Coming this August – the “NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible”

Zondervan continues to be the gold standard when it comes to study Bibles. Coming this August we will see the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Here are just a few of the features:

  • The full text of the NIV
  • Hundreds of full-color photographs from around the world
  • In-depth book introductions explain the context in which each book of the Bible was written
  • Over 10,000 verse-by-verse notes reveal new dimensions of insight to even the most familiar passages
  • Dozens of charts, maps, diagrams in vivid color
  • In-depth articles on key contextual topics

Behind the scholarship of the notes stand two noted evangelical scholars: John Walton and Craig Keener.

I’ve picked two notes from the sampler we have. One from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.

In Genesis 5:24 it says “Enoch . . . was no more, because God took him away.” Part of the note on this verse reads:

“As a further observation, we should note that Genesis does not indicate where Enoch was taken, so we should not necessarily assume ascension to heave. Utnapishtim (the survivor of the flood in the Gilgamesh Epic) was a favorite of the gods and was also ‘taken’ so that he did not experience death. But he was taken neither to heaven nor to the underworld, but to a faraway, inaccessible place ‘at the mouth of the rivers’ (Gilgamesh Epic, 11:205-6). None of these offer transparent explanation of Enoch’s experience, but they show a variety of possibilities to be considered that otherwise might not be recognized. As a result of his piety (‘walking with God’), Enoch was ‘taken’ as an alternate to dying, the stated fate of all others in the genealogy.”

In Matthew 5:13 Jesus talks of salt losing its saltiness. The note reads:

“Some commentators note that much ancient salt contained impurities, which could dissolve; but Jesus also uses a graphic image–how can true salt stop being salt? When asked what to do with unsalty salt, a later *rabbi advised, ‘Salt it with the afterbirth of a mule.’ Mules are sterile and thus lack afterbirth; his point was the question was stupid. If salt could lose its saltiness, what would it be useful for? Jesus compares a disciple who does not live out the values of the kingdom with unsalty salt–salt that cannot fulfill its purpose.”

This study Bible will be available in a hardcover ($49.99); black bonded leather ($79.99, indexed – $89.99), brown/tan Italian Duo-Tone ($79.99, indexed – $89.99) , and a Sage/Leaves Italian Duo-Tone ($79.99, indexed – $89.99).

John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament; Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context; Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan; The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament; and A Survey of the Old Testament.

Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and holds a doctoral degree in New Testament Studies and the Origins of Christianity from Duke University. He is the author of several commentaries on books of the New Testament including the award-winning 4-volume commentary on Acts from Baker Academic.

Here’s a short video featuring both authors.

Did the Serpent in Genesis 3 Have Legs Before it Was Cursed?

I’ve done a couple of posts about the serpent/snake in Genesis 3 which you can find here, here and here (all these posts were on the issue of a “talking” snake). Today’s question involves the curse on the serpent which says “you will crawl on your belly.” (3:14, NIV) Some have suggested from this that the snake had legs prior to the curse. The MacArthur Study Bible says “It probably had legs before this curse.” (Note on Gen. 3:14) The Ryrie Study Bible says “the serpent’s very form and movements were altered.” (Note on Gen. 3:14) The “Answers in Genesis” (AIG) website provides a nice chart of commentators who believed the serpent had legs and those who don’t. Among those who believed the serpent had legs are: Henry Morris, John Gill, Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Matthew Poole, Martin Luther, and the author of the article for AIG. On the “no” side we have: John Calvin, Gordon Wenham, and John Sailhammer. We could also add Derek Kidner, and Kenneth Matthews in The Apologetics Study Bible. The AIG article says, “The more logical answer is that the serpent originally had some form of legs or appendages, and these were either lost or reduced.” “The problem,” she notes if the serpent stayed the same is “it reduces the curse to almost a meaningless status.”

John Walton offers an alternative interpretation which doesn’t involve the serpent having legs. He writes,

“The Egyptian Pyramid Texts were designed to aid the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (end of the third millennium) on their journey to the afterlife. Among the over 700 utterances are several dozen spells and curses on snakes that may impede the king’s progress. These utterances contain phrases that are reminiscent of the curse on the serpent in Genesis 3. For instance, the biblical statement that the serpent will ‘crawl on your belly’ is paralleled by frequent spells that call on the snake to lie down, fall down, get down, or crawl away (Pyramid Texts 226, 233, 234, 298, 386). Another says that he should ‘go with your face on the path’ (PT 288).”

“These suggest that when God tells the serpent that he will crawl on his belly, there is no suggestion that the serpent had legs that he now will lose. Instead, he is going to be docile rather than in an attack position. The serpent is on its belly is nonthreatening, while the one reared up is protecting or attacking. Notice that on the pharaoh’s crown, the serpent (uraeus) is pictured as upright and in an attack position. Nevertheless, I should also note that there are occasional depictions of serpent creatures with legs. There is no indication, however, of an occasion in which serpents lost their legs.” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 1 p. 35, Zondervan)

Victor Hamilton, in the Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary (Baker Books), concurs saying, “Phrases like ‘crawl on your belly’ and ‘eat dust’ may be understood as metaphorical expressions denoting the serpent’s submission. (Compare the statement made of Israel’s messianic king in Ps. 72:9, ‘His enemies lick the dust.’)” (p. 13)

Errors of Inerrancy

In The Lost World of Scripture John Walton and D. Brent Sandy offer a nice list of errors made by both advocates of inerrancy and of those of skeptical scholarship. They first list the errors of inerrancy advocates.

  • They have at times misunderstood ‘historical’ texts by applying modern genre criteria to ancient literature, thus treating it as having claims that it never intended.
  • They have at times treated events, people, composition, science and theology all on the same plane–even though they are not, and each needs to be treated separately.
  • They have often misunderstood the nature of literary production in the ancient world.
  • They have assumed there were single original autographs that were inerrant, whereas composition may not always have come about through a single autograph.
  • That have at times confused locution and illocution. (Inerrancy technically only applies to the latter, though of course, without locutions there can be no illocution.)
  • They have failed to account for Israel’s immersion in the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East.
  • They have often too easily ignored similarities between the Old Testament and ancient literature.
  • They have at times been too anxious to declare sections of the Old Testament to be historical in a modern sense, where it may not be making those claims for itself.
  • They have insisted on the application of the term inerrancy to genres for which it offers little clarification on the nature of authority. (279)

Errors of Skeptical Scholarship

  • They have believed they could sort out sources in a manuscript with confidence.
  • They are frequently driven by skepticism and doubt.
  • They are willing to read against the text or across the text, thus denying its authority.
  • They sometimes have no regard for the theology of the text.
  • They have generally believed they could assign dates to their sources.
  • They are often too quick to disbelieve events and people.
  • They have too easily ignored differences between the Old Testament and ancient literature.
  • They have often been too eager to dismiss sections of the Old Testament as mythological.
  • They have often been too willing to replace the agendas of the text with their own agendas.
  • They too often critique the Bible by applying modern standards of historiography and attempting to make the text conform to modern conventions and objectives.
  • They too often are dismissive of the idea that God acts in the world. (280)

Lost World of Scripture

Was Adam Literally Formed From Dust?

Genesis 2:7 reads “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (NIV)

John Walton discusses this passage in the new counterpoints book Four Views on the Historical Adam.

The traditional interpretation sees the passage as “describing a material process of special creation characterized by discontinuity with any previously existing creature.” (92) But Walton says “there are limits to how far this concept should be taken.” He continues,

“One of the difficulties with this way of thinking is that dust is characteristically resistant to being molded. If a sculpting process is being used, clay would be a much more likely ingredient to use (cf. Job 4:19; 10:9; 33:6, homer). Another is that if the dust was only to be transformed, it has nothing to say about the material process and, in fact, plays no role at all.

“The verb yaṣar, however, need not be thought of as suggesting a sculpting process. We only need to look at the verb’s range of usage to see that it does not require a material context. Especially noteworthy is Zechariah 12:1: ‘The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms [yaṣar] the human spirit within a person….” Here Zechariah is speaking specifically about the creation narrative and sees the ‘forming’ as pertaining to the spirit rather than the body and thus not referring to material origins.

“The same concept is represented in Egyptian reliefs where Khnum, the craftsman creator deity, is shown shaping a human on the potter’s wheel (here it is clay, not dust). The context of the relief and the text that accompany it, however, make it clear that it is not the material formation of the human that is conveyed, but the shaping of the pharaoh to be pharaoh. He is being designed for a role. This imagery pertains to the function he is destined to have and not to the process by which he was created as a material individual. One could say that his ‘royal spirit’ is being formed to highlight similarity to Zechariah 12. In Egyptian thinking this is not referring merely to his training or preparation; rather, it is an indication of his election and sponsorship by the gods who have ordained his for his task. It reflects his high calling and his exalted status.

“Returning to the role of ‘dust’ in Genesis 2, we can reasonably deduce from the passage itself that dust carries an archetypal rather than a material significance. Genesis 3:19 explains this significance (in case we might have failed to grasp it in 2:7) when it states, ‘Dust you are and to dust you will return.’ Dust refers to mortality, and everyone is formed from dust. Psalm 103:14 substantiates this as the psalmist says that the Lord ‘knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.’ This verse uses the same vocabulary as Genesis 2:7 and indicates that humankind (archetypally) is formed from dust. In fact then, it would not be a distortion to say that each of us formed from dust (that is, we are all frail and mortal).

“The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that being formed from dust does not refer to the material origins of any of us, nor does the fact that we are formed from dust preclude that we were born of a woman by a natural process. Following that line of reasoning back, we could also suggest that Adam being formed from dust does not preclude him being born of a woman. In other words, the statement in Genesis 2:7 is not essentially a statement about material discontinuity. It is a statement about our nature. The New Testament confirms this when it contrasts the archetype human as being from the ‘dust of the earth’ while Jesus as an archetype is ‘of heave’ (1 Cor. 15:47). Thus I conclude that being formed from dust plays an archetypal role in the context, with a debatable inference regarding material origins or discontinuity. If the text is not addressing material origins or asserting material discontinuity, there is no biblical claim being made about the mechanics or process of material human origins.” (92-93)

How Does Speech-Act Theory Help Us Understand Inerrancy?

In The Lost World of Scripture John Walton incorporates elements of speech-act theory as it relates to the issue of inerrancy. This new title from IVP Academic is a joint effort with D. Brent Sandy. Though Walton is careful to observe that they “do not agree with many of the conclusions associated with speech-act theory” they do “find its foundational premise and terminology helpful and have therefore adopted its three basic categories.” He continues,

“The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain sort of response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief). A common illustration is the words spoken in a wedding. When the bride and groom say ‘I do’ they are using a very basic locution—words that could be used in any number of contexts with varieties of meaning. But in this context they are used for a specific illocution: a lifetime of vow of faithfulness and commitment. The resulting perlocution is the implementation of that vow throughout life.” (41)

Walton claims that “[i]nerrancy and authority are related to the illocution; accommodation and genre attach to the locution. There inerrancy and authority cannot be undermined, compromised, or jeopardized by genre or accommodation. While genre labels may be misleading, genre itself cannot be true or false, errant or inerrant, authoritative or nonauthoritative.” (45)

What this means is that “[c]ulture-specific aspects of a locution do not determine the illocution. That is, even though people in Israel believed there were waters above the earth held back by a solid sky, or that cognitive processes took place in the heart or kidneys, the illocution of the texts is not affirming those beliefs as revealed truth. Culture-specific aspects of an illocution do not have a universal perlocution (eating pork, circumcision, head covering). Culture-specific aspects of the perlocution need to be translated to an appropriate contemporary perlocution. So our response to the second or third commandment will be adjusted to our culture and will differ in specifics from the response expected in the ancient context. . . . To set aside such culturally bound locutions does not jeopardize the illocution or the authority. . . . In conclusion then, God accommodates human culture and limitations in the locutions that he inspires in the human communicator, but he does not accommodate erroneous illocution or meaning. . . .These human illocutions have authority because they are the means by which God gives his illocutions. We need not be concerned that culturally limited locutions will diminish the Bible’s authority, but we dare not dismiss the illocutions and focused meaning as accommodating error. If meaning that carries authority is derived from the human communicator’s illocution, we dare not supply our own substitute illocutions and meanings derived from the human communicator’s locutions.” (45-48)

It’s something to think about. I happen to think Walton and Sandy are on to something fruitful here.

The Lost World of Scripture is a paperback with 320 pages and sells for $24.00.

Does John Walton Believe the Early Accounts of Genesis Contain Revealed Truth?

In his newest book, Against the Gods, John Currid explores the polemical theology of the Old Testament. He explains that polemical theology “is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical authors take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world.” (25) But as I was reading the first chapter Currid notes that some evangelicals in Old Testament studies appear to be drifting away “from the position that holds to an original, singular, and unique worldview on the part of the Hebrews.” (23) He offers Peter Enns and John Walton as examples. Then he states, “The reality for Walton and others today is that the early accounts of Genesis are ‘culturally descriptive rather than revealed truth.’” (23) The last sentence is a quote from Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. But this raised a huge red flag for me since I’ve been following Walton for over 20 years now and this quote didn’t quite ring true. I know Walton firmly believes that the early accounts of Genesis contain revealed truth.  I decided to check the quote in context.

My initial difficulty came when I realized that Currid’s footnote was wrong. Currid cites page 19 as where the quote is found. It is not. It is on page 18 and reads in its entirety “If cosmic geography is culturally descriptive rather than revealed truth, it takes its place among many other biblical examples of culturally relative notions.” (18) Walton is specifically talking about the viewpoint of the author as it relates to the makeup of the cosmos or as he phrases it “cosmic geography.” He never states that the early accounts of Genesis do not contain revealed truth. The question is what is the nature of the truth revealed. Walton would say the author of Genesis is not trying to give us a 21st century scientific account of the makeup of the universe. Now I’m sure Currid understands that distinction but the average reader could easily take it to mean Walton does not believe anything in the “early accounts of Genesis” (How far does that go?) contains revealed truth. Walton says just a few pages earlier, “It [Genesis 1] represents what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God.” (Emphasis mine, 15) Later Walton says Genesis does “offer a very different perspective than other creation texts in a number of ways.” (104, See there for details.) He further notes that this “could be viewed as polemic. But it must also be noticed that the author of Genesis 1 is not explicitly arguing with the other views—he is simply offering his own view. His opposition to other ancient views is tacit.” (104. He says much the same in Reading Genesis 1-2, “I typically, do not identify Genesis 1-2 as polemical. I agree that the theology offered in Genesis stands in contrast to the world around Israel. But proper polemic would involve not only stating one’s own unique view but also citing problems or disagreements with other views, which Genesis does not do.” (138))

So is Currid right in thinking that Walton does not think Genesis 1 offers an “original, singular, and unique worldview.” He acknowledges that Enns believes the account is unique but “in reality, not to the degree that one would hope for.” (34) I assume the same would be said concerning Walton’s view. In another place Walton says, “The uniqueness of the Bible is in the God of the Bible, not in the world of Israel or the literary genres of the Bible.” (Reading Genesis 1-2, 71) I think Walton would affirm that Genesis is unique but that it is not unique in the way it portrays cosmic geography but rather in its understanding of God. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of Walton’s position may be let it be clear that he does believe the early accounts of Genesis contain revealed truth. (See A Survey of the Old Testament by John Walton and Andrew Hill, especially chapter 1 “Approaching the Old Testament” where Walton affirms numerous times that the Old Testament is God’s “self revelation.” 21, 25, 27)