a closer reading of the text would seem to indicate that the motivations of Lot’s daughters were much more sinister.[26]  When Lot’s older daughter said to the younger daughter that “there was no man in the land to come to them as is the custom throughout the earth” (Gen. 19:31, my translation), there is no reason to think that she believed that the world had come to an end and that the only way to perpetuate the human race was through her father.  She knew that Zoar had been spared the destruction that overtook Sodom and the angels made it clear that the destruction was only intended for the cities in the plain (Gen. 19:13, 17).  When she said that there was “no man on the earth,” as Origen understood it, she meant that there was no one in the vicinity to become their husbands.  It should be noted that the older daughter prefaced her words by saying “our father is old,” which probably means that her father would have been unable to secure husbands for her and her sisters as was the custom in that day.[27]  The two daughters did not get their father drunk to spare his conscience but to make him do unconsciously what he would never have done while sober.  It would not be unjust to consider their actions as constituting an act of rape.  Although Celsus may in fact have been right when he said that the actions of Lot’s daughters were worse than the Thyestian sins, the text does not present these actions as something to be emulated but as something to be avoided.  These are the consequences that happen when the righteous choose to make their dwelling with the wicked.

The final interpretive issue that Origen deals with in his interpretation of the story of Lot and his daughters is why the text says that Zoar is small but not small (Gen. 19:20).  This is an obvious contradiction when the verse is read in this way.  Drawing from Plato’s Republic, Origen says that a city can be small and not small because the lives of a great number of people are held together in one place.[28]  Origen also sees a deeper meaning in these words but this will be discussed further on when we look at Origen’s spiritual level of interpretation.  Origen’s explanation is creative but unnecessary.  The second part of Lot’s statement should be construed as a question because the Hebrew text begins with the interrogative marker.  The text would then read, “Look!  This city is close enough for me to flee to and it is quite small.  Let me escape to there.  Is it not quite small?” (Gen. 19:20, translation mine).  Lot mentions the smallness of the city twice in order to convince the angels that sparing the small number of people in this city would be a small price for allowing him to flee there.  So Origen’s interpretation of the literal level is simply based on a misunderstanding.


 

[1] Origen, “Homily 5 on 1 Samuel,” 200.

[2] p. 206-7.  p. 220. “For the Word does not want us to emulate those who did these things in respect of their physical acts, as they are commonly supposed, but

[3] Origen’s excursus on the eschatological fate of Sodom will not be discussed because it is a digression from his exegesis of the story of Lot and his daughters.

[4] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 112.

[5] Origen does not mention these passages but it is safe to assume that they were influential in his thinking.

[6] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[7] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[8] For Origen’s explanation for the apparent ignorance of God toward Sodom’s sin see Homily IV, 110.  Origen sees this as God giving the people of Sodom an opportunity to repent, an opportunity which only Lot took.

[9] The Septuagint, followed by the Vulgate, transliterates in the Hebrew word ṣôʿar as sēgōr.  This is because the Hebrew letter ayin used to represent two Proto-Semitic phonemes, one of which sounded similar to the Greek letter gamma.  When the Septuagint of Genesis was translated, these two phonemes were still distinguished.  Zoar, the form found in most English Bibles, is based on later pronunciation.  For the sake of simplicity, we will use the form found in English Bibles.

[10] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 112-13.

[11] See above for a discussion of what Origen means by the perfect.

[12] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 112-13.

[13] “Homily 5,” 112-13.

[14] “Homily 5,” 114.

[15] For the story of Atreus and Thyestes see Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 145-46.

[16] This can be seen in the names given to their sons.

[17] Origen, Contra Celsum, IV.45, 220-21.

[18] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 114-16.

[19] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[20] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 113.

[21] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 115.

[22] Cf. Origen’s statements about the effect that Sodom had on Lot (“Genesis Homily V,”115).  “Drunkenness deceives him whom Sodom did not deceive.  He whom the sulphurous flame did not burn is burned by the flames of women.”  This will be discussed further in the section on Lot’s moral interpretation of the story.

[23] Cf. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume I, The Pentateuch, trans. James Martin (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1872), 237.  “If it was not lust, therefore, which impelled them to this shameful deed, their conduct was worthy of Sodom, and shows quite as much as their previous betrothal to men of Sodom, that they were deeply imbued with the sinful character of that city.”  Some recent commentators have viewed the actions of Lot’s daughters more favourably but this seems to go against the grain of the text and the message that Israel would likely have taken from this story.  Modern interpreters need to recognize, with Origen, that the authors of the biblical text and those responsible for incorporating this story into scripture had a moral purpose in mind and not just an historical.

[24] This interpretation seems to have been quite prevalent during the Patristic period in both Jewish and Christian writings.  See, for example, Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis,” in Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works, trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr. and Joseph P. Amar, ed. Kathleen McVey (FOTC 91; Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 162 and footnote 398.

[25] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 117.

[26] One of the difficulties with interpreting motivations in Biblical narrative is they are rarely spoken of explicitly.  Cf. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, OTL, rev. ed., trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972); trans. of Das erste Buch Mose, Genesis, 9th ed. ATD 2-4 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972), 223.  “As in the case of all these narrative, in spite of the coarse material, the emphases are always nicely put, and no judgment is expressed concerning the happenings.  The reflective reader must make his own judgments.”

[27] Cf. Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (WBC 2; Waco: Word, 1987), 61.

[28] Origen, Genesis, Homily V,“ 118, n. 31.

Old Testament Ethics – An Important Methodological Issue

Binding of IsaacWhy Old Testament Ethics is So Important

One of the main areas of Old Testament studies that I’m interested in is Old Testament Ethics.  This is an extremely important field of study, not only for me but for every Christian.  Let me give you two reasons why.

First, as Christians, it should be our aim in life to live lives that are pleasing to God (2 Cor. 5:9).  That applies, of course, to every area of our lives but it applies in a special way to our moral lives.  Morality doesn’t save us but how we live our lives is one of the chief evidences that we are saved.  The Old Testament contains some of the most important material in the Bible for telling us what kind of moral life is pleasing to God.  Of course there is a lot of material in the Old Testament that doesn’t apply to us as Christians – but much of it does, as the New Testament makes clear.  So if we want to know how to live lives that are pleasing to God in the moral sphere, we will want to study Old Testament ethics.

Second, some of the strongest and most persuasive attacks that people make against Christianity are based on a particular understanding of what the Old Testament teaches about ethics.  Here are some of the issues that people often point to: the religious and racial intolerance of the Old Testament; the Canaanite genocide; and the Old Testament’s views about slavery, rape, women, war, etc.  As Christians we need to know how to deal with these issues – both for our own sake and for the sake of others – and Old Testament Ethics helps us to do that.

But before you can do any serious engagement in any field of biblical studies you have to deal with the sometimes boring issues of methodology and definitions.  In this post I’m going to deal with one of the most important methodological issues in the field of Old Testament Ethics.  In my next post I’ll define what we mean by Old Testament (not as obvious as one might think) and what we mean by ethics.

This part may be boring for some people but it’s absolutely essential if you want to seriously engage in the field of Old Testament Ethics – and every Christian needs to have some level of engagement.  It’s also essential if you want to understand any of my posts on Old Testament Ethics.  So this and other posts that I will be writing on methodology are extremely important: you have to know the rules before you can play the game and you have to know the grammar before you can read.

The Three Tasks of Old Testament Ethics

The most important methodological issue in Old Testament Ethics involves distinguishing between the three main tasks of Old Testament Ethics: (a) The descriptive task; (b) the evaluative task; and (c) the normative task.  We can deal with each of these in turn.

(a) The Descriptive Task

The descriptive task deals with the ethical standards found in or taught by the Old Testament and the moral (as opposed to amoral – see my next post) behavior found in the Old Testament without making any moral judgments and without trying to apply the text to our present situation.

E.g. What does the book of Numbers say about murder?  How does it define murder?

The issues that are discussed at this point are usually generated from the text itself rather than brought from the outside.  This isn’t an absolute rule but it generally keeps the interpreter asking questions that the text was never meant to answer or that the texts don’t deal with explicitly.  A good example is the issue of abortion.  We can use the Old Testament to form an opinion or make an argument about abortion (e.g. texts about causing a woman to miscarry, an argument based an unborn baby being made in the image of God, etc.) but it’s very important methodologically to realize that the Old Testament doesn’t address the issue explicitly.

(b) The Evaluative Task

The evaluative task involves judging the ethical standards of the Old Testament and the moral behavior of people in the Old Testament in terms of praiseworthiness or blameworthiness.  It involves stating and (sometimes) justifying the ethical standards that we use to make these evaluations.

E.g. The fact that the book of Numbers says that murder is wrong is a good thing because…. This is how I justify the ethical standard I am using….

It’s important to realize that more than one ethical standard can be used to make this kind of an evaluation and that the person making that evaluation doesn’t necessarily have to hold to that standard.  A secular reader could say that Samson’s sexual exploits were blameworthy from an Old Testament perspective without necessarily holding that standard themselves.  Similarly, I could say that Deuteronomy 7’s teachings about marriage are praiseworthy from both an Old and New Testament perspective while admitting that it would be blameworthy for many readers today, who see love as being more important than religion in determining who a person should marry.  If a person claims that their ethical standard should be normative for everyone (as most people do intuitively), this would require some degree of justification.

(c) The Normative Task

The normative task involves two things. (I) applying the ethical teaching of the Old Testament to our present situation (and justifying why it applies) and (ii) using the Old Testament to address ethical issues not specifically addressed in the Old Testament itself.

E.g. Christians should follow Leviticus 19:18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) because it is affirmed by Jesus (or some other justification).

E.g. What can the Old Testament teach us about protecting the environment?

Why Are These Distinctions Important?

It is important to distinguish these three tasks because when we don’t we end up misinterpreting, misjudging, and misapplying the text.  But it’s not simply enough to distinguish these tasks – we need to do these tasks in order.  You shouldn’t judge the text if you don’t know what the text is saying.  You shouldn’t apply the text unless you know that the is saying and that it, in fact, applies to you.  You shouldn’t interpret the text based on how people are trying to apply it today (e.g. how Christians have applied what the Old Testament says about applying interest on loans shouldn’t affect how we actually interpret the passages that deal with this issue).  And you shouldn’t interpret the text based on whether or not you like what the plain-sense meaning of the text actually is.

Now, of course, each of these tasks are quite complicated in and of themselves and we shouldn’t think that we’ve exhausted all of the methodological issues that we need to deal with.  But distinguishing these three tasks is an important step in the right direction, a step that too few people actually take and too few people realize they need to take.

Mark Francois

The Significance of Origen for Appropriating the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

OrigenThe books of the Old Testament contain many stories that interpreters find difficult to appropriate as Christian Scripture.  Some texts seem too remote from our present context to be relevant, some texts seem to be at odds with the principles of grace, love, and forgiveness that are so prominent in the New Testament, and some texts are simply difficult to understand quite apart from our struggle to appropriate them as Christian Scripture.

But despite these difficulties, the church – right from the very beginning – has affirmed the place of the Old Testament as an indispensable and non-negotiable portion of Christian Scripture.[1]  The church believed that all scripture was inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16); the church believed that the books of the Old Testament were relevant for Christian faith and practice (Rom. 4:23-24; 15:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:6, 11); and they condemned in the strongest terms those who did not recognize the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament and those who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the new.[2]

However, the mere acceptance of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture did not solve the problems associated with appropriating it as Christian Scripture.  The church has found it extremely difficult to appropriate the message of the Old Testament for Christian readers and hearers.[3]  In many ways, these challenges have remained the same throughout church history and the lessons that have been learned, both positive and negative, need to be appropriated by the church today.  While it is true that the accumulated wisdom of the centuries has not led the church to perfection, the church can learn a great deal from its past as it presses forward in its continual struggle to understand the relevance of the Old Testament for Christians today.

One of the most significant figures in the church’s struggle to appropriate the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254 C.E.).  Origen is, at the same time, one of the most influential and most controversial figures in the history of Christian interpretation and Christian theology.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, commenting on Origen’s eventual condemnation by the church, describes his legacy as follows:

[W]hile the jar was breaking into a thousand pieces and the name of the master was being overwhelmed and stoned, the fragrance of the ointment was coming forth and “filling the whole house.”  For there is no thinker in the Church who is so invisibly all-present as Origen….[His] is a voice that drives straight through everything, always pushing on, without fanfare and without fatigue, almost, it seems, without an obvious goal, possessed almost to the point of insanity, and yet with a cool, unapproachable intellectual restraint that has never again been equaled.[4]

While many interpreters would prefer to sweep the broken pieces under the rug and allow the fragrance from the ointment to dissipate in the wind, Origen’s significance for Christian appropriation of the Old Testament cannot be underestimated or ignored.

In this regard, I would like to explore the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from Origen as he interprets of the story of Lot and his daughters from a Christian point of view.   I have chosen this story in particular because Origen is often accused of depreciating the value of the literal meaning of the biblical text[5] and Origen himself stated that “it would take quite a search” to find the usefulness of the story of Lot and his daughters when interpreted exclusively on the literal level.[6]  This will give us opportunity to see in detail how Origen sought to find in this story something that could be appropriated by believers on the other side of the cross.  I will begin by describing Origen’s exegetical methods as he describes them in On First Principles.[7]  Next I will analyze Origen’s interpretation of the story of Lot and his daughters by comparing his interpretation to a close reading of the biblical text.  Throughout this analysis I will draw lessons, both positive and negative that can be learned from Origen’s method of interpretation for contemporary appropriation of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

Part 2 – Origen’s Exegetical Method (next week).


[1] This does not mean that Christians were fully agreed on the extent of the canon or the text of books whose content in the Septuagint varies considerably from its content in the Masoretic Tradition.  See Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: It’s Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, Massachussets: Hendrickson, 1995), 208.  “[T]here can be no question that the OT Scriptures were viewed by the earliest church as an authoritative source for Christian faith and life, even though the boundaries of the canon had not yet been fully decided.”

[2] For the role played by heretical sects in the formation of the church’s views on the Old Testament see John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 35-62.

[3] For an excellent history of this struggle in the Patristic period see the various essays included in Magne Sæbø(ed.), Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation.  Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages (Until 1300) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996).

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar (ed.), Origen: Spirit & Fire.  A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, trans. Robert J. Daly (Washingdon, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 2.

[5] See, in particular, R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002;  repr., Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1959).

[6] Origen, “Homily 5 on 1 Samuel,” in Origen, trans. Joseph W. Trigg (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 200.

[7] Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth with an introduction by Henri de Lubac (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973).

Geerhardus Vos vs. Brevard Childs – What’s the Difference?

When I was a student at Toronto Baptist Seminary, the main textbook that we used for our course on Old Testament Biblical Theology (that is, Old Testament theology) was Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments.  Vos was famous for two things at TBS: (1) his extremely difficult writing style (which seems pretty easy now 11 years later and after reading pretty much anything by Ephrem Radner!) and (2) introducing us to a new (at least to us) and exciting way of reading the Old Testament – through the lens of biblical theology.

When people familiar with Geerhardus Vos and Reformed biblical theology in general see Brevard Childs’ works on display at their local Christian bookstore (okay, maybe not the average Christian bookstore!) they often wonder what the difference between the two really is.  So in this post I’m going to look at the main difference that I see between Geerhardus Vos and Brevard Childs.

The main difference between Vos’ Biblical Theology and Childs’ Old Testament Theology is that Vos’ main concern is the events behind the biblical text while Childs is primarily concerned with the text itself.  Take a look at these two quotes:

Geerhard Vos – “ [T]he study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document, and which for a long time continued to run alongside the inscripturation of revealed material; this last-named procedure is called the study of Biblical Theology.(Biblical Theology, 5, emphasis mine)

Brevard Childs – “The initial point to be made is that the canonical approach to Old Testament theology is unequivocal in asserting that the object of theological reflection is the canonical writing of the Old Testament, that is, the Hebrew scriptures which are the received traditions of Israel.  The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart from the construal in scripture by a community of faith and practice.” (Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, p. 6)

Now if you’re not very familiar with Old Testament theology outside of the Reformed tradition, you might think that Vos has the most “biblical position” because as evangelicals we believe, for the most part, that the truthfulness of the theology contained in the Old Testament depends on certain events having actually happened.  The quote from Childs seems to go against that – keeping in mind that in the very next sentence he says that “the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference.”

But I would say that Childs has the better position.  Here are a few reasons:

(1) You don’t have to actually know what happened in history to be able to understand what the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts is.  What actually happened in history may be important (for some people) in terms of how you evaluate that theology but, in the end, it’s not very important for how you understand that theology.

(2) Not everything in the Bible is based on or reflects on events that actually happened in history.  As I noted in my previous post, the prime example of this is OT wisdom literature, which, for the most part, makes no reference to “God’s saving acts” in redemptive history.  The truthfulness of Proverbs – at least in terms of how we evaluate it – is not based on whether or not certain events happened; it’s based on whether or not its wisdom actually works (at least in its own historical context).  It is no coincidence that Vos only cites OT wisdom 10 times in total.  Compare that with 94 references to Exodus, not including passages that are cited more than once.

(3) From a theological perspective, God gave the church the canon, not the revelatory events behind the canon.  This may seem counterintuitive but the book of Amos has more authority for the Christian than the actual preaching of Amos.  I’m tempted to say the same thing about the gospels but that might be going too far.  But, in the end the gospels are all we have and they have more authority for the Christian than a historian’s reconstruction of the life and teaching of Jesus, regardless of how Wright it might be.  My point is that there is a difference between inspiration and canonicity (not everything that’s inspired made it into the Bible) and that there is a difference between events and how these events are depicted (it’s the depiction of the event that is important from a theological perspective).

(4) The field is called biblical/Old Testament theology, not the actual events or revelatory acts behind the biblical text theology.  Enough said.

There are other differences between the two writers but, for me, this is the main difference.  Childs (in theory) is more focused on the Bible whereas Vos (in theory) is more concerned with what lies behind the text.  I added the words “in theory” because, as is often the case in biblical theology and Old Testament theology, there is a huge difference between how a person articulates their methodology and what they actually do in their own writing.  But (in theory!) Childs’ approach is much more attractive than Vos’.